It's official! I've been in Barcelona a week. It's incredibly hot here, which makes travelling around the city less than fun, but at least cathedrals are generally cool temperature-wise, and there are public drinking fountains scattered around the city. Aside from being a respite from the heat, churches in Barcelona are also hugely popular tourist destinations; Sagrada Familia is the number one spot to visit in the city.
Before I regale you with witty tales of my adventures, I would like to address the ever-popular concept of language barrier. In my innocence, I figured that having mastered Spanish to a good extent travelling to Spain and speaking to everyone would be easy-peasy. FALSE. I am in Catalonia, friends, and Catalonia means Catalan. Now when I was in school, I got the impression that Catalan was sort of an ephemeral language, not terribly necessary to know and easy to circumvent. ALSO FALSE. I had to translate the directions on my microwave pasta because I had no idea how to follow directions written in Catalan. I'm picking up pieces here and there (Sortida=exit, si us plau=please, etc.) but it is tiring for the brain. That being said, I am furiously studying my Turkish, and praying for mercy when I start travelling west and everything turns to Basque. But I have persevered through the throngs of tourists, the language and the loneliness, and this is what I've been up to so far:
Barcelona Cathedral. A fantastic Gothic specimen of a church, with spectacular side chapels dedicated to saints and about a thousand manifestations of the virgin, plus a beautiful choir and crypt, which I couldn’t get into because they were being used for services. It was breathtaking, and it took me a moment to realize that the lightness in my chest was the absence of the homesickness I have been fighting--for me, churches (especially cathedrals) inspire a quiet awe in me that I find very grounding. The panic of leaving home was gone, and I could lose myself in the space.
Santa Maria del Pi. Located in the same general area as Barcelona Cathedral, quite beautiful and less touristy. I found a room labeled “Treasure” which immediately caught my eye--this must be where the magic happens. I was right--I found five reliquaries, about a bajillion monstrances, and even more chalices. It turns out, this church has a special relationship with its objects because the interior was burned out the day after the civil war started. The surviving objects are few and precious--even the chairs are on display. I might go back and investigate--there’s a cleaning lady too, whose uniform indicated that she is hired by a third party. I wonder what it’s like to clean churches?
Sagrada Familia. I got up nice and early to get to the cathedral ahead of the crowd. I got to the end of the line at 9:30 just in time for the teller to inform us that the next ticket would be sold for 1:30pm. We could come back later (hahahaha) or buy online (hahahahahahahahahahahaha). So I spent a good long time looking at the exterior, and then went on my merry way. I came back later in the day when they told me to and tried to get in again, but they were all sold out for the day. Hopefully I'll have the chance to return when it's finished.
Sant Pau Reciente Modernista. In a bit of a tiff after my battle with Sagrada Familia, I headed off in the direction of what looked like a church (it had Sant in front of the name, so I foolishly thought it couldn't be anything else) and walked for a while. I would like to give a shoutout here to my sandals, the real MVP--they are holding up better than I am. However. Sant Pau Reciente Modernista is not a church. It’s a museum--sort of, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was once the foremost hospital in Barcelona, and now the collection of buildings is an empty shell. An empty shell, however, in the manner of a pysanky egg. The buildings are exquisitely gilded inside and out, looking like a village of palaces, and I can only imagine how it must have been to be a patient in bedazzled wards. The style is dubbed “Catalonian Modernism” and I’ve never seen anything like it--in the best way possible.
Tarragona. Unlike the other spots I've been to, Tarragona is not in Barcelona. Rather, it is a city in its own right (a walled city, I might add--the best kind of city) about an hour's train ride south of Barcelona. The train ride itself was actually quite pleasant. Here is a List Of Things Learned On A Train Trip In Spain:
- Fanny packs are in. Like, way in. Like, I’m pretty sure they were never out. Pick up yours today from Louis Vuitton, Coach, or anywhere fine fanny packs are sold.
- Public transportation makes people rude. And old Spanish women with tiny dogs are no exception. In fact, I think they are the reason for this rule.
- Nude beaches sneak up on you. All you wanted to do was stare out the window at the surf instead of at the eight prepubescent Spanish Justin Biebers sitting next to you, and suddenly there is nothing but naked people for miles.
- Gayland is, in fact, a fantastic beach shack decorated entirely with rainbows that looks out on the Mediterranean. It is also inaccessible except for by crossing high-speed train tracks. Be careful, my friends!
- The nude beach will still be there when you go back in the other direction.
In all seriousness, Tarragona might be my favorite spot so far. The cathedral there is absolutely beautiful, and I'm particularly partial to it because I had it to myself for half an hour in the morning, and the silence of a cathedral is the best kind of silence there is. I did some digging into all the recent conservation work they have had done there, but everyone I talked to either knew nothing or could only talk about history. Not quite what I was hoping for. I got a website to look into of the conservators who had most recently worked on the cathedral, so we’ll see where that goes. I also found an enormous monstrance that was made by a goldsmith to replace an original that was stolen in 1939. Curiouser and curiouser. One of the most interesting pieces of the cathedral for me, however, was a corner in the gardens near the cloister, where hundreds of names had been scribbled onto the stones. At first I was outraged--how dare they? And then I saw that the names went back in some cases almost a century, and my view began to change. Why leave your name in a church? Are they part of the church now? Can they be sacred like the building? Hm.
Museu Nacional d'Art Catalunya. The National Museum of Catalonian Art is very beautiful, and at the top of some very, very tall stairs. My recommendation? Bring a water bottle and a jet pack. I headed straight for the Gothic exhibition halls and dug in. I scoped out a couple of guards and chose one that looked nice, and a conversation followed something like this:
“I have a question. Well, I would like your opinion.”
“Go for it.”
“In this exhibition space, a lot of these objects depict sacredness, or were used for spiritual acts. But now that they’re here, are they art objects or sacred objects?”
He didn’t miss a beat.
He then gave me an incredibly eloquent explanation that I wish I could replicate, and it went along these lines: the place of these objects is now within the history of art. Even if they were once sacred, they cannot be anymore. The fact that they are in a museum, with white walls and people looking at them, makes them useful to study history and the evolution of artistic style, but these objects have no impact on “el culto” (sort of "cult" but not really--more like religious persons) anymore.
He recommended very strongly that I visit the Romanesque hall before I left, which I did, and I could immediately see why he suggested it. The Romanesque exhibition hall is room after room of replicated churches, displayed for the sake of the MNAC’s very impressive collection of Romanesque wall paintings. If anything were to be creating an aura of sacredness in the museum, it wasn’t the Gothic spaces--it was the Romanesque. They’ve also done a fascinating job of integrating modern art pieces into the Romanesque spaces. It was altogether more like what I had been expecting from a museum with so many religious pieces, but still the didactics were all about evolution of style, subject matter, or history. No spirituality at all.
I know that this has been an incredibly long post. Perhaps I'll have to do this more often so I don't overload you with all my musings. But I can promise you I'm doing a lot of thinking and planning, and my brain can't be stopped by the heat.
TL;DR, Barcelona has been and continues to be great, and I'm squeezing every last bit out of the city before I leave on Monday. Ciao!