Barcelona and the World of Gaudi

Words by Valerie Helps and photography by Geoff Bull

Parc Guell in Barcelona - just one of Gaudi's amazing legacies

Gaudí’s unique architecture surpasses all expectations on a visit to Barcelona. I’d seen photos of his extraordinary creations which resembled a child’s plasticine model but wasn’t sure I liked his rather lumpy designs. But still, they intrigued me, so I set off to discover some of his magical works.

As I crossed the Boulevarde Passeig de Gràcia, I tested one of Gaudí’s inviting ceramic-tiled seats at the base of the graceful streetlights, sheer comfort for tired feet! He was the early master of ergonomics. I then walked four blocks towards the Plaça Catalunya to find the Hansel and Gretel house I’d seen from the bus – a house made of coloured sweets of acid greens and blues and childlike shapes with bulbous skull-like balconies; this effect was achieved by a façade of ceramic discs and stained glass windows and at the lower level, sinuous, sculpted sandstone resembling waves on the shore. And on top of this fantastic house – a scaly roofline (the work of other architects) sported a mushroom structure beneath a four-armed cross.

The Baroque face of ​Casa Batllo

The Casa Batllo is a re-design of a house (built in 1877). His “modernismo” theme was the sea in all its moods; the façade has been described as a “surface made of vertical water”. I was impressed by the sheer beauty of the curving, toffee-gold wooden staircase that appears to lead one straight up into the ceiling. Light falls through an oval window covered in what resemble fish scales, above two gorgeously decorated blue ceramic pots on wooden stands.
Gaudí embellished boring areas of his houses with exciting and amusing decoration. Staircases are bright with mosaics and jewels of light through quaint little windows, curiously shaped mirrors and painted, tiled ceilings. The exquisitely carved and twisted wooden banisters are never the same, often with vivid glass inserts allowing one to look down onto the lower level and light wells – a joy to behold – with pale blue tiles darkening as they lead up to the sixth floor.
I cannot imagine living in one of Gaudí’s houses. They are a child’s fantasy, created by a brilliantly original and daring brain but not practical. However, to have had the experience of exploring his world of make-believe is thrilling.

Gaudi's rooftop - part of his fantasy world

I have difficulty in finding the Tourist Office, hidden beneath the Plaça Catalunya. When I locate it, the queue is so long I change my mind. I walk until I drop, then buy a ticket at the Barcelona Bus Turístic to enjoy a two-hour bus ride around the city, sitting in the sun and hopping on and off various coloured buses, red, green or blue.
I get off my bus at the Park Güell – so named after Gaudí’s patron who initially planned a residential garden city. In 1906, Gaudí moved into the one (and only) show house to be nearer his work. To-day, it’s a museum dedicated to his brilliance. Quirky, playful, the imaginative fairy-tale displays in this vast park, evoke broad smiles from exhausted visitors as they slump on his comfortable 110 metre-long, vividly decorated serpentine bench that winds around the high terrace. What an imagination this man had – and the courage to express it. A celebration of his joie de vivre.

Gaudi's undulating 110 metre long serpentine bench

I’m surprised to find the Sangrada Família Temple, whose extraordinary spires rise high above Barcelona, to be so incomplete. Cranes hover over vast areas of scaffolding and unfinished spires and much of the interior resembles a neglected building site, littered with fallen masonry and piles of detritus. The graceful pillars of the nave resemble the trunks of soaring trees, complete with the gnarled ‘scars’ beneath spreading green fronds of foliage. It resembles a surreal forest where birds might be heard with sunlight filtering through the ‘leaves’ of the canopy high above. A sublime place – even to those who do not worship.
Winding my way along elevated wooden walkways through the temple, I find myself outside Gaudí’s nativity entrance. The rather depressing all-brown, fussily decorated gothic façade is relieved only by the white doves sitting in a green cypress near the top of the spire. Curious for the work of a man who lived and breathed in vivid colour.

La Sagrada Familia Temple — "The Cathedral of the Poor" ​

The Temple construction began in 1882 by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, who after a year was replaced by Gaudí. What a tragedy that his swansong was never completed. Gaudí envisioned a soaring visual narrative of Christ’s life but knew that the massive project could not be completed in his lifetime. This neo-Gothic Temple, to be called the “Cathedral of the Poor” was financed by donations and work continued at a snail’s pace (if at all) due not only to a lack of finance but to a singular lack of architect’s plans and disagreements and disharmony. Funds were so low that only the nativity façade, one spire and the crypt were completed when Gaudí died in 1926 after being hit by a tram. Tragically, due to his unkempt appearance (for he had become a recluse), he was unrecognised and died alone. He is buried in the crypt and is known as “God’s Architect”.

Footnote:
Today, builders still have to complete the most complicated entrance, The Glory Façade and ten more towers, six of which are bigger than the existing towers. Construction is expected to last for decades, but with the help of computer-controlled CNC stone millers, they are planning for a completion date of 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death. 

La Sagrada Familia Cathedral

Inside La Sagrada Familia Cathedral

Casa Mila (La Pedrera = stone quarry) — the facade appears to be carved from rock 

TRAVEL TIPS

There are many other examples of Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona, though they are spread out. Walking is the best way to experience the city, however, the bus tours and hopping on and off is also an option.

BEST TIME TO VISIT
For an unhurried and uncrowded experience, out-of-season (including winter) is undoubtedly the best time, though one misses out on the splendour of the summer gardens.

DRIVING
Driving in winter is pleasant with uncluttered, well-signposted roads, and in the main, considerate drivers. Fuel is cheaper off the Autoroutes. Clean, well-equipped comfort stations at frequent intervals, offer light meals as well as coffee, etc.

ACCOMMODATION
A three-day stay (without meals) for two cost 220 euros at a four-star hotel within easy distance of the centre. I recommend using the hostels (pronounced “hostiles” in Spanish), which are no-frills, comfortable, and well-run government hostels found everywhere. We paid 35 euros a night for a spotlessly clean, double room with ensuite bathroom, off the beaten track. For something grander try a “parador” – often a converted mansion in the countryside, up-market but worth every penny to experience gracious living in the old style.

LOCAL FOOD
Meals are cheap and varied. Delicious “tapas” (snacks) are available in almost every bar and restaurant. They range from meatballs in various sauces; mushrooms in garlic; fish balls; spicy sausages; various cheese titbits; olives and tortilla (Spanish omelette made with potatoes). And of course, one should try the dish of the region, “paella” a superb rice dish with seafood, meat and vegetables. I was agreeably surprised at the quality of Spanish wines; the “vino de la casa” (lit. house wine) was most acceptable and cost next to nothing.