Our first full day in Barcelona welcomed us with gray skies that thankfully let the sun shine through at various times to help us see this beautiful city in all its varied details. Because we had already gone shopping the day before at El Corté Ingles (milk, eggs, strawberries, bread, butter, jam, sliced jamon, OJ, etc.), we could breakfast in our apartment instead of venturing out first thing.
Venturing out of the apartment, we decided to head away from the crowded, touristy area of La Ramblas and walk instead towards the Eixample neighborhood. (Few tour guides tell you how to pronounce this name; it’s something close to “ay-shample.”)
With our Insight Guides Barcelona Step by Step guide in hand, it wasn’t long before we found Passeig de Gràcia, a long, wide boulevard that I later learned led all the way, back in the day, to the town of Gràcia, which is now a suburb of Barcelona. After a couple of blocks we come across the famous Illa de la Discordia: a street block with three very different family residences next to one another, each designed by a different Modernista architect. Like much of the Eixample, however, this street is ruled by Antoni Gaudí, a man who seemingly did the most to influence the look of Barcelona during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, Casa Amatller was covered by scaffolding—itself wrapped by a huge advertisement—so the piece de resistance, Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, was rather difficult to see, let alone photograph, without the crass commercialism entering into one’s peripheral view. Even so, just looking at its exterior on a gray day, you can tell it’s not like your usual building from 1906.
Partly because of the cloudy weather and partly because of the long line out front, we decided to save Casa Batlló for another, perhaps sunnier day, so we walked on and turned left at Carrer d’Aragó to find Fundació Tàpies. Although the building was closed for what sure looked liked renovation work (our guidebook said it has a gallery space and “smart library” in it), the roof is topped by an interesting, wiry piece that evokes clouds, yet has the outline of a chair in it. It was worth a look.
I imagine that walking around Barcelona is sort of like driving through New England in the fall: you get terribly excited by the first interesting sights you see, snapping photos here and there, and then later develop an “I’ve seen better” frame of mind just so you can get through the day without crawling along at a snail’s pace—or taking way too many photos.
Detour for lunch at La Bodegueta at 100 Rambla de Catalunya: an old-fashioned basement bodega serving tapas. We ate a variety of olives, the ubiquitous sliced bread rubbed with tomatoes and olive oil (pa amb tomaquet), fried croquettes, and cheesy pasta dish. The plain pear for dessert (with knife to cut it up with) was the star of the show in its simplicity. Smoking is unfortunately allowed inside but they were not too near to us. During tapas time worker types stop by to grab something and go on their way. We sat relatively near the opened doorway, so it was fairly bright and also near the action. It’s always interesting to see how a restaurant’s staff becomes used to the confined spaces and narrowly misses bumping into one another throughout the day.
Time Out Barcelona describes La Bodegueta pretty accurately:
This delightful old bodega, with a pretty tiled floor, is unreconstructed, dusty and welcoming, supplying students, businessmen and pretty much everyone in between with reasonably priced wine, vermouth on tap and prime-quality tapas. The emphasis is placed on locally sourced products (try Montserrat tomatoes with tuna), among old favourites such as patatas bravas. Expect smoking and shouting aplenty.
Back to the main drag, Passeig de Gràcia, we soon passed Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Gaudi’s other curvy masterpiece. Not a straight line in sight, except for the tourists queued up down the sidewalk. Because this building occupies a corner, and the light was behind us, it stood out more imposingly than Casa Batlló.
We were pretty impressed with a building across the street from La Pedrera: very modern but evoking a similar nonlinear design. Coincidentally enough, we learned later that day at Casa Àsia that the designer is Toyo Ito, and it’s called Suites Avenue Building (photo on Flickr), built this year (2009). In fact, there was a model of this building in the exhibit! The undulations in the building’s “curtain” (I think it’s called) echoed similar “natural” forms on display in La Pedrera that are known to have inspired Gaudi’s work—so there may be a good reason why Ito-san chose that site for his project.
Our guidebook mentioned a helpful hint regarding how to see some examples of interesting architecture in otherwise hidden places: visit old stores that are in former residences. Such was the case with Vinçon, an interior design store set inside a huge old residence with high-ceiling rooms, fireplaces, atrium, and outdoor patio.
Out back was some amazing tile work next to chairs for sale. There was even a good view of the back side of La Pedrera, as well as other apartment buildings ringing the city block.
Around the corner from Vinçon (down Carrer de Provença) was a lovely diversion: Casa Àsia, an organization dedicated to Asian culture, language, and studies. Seeing as we involve ourselves in Asian-related activities at home in San Francisco, it was particularly interesting to see the Spanish version of such offerings. Equally interesting, of course, was the building itself, Palau Baró de Quadras, built in 1904. Certainly not Asian themed at all, yet suitable for Casa Àsia. From the rooftop there was a view of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família cathedral in the distance. They have a nice (if smoky) Azulius café, which means it’s a great place for us to rest our weary legs after so much walking.
Casa Àsia is right along Avinguda Diagonal, which either cuts right through the Eixample grid at a 45 degree angle or serves as the border between it and Gràcia. It seems like just any other busy avenue, except for some of the photo-worthy buildings lining its sides. In one intersection we spotted a large owl on top of a building.
One blog I happened to find describes things this way:
Where Diagonal Avenue meets Passeig de Sant Joan you will find the Rotulos Roura Company building from the top of which this wonderfully weird 2D creature peers down. Apparently, it used to be a luminous advert for the company which develops and installs neon lighting. It used to emit hypnotising circled of light from its eyes, but since 2003 that’s been stopped—probably cos they found themselves with a bunch of pedestrian zombies standing outside the office every morning having been hypnotised the manic-eye-owl during the night…
Well, we’re pretty sure we saw other owl symbols during our stay there, so either they were all paying homage to this one “luminous advert” or else the owl seems to be associated with Barcelona or Catalonia.
Gaudi’s seminal work, La Sagrada Familia, has always struck me as a truly odd building. Seemingly in a state of perpetual incompletion, its towers look from afar like melting ice cream cones. It’s other-worldly. I had never understood its true scale: was it mammoth or just big? Standing before it in person was an eye-opener; like seeing Notre Dame in Paris for the first time, it appears smaller than you imagined it to be.
We didn’t venture inside because we’d read it’s basically like walking through a construction site. Actually, it was towards the end of the day, and so we were content to see it from all sides from the outside. One question I have: How come the post cards seldom show all the cranes that surround it?