Travel 2019 – Barcelona, Day 3

Thursday, 13th June 2019 – Barcelona, Day 3

We’d been late to bed the night before (too busy putting the world, or at least some aspects of it, to rights over drinks) but I was keen to get an earlyish start to what had now opened up as a free day in Barcelona. Unlike my colleagues my flight was late that evening, so I had booked a visit to the Sagrada Familia as being the one thing I really needed to achieve on this visit. That meant I needed to be there just before 16:00 but otherwise the day was mine apart from lunch with everyone else at 13:00.

I was keen to visit one of the markets and have a wander around the Barri Gòtic, as well as to make use of the second half of my hop-on, hop-off bus ticket, but other than that I had no concrete plans at all. I would wander and see what caught my eye.

After a light breakfast I headed down to the Plaça de Catalunya which was considerably less full of pigeons and people at that time of the morning. I was thus able to get a fair selection of photos of the various statues and monuments that are all over the place. What they represent or who they are by I am unable to find out, but they were all looking rather fine on a sunny summer morning, even the one with a sticker on her bum.

Apparently there are a number of hotels around the square, but it’s so noisy and busy I’d imagine they are best avoided and you’d be better off somewhere like the place we stayed, a couple of streets back and away from the main tourist drag.

I headed off down towards the Barri Gòtic, not bothering with my map initially, but after some fruitless wandering about failing to find my target destination of the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (or to give it its non-Sunday name, the Mercat de la Boqueria) I gave in and got the map out. It turned out I really wasn’t far away, and it was still, at around 09:30, relatively empty of anyone at all apart from the odd delivery driver.

Shortly afterwards I found myself by the back door of what is Barcelona’s biggest food market, with 40,000 visitors a day, many of them tourists who apparently sometimes need to be reminded that they are in a working market where people have a living to make. The market itself has been around since 1217 or thereabouts, though the building it is now in is much more modern. apparently its name means “the place where goat is sold” from the word “boc” (“goat” in Catalan). I didn’t see any goat meat but I wasn’t specifically looking for it, and I’m pretty sure there must have been some somewhere. Actually, initially I wasn’t sure I was in the right place because it looked closed from the rear entrance, but once inside it was clear I was wrong!

While some of the stalls were closed, possibly for the day, or maybe longer term, once I was inside it was clear the place was gearing up for another day of all out action, selling almost anything you could imagine wanting to eat or drink. There’s a central circular section which seems to be where the fishmongers are now concentrated, but there was plenty of other options to explore as well, from brightly coloured smoothies, to a massive selection of vegetables via meat both raw and cured, Iberico hams in abundance, and a stall pretty much exclusively dealing in offal and other off-cuts that you’ll not see in butchers in the UK any more.

My Nana would have immediately hatched a plan to make brawn, while mum would probably have considered cooking up a pig’s foot to make the jelly for a proper pork pie. Meanwhile I was eyeing up the liver and kidneys and thinking how nice they would be for a dinner I wasn’t going to be cooking because I’d be on a plane instead. I can see the attraction of staying self catering in the city and just picking up something brilliant for dinner from the market each day.

A plan is therefore starting to formulate in my mind for next year, but that’s for another post and another time. I took a load of photos, carefully making sure not to get in the way of anyone a actually shopping seriously, then bought some bits and pieces including a large block of turron (nougat) for Lynne, and a few other edible items that could be packed into my case, before stopped for a coffee cortado towards the back of the market where it was a lot quieter.

Afterwards I headed back outdoors thinking I would go and see the cathedral, but was sidetracked in that intent initially by this arresting display of scarves, which led to a short burst of retail therapy:

I then rounded a corner and found the church of Santa Maria del Pi (St. Mary of the Pine), a 15th-century Gothic church on the Plaça del Pi. It provided me with an hour of rooting around in its history, and a great deal of amusement by offering an object lesson in why you should never, ever fail to get translated material checked over by a native speaker of the language you are translating into. Some of it still made sense, but there were blocks of text that didn’t make any sense at all, no matter how I tried to parse it. I pretty much had the place to myself apart from a solitary worshipper in front of one of the side-chapels. There’s a small incomprehensible museum in the crypt, and a tiny garden outside with a small fish pond and a couple of resident cats including the very handsome Romy who condescended, between serenely sitting on the bench, to accept a thorough scritch between the ears with good grace.

There’s been a church here since at least 987, but the current building dates from, at the earliest, 1319 and was finally dedicated in 1453. It’s in the Catalan Gothic style, which is quite stark, and the building has just one nave that is almost entirely unornamented. Meanwhile the tiny Chapel de la Sang alongside the main church dates from 1486. It’s been through quite a bit in its time, including an explosion during the War of the Spanish succession (1714) when a munitions dump went up, causing the presbytery to collapse and destroying the main altarpiece. Apparently “There was also damage to a side chapel as well as in the all of the nave’s stained glass windows, which were broken during the siege. The church finds itself without the kidnapped bells and the ruined temple.” See what I mean about translations?

Also in the church is a large display case containing four “giant” papier maché figures which are paraded around during La Mercè, an annual festival in the city. I’m told it’s been happening since 1871, and began as a feast day for Our Lady of Mercy. Since 1902 these giants have been part of the celebration. It is a relatively recent thing, clearly, though there seems to be a suggestion that it dates back a lot further in other forms. Apparently in 1687 Barcelona suffered a plague of locusts, and the city asked the Virgin for assistance. When they believed it had worked, they adopted her as patroness of the city and an annual festival began. How reliable this information is, I can’t say for sure, but they are very impressive figures regardless of their origin.

Presumably they are either relatively new or they have not always been kept in the church, because in 1936 the church was gutted by a fire set by anarchists out to destroy the building. Even the rose window is not what it seems, as it’s a 1940 reproduction of the original. Of greater antiquity are the original Baroque choir stalls from 1771, which were replaced in 1868 by a set of neo-gothic stalls. When those were also destroyed in the fire, the original stall were re-instated.

After I’d strolled around, I dropped into the adjacent Chapel of the Blood, which is apparently “for those who wish to come and make amends”. It was small and there was no information to speak of about it. And anyway I wanted to move on and see what else I could see before lunch.

I headed back towards the Plaça de Catalunya and hopped on the blue route tour bus this time, again heading out past the Casa Batlló, and along the Passeig de Gràcia towards the Sagrada Família. Partly I was after figuring out how long I’d need to get up there later, and partly just because I fancied a sit down along with my tourism. It was sunny and cool on the upper deck and I was enjoying seeing some more of the town. It was a somewhat odd journey, because there seemed to be long stretches of hanging about at every traffic light in town, and on this route I think you really do need to hop off if you want to see anything much. The one thing that was very clearly visible from the bus was the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista which definitely needs further investigation. It looks fascinating.

It started life as the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau in 1401 and continued in use all the way through to 2009. The current – and final – physical manifestation of it was started in 1902, though it only opened to the public in 1930. In 2009 the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau moved to new premises in the north of the precinct, and historic Domènech i Montaner buildings now seem to be available for hire as workspaces, offices, concert halls or exhibition venues.

We next travelled up past Park Güell and the currently out of service historic Tramvia Blau, which lets you travel on a 1901 tram, the last survivor of Barcelona’s original tram service, to the bottom of the Tibidabo funicular, thus giving you the best of all public transport worlds to my way of thinking. We also passed the Monestir de Pedralbes, which again needed you to get off and go and look at it properly, something I didn’t have time to do. In fact time was ticking on so fast that I really needed to get back to the hotel for lunch soon and would have to figure out how to manage that.

The Palau Reial and the Pavellons Güell interesting too but I was now looking out for some alternative mode of transport to get me back to the Roger de Lluria sooner rather than later. It didn’t look as if I would find that here.

I found it at the next stop, the Futbol Club Barcelona, where there was a cab rank with plenty of waiting cabs. I hopped off the bus and hopped into a taxi, and was treated to one of the scariest taxi rides of my life, with a driver who hated van drivers, delivery men, cyclists, moped riders and anyone whose skin wasn’t white. He refused to believe the hotel I wanted existed, would drop me only at the luckily very close Hotel Negresco Princessa, and spent the entire trip swearing at or about all the people he didn’t like while swerving in and out of the traffic like a madman. Needless to say he didn’t get a tip.

After lunch I said goodbye to most of my colleagues and K and I took a walk to the Parc de la Ciutadella, just round the corner from the hotel. It started out at the original citadel after the War of the Spanish Succession (1714). Barcelona was under siege by the army of Philip V of Spain for 15th months, and once it fell, to prevent the Catalans from rebelling again, Philip V built the largest fortress in Europe.

It was generally hated by the Catalans, and thus they were more than happy for it to be transformed into a park a couple of years before hosting the 1888 Universal Exposition. It was designed by Josep Fontserè i Mestre and is based on the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Somewhere there is apparently a restaurant of some vintage, and there are a glasshouse and a shade house but we didn’t find them.

We did find some quite tatty looking planthouses, but didn’t have time for either the arsenal (now the Parliament of Catalonia) or Barcelona Zoo, which dates from 1892.

We did find a huge statue of an elephant hiding in the trees, and we also found the ridiculously ornate monumental fountain, built between 1875 and 1888 following Josep Fontserè’s general design of a hydraulic project by Antoni Gaudí.

This is the Cascada which was inaugurated in 1881 without any sculptures, leading to sustained criticism in the press. In response the arch was thoroughly amended with the addition of a fountain among other decorations. The aim was apparently to make it bear a loose resemblance to the Trevi Fountain of Rome, presumably by someone who had never seen the Trevi fountain!

Two enormous crab’s pincers make up the stairs from which you can access a small podium in the centre of the monument. In front of it is a sculpture of Venus on an open clam shell. It also has a quadriga, because what monument is complete without one? Perhaps the architect had been to Berlin?

We also found ducklings and a turtle or terrapin in the smallish boating lake.

A more moving monument was the park’s bandstand, which is now known as the Glorieta de la Transsexual Sònia, dedicated to Sonia Rescalvo Zafra, who was murdered here on 6th October 1991 by right-wing extremists.

It was now 15:00 and I was an hour away from needing to get to the Sagrada Familia if I was going to get there in time. I was glad I’d booked a ticket (my less-organised colleague A had ignored my suggestion that he should do so too and had instead queued up at 09:00 when it opened only to be offered an entry time of 15:00, 60 minutes before his flight was due to leave – I did try and tell him).  I caught the bus again, arriving in time for my timed entry which duly happened after a queue to get my ticket checked, a queue to get my bag security scanned and a queue to pick up the audio guide handset. I was hoping it would be worth the effort and the considerable cost (€25 including my handset and a trip up one of the two accessible towers). The outside is impressive enough, even given it’s still a work in progress.

And the doors are pretty special, with their vine leaves and small creatures design.

The inside is breathtaking, soaring tree-like columns stretching up into the sky, topped by spectacular vaulting, and lit from one side or the other depending on the time of day in a wash of green and blue light or cast into reds and oranges. It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere in a church before, and I spent quite a few moments just sitting to one side and staring, wondering just what Gaudí was on when he dreamed this one up.

It’s official title is the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) and it is, unsurprisingly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was consecrated in November 2010 despite not being finished yet, and despite only being granted a building permit earlier this month (after the trustees agreed to pay €36 million to the city authorities to improve access between the church and the metro system).

Building work has been going on since 1882, and at present there is a claim that they’ll be done by 2026. I don’t see it myself quite honestly, not even with computer-aided stone cutting and modern building techniques. Apparently it doesn’t matter though, because the client, God, is not in any hurry. Also, there are still several more towers to add before it’s finished.

Apparently the art critic Rainer Zerbst said “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art”, and I really can’t disagree with that. It is simply stunning.

Another description, this time from Paul Goldberger describes it as “the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages,” and again it is really hard to argue with that.

The original design has eighteen towers representing, in ascending order of height, the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and Jesus. If you go up either of the towers you can get a closer look at the work to complete these. You’ll have to pay extra, queue for ages and then walk back down 401 steps of a spiral staircase, but you will get a good look at the various decorative elements up there too, at least on the shorter spires with communion hosts, sheaves of wheat, bunches of grapes and such. The total height, once the central spire of Jesus Christ is complete, will be 170 metres (560 ft), one metre less than Montjuïc hill because Gaudí believed his creation “should not surpass God”.

There is much to look at and much to discover in this strange and wonderful building so I’ll definitely be going back, but right now I was running short of time.

I walked back to the hotel, collected my bags and waited for a taxi while the receptionist tried to deal with a drunk and very angry Russian guest. It seemed to be a bad day for the Russians in Barcelona. A family of 7 had barged ahead of me in the queue to go up the Sagrada Familia tower, and had then managed to edge out three tiny elderly Japanese ladies who were too polite to protest. Picture my amusement when the lift attendant, just before they thought they’d be next, announcing she had three spaces left for that ascent. Cue the Japanese ladies retaking their proper place in the queue and vanishing up into the eaves of the building. Then it was their turn, and the attendant told me I would need to wait. My response to that: “Thank you, no problem, I really don’t want to share a lift with them.” The people just behind me cheered…

Anyway I made it to the airport in good time, settled into the business lounge, and then watched as my flight delay grew and grew. I finally made it to Heathrow and was reunited with my luggage at 10 minutes to midnight. I’d taken a decision while watching the delay get worse that I’d see what I could find in the way of an hotel close to the airport, and thus ended up spending the night at the Holiday Inn in Slough, a 10 minute drive away, rather than trying to keep myself awake all the way back to ours. I was delighted to find that the hotel charge was £20 less than I’d been expecting from the actual booking, the car parking was free (“because you arrived so late”), and breakfast was included. I wanted to join a conference call before I left in the morning, so I ordered room service breakfast and they didn’t charge me for that either. Hats off to them is all I can say!