Tour of Duty: An art pilgrimage in southern Europe #3: Moving with the Moderniste in Barcelona – Barcelona, Spain

3: Moving with the Moderniste in Barcelona

May 2003
Barcelona is a vast, sprawling city as can be seen from the heights of the Parc Montijuic, west of the city, which contains the 1992 modern Olympic Games complex. Below is a city that is as New York is to America, minus the skyscrapers. This is a brash city full of life and street-wise tenacity. Life around the Ramblas in the centre of town is exciting, but keep your eyes on your wallet.

The quintessential passionate pursuit for me in Barcelona is to fit into four days as many sites as possible of houses and monuments created by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi was the most famous flag-bearer of the modernist (Moderniste) movement in Barcelona, and his works are characterised by Art Nouveau style expressed uniquely in wrought iron and twisted wrought-iron balcony railings and interior fittings. Animals and plants dominate his work, and his motif is the “fly Agaric: the spotted fairy mushroom.”

From our Pensione Bahia in Canudua Street, booked through BootsnAll, (�65 a double a night) we are situated right on the main drag of the Ramblas. The metro station at the top end of the street, Plaza Catalunya, is handy for us to launch sorties by day into the suburbs of the city.

First a visit to Park Guell (Metro Line 3 to Lessops), where Gaudi took up the assignment in 1900 to transform a 20-hectare site on a new estate into an enclosed fairyland park. The two castle keeps at the front represent the houses of Hansel and Gretel, and that of the “wicked witch” and have the most elaborate tiled roofs using cracked tiles (Trencardis) with even more weird chimneys, a feature of Gaudi buildings). In the Park one is caught up in a kalaiedoscope of amazing features, from the halls of Egyptian-styled columns, walkways with oblique columns representing palm trees, viaducts made of rough rock and the showpiece serpentine edged wall encrusted with broken plates and glass tiles on a elevated platform supported by the forest of columns below. The park is protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Entrance is free and one should spend several hours here enjoying the oustanding views south across the city, taking in the panorama of the vision of the next of Gaudi’s amazing accomplishments, The Sagrada Familia; the cathedral of Barcelona, still unfinished for a century.

Gaudi took on this immense task in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926, when he was tragically run over by a cable car across the road from the cathedral he was creating. How does one use words to describe this amazing building? From the outside one sees the secular overlay on what is a sacred place, with much of the ornamentation based on animal and plant themes with clear transition from more earthly to mystical and heavenly fauna and flora icons.

The overall image of the cathedral is what I liken to an immense, grey dripping sand castle we all created in miniature on the beach with wet mud, so that layer stuck to layer and built up a Gothic-like elevated cones. Inside Gaudi has used marble columns like huge trees interlocked at the roof in sunflower-like plates. With no lift operating on our visit my wife and I braved the climb inside one of the spires to the level of the second transept for spectacular photos of the huge bodies like corn cobs spilling forth a cornucopia of orange, red and pink baubles. The capitals on the spires are like huge coloured discs ornamented with coloured glass balls. I thought the finales of the spires like a crayfish’s legs, with gnarled exoskeletons adorned with coloured glass and marble. Back on “Terra Firma” one can only gasp at the sheer audacity of Gaudi to start and persist with this project, and but admire the tenacity of his followers and the people of Barcelona for following through with the project, which looks it should see completion with the current decade. It is truly one of the modern marvels on the planet!

The third and final comment I make on Gaudi’s work is his block of units in the north of the city called “La Pedera” and built about 1920. What is remarkable abut this fluid, Modernist building, apart from its prominent position and obvious impact on a corner of a main boulevard (Passage de Garcia), is the collection of 30 or more elaborate and fanciful chimney pots on the curved roofed terrace area. Some of the pots are single, others in couplings of three, six and eight of knight-like masks. There are also three huge bell structures with four-sided Malta cross designs. One feels Gaudi was very interested in representing these chimney pots as sentinels and protectors of the fanciful building below, just as the Malta or Templar Knights of old protected the cities of Christendom in the Middle Ages. The visits to these sites makes one feel that one has truly been somewhere exciting and unique.

For those who chose to make a pensione in the Ramblas area their temporary home, nightly we enjoyed chilled sangria and coffee at Cafe Moka, famous for being cited by George Orwell in his “Homage to Catalonia” as the place of a desperate shoot-out between Republican fighters and Franco’s troops in the Spanish Civil War.

There are several pitta and falafel kitchens for a cheap meal in the area, and the Mercat de la Boqueria (Market) is close by off the Ramblas and one can buy ham, chiroz ( spicy sausage), fish and cheeses very cheap. Best of all is the cheap fruit, with cherries at �2 a kilo, and strawberries for less than one euro a kilo – the outstanding buys of our trip so far!
For money-battered Aussie dollar owners these prices for lunch are fit for royalty, and were a welcome respite on our wallets after purchasing ticket entries at �8 and �7 a head to the art sites, except Park Guell which was free. For authentic Catalan dinners at reasonable prices, find your way to Plaza Real off the lower third of the Ramblas for several restaurants, all lit at night by street lamps designed by Gaudi – his first official commission for the city of Barcelona based on his student drawings. On to Madrid!

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