A Trip to Barcelona

I haven’t been posting much on here of late, for the simple reason that I have been enjoying myself in the real world too much.  The month of May saw no less than 3 public holidays falling on a Thursday, allowing me to take the Friday off and having a 4-day weekend in each case.  Then there was another public holiday on 9th June, meaning I think I worked 3 full weeks out of the past 7.  Nobody ever accused the French of working overlong hours.

The first weekend I spent in Barcelona, which was nice but I felt a little overrated.  The weather was superb, and that in itself went a long way to demonstrate why it is such a popular city to visit and reside in, and there was a certain charm to the tree-lined streets which I saw in Madrid but nowhere else in Europe.  The harbour area was nice, especially for this yacht enthusiast, but getting there required fighting through densely packed tourists who had arrived by the million on budget airlines from all over Europe.  People just like us, then.

The place was packed.  On our second day we took the open-top bus tour around the city and had to queue for half an hour just to get on the thing.  When finally we did, we decided to stay on it for the full 2 hours until the bus had come back to its starting point in the main square, to avoid losing our spot.  It was a nice tour, but we came away with the impression that there was not quite enough in Barcelona to justify such a comprehensive commentary.  The way they spoke about the Barcelona Olympics was as if they were held last year, and not 22 years ago.  And not being into architecture I didn’t quite get why the place was so popular.  Sure, it’s a nice city, very nice…but I don’t think it comes even close to Paris.  Being an engineer, one of the things which annoyed me was the reverence in which the construction site more commonly known as the Sagrada Família is held:

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As Wiki says:

Although incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Which says more about the UNESCO criteria than the Sagrada Familia, which is basically a grander version of those loft conversions you see on TV programmes where the man of the house tears apart half the property before putting the project on hold after realising it’s not as easy as it first appeared, leaving the place looking as though a bomb’s hit it for the next 10 years.  The church was designed by Barcelona’s most famous architect Antoni Gaudí, whose designs can be seen all over the city.  This was supposed to be his masterpiece and he supervised the construction personally for the last 43 years of his life – leaving it a quarter finished when he was hit by a tram and killed.

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Now I’m sorry, and I realise I sound like a bit of a heathen here, but I’m not impressed.  Any idiot can come up with a grand design or a project that is not able to be realised, either through impracticability, lack of funds, or other reasons.  The damned thing only passed the halfway mark in 2010, with the latest estimates being 2026 as the finish date.  Although privately funded, why nobody – even the Spanish government or EU who has pissed away untold millions on airports nobody uses - could not have bunged them the necessary cash to get the thing finished is beyond me.  If this was a loft conversion, either a TV station would have sent a crew in to finish things off or the wife would have issued an ultimatum to either get the bloody thing finished by Christmas or expect divorce proceedings.  The building is impressive enough, I suppose, but is it worth having a giant building site in the middle of the city for nigh-on 150 years?

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To be fair, Cologne cathedral took something like 600 years to complete, leaving a crane dangling over the unfinished construction for 400 years, so maybe the Catalans are getting off lightly?  But then again the Sagrada Familia is in relative terms a modern building.  The French built the bulk of Notre Dame in 90 years or thereabouts and Wells cathedral took about 300 years: but these were knocked up in medieval times and, crucially, were actually fucking finished!   Looking at more modern cathedrals, St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg is extremely impressive and took 40 years to construct.  London’s St. Paul’s, a hundred years older, took 45 years.  So what’s Gardi’s excuse?

Sorry, but the engineer in me says designs need to be feasible if they are to be considered any good, and a design which, in the modern era of construction, takes longer to complete than those of two centuries before fails to impress me.  If I was heading the UNESCO panel, I would have turned up, taken one look, and told them to call me again when the damned thing’s finished.  Otherwise any Tom, Dick, or Harry could lay a foundation stone and claim it will be a floating palace one day.  Meh, I know everyone raves about Gardi, but I wasn’t impressed.

I was more impressed with the Nou Camp, which I visited to watch Barcelona draw with Getafe FC, which effectively cost them the league title.  The stadium was magnificent, but looks a bit dated up close: seats faded, paint chipped, and the egress stairways narrower than you’d find in a modern venue.  But it remains a great stadium nonetheless.

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So that was Barcelona.  Worth the visit, and the tapas food and sangria was excellent, but don’t hire me to write the tourist brochure.

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12 Responses to A Trip to Barcelona

  1. The Serbs have been building St Sava’s Church (the largest Orthodox church in the world) in Belgrade since 1895, and haven’t finished yet, although they are close. Start building, run out of money, have the project shelled by the Nazis and then used as a car park, more building, communism, more wars etc etc etc is how some of these things get built, and always have. Getting the thing finished after a century or more demonstrates the importance of the faith of the people doing it, or something.

    As for soccer – who cares?

  2. PeteC says:

    I can’t say I’m a fan of Gaudí’s architectural style – his buildings look like they belong in a Flintstones episode. And the Sagrada Familia is an abomination.

    Barcelona is pleasant enough though, with its parakeets, palm trees and relaxed atmosphere. Oh, and it’s home to a species not found in France: cheap and readily available taxis!

  3. Tim Newman says:

    Oh, and it’s home to a species not found in France: cheap and readily available taxis!

    That’s true: when we took ours from the airport, after a few sentences in bad English our driver told us he was from the Ukraine, and we switched the conversation to Russian. Much easier that way. :)

    I’ve found taxis in Paris are either plentiful and expensive (e.g. at CDG) or cheap and as rare as hen’s teeth (e.g. city centre after 10pm). You need to keep a close eye on the metro times when out in Paris at night.

  4. PeteC says:

    Hah! Unlike Toulouse where taxis are neither cheap nor plentiful. It’s a prime market for Uber – if they don’t have too many legal hurdles to overcome.

  5. People living in Spain have told me this, so it’s hearsay rather than facts I can confirm. However,

    In Spain, women at home of not necessarily great means traditionally take (or at least took) taxis in the daytime to go and do the shopping. The cost of taxis for these customers is seen as very important, and so taxis have been regulated in such a way as to keep prices reasonable. Fewer barriers to entry for taxi drivers probably go with this, so the supply of taxis is higher too, which is a win-win for customers.

    Barcelona is a nice city. It’s fascinating how its profile rose in the 1980s and particularly 1990s. In 1980 it was a city that was barely known of outside Spain, and it was barely on the international tourist circuit at all. Since then, it’s profile has risen to the point that it is seen as one of the leading destinations in all of Europe. I don’t think any other city has risen to prominence in the time quite like this. I think Barcelona is a fairly rare instance in which hosting the Olympics genuinely has permanently lifted the profile of the city above what it might otherwise have been, which is perhaps one reason why the people of Barcelona are still eternally mentioning it. Barcelona had some rough neighbourhoods when I first visited in 1993, too. That’s all cleaned up, now. In 1983 I suspect it was a wild and dangerous place at times.

    Barcelona’s a nice city. It’s rather stylish. The food and drink is good. By Spanish standards it is expensive, though. There are equally nice places with equally good food and drink further south that are much cheaper.

  6. dearieme says:

    “There are equally nice places with equally good food and drink further south that are much cheaper.” Name them, name them!

  7. PeteC says:

    While North rather than South of Barcelona, I can personally recommend Tossa de Mar, despite the name. :)

  8. Tim Newman says:

    It’s fascinating how its profile rose in the 1980s and particularly 1990s.

    Yes, you’re right: the Olympics did wonders for the city’s profile. Which is an argument for holding them in more obscure cities, not places like London or Rio de Janeiro which are already very high profile.

  9. Alex K. says:

    I liked Barcelona very much – spacious, green, modern in a non-boring way and full of modernist architecture apart from the Sagrada Familia. Apparently its first golden age was 1880-1920 (when Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch, Domènech i Montaner and a few other major architects were active) and it’s living through its second golden age now.

  10. Almost anywhere in Spain is cheaper than Barcelona. Madrid is certainly cheaper than Barcelona, but whether you like it more or less is a matter of taste. Madrid is Castilian and in the middle of the country and Barcelona is Catalan and a sea port. Going north rather than south, the Basque country has the best food in Spain and is cheaper than Barcelona but still not all that cheap. San Sebastian is a gorgeous seaside down. Bilbao has a gritty big city feel, but I rather like it. Valencia is a sort of little Barcelona: Catalan (approximately), another sea port, but smaller and a bit further south. Inland and a lot further south, Seville is lovely and a bargain. There are beautiful things to see in Cordoba and Granada (and some beautiful mountains near Granada). The food is good in both places. Further north and further inland (I am jumping all over the place) the ancient university town of Salamanca is lovely. There are beautiful bleak coastlines in the north and east of the country, too. (Asturias and Galicia).

    The resort regions on the coast all have that Tossa de Mar quality. You go from a very overdeveloped resort, and next town along is some two thousand year old town with castles and beautiful old buildings and nicer beaches than the resorts. (Benidorm is an extreme modern resort, but Alicante itself is very nice).

  11. dearieme says:

    So you like Spain, Michael?

  12. I do indeed. In fact, I like Portugal just as much (if not more), so it’s the whole peninsula.

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