Visit: 1st November 2014, 28th March 2015
With winter drawing in the appeal grows of seeking out the last vestiges of warmth in Europe. I figured the Costa Brava was as good a candidate as any, so booked a weekend trip to Girona, flying from Bristol. Although Natalie and I stayed in a hotel in Girona, we didn’t see much of the town as we used it as a base to visit two relatively nearby places of interest: Barcelona and Figueres. The weather was kind to us, and it was more like summer than late autumn.
Ryanair has been a pretty reliable airline for us lately, and true to form we were rolling down the runway a full ten minutes prior to scheduled departure. On arrival we took a ruinously expensive taxi into Girona and checked into a pleasant hotel ASAP in order to get the customary arrival beer in before bed. Door to door the trip had been only around four hours – meaning I hadn’t had to take any time off work in order get there.
On Saturday morning we got up fairly early and went to Girona railway station to catch a train to Barcelona (about 40 minutes journey time). The station, however, has a strict policy whereby they refuse to sell tickets for a train due to depart within the next ten minutes. For us this meant that instead of the 09:30 train we would have to wait for the 10:45. Given that we had only planned to spend the daytime in Barcelona before coming back to Girona for dinner, I was not too pleased about having my visit cut short by 75 minutes because the obstinate ticket vendor didn’t trust our ability to get to the platform in ten minutes! So I went to a machine, paid for our tickets on card, mentally cursing the ticket seller. As it turned out he had some justification for his rigid rule, because the platforms were quite a distance away…you had to go out of the concourse…along a corridor….down an escalator…through a security checkpoint…into another concourse…past a ticket inspector…down an escalator…and down another escalator to the platform. Natalie couldn’t get over how overbuilt the station was for the couple of trains per hour that pass through there (I told her it was a legacy of the credit-fuelled Spanish construction boom of the mid-noughties). Nevertheless, we managed to get there in time, so my comment is really that they should let people take their chances with the 10 minute window, perhaps with a caveat emptor, rather than having a blanket ban on all sales to able-bodied people.
We soon arrived into Barclona Sants station and took the Metro to a place called Diagonal. Our first point of call was Gaudí’s Casa Battló – one of his most striking works (and also the most expensive to visit, at €21.50).
The building was not designed by Gaudí from scratch, but was heavily modified by him. Wealthy textile manufacturer Josep Battló i Casanovas, the owner, was fed up of his grand house being known as one of the most boring apartment blocks in the district. This was in 1901, when Gaudí was already famous, so Battló knew the man to call.
The building is known for its avoidance of straight lines wherever possible; walking through its rooms and courtyards you see curves everywhere – just taking a stroll around the house makes you feel a little queasy.
Aside from the front facade, which is evocative of a scaly undulating sea with birds nests for balconies, the other highlight is the roof, with its decorated chimneys. Gaudí was known for his desire to liberate humdrum functional items from mediocrity, which explains why he departed from the ordinary so overtly here.
We didn’t visit the nearby Casa Mila because it is currently encased in scaffolding (as well as costing another €20). The scaffolding is tastefully covered in a wrap that shows an image of what the building looks like – but somebody has gone and put a giant advert over the top of it, rather ruining the effect.
We walked next down La Rambla to the less famous Palau Güell. Like Park Güell, it was built for Gaudí’s most famous patron, Eusebi Güell. Güell was an industrialist and an extremely wealthy man. According to the in-house audio guide, he has been ranked by Forbes as among the top 20 richest people who ever lived, with a fortune of €75bn in today’s money.
Palau Güell (Güell Palace )
This building doesn’t immediately strike you as a Gaudí, given its more restrained appearance. Built largely in a dark marble, it is sumptuously decorated with ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. Unlike much of Gaudí’s other work, this building does not eschew straight lines and right angles.
Palau Güell was Gaudí’s first major project, and represented to his patron an enormous gamble. Güell, like Gaudí, was a Catalan nationalist, and shared Gaudí’s political concerns for the working classes. But when they began their architect-client relationship, money ceased to be relevant. Güell’s accountant apparently lamented “I fill Don Eusebio’s pockets and Gaudí empties them”.
But for the man who could afford anything, commissioning such a novel architect to build him a palace was a way of distinguishing himself from the other plutocrats of his day. The picture above shows the ceiling of the three story inner hall, featuring a cupola filled with holes that let the light in so it resembles a starry sky. In this hall Gaudí placed an organ of his own design, which is still played to this day.
Intricate ceiling design
All the other rooms in the house appear secondary to the central hall, which acts as the focal point around which the rest of the building converges. However that is not to say they are of inferior quality. Below you can see the Shakespearean stained glass windows in the bedroom of Güell’s eldest daughter.
Hamlet & Macbeth
The 18 colourful chimneypots and ventilation ducts on the roof of the palace cannot be seen from street level, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered Gaudí. Since the Güell Palace was finished in 1889 – some 17 years earlier than Casa Battló – this roof art can be considered a prefiguration of what was to come.
Roof of Güell Palace
On finishing up at Palau Güell and exiting via the servants’ staircase we walked across the city toward Gaudí’s most famous work of all – La Sagrada Familia. Barcelona has the atmosphere of a relaxed and vibrant city, in which you can walk through tiny alleyways and emerge without warning onto open squares full of cafés. Its tall townhouses reminded me of the centre of Buenos Aires, although surely the inspiration ran the other way.
I have visited the Sagrada before, about eight years ago on a school music tour. Then, the insides were full of scaffolding and I had no interest in architecture or churches – in fact all I remember about it is being quite bored. This time around, however, was a totally different experience.
Up close, the sheer size of the building becomes apparent, and the ornate decoration on the outside of the building is a sight to behold. But it was upon stepping inside that the ‘wow factor’ really hit me – the interior looks to be pretty much complete now, and there is no scaffolding left.
The sheer cavernous enormity of the space is something I have never experienced before. More so than most churches, the interior is full of colour. Gaudí designed the columns to resemble trees and branches. I am surprised to read on Wikipedia that there are numerous larger churches in the world, including some that I have visited – because this certainly felt like the largest to me. Perhaps that is a testament to the brilliance of Gaudí’s design.
He started work on the Sagrada Familia in 1883 at the age of 31 and it consumed him for the rest of his life. Famously, today it is still unfinished, though a target date of 2026 is being talked about. One of the reasons the project has taken so much longer than anticipated (it had initially been expected to be complete before 1900) was because Gaudí preferred to evolve the design during construction, rather than rigidly to follow a set plan.
The huge towers are topped with ‘crowns’ that resemble bishops’ mitres. Each tower is dedicated to one of the twelve apostles, who all became bishops – so it was Gaudí’s intention that the twelve towers of the Sagrada Familia would also appear to ‘become bishops’.
The building was nowhere near completed when Gaudí died in 1926, and work has continued to this day. Given that he was one of the most celebrated residents of Barcelona at the time, presiding over its most important ever construction project, the story of his death comes as quite a surprise. When out walking one day in June he was hit by a tram. Although not killed outright he was severely injured. But because of his shyness (he rarely allowed himself to be photographed) he was wearing shabby clothes and people did not recognise his face, so he was mistaken for a beggar. Those who came to his aid found taxi drivers unwilling to take him to hospital, and when he was eventually brought to one he was not exactly rushed into the operating theatre. When the people of Barcelona found out who he really was it was too late and he was dead.
Our final stop for the visit was at Park Güell, which is up a rather steep hill overlooking the city. There is in fact an outdoor escalator that you can take up to it. Unfortunately we only found this out on the way down. After labouring up to the top you are rewarded with an impressive view of Barcelona.
The colourful mosaics adorning the walls of Park Güell are an immediately recognisable Gaudí trademark. They were not built using the expensive materials of the Güell Palace, though, but consist of scrap fragments of broken tilework that were discarded by tilemaking factories.
A key aspect to the design of the park was Gaudí’s decision to follow the contours of the steep hillside on which it was sited. So instead of levelling the land he built raised walkways and cut tunnels for paths. The open area you can see above (which Gaudí called ‘the Greek theatre’) is completely flat and thus collects rainwater very quickly, so without adequate drainage would be at risk of collapse. The solution was both to make the surface porous and to make the Doric columns that support it hollow, allowing water to flow down through them.
At the end of a long day of sightseeing we headed back to Girona. Of the seven inscribed properties that make up the Works of Antoni Gaudí World Heritage Site, we saw four. Of those we didn’t see, one was the Casa Milà (undergoing renovation), another is the Crypt in Colonia Güell, out in the hills way out in the west of Barcelona, and the last is the Casa Vicens – which I had intended to visit but completely slipped my mind. Certainly we will revisit Barcelona, and I will tick off the rest then.
Back in Girona we had a reservation at the city’s second most renowned restaurant, Massana. I say second because Girona is home to what is arguably the hottest restaurant in the world right now, El Celler de Can Roca. The Celler however was fully booked for the next eleven months, so there was no chance of getting in there. At Massana we went for the tasting menu, which was a first for both of us. The decor and service were pleasantly discrete, and the food was impeccable, all supervised by Mr Massana himself standing outside the kitchen doors.
Dessert disguised as a savoury dish
Plans for the Sunday before flying home centred on taking the train to Figueres in order to visit the Salvador Dalí “Theatre-Museum” in the great Surrealist’s hometown. Dalí himself designed the museum, so it is just the kind of wacky layout and design that you would expect from his paintings.
If you like the works of Dalí then this museum is a must. It houses a large proportion of his works (though I have been surprised to see just how many of them are in a museum in Florida). Of particular note is a velvet-lined room designed to feel like being inside a jewelry box, in which Dalí has hung some of the paintings that were most important to him. Several of them are unsurprisingly of Gala, his wife (and the muse of several prominent artists before him), to whom he was so devoted.
Main hall of the Dalí museum
In the picture of above you can see one of my favourite Dalí works, the amusingly entitled Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Metres Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Given that this photo was taken from about twenty metres away, all you can see is a pixelated picture of Abraham Lincoln – however, up close you can clearly see the figure of Gala at a window. In fact it is only on looking at it now that I notice just how invisible the Gala figure is. Take a look at a closer photo here and you’ll see what I mean.
Although known primarily as a Surrealist (“The only difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist”), Dalí, like most artists, also experimented with more conventional styles in his early phases.
Figure at a Window, 1925
Other works I enjoyed seeing here were ‘Leda Atomica’, ‘The Poetry of America – The Cosmic Athletes’ (first appearance of a Coca-Cola bottle in art, 20 years before Warhol) and the Arnolfini-esque ‘Dalí from the Back, Painting Gala from the Back, Eternalised by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors’.
Update: 28th March 2015
Four months later we returned to Barcelona, principally to visit the Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, but we also took the opportunity to tick off two more of the seven sub-components of this Gaudí WHS (the only part we didn’t manage to see on either visit is the Crypt at Colonia Güell, which was both miles outside the city and closed on the day of this visit).
Arriving at El Prat Airport around 4pm, we headed straight to the Casa Mila – which stays open until 8. On our previous visit, this major Gaudí building had been entombed in scaffolding, but to our surprise the scaffolding had since then been disassembled.
At €21 each it is the most expensive of the Gaudí sites, but we bit the bullet and went in there. It turned out to have been worth it because it wasn’t crowded and was very pleasant to spend time on the roof in the evening sun. Like other Gaudí buildings, Casa Mila – also known as La Pedrera – is topped with ornate chimneys, conveying the architect’s philosophy that functional items should be made decorative too.
Interestingly, this is still an inhabited building, with ordinary people living in apartments overlooking a central courtyard full of tourists like us. As well as the roof and the courtyard, visitors are allowed to wander round the attic floor and the floor beneath that, which is full of period furniture as it was when the building was new.
After La Pedrera there was just enough daylight left (on the last day before the clocks changed) to see the Casa Vicens. This is a fully private residence, so you have to settle with viewing it from outside in the street. It was one of Gaudí’s earliest buildings in Barcelona – a project that helped him to make a name for himself in the Modernisme movement. The house clearly shows the influence of Moorish architecture, a collective memory that has affected Spain in a way that could hardly be imagined in other European countries.