Capturing the essence of Ciutat Vella, Barcelona

Exploring the oldest district of Barcelona, Ciutat Vella, and wandering through its different neighbourhoods was an experience that really helped me get a feel of the urban culture of this bustling Catalan city.

Ciutat Vella comprises of four neighbourhoods: La Barceloneta, El Raval, El Gòtic and Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera. It also has La Rambla- the (in)famous avenue that dissects through the old district with El Raval on one side and El Gòtic on the other. This street has always had more than its fair share of petty crime, naive tourists, overpriced products, and unwarranted client solicitation. The seediness continues into the adjacent suburb of El Raval, which gives it a distinctly urban, gritty feel. 

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La Rambla

From the streets of El Raval

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MACBA: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona

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Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu (14th century): Barcelona’s first hospital to admit female patients was also the biggest of its time. Incidentally, it also became the place where Gaudí passed away. Notice the red and yellow striped Catalan flag. 
La Boqueria
Mercat de la Boqueria

A walk through El Barri Gòtic

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Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi 
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Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar

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Parc de la Ciutadella and Arc de Triomf

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Parc de la Ciutadella
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Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf was modelled after L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris, although its design derived some inpiration from Southern Spain’s Moorish past. It was constructed for 1888 Barcelona World Fair as the main entrance gate. 

La Barceloneta

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The man made beaches of Barcelona: these beaches were only constructed when the city decided to host Olympics in 1992. They are very popular though- with around 7 million people visiting them each year (not sure why, as they are nothing compared to Aussie beaches).

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Gaudí’s canvas: Barcelona

My trip to Barcelona recently in March 2017 began on a sour note.  I was on a 2-week whirlwind tour of Spain- a country that I had been aching to visit for the last 7 years. My travel agent had sold me a tour package under the garb of it being ‘very culturally enlightening’. It was heading towards the end of the first week and we had covered the Basque and Navarra regions. But I hadn’t personally come across anything that had blown my mind, or excited me to my core. Our entry into Barcelona on a dull rainy late afternoon only made me feel worse. I was really beginning to think whether the trip was worth the hype.

But I was glad that Barcelona proved me wrong.

If I had to describe Barcelona in one word, it would be quirky. The city quite clearly has Antoni Gaudí’s legacy written all over it. Gaudí (1852-1926) was Spain’s famous architect and interior designer, whose ideas and creations are still considered one of the most unique in the world- quite simply because he defied conventions. At a time when the world was obsessed with staid Victorian and Revival architecture, Gaudí’s work spoke of a union between nature and religion. As a result, his works feature ergonomic designs, recycled materials, symbolism and dazzling colours.

The effect is breathtaking.

Park Güell, for example, looks like something right out of Alice in Wonderland.

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Atop Park Güell’s amphitheater terrace, overlooking the rest of Barcelona

Park Güell was initially designed by Gaudí as a living area for the city’s elite on Barcelona’s Carmel Hill. He had conceptualised it with the idea of humans living amidst nature- a simple communal life, away from the smoky atmosphere of the then- newly industrialised Barcelona. The original plan was for 60 families to live in the area, with each family being allotted a triangular piece of land. However, there were certain conditions that the families had to agree upon in order to maintain the fragile balance between man and nature. Families could only build over one-sixth of their alloted land and these plots’ positions were predetermined in order to prevent obstructing sunlight as well as the city’s view. Such rigid rules meant that even though the location was highly lucrative, none of the elite families wanted to build there. In the end, it was Gaudí himself and Count Güell who moved in there with their respective families.

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Gaudi’s house in Park Guell
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Greek Doric columns in the lower court, which also served as a marketplace. The roof actually formed the amphitheater mentioned above.
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Gaudi’s work often featured recycled materials. The roof of the lower court utilises broken ceramic items, like teacups and saucers.
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Top left depicts one of the many walkways winding through the park. Bottom left and right photos depict the same feature: the communal washing area. Notice the “washing women” in the bottom left photo. Also notice the ergonomic design of the “washing board” on the right, resembling sea waves.  Nature was one of the strongest influences on Gaudi’s work. It is not a coincidence the manner in which these rocks were arranged on the features- the aim was to make them look like tree barks.
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Another example of employing an ergonomic design: Gaudi made a workman sit on the wet cement of these benches of the amphitheater. The workman’s body moulded the shape of wet cement, which was then used to model the rest of the benches. The zigzag design of the benches ensured privacy in conversations, even though it was a public space.

Gaudí’s famous masterpiece is La Sagrada Família (The Sacred Family). Its construction began in early 1882 and it is still nowhere near completion! As a cathedral, it does not have a brooding, orthodox character. Instead, the sculpted exterior is full of lively details about the life of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him), from Christianity’s perspective.

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The nativity side of La Sagrada Familia
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The nativity scene on the facade of the cathedral
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The differences between the nativity side and the passion side of the cathedral are striking. The passion side is nowhere near as intricate, but instead, reflects the sombre mood of the event.
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Even though these sculptures are far from being “conventional”, Gaudi has been extremely particular about them emoting through their facial expressions and body language. The muscular strain on this sculpture signifies the physical exhaustion leading up to the crucifixion.

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The interior design allows a sense of freshness to permeate through via the skillful use of natural light and bright colours from stained glass. It is vast, spacious and delightfully airy.

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The nave of the cathedral
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The columns in this cathedral are shaped to resemble tree branches
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                                    View of a sunny Barcelona from the Passion Tower.                                      Out of its four towers, La Sagrada Familia has two towers on each side which offer brilliant views of the city at a height of 65 metres. The elevator gets you up, but you do have to climb down yourself. The descent itself is narrow and highly   claustrophobic. The stairs are made of stone that offers little or no grip. 

There are other examples of Gaudí’s buildings dotted throughout Barcelona, like La Pedrera/ Casa Milá, Casa Batlló, Torre Bellesguard and Casa Vicens to name a few. And there’s always next time.