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Barcelona: Broken Dreams and Modernisme

Trencadís mosaic, Casa Batlló

Barcelona taught me the importance of managing my expectations.

At architecture school, it was both the Holy Grail and the magic word. So you want to build something extraordinary? Look at Barcelona. Struggling to find inspiration? Again, Barcelona. Over those four years it came to represent the ideal – a pinnacle of unspeakable beauty and the best in urban design.

So it was a real shock to the system when we finally arrived in Barcelona, suddenly and painfully aware that it had become a victim of its own meteoric rise to fame.

La Rambla was not at all the elegant pedestrian avenue that I had anticipated – it was filled to the brim with overpriced trinkets and menus offering terrible, soggy paella. I felt suffocated in the darkness of the cathedral, its sacred space invaded by a relentless mob pointing their cameras every which way. As we walked along the narrow pavement a trio of pickpockets posing as tourists – one of them holding a city map – tugged firmly on my brother’s shoulder bag. When he looked down to see a stranger’s hand on his satchel, they let go and fled across the street.

On a bench beneath the monument to Christopher Columbus, we sat staring out at the boats bobbing gently in the harbour. It was less than 12 hours into our stay and we were already counting down the days until we could leave.

“You know, we could always go to Valencia early,” my mother offered. We cracked up. It was such an attractive proposal at the time, but for some reason the original plan prevailed.

Flags above Plaça Sant Jaume

Palau de la Generalitat, seat of the Catalan government

Plaça Reial – the “Royal Plaza”

La Rambla

The fortress on Montjüic

Looking over the city, Parc Güell

Barcelona, it turns out, is the kind of place that grows on you the longer you stay. As overcrowded as it is, the city is undeniably photogenic. The point is that no-one heading to the Catalan capital should go under the illusion that they will be alone in their enjoyment of the city. As travellers, we must realise that Barcelona, like just about everywhere else in the world, has to be shared.

Although I can’t say that I liked the city with the same intensity that I did in many other places in Spain, it was the sheer beauty of its Modernisme that won me over. A cultural movement that flowered between the 19th and 20th centuries – alongside Art Nouveau – it represented the search for a Catalan national identity.

Our introduction to Modernisme took place at the Palau de la Música Catalana. It was in 1997 that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, and with good reason. The creation of Lluís Domènech i Montaner is so exuberant and so beautifully designed that it left us all in a dazed silence.

And then there’s Gaudí, one of my architectural superheroes. Never mind the extortionate admission fees; we were perfectly happy bounding up and down the rooftop of the Casa Milà, where one of the chimneys resembled an enormous heap of soft serve ice cream. (Anything that is even faintly reminiscent of ice cream is good in my books.) We marvelled at the intricate details inside the Casa Batlló, crowned by the bright scales of a dragon’s back. And at the Sagrada Família, we craned our necks to take in the tapering spires, shaped like rockets ready to shoot off into outer space.

This architecture that resembled nothing that I had ever seen before – this brilliant outpouring of sheer creative genius – was the reason we had come to Barcelona.

Casa Milà, or “La Pedrera”

On the Casa Milà’s rooftop

Casa Batlló

Sagrada Família

Palau de la Música Catalana

58 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jenny #

    The last photo of Palau de la Música Catalana is breathtaking. Great capture!

    April 26, 2012
    • Thanks Jenny. I don’t usually put up vertical images on their own, but that one was just asking for it!

      April 26, 2012
      • I can only assume that camera was tucked somewhere out of sight, as I remember it being very much a “NO PHOTOS” kind of place. In fact I got into trouble when I was out side aiming my camera in through a doorway! So – good job – it’s a great photo! I LOVE Barcelona, but I’m a sucker for the tile and design there! Terri

        April 28, 2012
      • I can’t believe they were so strict about it even though you were outside the building! Actually there might not have been anyone inside to enforce the rule, I was openly taking photos (as were a few other visitors) and none of us got into trouble for it!

        April 28, 2012
      • You are so lucky! I loved that building so much. I bought a big hard cover book to have photographic memories of the interior, but hopefully next time I visit I can use my camera! I did get lots of decent exterior shots, but I want a complete set!

        April 28, 2012
      • I know – I can’t imagine how beautiful it must feel to be sitting there during a concert! My camera had a hard time adjusting to the darkness inside the building, so that shot of the glass ceiling was one of the few that turned out well!

        April 28, 2012
  2. Hi James, all I can say is WOW!!!

    You are one of the few bloggers I am following to date, but I do so look forward to reading your posts and viewing your photos. Please, promise me, that you will never give up writing!

    Cheers Elizabeth

    April 26, 2012
    • Wow Elizabeth, I’m really flattered – thank you for such kind, encouraging words!
      Writing this blog is one of my biggest passions so I won’t be giving it up anytime soon. Thanks again!

      James

      April 26, 2012
  3. The interior of La Sagrada familia is my favourite picture. You have managed to suggest spirituality in a church full of scaffolds (at least the three times I visited it!) and, as you describe, of noisy, often obnoxious tourists. Gaudi was such a genius though…

    I like Barcelona, and much more than Madrid -too pompous for my taste with its (too) long, large avenues…of course, I should add I was walking under the rain at the time;). Barcelona is more exuberant, and I also love its “Barri Gotic”, its quarter full of sinuous little streets with latin, roman and gothic traces.

    Another very interesting place is the Picasso Museum. It is devoted to his youth. One can see there that Picasso at seventeen was able to paint like the old masters and that as soon as he realised it, he tried to forge a personal new style.

    Anyway, thank you very much for this lively visit!

    Lou – oh, and good luck for telling about Laos to your parents; don’t they read your blog? ;)))

    April 26, 2012
    • That wall was one of my favourite parts of the church – by the time I got to the Sagrada Familia I think I was already used to the crowds!

      The Picasso Museum was such an eye-opener; I couldn’t believe how much his style changed through the years. Later on I would learn that each of his artistic periods corresponds to a different woman in his life!

      It’s funny how you compare Barcelona with Madrid… the strange thing is that I feel exactly the opposite about those two cities. I found Barcelona quite alienating and stand-offish (not sure why) but in Madrid I feel completely at home.

      Oh no, my parents aren’t exactly avid followers of my blog. It looks like I will have to break the news in the next 48 hours or so. 😛

      April 26, 2012
  4. There are people who find it hard to love Gaudí’s works. But I would be very surprised if there is anyone who’s not impressed with Sagrada Familía. I can’t wait to see when it’s completed one day! Despite its current reputation, I think Barcelona is really one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever seen (through people’s photographs though). Btw those stained glasses of Palau de la Música Catalana are truly impressive!

    April 26, 2012
    • Gaudí’s architecture is very personal… so it can go both ways, depending on your preference in art. Barcelona is a beautiful place – I don’t think anyone could say otherwise – but apart from the Modernisme I wasn’t terribly keen on the city as a whole.

      April 26, 2012
  5. QQ #

    Ugh! So jealous of that photo of the Palau de la Música Catalana interior! We were explicitly told photos where not allowed on our tour.. Such a shame since it’s so beautiful inside…

    April 26, 2012
    • When were you there? I went back in 2009 and there was no one – not even a single sign – saying that photos were not allowed.

      April 26, 2012
      • QQ #

        2009 also! But it sounds like you didn’t do the tour? The tour guide told us no photos and she was with us the entire time so no chance at all to sneak anything. 😦

        April 26, 2012
      • That’s it, I went on my own so there was no tour guide to tell us what (not) to do!

        April 26, 2012
      • QQ #

        I don’t think we realize there was an option to tour the place on our own? \_/

        April 26, 2012
      • Well, we just sort of went in and had a look around. I guess I was lucky!

        April 26, 2012
  6. The Gaudi stuff alone is enough reason to love Barcelona. We went in the off season and really liked Barcelona. On the other hand, I would never go back to Madrid.

    April 27, 2012
    • Barcelona must have felt so different in the off season – a friend of mine visited one December and she absolutely loved it. As for Madrid, there is something there that I can’t quite put my finger on – I fell in love with it the first time, and afterwards I found myself going back on the odd weekend from Salamanca.

      April 27, 2012
  7. Gorgeous photos!

    April 28, 2012
  8. Great photos! I always enjoy them. I absolutely love Barcelona!! Funny though, reading this post I can totally see it. But I agree the sheer beauty of it’s architecture leaves me captivated!

    April 29, 2012
    • Thanks Juan! I wouldn’t mind going back when it’s less crowded – maybe in winter – but I wasn’t the biggest fan of Barcelona!

      April 29, 2012
  9. How on earth did you get a picture of the ceiling of the Palau de la Musica Catalana? I just adored that building and enjoyed the guided tour! Unfortunately no concerts were scheduled during our visit or we would have experienced the acoustics as well. We enjoyed Barcelona quite a bit, perhaps because we stayed away from the Rambla which we abhorred except at 7am on our way to breakfast at the Boqueria when it was deserted!

    May 1, 2012
    • I went in the morning and decided not to wait for a guided tour… it seems like we were incredibly lucky as there was no one telling us that photos were not allowed! I stayed in place just off La Rambla, maybe a 5-10 minute walk from one of the metro stations, so I couldn’t really avoid it at all!

      May 1, 2012
  10. Beautiful photos and great insights on the city! My daughter is on her way there for a short visit and i will have her read your comments. My turn to visit next!

    May 1, 2012
    • Thank you! Barcelona really has a wealth of incredible architecture.

      May 1, 2012
  11. Beautiful pictures of a beautiful city! Well, you learn to manage your expectations, indeed.that is a valuable lesson. I loved Barcelona at first sight – but lost some money to pickpockets there. And my glasses!. Although I´ve been traveling my whole life, nothing has been stolen until Barcelona. We were warned, but in so many other places it is worse – say Lima, Peru, where friends lost their things, or Colombia, where friends were robbed as well as knocked down.

    Unfortunately Palau de la Musica Catalana was closed when we were there. I was so disappointed. But, Gaudi is my man too, and I just love everything with him. His story is fantastic, and his ending… Imagine this great architect walking out into the streets, in his thoughts and broodings over Sagrada Familia, being hit by a tram and left dying because he looked poor, unshaved and badly dressed.. When his friends found him it was too late.

    Now, that´s a man I would have liked to talk to, just a nice meal and lots of questions between us. Hopefully answers too.

    Next time in Barcelona – there is much to experience yet!

    May 1, 2012
    • What a shame you didn’t get to see the Palau de la Música – it’s good that Sweden isn’t too far away!

      You bring up a good point; the pickpockets in Barcelona could be even worse. I had a friend who went backpacking across Central America and she was mugged twice in broad daylight, one of those times at gunpoint.

      I can’t believe that no one came to Gaudí’s rescue after being hit by a tram… apparently he was even mistaken for a beggar! It seems like he was not really appreciated as a great architect until long after his death. Who knows what else he would have designed if only he lived longer!

      May 1, 2012
  12. Is it bad that I think it’s hilarious that the pickpockets were holding Barcelona mugs in an attempt to look like a tourist?

    What amazing architecture! I’m amazed that you were able to take so many photos without huge crowds in them.

    Love that last photo- too many photos don’t do stained glass justice. Breathtaking!

    May 6, 2012
    • Actually nope, it is kind of funny in a way – those pickpockets sure are creative thinkers!

      The trick was to take close-ups of artistic details. When there are crowds I tend to have the habit of looking up or down to get the right shot.

      Thanks Erica!

      May 12, 2012
  13. Hello from Barcelona

    Believe me, it hurts to read something like “So it was a real shock to the system when we finally arrived in Barcelona, suddenly and painfully aware that it had become a victim of its own meteoric rise to fame”. And it’s even worst when I realize you are probably right.

    After the Olympic Games, in 1992, we saw how millions of people arrived. We did nothing: the tourists came (and come) for our old buildings or to enjoying the weather. About the 15% of the richness of the city comes from tourism however the citizens are constantly complaining for the visitors.

    Thank you to share your point of view. And thanks all that posted comments too.

    May 16, 2012
    • Moltes gràcies for your honest and thoughtful words.

      Tourism has its benefits but not when it comes uncontrolled and at the great expense of the local people. Every city should belong to its citizens, first and foremost, and it was heartbreaking to see Barcelona completely swamped when I went 3 years ago.

      That said, I think there must be some solutions that will bring balance to the whole situation. Measures for drawing the ‘right’ kind of visitors, spreading out the attractions so that tourists aren’t all focused in the same area, and maybe laws to discourage the worst forms of mass tourism. It would be nice to see Barcelona returned to the very people that inhabit it.

      May 16, 2012
      • Yes… But you know… Balance is not so easy in the Mediterranean!
        🙂

        May 17, 2012
  14. Isn’t that always the case when we have our expectations built up? Always disappointment, but I’m happy that in the end you found inspiration on your quest! I, too, also had high expectations of Barcelona, and the rest of Spain. Barcelona was a bit disappointing to me, and like yourself, I was engrossed and mesmorized by the architecture!

    June 4, 2012
    • Yes – expectations can be such a dangerous thing! I think I would have left a few days early if it wasn’t for Gaudí and the other modernist greats. Barcelona is one of my least favourite places in Spain, but I’m willing to give it a second chance in the future.

      June 4, 2012
      • Did you get a chance to see any other cities in Spain? I actually was more impressed by Girona & Figures, smaller quieter cities, and Madrid was a close second. 🙂

        June 4, 2012
      • I did! I was living in Spain for all of nine months; in that time I did quite a bit of travelling up and down the country. I loved Salamanca, Segovia, Valencia, Córdoba and Cádiz. Madrid was nice too – I felt completely at home there. Granada was one of the few places that I didn’t get to see, but I will save it for next time.

        June 4, 2012
      • Wow! Nine months! Lucky duck! That’s amazing! I look forward to reading about all of those cities in Spain! I liked Seville over Granada. I have to say Granada was probably my least favourite. 😦

        June 5, 2012
  15. Barcelona is one of my favorite cities that I’ve been too. It’s funny, though that we both had some of the same ideas of the city – the soggy paella and overpriced souveniers on Las Ramblas. Despite this, I am glad you saw through it and enjoyed your stay. Gaudi is also one of my favorite architects as well. I look forward to checking out more of your blog.

    August 9, 2012
    • Gaudi was the redeeming quality for me – even if it cost a small fortune to get into his buildings! After a few days I realised that Barcelona one of those cities that grows on you the longer you stay. Next time I visit I’ll try and go in the off-season; they say it feels entirely different when the streets are returned to the locals.

      August 9, 2012
  16. Beautiful pics! I miss Barcelona….

    August 6, 2013
    • Thanks for that, the weather was perfect when I went. 🙂

      August 6, 2013
  17. gaz12321 #

    Nice post, have to agree that Barcelona is a difficult place to like at first, my first visit I couldn’t wait to get away from it all but I returned back the following year and it just grows on you. Can’t wait to return it really is a beautiful city.

    Some great pictures there too, good work.

    October 23, 2013
    • Thank you – I’ve heard the same from several friends who have been multiple times. After living for a number of months in Spain, I’d love to give Barcelona a second chance.

      October 24, 2013
  18. I just found your blog and I have to say that it is amazing, nice pictures and easy reading that invites you to travel more! But I am so sorry for your disappointment, I am from Barcelona and I understand that for those who doesn’t like crowds, summer in Las Ramblas can be a reason to leave. But, there are so many hidden (or not published in the guides) places that makes you fall in love with it.

    Visiting the neighborhood of Gracia is almost a travel through time, people live there without the stress of the center, small streets, small shops, cute squares so charming in summer nights, it is the bohemian one.

    For a romantic dinner in a four tables restaurant at reasonable price, you have to avoid carrer Princesa and look for “La Reina” through the smallest streets of the Born.

    Do you want to go out at night and get lost in the “underground”? Then Marina/Poblenou is your area. Just try to forget the guide there.

    I could go on but this post is already to long… My point is that Barcelona is one of these cities that you really enjoy once you have visit the must see places and have someone who hold your hand and show you its secrets, no matter if is a company like ours or a friend. I just wish you have the chance of coming back and see the city with my eyes.

    November 26, 2013
    • Thanks very much for the kind words and your tips! I may have had an inflated/unrealistic view of Barcelona when I first went there… but someday I hope to go back and see it with different eyes. There is no doubting the city’s beauty though, crowds or no crowds!

      November 27, 2013
      • No problem! Actually your post made me realize how important this kind of tips can help future visitors so I’ll go on with them in our blog. Congrats again for your work here, I hope I’ll see soon a new post about Barcelona 🙂

        November 27, 2013
  19. Reblogged this on More than luxury villas.

    November 26, 2013
  20. So glad you didn’t leave Barcelona as soon as you arrived! Any place with so much of Gaudi’s work has to be photogenic. I can’t believe you’re able to walk on the roof of Casa Mila -that’s one of my favourite buildings! Will have to make sure I do that next time I’m in Barcelona. Stunning photos too 🙂

    December 13, 2013
    • I was definitely tempted, but you’re right – I’m also glad I stuck around for a few days. Barcelona is one of those places that grows on you the longer you stay. Yes, the rooftop of Casa Mila was like a dreamland, all those wondrous shapes on an undulating “landscape”. Could have been the summer heat, but I swear one of the chimneys resembled a dollop of soft ice cream! 🙂

      December 14, 2013
  21. Kamila #

    Columns inside of Sagrada that looked like trunks, the secret and colorful streets of Raval, musicians from La Rambla to the port, Funadacion Joan Miro, museum of Pablo Picasso, Gaudi’s park, house and museum, nights in Montjuic, long mtr travels from Badalona that has HK Tin Shui Wai reputation, morning fights at estacion Sants, olympic stadium, never ending Argentianian- New Zelander – Hungarian – Polish talks, brilliant, organized and calm airport and flights with Vueling, Innaritu’ film Biutiful, central fish market close to Rambla, femme fatale in all her metamorfosis, last point of three weeks adventure in Spain starting in Valencia full of sun and joy….I would come back there…..

    April 8, 2014

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  3. Barcelona: Broken Dreams and Modernisme | Ľuboš CHOVANEC
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