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El albergue

El albergue

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Barcelona, city of the old and the new


The main entrance to Parc Güell, one of the most famous attractions in Barcelona

Last weekend, I made a sort of last-minute trip to Barcelona, a city full of life and energy.  Before going, I had some expectations (of course, who doesn’t have thoughts and ideas about what their destination holds in store?), expectations formed around everything I’ve seen in other Spanish towns such as Segovia and Toledo, cities that have charmingly conserved an overall air of antiquity and historical importance.  In short, even though I knew that Barcelona was famous for such modern architecture as that of Gaudi, I was expecting to find a city that spoke to me of older times, that seemed to breathe the same breath as a thousand years ago.  Instead, I found a city of contrasts, modernism next to antiquity, the two coexisting in a juxtaposition that highlighted their differences while at the same time revealing the harmony of peaceful integration.

For instance, when we arrived Saturday morning, we went on a hike up the hills to the north of the city in the area called Tibidao; the hills were covered in a blanket of trees, mute and ageless witnesses to the change that has gone on below them through the centuries, to the creeping expanse of buildings that has grown up from the sea’s edge.  We dodged our way past the cloud of mountain bikers zooming around through the trails, stopping at first one lookout point then another, surrounded by the peaceful presence of nature and looking out at the vista of street upon street and building upon building of a thoroughly modern metropolis. 

The Nativity Façade of La Sagrada Familia
On Sunday, we visited the Parc Güell and La Sagrada Familia, both important works by the modern architect Gaudi, both an interesting mixture of past and present.  In Güell, the calm charms of nature once again formed the backdrop for the works of the present, although here, instead of looking out over them, we found them mingled with the bushes and the trees, oddly placed yet somehow at one with their environment.  La Sagrada Familia was also an interesting mix of old and new – construction began in 1882 and will continue for at least another half century, so some of the building is visibly aging while other sections have the pristine whiteness of fresh fabrication.  We sat on a bench in the park across the street from one of the completed sides, the Nativity façade, trying to take in the enormity of sculptural details that all function together to tell the story of why Jesus came to Earth, contrasting it in our minds to the more modernistic angular austerity of what we had seen in the Passion façade on the other side. 

Walking through the streets around our hostel at night, we experienced an incredible mixing of history and modernity – the crooked paths of the Barri Gótic (gothic neighborhood) were lined with touristy shops and restaurants nestled in among buildings whose architecture represented an age gone by, hordes of tourists pouring through the narrow channels in search of the essence of Barcelona or maybe just some place good to eat.  In the plaza in front of the beautiful, if somewhat dilapidated, cathedral, we came across the curious (and apparently weekly) sight of rings of Catalans in their regular, modern clothes dancing the sardana, the age-old traditional dance of the area, to the sound of a small live orchestra, celebrating tradition in the middle of a gawking crowd of invaders with cameras for eyes and map for minds. 

View of the port from Montjüic

Monday, we spent the day hiking through the vast grounds of Montjüic, a hilly promontory next to the port that combined yet again the durance of nature and the changes of a contemporary culture.  Not only were there magnificent views of the sea and the city, there were historical gardens and palaces once inhabited by the most important people as well as a modern art museum and the sports complex that hosted the 1992 Olympic games, everything connected by both quiet shady paths and busy paved roads. 

The Olympic Stadium
On Monday evening, as we waited for the hour to come when the overnight bus would whisk us away back to Madrid, we sat on a bench in the overlap area of the port and Las Ramblas, one of the most famous and touristy streets in the city, talking and watching the masses of people milling about as the sun set behind the bulky outline of Montjüic and the colors faded from the sky.  The sea breeze fluttered the sails of the boats in front of us, and the water softly washed up against the pier, a reminder of the durance of the natural landscape on which the city has grown; the Monument a Colom (Columbus Monument) stood out against the lights of the city, a reminder of the glory that Barcelona and Spain as a whole has seen in its history; the rumble of traffic filled the air around the large works of contemporary art that lined the port walk, a reminder of the modernity that has integrated itself with the natural and human history of the city.  The contrast of past and present was stark, obvious, yet perfect in its starkness, beautiful in its obviousness – it was Barcelona, city of both the old and the new.
Sunset, and the end of the trip

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