Monday, August 18, 2014

Visit to Europe - part 4: Gaudi's Barcelona

So after a swift reboot of our trip to Barcelona, things improved. After basking in the AC for an hour or two, we set off for Montjuïc, the site of the National palace, the Joan Miro museum and the Olympic venues from the 1992 games. The walk up to the palace from the Espanola Metro stop is pure photo-bait. The cascading terraces matched with fountains creates the spectacle, the unexpected escalators leading almost all the way to the top was an unexpected treat. In addition to housing examples of Gothic and Medieval art from Spain, the National Palace also provided one of the better views of downtown Barcelona.

The Joan Miro museum is nicely structured as an overview of his work but at that point in the day we starting to lose steam. After we left it was a short walk to a funicular leading down to Paral-lel and then a short tour of the famous shopping district La Rambla.

The next day we found another funicular (this one closer to what I think people mentally picture with that word) that lead to the top of Mount Tibidabo, the amusement quarter for the city. We had a surprisingly good and economical lunch at the cafeteria and then took some pictures of the slightly surreal clash of skyline, roller coasters, and gothic cathedral. One of these pictures shows a large hovering hummingbird hawk-moth, which I was certain was a tiny bird until I noticed the antennae, sipping nectar from a flower.

We had gotten a glimpse of Antoni Gaudi's work during our first day of bus tour but after coming down from Tibidabo, we decided it was time to take a tour of one of his more famous works, the Casa Batlló.

Okay, I'm just going to put this out here - I wish I had known more about Gaudi before I came to Barcelona. I knew in vague terms who Gaudi was. I knew that he had started this mind-bendingly weird basilica (which I shall describe shortly) and had the impression he had designed all of these incredibly strange houses. Our tour of Barcelona mentioned a few more factoids - that he had a difficult childhood but after his peculiar genius was recognized by a financial backer in the late 19th century (Eusebi Guell) Gaudi set out to remake the face of his city. His modernisme architecture gets lumped in with the concurrent Art Nouveau movement but other than certain swirling, vine-twining motifs, it really doesn't have much in common with that style. Ultimately, Gaudi was struck by a Barcelona tram and died several days later when he was mistaken for a bum.

Gaudi took nature as a kind of hand-book for how to build structures, using the structure of bee combs, plant stalks, and sea shells as practical models for how human-sized structures should be built.

For example, on approaching the Case Batlló, we were confronted with a house that seemed to have been somehow grown into place, the columns and balconies more like the exposed skeleton of some marine animal than what might be traditionally be called architecture.

 And yet, walking through the cavities and ventricles of the Casa Batlló, one is struck not with the weirdness of its flowing, organic shapes, but its essential correctness. The melting, liquid forms lend something very human to the living space inside - light. Gaudi was obsessed with light and this home was designed to permit as much natural light to filter down as possible. Even in the lower floors, unobtrusive skylights and gill-like louvres allow the outside into where people would live. We were invited to touch the house, to grip the curving handrails and open the doors. Gaudi left his mark on nearly everything within or without the house. The furniture was designed by him, the handles to the doors were modeled according to casts taken from his own hands. From the coral reefs of the bottom floor to the trencadís dragon spine curled at the top of the house, this was the product of a single fevered mind.

We ran out of time to visit the Sagrata Familia afterwards and so reserved it for our final day in Barcelona. Apparently many, many others had more or less the same idea because by the time we reached the line curling around the base of the basilica, all of the tickets were sold for visits before 6 pm. That was cutting a little close to the time of our flight out of Barcelona for comfort but Josh was able to get some online tickets for a slightly earlier time. That did mean we had some time to kill, which we used on a long walk back to the Gothic Quarter. In addition to tromping through several plazas filled with sounds of eating, drinking, and Spanish guitar, I came across a true oasis. Just up the avenue from the Barcelona Arc de Triomf, were stores for comic books, manga, miniatures, and board games. I dubbed it Plaza de Geek, and could've spend the rest of the afternoon bopping between each store.

But we were determined to go inside the Sagrata Familia and so, after navigating the Metro, arrived at 5:15 to walk through the gates. It's tempting to just let the pictures speak for themselves but I'm afraid they can't really give you a true sense of the scale and size of the Sagrata Familia. I realize that this is a structure built with a religious purpose in mind, consecrated by Pope Benedict in 2011, with a large crucifix hanging from the center of the transept in case any one was confused to the building's owners. But as try as I might, the basilica still persists in my mind as something separate or even superseding religion. As outlandish as the wet sand castle exterior appears, the inside is just sublime. It's like standing between the trunks of a petrified red wood forest, or sneaking around the legs of some Elder God.  The museum beneath the basilica shows how all of these natural forms are married to geometry, the structure of the basilica rife with parabolas, hyperboloids, and other conic sections. That's what makes Gaudi special, even his more bizarre experiments fulfill a purpose. For example, his unusual branching columns provide more room for windows, more room for light to fill his cavernous vault. Here, as in the Casa Batlló, light is the both the means and the end. Mostly people just walked around, visibly staggered by the scale of the place, bathed in spectral auras of light.

In college I read a book by the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called "Wonderful Life" about the Burgess Shale formation. In it Gould describes how the various creatures imprinted onto the shale were at first interpreted as belonging to familiar taxonomies - worms, crustaceans, and various invertebrates known to science at the time. It was only when the original shale samples were examined that the truth became clear, that the Burgess Shale showed the riotous profusion of life, the nearly unclassifiable experiments during the Cambrian Age. Creatures such as the spiny hallucinengia with very few descendants left in the world. I feel that something similar is going on in Gaudi's masterpieces, an experimentation with form that is sometimes echoed by current trends, but never surpassed.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Visit to Europe - Part 3: The Nine Circles of Barcelona

Our arrival at the Orly Airport outside of Paris for our Transavia flight to Barcelona offered a foreshadowing of what we would encounter the next couple of days. Approaching the check-in desk we saw an impossibly long line at complete stand-still. Lauren went ahead and discovered that, yes, this was our line. We settled in for a long wait, the line inching along, the time until our flight drawing nearer and nearer. Josh referred to this as the First Circle of Hell, but we weren't worried. We still had an hour and a half before our flight. Then we had an hour. Then 45 minutes. Eventually an attendant strolled past asking for passengers going to Barcelona. Identifying ourselves, the attendant escorted us to another shorter, but equally immobile line.

"Second Circle of Hell," Josh observed.

Another ten minutes passed and a second attendant strolled past asking again for passengers bound for Barcelona to wait in one final, very short line. Third Circle.

Once past the mobs of families wheeling their worldly possessions on tiny carts, we made it to security. Lauren emerged on the other side, I had my shoulder bag searched, and Josh basically had every bag he owned opened and searched. We were now ten minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave.

Lauren left Josh in the Fourth Circle to repack his luggage while we raced to our gate, to tell them to wait for him. Eventually we all reconnected on the plane, sank into our seats, as the plane taxied to the runway.

Barcelona's weather upon our exit from the airport might be described as room temperature. When we finally arrived in Barceloneta, the beach community where we had our Air BnB apartment, the impression I had was of an older Miami with really narrow streets. Our taxi finally maneuvered his way on to the Carrer del Baluard, making microscopic adjustments to avoid pedestrians, bikes, other cars, and trucks on a street barely wider than the car itself. Anyway, we were all happy to be out of the car, the apartment owner was already there to show us our home for the next four days.

Compared to Paris, this apartment was a huge disappointment. It was relatively close to the beach, as advertised, but didn't have AC, or working washing and dryers. The wifi was obtained through one of three sketchy addresses. Not all of this was apparent to us at first or we may have made a bigger stink while she was there.

"Is there no AC?" we asked, to which the owner replied, "No, no AC, just the fan."

The fan in question was about the size of a softball and made a menacing metallic sound like a saber being honed. We all decided to give it the night and then see if some of the more obvious problems could be resolved the following day. The beach beckoned.

The beach was the best thing about our first few days in Barcelona. It was basically the perfect temperature and when we were done we found a number of small open-air tapas restaurants for dinner. We missed Paris, but Barcelona was already finding ways to make us comfortable with the change.

Then we returned to Hell. Somehow, even as the evening had cooled off, the apartment had grown ever more stifling. We left the front door open while we unpacked to air out the room which meant that the apartment was filled with the din of drunk beach-goers returning to their apartments. Eventually we found our beds and tried to get to get some sleep inside the Fifth Circle. This was made more difficult by the street noises which never entirely ceased. Pedestrians, dogs, cars, street sweepers, and then around four am, the sounds of a work crew in the apartment across the street smashing tile and drilling into concrete.

The next day was better in that we left the apartment for a bus tour of Barcelona. I was struck by how large the city was, and we all found lots of places we wanted to return to, particularly the Gothic Quarter which despite a shocking lack of people loitering in the corners with dark clothes and eye-liner seemed interesting.

One thing that struck me was the sense of Barcelona being very big, and very diverse in appearance. The Gothic Quarter was old and stained with age, but other sections wouldn't have looked out of place in Paris, with rows of apartment blocks, ironwork balconies. Other places were very modern, the steel and glass monoliths common to business districts of every metropolis on earth. Eventually we returned to Barceloneta, went to the beach, and had some very fishy meals at a local seafood restaurant.

Then, back to Hell. Our day had been so busy we hadn't really gotten around to dealing with the whole apartment situation. It was even hotter than the day before and as Josh sent out a very nicely worded, very polite, but firm email we tried to get some kind of sleep. The response from the landlord was not good. It may have been an issue with language but we got the impression she thought we should either suck it up or move out. During our final night in Barcoleneta, we basted in the sweltering heat, lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of relentless traffic and jackhammers. The Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Circles of Hell in slow procession.

So we moved out. This occupied most of the next morning: repacking, hailing an Uber taxi, getting lost, and checking into the Barcelona Hilton. I have never been so appreciative of AC as I was walking into our room. We all decided to put the past couple of days behind us and just give this challenging but very photogenic city another chance with the final few days.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Visit to Europe - Part 2: Paris

The second day I wanted to see the Louvre. Josh had already seen it and Lauren wasn't particularly keen to spend the hours I knew I was going to walking around there so I woke up early Sunday morning to find its famous glass pyramid opening. I arrived shortly before 9:00 am, when the museum opened, to discover a line already stretching across the pyramid, across the courtyard, up some steps, well on its way to filling up the next courtyard. It took maybe half an hour to finally reach the ticket office and from there I was free to wander the galleries.

Warned against following the incipient hordes to the Mona Lisa gallery, I decided to visit the ancient art galleries first. Seeing as how every other gallery contained something - Hammurabi's stele, cuneiform astronomy tables, an statue of an Egyptian Scribe - that I teach in my classroom, this part of my visit felt more business than pleasure. No matter. One aspect of a museum like the Louvre is it opens your eyes to just how BIG history is. I encountered entire rooms devoted to near-eastern civilizations I had never heard of before. To place your nose close to the glass and see the stray marks left as the stylus was removed from the ancient wet clay is an uncanny experience, transporting the observer to a time when written symbols were the bleeding edge of technology.

Ultimately the Louvre is a 'drinking-from-the-fire-hose' sort of experience. After the 17th room filled with Egyptian sculptures and detailed descriptions of the development of Greek pottery, my eyes started to glaze over. After lunch I went back at it, putting on some music and tackling the masterpieces of Western Art. I strongly recommend listening to 'Air' while dodging the tour mobs in front of the Mona Lisa.

Reconnecting with Lauren and Josh later in the day we took a quick (free) tour of the D'Orsay museum. We didn't make it all the way through but Impressionism does offer a gust of fresh air after the endless labyrinth of the Louvre. The greats, the Monets, Manets, Renoirs, and Degas, are all clustered together and for some reason the crowds were nearly as impacted here. Lauren, interested in Art Nouveau, lead us through a final gallery before the museum closed. With lacy, intricate carvings and organic flowing shapes, Art Nouveau wouldn't seem out-of-place in Rivendale.

For dinner we decided to try this place, HD (Happy Days) Diner, which was a French attempt to emulate a 1950's American diner. How could we pass that up? For the most part they got it right, although the wisdom of essentially trying to emulate a Johnny Rockets menu in the city of fine cuisine seems a perverse endeavor. I give them extra points for having two different flavors of Dr. Pepper, minus one point for the brioche-like hamburger buns and minus a million points for sprinkling rosemary on the shoe-string french fries. It's not that anything was bad per say, but it really points to a basic misunderstanding of American food. Adding any spice to french fries other than barbecue is like making Converses out of Italian leather, technically possible but besides the point. The purpose of diner fries is to deliver large amount of greasy starch into your body as quickly as possible NOT to elicit an appreciation for the subtle interplay between tarragon and Tuscan olive oil.

Our last full day in France we took a boat tour of the Seine narrated by, I-swear-to-God, France's answer to David Tennant before Lauren and I went take a walking tour of Montmartre. Before heading to this obvious tourist trap I tracked a self-guided tour of the neighborhood. Following its detailed instructions was like pulling off a magic trick. Not only did we dodge the hordes of tourists, pick-pockets, and scam-artists in front of Sacré Coeur, but entire stretches of our walk were just us, strolling alone through one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in Paris, able to appreciate the houses and gardens as though we were the first happy couple to stumble onto the place.

 I was surprised learning Sacré Coeur is a product of the late 19th century, pegging it as much older. Apparently the entire basilica was constructed as an apology to the French people by the French government for the crushing defeat of the Franco-Prussian war. Could the Bush family do something like that for the last decade?

Our last night in Paris found us eating another great meal at the Le Cavalier Bleu and then returning to our apartment melancholy to leave this city the following morning. On to Barcelona!