Lara had been with us on our last visit to Barcelona, when we flew home from here two years ago. She had been keen to see some of Gaudi’s building works and we had toured the first important house he had designed, Palau Guell. This was interesting, but starker than the patterns and organic wonders of his later work. Clever though, it reminded me of the little Honk Kong flat on U-tube, with the visual effects used to make a narrow town house seem like an estate. Instead of closed corridors balconies over a central hall had been used to make the hall seem wider than it was and the same trick had been used on the upper storey windows to steal space from the street. My favorite trick was having a pair of huge doors on one wall of this hall, which opened out to reveal an altar, Jesus on the cross, the whole works, to turn the hall into a family chapel. God in a cupboard. Lara, John and I had climbed through the house listening to our audio guides until we came out onto the roof’s curving surfaces. The tall mosaic clad chimney pots turned out not to be by Gaudi, but by a number of contemporary artists paying homage to the man. No wonder I had always been surprised by how modern the ceramic work looked in photographs. Apparently Gaudi had never finished them off for whatever reason. We had then decided to seek out the genuine article and headed off to Parc Guell. We took the metro and then walked up several steep sets of steps into the park, which Lara complained about and we suffered in silence. The entrance to the park was through the woods, some way through the woods to the main entrance. John and I enjoyed the meandering route, but Lara was less than enthused. The woods were shady and opened to spectacular views of the city. Even so it was increasingly hot work and we were glad to buy water from some enterprising hawkers of small icy bottles for a Euro. Eventually we arrived into the top of Gaudi’s fantasy cloisters ranged in tiers on the hillside. On my one previous visit this had been my favorite bit of the park. Musicians were taking advantage of both the crowds and the acoustics. In one alcove a lone Spanish guitarist was filling the air with strains of Rodrigo, while far enough away not to interfere with him a jazz trio were busking. As we reached the main park entrance we came upon a long queue for tickets into the part of the park with the Hobbit houses and the mosaic features. This had just been open to wander into on our previous trip ten or so years ago. After joining the line we found out the tickets on sale were for entry in more than two hours time. At this point we settled for peering through the gates and decided to walk back to the Cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, which still has the builders in. This had again turned out to be further than John thought. We slogged down the hot streets back into town to try the Cathedral only to be thwarted by the same issue. This time the queue was even longer and the tickets were being sold for the evening, when it would have been in darkness. In spite of her disappointment and being hot and tired of walking Lara had come up with a back up plan thanks to Trip Adviser and found us a marvelous Tapas bar near to the Cathedral for a late lunch.
This trip we decided to learn from our previous mistake and take an early taxi ride straight to the Parc Guell entrance, buy our tickets and explore the woods till the time for them came round. On our way we passed by the already mobbed Cathedral, around which everyone was looking up, up, up. The park entrance was also already buzzing, but the ticket queue was reassuringly short. Then we realized the only tickets for that day were to go in at seven thirty pm. We asked about the following day and there were tickets at eight am and one ticket for one o’clock. Foiled again. If you plan to visit Barcelona do book tickets on line well in advance. John tried to book for the Cathedral, but the website was too overloaded with images for the signal strength. Once more we peered through the gates at the bright tiles of the whimsical entrance and then explored the woods, with their boulder pergolas, which I still feel is the best part. Just as well really. This time we were treated a flamenco performance by a group of lean young men, the dancer with waist length hair flailing as he span, the others making a loud rhythmic clapping accompaniment with energetic shouts. Stumped for where to go next we had a coffee in a nearby garden and John found another Gaudi building with his phone. Mindful of the long walk down we picked up one of the stream of taxis bringing folk to the park, showed the driver John’s phone and we were off to Cassa Battlo.
Cassa Battlo is the building with the balconies that look like masks and the roof tiled like a dragon. I had always wanted to see it and it turned out to have been the last house Gaudi built. There was the usual queue, but luckily this time the tickets were for immediate consumption. There was a fast track line for those who had booked online, which caused a bit of a muddle around the entrance, capably managed by a girl, whose job I would not want to have. The demand was such that John and I joined steady procession through the house informed by an audio tour on individual headphones. That said it was quite a peaceful experience and we took as long as we wished over the various rooms. There was a mesmerizing quality about the place, a feeling of being underwater in a Jules Verne fantasy. And of a space completely controlled by one person’s will. Natural daylight was filtered down the center of the building by tiles in graded shades of blue, progressed from dark to light, so that the lower storeys received brighter reflected light. The main staircase wound up this tunnel of blue round a lift shaft with walls of dimpled glass. The outer windows grew smaller the higher up the building, again to control the light levels. Organic shaped inner windows, framed in molded oak let light through from one space to another. The doors were similarly formed, the tops glazed with a pattern of circles, which changed colour as one passed through and looked back at the luster from the reverse. The main reception room could be divided by half glazed doors which each folded elegantly in three to reveal layers of woodwork. The room had floor length windows with gorgeously curved wooden frames, which could be raised to gain access to the exotic balconies by strings of metal levers. Organic shapes abounded as walls blended into ceilings on which a subtle fretwork pattern spread. The only right angles in sight were those of the stair treads.
The colour and decoration ceased in the attic levels, with walls were the colour of bone, but a series of parabolic arches separated rooms along each corridor in a rhythmic display of structure. Along the large room across the attic front the plastered arches were modeled on the structure of a ribcage to further enhance the feeling of being now inside a giant beast. We came out onto the roof and beheld the tiled back beast, surely a sea serpent. The chimney pots had been tiled by Gaudi and were much more subtle in effect with pastel tiles covering them in stylized flowers, said to have been inspired by Monet’s water lilies. The chimney pots had been grouped to allow a flat roof around the central skylight, forming a garden in the sky. We had only seen one stove in the building, so the numbers of chimneys suggest much that is not open to the public.
As we descended to the inevitable gift shop John wondered how anyone could furnish such a space. The man who molds balustrades and doorknobs on the interior contours of his own hand and designs a font to denote the separate chamber doors does not leave such things up to the taste of his client. The entrance to the shop held a display of Gaudi chairs. Sparse elegant wooden structures, molded to the human form for comfort without the need for messy upholstery. Replicas from an approved source can be ordered from the shop for a mere one and a half thousand Euros. Here are the chairs and other bits of detail, note the wavy skirting and some of the cellular painting on the walls.
All in all Cassa Battlo would be my choice of the ultimate Gaudi experience and I would recommend booking online for an early slot. When we told Lara of our days frustrations she could not believe we had not learned this from our previous visit, but I am rather glad we did not, as we would probably then not have had time for this masterpiece.