Two emotions manifest themselves throughout Barcelona; seny, which means solid common sense, rauxa, a creative chaos; clashing together, this overlying milieu has spawned the modernisme movement, Europe’s most unconventional church and surreal ‘anything-goes’ attitude of Las Ramblas.
We wondered through the back streets of Barcelona’s El Ravel from our inner-city Hotel Milenni, dodging bursts of rain, passed the kind of local bars only open for locals, to squawking soundtrack of Monk Parakeets – a Quaker Parrot which has plagued the city like pigeons on Trafalgar Square, yet more far more colourful (and ultimately prettier.) Las Ramblas, a dried up riverbed (the historic avenue derives its name from the arabic ‘ramla’ meaning riverbed) cuts through the Old Town; its tributaries were once lined with monasteries and convents, the previous religious history commemorated in the names of the other Rambles from Port Vell to Port Catalunya. We settled down to some of finest tourist tapas and a goblet of sangria, opposite one of Barcelona’s premier go-go girl establishments.
As the rain continued to lash down on the cobbled streets, we became well acquainted with the Barcelona Metro system. Newer than London’s Underground (which opened the first underground railway, the Metropolitan Line, in 1863), the Barcelona Metro stretches for over 120 km transporting commuters and tourists alike across the city; the say all roads lead to Rome, I really suspect that most railway lines lead to the Passeig de Greig, a giant station which would give Waterloo a run for its money. Weary travellers, can enjoy a refreshing glass or two whilst changing lines, at one of many underground bars lining the platforms.
Fortifying ourselves with two sturdy umbrellas, plenty of spanish strong coffee and as many Ensaimadas as we could eat (an Eastern spanish spiral pastry covered in get-it-all-over-you icing sugar made by Mallorcan immigrants), we emerged at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
Started in 1883, this is Gaudi’s life work, he lived to see the completion of one tower on the Nativity façade, and was later buried in his greatest creation. Work on the Basilica now continues financed by public subscription and its progress has suffered through world wars, civil wars and stages of financial busts.
The two contrasting façades of the church, that of the Passion and Nativity, represent the two opposing forces that run through Barcelona. The stern and sharp sculptures of the Passion façade, depicting Jesus’ crucifixion, convey the solid and serious notions of ‘seny’. Whereas the Nativity façade, spills and rolls from one elaborate nativity scene into another like a embellished comic book – an explosion of cherubic faces nestled against doves and figures of nature.
Pilgrims shelter inside the cavenous basilica from the harsh outside weather and human troubles, to be bathed in surreal multicoloured light from stained glass windows depicting contrasting elements of fire and water. Columns line the nave, stretching upwards like giant trees, fronds extending palm leaves – one feels like a hobbit entering the elven wood of Lorien, expecting to see the mythical Madonna-esque figure of Galadriel beckoning you towards the star vaulted ceiling.