Sunday, September 6, 2015

Gargoyles to Gaudi – Walking in Barcelona

Eight or more sleepless hours in a cramped plane and jet lag looming, my proven solution to getting "on time" while on holiday is to get out and walk, letting sunshine fool my constitution into believing I haven't travelled. If you have more than a day to explore, a city orientation walk is also a good chance to get the lay of the land before deciding what you really want to see, and pay for, when you're better acclimated. When we escaped confinement on Air Canada Rouge and shambolic customs queues at Barcelona's El Prat airport at 11:30am on a Thursday morning, my body screamed that it was only half past 4. After checking into our hotel, we hit the pavement immediately lest we be lured by the ever deadly post-flight nap.

From our base at the Hotel Catedral de Barcelona, the obvious choice for a day 1 walking tour was to roam the central Gothic quarter of the old city and explore outwards in search for classic works of the famous Catalan Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, trusty Tom's Port Guide in hand.

Now you can't get the average southern European to walk fast. Maybe it's the climate or the crowded city streets. To be trapped behind gaggles of preening youth--who are aimlessly drifting on the sidewalk--is a blood pressure risk for the average, Type-A American that's in a great hurry to nowhere, even when he's at risk of breaking a sweat. Don't they know we have to walk off our American diet?

But put a European behind the wheel or on any two-wheeled vehicle and he is transformed. Roads are merely guidelines. If there's space between a store-front and the curb, a European driver might consider taking it, at high speed. At a crosswalk, it is only the overwhelming mass of pedestrian humanity that risks jamming in the wheel well, which brings some buses to a stop. And even then, the driver looks down on the herd and waits for a straggler to tempt fate. A broken car horn is like a physical disability for the European, who expects the lead car to anticipate a green light and proceed while the jury is still out. Bicyclists are just as daring, blazing around corners or through impossibly-small gaps in a crowded plaza. I imagine natural succession weeded poor maneuvering skills from the gene pool long ago, for I saw no accidents. I don't know how Americans ever win motor races; NASCAR must be segregated.

This can get into tight places.

So our walk down Barcelona's avenues was an exercise in skirting around strolling human roadblocks punctuated by brief moments of terror. Periodically, the stifling scent of baked urine scented the air, but it was less pungent than I ever experienced in London. I enjoyed every moment of it. August on the rim of the Mediterranean is excessively hot and humid; it's a free sauna. But people pay good money for that; no one pays to shovel snow. If I'd really been in a hurry I could have navigated the hop-on-hop-off bus system.

A Spanish poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca once said La Rambla is "the only street in the world that I wish would never end." Federico had a point, La Rambla is the pedestrian version of the main drag in U.S. cities, for which spirited young men cruising in open-top automobiles are the lifeblood of a summer evening. It's Colfax Avenue in Denver, the Vegas Strip or Hollywood Boulevard, but for people. The tree-lined, pedestrian boulevard hums with people, flowing like an artery along the western edge of Barri Gòtic, from the port to Plaça de Catalunya at the heart of the city, from which other roads lead outward into the newer Barcelona and Gaudi's treasures. In only two days I walked the length of La Rambla several times, wishing it would extend more than its 1.2 kilometers

La Rambla
Plaça de Catalunya, the 50,000 meter square, fountain-bejewelled heart of the city. The monument in the right background is to Francesc Macià i Llussà, a former President of Catalonia.

As elsewhere in large Mediterranean cities, panhandlers are positioned at all the likely spots. They are overwhelmingly young males, though a few near-prostrated Romani women wearing the flowing garb of ancient Israel appear to have secured the choice locations in front of Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia (Barcelona's 14th century Gothic cathedral). The ladies like to rattle the coins in their assertively outstretched cans, in case you don't understand that you are intended to add more coins to said cans. But the male panhandlers of Barcelona have a standard prop I hadn't seen previously. They are usually partnered with a dog (or two or three), and instead of the American-standard cardboard sign stating "will work for food," there will be a note penned in several languages hinting at the dire fate of the dog(s) should financial succour not arrive promptly. Cigarettes and tattoos must cost a pretty fortune, so I can only imagine the dog owner's distress.

As with any large city, we saw several truly destitute people, sleeping through the morning on cardboard mats wedged between doorways or within ATM enclosures, while others passed them by eyes averted, willing them not to exist. Some of these people are missing limbs. To my own shame, I could have been more forthcoming with a smile or "good morning." None of these homeless had signs, or cans. So here's my social commentary--all of the street people, shysters included, probably have little to their name. I wouldn't be doing them or their dogs any real service by handing out spare change elicited through orchestrated guilt, especially if they are part of a grifting network that expropriates my donation at day's end. If you feel you aren't doing enough, there are many organizations that effectively provide essential services in need. Go home and donate more to your local Red Cross, the United Way, Doctors Without Borders, Heifer International... or volunteer.

Buskers are common in the large, public squares. Considering the sheer number of talented street performers, usually musicians or acrobats, it's no wonder only a lucky few people make it big in the entertainment industry. Barcelona appeared to have less of the tired human statues I've seen elsewhere and more truly talented street performers. It's easy to lose oneself in the show, and we took precautions to make sure our valuables were inaccessible to professional pickpockets. Barcelona has a reputation for the highest incidence of such activity in Europe. There are also the ubiquitous peddlers of cheap trinkets. The latest is some kind of device held in the mouth to simulate electronic chirps. These were so common on La Rambla and in the plaza of the old cathedral (Placa de la Seu), I began to harbor murderous thoughts.

Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. Its namesake Saint was apparently stripped by the Romans; when a miraculous Spring snowfall preserved her modesty, the enraged Romans executed her by rolling her down the street in a barrel lined with sharp knives. I think I would have suffered through the nudity,

Medieval Barcelona

14th-century Santa Maria del Mar is apparently the best example of Catalan Gothic architecture. I love the gargoyle water drains.

I could not throw a stone anywhere that didn't reach at least a handful of restaurants or cafes, each offering more tempting aromas and food creations than the next. There are more than I could visit in a lifetime. Of particular interest was Mercat St. Josep La Boqueria, just off La Rambla, near its midpoint. There were row upon row of fishmongers, pastry shops, butchers, tapas bars, and fruit stands in this food market. It was all I could do not to spend two-weeks of taxi fares on snacks. We couldn't leave without sampling an immense plate of seafood and some paella outdoors at El Cochinillo Loco restaurant, on the market's fringe.

Is it illegal to sell anything less than a perfectly ripe tomato in southern Europe? They put the sickly orange, prematurely-harvested excuses sold at American supermarkets to shame.

Smokers are everywhere. Europeans give rightful grief to Americans over needless gun violence, but then kill themselves off at a much steeper rate from cigarettes. But all things considered, Barcelona is a clean city. I've been to other places, such as Marseilles, that I initially expected to be much cleaner, which were much dirtier. There is little or no litter on the streets of Barcelona. The city has much in the way of "street art," though I'm more likely to call the vast majority of it an eyesore and juvenile. The taggers do seem to take pains to limit their craft to (mostly) roll-up metal doors on store fronts, and I never noticed any on historic buildings. It's thoughtful graffiti.

There were several individual pieces I took a moment to reconsider, roses amongst the sea of thorns.

From the descriptions of his works, I expected Gaudi to be gaudy, but a better adjective is fantastical. I was reminded of a fairytale at each of his creations, whether gingerbread houses like Casa Batlló or enchanted palaces. In a city called home by millions, there are really only a few scattered buildings personally designed by Antoni Gaudi, some immense (like the still-under-construction Sagrada Familia church pictured at the top of this story), but Gaudi undoubtedly influenced more recent constructions all over Barcelona. Surely the immense Torre Agbar (Pickle Building) was imagined in his spirit. And the Gaudi influence contrasts well with the gothic architecture of medieval Barcelona, with its gargoyles and fairytale qualities of its own.

Casa Batlló

La Pedrera-Casa Milà, known colloquially as "the Quarry."
Details of Casa Milà

The stylization of La Sagrada Familia (L) is reminiscent of the city's earlier Gothic period (R).

The Gaudi influence is easy to take in, as it's mostly external façades and public parks--excluding La Sagrada Familia, the interiors of the buildings are frequently standard offices or apartments. We thought about touring the inside of the great church, but the Friday-afternoon lines kept us on the march.

Another fairy creation, the mansion Palau Güell, part of the UNESCO world heritage "Works of Gaudi."

Torre Agbar, the modern-era "pickle building." Who is this young person who keeps photo-bombing me?

So we ambled down both wide avenues and narrow, gothic streets of the old city. On my first day back in the Mediterranean, we had to adjust to the local tempo. I found myself walking a little more slowly, considering a different pace of life. I was transported into a fairytale. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the crowds.

Barri Gòtic, the gothic quarter, where Barcelona's gargoyles meet Gaudi.