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Sagranda Familia, Barcelona

by Roman Orszanski

(First published in doxa!, 28 March 1991, edited by Roman Orszanski.)

There's a knock on the door in the middle of the night. A guard enters, with pistol drawn. You stare, blinded, by a torch. He barks at you for your papers. You're sleepy and confused, but you're sure what you haven't got any ID. He growls in a foreign tongue, gesturing menacingly with the pistol: You're not sure what to do. A nightmare!

*** *** ***

Unfortunately, it happened to me on the train between Paris and Barcelona. The first shock came when the guard, smiling, took both my passport and Eurail Pass. It was the first time I had taken a sleeping berth on the overnight train. (The journey to Berlin was in an ancient, overbooked bone-rattler; those who weren't sitting stood in the corridors.)

My companion, a spaniard, explained that my documents would be returned in the morning: they were taken by the conductor to ensure we wouldn't be woken in the wee hours as we crossed the border. Most considerate, I thought.

Alas, the border guard decided he wanted to search our luggage.

Or, to be precise, the luggage of my companion. He wasn't at all interested in my bags. At 5:30 am, he woke me from a very satisfying sleep.

At least he knocked...

*** *** ***

Two more surprises were in store when I arrived at Barcelona Sants (the central railway station). Changing franks left me with thousands of pesetas - and it still wasn't enough to get me back to Paris that night. Luckily, the ol' plastic money solved the transport problem. The pesetas covered the cost of a detailed street map, and a book on Gaudi architecture.

Gaudi was, after all, the reason I had ventured a daytrip to Barcelona - literally twelve hours from arrival to departure.

My plan was to visit as many of the Gaudi structures as possible in the time available, making certain that I visited at least the Sagrada Familia and Guell Park (a park overlooking the city).

So many friends had recommended the pilgrimage, both at home and in Europe,that I had to visit Barcelona: I wasn't disappointed, and hope to return to this quintessentially Catalan town for a longer stay.

First, I found the Metro, and purchased a ten-trip ticket to take me to Guell Park. I picked the wrong stop, and had a winding uphill walk through narrow, meandering streets to reach the Park. One of the interesting buildings I passed was festooned with a banner "Heroina No", the doors marked with what appears to be an international anarchist squatting symbol (previously sighted in Amsterdam).

There was a long escalator, designed for tourists, but I took the stairs.

I came in the back way, and found a pleasant path leading to extraordinary stone bridges, seats, viaducts and amphitheatres. The stone seats were surprisingly confortable. Tourists swarmed through the park.

Locals and school groups also wandered the grounds. Set high above the plain, it was originally a remote housing project which Gaudi was hired to design.

They only sold two houses: the owner/developer's and Gaudi's. eventually, the land was donated to the city of Barcelona.

A guardhouse built at the entrance to house local police wasn't reassuring enough to lure people into the hills.

*** *** ***

Gaudi worked at the turn of the century, molding stone and iron to fantastic organic forms. He predates the surrealists and dada, and also outdates many so called "modern" or "experimental" architects. I spent the morning marvelling at the work.

From the park, I struck out northwards, on foot, to his first commission.- a tile merchant's house, including the interior furniture.

Working my way through a complex intersection, I stumbled across a park hidden in the centre of a ring road. It was crowded with people! The siesta had started. rather than nap in hammocks, or hurrying home to their families, many wandered to a park to read, eat, play boulle. Lovers walked arm-in-arm through the park. What a grand idea! You can spend the best part of the afternoon with friends or lovers, rather than staring out an office window at the glorious sunshine. And it was glorious: warm spring day, with a light breeze off the Mediterranean.

Crack! went the metal balls, as one caromed off another. The local champ stood thoughtfully. he flipped his wrist; and a silver ball rose gently into the air, followed a leisurely arc and landed with an irresistible force to smash his opponents ball clear out of the court. With a soft sandy surface, there was none of this genteel rolling of lawn bowls. I'm told boulle is also popular on French beaches.

I sit on a bench and write a postcard inviting a friend to practice their Spanish by running away to Barcelona with me ... (A week after I return, they leave for Mexico:)

Most shops were closed, but there were a few food tastings and fairs in city streets. I later ran across one devoted to the regional cuisine, waiters in regional dress, done up with black lace and sashes.

Gaudi buildings stood out in the streets: they were the ones with graceful curves and fancy wrought ironwork. Alas, I arrived at the Casa Mila ("La Pedrera") just after two, too late for the last tour. The glass latticed doors and vaulted ceiling were visible from without, but I didn't get to see the sculpture court atop the building.

The next stop was the best known of Gaudi' s work: the still unfinished homage to the glory of God, the Gaudi Cathedral: Sagrada Familia. It was unfinished when he died in 1926, and they're still building it.

My first sight of it was of six towering spires, surmounted by a crane, a fairytale castle in the middle of the city.

There's a small spiral staircase within the towers, and you can climb (or take an elevator) to the top. Tourists swarmed like ants through the towers, one hand clutching a camera, the other clawing for a purchase on the narrow rail. One side reveals the courtyard below, once the site for two Gaudi church schools, the other faces out to the gargoyles and flowing shapes of a nativity scene set in flowing stone. The spires have red caps, with lettering "In excelsior" "Hosanna" and the like.

Three-quarters of the way to the top, I paused. There was a tall woman. Her companion carried a camera, but she... I don't know maybe it was the gargoyles nearby, maybe the strange organic forms, maybe it was the memory of the witches' weighing house at Oudewater. I don't know.

She was carrying - I swear this is true - she was carrying a full-length straw broom.

I wasn't game to ask if she were landing or taking off.

*** *** ***

Four o'clock, and I was exhausted.

I strolled along the Ramblas, past tourist traps, newsagents selling pornography and many roadside cafes.

While sitting at a cafe, watching the passing parade of people, sipping a lemon granidos, thinking of ordering paella, I was startled by the sound of thunder.

Looking up, I saw people lining one side of the Ramblas. It was a Parade!

Giant puppets, mediaeval bands of minstrels, kings, queens, witches and the like. And, every so often, a roll of thunder. An hour later, the thunder was deafening: it was the equivalent of an ancient Catalan Home Guard, discharging their blunder-busses in rapid, noisy succession. Boom! Boom! Boom!...

A stroll to the quayside and the Columbus memorial, then back to the train station for the restful ride back.

*** *** ***

Except it wasn't. The train stopped outside of Barcelona as the police were called to throw off an american without a ticket. The woman had been assured that she could buy a ticket on the train, and was now arguing hysterically, tearful, just outside my berth. Various other passengers joined in the debate - also outside my berth. All the while, the train waited for the police to act....

*** *** ***

Paris again, and a chill wind whistles along the platform to remind us that winter is near. But my heart is still in warm, sunny Barcelona.

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