Sunday, May 27, 2007

Spain Part Two: Barcelona and Language


The Sagrada Familia is far enough away from the rest of Barcelona's sites that it's a pretty long walk - or a very short cab or bus ride away. Normally I'd be all in favor of walking, especially in Europe where cities are typically compact enough to make it worthwhile, but because we were so pressed for time we decided to take a cab. At least we got to see how someone who wasn't lost got through the city.

Cabs in Spain were fantastically cheap compared to nearly every other city I've been to. They're all sanctioned by the government, and they work exactly the same no matter where you are - the fares can vary slightly, but the "Libre/Occupido" indicator is always in the same place, so you never have to guess what combination of lights means a cab is empty or full. It's a kind of consistency I can appreciate. And they're also, as I mentioned, really cheap. Fares ran about 4-5 Euros. Certainly worth saving a couple of hours when you don't have much time.

The Sagrada Familia is technically a temple. Right now, it's not a functioning religious building because it hasn't been finished yet. Conceived by Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí as a symbol of the power of Christianity ("the last great sanctuary of Christendom" according to Wikipedia), when completed it will be taller than many cathedrals if not necessarily larger on the inside. As you can see in our pictures, work continues to this day - there were construction teams there when we toured the building.

The Sagrada Familia ("Sacred Family") will eventually have 12 towers, one for each apostle (it has 8 at the moment), 4 towers for each Evangelist, a tower for Mary, a tower for Joseph, and a massive center tower topped with a cross representing Jesus (here's a model of the final church.) The inside is currently pretty bare and many parts of the roof are still open, as the current construction projects are centered around strengthening the building to support the weight of the towers. Gaudí designed the building without the use of computers (obviously), but his original plans were destroyed in the 20s by anti-religious anarchists, so current architects have resorted to using computer-aided drafting to try to reconstruct Gaudí's plans.

The entire building, even unfinished, is one of the oddest and most beautiful religious structures I've ever seen. Its majesty is different from the medieval gothic cathedrals like Canterbury or renaissance cathedrals like St. Paul's. Gaudí used a unique architectural style that has been described as organic, and that's as good a word as any to encompass how the building feels. The curves on the facades and the towers remind me of stalagmites in a cave, or a giant building constructed by a race far less concerned with right angles than humans. The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of what I imagine some kind of odd Lovecraftian race might design if it suddenly got the notion to create a monument to Christianity.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in Barcelona with only a few hours to kill, I recommend the Sagrada Familia as the one thing you should certainly see.

After being awed by this unusual structure, we caught another (cheaper) cab to the top of Barcelona's main street, the Rambla. You don't necessarily have to speak Spanish to understand that a street called the Rambla is designed for, well, rambling - and that's exactly what it is. A wide pedestrian thoroughfare lined with booths (some selling the most unusual things I've ever seen in an outdoor market - rows of cages of pigeons being sold as pets. Pigeons: the winged garbage rats of the sky. That's just one example.) We introduced ourselves to the delights of sitting outside at 2 in the afternoon and eating a late lunch - every meal in Spain is late really - and then slowly rambling along afterwards.

It was somewhere around this time that I really began to be aware of being in a country where I understood very little of what was going on around me. Liz did an excellent job acting as an interpreter, but even when I was in Germany I at least had some kind of clue. Here, without Liz to tell me what was going on, I was utterly lost.

It's funny how much language is something that's taken for granted. It's how I imagine someone who's illiterate would feel in a library - surrounded by things that most certainly mean something and are trying to communicate, but unable to understand the message. It's how I feel when I'm in a modern art museum - I recognize that there is indeed an order to what's going on around me, there is something being communicated, but I'll be goddamned if I know what it is. I can honestly say that I never really freaked out about it, and Liz really tried to help when I felt especially lost. It's a hell of a thing being in a place where you can't understand what's going on. There's always pantomiming of course, and the old "point and grunt" interface, but you still feel lost and sometimes a little scared. How do you know you're not being taken advantage of, being the Gringo Turismo? It's enough to make or break a case of paranoia or OCD.

After our ramble down the Rambla, we hit Barcelona's gothic cathedral, which was everything the Sagrada Familia wasn't - traditional, big, open, and a bit of a disappointment. I love cathedrals - religious structures of all kinds hold a fascination for me, but the medieval structures that people built to create earthly sanctuaries for their faith are unique in many ways - the design of them in a time when most people were living in tiny hovels, the epic scale so much larger than anything else around them, the investment of time where those who began a project knew it would be finished by their grandchildren's grandchildren. It takes a certain degree of faith to even dream of such a thing, and it's even more compelling when you see how many of these structures there are all over Western Europe.

But this one still felt bland. It was something I'd seen before. In fact, I felt that about most of the cathedrals we saw on our trip - large gothic churches. None of them held the magic or awe of my first trip to Canterbury in 1999, when I walked in and the organ was going and the boy's choir was singing and I was literally reduced in size and stature by a building and its activities (OK, I ended up getting teary-eyed and had to kneel. Maybe it's a Catholic response.) But that never happened here.

In fact, the archaeological museum right behind the Cathedral was more interesting. After touring some Roman-era artifacts, it takes you into the basement where you quite literally walk through the excavation of several blocks of the old Roman town, from the walls to a fish oil factory (yum!) to a winery to houses, and a Visigothic-era church and palace. It was my first tangible experience with the vast ancient history of Spain, and it was the perfect setup for the next stage of our trip: driving into the countryside, stopping at Tarragona (an old Roman capital and port city), and seeing the kinds of ruins I'd only read about in books.

How's that for a setup for next time?

1 comment:

Roger said...

okay, I'm officially envious of you and Liz--there I said it. Are you happy? Are you going to stop tormenting me with these European posts? EVERYONE IS GOING TO EUROPE BUT ME! BAH!

Seriously, it looked like you had a great time. I'm glad you were able to do this with Liz.

Oh, and I eventually got that same impression with most of the Cathedrals in Europe--with the exception of St. Peters in Rome, because it is designed to be the Cathedral's Cathedral. But it is like all spectacle, eventually its magic fades as you see one Matrix style fightfest after another. Cathedrals are the same, just a material manifestation of a special effect.