30 Hours in Barcelona

Our friends Carol and Suzanne inspired us to go together for a short visit to Barcelona. It is, after all, only three hours away by car. We had just bought our new car so we relished taking it out on the road. Some notes:

The drive was 98% very easy. There are good highways through France and Spain all the way to the Barcelona exit which is only a few blocks from our targeted parking garage on the Ramblas. But that last 2% was the adventure. Our exit pushed us right into the thick of a major urban roundabout. The multi-lane roundabout encircles the iconic column holding up Christopher Columbus who is pointing out to sea, presumably to the New World, not just out of traffic. In France, roundabouts are everywhere. We have become enamored of them because for the most part you don’t need to stop to navigate the intersection; traffic generally flows really well. The success of the French roundabouts is that nothing is in the way once you spin around them. You can drive around the circle as many times as you need to find your turnoff. (We have had to do that a few times as we figure out what the GPS is trying to tell us.) However, this busy Barcelona roundabout includes four lines of stop lights at the cardinal points. You pull into the roundabout like in France, although there are about three lanes feeding into approximately four lanes. Then you stop at the first line of lights. At the green light, cars to your left turn across the front of your car to exit right. Cars to your right go straight ahead, at least at first. Everyone speeds in all directions until quickly coming to a stop at the next set of lights a quarter the way around the circle. It took us two rotations, one exit in error, seat-of-the-pants return to the circle, and finally down a road that said Buses Only, until we made it to the garage. I was driving, so was flush with adrenaline by the time we made it; my passengers were pale with terror. I kept thinking, “On our first day out with the new car, I’m going to crash it up in a Barcelona roundabout!”

Mike and I have had the good fortune to have visited Barcelona twice before. I have always loved walking into and through the Plaça Reial, just off the Ramblas (the major pedestrian avenue in the tourist district). It is a lovely formal square plaça, ringed by arcades full of cafés. Part of what makes it so remarkable is that the surrounding district is the medieval part of the city (the gothic quarter), all meandering narrow streets. Then, unexpectedly, you pop into this calm, formal, sunlit urban space. Palm trees and ornate lamp posts populate the open space. While the facades surrounding the plaça are classical, their composition hints at relaxation; on the day of our visit, open tall windows here and there showcased people enjoying the early spring sunshine.

Last year, our friends Sergio and Sandra stayed in a hotel overlooking the plaça, the Hotel Do, which they seemed to like. Fortunately rooms were available and, presumably because this is not high season, reasonably priced. While we knew that the location was perfect, even with TripAdvisor and Booking.com previews, we weren’t prepared for how welcoming and beautifully designy this boutique hotel is. The hotel footprint is tiny. The drum of a circular staircase in the middle leaves a ring of quirky space around it; but every jog and nook is cosy, with a contemporary club feel. A composition of traditional multi-pane glass doors, now filled with mirrors, covers the ceiling. Delicious faceted and mercury light fixtures cascade through the center of the circular stair. The rooms are a bit small as one would expect in an urban hotel, but the ceilings are high, the windows tall and grand, and the bathroom worthy of a spa.

Our first planned stop was the Sagrada Família, the master work designed and executed by Antonio Gaudì. For Mike and me, this place is one of the most wonderful, awe-inspiring, beautiful spaces we have ever been in. We have visited twice already, and were completely happy to make it three. We also were looking forward to being with Carol as she discovered this amazing place for the first time. It turns out that the work of Antonio Gaudì has always been on her bucket list, and we got to share the experience with her. The problem with the Sagrada Familia is that you can’t stop taking photos. Every angle, every detail, every wash of colored light demands to be saved. When you pull back from looking at the building, you see hundreds of other visitors, phones and cameras held out in front of them, filling the cloud with more Sagrada Familia images. Here are few of ours from this visit:

(It was I who had arranged for our tickets. The only catch was that I had bought them for the day before we were actually there. This we discovered in line to get into the basilica. Fortunately we were able to buy new tickets because of the season. The staff were very kind, saying that quite a few people make the same mistake. I think it is early-onset retirement.)

We chose Restaurant Agut for a dinner of Catalan food. Being good Hawaiian tourists, we arrived at 7:30 pm and were the first people in the restaurant. Even by the time we finished a few hours later, the real Barcelona diners were just arriving. We selected tapas-style dishes to start: roasted potatoes with a spicy sauce, catalan bread (toasted, rubbed with raw garlic, spread with fresh tomato, finished with Spanish olive oil), olives, pimientos de padrón (small green peppers, roasted, dressed with salt and olive oil). Our main plates looked modest, but all were well prepared. The small filet mignon was a delicious surprise: simply grilled perfectly, a little salt and pepper. I tried the octopus tentacle, which was exactly and only that, laid out the length of the plate. Of course, some Spanish red wine; OK, a couple bottles of Spanish red wine. Fortunately, our hotel was an easy meandering walk from the restaurant. After dark, the streets of the gothic quarter (where we were) are wonderful: all pedestrian, angled, lots of little shops and restaurants, stone walls and paving, seductive street lighting, just the sounds of people talking and walking about.

We settled into our comfortable hotel rooms. In the early morning, when I got up and headed to the bathroom, I couldn’t make the light switches work. They had looked a bit complex the night before; perhaps there was a master switch somewhere. After feeling around a while, using the iPhone light, no success. I peered through the viewer in the door to see that the lights in the hall were working. A call to the front desk led to the explanation: there were power outages throughout the district. The halls were lit by emergency batteries. So we washed by iPhone light, dressed by early morning light through the tall windows, and headed downstairs to meet Carol and Suzanne for breakfast. The young staff in the reception area were apologetic and positive, insisting that we sit on one of the sofas overlooking the arcade and the plaça so they could bring us any breakfast item that didn’t need to be heated. They presented us with immense croissants and almond pastries, fruit, cereal, orange juice (“We are sorry that it is bottled.”) The alternative, if the power had been operational, would have been a breakfast in the basement dining room, without windows or view of the plaça. The improvisational feeling of the breakfast, the attention from the staff, and the club-room setting added spirit. After about 30 minutes, the power re-engaged. Almost instantly, one of the servers arrived with fresh-squeezed orange juice, seeming relieved as if an imbalance had at last been righted.

The main morning event was a tour of Gaudí’s Casa Battló, a masterwork residence for a prominent and ostentatiously progressive turn of the 20th century family. Some photos will have to convey some of the wonder, from artisanal details for door handles and stair rails, to overall color and light. In addition to the remarkable forms and designs (which touch the heart), I find it fascinating that Gaudì’s fundamental drivers for the form and function of the residence were systemic approaches to bringing natural light and air throughout a six-story vertical townhouse, through innovative light well forms and materials, and air ducts and operable internal panels. Gaudì’s unprecedented forms, inspired by / expressive of plants, animals, water, growth, and submarine worlds, are obvious and astonishing, especially if you think about the force of will it must have taken to bring them into the bourgeois end of the 19th century world. And his mind was so deep and creative that he also focused much of it on technological innovations to make the lives of his clients more comfortable.

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Our next stop in our ambitious 30-hour Barcelona visit was the Picasso Museum. The Museum is located in the Borne district, which is a about a 30-minute walk from the Casa Battlo. It was a gloriously sunny warm early-spring day. We walked down the Passig Gracia, which is Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue. Carol spotted this store window; we all agreed:

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Then an ad-hoc lunch in a terrace restaurant one story above the shopping street, a pass by the Barcelona Cathedral and a flea market in its fore-court. We stopped in the Santa Caterina Market, one of my favorite places in Barcelona. During a previous trip for an AIA Europe Chapter conference, we met the architect of the renovation. The market is notable now for its multi-colored flowing roof that spills out over the street, sheltering the market stalls. The architect related that she, her architect husband, and their young family had set up home and office in the district some thirty years ago when the area was working-class and down on its luck. The market functioned for the neighborhood, but the powers that be in the city thought it should be removed to make way for housing that the residents of the district wouldn’t be able to afford. The architects turned activists. After much time and many struggles, the city managers relented. The architect couple won the ensuing design competition and brought this remarkable market renovation to life. The verve of the roof forms and colors, all in service of the vitality of the neighborhood, always moves and delights me. Of course, we also needed to buy some cured ham, olives and cheese!

The collection in the Picasso museum includes works from his student and early years, and then, pockets of work from later in his prodigious life. Much of his work is elsewhere. I have to admit that, while I respect Picasso’s life story and his place in 20th century art, not much of his work really moves me. Nonetheless, it turned out to be fascinating to glimpse his development from young astonishingly talented painter and draftsman toward his mature life of invention and restlessness. You can see his absorbing influences around him, testing them out, and moving on.

Fortunately, the drive out of the parking garage, through my now favorite traffic circle, and onto the highway, was smooth. The afternoon was sunny and calm. Barcelona charmed us once again.

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