The plane is filled with every imaginable person with whom I have no desire to share my personal space. Apart from the non-descript couple sharing my row and the long-suffering, heavily sleeping parents opposite squished either side of their impeccable child taking it in turns to watch The Snowman 2; every one else has a hideously exaggerated example of their given accent. Everyone is loud, and drinking on a 10am flight- I like a good drink, often and lots, but I dislike unnecessary public inebriation. Of course there is also the token screeching hen-party. What is it about Barcelona that’s attracting all these people? I try not to judge, maybe they’re all here for the architecture too. I’m curious because I go to Barcelona with a lot of expectations; historical richness, dream-like state and patchwork colour. I usually try to travel without such expectations lest reality fall short over my over-active imagination.
I am a very schizophrenic traveller. On the one hand I hate every form of transport available and so I’m clenching my jaw as the plane descends, and some of part of me simultaneously experiencing the ‘ooh I’m somewhere else moment’, as if by magic I catch a glimpse of a coast or a patch of field and it looks otherly- I’ve transported to a new path of the world. I also have pretty acute self-diagnosed neophobia (rats get it too, maybe that’s why I like them so much) so every time I get somewhere new I feel an initial five minutes of panic before my mind clears.
We drive out through the docks. Another quirky fact: I adore dockyards because of the shipping containers, giant, playful duplo-blocks; I’d have been more than happy working in logistics. Our surroundings blend from that dusty, industry strewn motorway transit zone into the architecturally overwhelming city centre. I hadn’t anticipated the height- like so many European cities, the beauty just sprouts upwards like a rainforest canopy. View from the hotel room includes concrete jungle, much less imposing than the London variety, and some casual graffiti. The main road is close and loud, like being home, and even in February I’m enjoying leaning on the cool glass of the window pane.
A quick scout round the local area and gothic quarter reveals a beautiful tangle of narrow streets with tall elaborate, lazy buildings stretching above, clothes and plants dangling together, romantically intertwined. The majestic Cathedral La Seu, directly opposite my hotel, stretches its spindly branches onto the deepening sky line. I find a fabulous, though I think rather tourist orientated, market full of old Spanish comics, ancient cameras, creepy dolls, smoking pipes, fans- I’m sure there are no bargains to be found here but it’s brilliantly distracting in the late afternoon sun. I trail down the same wide street, enjoying the gentle sunshine till I come to an undercover market; I may never leave. Any and every cut of every type of meat imaginable is available gleaming fresh fish lying on their icy beds, next to their almost sparkling salted friends, a rare rainforest of fruit and vegetables rolling into the distance. Nothing is wasted here, every part of the animal is used and unlike at home there’s no need to rifle through the greens to find something unwilted- everything is crisp and lush and fresh. The street I want to eat down is easily found, away from the squares but still frequented by younger or more savvy tourists, a narrow cobbled diagonal affair on the next street down from the hotel. I enter is with my nose glued to the window of a mask shop; jumbled with the dark and mysterious, spattered with the zany and colourful, the window is crammed with piles of faraway tree style artefacts. The next shop is too a surreal trip, a magic trick shop with dark wood framing its front, I could well believe that this place would be a gateway to a fairy tale. Odd yet stirringly familiar tricks scatter the deep velvet back drop, its interior is completely blackened. We find a small restaurant we fancy, dim red lighting, music playing, sofas lining the stone walls for those just drinking and tightly grouped small tables for those of us plunging into the Tapas.
I certainly saw Barcelona today, albeit blurred by the extent of my shivering as we have been experiencing a highly unexpected cold snap. The open top bus is worth the money, even in sub-zero with my bare hands cracking to the point of bleeding, so many exquisite art nouveau buildings standing huge and proud, street after street. Barcelona is somewhat like a living art gallery, an installation which people like to much to leave and so simply moved in. I visit the Park de Guell a sprawling display of Guadi’s borderline genius versus idiosyncratic madness. You can walk for miles in the park just by the nature of the zig-zagging, looping great paths which wind you amongst the trees and sculptures without any care for time or space economy, under hoards of green parakeets and up the hill side. My brother navigates us right to the park’s extremities to a point with mind-blowing vision. Once at the plateau you can climb some narrow steps onto a cobbled mound topped with some pretty atmospheric crucifixes on such a grey windswept day. The cityscape is vast, the almost-grid system imposing some kind of order on the semi-madness unfolding its way to the just visible docks. The mosaic splattered architecture here is astounding, the rocks have been manipulated like clay to emulate obscure nature-esque shapes; trees that are pillars, bridges formed of stalactites, helix structures in railings. The perfectly cracked mosaic masterpieces transform the straight and rigid structures into a curving, sweeping, dipping child’s reality of buildings and walkways. Someone let me into Wonderland through a back door and I didn’t notice. The colours are so vivid, so much blue- and beyond blue, aqua, turquoise, azure, bluebell, all nature’s subtleties recreated by man so impeccably even the soft brown visible through the cracks making the colours seem richer.
The Cathedral is other worldly- a cop out description but I really do mean it, miles ahead of its time, of our time. It’s a cathedral from a utopian future; Tolkein’s elfin city made reality. Smooth white curving faces, forests of pillars criss-crossing to form a canopy, light bouncing round the corner-free space, caressing the curves. Spiral staircases extend upwards into the chambers of his vision, a tangible, fluid vision of a church design to be lived in and contemplated from every smooth modern angle. Except that its modern builders and owners don’t understand because so much has been blocked off for health and safety or because they don’t feel that us mere mortals are worthy of treading there- rant over. Warm bright colours flow down from the majestic stained glass, all brilliant and crystal clear, each tone and shade of colour truer than the last I saw, swept out of a prior age and into an angular modernism. Trying to contemplate the Cathedral from the exterior is nearly impossible it is so vast, even craning your neck for hours won’t help you capture the whole; it’s like Antonio Gaudi wanted to climb to heaven, or as close as he could get by letting his spindly towers just grow ever upwards. If I ever felt the need to worship anything, this serene, natural cavern would be the kind of place I would go.
The quirky gothic-quarter melds into the ever more tourist-y quarter as I head for La Rambla. But it has its bonuses too; among them an incredible hoard of knives from the most specific of butchers’ tools to the tiniest penknife to full-on swords and strictly replica guns, Thompsons and even a sub-machine gun. Usually these kind of shops will have one well stocked cabinet but this is an entire trove, rich with pickings. My other favourite shop on the stretch is a confectionary, it’s like a trip back to a childhood scene from Pinocchio, so much peach and warm yellow, pea green and baby blue; every box and tin decked in beautiful mural paintings and every sweet or biscuit, however tiny, lovingly packaged. It’s pretty expensive but I enjoy looking.
La Boqueria is crazy- well worth the hype! Straight off La Rambla, so unassuming an entrance that I almost miss it completely, this is real food. Inside it smells and sounds fabulous, raw and alive. Shopping trollies, of the pull-along-case variety, hit my shins at every interval, I am yelled at and through in Catalan and pushed aside by arms full of chestnuts, or scallops or pigs’ testicles. It’s all here. Every shade of green vegetable, cabbages in head height piles of varying curliness, every colour of fruint giving of a light, tangy smell. On one stall many kinds of chilly drape from the awning to my nose while deep tubs of coloured powder , terracotta, canary, moss green, tickle it from underneath. Swaths of fish lying on cracked ice line my way for what feels like miles, whole dead animals sit benignly waiting to be claimed- more beautiful than disturbing- on stalls next to a pyramid of beautiful golden and white eggs.
Next we take a trip to Casa Mila, one of Gaudi’s open creations where we can walk around on the roof. As I ascend the staircase, for I am not a lift loving person, I find myself running my hand along the walls like a child- even this back stairs case is aesthetically pleasing, I feel like I would love to live there. Gaudi’s original plan was to have the interior so that every resident could drive their car right up to their own front door, but for once his over-ambitious vision was curbed by realism and he invented one of the first underground garages instead. From the roof looking down to the central court I find I’m less keen to live there, experiencing one of Gaudi’s practical flaws- that none of the flat’s windows get any daylight due simply to the splendour of his creation. The roof is an alien landscape, Doctor Who like attachments protrude in the odd sandstone colour against a, finally, bright blue sky. The city is astounding from this angle, rooftop madness tumbling down from the skyline gardens to the lush, cluttered balconies to the bustling pavements- Barcelona unfolds at all angles from this spot where I feel central, and very calm and fresh, and I just love it as I sense of contentment radiates right into the corners of my body as it sometimes does.