Written by Kate Johnson
It’s no exaggeration to say that the architect Antoni Gaudi I Cornet is synonymous with Barcelona. In fact if you didn’t visit any of his buildings whilst in the Catalan capital, you’d still leave having seen them all. This is because, whether as tiny Park Guell dragons for keeping to-do lists on the fridge, pairs of La Pedrera smokestacks marked ‘S’ and ‘P’, or snow globes that dust Casa Battl? with white flakes, Gaudí’s structures are everywhere.
Antoni Gaudí i Cornet is the poster boy for a turn-of-the-century creative movement at the core of Barcelona’s identity. Known as Modernisme, this movement was defined by its decorative decadence and was the local version of wider Europe’s Art Nouveau.
Modernisme came about with the planning of Barcelona’s l’Eixample district, where privileged families declared their social status by commissioning decorative houses, and institutions charged Modernista architects with creating outstanding headquarters. The movement was also realised in painting, sculpture, and poster design, and the applied arts that crafted ornamental flourishes experienced a surge in popularity.
But following this period came more austere trends that countered Modernisme’s appeal and saw the ruination of several works around the city. So in 1997, the Barcelona City Council formulated a plan to protect its unique heritage with a clutch of concerned institutions. The resulting Ruta del Modernisme (Modernisme route) is a walking tour that raises money to restore and preserve these important works. Both informative and informal, it’s the perfect introduction to Barcelona’s Modernista treasures.
With a map and book, the Ruta brings together a dizzying 115 works, from ‘impressive palatial residences, amazing houses, the temple that has become a symbol of the city and a huge hospital’ to ‘the humbler and more everyday, such as shops, lamp posts and benches’. It’s a way of touring that is a rare combination of being led by the hand and being master of your own ship.
But if dedicating up to a week to seeing it all sounds overwhelming, there are alternative options: a Ruta d’1 dia (one-day route); a list of 30 ‘highly recommended’ buildings; and ‘Forever Beautiful’, a collection of businesses behind Modernista shop fronts that have been recognised for their preservation efforts with commemorative cast-iron pavement plates.
The Ruta d’1 dia is what most opt for, but achieving it calls for an early start, swift progression, and entrance into just one of the sights. However, despite being a clearly laid out trail, it’s still up to you how you tackle the route and what you see, so it’s worth considering splitting the one-day route over two to absorb atmospheric barrios (neighbourhoods), have leisurely pit stops, take a detour, and check out the interiors of two sights.
The Ruta d’1 dia begins at the impressive Arc de Triomf and proceeds down the elegant Passeig de Lluís Companys, which is dotted with groups of old men playing checkers under the palm trees. This leads to the Parc de la Ciutadella where, behind a pond ringed with giant chameleons, three distinctive buildings offer the first taste of Modernisme: the brick Castell dels Tres Dragons, the delicate glasshouse Hivernacle, and Umbracle, a ‘shade house’ with a rolling, wood-slatted roof. Emerging from the park, cross to the Born barrio’s charming, pedestrianised Passeig del Born, worth lingering on for its contemporary cafés and up-market boutiques. Then it’s on along tiny Carrer de l’Argenteria for a snack of pintxos (see Tapas Time, p60) at Sargardi (at 62) before crossing Via Laietana to weave the dark streets of Barri Gòtic towards La Rambla.
The latter street may be to Barcelona what Leicester Square is to London, but at some point everyone ends up on La Rambla – whether to stroll up it from Port Vell to Pla?a de Catalunya, or to dash across it from Barri Gòtic to the Raval. There are several Modernista points of interest here, including Café de L’Òpera (at 74), where the tapas are good and the churros – donut-like pastries dipped in hot chocolate – sublime. It’s worth experiencing the original interior that features mirrors etched with Botticelli-esque women from various operas.
Further up is Escrib? (at 83), a patisseria (cake shop) famous for being one of the few in Barcelona to make butter croissants. The shop’s frontage is a mass of mosaic and stucco, with its former incarnation as Antigua Casa Figueras announced in arched gold-tile lettering above the door. Next door is the unmissable Mercat de la Boqueria, which heaves with produce and is a feast in every sense. Stalls piled with fruit are awash in colour, the freshest fish is laid out over crushed ice, and fragrant, fresh breads and cheeses cry out to be made up for picnics.
At the rear of the market is the start of a short-but-worthwhile detour from the route: the Raval’s Carrer del Carme. Turning right, at number 24 is El Indio, a vast fabric shop dating from 1922 that is resplendent with Versace-esque black and gold detailing designed by Vilar? i Valls. Back along the street, Bar Muy Buenas at number 63 is dark and loud, with Spanish music blaring through its ornate door and a perfectly preserved wooden fa?ade and marble bar.
If the idea of splitting the one-day route over more time appeals, the Palau de la Música Catalana (Sant Francesc de Paula 2) is the first unmissable building to explore more fully. It was completed in 1908 after architect Dom?nech i Montaner was given the tricky task of fitting a lavish concert hall for showcasing Catalan choral music within the small site of a former monastery. Consequently, arriving at it along a small street off Via Laietana feels more like chance than an event. But behind its brick-and-mosaic exterior, the concert hall’s interior is nothing short of spectacular, with an enormous stained-glass skylight, depicting a choir of angels around the sun, that drops into the room like a giant kaleidoscopic tear. The Palau is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the only way to explore it is by guided tour.
The second building to take time out for is Casa Mil? (Passeig de Gr?cia 92). Nicknamed La Pedrera, meaning ‘The Quarry’, this is one of Gaudí’s most intriguing creations. Best visited on day two, while taking in the Passeig de Gr?cia’s Modernista jewels, this residential building is a monumental piece of architecture described in the book as a ‘geographical landscape, a sea cliff, and an abstract sculpture with giant organic forms’. There’s an over-whelming amount here, from the attic’s ‘Gaudí Space’ – which offers a thorough overview of the architect’s life and work – to the moonscape-like roof with its warrior chimneys, to the restored apartment below.
Passeig de Gr?cia soon leads to Avinguda Diagonal and the turn-off for Gaudí’s Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Carrer de Mallorca 401), whose construction continues today. This is Barcelona’s most iconic building, and its soaring heights, detailed fa?ade, newly formed naves, and fascinating museum could easily consume a half-day if the one-day route were extended farther, say, over three.
The other sight that calls for lingering is also the Ruta’s final port of call. Gaudí’s exuberant Park Güell in the Gr?cia barrio was also left unfinished by the architect. It’s a vision of fantasy and spirituality in which Catalan and natural emblems are realised as mosaiced sculptures amidst the Mediterranean vegetation. There are gardens, grottoes, tunnels, and the Casa-Museu Gaudí to explore, where you can learn more about the great architect.
Naturally, the path away from the park is lined with tourist shops. Let yourself go here – it’s OK to slow your pace, stop, and make a purchase… After all, you’ll want to be reminded of a day – or three – spent being enriched, charmed, and surprised by Barcelona’s Modernista architects. But what would be most friendly to your baggage allowance? Why, fridge magnets, salt and pepper shakers, and snow globes, of course.
Dining on tapas is about conviviality and sharing. Choose several dishes and accompany with pa amb tom?quet – bread rubbed with raw garlic and tomato and sprinkled with salt and olive oil.
What to try
Where to Try It
Gala-Salvador Dalí Square, 5