The Iberian Peninsula is geographically doing its own thing on the Continent, hanging off the tip of France and just nearly reaching the northern edge of Morocco. Culturally, it feels the same way. There are of course commonalities with the French and the Italians perhaps most of all, but it really does feel noticeably different. One thing that’s I think very easy to forget is that Spain was a fascist country under Franco until the late 1970s. When you walk around Barcelona, one of the wealthiest cities in the entire country, it feels ever so slightly less developed compared to its European counterparts, but considering the state of the government 40 years ago, it’s amazing it’s come so far is such a short period of time. There’s admittedly a decade of difference here, but former Soviet countries are in the pits by comparison. Spain has the sixth largest GDP in Europe, but it feels smaller than that; at times it can feel tired, but the slower pace and genuinely laid-back vibe is a nice counterbalance to many European countries.
Mont Saint-Michel—Bordeaux—Barcelona, 733 miles
Barcelona is a bit of a world unto itself in Spain, being a part of Cataluña, aka the Texas of Spain. It’s hard to extrapolate a lot about Spain from visiting Barcelona. Cataluña is a very independent part of the country—there is a perpetual independence movement afoot here—and it is very wealthy part of Spain. So talking about Spain based on experiences in Cataluña is like talking about America as a whole after visiting southern California. It is very much an important part of Spain, and one the country absolutely does not want to lose, but it’s a very specific side of Spain.
You can’t talk about Barcelona without talking about Gaudí. I didn’t realize until I got here just how prolific he was, with 11 of his works in the city. I don’t know much about architecture, but Catalan Modernism totally throws me. When I think Modernist architecture, I think lots of straight lines, big windows, monochromatic color schemes, and overall a very minimalist approach. Catalan Modernism is the exact opposite: very colorful, asymmetrical, and as visually dynamic as it is functional. Gaudí wasn’t the only one who worked in this style, but he was by far the most influential and productive.
Park Güell is one of his more famous works. It’s situated above the Gràcia neighborhood, a area everyone claims to be an unusual and not often seen side of Barcelona, but when everyone is saying that, it’s hard to take that claim seriously. Gràcia is a very nice neighborhood, quiet and with no concession to tourists (a rarity in Barcelona), but it doesn’t have the feeling of being wholly undiscovered, at least not anymore.
Anyway, Park Güell is a good example of Gaudí’s work, decked out as it is in colorful tiles and swooping lines. Nature was a big influence in Gaudí’s designs, so a park seems like the perfect culmination of his aesthetic. This is one of the most famous lookout points over Barcelona and it’s predictably crowded.
Barcelona is inherently a very touristy city. It’s the nature of the beast and for the most part, they cope. I think like New York, they’ve been so popular for so long that they’ve learned how to contain and deal with it so that most of the city still feels real. Anyone coming to Barcelona will go to Park Güell and it’s a cool spot; obviously people are going to want to take pictures of themselves there. If you want to see vanity in practice, there is no better place. If you want to see the view, you’re going to have to be very patient.
Casa Batlló is another of Gaudí’s whimsical designs, this one commissioned as a private home right in the center of Barcelona. The undulating, colorful roof tiles and mosaic façade are pretty famous and it’s definitely unusual, particularly the window bays and balconies designed to look like skeletal structures. The inside is a little bizarre. Gaudí supposedly drew inspiration from the sea, so everything is in shades of blues and greens with wavy lines on everything, from the bannisters to the doorframes. As a visitor, the effect is a little bizarre but I can’t imagine actually living here, as your whole life would feel like a Disney ride inspired by The Little Mermaid.
The big one though is, of course, La Sagrada Família, which is one part Catholic Church, one part massive joke. Begun in 1882, it’s still very much a work in progress. The current optimistic end date is 2026, exactly 100 years after Gaudí’s death. The official completion date is really after pigs fly, but before hell freezes over.
From the outside, this thing is ridiculous. It is so busy and ostentatious and just crammed with so many details and statutes and towers and junk that if you showed this to the sheik in Dubai, he’d be like “This is a bit over the top, can we scale it back?”
The slow progress is for a number of reasons. The design is insanely ambitious and the project has been derailed several times thanks to the Spanish Civil War, lack of funds, fires, etc. When compared to other big churches around the world, 130 years isn’t that crazy. Notre Dame required almost 200 years and St. Peter’s Basilica took 120 years, but obviously with the benefits of modern construction, you’d think the process would be expedited. Notre Dame broke ground in the 12th century so it’s impressive it got done as quickly as it did. Also, building huge, financially burdensome churches is just not really a thing we do anymore.
Because the whole building is covered in a swarm of cranes, it’s hard to really appreciate anything about La Sagrada Família behind the huge retaining walls, and what is completed is usually wrapped in giant sheets of plastic to protect the building from the construction. What’s left after that is obscured behind scaffolding because the older bits are now in need of restoration. Any picture you’ve ever seen of La Sagrada Família that doesn’t have all the construction apparatus in place has been doctored.
Standing outside, I was disgusted. The façade is far too busy to be aesthetically pleasing and there are words everywhere actually on the building, made of tile, that say things like “Sanctus.” Like stickers you might put on the wall of a weird Latin Sunday school classroom or something. It feels a little bit like the giant Trump logos on the side of his buildings. I don’t need the name of the thing on the thing itself.
There’s also no stylistic cohesion. Half of it is made up of the iconic, Gothic spiral towers along with signature Gaudí tile embellishments, and then on one side they’ve tacked on weird, very modern looking appendages that would fit right in at a concrete mega-church in Colorado Springs. So needless to say, I was not impressed.
But then you go inside and it’s a different place.
Everything that’s going wrong on the outside works on the inside. The inside isn’t even finished—pretty much the whole center part of the nave is under construction—but everything else seems in order. The windows are nothing short of incredible; stained glass windows are always pretty and colorful, but these are amazing. Gaudí designed the church to have lots of windows and natural light, a pleasant change from the usually dark and almost sinister vibe you find in most basilicas and cathedrals. The pillars are very unusual, designed to look like trees, and the ceiling has this kaleidoscopic effect that seems to magnify the already huge space.
The interior is certainly busy and very unique, but it actually works. Why hasn’t this been translated to the exterior? Even though there is so much going on in, it feels light and airy. The outside, by contrast, is crowded and so messy that it makes the whole thing appear smaller than it really is (the cranes dwarfing it don’t help either). So in conclusion, you absolutely have to go inside. Many of Europe’s great churches, I think, are just as good from the outside as from the inside, but this is a rare case where you absolutely have to visit. Even if you’ve seen 1,000 churches, this one is completely different.
There are plenty of other examples of Gaudí’s work around the city, but I found these to be the most interesting. He’s also not the only influential architect in Barcelona and you could really spend days just touring different neighborhoods and studying the architectural fabric of the city. But Gaudí is the most known and loved.
Unfortunately, he himself was not particularly known. He died in 1926 when he was hit by a tramcar and people passing by, not recognizing him, assumed he was a homeless guy based on his shabby clothes and essentially ignored him. When someone finally did help him and he was eventually recognized at the hospital, his injuries had worsened beyond the point of repair. Today Gaudí has practically been deified in Barcelona and it does in many ways feel like his city.
The Gothic Quarter and El Born are the two main areas with the most personality. Gothic is certainly an apt word for the spindly and intricate details on the buildings, and the tall and narrow alleys, barely lit by any sunlight even in the middle of the day. I was also struck by how similar it felt to Morocco. This isn’t an unbelievable stretch, as the Muslim Moors occupied Spain for nearly 800 years, though only in Cataluña for a small portion of that time, having been expelled many centuries before they were finally defeated in Granada. The Gothic Quarter is popular among tourists, but not unpleasant.
El Born is the better version of the Gothic Quarter. Architecturally it’s the same but less frenetic. Fewer English menus and fewer drunk German soccer fans (Euro 2016 really does not bring out the best in anyone). Both of these neighborhoods are the kinds of places that seem to go on forever even though they’re in a relatively small space. Every time you think you’ve seen everything, you discover a whole new cluster of alleyways and hidden courtyards.
Like the Italians, the Spanish keep it simple when it comes to food, for the most part. Almost any idiot can put together a decent tapas spread, though this style of eating is not actually native to Cataluña. What’s nice about this is there’s nowhere to hide. When you have a board with plain cheeses and cured meats on it, there’s no disguising it. Overall, the food in Barcelona is good, but I wouldn’t call it mind blowingly incredible. The strength here is that it’s hard to have a bad meal, if a life changingly good meal isn’t going to present itself at every opportunity.
I enjoy watching Americans “go native” in whatever foreign country they’re in, to varying levels of offensiveness. Bindis in India are always sufficiently tone deaf, as are the poorly wrapped do-rag turbans you see in places like Morocco and Jordan. In Germany, women LOVE dirndls that in the hands of an American just turn into slutty Halloween costumes. Spain is the land of the ass cheek and the side boob. For men, the rules are sleeves optional, ankle bracelet recommend. In case anyone is unclear on it, there is never an appropriate occasion for a male ankle bracelet. Formality is not a big concern for the people of Barcelona, which I do appreciate. Europe can feel a bit stuffy some times with its formality (looking at you, Paris and Vienna) and people actually wear color in Spain, which is so refreshing. But good taste is also in shorter supply.
Barceloneta Beach is the culmination of this. You cannot go to Barceloneta and complain; it is famous for being the craziest, most crowded party beach in Barcelona so if you go, you know what you’re signing up for. I went on a Sunday afternoon and it was as promised. Totally nuts, but also beyond entertaining. The Spanish are attractive; these are the beautiful people you want to see on a beach so if there’s anywhere where thousands of basically naked people could seem tolerable, it’s here. The Brits and the Germans come along with their blindingly white chests but beyond that, the beach looks like the opening sequence to a season of Real World or a Pitbull music video.
The people watching here is, as you would expect, incredible. A group of actually clothed people and I sat watching a girl have a run-in with the police and then try to leave the beach after the cops brokered a deal with her to get out before they arrested her. As she was not only drunk but also surely on some hallucinogenic, this was a very drawn-out and entertaining process that took close to half an hour. At one point a waitress from a restaurant on the boardwalk nearby came over and took our drink orders so we wouldn’t miss any of the action. I had been mildly annoyed by Barceloneta before that, but how can you hate anywhere with that kind of customer service?
At times, Barcelona can be a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot going on, there’s a party on every corner, and it gives off the vibe that you should be doing something and going crazy basically all the time. That’s certainly Barcelona. It’s a party city, to be sure, but what makes Barcelona interesting and unique are the less crazed moments: crowded tapas bars spilling onto the streets; locals’ taverns with tiny tables and chairs that look designed for children; the empty streets in the Gothic Quarter at night. I completely by accident ended up at an Afro-Latin jazz show at a Negroni club one night and while I’m about as unsophisticated musically as can be, it was really cool and not pretentious despite that eye-roll worthy genre classifier. It felt like Barcelona for people who aren’t dropping acid on the beach all the time. There are so few moments of quiet here and the liveliness is absolutely what makes Barcelona fun, but when it does quiet down, it’s a different, equally charming place.
Up next was Spain’s closet neighbor, but one that feels nothing like it. Lisbon in my next post.