In this journal:
- projects still going on after 120 years;
- a crowded “secret”;
- a house of flesh and bones.
For some strange reasons, I found myself on a quick trip to Europe near the end of 2019, so I had the opportunity to visit both the city of Barcelona, and the country of Bulgaria. As my Cathay Pacific flight slowly approached the city of dreamscapes, my Catalonian heart had already landed…
I have five days in the city, which is a place I surprisingly have never explored before. It is truly a shame for a traveler like me, who have traversed Amazon Jungle, New Zealand, as well as Masai Mara, but never sightseed in one of the most popular tourist cities in the world. I am determined to fix this. So, this is one of those whacky one-off thorough exploration that is becoming increasingly rare on my blog, as the increasingly often gigantic trips all have interconnected itineraries and intricate route-planning. Just ol’fashioned fun and amazement, let’s not wait any longer.
As probably the most important port of Mediterranean ever since the early Roman times, Barcelona has become a fortress hub of local trade, as its proximity to the fertile lands of West Europe and close access to North Africa prove to be invaluable. Today, the portside downtown mainly serves as a giant dock for massive cruise ships, as well as a place for the ultra-rich to park their yachts. In fact, right at the beaches, there are dozens of mega-yachts in dry docks undergoing repairs every day.
Just a few minutes’ stroll from the seaside is the beginning of a large walking road hugged by traffic, named La Rambla. This is the prominent street that many wished to never end, and it is now the definition of modern capitalistic tourism. Besides the hundreds of kiosks selling all kinds of souvenir at jaw-dropping prices, it is also rife with street muscians, performance artists, and pickpockets. Every day that I passed by seemed to be more crowded than the last, and it is indeed hard to move around if you simply need to get anywhere, as I am not exactly skilled at shoving. However, its tree-lined sides are nevertheless scenic, and I bet is romantic to walk underneath.
However, if you think the squeeze of Russian oligarchy couples and American exchange students on break is not tight enough, I welcome you to Mercat de Boqueria, a large market that opens up to La Rambla, arguably the most touristy market I have ever seen, and that is a competitive category. Originally a pig-hustling straw market outside the city gates in 1200s, it has now turned itself into a complete eye-catcher full of eye-wateringly beautiful merchandise, which, of course, carries eye-wateringly beautiful price tags, per law of equivalent exchange!
The famous market roof is a newly constructed version of the cover originally finished in 1835. This one is built with glass and metal in 1914, and has withstood the elements for 100 years. And that includes the most tragic incident in Barcelona in the past decade. Just not too far from the location of the market, in 2017, a jihadist with loose ties to ISIS piledrove a car into the street of La Rambla, killing 16 people. The attack ended right outside the front gate of the market, at the mosaic of the famous Surrealism artist Joan Miro. This was the deadliest attack in Spain since the Madrid train bombings in 2004, and the affected people included at least 25 nationalities.
At the other end of the long shaded road is the largest open space in the city center, which it sometimes represents. It is called Plaça de Catalunya, completely surrounded by all the key thoroughfares of the city, as well as important government buildings and hotels. A flock of pigeons dwell here on the sustenance of tourist traffic, and each is fatter than me during the peak of my obesity streak in 2018. They also seem to give up when some naughty kids were trying to chase them, as they simply refused to budge, leaving the kids completely dumbfounded with a pigeon in their hands. I gladly contributed to the extremely unhealthy diet of these rats with wings, by providing them some leftover sandwich which I could not finish.
Now let’s move on further east, to the outer edges of the old city. The large Arc de Triomf, one of the similar style but of smaller size as the Parisian one, was used as the main welcome gate for the 1888 World Fair held on the other side of the promenade. The fairground has now been converted into a park, called Parc de la Ciutadella. The name stems from early 18th century, when the central Madrid government took over the Catalonia region during the Spanish War of Succession. In order to instill dominance into the citizens, the Spanish king ordered a gigantic castle, the biggest one in the world during its time, to be built right next to the city walls, staring down the center of the city. Thousands became homeless as the old neighborhood were razed overnight, and later were accommodated in Barceloneta district, which I will explore later. In late 19th century, the castle was cleared as it fell out of use, a moment celebrated by many Catalonians. The park was built on top of it as the only green space in the city center, and converted into a perfect ground for the expo just in time.
The park now houses a large lake for boating, fed from an ostentatiously dazzling fountain, potentially designed with the help of young Antonio Gaudi. It also is the place of Castell dels Tres Dragons, Castle of Three Dragons, a brick building built for the expo, but now used as the Zoology Museum. The park is also the place of Barcelona’s zoo, which was the home of the famous albino gorilla Snowflake until his death in 2003. However, due to my personal lack of affinity to zoos, I avoided this attraction.
At the eastern side of the park, sits a rather unconventional building that you normally do not associated with a recreational area. In fact, many would consider it the opposite. The above old structure is actually the parliament of Catalonia, which used to be the armory of the old citadel. However, in recent years, especially after the officially declaration separating Catalonia from the rest of Spain right here in this brick building, the tension here was uneasy to put it mildly. Police would often shut down the park to prevent mass gatherings of protests or celebrations, so it was a rare quiet day when I visited. The sentiment of a Catalonian identity here is very strong, as right at the city government and in basically every other major tourist site of Barcelona, you will find yellow ribbons hanged everywhere, as it is a symbol of self-determination.
Now let’s turn our attention to the old city center, usually referred to as the Gothic Quarter by tourists. One of the most hidden gems of the area is a large set of Roman columns in the courtyard of an apartment building. Yes, it is literally surrounded by kitchens of local households, bathrooms too. It was in use until 4th century at the latest, and was not re-discovered by a construction in 19th century. You know, it is just that easy to miss some 4-story Roman relics when it sits right in the middle of a million-people city. Just blocks away sits a small open area at the dead end of a path. This is Plaça del Rei, where the ancient seats of power were, before Catalonia was taken under the wings of the central Spanish kingdom. From the below picture, you can still see the old palace, which was used as emperial housing when Barcelona had a king, and later, when the Spanish king was in town.
The square is dominated by MUHBA, Museum of History of Barcelona. Its main campus sits right underneath this seemingly deserted place, and features the most complete Roman ruins I have ever seen. Romans, recognizing the importance of marine trade in the region, established the town of Barcino in 15BC. From then on, the settlement blossomed into a large functioning city, one of the most pivotal ones on the coast. The museum not only features almost the entirety of the old Roman city, but also some Visigothic and Romanesque strutures built on top of the ruins.
The above is an ancient wine-making facility, dated to about 3rd century. The large clay jugs are set in the holes dug in the ground, and the grapes are aged in these containers. The small holes on the ground are said to be fitting places for the smaller pots full of honey and sea salt, key ingredients to be added to the wine during the aging process.
This pool shown above is originally a sqaure one in 4th century, but later, it was converted into an octagonal one, with steps carved into the pool in the 6th century. The purpose of these 4 sets of stairs is clear: to make the pool look like a cross. The influence of Christianity was clear, and it only began to make an impact on the daily lives of the Roman citizens after 5th century, as it was during the reign of Christian kings. Once I moved out of the subterranean history, I moved onto another piece of Barcelona’s underground past. Here you will find a lone monument with a sole fire burning on the top. This is Fossar de les Moreres, a symbol of the Catalonian spirit dedicated to those buried underneath. These people were the fighters against the Spanish monarchy during the Spanish War of Succession, and this little piece of remembrance is a signal to show the day independent Catalonia died, on September 11th, 1714.
Another symbol of another war can be seen right at the small chapel of Sant Felip Neri. The holes in front of its entrance marks one of the deadliest bombings in the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 to 1939, the Fascist Nationalists led by Francisco Franco fought the Republicans in a civil war that ravaged the country. Barcelona was especially hard-hit as Catalonia was staunchly Republican, as the one-Spain fascist ideology was not exactly on the same page with the unique Catalonian identity. Numerous bombings occured, and on January 30th, 1938, an aerial discharge fell right on top of this small chapel, causing everything to collapse except the facade. 42 died, mostly school children from the school next door, hidden underground for protection. Now, the scars left by the shrapnels can still be seen, touched, and felt. Upon the Republicans’ defeat, Catalonians were forbidden to speak their own language and congregate until the draconian rulers were no more, a solid 30 years later.
Let’s continue with the theme of churches. One of the most visited places in the city is Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, a small church not too far from the sea. Its patron saint is Saint Mary, the protector of sailors, and it was built probably due to its proximity to the port. It is not particularly extravagant inside, despite its gorgeous unique Catalan gothic exterior. This church withstood numerous earthquakes, the Napoleon occupation, Francoism and much more, yet it was destroyed in a fire set by anarchists in 1936. As a result, rebuilding was slow, as the funds were only trickling in. In 1960s, the church asked the other symbol of the city, Futbol Club Barcelona, to help fundraise. FC Barcelona agreed, under one condition: put their coat of arms onto the window of the church. Hence, if you know where to look for it, you can find FC Barcelona on a window pane high above your normal line of sight.
The other unmissable church in the old town is the Barcelona Cathedral, it is dedicated to the co-patron saint of the city, Eulalia. It was said that this virgin was punished by the Romans to expose herself in a public square, but a miraculous snowfall in mid-spring covered up her nudes like a skillful Japanese censor artist. Romans were so mad that they rolled her down the main street in Barcelona in a barrel, and her body is now entombed in the crypts.
The large cloister of the faux-basilica also features a fountain called the Well of the Geese, which housed dozens of well-fed, chubby white geese, completely unphased by the hordes of tourists taking photos of their presense. Just outside the church, you will find the most famous instagram place in the Gothic Quarter, a super-Gothic bridge called Bishop’s Bridge. Ironically, it was constructed for the 1929 Barcelona exposition, as an architect proposed to tear down everything downtown that is not gothic, and rebuild the center in the approrpiate style. Fortunately, only this bridge came to fruition. Interestingly, however, a few myths have already rooted itself in this skull-and-dagger themed pathway, as it is said that if the dagger ever dislodges from the skull, the city of Barcelona will be no more.
A quick change of pace brought me to the Palau de la Música Catalana, a local concert hall designed by Catalonian architects during the height of Renaixença(Catalan rebirth) period. Finished in 1908, this masterpiece is simply the most beautiful concert hall I have ever seen. The tainted-glass skylight forms a teardrop shape, as if the entire roof is slowly melting, deep into the heart of every beholder. Can you believe this was built for a local neighborhood choir group to practice during their weekly gatherings?
The stage itself is also a work of art. 16 different muses, each with respective historical references, play a different instrument at the back side of the stage, giving strength to each and every performer. The organ was also a brilliant construction, and I got to experience it first-hand. The palace concert hall is only accessible to the general public via a pricey tour, so we got to experience the sound echoing in the chambers as we were offered to listen to a few pre-arranged songs played on the pipes. The waves of sound completely shook me to the core, and when the majestic tunes reached an orchestrated climax, I felt like my soul was resonating so hardly that it was ripped away from my body. The entire group were so impressed that every person requested the tour guide to play another song, which she gladly obliged.
Now, let’s shift our focus down to the south of the city, onto the small mountain overlooking downtown called Montjuïc. Besides a killer view, this is also the best place to soak up some nature as it is very hard to come by when you are surrounded by literally thousands of first-time-overseas tourists competing to take photos for their bland instagram accounts while incorrectly holding selfie sticks. I slowly hiked up the hill, all the way from the bottom at the cable car station, and enjoyed the dominating view devoid of other human beings.
At the peak of this 180-meter hill, I found Montjuïc Castle, a 17th century fortification that proved to be extremely hard to capture. This is the stronghold of Catalan forces during its many revolts against the central government, and now serves as a city park and landmark. However, its darkest times come from the Civil War period, as both Republicans and Nationalists executed political prisoners here without any outside knowledge, awarding the castle its notoriety on history books. I continued down the mountain on the other side of my ascent, and after an hour of meandering, approached some of the city’s most iconic sights.
After passing through a series of picturesque gardens, I reached the other side of the mountain, where a large palace sits on the foothills, overlooking the mammoth roundabout of Plaça d’Espanya. This is the Palau Nacional, the main site for the 1929 exposition that took place in Barcelona. It now houses the entire collection of the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Right in front of the majestic steps, I found the four columns representing the four stripes of the Catalonian flag. The originals were torn down in 1920s by the Fascists as a systematical method to eliminate the distinct Catalonian identity, and it was not until 2010 that they were reconstructed. A bit further down the promenade is the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, a super-popular tourist site that features music and light show nightly. However, I had no intention to squeeze through thousands of people to watch water, so I quickly moved on to the Twin Venetian Towers, built as replicas of San Marco in Venice. The setting sun coated everything in a hue of gold, completely rendering them into opulent pictures of the bygone past.
Yet nobody has influenced a city like Antoni Gaudi did with Barcelona. The city carries his name, and he lives on with this metropolis. In all practical senses but physical, they are one. This master of an architect is probably the creator of everything in this city a tourist would see here. The way he combines nature, his personal belief in God, and mastery of his skills as an architect, is just unseen for anyone before him, and definitely not for any upper-comer. We begin exploring the man, the myth, the legend, Antoni Gaudi, with one of his earlier works, Palau Güell.
Here in this building, Gaudi had the first chance to completely spread his wings after industrialist Eusebi Güell found out about his talent in the 1888 world fair taking place just down the street. His early style involved heavily in transforming the modernism movement that was all the rage at the time, and his numerous works involving the Güell family became defining pieces of Catalan Modernisme pieces. In this house specifically, he used a lot of the technique called wrought ironwork forging, which he was very familiar with as he practiced it a lot during his early years as a hobby. He also widely incorporated his carpentry and stained glass skills that proved invaluable in distinguishing his style: nobody can be as perfect as him in crafting fluid yet solid structures!
At this time, Gaudi was not particularly focused on a coherent theme, as he was more concentrated in forging a uniform balance of every piece of perfection put inside the house. Most of the ironwork were about subjects such as the seaweed in the shallow waters nearby, but there are also a few that are related horse whips. (do not ask me how he chose his subjects, honestly nobody has any idea.) However, the absolute center of his attention is dedicated to the main party room, which is unlike anything I have ever seen.
The room is over 3 floors tall, and the holes open up at the top so that during the day, it is like a few shining stars surrounding the center skylight. At night, the holes are lit up by candels or lanterns lowered by servants from the roof, creating a sense of starry field with a moon. This is truly an ode to nature, and a gift from the wildest imagination human mind can possibly create. And on the top of the house, Gaudi also began his experimentation with the chimneys, as he first used the technique of trencadís here.
His use of trencadís reached its peak in Parc Güell, a failed housing project that was turned into a municipal park. He was at his peak of his naturalist phase when the Güell family asked him to design a wealthy neighborhood high on the hills towards the north. It turned out to be a commercial failure, but an artisitic triumph. Parc Güell has now become the most visited park in the entire country by tourists, and it is for no doubt thanks to the contribution of Gaudi’s mind of genius.
Here, Gaudi utilized broken shards of glass and china to assemble numerous wildlife and plants he took inspiration from during his years of observation. He tried to blend his creation as naturally as possible into the surrounding area, as the original plot of land was rather barren on the steep hills. Besides the animals created with mosaic using reused items, all roadways and viaducts he designed for the easy of transportation on the unforgiving terrain also are turned into palm-like Doric columns. This is used mostly to make the intrusion of human elements less obtuse and more coherent.
In fact, the most famous place of the park is the roof terrace. Originally designed as an open park for the 60 rich families with residence in the development, the plaza is surrounded by a long, continuous bench covered with shards of china in distinctive styles in each section. This comes from Gaudi’s idea of creating a sea-serpent that encircles the area, and its rolling seatback can form its spine. It is also curved so that certain groups of friends can sit facing each other instead of side by side. The view from this terrace also has become the de-facto photo of Barcelona in recent years. I do apologize for a lack of photos for this long bench, due to the insane number of tourists crowding this area, and the fact that the park was under complete renovation at the time did not help either.
Yet Gaudi’s true skills can only be said to have reached its peak when he began his work on Casa Batlló, converting an ugly crooked building into a style that nobody can define. He widely utilized all his skills with freedom provided by the owner, and built what now the locals call “house of bones”, using the coherent themes, one for the interior and one for the exterior. The facade of the building begins with two floors of sandstone that looks like the bones of some immense beast, and the 3 floors above that look like some viscerally abstract depiction of bones, tissues, mucus and muscle, and to top it all off, a large scaly ceramic roof tile arrangement like the spine of a dragon. The house looks like a fever dream of a microbiologist, or the nightmare of a pre-teen girl, or maybe both.
The first floor is the most prominent part of the house. Besides a staircase that undulates like a wave, and skylights resembling large air bubbles and seashells, the entire interior of the house follows the theme of the Mediterranean Sea, full of blue gradients, white foams, sea creatures of the old, and other seemingly jarring designs. It seems to be intentional that Gaudi avoided straight lines and angles as much as possible, complicating things up with almost-excessive amounts of curves and circles. One of my favorite feature is the large round chandelier on top of the whirpool featured in the Noble Room, as if the water is conscious, trying to push up the lighting fixture as a gesture of eager welcome. Or maybe it is rejecting such an unceremonious entrance by an outside intruder? No matter what, it imbues even the ceiling with active energy. Just take a look, what a gorgeous design!
Continuing up the staircase, tinted blue by all the ceramic tiles painted in this harmonic color near the top of the skylight, which also looks like the sun seen from beneath the waves, I reached the top of the building, where large pottery pieces are accompanied by chimneys made of broken chinaware of iridescent colors. Gaudi not only installed a large spine roof arch as if it is the backbone of a yet-to-be-discovered large reptilian, but he also twisted the chimneys in a certain way to avoid backdraught, instilling practical uses into his already-perfect designs. These little stacks are now known all around the world for its ingenius design and artistic merit.
And finally, we reached the elephant in the room, Gaudi’s magnum opus, Sagrada Família. This church is the symbol of Barcelona, and has been so for a hundred years. Ever since Gaudi took over the project in 1884, he had been pouring his heart and sweat over this one single building, until his death in 1926. The design is the culmination of his entire being, everything he had ever thought about. Yet sadly, I cannot show you anything except this photo of exterior, as the amount of tourist on this late September day was absolutely insane. This leads to my big gripe with hyper-touristic cities such as Barcelona. The influence of modern tourism industry has completely transformed the feeling of the place, the original reason why tourists came. Sagarada Familia, at the time of my visit, had run out of tickets 4 weeks in advance. Yes, the church has no available tickets to sell for the entire month ensuing my visit. The blocks around the area is a confusing mess of vendors, touts, parkings for buses, unclear ticket sale instructions, and overpriced restaurants. There was not a single moment that I was not shoved around by the enormous crowds congregating at every corner.
And this applies to everywhere else as well. Casa Batlló has a 100-meter line snaking through the streets; Montjuïc fountain has dedicated times when tourists would congregate so much that it paralyzes local traffic; in Mercat de Boqueria, all local vendors were chased away and instead, you get to experience paying an outrageous price for some fancy-looking but useless souvenirs from Turkish shopowners. Even when I wanted to run away from all the crowds to the hidden bunkers of Carmel, way up in the mountains, I was greeted with this.
I was awarded with a crowd of hundreds of international students, non of whom local. English was the de facto language on this forsaken military bunker used as gunner points during the Civil War, and that is if you can see any resemblance of history here among the beer can trash pile and marijuana smoke. I struggled to find a place to sit, while groups of English chaps sang some country songs loudly, to everyone else’s dismay. So it is not hard to see why the locals are furious, as tourism has virtually destroyed a basic economy, as markets, streets, houses turned into souvenir shops, snaking lines for fake attractions, and hostels or hostels. The housing price is driven sky high in most places, while a huge exodus to the suburbs began in 2000s, as locals vacated their family houses owned for centuries for more urban development of hotels. Everywhere you go, buildings are covered with slogans, either protesting the central government’s interference on Catalonia independence, or against the tourists in the city.
And another problem about this international fame is the massive influx of people who do not identify with the Catalan identity. A few locals I interacted with expressed genuine concern and discontentment about the image of Barcelona now. Compared to 2003, the number of citizens born outside Spain increased by over 500%, and the number of citizens born in Spain outside Catalonia increased by over 300%. Whether or not a deliberate move by the central Madrid government, this severely dampened the Catalonian identity, and basically destroyed any chance of Catalonia becoming an independent territory. Most people who are not born in the region do not believe in a separate Catalonia, and the movement is quickly losing momentum. I am definitely not against tourism as I am part of it, but for a vagabond like me who wishes to look for the most authentic experience, it is getting virtually impossible in a city like Barcelona. After deciding to get away from the crowded hostel that I was staying, full of first-time travelers who proclaimed to be instagram influencers while hauling large suitacases up the narrow stairways, and demanding for the location of the nearest Starbucks, I went to stay in a local’s house in Berceloneta. The owner told me to keep it in the down low as most residents of this old building despise tourists, so it is better to be quiet about my existence there. Here in Barceloneta, most locals are still holding out on their last frontier against the relentless waves of visitors who adore their beaches.
However, just under the shadows of imposing international branded hotels and tourist souvenir stands advertising in Chinese, Italian, Polish and Russian, the local elderlies defiantly performed the national dance of Catalonia, sardana. I have seen many dances, but few is like this one, as sardana is not exactly energetic or intriguing. It is just a circle of people holding hands high up while doing specific foot stepping motions, not much movement, nor in any shiny clothes. It is more of a precision exercise than a dance of the masses. However, it is their pride. And you know what? I bloody support them for doing so, even though it attracts confused looks from tourists passing by, probably thinking it is some kind of cult ritual, completely unaware that this is the original dance from this very land.
Another tradition of Catalonia that is getting increasingly hard to find is the human towers. Every year, during specific festivities, the crazy Catalonians would form human towers of 5 to 8 layers tall called castells, beginning with the pinya, a few dozen strong men as the base of the tower and a human safety net in case the tower collapses. Then, women form the next few layers, each standing on another’s shoulders, and finally female teenagers, and eventually, a small girl younger than 10 years would climb up the 10m+ tower, and stand on her two feet with her arms outstreched, hence her name of “enxaneta“. The above statue is a tribute for those brave men and women who still dared to attempt this dangerous activity in the 21st centuy, with the last bit of the chicken wire as the tribute to the little girls who risk the most.
I also finally got to experience authentic food of the place, in a small bar mere blocks from the crowded beach. In the narrow streets of Barceloneta, it is easy to escape from the rowdy American exchange students with their “unforgettable adventures” that they will write in their hookup dating profile until 26 yeas old, and delve into the true heart of Catalonian life: peace and quiet, but definitely full of passion and love for their motherland. I made a few friends in the bar, all from the nearby suburbs, and shared a huge jug of vermuth, the local specialty. See? It is not that hard to live a local life here. You just need to know where to look for it, and get off the mentality that the fake Barcelona presented to you via instagram posts and tourist brochures is the real one. Salut!
Rite of Passage UNESCO
Barcelona is exactly what I expected it to be: overrun by tourists, but for a good reason. It is hard to find a place here that does not have 3000 reviews on google maps, so why outrun it? I have always wanted to be the kind of explorer that goes to uncharted territory, or venture deep into the Amazon jungle, sail south till I hit icebergs, run alongside cheetahs in the savannah. But I have done it all, yet at the same time, many believe Bercelona as the key of a tourist’s first step. Whether I heard it from an international student from Hong Kong, or an American beauty blogger, or an Australian on his gap year, or old German couples in the Black Forest, I do not remember. But what I know is that they can agree on is that Barcelona is a rite of passage to becoming a traveler of the next level, and whatever that is, we shall see.
Now, I can finally say I have seen Barcelona properly. Yes, I may have not reserved my Sagrada Familia tickets a month in advance, or shook my head looking at my wallet bleeding, or be startled by the huge crowds in Parc Güell, but I at least did it. There is a reason why Barcelona is the city with the most UNESCO world heritage sites on the planet, and its massive popularity is not generated by governmental investment or intentional advertising. It is an organic and natural reason, and tourist Darwinism chose Barcelona as the winner.
And I did not busk under the capitalism cool-aid the entire time, at least. I made some local friends in a bar, found beauty in the gorgeous musical hall, found my way around the underground Roman Barcino, so I can say I have done a tiny bit more than a typical tourist here in these 5 days. 😉
Barcelona is not a place to be missed, and I am very sure that I will be back sooner or later. Thank you for reading, and we shall meet in another adventure. If you are looking for inspiration, maybe try out my travel MasterPlan for all my journals!