Saturday, November 10, 2007

Trip Report: Barcelona, Part 1: The Sights

To recap: This was ostensibly a business trip for me, KT. The meeting was 3.5 days. I was there for 10. Heh. Also: It was September. I don't recommend trying to write about trips 6 weeks after they happened.

We had no idea we'd be in Barcelona during La Mercè, a many-day festival that honors the patron saint of Barcelona (or something). I flew in from Lisbon, AW flew in from DC, and RT flew in from Germany. After a couple hours of catching up and an additional hour of napping, we thought we'd head out and find some dinner, and maybe see if we could find the source of the merriment we could dimly hear from our apartment. Two blocks from our apartment, we came to this:

Starting Procession of La Merce from dceditors on Vimeo.

The giant puppets make multiple appearances throughout La Mercè, and move by a single person stepping inside it and lifting the entire structure up on their shoulders. We stayed and watched fire dancers and more puppets dancing, and it all ended with fireworks being shot off the top of city hall. Fun!

Throughout the following four days we encountered several parades, and stumbled onto plazas with huge stages with music and dancing, and we came across the occasional arts and crafts festival. It was incredible! I later talked to an acquaintance who used to live there, and he says we definitely got to see Barcelona at it's most vibrant. I am in general opposed to crowds, but Barcelona can handle it.

If you're not there during such merriment, you will still have plenty to do. Perhaps the most striking thing about Barcelona is the architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Well, actually it's the architecture in general -- Barcelona put some serious effort into making its city streets ooze with Catalan culture. Gaudí designed buildings that stand out, like Casa Batlló, for example. His buildings were built around the turn of the century during the Modernisme movement, an Art Nouveau variant. We toured this house, and it was incredible! Lots more pictures in my photo album.

Another major site is Parc Guell, famous for its mosaic benches and, well, tiled mosaic everything. It's a ways out of the main downtown area, but it's a pretty park. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon here, finding some shade and chatting for a good long while, while a Cuban man lazily playing the trumpet provided the background music.

Gaudí's most famous building is surely Sagrada Familia. It's tough to know where to start to explain Sagrada Familia. Here's a good, still brief, description of the history and construction of Sagrada Familia. Even more briefly, though, Gaudi took over construction in 1883 on the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia -- the sacred family. It ultimately became his life's work and indeed his obsession for the last years of his life. There are some parts of it that are truly phenomenal and others that make you wonder if he was a little off his rocker. Construction continues today, and the architects say that it will be completed in 25 years. I think that's optimistic. Gaudi also didn't have blueprints and was making it up as he went along, so there are some parts of it that are extrapolated or inferred by contemporary artists and architects. The Passion Facade was completed in the late 1980s -- its angular figures often seen as controversial. It was an incredible site. Pay the extra money for a guided tour, and allow plenty of time to study the building's intricacies.

Besides Sagrada Familia, there is Barcelona's actual Cathedral, the one that's been there for, oh, 700 or so (and it's been the site of a church since 343 A.D.), and it's breathtaking in its own right. Literally. Right when we walked in, I had to step aside and catch my breath. Perhaps the presence of Catholic saints or something, but it was also for its beauty. Worth a visit, for sure.

After A's parents arrived, we took a day trip up to Montserrat, or the "serrated mountain." It's a couple of hours by multiple trains to get there, but the views were breathtaking. Thankfully, we were there on a gorgeous day. Montserrat has been the site of a monastery since at least the 9th century, and it still is home to Benedictine monks. The basilica is gorgeous, and it houses La Moreneta -- the dark maiden. The legend is that it was brought to Montserrat in AD 50 by St. Peter, but carbon dating suggests it was made in the 12th century.

Toward the end of our stay (my and R's stay, anyway; A and her parents stayed for an extra week), us three ladies had an evening out at Palau Musica Catalana, where we saw Spanish guitarrist Manuel Gonzalez. The concert hall itself is gorgeous. It was completed in 1908, during the height of the Modernisme movement. It's perhaps most famous for its incredible stained glass dome. It was an incredible concert in incredible surroundings, and really made us feel like we lived and breathed Barcelona.

(The video is really tiny because there's not much to see; it's more of a listening clip.)

The truth is, though, we didn't even come close to seeing everything. We never made it to the beach, never saw the Olympic village, didn't go to any museums (including the Picasso Museum or the National Art Museum (MNAC), which supposedly houses the world's largest collection of Romanesque art), didn't go into the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar despite walking by it a dozen times, and didn't go to Parc de la Ciutadella. So, there's plenty to see when we go back, and I can't wait to go back.

Some brief trip notes: We got our bearings -- and indeed, just got around -- on the sightseeing bus. I highly recommend this. Also, the main language is Catalan, not Spanish. That was somewhat of a surprise when I learned that 5 weeks into my 10 week Spanish refresher course. (Aside: I just got a certificate in the mail. Apparently I have Grade 6 proficiency in Spanish. I beg to differ -- I'm sure it's worse. Evidence: the time I asked for 3 extra knives -- instead of spoons -- to share my gazpacho.) However, knowing some Spanish was definitely handy.

Since we were going to be there for so long, we rented an apartment. No, it wasn't perfect, and when you furnish an entire apartment from Ikea, there's bound to be some (or many) broken things. But it was overall fantastic, I'm sure saved us money in the long run over a hotel, and the location couldn't have been more perfect. Also, my south Europe counterpart for work lives in Barcelona, and a friend of A's lived there for 4 years, so we came armed with insane amounts of advice. That was a big help, too. At the same time, there is so much to do and see in Barcelona that you really can't go wrong. I will suggest, though, that you walk Las Ramblas once to say you did, use it to get to La Boqueria, but don't bother hanging around there anymore than that. Off the beaten path -- even one block off Las Ramblas -- and you get a far better experience than the crowds and tourist traps.

Wondering why there's no food mentioned here? That, my friends, is a post of its own. Stay tuned.

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