barcelona, day three

What a day we've had. We had two incredible architecture experiences today, one of them among the most astounding buildings we have ever seen. It was also a long day. We are currently recuperating in our hotel room. Allan's blisters have blisters.

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We took off early today, heading for La Sagrada Familia. We booked our tickets online the night before. If you ever go, this is a must, and a tip we discovered by accident. There's no service charge or extra fees, and you avoid hours of queueing up in the hot sun. We booked the first entrance time, between 9 and 10 a.m., and entered with almost no waiting.

To say Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia is unusual is an understatement. Anything I can say about it will seem like hyperbole, but is not. It is breathtaking. Yesterday I mentioned that when the church is completed, some 10 to 20 years from now, it will have 12 towers. I was wrong: it will have 18. Twelve towers represent the apostles, four even taller towers will represent the four evangelists, one distinct tower will represent Mary, and one massive 170-metre centre tower will represent Christ.

Inside, you are in a forest of columns, and not only because there are so many. The columns actually resemble trees - they branch out, and they are not completely straight, but curve slightly like trees. Everything in the temple, as it is called, is modeled after natural forms. Everything around you recalls trees, flowers, plants, frogs, turtles, snails, grasses, leaves, roots.

I love Gothic cathedrals, and have never tired of visiting them. This, though, is a completely new experience. It's the Gothic cathedral as seen through a thoroughly modernist lens. It redefines the form. Decoration is everywhere, yet the overall effect is clean and restrained, light and airy. It doesn't feel at all ornate. Some of it is downright playful.

I decided not to try to post photos during this trip - too much work - so I can only link to images online for now. We simply could not stop taking photos. I feel as if I could return to this building every day for a week and never stop finding new details.

There was an excellent exhibit about Gaudi's use of natural forms. I knew the standard buzzword for art nouveau or modernism: forms from nature. Think of the famous Paris metro sign, the way it resembles vines or the branches of a tree. This exhibit brought me a much greater understanding of the "forms from nature" theme. Gaudi studied crystals, honeycombs, trees, flowers, the tops of grasses. He studied nature's curves and arches - parabolas and hyperbolas. He studied the scars that form when a tree is cut, and how the new branches form and don't grow in a straight line. He studied the reptiles and amphibians and mollusks and birds from his native Catalan. And in nature he found the expression of his own faith, and of the family of all humankind. He was deeply religious, and Catholic to his core, but his spirituality seems to have been very broad and encompassing.

The exhibit showed each natural form - the beehive or the snail or the tree scar - juxtaposed with details from La Sagrada Familia that echo that form, as well as the challenges Gaudi and his engineers faced in bringing the vision to reality.

The exhibit also included several quotes that revealed Gaudi's humility and his doubt. No one had ever tried using not-straight columns before, and he needed them to work somewhere else, in another building, before he would dare bring them to "the temple". He was afraid of taking a misstep, but he was also driven to see his vision realized.

Allan and I wandered in and around the basilica for a long time. It was designed to hold 13,000 worshippers, so there is plenty to see. There is also a small studio, an amazing building with a wavy, curved roof set over a wavy, curved body. Gaudi originally designed it as a school for the children of the labourers who worked on La Sagrada. It was also his own studio, and he ended up living there during what turned out to be the final years of his life. (Gaudi was killed in a tram accident in 1926, at the age of 73.)

I feel like I could write about this La Sagrada all day and never touch the heart of its power and astonishing beauty. At one point, Allan said to me, "This is definitely one of the most amazing buildings we have ever seen." That's it.

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Eventually we dragged ourselves away, took the metro back to the neighbourhood of our hotel, and went to a supermarket. In the entranceway, shoppers park their own carts like bicycles, locked to poles. There are also lockers where you can leave items before you shop.

We bought yogurts, bananas, bread, two kinds of cheese, two kinds of meat, and 4 litres of water, and were shocked to pay only 12 euros, about $16. Why is food so much cheaper here?

After eating in our room, we took our dirty clothes, which were already packed in reuseable shopping bags from home, and set out to find the lavanderia. First to the mystery address where no lavanderia existed... then to the lavanderia that wanted 36 euros (about $50) to clean our clothes... then to the place the first laundry said another laundry would be... then into a hotel to ask for directions... all the while lugging these bags of dirty clothes, walking, walking... and finally, there it is! And it is not 36 euros to clean our clothes, but 18. And we are happy. But we are tired.

So we rest on a bench, and we almost quit for the day, but we somehow gather ourselves and continue.

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The next part of our day was a walking tour of some modernisme houses of Barcelona. They are all located in the district called The Eixample, a tony area of broad avenues, beautiful old apartment buildings in the European tradition, gleaming shop windows, inviting tapas cafes. It's a big area, though, and this took a lot of walking!

The exteriors of these houses were very impressive, full of curved and wavy lines, stained glass, strange turrets and cupolas, mosaics, wrought iron that resembled vines or tree roots. We saw the interior of a pharmacy with incredible woodwork - apparently the modernisme crowd designed pharmacies (see here), and this one's original interior is intact.

We used a walking tour in our Time Out Barcelona guide, and we saw about half the buildings listed, plus at least two we stumbled on. The weather was perfect - sunny, breezy, a little cool. We stopped for a late-afternoon caffeine break, and although our feet were very unhappy by this time, we decided to push on ahead.

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Finally, we arrived at Casa Batllo (pronounced "bahy-yo"), one of the great Gaudi residences that you can enter. It's easy to find the building - there's a huge crowd outside, photographing their friends in front of it. Admission is expensive at 20 euros for an adult, but well worth it if you love architecture. Casa Batllo is a UNESCO world heritage site.

As it turns out, the exhibit we saw at La Sagrada Familia - about Gaudi's use of natural forms - was the perfect introduction to Casa Batllo. The entire house reflects this vision. It is all wavy lines and bright mosaics, woodwork that almost appears alive - very ornate, but also playful, and suffused with natural light, which Gaudi regarded as part of architecture. You can see images of Casa Batllo here.

The tour allows you to walk throughout the entire building, including an inner patio courtyard on the third floor, and the roof, which affords terrific views of other modernist roof ornamentation. This building - which is still owned by the Batllo family and maintained through admission fees and the family's own resources - does not share the simple, restrained majesty of La Sagrada. It's a cacophony of colour and light and shapes and textures.

One nice thing about the tour: everyone gets an audio guide. I turned mine off and enjoyed the building in peace, but the audioguides keep everyone quiet! Both here and at the Gaudi Home and Museum in Park Guell, the admissions people ask each visitor what country they are from. From the people in front and behind us, we heard Germany, Russia, and South Korea.

More things I learned about Gaudi. He liked to use materials from demolished buildings, prefiguring our own emphasis on recycling and sustainability. He also designed buildings and furniture to be as ergonomic as possible - for example, a banister that fits the curve of a human hand. Building a school for the children of labourers also speaks to a social responsibility well ahead of his contemporaries.

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We emerged from Casa Batllo with sore, aching, tired feet. We both agreed there was little chance of going out at night, especially given that dinner begins at 8 or 9:00. And we knew that once we got in and took our shoes off, there was no way we were going out again. So we forced ourselves to go back to Mercadona, the supermarket a few blocks from our hotel. This time our purchase included two bottles of wine, baby wipes (great for road trips), cookies, and more cured meat. Total price: 10 euros. WTF??

The most expensive wines at the store grazed 10 euros a bottle. Many "vino tinto" table wines were priced at 1 euro per bottle or less. We also saw five-litre containers of wine! That is new to me. The wine we bought was 2.50 euros and quite drinkable, comparable to the Pelee Island pinot noir I drink at home.

Once at the room, there was quite a lot of groaning and sighing and inspection of blisters. Over dinner, we planned out our next few days, and booked a hotel for our next stop, Granada. But first, more Barcelona!

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Two more notes about the great metro system here. Many stations have vending machines with cold drinks, and at least one we saw had a vending machine as large as the refrigerator section in a supermarket, stocked with all kinds of juices, yogurts, water, and drinks. There are also vending machines with electronic accessories - cell phone chargers, USB drives, memory cards, cell phone cards.

In the large exchanges between subway lines, it's not unusual to see tiny cafes and bars - bright, smart-looking places serving cappuccinos, or atmospheric, cave-type places, where men are eating tapas and drinking wine.

Photos of La Sagrada Familia are here.

Photos from our moderisme walking tour are here.

Photos of Casa Batlo are here.

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