Barcelona, Spain

May 3rd 2014, 2:15:00 pm

Even in winter the weather is Barcelona is lovely. As soon as I landed and got through customs, I put my heavy winter jacket away and was quite comfortable in just a T-shirt. It seemed like the warm weather would be great for helping me kick a cold that had been hanging around for my last few weeks in Berlin, which had left me sniffing and congested for far too long.

I spent the first few days not doing very much, walking around the city near La Rambla and enjoying the warmth, and trying to rest up.

Once I was feeling a bit better I took a free walking tour of Barcelona that went around a number of sites in the heart of Barcelona and gave some background and history about the city. The tour really made me realise how little I know about Spanish history, even the quite recent parts. I did not know that they had had a dictatorship right up until the mid-70s, which was apparently allowed by the rest of Europe because their dictator hadn't supported Hitler in WWII.

I also learnt about some rather unique Catalan Christmas traditions. The first being Caga Tio (Literal translation: Uncle Shit), a log with a smiling face and a blanket. Each day leading up to Christmas the kids beat Caga Tio with sticks "to help with digestion". Then on Christmas day, if the kids have beaten him enough to help him with his digestion problems, they peer under Caga Tio's blanket and find that he's pooped out a load of candy. An important life lesson to teach your kids!

Another strange Catalan Christmas tradition is the caganer. The caganer is a little man, squatted over with his arse hanging out of his pants, and on the ground behind him is a freshly made turd. He's apparently hidden somewhere in every good Catalan person's nativity scene, and the kids love to search for him. There was stall after stall selling these caganers, which you can get in the likeness of all kinds of celebrities, the most distasteful being Nelson Mandela the very same week he died. The guide said the caganer had something to do with the idea of giving back to the earth, but it just seems like they're obsessed with poop to me.

One evening I arranged to meet up with one of my old Envato workmates Ibrahim, and his beautiful wife Nathalie, to go and eat at a really nice tapas place they had told me about.

The place did not disappoint, everything we tried was delicious from the Spanish ham and croquettes to the not-so-traditional perfectly cooked little steak bites, with delightful sangria to wash it all down. I think my stand-out favourite was the little sandwiches withsobrasada (basically spreadable chorizo) and melted cheese. Spreadable meat seems like it should be a bit wrong, but it tasted fantastic. I'm told that when sturicho was visiting he loved the stuff too; Ibby said he probably would have brushed his teeth with the stuff if he could have :P

It was great to see Ibrahim and Nathalie again, they're both such kind hospitable people. It's always a pleasure spending time with them and I look forward to (hopefully) being able to converse in Spanish with them the next time we meet.

I managed to get along to see Güell palace, a building that was once the home of the Güell family, and which had been closed for renovations the last time I was in Barcelona.

It's another very beautiful building designed by Gaudí, designed with lots of smooth curves and vibrant colour. Gaudí used a lot of parabolic arches and other unique geometry in his designs which give both strength as well as visually interesting features to the building.

It featured a lot of quite complex wrought iron work which must have been made by very skilled craftsmen. It was all so neat and regular, it's hard to believe it wasn't done by a machine.

Up on the roof there were heaps of colourful chimneys, no two the same. Many were decorated with lots of tiny bits of broken tile, a style heavily used by Gaudí in a lot of his works, but there were also a few that were just red bricks built in interesting formations.

I made a visit to Plaza de España to go up to the roof of Arenas de Barcelona, an old bullring that has since been converted into a shopping centre. There's a lift out the front that you have to pay a few Euro to get up to the viewing platform on the roof, or you can go inside the shopping centre and use the escalators and get up there for free.

From the roof you get a nice view of the city in most directions. You also get a view looking straight at a hotel's swimming pool. I imagine it was built long before the viewing platform was there, but I can't imaging people rushing to use the pool now with hoards of people at Arenas looking straight out at you.

From there I got a bus to Montjuïc Castle and explore. I remember visiting here the last time I was in town, and the building seemed mostly how I remembered it, although I'm pretty sure it wasn't free last time and now it is :D

It's up on top of a hill, so it's another great place to get a view of Barcelona.

In the evening I went to see a light/water/sound show known as "The Magic Fountain". When I arrived there was an absolutely massive crowd and the show seemed to be delayed. Nobody seemed to have much of an idea what was going on so I ducked off for a quick drink, then from where I was having my drink I saw a huge fireworks show going off from the direction of the fountain. It wouldn't have seemed out of place on the TV amongst a wrap-up of the years NYE fireworks, it was really epic. I found out later that this was just for some couples wedding... rich people!

Anyway, I went back to the fountain and found that now that the fireworks were over they were back to a more normal schedule for the fountain. I took a seat and watched the wonderfully synchronised display. Some of the water effects were really foamy, and light and fluffy looking, and the lights coming through made it look like some sort of magic smoke. Really cool to see.

On a day that happened to be another public holiday I tried to go to Sagrada Familia, but the queue went right around the block. I wasn't really keen on waiting for hours to get in and have the place be cramped full of people so I went to Park Güell instead.

Sadly the public holiday meant even though I didn't have to wait long to get in, the park was packed to the rafters with people and felt like a circus. Nothing like the peaceful, attractive park I had such nice memories of.

It was really challenging to get a nice photo of any of the signature parts of the park without a dozen people also in the shot posing for their next Facebook avatar. I did manage to get a few shots that might mislead you into thinking it wasn't like that at all, but that's only because I'm both stubborn and patient and will wait around for 10+ minutes waiting for that tiny gap.

The most well known part of the park, the dragon, was a nightmare. There was an endless line of people waiting to rush in for their photo, myself included. I did manage to get one nice shot of it by itself, but the photos with me in them all had photobombers in the background.

I ended up leaving feeling a bit sick (the cold was still hanging around), frustrated and generally fed up with large crowds. I probably should have just rested on the public holidays and gone the next day.

I noticed that there was a couch surfing meet up happening at a little flamenco concert at a bar on the other side of town, so I headed over to check it out. I met a bunch of lovely South Americans there who all lived in Barcelona now. It was nice to hear some Spanish that I knew was actually Spanish for a change, all the Catalan that's spoken in Barcelona is really off-putting for a Spanish learner.

The flamenco show had beautifully played guitar and singing, and some _very_ passionate dancing. I had a "front row" seat, which meant the woman dancing was often facing right towards me, barely 2ft away, which did make me feel quite uncomfortable and self-conscious. My brain is weird sometimes.

One of the couch surfers was a nice girl from Chile, Natalia, who insists that I get in touch with her where I go to Chile or Uruguay, so she can put me in touch with her friends there to maybe stay with them. Win!

Next up went and had a look at Casa Batlló, another home designed by Gaudí. A lot of parts of the place have a bit of a dragon theme to them, with lots of scales and bone-like features on the façade and several more within.

This room had a very unique ceiling that spiralled around to look like a whirlpool vortex, with curved walls, curved doors... pretty much curved everything.

The internal stairwell is tiled with blue tiles, but with darker tiles at the top, slowly fading to lighter blue tiles at the bottom. This was done to compensate for the colours being washed out by the bright light of the skylight when looking up, so it would appear a uniform blue, and it worked pretty well at doing so.

Up on the rooftop there were more zany chimneys, decorated with the broken tile style. I don't know why every fireplace needs it's own separate chimney at the very top, but it makes them look interesting at least.

The roof tiles used on the very top of the façade really look like scales, with the ridge of the roof looking kind of like a colourful spine. Yet another building that would have been so cool to actually live in.

I returned to La Sagrada Familia and this time the lines were far more reasonable and I got in in about 20 minutes. This was one of my favourite buildings the last time I came to Spain and it still is today. It's probably my single favourite building anywhere in the world. A big call, but it's one heck of an impressive structure.

The building has been under construction for around 130 years now, with information in the museum estimating it will be completed in 2030, so I may even live to see it finished. My favourite side of the building last time was "The Passion" façade, which this time unfortunately was partially covered in scaffolding. The sculpture style is very angular and not really attempting to look really human, which I feel makes it far more interesting than the generic style that seems to dominate sculpture.

I found this model and learnt that even though the building is already huge, the 5 or 6 tallest towers are not built yet. The central "Jesus" tower alone is going to be nearly double the height of any of the existing ones. Epic!

I got to go up inside one of the Nativity towers, which thankfully they have an elevator to take you up. You get a good view of the city, some interesting angles on the construction that's taking place, and some eery long drops to look down the middle of spiral staircases.

It was a lot of steps down from the tower, in a rather tight and dizzying spiral, but it's way better walking down steps than up them.

The time of day, and the intense brightness of the suns, meant that the stained glass was casting lots of wonderfully pretty light inside the building. There are still large area where the windows are just plain glass, so I can only imagine the rainbow this place will be when all the windows are done.

I just love all the clean complexity of all the shapes involved, with so much of it coming from fairly simple math and geometry concepts. The columns for example are double twisted, meaning that they have twice as many "sides" at their tops than they do at the bottom, and there's no sudden point where this shape change takes place. There was a video of the machine they used to produce them and it was mesmerizing to watch. The whole geometry section of the official site is worth checking out if you like that kind of stuff.

That was in the very interesting museum underneath that I don't recall from last time. There was lots of information about the design, including a replica of the hanging model of the building, made from string and sandbag weights, which was used to work out the correct angles for everything to bear the weight.

I've started to wonder what my photos from last time I visited looked like, and if I had enough foresight to take photos of both the completed and under construction parts of the building to compare. This time I made sure I took some photos of the construction, which while not particularly interesting now, will be great to look back on in 20 years and seeing this massive structure still heavily in progress.

The last thing of note I checked out was this strange egg shaped building called Torre Agbar. At night the building is a slowly changing cloud of colours. It's quite impressive to see a 30+ story building semi-randomly changing colours in the darkness.