It’s easy to like Barcelona (pronounced Barthalona by the locals. Truly – I spent my first two days here convinced everyone had a lisp.) I decided upon arriving in Catalonia’s capital city that it was my duty to sample Spain’s native drink in as many places as possible. (This perhaps has less to do with the fact that it’s Spanish that it does with my fondness for sampling drinks – tequila in Mexico, grappa in Italy, vodka, well, everywhere. You get the idea.)
And I wondered if being full of sangria would, among other things, help me understand the bizarre and wonderful style of Gaudi, the 19th-century architect whose work is everywhere visible around Barcelona.
Antoni Gaudi is Barcelona’s most famous architect, which is saying a lot for a city with a history dating back more than 2,200 years, and had a style all his own. (This is a claim made by most architects, I suspect, but in this case it’s no exaggeration. One need merely gaze upon his work – any of it – to know immediately it’s his.)
The Sagrada Familia, the massive church at the center of town for which he is best known, is the structure by which Barcelona has come to be identified, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Statue of Liberty in New York.
It’s a masterpiece, and unique among all churches and cathedrals in Europe. (This is a greater accomplishment than one might think. So many of Europe’s old godly monuments employ similar architectural styles, and would fit in any one of a hundred cities around Europe. The Sagrada Familia is unmistakably Gaudi, uniquely Barcelona, and unique in all the world.)
And I’m not sure it’s beautiful. I think it is, but that may be because I’m simply fascinated by its weirdness. The entire structure does give the faint impression of melting before your eyes, and I couldn’t get anyone to explain why there were so many carvings of fruit around a cathedral. If Gaudi wasn’t drunk on sangrias when he designed it, I’m keen to know what he was drinking, and where I can find some.
Typical of the Spanish, Gaudi seemed in no particular hurry to bring his vision to life (although Gaudi would bristle at my saying “Spanish” – he was a militant Catalan separatist). He took over the project in 1883, and upon his death in 1926 figured he was about a quarter of the way done.
Not much happened for the next three decades (middling things like two world wars and the Spanish civil war proved to be a distraction), but by the mid 1950s the government was ready to get back at it.
Last year they proudly announced that the massive church was half way to completion. The leaflet distributed on-site to tourists estimates they might be able to wrap this thing up by 2028.
So what you see, unfortunately, is this huge, wildly artistic and utterly fascinating monument to Christianity, covered in scaffolding and construction equipment. It tells you something that a building only 50% complete has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before visiting the world’s most popular construction site, I set off on my sangria tour.
Barcelona is a good place to be thirsty. It’s not a great place to be hungry.
The Spanish aren’t hurried about anything, and this applies to service in restaurants just as it does to major construction projects. When a server deigns to notice you they’re always friendly, but there’s no guarantee they’ll actually stop by your table that afternoon, and if they do, no reason to have confidence they’ll actually take your order.
At one place, the wonderful Barnabier La Cerveseria café down by the port, we got so hungry that we popped into the Burger King next door and grabbed a Whopper to munch on while we waited to order lunch. When the server finally strolled by, with a perfectly delicious pitcher of champagne sangria (my new obsession), he didn’t seem the least curious to see us scarfing down a burger, and casually took our order, which appeared an hour later.
At another place, Los Caracoles, which has adequate food but an interior so marvelous that the food could have been poison and I still would have found it delightful, the wait staff was so blasé about assisting the customers that when, after waiting a terribly long time, I got up and asked a passing server for a check, he happily suggested that we just stroll on out, assuring me no one would notice.
I think he was serious.
While in Barcelona we stayed at the Le Meridien, a gorgeous old hotel in the center of town which actually had fantastic service. (Our concierge, Christian, may be the friendliest and most helpful hotel staff member I’ve ever encountered. Half the restaurants we sampled were at his suggestion, and all were wonderful. My favorite was the Merendero De La Mari, at the port, and not merely because they had the most divine champagne sangrias in the city.)
The Le Meridien is perfectly situated along the La Rambla, which is exactly where you want to be when visiting Barcelona. La Rambla, possibly the best known boulevard in Barcelona, is the miles-long street split through the center by a wide pedestrian promenade overflowing with palm trees, shops, outdoor cafes, local artists hawking their wares, street performers, bars and restaurants. It’s the beating heart of the city, and is crowded day and night. (Spanish poet Federico García Lorca once said of La Rambla “it’s the only street in the world which I wish would never end.”)
And it’s a perfect place to sit back, in traditional Spanish fashion, relax, and savor this marvelous city.
With a sangria in hand, of course.