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Basking in Barcelona
By Heather Gross

In the shade of Barcelona Cathedral's ornate, 230-foot-tall spires covered with construction scaffolding, oboists and trumpeters begin playing a moderately fast yet somber song. In front of them in the square, passers-by suddenly put down their bags and join hands to form a circle. They begin to dance, holding their arms up triumphantly while stomping and kicking their feet in unison. While eating tapas at a café on the square, my mother and I and my dear friend from college watch with amazement as the locals perform the Sardana, a traditional Catalan dance that takes place every Sunday.

Munching on fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, I realize that our five-day adventure in Barcelona is much like the meal I am eating - a sampling of many different delightful moments all rolled into one experience.

The city of Barcelona offers a taste of everything. Within nearly every block, there are cafes, pubs and tapas bars. It seems as if people are constantly eating and drinking. The music from street performers drifts down the promenades, and mimes covered in gold or silver paint so thick it flakes stand perfectly still in the narrow alleys of the ancient parts of the city. Blue, red and yellow flags supporting FC Barcelona - the champion European soccer team - proudly hang off apartment balconies. By the picturesque shores of the Mediterranean, vendors sell everything from gelato to Route 66 pins, and nearby, botanical gardens wind down the side of Montjuic, a steep little mountain once used by the Romans as ceremonial grounds. Palau de la Musica Catalana, the finest concert hall, hosts performances by internationally renowned musicians and also is one of the city's greatest examples of Catalan modernism architecture, with statues of musicians protruding from the highly ornamented inner walls. But Barcelona's true claim to fame is the work of one man: Antoni Gaudi.

Born in 1852, Gaudi was a daring architect bent on creating modernist designs imbued with Catalan nationalism - a sense of pride in the northeastern region of Spain, which throughout recent history has struggled for autonomy. What does that mean for his architecture, exactly? His structures are bold, bordering on wacky, and appear as if they were designed by someone on hallucinogenic drugs. In essence, they're genius.

Our first stop on the trip, Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera, is an early 20th century Gaudi apartment building that probably gives structural engineers nightmares. Unlike all of the buildings around it, Casa Mila's exterior contains few right angles. There are no corners on the balconies or points to the stone walls, which seem to undulate. From the street level, it resembles something out of "The Flintstones." The inside of the building remains private residences, but the roof is open to the public.

Stone hills on the building's roof require us to go up and down sets of stairs. Large, twisting sculptures reach toward the sky. Saying she feels like we're in "Alice in Wonderland," my mother gets vertigo and has to sit down. But the incredible views of the city then lure her to look out from the roof's edge. If it wasn't for the view, we would forget that we're on a building's roof, with the hills and sculpture evoking the sense of being in a park.

As we approach our next Gaudi adventure, Parc Guell, it's hard not to think of Disneyland. The giant park founded by one of Gaudi's patrons suggests a very strange dream. On a staircase surrounded by large white spikes, a lizard covered in a mosaic of colorful tiles - called trencadis tiling - watches us enter the park. At the top of the stairs, a huge terrace with a fantastic view of the city is encased by a serpentine bench with similar tiling. Tourists wait patiently for their chance to take pictures of the view - but my mother, who will always remain a New Yorker at heart, pushes through the crowd to get to the best spots.

Splitting off from the terrace are winding paths that pass bizarre structures. Along the way, professional-sounding musicians provide the park's soundtrack. Near one set of clay-colored stairs, a man plays Bach's Toccata and Fugue - written for organ - on a Caribbean steel drum.

The Parc Guell terrace offers a splendid view of Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece. The Gothic-inspired cathedral has been under construction since 1882. It won't be done anytime soon, either. At the earliest, the building will be completed by 2030, taking so long because of Gaudi's elaborate design. The cathedral is the perfect place for pickpockets - who, according to locals, lurk everywhere in the city - because the throngs of visitors must crane their necks to soak in all of the quirky details running up the walls. The building's overwhelming, bumpy exterior looks like it's melting, but within the chaos are scenes in great detail. There are many tableaus from the Bible hidden in the facade, but there are also scenes representing life in Catalonia - a group of musicians plays stone instruments, and a chicken tends to her chicks above one of the cathedral's doors. The inside of the cathedral is no less spectacular, with funky shapes on the ceiling and elaborate stained glass windows.

Not all of Barcelona's art comes in the form of a building. Hidden down a narrow street in the old part of the city is the Museu Picasso, which boasts one of the largest collections of Pablo Picasso's early works. By the time Picasso moved to Barcelona at the age of 14, he was painting self portraits that would make Rembrandt jealous. Walking through the museum, we see how drastically the artist's work changed during the course of his lifetime as it slowly becomes more avant-garde. I learn that Picasso had mastered the styles of Monet and Van Gogh before turning to Cubism.

A contemporary of Picasso, Joan Miro, has a museum in his honor near the top of Montjuic. At the museum, I find myself staring at his surrealist works, trying to make sense out of the seemingly random colorful circles and lines. "You don't get it, do you?" my mother asks. Shaking my head no, I head for the botanical gardens behind the museum.

Of course, some of Barcelona's treasures are not on the beaten path. Our desire to find something to do during the afternoon siesta - when people close up shops to rest after lunch - leads us to the Museu de la Xocolata, a chocolate lover's dream. Run by the Confectionery Guild of Barcelona, visitors enter the small museum by purchasing a ticket made out of dark chocolate. Inside, the museum explains the history of chocolate in Spain using display after display of elaborate chocolate sculptures - including a three-foot-wide miniature arena with a milk chocolate matador fighting a dark cocoa bull. At the end of the exhibit, a room showcases chocolaties' modern works of art. Colorful cocoa scenes from Wall-E and The Simpsons beg for someone to reach out and take a bite.

Luckily, our palates could be satisfied elsewhere.

Most of the restaurants in the busier neighborhoods serve tapas, small plates perfect for curious and indecisive diners. Casual restaurants court American tourists, flaunting cheeseburgers and french fries next to the common Spanish dishes, such as potato omelets, fried squid and thinly sliced prosciutto. One place near our hotel even plays country music, including the Alan Jackson song about buying a Mercury, while it serves heaps of fresh shrimp and pitchers of fruity, potent sangria. The more upscale restaurants offer a "chef's choice" option, which yields a variety of the day's freshest goodies.

Before my mother boarded the plane for Europe, she made sure to learn the phrase, "nothing with eyes" in Spanish. The phrase can come in handy for picky eaters, but luckily for me, she does not use it when ordering the "chef's choice" at Cerveceria Catalana, a restaurant locals swear by that requires an hour-long wait because of its proximity to a tourist haven. To our surprise, a plate of small fish - pescaditos fritos - is placed on our table. Nothing can entertain a daughter as much as watching her mother try to calmly eat little fried fish with their skin and heads still intact.

Alongside tapas, many restaurants serve the traditional Spanish rice dish called paella. Paella is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the taste buds. Saffron turns the rice a deep orange, and the look of it makes it taste even better. All of the ingredients - usually a variety of vegetables and meats - used in the dish are fresh. Restaurants tend to put whole prawns into the dish, so eating requires tearing apart the little crustaceans covered in sauce. The mess makes it all the more fun to eat.

Watching the locals as they dance to another song in the square, I laugh at my friend for deciding he must finish his giant pan of paella just to prove himself to our waiter, who scoffed at the amount of food we ordered. I savor a slice of prosciutto and cool glass of sangria, and realize that the meal seems to bring together all the strands of vibrant Barcelona. 


Story published Friday, September 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 5 )

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