Thursday, December 12, 2013

¡Viva España! Barcelona Day 1 Sagrada Familia and more Gaudi

Despite having visited Madrid, and to a lesser extent Barcelona, many times, I never felt that I really knew or appreciated Spain.  Those prior trips had all been business related, where I would fly in, attend some meetings, then perhaps enjoy a nice dinner or drinks somewhere, followed by more meetings, before quickly flying out to my next destination.  Moreover, my last trip to Spain was over a decade ago.  Time sure flies.  It was time to revisit Espana and finally dig a little deeper.

I needed to be in Barcelona for some meetings, and decided I would use the trip to tumble around the country.  Fortuitously, I had also been trying to learn some Spanish after last year's Costa Rica trip, intending to go back there soon.  I remain skeptical of my language learning abilities, particularly at this stage in my life, but the Pimsleur program is easy and fun, and I wanted to pick up some survival phrases.  Living in Japan had taught me that knowing just a modicum of the local language could make a huge difference in one's experience.  While Latin American Spanish differs slightly from that spoken in Espana, this trip would also be a great excuse to test my abilities.  As it turned out, my Spanish was worse than I expected but the rewards for knowing even those few words were better than I could have hoped.

I had some meetings in Barcelona, but then planned many more days to explore the Andalusian region of Grenada, Cordoba and Seville, before touching base in Madrid and flying back home.  In all, it would be a 12 day trip.  So what if that meant that I would spend more days as a tourist than as a serious business person?  I have spent enough of my years doing the opposite.

I booked an overnight coach flight from New York to Barcelona.  Normally, I book transocean flights in business class, but for some reason, perhaps because I was feeling extra thrifty, I couldn’t justify paying 5x the price to fly business.  As a small business owner, every dollar counts because it’s my own.  When I got to the airport, however, United Airlines told me I could upgrade to business class on this outbound leg for a relatively modest amount.  I took it, and I am glad I did because I needed the sleep if I wanted to hit the ground running.

I landed in Barcelona early morning.  My hotel was near the convention center but not convenient to downtown.  I had done my research, though, and knew that the hotel was easily accessible from the airport by a public bus.  In the mood for a little adventure, and trying to make a small amend for flying business class, I hopped on the airport bus, paid my 2 euros, and kept my fingers crossed.  Saving the taxi fare did assuage my cost conscience a little.

I got off the bus at the Ikea store as my research indicated, but then realized I had no idea of the hotel’s precise location.  I knew that the hotel was within a block or so of where I was standing, but which way?  There were no street signs.  The buildings nearby had interesting exteriors, so I snapped my first real Spanish photos, and then asked a passerby in my best broken Spanish "¿dónde está el hotel." (Thank you Pimsleur!)

As it turned out, the funky red building was my hotel.  The hotel reminded me of the Aloft hotels in the SPG chain (spartan, trendy, vaguely Scandinavian style rooms), and it served me well during my stay here.  Normally, I would have preferred to stay closer to downtown, but the public transport connections were easy as advertised so no real complaints.

I had most of my first day free until the late afternoon, so I dropped off my bags and eagerly headed into the city.  Still in a thrifty mood, I skipped a taxi.  In my broken Spanish, I managed to find the suburban train stop around the corner, and figured out the ticket system.  The train connected to the metro loop, allowing me to reach anywhere in Barcelona inside of 30 minutes.

I had originally wanted to start my exploration at Placa de Catalonya, the city’s main square, but at the last moment decided to head over to Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, one of Barcelona’s most famous attractions  and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The church was designed by Antoni Gaudi.  Construction started in the 19th century.  Today, the church is still not yet complete with major construction on-going.  You can see the construction cranes in the photos.  I have visited countless churches of all kinds throughout the world, but Sagrada Familia blew me away.  It was unlike any of the Gothic or Romance styles to which I had grown accustomed.  The church was also my first introduction to the Gaudi style of architecture which is popular in Barcelona.

Thankfully, the queue to enter the church was quite short.  Apparently, sometimes one has to wait hours to enter.  Indeed, the queue was much longer when I later exited.  I quickly bought my ticket, and spent a lot of time walking around the outside.  The church’s exterior is incredibly elaborate and covered with mini-statues and scenes.  It was hard to take it all in but I shot a ton of photos in an attempt to do so, referring to my guidebook to make sense of the little details.

The interior was even more amazing, with a mesmerizing stained glass display that bounced off the white columns.  Because of the open design and airflow, the stained glass, intricate arches and lofted ceilings made the church feel joyful, compared to the somber tones often found in classic designs.  And that's the thought that really struck me.  Why shouldn't a church be foremost joyful and uplifting, as opposed to solemn and serious?  I spent a good hour or two inside just snapping photos and marveling at Gaudi's genius.

I am not sure how the church will look when it is finally finished.  There is a fine line between beautifully idiosyncratic and, well, just plain “gaudy” (pun very much intended).  However, as it stands now, Sagrada Familia was a terrific introduction to Barcelona for me.

Having been suitably introduced to the Gaudi style, I pulled out my guidebook and decided to walk toward the famous “Gaudi Houses" of Barcelona.  Along the way, I noticed that the city had other interesting architecture in many places.  I freely snapped photos everywhere.

I found many of these buildings photogenic, even if I had no idea what those buildings were as I could not find the references in my guidebook.


I had already taken a ton of photographs at the Sagrada Familia, and that posed a new problem for me.  I had left my battery charger at home.  Ugh.  My point-and-shoot has a long battery life, but I knew it wouldn’t last more than a day or so with my usual volume of photos.  Prior to my departure, I had looked for a spare charger at the airport kiosk, but the universal charger there cost $85.  That’s almost half the cost of my camera!  I found a couple of camera shops on the streets as I walked toward the Gaudi houses, but they priced their universal chargers from 40-50 euros.  You can order the exact same model on Amazon for $8, but I guess the point is that Amazon was not an option for me or anyone else in a desperate situation.  I decided to wait.

I reached my first Gaudi designed house, Casa Mila, and debated whether to go into this UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I was tempted, but short on time.  I am also less interested in furnishings and interior design than exterior architecture, so I satisfied myself with the outside and then moved on.  I'm not sure if that was a wise decision, but I had a good time walking around the exterior and taking in the details.

I went next to the second famous Gaudi designed house, Casa Batllo.  To my untrained eyes, the building looked like an amusement house.  To be frank, I preferred the the architectural style of the distinctive adjacent buildings.  While Gaudi’s style was very effective on the Sagrada Familia, I am not sure how much I like his vision on these more conventional buildings.  Again, I decided to skip going inside.

It was time for me to head back.  I meandered towards Placa de Catalonya (the main square) where I could catch the metro and suburban train back to the hotel.  Along the way, the guidebook pointed out some of the more interesting buildings, such as the Fundacio Antoni Tapies which has a unique barbed-wire looking roof design.

Once I got to the square, I decided to look once more for a battery charger before heading back to the hotel and convention center.  I found one for 30 euros in the large department store.  I reluctantly bit the bullet and bought it, unhappy with myself for being careless in leaving mine at home.  Still, it did not detract from a good first day reintroduction to Barcelona and to Spain.  The church was amazing, and I enjoyed my walk through the modern section of the city.

I spent the rest of the day on more serious (but much less interesting matters) back at the convention center.

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