The Substance and the Shell

Since it’s at the top of the Barcelona tourist’s ticklist, most people assume that the Sagrada Familia is the city’s cathedral yet clearly this would be absurd.  Barcelona’s history reaches back for two millennia.  The Sagrada, still unfinished, has been a feature of the city for only a fraction of this.

Local legend tells the tale of a young girl, Eulalia, martyred by the Romans in the early 4th Century for refusing to recant her Christian faith.  Given that her short life seems to have overlapped with the rein of the Emperor Diocletian her fate is quite plausible.  Many external religions were assimilated into the Roman pantheon.  In Bath the goddess of the thermal springs was Sulis, who was upgraded to Sulis Minerva by the Romans, thereby ensuring that any sacrifices and offerings were made to a deity who would favour Rome and prolong the empire’s dominance.  Christians were different and eschewed sacrifice so they were seen as a threat that could dilute the power of the official religions.

Which is why a 13-year-old virgin who stubbornly refused to bend to the edicts of the Tetrarchs was subject to a range of tortures (one for each year of her life) that culminated in her decapitation. That number 13 is commemorated in an unusual way (see below), making the cathedral an unattractive place for triskaedekaphobics!  Her body lies in the crypt beneath the altar of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, the true seat of Barcelona’s archbishop.  Construction of the church began in the thirteenth century, though most of the work was undertaken in the 14th.

I say most of the work, for although it was built concurrently with the rise of the Gothic style of architecture, the Catalan tradition was for plainer, featureless exteriors.   Internally it works though here you will also find a Gothic masterpiece; the choir stalls.  These intricately carved benches scream for attention with their multicoloured decoration.  They bear the coats of arms of the knights who made up the Catholic order of chivalry known as The Order of the Golden Fleece.

_pw_1404I wish I’d known more about the cathedral prior to my visit, for I would then have allowed more time to explore and include the cloister that is home to a group of 13 white geese, the Chapel of Lepanto (though I was then more ignorant of this historic naval battle), and the fountain where a strange ritual called the “Dancing Egg” takes place each year at the feast of Corpus Christi.  The process, which involves “balancing” an egg atop a jet of water is now undertaken at fountains around the region, but is thought to have begun in the cathedral centuries ago.  There’s a little trickery involved; to give the egg the necessary stability its contents are blown out and the hole plugged with wax thus changing the centre of gravity.

Fittingly the illusion has parallels with the building where it originated.

Barcelona’s cathedral is at the heart of the city’s Gothic Quarter, and it’s quite the centrepiece, for that plain building now wears a different skin.  Just as work was beginning on the construction of the Sagrada in the late 19th century, so a new façade was built over the cathedral exterior, at a time when the Neo-Gothic style had fully matured._pw_1460

It fits right in._pw_1418-edit

Worth Doing Güell (SOS)

_PW_1830Situated much further out from the city that the other Gaudí sites that I’ve written about, Parc Güell seemed no less popular, based on my inability to get a shot of the famous mosaic salamander without someone draping themselves over it for their holiday album.

To be fair, I like to try to find a different way of shooting iconic locations so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it but perhaps the vandals who damaged it with an iron bar in 2007 didn’t feel the same.

The park was originally intended as a housing development mooted by the entrepreneur Count Eusebio Güell and inspired by the English Garden City Movement.  Perhaps he should have waited to see how the English took to the concept; only two such cities were built (Letchworth & Welwyn).  At Parc Güell only two houses were built, in addition to the existing country house home of the Count, and neither  was designed by Gaudí.  He did move into one of them and that has now become a museum populated with his works and those of his collaborators.  (Entry is not included with the park ticket unfortunately)

Still there is much in the park to enjoy, on a larger scale than the details he has crafted elsewhere, and additionally the garden setting permits the comparison between his work and the natural features that he sought to incorporate.

The main terrace, called The Greek Theatre by some and The Nature Square by others, was intended for public performances and is surrounded by a serpentine bench that provides plenty of seating and yet a modicum of privacy at the same time by creating small booth-like recesses.  Naturally this evolved into a public park when the project failed, though in doing so it became difficult to control the numbers onsite and thereby ensure the protection of the structures.  It was the intervention of the authorities to make the park open only to those willing to pay for entry that led to the act of vandalism.  Whilst the frustration is understandable, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and charging the many international visitors for the privilege is a logical way to fund its preservation.

_PW_1550Many of those features have been photographed from every angle, so the challenge of finding something new is considerable.  Visiting early allowed me some different lighting options, but even so the features are immediately recognisable.

So where to find something photogenic but with a hint of originality?  In the place that most of the tourists overlook.  The two lodges that stand on either side of the main entrance function as gift shop and a venue to display photographs and information on the history of the park.  In each case most people are distracted by the contents, or the opportunity to lean out of windows and be photographed by friends or family.  They miss the curving lines of plasterwork and window frame in their rush to see the park, and thus presented me with my opportunity…


House of Bones (SOS)

_PW_1317In the same way as Casa Milà is better known as Le Pedrera (The Quarry), so Casa Batlló, another Gaudí masterpiece, has a number of alternative names in the local population.  Some refer to it as the Dragon House, referring to the scaly ceramic roof tiles and suggesting that the Gaudí cross and turret to the left represent the lance of St George.

Others, looking at the rounded shapes of the main windows are reminded of a fully open mouth and have called the building “The House of Yawns”.  Understandable, but entirely inappropriate for such an innovative and exciting structure.

The supporting pillars that are best examined through those yawning apertures have an organic flow similar to a femur expanding at the knee-joint when seen from below.  Closer examination shows that the influence is actually floral, but “House of Bones” is another name that has stuck.

Even the name Batlló creates variations as ignorant visitors like me struggle to imagine how the tongue should tackle it.  In fact the pronunciation is very easy when you know how, but for the non-Catalans you can listen to it here.

Between the bones and dragon scales there is another feature that adorns the exterior.  A band of coloured ceramics in Gaudí’s signature trencadis that create an effect similar to a Monet painting, and there is more of this technique deployed in a multitude of ways to different effect throughout the building.

So striking is the exterior that it overshadows the adjoining Casa Amattler which is
another masterpiece of Catalan modernism, and I wonder how _PW_9987many of the thousands of tourists who gaze upwards in wonderment outside Battló each day ever take time to consider its neighbour.  Instead they throng with selfie sticks and struggle to render the masterpiece as background to their latest timeline addition before moving onto the next photo opportunity.  If they’re really smart though they’ll take the time to venture inside.

When I was young I read Roger Dean’s Views, the book in which the celebrated artist behind so many prog rock album covers explained some of his techniques and inspiration. (One Yes album famously features a series of clouds which were incorporated to camouflage the impact of one of his cats traversing his canvas).  The final chapter of that book fascinated me the most however.  Here Dean explained his plans to create a house for him and his family that was constructed from the same organic shapes that populated his imagery.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Until I stepped inside Casa Battló.

The tour guides tell you that it’s a house without straight lines, and though this is patently untrue you can understand why they share that view.  Walls bulge, staircases meander, glass bends light to distort the views beyond.  It’s a remarkable feat of design, but one that shows a great deal of insight too.

The central light well is sheathed in blue ceramics, but blues that change in hue to become brighter and more reflective on the lower levels where light is needed, and more absorbent to cut glare nearer the sky.

The loft space, composed of Gaudí’s much-loved catenary arches, was designed to house the laundry facilities for the tenants of the apartments within, and despite it’s functionality has a tranquil beauty derived from the softness of the curves and the diffused light which creeps in through gaps in the walls without ever being harsh and direct.

Similarly a pair of pillars stand by the doorway to the roof terrace whose function is to break up the light rather than support the roof,  a charming fireplace for intimate conversation features a single seat on one side and a double to the other – providing space for a chaperone.  Nothing in a Gaudí building should ever be taken at face value!_PW_1210

Gaudí’s genius shows its different facets in different projects; the Sagrada is audacious, Le Pedrera is practical, Parc Guell is capricious.  The joy of Battló is that here you get it all in single dose.  Even if you’re only in Barcelona briefly its a must.




What did the Romans…. (SOS)

… ever do for Catalonia?

Earlier in my posts about Barcelona I mentioned that the development of the city really began with the arrival of the Romans who developed a great port here and laid the foundations for the prosperous metropolis that was to spread inland.  So is this a city with Roman sites to rival those of Italy?  Well no.  It doesn’t come close as far as I could see on my visit.

In most conurbations the medieval city might be a good place to find evidence of Roman structures that had been developed and built upon, or perhaps incorporated into the city walls, yet in Barcelona this didn’t seem to be the case.  Now I’m no Mary Beard, so might well have overlooked some vital evidence, but in the Gothic Quarter there is medieval design aplenty but very little that pre-dates this.  I suspect Medieval Catalonians may well have been recycling enthusiasts.

In Plaça Nova, not far from the Cathedral lay a stretch of Roman masonry which was my first discovery.  Perhaps “stretch” is stretching a point.  There’s a single arch, though view it from the other side and you can see two.  Any Monty Python aficionado should recognise its purpose; the famous exchange from Life of Brian that answers the question “What have Romans given us?” results in a long list of achievements.  A list that begins with “an aqueduct”.  For those of us who take clean drinking water and sanitation for granted this might not seem much, but it’s transformative power made being part of the empire a more attractive option than simple subjugation._PW_1390

Behind the cathedral I found my second structure.  Along the narrow alleyway of Calle Paradis and down a few well-worn steps I found the Temple of Augustus; the very heart of the Roman City.  This structure wasn’t only dedicated to Rome’s first true emperor who had been elevated to the status of god, it was also the site of the Forum in the city so would have been impressive and imposing, and in a limited sort of way it still is.  Only a podium and four tall columns in the Corinthian style remain, but finding them “indoors” was quite a surprise.  The rest of the temple has gone and its surrounding gardens incorporated into the cathedral complex.

Reg:          All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

Xerxes:     Brought peace!

The Romans may have done a lot, but over the centuries it seems that their beneficiaries were less than grateful._PW_1405

Redemption (SOS)

Christians believe that Jesus redeemed the world from sin by sacrificing himself for the sake of all humanity, and yes before I get picked apart by theologians I know that’s a simplistic explanation!  Nevertheless the message of redemption is an important one – the largest Christian statue in the world is called Christ the Redeemer after all.

Anyway, before I get to drawn into a debate with those of faith let me get on with this post, which is about redemption.

In my earlier post, Sagrilege, I expressed my reservations about Gaudí’s great cathedral the Sagrada Familia, based upon the disparity of styles on the two visible facades and the sheer excess of the decoration.  Could the interior provide redemption?

Most people are familiar with the Sagrada’s exterior; it has been a feature of the Barcelona skyline for over a century, but the interior is less well-known.  It was only in the last few years that the scaffolding and builders were withdrawn, allowing the Pope to consecrate the building as a basilica as recently as 2010.  Naturally in the intervening years there have been millions of visitors so the relative mystery will doubtless be short-lived.

Like the facades, the interior is rich in symbolism, individual pillars and doors each carry different insignia, with different areas of the church given over to different categories.  The four main pillars at the heart of the church for example bear glazed plaques representing each of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plaques that seem to glow in the rich light that pervades the church.  There are images on floors, symbols on capitols, a magic square in the doorway.

All of this is easy to miss when you are overwhelmed by the space within the building, space created by Gaudí’s unique architectural approach.  I referred to columns, but perhaps a better description would be trees, for the way they branch out into formations like spiky leaves it is easy to see Gaudí drawing on nature for inspiration.

But even the architecture is subservient to another feature.  Perhaps I was lucky with the weather conditions on the day, but the whole edifice was awash with light and colour.  White light from higher windows and a circular skylight above the altar, and great blocks of colour created by stained glass, which instead of adopting the tradition of multi-coloured representations, restricted itself to  single colour fields which were far more dramatic.

Did Gaudí redeem himself?

In spades.

sagrada int-4



Torre Impudens (SOS)

I’ve written about the preponderance of Modernist architecture in Barcelona, but how about something even more contemporary?  The city is also home to a number of buildings that can be categorised as High-Tech, but perhaps the term Late Modernism is more appropriate here.

The category seems quite loosely defined; being more about the materials used than a common set of recognisable styles.  The Pompidou Centre in Paris has little in common with London’s St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) to my eye, however Barcelona’s most outstanding (or perhaps I should say upstanding) example does.  Some see Torre Agbar as resembling a cucumber, though it has also been compared to a suppository or maybe a sex toy.

It’s an interesting structure, not only for its appearance, but also for the technology incorporated into its design.  Close examination reveals that the glass “skin” of the building is comprised of louvre windows which are automatically opened and closed by temperature sensors to reduce the need for air-conditioning.


Surprisingly as this is the nation that produced Santiago Calatrava, it was designed by Jean Novel, a French architect.  I found the tower both fascinating and frustrating.  Fascinating in its design, but frustrating photographically.  It’s surface so round and featureless giving me little scope photographically – it looked much the same whichever aspect I chose, but that changed when the sun set.


Another of the tower’s features are the 4500 led devices that are capable of instant colour changes.  The chameleon effect seems to be saved for special occasions, but even when static the tower demands attention in its nocturnal plumage.

It still looks like a sex toy though!



El Puerto (SOS)

I couldn’t blog about Barcelona without mentioning the port; sea trade brought prosperity to many European cities and here the port has been central to city life for two millennia.  Origin stories suggest that the city was either founded by Hercules, or by Hamilcar, the father of the famous Carthaginian military leader Hannibal.  In either event it was the Romans who began to fully develop the area to take advantage of the natural harbour here.

Nowadays the place is bustling with visitors, but to me it seems to lack a clear identity.  Is it a marina, a ferry terminal, a shopping mall or a historical monument?  The answer is that it is all of these in part, but what does that make the whole?

Most of the commercial activity (it is one of Europe’s largest container ports) takes place conveniently out of sight of most visitors, with the ferry terminal dominating the western end of the vista that greets you as you arrive at the end of La Rambla – the main street of the old town.

Here you will also find the Mirador de Colón, the monument to Christopher Columbus.  Here the explorer returned to his Spanish sponsors to report the discovery of America, further reminder of past nautical glories.  Best not mention that Columbus was Italian, or that his statue, intended to point in the direction of the Americas, actually points to Genoa, city of his birth._PW_0168

Around the fringes you will find the converted warehouses that house museums and restaurants, but then on a peninsula jutting into the docks is the commercial heart; an IMAX cinema, the largest aquarium in Europe, and the Mare Magnum shopping centre, which because of it’s tourist destination status is the only mall open on Sundays.

There’s some amazing art too, though I found myself less enthralled by Frank Gehry and Roy Lichtenstein than Spanish artist Andreu Alfaro.  His piece Onades (Waves) dominates the entrance to the ferry buildings and consists of great loops of polished steel.  At first I assumed they were an interpretation of the Olympic rings with a hint of Mickey Mouse ears, but as the work was installed well after that event any comment on the commercialisation of sporting ideals would be misinterpretation on my part._PW_0278_79_80

Standing guard over all of this are the towers of the cable car that ascends to Montjuic and the Olympic Park.  Inconveniently the central tower is no longer an access point, so you must start further along the coast if you want to take that ride.  It’s well worth it though for the panoramic views of the city that it provides.