Barcelona Diaries: Eureka moment at the Placa de Sant Felip Neri

The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is a chaotic mess.

A Google Map view of the Gothic Quarter shows a hodgepodge of roads and alleys, when not too far from it is structured octagonal-blocks of planned Barcelona. Barrio Gotico, as it’s called in Catalan, is a maze of Gothic structures, cathedrals, narrow lanes, wide open squares and buildings from the Roman era which formed the heart of Barcelona at one point in history. So clearly, for a visitor it can take months or years to completely wrap their heads around the various Calle’s and Carrer’s of the Barrio Gotico. I had the good fortune of being shown around the quarter by a local who lives in the area.

As we made our way around the Catedral, Marta took me aside, “Now I will show you a place that not many tourists know about.” I was expecting her to take me to the Carrer de Bisbe, which is actually quite well known to travellers. But instead of going straight and left, she took a small lane on the right hand side and we entered a courtyard which had a small fountain placed bang in the centre of the square. And true to her word, there was barely anyone apart from a group of three people in this square. A stark contrast from the hordes of crowds just a minute away.

“This is the Placa de Sant Felip Neri. Take a look around and tell me what you observe,” questioned Marta.

But before I could start observing the place, I had this nagging doubt at the back of my head that this place seemed familiar. You know, sometimes you just know that you have seen the place somewhere before. It may be deja vu or as Marta joked, some past-life connection with the place. And no, it hadn’t shown up in any of my research that I had done on places to see in Barcelona. I started thinking hard, but was finding it difficult to recall. I gave up and instead started looking at the place around me. Although it was night time, there was enough light to notice details in the square.

The octagonal fountain, which was more of a glorified tap network with a pail of water in the collecting area below, was surrounded by paved street blocks. There were brown coloured walls of what looked like a school and a church. There were two trees and there were pigeons flying around. I noticed pock marks at the base of the two structures, and pointed them out to Marta, telling her something was off in the architecture at the base and the top. Was it deliberate? I wondered. This is Gaudi’s city, after all.

Marta approved my observations and then took me to the bronze plaque that was located in the building opposite where we stood, and went on to tell me the story.

The Placa de Sant Felip Neri was the site of the bombings by the erstwhile Spanish dictator Fracisco Franco’s air force on 30 January 1938 – one of the most tragic chapters from the Spanish Civil War history. There was one bomb that was dropped in the square which ended up killing close to 30 people, mostly children who had taken shelter in the school in the courtyard. Later when the people around came in to rescue those injured, another bomb was dropped taking the death toll to 42.

The Catalan government had decided not to renovate the buildings and keep the pockmarks intact to remind anyone visiting this square of its brutal past. Even the debris from the attack has been used in buildings around the square. Franco had even used this tragic history to peddle his propaganda of the square being used by anarchists to line up the priests from the church along the wall and kill them by a firing squad – which is absolute rubbish.

I re-visited the square early the next morning. A mild drizzle had just added a lovely wet layer on the cobbled stone pathway leading up to the square. There was a slight nip in the temperature and the courtyard had just two other travellers apart from me. It was a quiet, peaceful place. The Sant Felip Neri school was shut for the day. I walked around the square, touching the pock marks left behind by the bombings.

I couldn’t help thinking about a similar sort of tragedy that took place in Punjab in 1919, which had a much higher casualty.  The Jallianwallah Bagh tragedy, where an English general named Reginald Dyer blocked the only exit to a public park and asked his troops to open fire on the unarmed families who had collected in the garden. There too, the bullet marks in the walls have been left intact.

The Baroque facade of the church, which was built in the 1750s, was quite modest as compared to the Gothic finery outside the square. I walked around the fountain, the water in the pail was overflowing today thanks to the drizzle. I dipped in my hand to feel the temperature of the water, waving the hand to create ripples in the cold water.

And that’s when I had a eureka moment.

I finally recalled where I had seen this place.

Many years ago when MTV India actually was a music channel and aired music videos, the song My Immortal by Evanescence was picturised in a similar looking location. I fired up Google, and sure enough, this was the place. I always used to keep wondering why are there children playing in the background in that song, which is supposed to show the protagonist as a spirit that is yet to depart from this world. Now I get it.

Whether that was intentional or not, that’s how I now interpret it.

Barcelona diaries: An evening at Port Vell

Coming from Mumbai, I am a huge fan of cities by the sea or an ocean. I naturally veer towards sea faces and actively hunt out for them whenever I am in a new city. So when I was in Barcelona, I was suggested by my local friend Marta that I should walk around the Barceloneta area in my free time. Since I had no real agenda, and the cycling tour that I was looking forward to, was not happening in non-summer season, I had all the time to go explore Barcelonata.

After having had my fill of getting lost in the Barrio Gotic or the famous Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, and re-attaching my jaw – which was constantly dropping at the surprises that the Gothic Quarter’s charming alleys and squares were throwing my way – I decided to make my way to Barceloneta.

Now Marta had probably suggested Barceloneta – the beach area – which I realised in retrospect, which was on the left hand side from the ‘Barcelona’s Face’ art installation (seen above). But I ended up walking along the right hand side towards the Rambla de Mar and eventually to Port Vell, along a well paved and slightly raised pathway. This vehicle free walkway had traffic in the form of evening joggers, skateboarders, cyclists and people exploring the city on Segways. It was a bright sunny evening with lovely skies and a slight nip in the air.

The year 1992 is the inflection point for the city of Barcelona. You will constantly hear about the Barcelona ‘92 Olympics, which technically transformed Barcelona from just another local Catalan town to a world class city. The region around Port Vell which was an obsolete harbour –  used to be full of abandoned warehouses, industrial buildings and dumpyards – saw a complete transformation into an entertainment hub that it is today. It is connected to the main city, and before the ‘92 Barcelona Olympics, an urban renewal project transformed this place into a yatch basin and further development around this basin led to the formation of a wooden bridge called the Rambla de Mar.

As I was making my way across the Rambla de Mar to the edge of this walkway, I heard a loud horn – the kind that is famous in dock areas. Within a couple of minutes all the people on the bridge suddenly came to a halt. Turned out that a yatch was leaving the basin to enter the sea, and the Rambla de Mar had to make way for the same. Two minutes later the bridge reconnected and everyone passed through.

Sitting on the park benches at the very edge of the Port Vell region, I was admiring the skyscape which was playing with multiple warm hues thanks to the setting sun. You can easily spot the cable car wires which connects this area to Montjuic, a mountain which houses a museum and offers panoramic views of Barcelona. There was a funny white-coloured floating installation in the waters. It resembled a boy standing and monitoring all the revellers sitting alongside the promenade benches. On the north eastern corner I could easily spot some cruise ships and the famous W hotel, which is shaped like a sail and tends to reflect the sky thanks to the way the glass on its facade is positioned.

Port Vell is a non commercial harbour and is meant for the citizens’ entertainment. A mall by the name Maremagnum is the imposing structure which houses cafes, restaurants, shopping centres and even an IMAX theatre. I didn’t really go inside the mall, but was just exploring the charming cafes outside it, just beside the sea. The only old structures I saw in the entire area were the ornate office of the Port of Barcelona and some remnants of warehouses from before ‘92.

Sitting there, I was just wondering how underutilised the harbours in Mumbai are. Sure, Dockyard Road, Sassoon docks and many others are hubs for fisherfolk to do their daily business. Also a large part of the harbour line falls under the Indian Navy and some areas are part of oil refineries and so on.

But is that all the potential there is to the Mumbai harbour? Why can’t there be water transportation to reduce some congestion from the city? Why can’t there be a thriving culture/entertainment hub along the harbour? Ahmedabad has developed its river front area into a lovely walkway for its residents, why can’t Mumbai? Sure, Marine Drive, Worli Seaface and Bandra Bandstand have well developed and wonderfully maintained walkways. But the charm of the docks is something else.

Mumbai Port Trust could certainly make some extra buck, if only some of the sea-front areas are opened up for the city, just like it does during the Navy Week celebrations. I mean, the only time I get to see dock areas other than Ferry Wharf in Mumbai, are during the Ganpati immersions. At other times they are shut for the public or if you try entering some promenade, you have to be ready to answer a 100 odd questions. I know I am ranting, but a couple of these thoughts did pass through my mind, as I was enjoying the sunset while having a lovely bacon burger.

I felt there were certainly some lessons to be learnt there.

The Block of Discord: Three Modernism geniuses on one street block

When one talks about the architecture of Barcelona, one term that you will constantly keep hearing is Modernisme. This was the art form that had its golden period from the late 1800s to early 1910 in Barcelona and was expressed chiefly in the form architecture along with painting, design, decorative arts and more. This was a move away from the prevalent Gothic styles of architecture and it also played a major role in giving Barcelona, and in effect Catalonia, a unique cultural identity. 

The whole idea behind switching to Modernisme style was to reinforce the political and economical stability of the region of Catalonia, while the rest of Spain was going through bad times. This was a period when patrons gave preferences to Catalan architects over others. Just like its Football team, the Modernisme movement is also a symbol of the Catalan identity. It is fascinating how so many aspects of Barcelona have had an ulterior objective at some level – that of Catalan independence.

In Barcelona, apart from the Gothic buildings that you see in the Ciutat Vella or Old Town, you will find a lot of Modernist buildings outside the old town. The district of Eixample was the playground for a lot of modernism architects. And the gravity of this movement becomes evident when you learn that there are 9 buildings in Barcelona which have the UNESCO World Heritage tag – and all of them belong to the Modernisme school of thought.

Along the Passeig de Gracia (in the Eixample district), in one of the most expensive streets in Barcelona (and whole of Spain), one gets to see brilliant examples of this style of architecture.

There is one section in particular that had me impressed right from the moment I first set my eyes on these buildings, accidentally. So one evening while travelling back to my hotel I had to change my metro lines. At the Passeig de Gracia station, I couldn’t buy a ticket because the vending machine didn’t have a change for 20 Euros. So I had to head out of the Passeig de Gracia metro station to get some change. On exiting the metro station, I just happened to look on my right and there it was in all its lit up glory – the Gaudi masterpiece – Casa Battlo! I knew I was coming back to this very street in the coming days.

The reason this street is special, is because you get to see three buildings side-by-side, touching each other literally, built by three Modernisme geniuses who were almost contemporaries. And although all three buildings belong to the Modernisme school, they are as different from each other as the CST building is from the Gateway of India in Mumbai. This is the main reason this street block is popularly called the ‘Illa de la discordia’ or the ‘Block of Discord’. Interestingly, none of these three buildings were built from the ground up in the Modernisme style, but were renovated towards the late 1800s thanks to the patronage by the rich families living in Barcelona at the time about whom I will elaborate below.

So let us look at each of these masterpieces, which I had only enough time and budget to admire from the outside. Maybe the next time I visit this beautiful city, I’ll keep aside time and money to check them out from the inside as well.

Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadalfach

This building was commissioned by the chocolatier Antoni Amatller, and the building still has the Amatller’s chocolate outlet. I learned that after getting free dark chocolate tasters at the entrance of this building whose ground floor is free for exploration. The front facade of Casa Amatller is clearly inspired by the houses one sees along the the Netherlands or in the squares of Belgium – you know those triangular roof with a tetris-style sloping design (can’t think of another way of putting it). I also saw a lot of gargoyles and minor detailing on some strategic points, clear pointers to the use of some neo-gothic styling. I couldn’t understand the symbology behind the figures though. One unique thing I noticed along the facade was the almost wallpaper-like look. I need to research on this style of decorating the walls, which I saw quite a lot in Barcelona. Will update accordingly.

Casa Battlo by Antoni Gaudi
No two ways about it – Antoni Gaudi was a genius. His architectural style was nothing like his contemporaries. Even something as entry level for an architect as a lamp post – which was his first assignment that graces the Placa Reial – had the trademark Gaudi stamp of using elements from nature.

Casa Battlo, just like the Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila, has a very organic sort of design. It wasn’t built from scratch but was a renovation of an existing building which Gaudi himself had built. Josep Battlo, a prosperous textile merchant bought the house in 1900 and wanted a design that would make his house stand out from the others on Passeig de Gracia. Instead of building it from scratch, Gaudi suggested plans to renovate it in 1904.

The first thing that strikes you as you admire the building is the complete lack of any sort of clean straight lines anywhere on the Casa Battlo facade. There was clearly some inspiration taken from the bone structure of humans, the fins on the body of a fish that were quite obvious to me. The top, I later learned was supposed to resemble the back of a dragon, and it actually does. Gaudi was already working on his lifetime obsession – the La Sagrada Familia – while renovating Casa Battlo. Sagrada Familia itself pays homage to design elements found in nature, so the departure in style as compared to other two buildings on this street is not surprising.

Even the glass on the windows were rounded in shape and it could slide up or down.

Let that sink in for a bit. Rounded glass windows with a up/down slide mechanism to let the light in was unheard of at the time Gaudi was making this stunner of a building – so he had to conceive and make these unique design elements as well. The balconies of the top floors resemble the skeletal structure of a sea creature. Rather the whole building had an almost exoskeleton like appearance. I really wish I had enough time to check Casa Battlo from the inside:(

Casa Lleo Morrera by Lluis Domenech i Montaner
Montaner is considered to be the ‘Father of Catalan Modernisme movement’ thanks to his prolific portfolio of buildings.

The Casa Lleo Morrera was a renovation of the building owned by the Morrera family. This looks much more traditional in its form as compared to the other two buildings. One can notice a lot of symbols such as the mulberry leaf motif – mulberry is called Morrera in Catalan, which was the family name; a lot of sculptures on the facade show figures with technological instruments of the time such as telephone, phonograph and so on.

These are just three of the many many Modernist buildings in all of Barcelona – there are hundreds of them and well maintained too. Maybe I’ll talk about them another time. It’s a pity that this style of architecture stopped getting any patronisation post the 1920s.