Days 5 to 11

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Formula 1 – Days 5 to 7 – Friday 9th to Sunday 11th May

What can I say about the Spanish F1? The track is a purpose-built race track, unlike Melbourne which is a street circuit. The Circuit de Catalunya is in the town of Montmeló, a 25 minute train ride from Plaça de  Catalunya. The track is on a hill about a 20 minute walk from the train station. Needless to say, for the three days of the race, my pedometer got a good workout.

Our seats were FANTASTIC. We overlooked turns 10, the slowest corner on the track, to 16, the final turn for the run down to the start/finish line.

On the way to the track on Friday we met an Irish couple (father and daughter – Mike and Sarah) who were coincidentally sitting in our grandstand. We caught up with Mike and Sarah again on race day, and had dinner with them that night. This unexpected chance meeting is resulting in an itinerary change; we’ll be going to Ireland for a few days during the UK leg of the trip. Apart from that extremely pleasant coincidence, Daniel Riciardo came 3rd in the race.

On a less pleasant note, Paul and I were both fined €50 each for not having the correct train ticket on Sunday morning at Montmeló train station. This was despite our asking at the train station whether we had the correct ticket before we ventured to the track and being told “Yes”, and also having our tickets checked on Friday when we headed up to the track and being allowed through by the Renfe official. When I tried to explain this I was told that I should really be up for a €300 fine (€100 for each time I didn’t have the right ticket), however, I was lucky because today there was a discount of €50 for the on-the-spot fine. When Paul asked if he could go and buy the correct ticket he was, of course, refused. This really left a sour taste in our mouths, especially when I think of Australia where you are given free public transport to the F1. While I don’t expect to travel for nothing, I think the authorities really missed an opportunity to be a little magnanimous instead of being so damned bloody-minded.

Not to worry, we chalked that one up to experience, and decided not to let it ruin our race day.

Day eight

Monday was a day of rest, a day to catch up on journal writing, photo sorting, and website updating. We were only moderately successful.

It was a cool, mostly overcast day, but as a break from our domestic duties we packed ourselves a lunch and headed down to the waterfront. It was peaceful sitting on a bench and watching the world go by.

It was also quite entertaining to see how well organised the young men selling rip-off sunglasses and handbags are. These guys have their merchandise laid out on large cloths on the ground with rope threaded around the edges. When the police cruise up in their car the touts simply pull the cloth into a swag, sling it over their shoulder and walk away. It looks a bit like a game. There’s little doubt the police could nab them, but not a lot of effort goes into it. It’s probably better to let these guys make some cash this way than by less socially acceptable means.

After lunch we wandered along the waterfront checking out the boats that ranged from very old sailing craft to 70+ metre motor cruisers.

Then we headed up Via Laietana, this time from the ocean end, and weaved our way back toward La Boqueria to pick up some supplies for dinner. This was our second trip to the markets that day, and while Paul and I don’t dine out much, and these markets are such a fascinating and colourful place, it takes little effort to find an excuse to go there again and wander through the stalls. Tonight, we decided, we were having Paul’s famous antipasto pasta dish (a recipe that Danielle taught us years ago, and that we modify depending on the ingredients at hand). Nothing like some good Spanish antipasto, cured meat, and fresh garlic, onion, and pimiento (capsicum) topped with fresh parmesan cheese to make a perfect pasta. Add to that a bottle of Malbec that I found at the markets; good food and good wine, an unbeatable combination.

Day nine

Tuesday was Casa Batlló (pronounced ‘bayo’) day. We were the first through the door at 9am but there were swarms of people hot on our heels.

Despite the number of people we shared the house with it has a wonderful feel. Gaudi designed Casa Batlló around a marine theme. There are no sharp edges in Casa Batlló. The exterior is ‘ornate’ to say the least, with its skull-like balconies and colourful tiled façade. The interior just flows. Corners are curves and every surface is smooth to touch. He has made amazing use of the natural light with a light well, tiled in cool blues, running down the centre of the building, and to add to the underwater feel, the use of textured glass makes it look like you are looking through water into the light well. When you walk up the spiral staircases it is like walking into a huge nautilus shell. The use of caternary arches, clean white plaster walls and smooth stained timbers for the doors, door jambs, window frames and staircase railings are another significant feature, adding to the cool undersea feel.

I think Gaudi was a genius. He never sacrificed function for form or vice versa. The caternary arches give strength will minimal use of materials, and are aesthetically pleasing. The light well is a feature of the house, but provides both ventilation and lighting to all floors, with the windows increasing in size on the lower floors to allow more light. The skylight above the light well is not hermetically sealed so that there is good ventilation, but is designed to keep the weather out and to capture the runoff rainwater.

The roof and rear courtyard are finished in mosaics of colourful broken tiles (this method enables tiling of curved surfaces). The feature on the front of the roof is reminiscent of a large, scaled sea serpent. The chimneys on the roof are a hallmark of Gaudi’s work – ornamental, but functional.

Gaudi designed his houses to feel good inside. He was purportedly asked by Father Enric d’Ossó in 1888 to explain what the Theresan College (a project Gaudi was working on at the time) would be like. Gaudi answered, “It will be good in this house.”

He succeeded with Casa Batlló.

Our morning done, we headed home. It was a very cool (15oC max), overcast day and we felt like something hot for lunch so we headed for our favourite shopping venue (the markets) to seek out some pastries.

Instead of a siesta, I opted for some exploring, and maybe a spot of shopping. I found the showroom of Concha Blanch, a Barcelonan who creates wearable hand-painted silk art. Her creations include scarves, handbags, necklaces and fans. Hanging in the shop was a stunning silk scarf in a similar style to that worn by flamenco dancers – large and square with long silk tassels. It took a lot of walking around and thinking as well as some research into Concha Blanch for me to justify buying the scarf, but in reality the deal had been done. It was “flechazo”, love at first sight.

By the time I got home the sky was clearing and Paul was suitably rested so we decided to take a look at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (Our lady by the sea). It was due to open at 5pm, but by 5.05pm the doors still weren’t open so we headed around the corner to the Museu de Picasso (Picasso Museum). The queue was long and the museum closes at 7pm leaving little time to investigate so we decided to come back another time. We never made it back, we’ll just have to do that next time we’re in Barcelona.

Instead, we opted to try our luck again at the Santa Maria del Mar. The doors were open, and we walked inside. It was like walking back in time five or six hundred years. The Santa Maria del Mar was built between 1329 and 1383. At the time the construction was a record-breaking pace. It has stood now for over 600 years, so there is little concern about the frenetic pace of construction resulting in shoddy workmanship. Apart from the occasional decorative brick missing from the odd column the structure appears sound, though I did privately note not to stand too close to the columns, just in case.

To give some perspective, the church is 100 medieval feet wide (about 33 metres), and the same height at its maximum. Inside is cavernous, open side to side, with small capellas (chapels) down the side, and from floor to roof.

It is so hard to describe the feeling of sitting in a pew of a 14th century Gothic church with soaring columns rising almost 30 metres to arches that form the roof. In the semi-darkness, the light provided by small electric lamps attached to the pillars and walls is supplemented by hundreds of candles and the natural light filtering through the spectacularly ornate stained glass windows set high in the walls.

It is peaceful, despite the number of people. Some sit, like me, in quiet contemplation; others chat quietly or wander around, or sit and ink-sketch the magnificent arches. Most, like us, summarily ignore the signs forbidding photography.

Then the pipe organ starts and is joined by the pealing of bells, and my stomach starts to flutter. It is stirring! I feel transported back to a time when I imagine gowned monks wandering the aisles between the chapels and the broad central nave.

We probably should have done La Catedral before we visited Santa Maria del Mar. La Catedral is centrally located in Barri Gòtic and is Barcelona’s most famous church. It is about the same size as Santa Maria, but the interior is sectioned off with the choir stalls in the middle and the pews arranged with the front group for the general public/tourists, and the rear for prayer.

The chapels either side are more ornate and closed off so it is not possible to worship inside them, and the larger chapel off to the right of the main entrance is strictly for prayer, with a security guard refusing entry to the general public.

While La Catedral is also in the Gothic style, built between 1298 and 1460, it is more ornate than the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. Perhaps this is because of the relative rush job when the basilica was built. The cathedral is also more crowded, probably due to its location. I found the more austere basilica more charming and certainly more peaceful.

We also paid our €3 each and took the lift to the roof of the cathedral. The roof affords a commanding view over Barcelona’s medieval district and beyond. From here we could truly appreciate the extent to which La Sagrada Família dominates Barcelona’s skyline. Another of Gaudi’s projects on our to-do list.

Day ten

Wednesday’s forecast had been for a sunny day so we had set aside that day to visit Park Güell. Once again we were sharing the park with hundreds of other people, but that didn’t matter. What a wonderful place to spend a few hours, or a whole day.

We started in the monumental section, the area to which you have to pay an admission fee of €8. Park Güell was originally conceived by Eusabi Güell as a residential development. The whole areas covers most of the hill known as Muntanya Pelada (Bald Mountain). It is a region north of Barcelona overlooking the Barcelonan plain and ocean. The area was to be subdivided into 60 residential lots with the monumental area being shared communal space.

At the main entrance are the porter’s lodges. They are what are referred to as modest housing, but typically Gaudi nonetheless, with the exteriors a mosaic of tiles, and the interiors soft curves and smooth flowing lines.

From the lodges, a grand staircase takes you up into the communal areas. The central features of this monumental staircase include a fountain, shield of Catalonia, and a circular bench to sit and take in the view. The most famous feature, however, is the tiled salamander. It has become an icon of Park Güell, and Paul and I, along with hundreds of others, posed for the obligatory photo.

At the top of the staircase is a columned pavilion known as the Hypostle Room. This was where the markets were to be held. Above the Hypostle Room is a large courtyard area known as the Teatre Grec or Nature Theatre. This was meant for holding open-air shows. The main feature of the Nature Theatre is the undulating bench that forms its perimeter. It was not designed by Gaudi, but by Josep Maria Julol and is clad with tile-shard and pottery mosaic. It’s a great spot to sit and relax, do some people watching or eat your lunch. We did all of the above.

To the west of the Nature Theatre is a covered walkway known as the Portico of the Washerwoman. This leads to a spiral ramp that takes you to the road back into town.

Apart from the use of colourful tiles on the houses, staircase, Hypostle Room, and bench bordering the Nature Room, Gaudi blended the walkways with the landscape, using rock and other natural materials. This theme extends to the ornate pillars set into the hill above the Nature Theatre. The use of these materials enables Park Güell to blend in beautifully with the mountain into which it is built.

Güell’s grand plan for the residential development never came to fruition; it was a commercial flop. It is now owned by the Barcelona City Council and was declared a Heritage site by UNESCO in 1984.

Tonight we were off to the theatre, the Palau de la Música Catalana, to see Spanish guitarist Xavier Coll. It was a great opportunity to wear something other than pants and sandshoes, so we shook the wrinkles out of our glad rags and walked over to the theatre in the El Born district, east of Barri Gòtic.

Where to start!

The building was completed in 1908, but has had a number of extensions since. The exterior façade is a combination of tiles, mosaics and sculptures of famous composers. Inside is even more beautiful, with broad marble staircases leading from the foyer and restaurant area up to the concert hall. The interior of the music hall is spectacularly ornate.

It is hard to say what the main features of the concert hall are. One is a blue and gold stained glass skylight in the form of an inverted dome, and with the sun just setting at the start of the 9pm show, you could still truly appreciate the natural light filtering through. It is apparently the only concert hall in Europe lit by natural light. Coloured glass windows all around the auditorium and the back of the stage both add to the ambience as well as supplementing the natural lighting. Either side of the stage are sculptures of composers Wagner and Clavé, and above is the pipe organ. Perhaps the most famous feature of the concert hall are the 18 instrument-playing carved nymphs (the “Muses of the Palau”) set into the rear walls of the stage. The hall is worth a visit without seeing a concert.

The concert was a one-hour performance by Xavier Coll. He started with a couple of numbers on 16th century guitar, then moved to a baroque guitar from the 17th and 18th centuries (this period, he explained, was the beginning of flamenco). Next was a guitar from the 19th century and then he performed the bulk of his songs on a contemporary instrument. With each iteration, the guitars got larger. This concert confirmed my new-found love of guitar music. For his encore performance, Xavier was joined on stage by his cellist daughter who turned 15 two days later.

After the show they went straight to the foyer and were available for autographs and photographs. I got both.

Day eleven

Thursday we still had a couple of items on our to-do list. One was La Sagrada Família. Another was Casa Milà (or Le Pedrera, meaning “the quarry”). Both are Gaudi projects, though Gaudi passed away before completing La Sagrada Família. We decided to walk up to La Sagrada Família and just have a look at the outside of Casa Milà on the way past.

This was our ninth day in Barcelona and today was the first time scaffolding had prevented us from seeing something. For Paul and I that is fairly impressive. When we were in Milan on our honeymoon the entire façade of the Duomo was hidden behind scaffolding and La Scala was closed for renovation. Even in Bangkok the Royal Palace was undergoing some major work when we were there in 2005.

Today the entire façade of Casa Milà was under wraps. This is perhaps the most famous aspect of this building. But the sheeting that covered the scaffolding at least had a likeness of the exterior of the hidden building printed on it, though it was a poor substitute for the real thing.

No worries, we turned right and headed up to La Sagrada Família. It is well known that over a hundred years after construction commenced, the cathedral is not yet complete so the cranes were not a surprise, but large bits of the exterior are also behind screening and scaffolding. Nonetheless, it is a mightily impressive structure.

Perhaps the monumental proportions of La Sagrada Família put me off, but when we arrived I had no desire to go inside. Instead, we spent time circumnavigating the building; it takes up a full block. The eastern façade is sculptured in minute detail. You could spend hours just looking at the outside of the buildings and still pick up new, previously overlooked details.

I am not enamoured with richly ornate places of worship. That is possibly why I tend not to go to Buddhist temples, and why the Spartan interior of the basilica of Santa Maria del Mar appealed to me. While I applaud the attention to detail, the exterior of La Sagrada Família was “over the top”.

We opted to walk back via the Arc de Triomf (Barcelona’s version, that is). The arch was as the main access gate for when Barcelona hosted the world exposition in 1888. We were heading for El Born to locate a place we had seen that has flamenco shows. The Palau Dalmases is opposite Museu Picasso, but on this, our last in Barcelona, I had also lost the urge to visit the museum, so we wound our way back home to pack and have a siesta.

We ventured out again at 6pm to catch the flamenco show at Palau Dalmases. The doors weren’t when we arrived so we headed around the corner for a few quiet moments in the Santa Maria del Mar. We had the added bonus of watching a children’s choir practising inside the cathedral. The acoustics in that place are fabulous.

When we returned to Palau Dalmases the door was open so we bought our tickets, and with half an hours still to kill, is that a Tapas bar across the street?

The flamenco show lasted about an hour. It was loud and in your face, but quite impressive though not your stereotypical flamenco with flowing gowns, shawls, and fans. For most of the show, the female dancer was actually dressed as a man, and Paul dubbed her “Mrs Angry”, but could she dance!!

We headed home in search of a meal on the way. Our meandering took us into Plaça Reial. The square is lined with al fresco restaurants and we found one where we could share a tapas and paella, and watch the tennis. The Plaça Reial is livelier by night than by day, and street performers come around and perform in front of the restaurant and then pass the hat around. The food wasn’t as good as the place we had dined in the alley down from our apartment, but the atmosphere was full on.

It wasn’t a bad way to finish the first leg of P&J EEA. Next stop, Nimes!

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2 thoughts on “Days 5 to 11”

    1. It’s good to know it wasn’t our fault it was behind scaffolding! I believe Gaudi’s plans were destroyed during the civil war. I wonder whether it will ever be finished.

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