Wednesday, August 25, 2004

SPAIN Day07//05.May.04 - Gaudy Gaudi?: Barcelona

I can think of two words that epitomise Barcelona: Gaudi + Olympics '92. It was the architect Antoni Gaudi and the 1992 summer Olympics that firmly stamped Barcelona as a tourist worthy city. With some tourists, e.g. yours truly, visiting it more than once. Except for the warmer weather, nothing has changed since my last trip. In hindsight, there is a difference afterall, last year, I was a traveller; this year, I was a tourist. Last year, I had two weeks to get to know the city. This year, I had only two days.

Therefore, I don't really blame the tour guide for the lightning quick tour. We started off with a quick tour of Montjuic, a site developed with the Olympic Games in mind. Around the vicinity was a tourist trap in the form of Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village). Poble Espanyol was built to showcase the architectural diversity, and to commercialise the cultures within Spain. In other words, it's a hodgepodge of typical Spanish-styled shops peddling flamenco fans, Gaudi artworks, toros (bull) paraphernalia and etc. For all its touristy-ness, it's actually a good place to get good quality souvenir items. There are galleries specialising in different medium: wood, steel, ceramics, canvas and etc. There was even a glass-making factory that produces wonderful glasswork in different forms and functions. The 45 minutes allotted to us was definitely inadequate for a leisurely enjoyment of what Poble Espanyol had to offer. After Poble Espanyol, we briefly stopped over at the Olympic stadium, before making way to the Mirador del Alcalde park high up on Montjuic that gave us a vantage view of the city centre below.

We came down from the elevated plateau only to visit another monumental height, the La Sagrada Familia. Undeniably, and without dispute the symbol of Barcelona. This architectural piece still managed to overwhelm me with its ambition and vision. Last year, I spent more time exploring the innards of this building, including an arduous trek up a spire. The time spent at Sagrada may be shorter this time round, however, the tour guide opened my eyes to interesting details: a figure that looks like its cheif architect, Gaudi; pillars supported by the mountain-facing tortoise (representing land) and the sea-facing turtle (representing sea); spring/summer fruit-topped spires facing the east and fall/winter fruit-topped spires facing the west. Part of the uniqueness of this cathedral is the fact that it is still undergoing construction despite the ground being broken back in the late 19th century. The entire cathedral is funded by private donations and admission fees from visitors. It was Gaudi's wish that the church be funded privately without municipal interventions because he did not want politicians to have contol over the project. Although this approach was criticised for impeding the progress of the project, Gaudi famously remarked that God is his client, and that He is not in any hurry. I look forward to coming back to visit in ~2020s, probably then with hubby and kids in tow, to check out the completed architectural wonder that I proudly contributed (2x admission fees remember?) to.

Our guided tour ended with lunch in the heart of the city. With that, our Barcelona tour guide, Sofia, left us to our own devices. I felt comfortable and supremely confident playing her role for my parents. My tour started with a stroll down La Rambla (Barcelona's version of 5th Avenue / Champs Elysee), pass bird stalls, florists, artists, cafes and mimes. Along the way, we ducked into Barcelona's famous market and experience a sensory overload with the smells, colours, noise and variety of the market. I even led them to an unobtrusive water fountain, a drink from it is supposed to guarantee a return to Barcelona. Heck, it worked in my case, so we all drank religiously. We did a short detour to Placa Reial, where I stayed for the most part while in Barcelona. I even brought them to Maoz Falafel, where I had my humble but yummy sustenance as a poor backpacker. We spent some time in the bohemian Barri Gothic (old quarters) before resuming our sea-ward walk towards Port Vell. Near the port, there was yet another monument built in honour of Colombus, pointing to America's direction. Meanwhile, our direction was across the Rambla del Mar and towards the modern shopping complex housing restaurants and adjacent to the IMAX theater. By then, mom and dad were quite tired, so we rested at some outdoor benches that overlooked the yachts docked at the pier. Recharged from the sight of blue skies and waters, we retraced our steps back up La Rambla. We made one final tourist stop at Palau Guell, another Gaudi creation. It was the second time I had to pay admission for this aristocratic residence. But I wanted my parents to see for themselves the building's quirkiness and check out the funky chimneys found on the rooftop.

By the end of today, mom and dad declared Gaudi 'soh-soh' (crazy in Cantonese), not disparagingly, but rather, with amusement. I guess that's the price one pays for being a genius. Not always conventional, not always understood and appreciated. But will always be remembered. Thus contributing to Barcelona being such a memorable destination.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

SPAIN Day06//04.May.04 - From Aragon to Catalonia: Zaragoza & Barcelona

I realised that for this trip, I have traversed 4 out of the 5 Spanish kingdoms: Andalucia, Castille, Aragon and Catalonia. Never has one overshadowed the other. Each region and its principal city/cities had charmed me with its panaromic surroundings, elegant architecture and unique character. Therefore today, was another sensory experience as I depart stately Madrid (Castille), for energetic Barcelona (Catalonia), and in between, the scholarly Zaragoza (Aragón).

It was a pleasant drive from Madrid to Zaragoza (pronounced "thah-rah-goh-thah"). We passed by bucolic farms, and flat plains dotted with futuristic windmills. According to Jose, one windmill cost approximately USD1mil. Although the 'fans' spin rather lazily, there is a mechanism within the windmill that multiplies the spinning cycle. With the hundreds of windmills, it was quite an impressive sight and hardly surprising to hear the aunties sigh that it resembled a scene from a romantic Taiwanese serial. I later learnt that Spain is a strong advocate of wind power.

By the time we reached Zaragoza for lunch, we understood why. Strong gusty winds literally propeled us to our restaurant, which was simply enchanting! Sunlight streamed into the patio through the white french windows. The tables wore rich blue skirtings and white tablecloths. On the tables, lain blue napkins at the periphery with colourful flower bouquets as a centerpieces. The chairs were dressed in the similar white and blue scheme pulled together with a smart bowtie. The restaurant sits in between the Ebro river and the Basilica. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James, patron saint of Spain, on the banks of the Ebro River and ordered him to build a church there (excerpt from Frommers). After lunch, we crossed the street towards the Basilica and walked around the square with its statues for a bit before departing for Barcelona.

We reached Barcelona earlier than planned and had a short city tour before dinner time. Barcelona's modern buildings and places of interests are not unfamiliar to me, afterall, I was here with my best friend for two weeks about a year ago. However I relish the homecoming as Barcelona is both vibrant and artistic. We stopped by Barcelona's trade exhibition centre, Plaza Espana; from there we were driven to the Marina, resplendent with Olympic-era buildings, modern sculptures and docked white yachts. Even the slow drive to the restaurant presented interesting sights like fountains, weird looking buildings and Barcelona's own bullring.

We finally capped today's journey of many miles with a good dinner which was testament to the numerous framed photos of VIPs who had previously dined at this establishment.