The first time I had heard of Barcelona was when the city hosted the Olympics in 1992. As a child growing up in India, with only one available television channel at the time, I had little choice in programming. The good people at Doordarshan had decided to broadcast the opening ceremony of the games, and we had had a blast watching the spectacle. This was a particularly memorable one as they lit the Olympic torch with a bow and arrow, and it was incredible. Since then, I had wanted to visit this mysterious place with highly skilled archers. As we made our way from the train station to our AirBnb in the Villa de Gracia neighborhood, one thing became clear, there weren’t any archers around and no arrows soaring above, but there was “Si” in the air. The referendum to secede was a few days away and the entire town was covered in propaganda material, and security, which it turned out had a whole story of it’s own. It had been a long travel day, so we hit the bed pretty hard, and dreamed, for some reason, of clanging pots.
We only had a few short days in Barcelona, so the next day we got up fresh and early, just in time for lunch. We made our way down to Sagrada Familia, the number one thing on most Barcelona to-do lists. As soon as you step out of the underground station, it becomes immediately clear why this Basilica is so prominently featured on top of those lists. Unfortunately, tickets are only theoretically available at the counter, in practice they’re all always sold out so we had to buy advanced tickets online for a few days later, thus keeping an item pending on our to-do list. So instead of wandering inside a church the rest of the afternoon, we wandered around the famous open markets on La Rambla. The street was closed off to traffic, and there was the aforementioned security forces everywhere due to a recent-ish incident of a truck mowing through tourists in the no-car zone, resulting in several fatalities. Small shops, eateries and markets surround the thoroughfare. The scene was a mix of street vendors, artists, wandering tourists and locals scrambling around exploring the offerings that were on display. We made our way slowly towards the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing towards the New World , or as we have been calling it for the last several years, the Same Old. Since we didn’t have much on our agenda we decided to watch a movie, something we hadn’t done in several months, the second edition of the Kingsmen series was the choice. On our way back, we stopped to grab a bite from a roadside pizzeria, and suddenly, a whole lot of people climbed out onto their balconies, and those without balconies stuck their heads and hands out of their windows, and started banging on pots. The goal of this particular and peculiar percussion section was to use the cacophony to change the cadence of politicians in Madrid.
The next morning we made our way to the Barcelona Sants station to catch a train to Figueres so we could visit the Dali Theatre-Museum. A two-hour train ride, followed by a short stroll, put us in front of a mansion-castle-observatory hybrid structure which houses the museum. The front side of the museum has an old-money mansion look to it with french windows and iron railings, the thing that gave away its non-mansion status was a giant glass dome resting on top. From the back and the sides, the building resembled a castle, complete with a tower and battlements, but the battlements were made of alternating Oscar Statues and Humpty-Dumptys. Cameras were not allowed inside the exhibit, so unfortunately a lot of the sights will remain locked in our memories, which are fickle. In the courtyard, right as you enter, stands a massive sculpture consisting of mannequins, statues, a car and a boat, all tied together with rope and chains. It is an imposing piece that sets the tone for the rest of the bizzarre, wonderful and true-to-his-genre surreal nature of the exhibit. The central courtyard is surrounded by galleries of art work, either Dali’s own, or curated by him. Right past the courtyard was the cupola with the glass dome roof and a giant painting that dominated the view. Hallways wrapped around the sides of the large sculpture, and contained galleries that went through specific periods of Dali’s life. There was a room decorated to look like a spectacularly kitschy sitting area complete with a sexy lips sofa and golden drapes, that when veiwed through a conveniently located lens, looked like a woman’s face. In another room the ceiling was painted like the Sistine chapel, but instead of god giving Adam life, Dali and his wife stood on top of you in a near-embrace. There was a room nearby full of jewelery that Dali designed during his lifetime, and there was also his crypt.
Having learnt our lessons on our earlier outing to the Sagrada Familia, we had the tickets in hand as we made our way for our second attempt at seeing Gaudi’s behemoth. The unfinished shrine to the Sacred Family is, to say the least, an imposing structure. The basilica is already 100+ years in the making and the construction crew currently aims to complete this incredibly ambitious building by Gaudi’s death centenary in 2026 – the interior work will continue for a little longer. It is extraordinarily beautiful in its design, it’s visual dissonance matching and somehow complementing its thematic coherence. Its sheer size adds a dimension of awe and, as a friend once said, makes people look towards god. Every single detail within the larger structure is a piece of art in itself, created by master craftsmen in each of the medium that Gaudi uses to adorn the place. The nativity facade is older, yet bursting with life, and shows the birth of christ in all his glory, with various animals populating the scene. The opposite end of the church features the passion facade where stern faces on squared off sculptures convey a much more serious mood. The sculptures, facades and brickwork conveys moods in ways that stone shouldn’t be able to. Towering above all of this are four spires on each facade for the apostles, there are several more spires still under construction respresenting the remaining Apostles, Evangelists, Mary and Jesus. The basement holds an exhibit showing the history of the place and design work, including multiple scale models of the final structure. There is also a room-sized inverted string-and-weight catenary model that Gaudi had put together as part of his design work. The interior of the basilica was apparently designed to resemble a forest, with the the stained glass mosaics throwing fractals of colorful shadows and shimmering reflections across the vault and aisles. Columnar fascimiles of sequoias form the collonade holding the roof up, each knot adorned by unique symbols and names of heroes of christian mythology.nEach piece of furniture was exquisitely sculpted, and the metalwork of the figures and the organ were all museum pieces. The Basillica is also horrifyingly ugly in its superfluity and ostentatiousness.
Later that day we went to Park Guell for a stroll on the hillside while seeing some more of Gaudi’s handiwork. From this vantage point, the Sagrada familia truly does stand out above the rest of Barcelona, it and some distant gantry cranes in the port of Barcelona are pretty much the only tall structures in town. Later that night, we went out to a street market to have some tapas and drinks with our AirBnb host, who due to a medical emergency had to leave. We ended up having a few drinks and tapas with one of our host’s friend, who informed us of some big rally going on a few blocks away. We were two days away from the big referendum so, of course, we finished up our drinks and headed over there. This is where you could truly see the extent of the “Si”, i.e. Vote yes to secede. Flag waving flocks of Barcelonians had filled a few street blocks on a massive thoroughfare. Political leaders were on stage no doubt waxing eloqunetly about many things Catalonian, but the only things we could understand was the electric excitement in the crowd when they would vigorously wave their flags and chant and scream out during the pauses.
On our final full day in Barcelona we did what everyone should, and had a huge Paella lunch. Afterwards we needed to walk-off the seafood and rice onslaught, so we walked around La Rambla again, and headed over to Castle Montjuic. The castle sits on one of the hills by the coast and gives a good vantage point over the city, but the weather was not conducive to much viewing outside. The inside had been converted to an art exhibit asking questions about equality, justice and violence to the visitors. Other parts of the castle held exhibits about it’s history. Due to the on-again-off-again drizzle, we had to use the castles towers as temporary shelters while we made our way around the wall viewing the different parts as we went. We used the cable car on our way back down, but unfortunately the weather impeded our views once again. We had another early morning flight the next day so had to wrap up our Barcelona wanderings early that evening. The next morning, the morning of the referendum, we bid adios to the city of Si.