This post might be part of a longer series of posts on my recent trip abroad:
I’ve just returned from a two-week vacation in Spain with The Best Girlfriend Ever, one which took us from Barcelona to Madrid, down to Toledo, and then down to Tarifa (with a day trip to Tangier, Morocco), Gibraltar, and finally to Seville. We traveled by pretty much every mode of transportation imaginable and saw dozens of cathedrals, countless paintings and sculptures, and often spent time wandering narrow alleyways just to explore a particularly old or intriguing section of one of the cities where we were staying. Although I described our return home as a “return to normal,” in some ways, our travels became a new normal: wake up late, run to a market for baguettes and other food supplies, explore whatever city we were visiting, and then grab a late dinner, often eating after 10 PM, before returning to our hotel or hostel to sleep the sleep of the exhausted traveler. Thanks to some savvy planning–most of it by my girlfriend–we were usually able to find our hotels quickly and easily and usually had just enough time to explore each city’s highlights.
As I mentioned, we started in Barcelona, in some ways my favorite city of the trip. Barcelona offered not only a fascinating range of architectural and artistic sights to explore but also contained a lively downtown scene, the Ramblas leading from Plaza Catalunya down to the Mediterranean Sea. In Barcelona, every street seemed to offer the potential to surprise: our visit to the Barri Gotic (Gothic barrio) coincided with the Sardana dances, where groups seemingly spontaneously leave their apartments and shops to dance in collective circles, their belongings piled in the middle. Later that evening we were surprised in the Plaza Catalunya by a group of naked bicyclists, possibly participants in Barcelona’s version of the World Naked Bike Race. Still other corners presented a group of street performers dressed in green and white creating human pyramids stacked three or four people high, with a tiny child maybe 3 or 4 years old managing to climb all the way to the top (while wearing a safety helmet of course).
Our first night in Barcelona featured some odd juxtapositions: we started our night by people-watching during some of the weekend festivities in the Plaza Catalunya, but that was briefly interrupted when Andrea encountered an Israeli woman who had been separated from her tour group. The woman spoke almost no Spanish but could speak enough English to relate that she couldn’t find her tour group’s bus and that she was due to fly out of Barcelona later that night. Andrea’s Spanglish helped a little, and I tried to read our city map (which would become extremely worn by the end of four days, so much so that we had to replace it) to find her hotel but the hotel seemed to be several miles from the city center, and our limited phone access made it difficult to contact them. Eventually we were able to track down a police station under the Plaza where an officer fluent in English was able to communicate that she would help.
Of course, Barcelona is also a kind of palimpsest city: like many cities in Spain, it has a history of architecture dating back to ancient Rome. It also has layers of architecture associated with the Visigoths, Jewish settlers, and most famously, the Modernisme movement led by Antoni Gaudi, whose whimsical, flowing buildings and park spaces sought to embed natural imagery, Gothic design elements, and curved lines into the buildings he created, turning his creations into something that might appear in a Tim Burton film. Perhaps the most impressive of these buildings is his Sagrada Familia cathedral, which he began in 1884 and continued to work on until his death in 1926. The cathedral is still under construction in 2010, but its massive towers and ornate, detailed carvings serve as to illustrate Gaudi’s attention to detail. The towers also presented us one of our first adventures in Spain. After taking an elevator nearly to the peak of the 170m towers (a short stairwell led us further up), we got a little lost and instead of following the staircase that led us back to the elevator, we followed a narrow, winding, scary, circular staircase (with only a narrow, and very low handrail) that led us all the way to the floor of the cathedral, perhaps the closest I’ve come in a while to contemplating my own mortality.
But the Sagrada Familia also introduced a thought that informed much of my experience in the cathedrals and museums we visited: the current moment is often characterized as being marked by a sense of increased distraction, of having our attention span further and further fragmented by all kinds of audiovisual stimuli, and yet, as I explored a 19th-century cathedral, and later, others that were much older, I found myself thinking about all of the visual detail found in these Gothic cathedrals. A worshipper could easily get lost in the immense detail of the altar pieces and stained glass windows, the frescoes and paintings that seemed to fill every corner and niche of all of the buildings we explored. To be sure, this sense of information overload was informed by the fact that we were often directed by (contemporary) audio guides that sought to explain and account for many of the buildings details, and yet the vividness of detail, the flourishing of meaning in many of these buildings was impossible to ignore.
Like most of the cities we explored, we were able to see Barcelona from above and below. In addition to ascending to the spires of Sagrada Familia, we also visited the top of Casa Mira, a residential building designed by Gaudi that resembled melting ice cream cones. Later, we took a longish subway and bus ride to the entrance of Park Guell, a planned community that was never completed designed to appeal to wealthy Barcelonans who wanted to avoid city living but which incorporated some landscape design by Gaudi. But in addition to exploring the city from above, we also saw the Roman ruins beneath the city, where the old Barcelona Cathedral was built. We could see the vats where wine was made and where clothes were washed and dyed. In seeing the mixture between old and new, all of the architectural and design fashions, as well as the street life on the Ramblas, I found myself thinking about Walter Benjamin’s discussions of Naples, Paris, and other European cities and about the ways that history is expressed through architecture and design. Barcelona’s architecture, its neighborhoods and street scenes, tell countless stories about its social and political past, and it was well worth the extra time to explore those sites.
Because we spent several days in Barcelona, it’s impossible to capture every aspect of our trip in detail, but it was terrific to spend time exploring the Picasso Museum (which featured an impressive number of Picasso’s Las Meninas paintings and sketches), the Chocolate Museum, and other highlights. From Barcelona, we took a night train to Madrid. More details about that city in a future post.