Tidewater Traveler - September 2010

 

Park Güell
by
George W. Sellers

 

It is a hot, summer Monday in the city of Barcelona, Spain. The date is June 7, 1926. I can relate to this date by thinking that it might be my mother’s first day of summer break following completion of eighth grade at the 3-story, brick school on Academy Street by the Creek Bridge in Cambridge, Maryland. Time Magazine on the same date features the gruff image of Josef Pilsudski, touting his violent overthrow of the Polish government.
On that morning an electric tram is rattling along its rails on one of Barcelona’s busiest avenues when, without warning, it strikes a tall, shabbily dressed, unshaven, seventy-three-year-old man. The man’s injuries, though serious, do not prevent him from attempting to engage a taxi to get to a hospital. However, cabbies ignored his pleas because of his attire, appearance and empty pockets. Eventually, he is carted to a pauper’s hospital in the city. The next day, when friends and colleagues realize what has happened and locate him, they try to move him to a better facility. Though the man is a prominent and distinguished architect, designer and artist, he refuses the offer, saying, “I belong here amongst the poor.” On June 10, 1926, Barcelona began to mourn the death of Antoni Gaudí (gow’dy).
It is only April – not June – as I complete the trek up this long grade from the bus lot to reach the entrance of Park Güell. Through the sweat I am still wondering why I chose a ‘parks tour’ from the ship’s collection of shore excursions in Barcelona. Then I get my first glimpse of fantasy-like architecture; trees, vines and bushes blended with walkways, bridges and railings. The tour director mentions the influence of a designer/artist whose name I had never heard - Gaudí - Antoni Gaudí. It would seem that a not uncommon first impression of the park’s structures might lead one to say, “What a playful, whimsical mind must have created this!” The farther I go into the park, the more I realize that I am experiencing the manifestations of a man whose goal was to mingle nature and structure in such a way that one is nearly indiscernible from the other.
Is it a tree trunk covered in vines or is it the support post for a bridge? Is it a rock-strewn waterfall or is it the retaining wall for an entertainment veranda? Is it a giant mushroom or is it the underpinnings of a balcony deck? The architecture of Gaudí has been described by some as wiggly or swirly. It seems that straight lines and flat surfaces are not acceptable in his architectural plan. Pillars sometimes look like dripping ice cream. Walls and balcony railings resemble the twisted vines of a rainforest setting, even with an occasional clawed appendage appearing in the creation. Roofs and gables remind me of overlapped slabs of gingerbread. Columns shaped like stalactites and stalagmites, that look like they could have been sculpted in mud by an army of ground bees, support a flat-roofed, social-gathering terrace.
Unusual textures are everywhere. Ceilings, walls and walking surfaces appear like snakeskin, goose-bumps, scallop shells - created in patchwork mosaic from broken tile and glass, pebbles, sand, molded concrete and plaster. The park is an incredible collection of very strange-looking elements of architecture, yet all very functional units of the whole structure.
At one of the park’s entrances are found two large gate-houses – so unusual - so hard to describe! Imagine the combination of a sand castle, an igloo and a gingerbread house designed and built by a bunch of Smurfs to be used on a Hansel and Gretel set. There are no sharp edges or corners. The roof of one house can be imagined to be a giant ice cream sundae. Looking out across the gatehouses, I see the cityscape of modern Barcelona. What a contrast between the bustling metropolis and the enchanted, serene garden which seems a world away.
In addition to several dozen busloads of tourists, there seem to be thousands of locals meandering, browsing, relaxing. Local entrepreneurs and entertainers are randomly situated throughout the terraces, executing their arts of music, mimicry, mime and magic. Dancers, acrobats and jugglers perform – at first for no one – and then for an encircling crowd. Human statues costumed to look like historic relics fascinate onlookers until the blink of an eye or the turn of a head startles those who peer too closely.
Vendors – tasteful, not obnoxious as in many Caribbean locations – display their wares. Lacy-looking jewelry reflecting the sculptural motif of the park is displayed atop open umbrellas.
Construction of the park began in 1900, commissioned and financially backed by industrialist Eusebi Güell in an effort to create a private garden of solitude and at the same time capture the artistic vision of Antoni Gaudí. Most of the park was completed by 1914. There is confusion, even among Barcelonans, about the pronunciation of the name Güell. It seems that both ‘gwell,’ an Anglicized version, and ‘gway,’ with Spanish influence, are deemed acceptable locally.
To fully appreciate Park Güell I would recommend allowing about half-a-day. Essentially every cruise ship that docks in Barcelona will offer a shore excursion that includes Park Güell. Many of the shore trips will include other city attractions along with the park.
Returning to the ship our driver passes a huge cathedral, Gaudí´s Sagrada Familia. Like many European tourists I think I suffer from ‘cathedral fatigue.’ But knowing what I now know about Gaudí, I wish I had chosen a tour that includes this remarkable church along with Park Güell. Construction began on the building in 1882, but was interrupted by Gaudi’s death. Gaudi’s influence on the building has produced unconventional and unexpected architectural elements for a cathedral. It is anticipated that the building will be completed by 2026 as a centennial commemoration of the artist’s death. When completed, it will claim the designation of largest cathedral in the world. I wish I had time to do more than just ride-by.
Viewing Antoni Gaudi’s work is like watching clouds; everyone will see something different. On your next trip to Barcelona consider a tour that includes both Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and Park Güell.

May all your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel website and travel planning service www.SellersTravel.com.