With one last grunt, I heave my bag off the stairs of the train station at Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s shopping mecca in the Eixample district. The moment I look up, I see it: a building that looks like a shimmering creature from the wild seas of a Jules Verne tale. Its surface ripples with colourful tiles and discs; its balconies are freakishly skeletal in appearance. I grin at this bizarre, yet utterly captivating structure. Joining a large crowd standing before it, I look up at the roof: a green, blue, purple tiled oddity, like a dragon’s scaly back.
Casa Batlló is one of the seven UNESCO-listed masterpieces of Antoni Gaudí, the Catalan architect who was born in 1852. He magicked Barcelona’s cityscape with his wild imagination and ambition. Gaudí’s designs were deeply inspired by nature and unfettered by convention, and both awed and infuriated his patrons.
It is Gaudí who has drawn me to Barcelona. I want to trace the memory of a photograph I’d seen online a decade ago. It showed a serpentine terrace studded all over with lustrous tile shards. In my impressionable mind, Barcelona morphed into one large Gaudí creation. I decide his works will be my guide to uncovering the layers of this historic city.
The best way to see Casa Batlló is on a theatrical visit, in which an actor plays Antoni Gaudí and tells stories about this whimsical building. Photo: Narvikk/iStock
It doesn’t take me long to figure out an easy thumb rule: if you see crowds milling around a building, it must be a Gaudí. I join one such huddle a few hundred metres away from Casa Batlló. La Pedrera or Casa Milà is one massive undulating wave frozen in stone; an amusing contrast to the straight-backed glass buildings around it. I remember reading about Gaudí’s disdain for upright lines and sharp corners. La Pedrera does not have a single linear construction, and was viciously criticized by people and its own residents after Gaudí finished it in 1910. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with display areas open to visitors, as well as private homes and offices.
Inside, I get my first glimpse into the architect’s mind. Sinuous inner courtyards are spacious and well-ventilated. Light floods every corner of the model apartment I visit. To make doorknobs ergonomic, Gaudí took clay and pressed it with his hand. The resultant shape became the knob. I begin to absorb his dedication to botany, anatomy, and maths.
Chimney pots shaped like menacing masked warriors are the highlight of La Pedrera (The Stone Quarry), named so because of its resemblance to an open quarry. Photo: Natalie Tepper/Arcaid Images/Getty Images
La Pedrera’s roof takes me on an intergalactic trip. Books and websites have run out of epithets to describe the giant chimney pots here (“Star Wars characters on acid,” “an army of medieval knights”). On some nights, these Darth Vader-like structures are hauntingly illuminated for mini concerts on the rooftop terrace.
Gaudí and his contemporaries left their mark most deeply in Eixample. This part of Barcelona was built in the mid-19th century, connecting the old town in the south with the erstwhile villages in the north. I spend the afternoon strolling down sidewalks, treating myself to endless cups of café con hielo (iced coffee). Tables laid out under bright awnings groan under the weight of pasta, paella, and cava, a champagne-like Spanish sparkling wine. It is easy to lose myself even though the district is laid out in a grid. I duck bicycles to photograph fairy-tale balconies and delight in the Gothic-style Casa de les Punxes. Its six towers are shaped like witches’ hats. My gelato melts while I try to capture the bulbous-nosed gargoyles, and carvings of bats and knights on other buildings.
Later that evening I chat with the bespectacled man behind the tapas bar I visit in Eixample. “Gaudí? He was quite the crazy creative type, they say. Infuriatingly stubborn. Why, the man wore suits held together with pins!” he chuckles. I think he tells this story frequently, adding new twists and flourishes when he isn’t being interrupted by diners choosing from the array of tapas: golden ham croquetas, grilled cuttlefish, fried eggplant with honey.
The next morning, I walk up to Park Güell in the Gràcia neighbourhood. Though only a few kilometres north of Passeig
de Gràcia, Gràcia feels a world apart. Buildings are smaller, with narrow alleys and squares that feel cosier; this was once a separate village outside Barcelona’s limits.
I zigzag up a hill, and come to a gate beyond which lie two structures that look like gingerbread houses with roofs of blue-and- white fondant. Gaudí and his patron Eusebi Güell wanted Park Güell to be a housing complex for the rich, but the garden city didn’t find takers in the early 1900s, and it was taken over by the city council. The result is a 50-acre public park with Gaudí’s whimsical touches, like a mosaic salamander guarding the stairway. I go up to the terrace, and find myself at the spot where the old photograph I’d seen a decade ago was taken. It is shaped like a billow of smoke, far lovelier than I remember. I run my fingers over its trencadís, the distinctive mosaic of broken recycled tile pieces that cover all its surfaces.
Nature lover Gaudí built openings in the dome of Palau Güell’s Central Hall so sunlight could flood the space by day, and the ceiling resembled a starry sky at night. Photo: Nurphoto/Nurphoto/Getty Images
Gaudí’s most audacious structure La Sagrada Família (left) is an open geometry textbook featuring self-supporting structures and dizzying helicoid staircases (right). Photos: nikada/iStock (stairs); Dominigo Leiva/Moment/Getty Images (basilica)
My last stop in Barcelona is also Gaudí’s final resting place. La Sagrada Família church looms over every building around it. Cranes slowly move behind its eight 213-foot towers, reaching for the skies in benediction. Work on the church began in 1866, but will be finished only in 2026 when all its 18 towers are completed in time for Gaudí’s 100th death anniversary. When people pointed out to Gaudí that the ambitious church he designed could never be completed in his lifetime, he would respond by saying, “My client is in no hurry,” referring to god.
In the book Homage to Barcelona, Colm Tóibín writes about how fiercely private Gaudí was. He disliked being photographed, and his religious faith peaked while working on the Sagrada Família. It is fitting that he is buried in the crypt inside. I switch off my audio guide to marvel at the Nativity facade entrance in silence. Biblical figures depicting Christ’s birth are sculpted amid what feel like vats of wax melting down the facade. According to Tóibín, most men, women, animals—even chickens!—sculpted here were made with casts on living models. Jesus was a 30-something worker. King Solomon was a ragman from Eixample. Inside, La Sagrada Família is awash in blues, fierce oranges and pinks thanks to the church’s stained glass windows. I join a sea of silent visitors, necks craned skyward to observe the tree-like columns. Sunlight dances on our faces. Later, I take an elevator to the top of the Nativity tower, and watch Barcelona dwarfed below me like a miniature cardboard city. The church was Gaudí’s way of making heaven meet Earth. It is said that when completed in 2026, it will be the tallest religious building in Europe.
I too have a task to complete on my last night in Barcelona. Walking over to the La Rambla neighbourhood, I search for the 19th-century Font de Canaletes. “Drink its water, and you will return again and again,” the waiter at the tapas bar had promised. I take a sip, and then some more, just to be sure.
Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “Bewitched by Antoni Gaudí’s Barcelona”.
is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.
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