Spain: Catalonia – Barcelona; Gaudí’s Casa Milà & Picasso
A day spent wandering the streets of this beautiful Catalonian city
I had booked an apartment in central Barcelona, close to the Mercat St Antoni, which is currently under renovation. This is a very busy and vibrant part of the city, and arriving at 5 pm presented some challenges in terms of parking, but we eventually found a spot and dropped our luggage in the apartment. We didn’t plan to keep the car during our sojourn in the city, so we drove to the rental car garage a few miles away and took the metro back to our apartment.
We had nothing planned for the evening, so we headed out to find some food. It was getting late and we were tired and hungry – I can get very tetchy when I get “hangry”. Sometimes when I am tired and hungry I can’t decide what to eat and that just adds to the frustration … I become like a grumpy old bear with a wounded paw. Eventually, we settled on a restaurant, and the next challenge was identifying what was on the menu as we had no idea what things were in Catalan. Luckily, our waitress spoke good English so on her recommendation we ordered some tasty-sounding morsels and whilst we waited we were entertained by some crazy woman parking her car Spanish style, with the extreme use of bumpers to make the space large enough for her car to fit in. This is why people don’t use handbrakes and leave their cars in neutral in Spanish cities!
We had been to Barcelona before and I had really wanted to come back and spend some more time exploring without children in tow. Before jumping into the story of this visit I would like to mention the recent terrorist attack which took place in Barcelona in August 2017, just a few short weeks after our visit. A few crazy men, aligned to the Islamic State (ISIS) decided to launch terrorist attacks in Catalonia, the worst incident was an attack using a van to mow down pedestrians on Las Ramblas in Barcelona. 16 people died, but it could have been much worst as some of the terrorists blew themselves up whilst trying to make a vehicle bomb with propane tanks. A horrible, horrible incident but sadly all too common in these troubling times.
Both Karen and I are admirers of the work of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. We decided the first destination on our return to Barcelona would be Parc Güell, a fabulous example of Gaudi’s amazing imagination, set high in the hills overlooking Barcelona. It is a bit of a trek to get there, including some very steep hills (they have installed escalators up the steepest parts) and by the time we got to the entrance, we were a bit pooped. What we hadn’t realized since our last visit is that they had changed the system to get in and that there were now timed tickets for entry. It was about 8 am in the morning and the next entry was at 7 pm that night. We were disappointed but settled for buying tickets for the next day.
Now, what to do?
We returned to the centre of Barcelona and planned to wander the streets and take in some of the cultures of this great city. As we walked the streets we came across another building that was designed and built by Gaudí, Casa Milà, popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ (the stone quarry). The lines were long, and it was expensive to get in – so we hummed and ahhed for a while about going in, but we eventually decided to go for it. And boy we were not disappointed.
The building was commissioned in 1906 by businessman Pere Milà and his wife Roser Segimon. At the time, it was controversial because of its undulating stone facade, twisting wrought-iron balconies and windows designed by Josep Maria Jujol. Several structural innovations include a self-supporting stone front, columns and floors free of load-bearing walls, an underground garage and the most amazing rooftop sculptures.
In 1984, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is still a working building and is occupied by several businesses, but areas – including the roof – are open to the public.
The tour itself is self-guided, which in my opinion is a perfect way to do a tour because you can do them at your own pace – also at heart, I am an introvert and like to avoid any unnecessary interaction with people. Karen prefers the tours with a real guide because you can ask lots of questions and find out the life history of your fellow tourists.
We started on the ground floor in one of the central atriums which Gaudí designed to allow each room in the building to have light from both sides, so they were bright and airy inside. The design work was stunning and is all curves and there is not a straight edge to be seen! The next stop is the roof, which we reached by climbing stairs … our exercise for the day. Fortunately, it was just a five-storey building!
The roof terrace was an amazing space, an undulating trip through the imagination of Gaudí. He believed that a roof should not be the boring space that typified buildings of the time, but was the pinnacle of the edifice and should be a continuation of the building’s grandeur. The doors to the roof were encased in twisting swirls of concrete, resembling ice-cream sitting on a cone. The chimney stacks were neatly stacked and topped with a stone design resembling a knight’s helmet. There were several arches on the roof which had been used to frame distant landscapes and sights of Barcelona, including Gaudí’s greatest work, the Sagrada Familia.
Located one floor below the roof is the Espai Gaudí, one of the most distinctive spaces designed by Gaudí; the attic of the La Pedrera. It consists of 270 catenary arches made of flat brick and houses the only exhibition dedicated to Gaudí’s life and work. It showcases the architect’s creations through models, plans, objects, designs, photographs and videos. Gaudí was not just a creative force he also was an amazing structural engineer, which was cleverly demonstrated throughout this exhibition. He took every detail into account including the interior design, often creating custom furniture and door furniture. There were amazing examples of the furniture he designed, but he also went it to fantastic detail in creating ergonomic handles for doors and cabinets.
The next space we visited on the tour was a La Pedrera period apartment; a recreation of an early-20th century bourgeois family apartment, providing an insight into the way they lived, complete with period furniture, household equipment and decorative elements designed by Gaudí.
The tour ended back on the ground floor. This is where the Milá family lived, in a huge apartment occupying the whole of the space. They donated the space to house temporary art exhibitions. The current exhibition was made up of large modern art installations – and as open-minded, as I try to be I couldn’t fathom what was going on! For me, the experience was saved by the final exhibit which was a display of the designs of contemporary architects. A fitting end to the Gaudí – la Perdera experience! We were so glad we decided to take this tour. Truly amazing!
After our little detour to tour Casa Milà, we continued on our pedestrian tour of the old town of Barcelona, dropping down into the narrow streets that are lined with spectacular examples of gothic architecture. The centrepiece of this area of town is Barcelona Cathedral, which we had visited on our last trip. Since they had started charging for entry we decided to forgo the visit in favour of spending the money on a gelato, which seemed like a fair swap! The gelato was to be another recurring theme on the tour and was a major contributor to the extra pounds we carried on our return to Bend.
Temporarily satisfied by the gelatos we continued around the side of the Cathedral where we shocked to find an older lady with her grandchildren writing graffiti on an adjacent building. Despite Karen’s protestations, she carried on oblivious to her wrong-doing. We walked on in disgust!
Further down the road, we reached our last destination of the day, the Museu Picasso. Set in five adjacent medieval palaces this museum houses over 4000 examples of Picasso’s work, from his teenage years to his death. And on this steamy day, it was a relief to get inside an air-conditioned building! Although not a native of Barcelona, Picasso spent many years in the city developing his skills, which highly influenced his later work. It was a well laid out and airy space to view the collection – but I must say I much preferred his earlier work to the pieces from the period that he is most famous for.