Drinking Up Barcelona

In the Plaza Real near our apartment, next to one of Gaudi's lampposts.

My elementary-level Spanish, packed away for four months since we left Argentina, re-emerged when we landed in Barcelona and I asked the cab driver, “Puede usted llevarnos a esta direccion?” (Can you take us to this address?) I caught enough in his rapid reply to understand that he could take us close, but then we’d have to walk part of the way because our street is so narrow that it’s closed to cars. Once again we found ourselves grateful to be traveling light enough to carry everything on our backs, with just one heavy rolling suitcase that functions as a mobile office.

About 15 minutes later the cab pulled over to the curb along Las Ramblas — the pedestrian boulevard bordering the Gothic Quarter (in Catalan, Barri Gòtic), famous for street vendors and sidewalk performers — and the driver gestured past Plaza Real (or Plaça Reial). As we walked to find our new home for the next ten days, we paused to gaze at the vibrant 19th-century public square that would serve as our extended front porch. The square is formed by apartment buildings with arcades on the ground floor that house a string of open-air cafes, where multitudes stroll by or sit and drink red wine at midday while musicians perform, artists sketch and philatelists swap stamps. I hear snippets of every Romantic language and know just enough Castilian Spanish and French to decipher the hybrid that is Catalan, which the signs are written in. At least a dozen palm trees fill the plaza and surround an elaborate black fountain flanked by Gaudí’s outlandish lampposts — my first glimpse at Gaudí’s intoxicating, Seussical style. Balconies above are fronted by intricate wrought-iron railings and greenery, and wooden shutters frame the windows. We’re living here?! I thought, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming to Morgan, “I love it, I love it!”

We found our apartment on one of the narrow cobblestone streets leading off the plaza, which like so many streets in the maze-like Barri Gòtic curves and confusingly intersects with other one-lane thoroughfares. Our apartment reminds me of a San Francisco flat since it has a narrow hallway and tiny kitchen with bedrooms to one side, and elaborate detailing carved into its doors and windows. It occupies a corner where the first-floor businesses are a natural foods deli, a rotisserie chicken grill, a pizza parlor and a sex shop.We’re just one floor up, so we can stand on the balcony and watch pedestrians stream past and hear the bar hoppers throughout the night. It’s noisy — as I write this at 6 a.m., a drunk is screaming in Italian outside — but we use earplugs and mostly like the festive buzz, which quiets down only from about 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The view of our street, Calle Vidre, from our apartment in the Barri Gotic.

We have been here more than a week already and it’s hard to say where the time went. I have done nothing particularly productive or quantifiable other than homeschool the kids for several hours here and there, and run. The other hours are a blur of walking, sightseeing, reading, eating and drinking, and I keep losing track of the time and day. The light in the Barri Gòtic looks crepuscular for much of the morning as well as the afternoon since the sunlight penetrates the shadowy thoroughfares only at midday.

Thankfully, running in the morning reorients my senses; while the kids and Morgan sleep late, I leave the apartment bleary-eyed and head up to Mountjuic, a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean and the city. The run winds through botanical gardens, around a 16th-century castle, past a hillside of utilitarian-looking stacked crypts (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “self-storage unit”), and then around the 1992 Olympic stadium.

When I reach the castle at that early hour, I encounter just one security guard and perhaps another runner or two, and as I cross the drawbridge over the moat and gaze over the ramparts to the panoramic views below, I’m awed and haunted by the history underfoot. It’s not a very pretty castle; it’s intimidating and spooky. It served as a fort and prison for ruthless rulers over the centuries, most recently in the late 1930s when 173 people, including Catalonia’s president, were executed by firing squad during the Spanish Civil War. It helps me understand why Barcelona fiercely promotes its Catalonian identity and language, since it was repressed as recently as the 1970s.

Inside Castell de Montjuic ...

... and the view of Barcelona below, with La Sagrada Familia's tall spires showing in the center.

Before I return to the apartment, I stop and buy croissants and baguette from a panaderia, which we’ll munch on throughout the day. We’ve been sleeping at odd hours and grazing food more than having regular meals. I’m finding it nearly impossible to eat and drink moderately in the midst of this nocturnal, pedestrian-oriented cafe and bar culture. Tapas (small plates of food meant to be shared) and pinchos (hors d’oeuvre-size portions on a stick) dominate the menus and make every meal seem like happy hour, when you want “just one more.” Copious amounts of wine and beer flow, and since virtually everyone gets around by walking, taking the metro or riding one of the free bicycles available around town, people can drink without worry of a DUI.

(Tip if you visit here: Restaurants around Las Ramblas and Plaza Real on the whole are mediocre; head up to the Eixample district for the best bite. Of all the tapas bars we tried, Cuidad Condal — also spelled Ciutat Comtal — was the best, followed by Taller de Tapas).

Morgan's brother, Randy, showed up and enjoyed strolling the streets with us. This is on Calle Ferran, one of the main thoroughfares in the Barri Gotic.

The scenes outside our window and throughout the city, coupled with this apartment lifestyle, combine to strike a tonic chord in Morgan and me that makes us feel like we’re in college again. Flashbacks to our lives from when we were half our age intensified when our back-to-back visitors arrived: First Morgan’s brother, Randy, came for a visit while in Europe on business, which was 24 hours of fun; and now our lifelong friend from college, Cheryl, is living with us for the week. Thank goodness the kids are here to keep me behaving, otherwise I might be tempted to light up and wear as much eyeliner as I did during my late-’80s goth phase.

Hangin' with Cheryl on a hike up Montjuic. Everywhere we go around Barcelona, we encounter interesting public art, like this sculpture in the background.

Silliness aside, there’s something about this city that makes me feel more intellectual and impassioned, more yin than yang, than I’ve felt anywhere else on this trip, which finally leads me to Gaudí. I can’t write about Barcelona without writing about Catalonia’s hero and most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí, but I hesitate because words fail me when I try to describe the experience of visiting his seminal works, especially La Sagrada Família.

La Sagrada Familia's Nativity Facade

One detail out of hundreds on the facade.

La Sagrada Família left me awestruck by the audacity of his vision — that one person can think so big, and have so much faith in God and confidence in himself, to embark on a radical project so grand in scale that it would take much longer than his lifetime to complete. He started it 128 years ago, and today, dozens of masons and carpenters are still busy at work in its center, determined to fulfill his vision. We gaped at the figures and symbols on the Nativity and Passion façades and towers — the longer you look, the more you see — and I started to feel a bit dizzy after staring at the details that all curve and blend asymmetrically like melted wax on candlesticks. Inspired by nature as much as by Christianity (because, of course, he saw the two as inseparable), Gaudí created columns that branch out like trees and weave together in a fantastic stone canopy — but like a brilliant Jesus freak on LSD, he also saw intricate, spiraling patterns in all living things, as perfect yet as wild as a collection of overlapping spirograph drawings, so he pulled the patterns of hyperbolic paraboloids and twisting ellipsoids and other trippy shapes out of thin air and sculpted them into this ever-growing monument, which is supposed to be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death. Gaudí died by accident, hit by a tram, and ten years later the church was trashed and his workshop was destroyed during the Civil War. When I see how the construction bounced back and carries on, I also view La Sagrada Família as a testament to the resiliency and good inherent in the human spirit.

A look at the interior of La Sagrada Familia ...

... which has been a busy construction zone for more than a century.

I’m astounded by the originality and diversity of Gaudí’s works, as Morgan’s photos from Park Guell and Gaudí’s apartment show better than I can describe:

Colly, resting on one of the swaths of mosaic-covered benches at Park Guell, studies Gaudi's spire and the city below.

And here's part of Park Guell from the front, set against perfect spring weather.

Gaudi's curves and ironwork are on display on this apartment building. I think the man was a genius.

I’ve focused perhaps too much on Gaudí when this city has so much to offer; we love its shopping boulevards, its museums (Picasso and Dali are right around the corner), its redeveloped waterfront, and mostly its unique identity and cross-cultural style.

The kids loved our day at the beach area known as Barceloneta, not far from Barri Gotic yet as different as day and night.

We leave tomorrow to drive up to the Costa Brava town of Begur for six days before heading to Rome, and I think I need the breather of a small coastal town before Rome bowls me over!

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