Our third full day in Barcelona was devoted to visiting the whimsical structures designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. But first, we needed to fortify ourselves with some delicious fare. EZ and I finally managed to expose GS and NR to the wonders of Quimet & Quimet, where we dined on a smorgasbord of tasty tapas. Among our toppings selections this time were salmon with yogurt and honey; salmon with caramelized onions and shredded sweet-egg yolk; paté with onions and truffled oil; swordfish with green chili peppers; and cured beef with sweet tomato. We also ordered a plate of sumptuous mussels and assorted smoked fishes, along with the essential glasses of wine. Que delicioco!
Our stomachs satiated, we hopped on a metro to the neighborhood where we would begin our pursuit of all things Gaudi. The streets bustled with tourists and locals alike as they browsed major retail chains, popped into small boutiques, sought lunch and libations at restaurants and bars, and admired the beautiful architecture of the neighborhood. The apartment complexes and commercial buildings were accented with lovely decorative features. And the stone benches on the street (Passeig de Gracia) doubled as fanciful curlicue streetlamps, also designed by – guess who! – Gaudi.
We knew right away when we had reached Casa Batlló. The house stood out from its neighbors like a peacock feather in a pigeon’s tail.
“Doesn’t it look like it could be one of those houses under the sea in The Little Mermaid?” NR asked.
I agreed completely – Casa Batlló emanated an aquatic atmosphere. The undulating roof was a sea of tiles reflecting the shifting shades of the ocean in different lights of day. The curving balconies were reminiscent of white coral, while the colorful mosaic walls evoked seashells and the array of vibrant life forms below the water. Every aspect of the house seemed laden with motion, no straight lines in sight.
I later learned that Casa Batlló was actually thought by many to have a skeletal aspect to it, which I can certainly understand. But I still prefer to think of it as the Ocean House, rather than Casa dels Ossos (House of Bones), which is what the locals call the building.
Our group had to decide if we wanted to wait in the long line to enter the building and view the interior. We had gotten a late start to the day and still had a lot to see, so we decided that we were satisfied with viewing the front exterior.
As we walked around the corner of the building, our group passed a hardware store called Servei Estacio. I did a double take and turned back toward the hardware store after reading the sign in front of it.
“Guys, wait!” I called. I pointed at the sign. “It says the rear exterior of Casa Batlló can be viewed from the second floor of the Servei Estacio hardware store.”
EZ, GS, and NR immediately walked back over to the hardware store. A free view of another part of Casa Batlló that we thought would only be accessible by buying a ticket? Yes, please!
We threaded through boxes of duct tape and aisles of tools, then climbed a flight of stairs until we reached an outdoor patio-balcony, empty of customers, where garden chairs were displayed for sale. And there before us, just beyond a short fence, stood the Casa Batlló’s derriere. The rear façade wasn’t quite as interesting as the front, but it did have a lovely floral mosaic-tile border.
Visitors wandered the mosaic-tile backyard, listening raptly to their audio-tour headphones and viewing their surroundings through their smartphones.
“It’s augmented virtual reality,” GS explained. “The videoguide shows the visitors what they are seeing on their smartphone cameras, but adds virtual elements on top of it. So what they see on their smartphones has added elements that allow them to see how the Batlló family would have lived in their building during their time.”
I was impressed that new technologies had been so imaginatively incorporated into a self-guided tour. Did America use this technology yet in our museums and sites? I wasn’t sure.
While GS and NR went back into the hardware store in search of electrical adapters, EZ and I purchased coffee from the gourmet vending machine on the patio and eased into the reclining chairs overlooking Casa Batllo. It was just like lounging on the beach, except that instead of admiring the ocean from the safety of the sand, we were admiring the Ocean House from the safety of a hardware store deck stocked with patio furniture.
Casa Mila (La Pedrera)
The next stop on our Gaudi tour was Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera. This building was much larger than Casa Batllo and lacked color, but it still called to mind the sea for me. In the pale curves of the wavy stone façade, I saw sand castles, creamy coral, white mollusks. In the writhing, sinuous wrought iron balconies, I saw dark seaweed tangled up against the shore.
Again, time was running away from us. Instead of visiting the interior of Casa Mila, our group made the call to head over to Parc Guell, which would be the highlight of our Gaudi Day. We wanted to ensure we had enough time to explore the park and still make it to Sagrada Familia Church before nightfall. So we hailed a cab and were on our way!
First, our group stopped at a touristy snack/souvenir shop near Parc Guell to enjoy some sweet treats and hydrate/wine-drate. Then we ventured into the park, which, from the outside, looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its frosted gingerbread-style house and multi-colored structural accents at the front entrance.
It is actually free to explore most of Parc Guell – tickets are only required to visit the Gaudi House and the Monumental Zone, which contains the Dragon Stairway and Nature Square. We started with the Gaudi House – that is, Gaudi’s former residence, a strawberry-pink confection with peppermint window dressing.
Here, we viewed the furniture and furnishings of Gaudi’s house, including beautiful wooden furniture designed by Gaudi to perfectly fit the curves of a sitting or lounging body, among other unique custom furnishings. We also learned that Parc Guell was originally created not as a park, but a gated residential housing development – that’s right, it was supposed to be a whole private hilltop neighborhood full of colorful, imaginative dwellings and lush gardens. The Gaudi House and the other house built in the development were intended to be show/model homes.
But alas, the housing development was a failure. And so the Barcelona City Council purchased the plot from Eusebi Guell (who had commissioned Gaudi to design the development). Had the housing development been a success, I wonder what types of residents would occupy the fantasyland neighborhood. Artists? Celebrities? Rich hippies? The world may never know…
After touring the Gaudi House, our group roamed the public areas of Parc Guell, which Gaudi designed with Mother Nature in mind. He attempted to integrate roads, viaducts, and other manmade structures into the botanical surroundings by using stone materials and mimicking forms found in nature. For example, the columns of the viaducts were designed to resemble tree trunks.
We traversed quaint stone paths bordered by verdant foliage until we reached the second house in Parc Guell, the other “model home.” Surprisingly, this house appeared more Spanish traditional and less quirky modernist than Gaudi’s other buildings. But it did have a hell of a view; in addition to the ocean and cityscape, the ever-under-construction Sagrada Familia Church could be spotted below, just to the left of two skyscrapers.
As we walked, our group caught a lovely glimpse of the Monumental Zone below and the ocean beyond. We purchased tickets for the Monumental Zone, but our designated entry time wasn’t for another hour. Since we were growing hungry, we decided to leave the park for a bite and return to the Monumental Zone during our designated entry period.
Once again, we sought to walk out of the “tourist zone,” a four-block radius from Parc Guell, in search of a more authentic dining establishment. Unfortunately, this time, we came up short. Schools, churches, and shops there were aplenty – restaurants, not so much. We settled for a small casual place, where we sat outside and ordered crispy fried anchovies, tortilla (which, in Spain, is not a flat bread but a sort of egg-and-potato omelet), and a few other appetizers along with some wine. The food was not bad, but nothing to write home about. Luckily, we didn’t order the paella.
Side note – we noticed that the place had a separate menu for paella, and that this menu was the exact same menu we had seen at a few other restaurants (without any identifiers for the name of the restaurant). It dawned on us that outside of the Valencia region in Spain (where paella originated), we would be hard-pressed to find authentic paella. If all of the restaurants in Barcelona offered identical generic paella menus, it was likely they also offered and reheated the same pre-produced paella from the same supplier. This blogger confirmed our suspicions.
After our late (and underwhelming) lunch, we returned to Parc Guell via a different entrance with a view of the leafy hillside on which Parc Guell is situated.
We entered the Monumental Zone and delighted in the gorgeous mosaics that bedecked the Nature Square, which offered another beautiful panorama of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea.
I fell in love with the blue-and-white checkered tower, which is warped with a fantastic rippling effect.
The Monumental Zone also paid tribute to animals of the wild with gargoyles and statues.
The most famous of these animals was, of course, the lizard (or dragon, depending on who you ask). Crouched atop a fountain in the middle of a stairway, the vibrant, variegated reptile drew throngs of tourists. But, though cool, it wasn’t quite as large or impressive as we expected.
Another fountain was topped with a different sort of beast. I’m not sure what creature this was supposed to be, but there was practically nobody admiring it. Poor thing! I’ll show you some love!
Yet another fountain in the stairway featured a wishing well where people had tossed coins. As I stooped over the well to stare into the dark waters swirling below, the sunglasses perched on my head fell off and plopped into the pool below with a splash. Oops! At least I wasn’t the only one to make such as a silly mistake – in addition to my sunglasses, I also spotted a hat and scarf down there.
The walls of the stairway featured some stunning tilework, with a variety of beautiful patterns and color schemes incorporated into the iridescent mosaic.
At the bottom of the stairs, we were treated to a closer look at the gingerbread-style house, which contained the gift shop. The frosted building almost made me hungry! We perused the Gaudi-themed trinkets at the gift shop before saying goodbye to the beautiful Parc Guell and catching a cab to La Sagrada Familia church.
Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia…ahhh, where to begin? This church is probably one of the biggest tourist attractions of Barcelona, another extraordinarily peculiar building designed by Gaudi. Except that it was not designed only by Gaudi, because he died in 1926 before even a quarter of the church was completed. Gaudi worked on the construction for 43 years; after his death, the baton was passed on to several other architects over the past 90 years, resulting in a haphazard hodgepodge of design influences. Construction remains ongoing, with an anticipated completion date of 2026, so who knows what other influences may still be added? Because construction depends on private donations and was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, progress has been sluggish, to say the least.
From afar, the Sagrada Familia church appears to be a citadel of some far-flung, fantastical land – an unpainted Emerald City – its ball-point spires pressed earnestly up against the clouds. Up close, however, the church is garish and incongruous. At different angles, you can make out the design elements of the different architects. Oh, how they clash!
The front of the church bears the bulk of Gaudi’s influence, which combines Gothic and Art Noveau elements with its instantly recognizable pen-like spires, profuse overgrowth of intricate carvings and statues, and sprawl of stained-glass vines.
From a different vantage point, however, another approach can be seen. Here, clean lines mark the structures, while accents of perfect circles adorn narrow, pentagonal windows. This side of the church seems more modern in its precision but more classically medieval in style. Rather than crowds of statues clustered together, only a few lone statues garnish this side of the church in carefully selected locations. And – out of nowhere – there is a metallic cone at the top of a tower! I understand that this is supposed to mimic the conical stone segments Gaudi implemented, but the blinding mirror-like quality of this new metallic cone seems much too futuristic and completely out of place.
Now, if you please, I’ll take you to yet another angle of the church. From the rear, the stonework also appears cleaner and more modern. Added to this side is a selection of prominent religious statues, including Jesus on a cross. The strange and distasteful part of this view, however, is the lettering. There are words on display, tacky signage on white skeletal structures and directly on the spires, which seem completely at odds with Gaudi’s original vision.
And finally, we arrive at the last angle of the church, which amalgamates many of the elements previously mentioned (Gaudi spires, sleek geometric designs, futuristic metallic cone, religious stone statues, and words – Poder and Honor, this time) as well as a certain other strange accent: fruit. That’s right- randomly crowning different peaks in this multifaceted structure are bunches of colored fruit carvings, like so many Chiquita Banana hats.
It is important to note that this travesty of a building remains unfinished…so there is hope for it yet. Perhaps once all the finishing touches have been applied, the church will be magnificent to behold.
And maybe the interior of the church is more impressive than the exterior; our group didn’t get a chance to go inside. The church had already closed for the day, and we decided not to trek back out here tomorrow. So we were left with a very strange impression of the church…very strange, indeed.
To cap off our Gaudi day, our group decided to look for a decent bar near the Sagrada Familia church (but not too close – as usual, we wanted to avoid overtly touristy areas). After some searching, we found one that seemed lively – a group of people were gathered just outside. We walked into the bar, which had a trendy vibe and was decorated with paintings from local artists. To our surprise, the bartender immediately began fixing four ruby-red concoctions for us before we even ordered. We sipped the delicious cocktail with relish and some confusion – the bartender had not asked for payment or given us a bill. When we asked if the drinks were free, he nodded.
It seemed too good to be true…and it was. As our group wandered to the room at the back of the bar, we were met with “Happy 50th Birthday” banners and balloons, along with a young lady who was shooting us the side-eye. It became clear that we had just crashed a party. We returned to the bar, where the bartender had realized his mistake and sheepishly requested payment. After finishing our drinks and paying up, we hurried out the door, trying not to make eye contact with the party attendants outside.
Next, we sought a restaurant for dinner. We couldn’t find anything appealing in the area, so we took a metro back to our neighborhood by the apartment. Along the way, we came across an amusing sign that addressed the danger of street vendors. Every night that we had gone out on the town, we had been approached by men holding six-packs of Estrella beer, aggressively hawking individual cans for one Euro apiece. While this may have been a good deal, a cold glass of Estrella at the bar tempted us more than a warm can caressed by the sweaty hands of peddlers. Perhaps we would have felt differently if we were underage.
Once we returned to our neighborhood at Nou de la Rambla, our group enjoyed croquettes, mussels, prawns, and other dishes at the outdoor patio of a restaurant. However, NR did not enjoy her Sangria, which – for some inexplicable reason – was mixed with Fanta. Don’t you wanna?
After stopping by the apartment to change and freshen up, our group visited a truly notable cocktail bar: Bar 68, located in the Raval neighborhood. You would never expect to find such a hip spot in a grungy alley amid tiny Pakistani markets and shabby cafes, but there you are. Marked only by the number above the door (68), this is a cool, hipsteresque bar rivaling any of Downtown LA’s top cocktail spots.
Not only did the place have a great vibe, with its jewel-toned lighting and stylish setup, it also served up some incredible drinks. The bartenders hailed from Argentina, arriving on the Barcelona bar scene to shake up the system. Barcelona doesn’t have much of a cocktail culture – mixology is almost a foreign term, and a mixed drink apparently entails pouring Fanta into your alcohol. So Bar 68 was born to breed innovation.
Although I ordered a classic margarita, it was still one of the best margaritas I’ve had, with some yummy pink rock salt rimming my glass. I even enjoyed my sip of EZ’s cocktail, whose drinks are usually too strong for my taste – but this one piqued my tongue with pleasantly subtle flavors.
The coolest drink by far, however, was the shot ordered by NR and GS. The shot was concealed in a Russian nesting doll. Once NR cracked open the doll, plumes of smoke spiraled out…apparently an “herb” had been smoked within the doll to impart its flavor upon the shot. Wow! How creative is that?
After a while, NR and GS left the bar to check out the clubbing scene (which they later described as fun, with multiple rooms at the club for different types of music, although the locals didn’t really dress up for it). EZ and I were not quite up for such a lavish expense of energy, so we chilled at Bar 68 until the hour grew late.
At least we wouldn’t have to wake up early the next morning…although we did have a long drive the next evening. Our group had a trip to the countryside to look forward to!
To Be Continued…
Start at the beginning and learn more about my travels in Barcelona: