Happy Holidays!!! I have spent the past few days finally jamming out to all of my favorite Christmas carols. We even had a pseudo-Thanksgiving dinner here in Spain! It certainly makes me a little bit homesick. That homesickness is added to by being far away from home during the aftermath of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, which is very close to my home suburb of St. Louis. Though abroad, I am in solidarity with the non-violent protestors fighting racism and police violence in my city and across the country. I wish I was there with them in person. But as I am not, I am still trying to make the absolute most of my last few weeks here in Bilbao.
Granted, I spent last weekend away from Bilbao, and finally made a trip I have been dreaming about for years to Barcelona! And hold up, because this post has a soundtrack! Click here to listen to the amazing traditional Spanish guitar player I heard live on one night of my trip as you read. (Or just watch the video then resume reading. His finger work is astounding!)
I flew out of Bilbao early last Friday morning and was settled at my location before noon. I stayed with an Airbnb host again, something I highly recommend. I had a private room in an apartment for only about $20 a night, and the advice I got from a local Barcelonean was invaluable. Goldy was so friendly and suggested routes that I never would have figured out on my own!
Barcelona is an amazing city for so many reasons; it is on the Mediterranean Sea and had been conquered by Greeks and Romans in ancient history, and they left their marks in ruins and architecture. It is also in a very distinct province of Spain, Catalonia, which has been striving for independence for centuries, and where, like in the Basque country where I am living, they speak their own language in addition to Spanish, Catalan, which sounds like a mix of French and Spanish. There is a rich history of art and literature in Barcelona, preserved in the winding streets of its gothic quarters, where you can find designer shopping, museums, and wine bars all in a row on cobblestone streets. These amazing attractions make it pretty touristy at times, but it still manages to retain its distinct identity powerfully. At the end of the weekend, I decided Barcelona is my favorite city I have ever visited.
My main goal for this trip was to see as much of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí as possible. Gaudí is from Catalonia, the Spanish province where Barcelona is located, and over his career he designed everything from door nobs to cathedrals, all in a distinct surreal modernist style that is truly unique and incredible. My photos here don’t do him justice! His work was deeply inspired by his Catholicism and his love of nature. He strove to reflect nature, God’s design, in all of his creations.
I started off that first afternoon walking basically the length of Barcelona’s downtown, stopping at two of Gaudí’s most famous houses, Casa Mila (also known as La Pedrera), and Casa Batllo. Casa Mila looks like a giant wavy mountain, and the interior has beautiful tile work and wrought iron balconies. The most amazing thing about it to me, though, is its roof, which has over 30 sculptures designed to creatively cover weather veins, chimneys, and the like. If you’ve ever visited the City Museum in St. Louis, it reminded me an awful lot of that, as did much of Gaudí’s architecture. I’m sure City Museum’s founder drew inspiration from Gaudí.
My next stop was Casa Batllo. This house was designed to illustrate the story of St. George, patron saint of Barcelona, who slayed a dragon. The roof of the building is the back of the dragon; the spire is St. George’s spear that killed him. The balconies are the skulls of the women the dragon ate! The other amazing fact about this house is that there is not a single straight line or right angle inside the entire building. Every wall, stair, and window, curves at least a little, part of Gaudí’s assertion that there are no straight lines in nature.
After a few hours marveling at these houses, I wandered down “Barcelona’s 5th Avenue,” La Pasiega de Gracia, to the famous street “La Rambla” where everyone in the city walks in the evening to people watch and stop for a drink and tapas, small snacks similar to the pintxos I have described in Bilbao. It was a bit overrun with tourists, so I ducked down side streets in the old Gothic quarter and got lost among the centuries old stone buildings, many of which are now shops and restaurants, eventually finding my way to the Cathedral of Barcelona and the surrounding plaza, where street performers gather and crafts, cheeses, bread, jewelry, and souvenirs can be purchased from vendors. I found a place with several vegetarian options for tapas, had about 6 to make a meal, then went to bed early that night –I had probably wandered a good 5 miles!
The next day was entirely devoted to Gaudí, starting with his unfinished masterpiece, the Cathedral La Sagrada Familia (the holy family). Gaudí believes he was born to build this cathedral. The first cornerstone was laid in 1882, and it is still under construction with plans to be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death, though locals are pretty dubious that it will actually be done by then!
All construction following Gaudí’s death follows the careful plans he left behind for the church’s completion. Even unfinished, it is completely stunning. The outside is covered in sculptures depicting the life of Jesus spectacularly carved in absurd fashion. The inside is lit by stained glass and held up by white pillars that branch out to look like trees at the top. It has dozens of hidden sky lights, so all the lighting in the church is natural.
I really can’t do this place justice with words. Look at my pictures, then you should probably look for better ones on Google, because this is the most beautiful building I have ever visited in my life.
In the afternoon I took a long bus ride uphill to Gaudí’s park, Park Guell. It was intended to be surrounded by over 50 Gaudí designed houses for Barcelona’s elite, but the real estate didn’t take off and only 2 houses were built, including Gaudí’s own. Now the park is open to the public. It was a great place to wander around and stop to take time to rest and read, serenaded by the abundance of street performers.
I headed back to the gothic quarter in the evening and wandered until my feet were about to fall off, then had paella, a traditional Spanish rice dish, for dinner. We actually made paella in my cooking class a few weeks ago, and I personally thought ours was better. I will post recipes as soon as I get them all translated!
I started off Sunday with a trip to the beach! Of course, it was too cold to actually go for a swim (though it was overcast and in the 60s all weekend–my perfect weather!), but I put my feet in. I have dreamed of the Mediterranean Sea my whole life, and I know this was just the beginning of a long relationship to come! I did more wandering that morning (surprise!), since walking is my favorite way to get to know a city, and found my way into the Picasso Museum. It was incredible to see his transformation as an artist. He was basically a genius from the very start. Even his paintings from age 14 were museum worthy. I found another Gaudí site in the afternoon, the mansion he built for his financier, the Palau Guell. While it was more “normal” looking than many of the other sites he designed (at the insistence of Guell’s wife), it was still stunning.
In the evening I stumbled across a vegan restaurant, which was very welcome after months of living in meat-heavy Bilbao. I had a seitan burger! Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed seitan burgers?! It was bliss. In my post-dinner wandering, I found my way to a cathedral hosting a classical Spanish guitar player and bought a ticket for the evening’s concert on a whim. I am so glad I did. Hopefully you’ve been listening to his music while reading this post and are duly in awe. And he made it look easy! Just incredible.
My last half-day in Barcelona was less eventful, mostly just wandering around new areas and buying souvenirs. I also stopped in the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona, one of the few places I didn’t enjoy on the trip, but at least it got me out of the rain!
Unfortunately, the weekend ended on a bit of an unfortunate note. While walking to the metro to head back to my room to pick up my bags, I tripped on uneven sidewalk and badly sprained my ankle! I ended up having to take a taxi to the airport because walking was not a possibility. The flight home was rather uncomfortable. I ended up going to the hospital to get it wrapped and checked out on Monday. Fortunately nothing is fractured, but I have been painfully and pathetically hobbling around ever since. Still, it is getting better, and I imagine within a week it will be all better, so I can still soak up the last of Bilbao before I go home on December 18th! I hope everyone reading this in the U.S. had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Eat a bite of leftover pie for me! Until next time!