Monday, 30 December 2013

Barcelona: Gaudi, Playa and The Sagrada Familia

Having lived in Madrid for a year now, I have developed some sort of loyalty to the Spanish capital. While Madrid does not have as much flashy attractions as say, Paris or London, I stand by its approachability -- the people are friendly, the food is good and relatively inexpensive, and the public transportation system is topnotch (definitely better and cleaner than Paris' dingy trains and stations). That and the fact that at Madrid's city center, one can roam around and party till the wee hours of the morning and not worry about anything. Crime rates in Madrid are pretty low and to my mind, Madrid is nearly as safe as Yokohama and Seoul.

But Barcelona is the more famous of the two Spanish cities. Mention Spain and most people would think of Barcelona as the one city they want to visit. In fact, Madrid has been labelled, by Barca's loyal Catalans, as the ugly sister of brash, beautiful Barcelona. After a year in Madrid, I set out to finally visit Barcelona and see if all the hype is true. I wanted to find out for myself if Barcelona is really prettier, more spectacular than Madrid.

My first impression: Unlike Madrid where there is a pervasive but tolerable dinginess, Barcelona's Nord Station is cleaner and sharp-looking. I could tell by the first few minutes that Barcelona exudes that rich Euro city vibe.

Barcelona at sundown

Gaudi's Barcelona
Barcelona is synonymous to Gaudi, the famous architect. And rightly so, since Barca's most famous landmarks were conceptualized by Gaudi. To describe Gaudi's works, an english adjective, "Gawdy , gaudy" was coined, generally to mean something overly elaborate and flashy. Sometimes the word is also used to describe something tacky and vulgar to the point of being ugly.

We visited a few of Gaudi's famous works in Barcelona including Park Guell, a park designed by Gaudi for one of his staunch patrons and financiers, the Guell family.

Notice the intricate details at Park Guell's panoramic viewing deck

Path to the viewing deck of Park Guell

The proof of Gaudi's genius is in the details

A beautiful, cavelike walkway at Park Guell

Are Gaudi's work gaudily ugly? My point of view, after visiting a few of Gaudi's iconic creations, is a most definite NO. There is a style, both elaborate and impossibly detail oriented, that is uniquely Gaudi's. Gaudi's design sensibilities is not for everyone, and certainly, Gaudi's stylings are not something I would want to see every day. But the details, craftmanship and his choice of blue and bright colors are, to my mind, distinct and spectacular, and most definitely not ugly.

La Sagrada Familia
Perhaps Barcelona's most famous landmark, The Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's still unfinished masterpiece. Began in 1882 and originally conceptualized by another architect, the task of designing and erecting the Sagrada Familia was transferred to Gaudi in 1883. Gaudi worked on the still unfinished church until his death in 1962. Up until today, the Sagrada Familia is unfinished. Tourists visiting the church can see cranes and scaffoldings of the work in progress. Architects and engineers are continuing to build and finish the Sagrada Familia according to Gaudi's blueprint. It is expected that the Sagrada Familia will be completed in 2026.

The unfinished La Sagrada Familia, cranes and all

The La Sagrada Familia is ripe with symbolism:

The bell towers represent the twelve apostles

The Nativity facade celebrating the birth of Christ and the virtues of Joseph and Mary; the portals of hope, charity and faith.

Even the windows are elaborate and awe-inducing.

The beautiful church sanctum. The elaborate mosaics and the evenly spaced circular columns, totally different from the architecture of other catholic churches in Spain, deserve all the hype. I am a non-catholic, but like most people, I know that the Sagrada Familia is something special, both for its architecture and for the passion of the people of Barcelona who continue to move towards the completion of their iconic church.

Barcelona's Playa

Barcelona's beach at dusk

If there is one thing that Barcelona has that Madrid can never match, it is its playa. Barcelona's seashore, while not as beautiful as my homeland's prized beaches, is a joy to behold. The sand is light brown and very fine. Walking along the shore barefooted was certainly therapeutic, with the sand cushioning our tired soles. At night, the shore becomes alive with its numerous restaurants and beer bars. We drank beers in one of the seaside bars, smiling at a group of young locals gyrating without care to some techno tune, while the horizon changed from crimson to coal black.

So is Barcelona better than Madrid? Well, I think that tourists will find that Barcelona offers a lot more photo-worthy options than Madrid in terms of attractions and iconic structures. Barca is a place one visits to see Gaudi's work and to walk in the sand. It is unrepentantly touristy. While, Madrid is a city that is best experienced for its approachable vibe. I find Madrilenos friendlier and more helpful by a mile compared to the Catalans, but maybe I am just being biased. Also note that Madrid is cheaper and more value for money than Barcelona in terms of food. And because of Madrid's proximity to such towns as Segovia, Toledo, Avila and Salamanca, going to Madrid allows one to do day trip excursions to a lot of places. In truth, Madrid and Barcelona are two sisters with totally different dispositions. They're both beautiful and worth the visit.

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