Bookworm on Barcelona

We anticipated that Barcelona would be one of the high points of this trip. After all, Barcelona is Gaudi’s town, famed for its knock-your-socks off architecture. EVERYBODY loves Barcelona. No wonder the cruise ship made it a 12.5 hour stop.

Except we didn’t love Barcelona. It wasn’t just the punishing heat, the humidity, the periodic miasma of sewage, and the relentless cigarette smoke filling the air. It was also — and please forgive this sacrilege — that we simply found Barcelona boring.

Yes, I said boring. I understand that part of the problem was that we were trying to take in a very large city (3 million people) in just one day, but that doesn’t go far enough. In any other city of renown, one day leaves you wanting more, not less. Here, though, after visiting Parc Guell, which has a bunch of Gaudi stuff, and seeing Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral, we had a strong feeling we’d exhausted Barcelona’s highlights.

A stroll down the famed Ramblas merely tired us out. We expected a pedestrian street of extraordinary charm and uniqueness but, instead, simply found ourselves pushing our way through crowds (including pickpockets) on a fairly generic open-air shopping mall.  

The old cathedral was no more attractive. I will freely admit to being a horrible snob when it comes to medieval art and architecture, but even the family caught on immediately to the fact that this one was just wrong. The proportions were off. It was big without being magnificent. The art consisted of undistinguished medieval paintings and absolutely vile 16th, 17th and 18th century religious shlock.

As for the famed Sagrada Familia Cathedral, well, that’s a slightly different story. Outside, it’s a godawful mess, a combination of ambition, distraction, uglification and derision. On the inside, though, it’s transcendently magical.

Down on the ground, where your puny body rests, it’s a vast, uncluttered space with columns rising up. High, high above, though, there is a soaring stone forest of fronds and flowers. I parked myself in a chair, tipped my head back as far as I could, and just drank it in.  It is a spiritual experience to gaze up into that vast stone wilderness. The stained glass windows —  abstract rainbows of color — only remove one further from mundane considerations.

Was that transcendent experience worth the whole long, hot, smelly expensive day?  I don’t know. I was glad to see it, truly glad, but it was a half hour window (following a 45 minute long stand in line) in what was otherwise a sterile day . . . which brings me to my reference to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

We were struggling to figure out why people rave about Barcelona. Is it that they see something we missed, or could it be that people feel obligated to rave  about Barcelona?  Does it truly move them, or are they afraid to be called Philistines if they don’t laud it’s beauties?

As for me, when it comes to things like this, I’ve got a cast iron ego, and will always trust my own judgment, rather than the word of experts. If I don’t like something, the fact that others do is irrelevant. This was a city without a story, all style and no substance. And all the laudatory language from others isn’t going to give it a resonance I found distinctly lacking.