Friday, November 25, 2011


Las Ramblas, a tree lined, open air mall, crowded with both locals and tourists was the center of our stay in Barcelona. Our apartment overlooked a small street just off Las Ramblas, where sounds of singing, (off tune) happy (at least usually), slightly inebriated (or greatly inebriated) people could be heard…at all hours of the night. During the day our street was quiet, peaceful, and tranquil, though I must admit we weren’t there much during the day.
Most of the apartments had the tiny balconies overlooking the streets, some balconies large enough for chairs and tables, others filled with plants, bikes, or toys. On the main squares and the Rambla, people would sit out and watch the crowds down below. Ours, sadly, was one of the few without a balcony in front. We did have a bit of one in the back but it overlooked clothes lines – not particularly exciting.

Sagrada Familia

We took off the first morning to visit what is probably the most famous basilicas in the entire country – at least in Barcelona anyway. It was designed by a local architect, Antoni Gaudi and although the building of it was started in 1882, it has already taken over 100 years to build – and it is still NOT finished! Not only is it still under construction, they are also cleaning and refurbishing the original work because it is, well, old.  It is totally unique with Gothic and “Art Nouveau” blended around the building. Hmmm…perhaps blended is not the best word. 
Actually, each side is built in a totally different style and you can see bits and pieces of each style everywhere you look. The colored organic looking bulb actually has windows built into it to allow light into the nave down below.
The Nativity Façade is very Gothic with extremely ornate, naturalistic style, incorporating many different animals, plants, as well as people, with great detail showing the birth of Jesus. As Gaudi envisioned it, each figure has some importance; chameleons as a symbol of change while the two tortoises (or are they turtles?) represent the land and the sea as well as the permeability of stone (now, if the book didn’t tell me that, I would have never guessed). They are, however, intricately carved, have incredible detail and probably the portion of the exterior of the church that has the greatest Gaudi influence (he, of course, did not live to see the building built).
The Passion Façade, by contrast, is austere, simple and harsh in a modernistic Art Nouveau style. The figures are squared off and sparse and angular with few details to support the dramatic effect. It is a complete contrast to the ornate, detailed side next to it. It was actually constructed by Josep Subirachs, following the designs left by Gaudi and is supposed to strike fear into the local people. k
The final side, called the Glory Façade, will eventually be the main entrance to the basilica. It is still under construction and totally behind tall columns of plastic and steel so I have no idea what that will look like.
The interior of the church is totally unique, representing, again, naturalistic elements. The supporting columns branch out like trees with overhanging and drooping leaves descending from the ceiling. Numerous open areas allow light to filter in and while there are stained glass windows, many are just clear, open spaces with full light (although the fruity pieces on top allow some colored light in).  While this style is less detailed that the gothic presentation outside, it still includes elaborate curves, abstract shapes and intricate details worked into the iron railings and walls.
Gaudi’s influence is seen across Barcelona, and out across Catalanya (the north eastern portion of Spain, in odd buildings here and there, a rooftop, a corner in a park. This particular honeycomb design can be found in random walkways and across buildings. I really like the way it fits together and continues growing – very organic.

Around Barcelona

Pista de Botxes
We happened to come across a rather large group of people playing this particular bowling type game. It was amazing to see the intense concentration! It must have been a tournament of some sort – some people in the center were keeping scores and there was a cheering crowd around them. This particular group was primarily older people and the skill was nothing short of incredible – this coming from someone who knows nothing about the game. Apparently you want to throw the ball (looks like it’s metal of some sort and around 4 inches across or so) so that it lands as close as possible to a tiny colored ball placed at the far end of the marked alley. We saw some people knock that tiny ball right out of its place and then throw the next two balls to hit it again and again. Have no idea exactly what was going on but…they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. If you look closely at the picture, the people are intently looking at the balls, and in the center there is a tiny red ball…

Montjuic Castle

Our next stop was the skyway (of course, all skyways must be tried out) up to the Montjuic Castle, perched on top of the hill, with “breathtaking views” of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. That was the pitch but obviously was meant for a clear day. We did have a fairly good view of the city and certainly tremendous views of stormy skies.
One of the most outstanding features on the skyline is the Sagrada Familia. Even though we were a few miles away from it, it towers above the rest of the city (most buildings are 5 or 6 stories tall to give you an idea of how tall this basilica really is).


I think that the heavens thought that we were out of practice with walking around in the rain so they again sent us rain to practice getting wet. We had decided to take a trip up to see Girona and, more importantly, Dali’s Museum (stay tuned…that will be coming). Since not all buses can arrive at the museum at the same time, they entertained us by taking us to the small, old town of Girona.
Girona has the distinction of having a very interesting old town, making it a great tourist spot if you want to check out old buildings, winding streets, and unique customs. It’s also known as a great cycling area and frequently used for training during the non-rainy months. The river is large and winds through the town. Along it are some extremely colorful houses perched right on, or over, the river. I wish the colors had come out better in the rain but…alas…
As in all old Hispanic towns, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals dominate the skyline. Here is but one of them we roamed by – I think there were about 5 just along the River Onyu. The anguished looking lion was perched nearby with a tale to tell…”Kiss my derriere and you’ll return to Girona one fine day!”  It used to be you had to scramble up the pole to do it but now they have provided a small ladder…and many people did it! We also found a very unique way to advertise…apparently the letters in the laundry hanging out is a company in the area – and this is one way to keep their name in your mind. Not sure what the company sells…possibly laundry detergent or clotheslines? 

Dali's Museum

Catalonia celebrates a number of unique artists. Salvador Dali was born in Figueres, Spain, a spot conveniently close to Barcelona and the location of his museum.
If you want to travel to a totally unique, unusual, uncommon, bizarre, eccentric, or peculiar museum, this is it. From the eggs to the king, everything about this place shouts. I have always liked certain surrealistic paintings or pictures and Dali’s Persistence of Memory (the melting watches) is one of them.  Not being a person who keeps up with the art world, I was expecting surreal but not quite what we found at the museum. 
It starts with what is probably the largest surrealistic object in the world – the museum itself. The building was originally the town of Figuere’s theatre but was bombed during the Spanish Civil War and was left in ruins until Dali decided to purchase and rebuild it to house his collections. It houses hundreds of works including sculptures, mechanical devises, custom furniture, 3D collages and other curious objects from Dali’s imagination. The effect is…well…bizarre. 

Park Guell

The next day we found blue skies and quickly decided it was the perfect day to head for Park Guell – a park designed by Gaudi (the same one who did the Sagrada Familia). It was originally supposed to be a housing development for the wealthy but they didn’t come so it eventually became a park. It actually has the looks of a great Disneyland – the buildings are so fanciful you expect children to be everywhere…and they are.
The designs here are every bit as unique – twisting rock pillars that seem to be like tree trunks, ornate dragon guarding the steps, terraced areas with views of Barcelona City and wonderful multi-coloured tiled mosaic seats (made from what looked to be broken dishes). It’s really an amazing display. The retaining wall behind Jeff has many convoluted shapes and is made up of tiny rocks, more ceramics and holds up another terrace and walkway.
At one time Gaudi lived in a house in the middle of the park. It now houses a museum filled with interesting furniture that Gaudi designed. 

Intermission provided by Living Statues

We have been amazed by the sheer number of living statues we have seen as we’ve traveled around Europe. We have found classic statue – that you didn’t even realize were anything BUT a real statue out of stone. We have seen couples, dragons, mummies, workers, gladiators…the imagination of these people are endless. It’s unbelievable how long they can hold a pose without cracking a smile, moving, or even seeming to blink! Las Ramblas, the main tourist street section of Barcelona has many of them each day. I must admit, however, I think I found the ultimate one during this trip to Barcelona. How in the world he managed this sitting position…I just can’t imagine. 

More Sunny Rambling on Las Ramblas

The gorgeous day kept us out roam, back up Las Ramblas and into some of the surrounding areas. As always, we read historical fiction books from the areas we travel to – this time a couple of different old Spanish novels. One of the mentioned a particular church called La Iglesia de Santa Maria del Mar. We found it on the map so set off to find it. Apparently it wasn’t in the same location that it was when the book was written. Actually, it’s in the same place but the stuff around it has changed. We had expected to find it located next to the water – it isn’t. The land has been rising very slowly and, we suspect, they done some land building themselves so…the church is now set back by quite a few blocks from the ocean. The buildings have also built up around the church – in fact rather than being free standing, there are now buildings that butt up against it. It’s quite amazing to see things they wrote about and how the land has changed in a hundred years.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arch de Triomf

I just bet that if I say I saw the Arch de Triumph, you’d immediately think Paris. I was stunned when they said that there was one here in Barcelona. It was built for the Universal Exposition, held in Barcelona in 1888. It is located at the end of a very wide promenade, designed, of course, for the exposition, and was the main gateway and entrance. The arch is decorated with many different stone carvings and ornate motifs, including the Spanish coat of arms.
The Arch is found at the Parc de la Ciutadella – a huge park with some interesting things found all together. There’s a science museum, and a zoo (oops...we skipped this one, odd), the government parliament building (in a park?), as well as probably the most exotic fountain I’ve ever seen. It was huge, had about 4 tiers and seemed to have been made by people from 4 different eras and 10 different countries. It was, of course, built with the assistance of Gaudi. He was but a student at the time, however, his unique perception was apparent even then.
First there is the influence of Rome’s Trevi Fountain with the winged horses taking flight out of the waters. They are taking wing here too, though this time trying to escape the green moss that has taken over the fountain. Above, we have the birth of Venus, though in this rendition she’s clothed with more than just her hair. Strange because I don't think any of the other beauties were clothed. Surrounding the pool are Griffith type animals, spouting water into the pools. Atop the structure is a golden chariot, pulled by several horses – Ben Hur? Standing on the side, Poseidon stands with his trident, keeping an eye on everything…or is he getting ready to enter the fray? Whatever it might be, it is a sight not to be missed – nor forgotten. ­­
We decided afterwards to take a short walk, checking out shops and the beach and whatever else might be along the way. It quickly became apparent that what was on the path was the railroad yards. We were trying to get to the beach but that, of course, was on the far side of the railroad – which meant we needed a bridge. That short walk turned into a much longer one through some interesting vistas before we made it across and down the beach. 
Beaches here are quite interesting, even though it was cooling off and not play in the water weather. The surfers, of course, were out – nothing seems to keep them out of the water. We found sandcastle builders, a few die-hard sun bathers, a nude man roaming around, and the vistas of various, interesting buildings. All of this was really quite close to our apartment…if you skipped the shortcut. 

Spanish Wineries...of course

No trip to wine country is complete without a trip to the wineries. Catalunya is apparently a prominent wine producing area with some very old vines. We got to visit 3 different places that were totally different. Bodega Jean Leon was a very small winery with much of its work done my hand. Apparently he was an emigrant who made his fortune in Beverly Hills with his restaurant, La Scala. Lots of very famous people ate there -the menu on the wall showed meals for $5.00 – a trifle now but a fortune in the 1960’s but probably $100 for a meal now! Our next stop was Miguel Torres Winery, a larger winery with an extensive operation. They took us on a tour in a car complete with headphones in our own language. The highlight of the trip was set up like a Disneyland ride…the music playing, the lights low, the doors slowly opening on their own…a crescendo…a crash of cymbals…and the story of the winery began. Not quite the effect Disney has but…they get an A for effort.

The final winery produces a very fine “sparkling wine” called cava. Apparently France decided no one can have anything called champagne unless it comes for the champagne region from France, hence the different names we now see (and the higher price tags for champagne). I used to think sparkling wine was something inferior but really…it’s just champagne under an alias. You do have to check out the cool car. It is their famous sparkling wine… “Cordon Negro”…must cause quite a stir when they drive it around.

Monserat Mountain

We took off the following day with gorgeous blue skies for Monserrat Mountain, probably what is Catalonia’s most famous mountain range. It looks like the toothed blade of a saw and does explain its name…Montserrat means “jagged mountain”. At the top of the range is a famous monastery. This monastery has a couple of claims to fame. First it is the home of the Mare de Deu de Montserrat, better known as La Morenet or the little dark-skinned one. The wooden carved statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus has turned a darker color over the years, giving her the name of the Black Madonna. Actually, what nature started to do to the varnish that was used, the locals have “enhanced”. It was explained that she now has had some touching up to keep her skin looking beautiful…and dark. Despite the assistance, she is apparently quite famous and there are long lines of people weaving through the church to get a glimpse of her. 

The monastery is also the home of one of the oldest children’s choir. They run a special school where the boys study regular subjects as well as music, learning 2 musical instruments as well as singing. They only take boys between the ages of 8 to about 11 (when their voice changes) and the choir is well known in this region. We had the opportunity to hear a few songs in a special performance just for the tourists. The most outstanding and amazing thing was that the priest who welcomed us. He shared with us information about the boys and the church - and he said it in 6 different languages! 

San Joan Funicular

We took the Funicular de Sant Joan up to the very top of the mountain, of course. The views were astounding. The clouds had completely disappeared and we had an uninterrupted view of the surrounding area. 
We hiked up to the ruins of a hermitage even further up the top of the hill – there’s even an old cistern up there, still with sweet smelling water (didn’t taste it but…it did still smell ok). This was a place where you could have stayed for a week, or two, and never hiked the same trail twice. We had been warned by the driver about the extent of the trails and cautioned not to stray too far…the bus would leave with, or without us. We looked at a sign at the top of the hill that pointed back to the monastery…by going to opposite direction. Well…we figured it was just a “go over the crest of the small hill and turn back”…it wasn’t…we hiked, downhill. I worried. We hiked. I worried some more. 
We hiked. After about 15 min. of straight down hill, we FINALLY reached a sign that allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. Not only did the sign say the monastery was only 30 minutes away, it pointed the right direction and the road turned. Whew! The views approaching the mountain was again spectacular. We’d love to come stay here for a while and check it out!