Early April and it's Spring in Barcelona, warm and sunny, and it looked like a great afternoon to visit Gaudí's Park Güell.
"It's one of the most popular visits on the social program," explained Mònica Subirana, our guide as we took the Metro from Plaza Catalunya. Five stops later we were getting off at Vallcarca, which meant a bit of a climb up the steep Baixada de la Gloria (though the escalator was working this time!), but provides for a fantastic view of Barcelona from the top of the Turó dels Tres Creus – the Hill of the Three Crosses.
The 15-hectacre Park was built between 1900 and 1914, under the patronship of the rich Catalan textile merchant Eusebi Güell, and (like the Sagrada Familia) never finished. Güell died in 1914 and, it's said, his sons frittered his vast fortune away, rather than finishing the Park.
The intention was for there to be a chapel and 8.5m cross on the hill top, and that was one part of the plan that fell by the wayside. We have a mound and three very much smaller crosses there instead now – and the fabulous view.
On the afternoon on which we went, the view was partially obscured by the haze. All of Barcelona lies there below you, the Sagrada Familia, the spires of the Gothic Quarter, the port, the sea, Montjuic, and (though only just!) the Nou Camp…
Late afternoon is generally a good time to go: as we watched, the light was changing as the sun started to sink and the lengthening shadows picked the buildings out much more clearly over to our right. Ideally, for the view, get there when the sun has just come out after a shower, or else on a very cold winter day…
The Park Güell is the kind of place it's nice to linger, but Mònica wanted to show us as much of it as possible. Before taking us down to the picture postcard bit, she lead us down to the Viaducte dels Enamorats, long ramps snaking round the natural contours of the hill and lined with cute benches designed for two (hence the names, "dels Enamorats") and columns intentionally shaped like mushrooms, one of the characteristics of Gaudí's architecture being to incorporate Nature in shapes and forms.
Gaudí's original plan was for 60 houses in a Garden City for the wealthy, of which only two were built, one of which now houses a small Gaudí museum. What it say on the plaque outside, that Gaudí lived there from 1906 to 1926, is not strictly speaking true, Mònica pointed out, as he spent the last ten or so years of his life camping out at the Sagrada Familia.
"Er, Mònica... When do we get to see this?" one of the Italian girls with us wanted to know, pointing to the Gaudí postcard, the salamander that guards the entrance to the Park.
We were coming to it, as now we'd come out on to the large open space intended as somewhere for the residents of the Park to gather and socialise. There's a bench running right round it, said to be in the form of a snake basking in the Mediterranean sun, but also intended so that people could sit around in groups and talk.
The bench is decorated with another Gaudí characteristic, trencadís – the broken tile mosaics which Gaudí invented and also used on window frames and chimneys and, yes, the occasional dragon.
The rainwater collected in the square runs down the columns below it and emerges from the salamander's mouth ("Yes, it's just down there, but just let me explain about the market, first..." Mònica said).
The 96 columns were to house the market that was never built – and hence the plainness of their decoration: it would have made them easier to clean. We got no market, but the acoustics are amazing, making it a great place for concerts, not to mention the odd busker or two, now likely to get chased out.
Below the market place, we'd come to the entrance to the Park – and the salamander. There's actually rather more to it than that, as you can distinguish at least three layers, Mònica said, pointing them out to us: first nature (with a snake's head that is rather less photogenic than the salamander), then Catalonia (note the Catalan flag, characteristic of the nationalistic art of the period), and at the top a variety of Masonic symbols not even Mònica understood.
Behind us, the two Hansel and Gretal lodges at gate, one for the concierge, one for the Park's administrators, and the remarkable iron work gates (which in fact came from a Gaudí house in the city, the Casa Viçens), and that was it – 1.220m back to the Plaza Lesseps to catch the Metro home, unless you fancied climbing all the way back up the hill…
No one did, but it was a really interesting visit (thanks Mònica, and Adella, who came with us too!). It's great to go places with knowledgeable guides – but the Park Güell is one of those many places in Barcelona you really need to go back to if you really want to appreciate them.
Make a mental note to myself: catch that showery afternoon and come back, or else come early morning in the autumn, when there aren't so many tourists about…
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