Barcelona

I have resigned myself to a pictureless blog. These places are all heavily photo-documented anyway. Google ’em.

I loved this city and this post will be long.

As soon as I emerged in the center of town from the Barcelona subway, I knew I’d found my favorite place in Spain so far. The air was warm and thick with the smells of late spring: outdoor cooking, fresh leaves, a little bit of diesel, and salt from the seashore.

Will and I met up with his friend Jasper, another 6-footer, a few hours after we’d arrived, and the three of us turned not a few heads walking together through the Spanish streets. Barcelona isn’t quite as twisty as Madrid, but we still managed to go in circles pretty frequently when trying to find dinner.

On the first evening we walked down La Rambla to the waterfront, which reminded me so forcefully of the wharves in Boston that I kept expecting to see the T shuttle ferries pull into the dock. Once we’d had our fill of watching boats come in and out of the harbor, we walked along the beach to an English language movie theater. On our first night we watched Argo; on our second, for a change of pace, we watched G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which I freely admit I enjoyed the most of our party.

Barcelona’s waterfront development has been steady and beautiful. One building we passed had an exterior that looked like a steamship’s boiler room, and artfully careless waterfalls ran down its sides. Tired surfers lounged in green Olmsteadian parks inches from the sandy beach. At the other end of the waterfront from the movie theater, a great green knoll offers a stunning view of the city.

I hadn’t made an effort to see cities from high vantage points during most of my time in Spain. This may sound like a silly thing to say, but I’m used to China, where it’s difficult to enter a building constructed after 1950 and see anything but a skyscraper’s sweeping vista. There, the streets are wide (if tremendously congested). The gaps between skyscrapers lend themselves to fantastic, canyon-like views that make you feel as though the world is simultaneously opening up and swallowing you down.

In Spain the streets are narrow, and the skyscrapers match each other so that even if you do look out a high window, you mostly see another high window staring straight back at you. But from the top of the knoll at the waterfront (that’s where this ramble began, if you recall), you can see all of Barcelona spread out like beneath you. It’s big and, though walkable, sprawling.  The buildings aren’t very big.

But one structure stands out quite distinctly. I pointed to it and asked Will, “What’s that thing that looks like the Black Fortress?”

Jasper looked at me with something like pity and said, “That’s the Sagrada Familia.”

I called this building the Sager Familia in my head until I actually arrived at it the next day on a bike tour (that held not even the dimmest candle to Urban AdvenTours’s bike tours in Boston). Our guide had us stop our bikes in a little park behind the building and then looked up and the concrete monster towering over us.

As you probably know from my previous post, I am not familiar with much Spanish culture. I did not know what Guernica was, I had forgotten everything but the name about El Greco, and I certainly had never heard of Gaudí. But it turns out he is a genius, and also that he designed the cathedral called La Sagrada Familia.

Jaw-droppingly, astoundingly moving. The whole cathedral looks like it has grown up out of the ground like a great gnarled tree all frosted with moss and lichen. Outside is the only naked crucified Christ I’ve ever seen (most paintings give him the dignity of a loincloth). Around him are rough-hewn cubic, desperate mourners. Then, above, there are bright green bird-filled Christmas trees and bulbous towers.

Inside feels like a city grown by devilish Wood Elves. It did not seem holy to me, although I loved it. Leafy hyperbola burst all over the distant vaulted ceilings. The vaults are made up of what look like twisting birch branches.

I can’t express how exquisite the stained glass is. The windows aren’t actual images from scripture. Instead, each window has a single color theme, and differently-shaded shards tesselate a shifting chromatic pattern from bottom to top. The result is a pulsing, fiery energy. Magma seems to intrude the rock of the church, oozing and dribbling down the wall, still molten, jewel-bright. It gleams. It’s stunning. It moves.

Some windows closer to the ceiling are shades of white. These look as though the’ve captured the wing of a powerful angel mid-beat.

I feel like I have seen a number of crucified Christs at this point; I’d venture to say that there’s at least one in every church, and I’ve been to a number of those, plus museums where Jesus features heavily. Clearly I haven’t seen them all–the one outside this cathedral can’t be the only rebelliously nude savior.

Inside La Sagrada Familia is the only image I’ve ever seen that has made me cringe and flinch and feel the nails of the crucifixion. This Jesus’s knees are bent up as though he is trying to relieve the weight in his hands by standing against the cross. And yet his feet seem to slip, too. Even though I didn’t get close enough to see the nails in the statue, I knew that they rip through skin and bone in a way that not even the goriest Catholic paintings have conveyed to me. This is a struggling, agonized Christ, choking, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” into his chest.

La Sagrada Familia won’t be finished for at least forty more years. Like all great European cathedrals, its changing architectural design spans centries. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and see it when it’s finished.

Also on that not-as-good-as-an-Urban-AdvenTours bike tour, we saw the Cascade fountain, another sinisterly bucolic Gaudí masterpiece. Green and grey, and more peaceful than the cathedral, the golden chariot at its very peak, above a wide walkway, gleams even in cloudy weather. Jets of lacy water issue from graceful dragons’ mouths, set so widely apart that the scope and proportions seem too elegant, too graceful, yet too blasé to be in a city.

On our last night in Barcelona, we headed to an excellent faux-biker bar with a Harley suspended by chains over the liquor shelf. Grafitti doused the walls and absinthe shots were 1.5€. I absolutely did not oversee any underage drinking because that would be a morally ambiguous thing to do, and I shun such conundrums.

I rode out of Barcelona on a slow overnight train with flickering fluorescent lights and found myself in the US not twenty-four hours later. A day after that, I was just outside the little village of Woods Hole, feeling as though I’d Apparated by accident.

tl;dr: No one drinks really cheap absinthe, and although Barcelona is phenomenal I shamelessly plug Urban AdvenTours, which is in Boston and bears no relation whatsoever to this post, and whose bike tours are the greatest in the world.

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