On a blustery Friday in October, I packed my bags and headed to the sunny city of Barcelona.
This was my first trip to Europe, and my expectations were simultaneously high and low. On the one hand, visions of sunshine, tapas, and sangria danced in my head. But on the other, like most of my recent trips, the days leading up to my flight out were hectic, so aside from a rough skeleton of a schedule, I hadn’t researched or planned nearly as much as I thought I should have. I hadn’t read journal articles, revisited my art history notes, or learned Spanish (though as it turned out, most people were speaking Catalan anyways and were very gracious about my terrible Spanglish).
I met my sister and brother-in-law at the airport and, after the most breakneck taxi ride any of us has ever had, we began our stay in Barcelona in the San Antoni neighborhood, a newer, trendier neighborhood next to La Rambla, the main tourist thoroughfare. Though exhausted from hours of travelling, how could we not sit down for food and people-watching? After all, we! were! in! Spain!
We wandered through the streets of the Gothic Quarter, passing through the Plaça Reial and as if by magic ended up by the Catedral de Barcelona, a Gothic behemoth, with the sun setting and lighting the medieval architecture just so. With the two circles of elderly dancers accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, it was almost too saccharinely Old World charming.
The next day, we ventured out in pursuit of the various cultural centers and landmarks in the city. But upon arriving at the Arc de Triomf, we realized that we were in the midst of a political rally, a call for Spanish unity the day before the Catalan president was to address Parliament about the Independence Referendum. We had, of course, been warned about protests by the US State Department, so we were not wholly surprised to see that there were protests. What we were surprised about however, was the jovial nature of said protests. People had Spanish flags tied around their shoulders but this was the only way we could tell that this was anything more than just a parade. Onwards, then!
We spent much of the rest of the day in and around the Santa Maria del Mar, a Gothic church completed in just 60 years. Due to the fast construction, this church was a perfect specimen of the true Gothic style (rather than a hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic) and more specifically, a Catalan Gothic style. Though adorned by beautiful stained glass windows, the church itself was dark, unadorned and somewhat austere (and thus appropriate for a house of worship). We climbed the towers to have a spectacular view of the city and the sea, again just as the sun was setting (what luck!)
Unfortunately, the next day we all fell a bit ill— but not to be deterred, we set out to walk La Rambla and search for La Boqueria, the public market that had eluded us thus far. It was a venerable treasure trove of Iberian ham, peppers and fruits, and had I been more lucid this might have been the highlight of the trip.
We then left Barcelona and made our way through the middle of Spain northward towards the seaside city of San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is called in Basque. The purpose of this side trip was purely gastronomic, but along the way saw the lovely and iconic white iron fence along La Concha, the c-shaped beach. We wandered through the cobbled streets of San Sebastian’s Old Town and in seeing how spacious, clean and, of course, touristy it all was, I thought that this felt like a theme-park caricature of Europe in some respects.
After having loaded up on platters of pintxos, we drove seven hours back to Barcelona, this time taking a scenic route through the Pyrenees. We stopped into the small town of Ayerbe, in the province of Aragon, for some lunchtime sandwiches. It was a sleepy little town and one that seemed gracious, if unaccustomed to American tourists.
We made it back into the city by mid-afternoon and parked the car on a hill with a stunning view of the city. The Barcelona Pavilion, somewhat misleadingly-named, is structure by German architect Mies van der Rohe and a staple in art history classes as an example of capital-M Modern architecture. The pavilion was tucked away under more flamboyant and brightly-colored buildings, so much so that we almost missed the turn of for it. More on that another time.
We then went to the magic fountains at Montjuic as well as the Museum of Catalan Art and admired the vista of the city, achieved with the laborious ascent of three escalators. We finished the day by checking into our last lodging and grabbing tapas under the Sagrada Família, a foreshadowing of my last day in Barcelona.
The next day we arose and took a cab over to Park Güell, a communal housing project turned park, not so unlike our own Epcot here in the states. This last day in Barcelona was all about the work of Antoni Gaudí, Barcelonan designer and visionary. The park itself was a lovely synthesis of carefully curated grounds and structures. There were guitarists playing Spanish classical music, which was certainly catering more to the tourist experience, but it was all so lovely that we didn’t even care. We wandered up the hills and through the house in which the artist had lived. We had bought tickets to the Monumental Park, the section of the park containing a majority of the built structures like the Hall of a Hundred Columns (meant to house the public market), as well as the iconic staircase, glass dragon and tilted colonnades. My sister observed that the park looked like it was “straight out of Dr. Seuss’” and I am inclined to agree with her, as the organic and somewhat irregular shapes posed a stark contrast from the clean lines of the German architecture we saw the day before.
We sped away in a cab back to Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s most famous church. Started in 1882, the cathedral is still under construction— it has been the collective efforts of artists from around the world and will remain under construction for quite awhile. The only way that I can accurately describe my impressions of it would be to say that it is a modern Gothic fever dream. The exterior of the church is spectacularly flamboyant, of course, but being inside the church was an indescribable experience. I have never felt particularly moved by architecture (Modern architecture is beautiful but not particularly emotional), but I almost started to cry when I entered the Sagrada Família. It was overwhelming in its scale, its artistry, and most of all its mastery of light. At 4pm, the light filtering through the west-facing windows painted the interior with brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges. This may have been the highlight of the trip for me (sorry, Mies).
And just like that, our whirlwind trip was over and I was on a flight back to Boston by way of Amsterdam. Like so many things in life, after months of anticipation it was gone in an instant. The trip was an absolute delight (despite being sick for a spell). Throughout the trip, I kept trying to discern identities-what was truly historic? Truly Catalan? Truly Spanish? I found out later that much of the architecture in the Gothic quarter had been rebuilt in the 20th century but it was juxtaposed against authentic Gothic architecture so that it became difficult for the untrained eye (mine) to discern what was real and what was not.
But ultimately, to me at least, it mattered not.
We still had fun and experienced a culture so vastly different from our own, if only for a short amount of time. There was so much to see, do, and eat that I didn’t even begin to properly reflect on the trip until I was at my desk writing about it.
Barcelona is colorful, creative and quirky and I am grateful for the short time that I was able to wander in its streets.