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Gaudí's Palau Güell

June, the hottest for 30 years they say, and the social programme took us, among other places in Barcelona, to visit Gaudí's Palau Güell (say "Gway").

The Palace, one of Gaudí's earliest works, was built between 1886 and 1890, as a family home for one of the great patrons of Modernisme, Eusebi Güell, a wealthy Catalan businessman who was also to commission Gaudí to design the Park Güell.

The Palau was inaugurated for the 1888 Universal Exhibition, work then being stopped and the building finished off afterwards. Gaudí had in fact first come to Güell's notice when, at the 1878 Exhibition, in Paris, he had spotted a glass display case Gaudí had designed.

On Nou de la Rambla, just off the Ramblas, the Güell Palace is a short walk from International House, across the old part of Barcelona. Its location is unusual; most of the Modernista buildings are to be found in the Ensanche, but the Palau Güell was built next to the existing Güell family home, and was at one time connected to it.

Apart from seeing Barcelona, the social programme also means that you get to meet other people, said Jenny Norman, who I tagged alongside in the walk across town. Jenny is studying peace and conflict studies in Stockholm, back home in Sweden, and is here for six weeks.

Quite a few Swedes come to Barcelona - "the government offers us loans so that we can" - Jenny explained. "They want to get rid of you?" "No, they want us to get educated." Now, that's a country for you! "How long had I been here?" Over 20 years I said, but had to admit that - being something of a self-confessed philistine - in fact I'd never been inside the Palau Güell before.

Palau Guell

Palau Güell: Wrought-ironwork decoration on the façade

We admired the façade of the building while waiting for the tour to begin. There is some fabulous wrought-iron work, with a wonderful dragon (my guidebook says it's a phoenix, but to we philistines...). Note also how the higher up you go, the plainer the decoration becomes. No point in doing up the servants' quarters, now, is there?

The visit is a guided one (good listening practice!) and if you're going on your own, get there first thing in the morning (visits start at 10), as in the summer there can be quite a queue. Going on a trip with the school, however, we get to sneak in the "out" door - the entrance being a double one, originally to let the carriages in and out. Note the carriage parked inside.

As it is one of Gaudí's early works, your man wanted to try a few things out, as can be seen in the variety of brick columns down in the stables in the basement, where the tour ("No photos! No chewing gum!") begins. The ramp you just came down was for the horses. There are Gothic and Arabic influences to be seen, as well as things that were later to become Gaudí's trademarks - such as the parabolic arch.

Being, as I say, something of a philistine, I'm not much one for guided tours, but pay attention to the tourguide and in fact you pick up quite a bit you would otherwise have missed. The Palau is - unlike the more famous of Gaudí's houses, the Casa Batlló and the Pedrera, for example - very dark inside, the result of extensive use of dark grey marble from Güell's own quarries, down the coast in the Garraf. But, as the guide pointed out, there are some ingenious tricks to create a sensation of greater light.

The visit takes you gradually up through the six floors of the house ("Walk on the left, please!") - into Mr Güell's office, to the main reception room, with its 20m high ceiling and specially designed acoustics (well, when you're a patron of the arts...), through the dining room and sitting room and then up to the bedrooms; the Güells had 10 kids, each with their corresponding fireplace - hard to imagine anyone wanting warmth on a sweltering day like today!

Palau Guell

Palau Güell: Trencadís (broken tiles) decoration on the rooftop terrace

You get bored with the official commentary, just look about you. There is just so much detail to be admired - the carvings on the ceilings, the embossing on the door of the study, the marble floors, the dragons' heads on the arm-rests of the chairs, others on the handles of a chest of drawers, a wonderful glass screen, this by the painter Alexandre de Rique. Gaudí tends to get all the credit - at least he's the name we all remember - but in fact to produce all this, there was a veritable army of craftsmen working under him.

And finally we had reached the top of the building ("Cameras... out!") and the terrace, with its 20 wonderful chimneys, each of them different, with trencadís or broken tile decoration (see picture, above) for those corresponding to the fireplaces in the family rooms, plain brick for those in the servants' quarters.

The view is perhaps not Barcelona's best, but on your skyline you've got the Palau Nacional, with its wonderful MNAC museum, Montjuich (from where you will get a superb view), the statue of Columbus over there (also), the towers of the cathedral, a glimpse of the Ramblas down below and a huge grey monstrosity that is part of the new Liceu opera house, which - at least from this angle - looks rather as if it would not be greatly missed if it happened to get burnt down again, if I you'll pardon my saying so.

Palau Guell

Palau Güell: One of the roof's 20 chimneys. In the distance, the cathedral

Had we been impressed by the Palau? Dan, from Minneapolis, had, especially by the roof and the chimneys, but had found that it was "very hot" inside. What, you mean the man reckons he's the world's greatest architect and he made no provision for air-conditioning? Laura, an economics student from Milan, had liked some of the arches and the windows, but thought they had more interesting things in Italy - "like the Sistine Chapel", she said.

I sweated up to the funfair on Tibidabo on my bike afterwards, which should give another superb view of Barcelona, but - most unusually - the city had all but disappeared under the heat haze (and that was after I wiped my glasses). Myself, I was glad that I'd - finally - gone to the Palau Güell and that, even after so many years, Barcelona still had secrets to reveal.

Further information

For more on Gaudí, there is a superb official Gaudí site.

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