The Spanish and Catalan flags fly over the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona
October 26-31, 2015: For centuries, Barcelona was confined behind its medieval walls. When Madrid finally gave permission for them to go, in 1854, the city tore down the walls and expanded to the north. Starting from scratch, the area now known as L’Eixample was laid out with wide boulevards and plenty of light and air, forming a marked contrast with the cramped and winding streets of the old city. That was the result of planning, but the presence of three star architects of the Modernisme school (Catalan Art Nouveau) was pure serendipity. These days it is Gaudi who gets all the publicity, but Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluis Domenech i Montaner were designing beautiful and interesting buildings too.
Domenech i Montaner’s Casa Lleo Morera
Still, aside from mentioning two Gaudi houses – Casa Battlo and Casa Mila – and his Sagrada Familia, the guidebooks give the Eixample little respect. It’s the Ramblas, the long pedestrian avenue linking Placa de Catalunya with the port, and the Barri Gotic, the old city center, that get all the ink. Therefore, when I visited Barcelona in 2004, I stayed just off the Ramblas, and I did not, aside from the Gaudi buildings, find Barcelona very attractive. I was particularly disappointed with the Ramblas and wrote that the avenue was “mostly an opportunity for one group of tourists to sip over-priced drinks while watching another group parading past.”
But after visiting the Gaudi houses I ate lunch at Pastelerias Mauri in the Eixample, and noticed that the area seemed much more attractive. So, when I discovered that Icelandair didn’t fly out of Madrid at the end of October, and that flying home from Barcelona instead of Madrid offered better routes, I decided that I would revisit Barcelona but that this time I would stay in the Eixample. When I couldn’t find a hotel at a reasonable (to me) rate, I booked an AirBnB apartment on the Carrer des Balmes, two blocks from the Casa Battlo. I was delighted, both with the Eixample and the apartment. My opinion of Barcelona completely changed, for the better. I was also confirmed in my decision to only rent apartments from single women and couples – not only was this apartment well equipped and squeaky clean, there were plenty of towels, and the towels and sheets were pristine white. It had a sun-trap terrace with lounging chairs, too.
The cathedral in the Barri Gotic
I did revisit the Ramblas, and the Barri Gotic. I liked the Ramblas even less this time, with tour groups marching along behind their leaders, and the market so clogged with people I didn’t venture inside. I made it all the way to the port, and regretted it when I got a close look at the Columbus monument. A glorification of colonialism, I particularly disliked the Native American, complete with feathered headdress, kneeling worshipfully at the feet of a missionary and gazing adoringly upwards. I did not take photos.
I preferred the old town, where I followed a walking tour from my guidebook. I thought about visiting the cathedral, but first it was closed, and then there was a line to get in, and after Burgos, Leon and Salamanca I didn’t feel too bad about missing it. Especially when I had bought a ticket for Sagrada Familia. Instead I visited the Casa de l’Ardiaca, the former Archdeacon’s residence that now houses the city’s archives. After admiring the charming Modernisme mail slot by Montaner on the outside, I very much enjoyed an exhibition of the work of Apelles Mestres, a multi-faceted artist I had never heard of.
I also spent time over on Montjuic, admiring the views from both the bottom and the top of the hill (although it was too hazy to really see Sagrada Familia) and visiting the Catalan Art Museum. Besides appreciating the art and the building, I ate lunch in the restaurant, with an excellent view over the city. But the Ramblas, the Barri Gotic and Montjuic were all secondary to my main interest, Modernisme. I had bought tickets ahead of time for three Gaudi sights: Sagrada Familia (timed entry), Casa Battlo (enter any time), and Casa Mila (preferential entry any time), as well as Domenech i Montaner’s Palace of Catalan Music, and I was also able to visit three more buildings and a museum of Modernisme. In the end, I was very glad the Icelandair flight hadn’t been available.
View from Montjuic (it’s steeper than it looks)
Saint Gregory the Pope, by Pedro Berruguete c. 1495