Riding into city of Gaudí where architecture divided opinions

‘Irish Times’ intrepid biker signs off in Barcelona

Park Güell, Gaudí’s wonderfully eccentric park with its giant salamander made of brightly coloured tiles, was finished in 1900. Photograph: Getty

Park Güell, Gaudí’s wonderfully eccentric park with its giant salamander made of brightly coloured tiles, was finished in 1900. Photograph: Getty


When Carl Clancy finally made it to Barcelona in February 1913, he installed himself in a two-bedroom apartment with a balcony down by the port. It was close to the “brilliantly lighted Ramblas”, as he described it, then as now perhaps the most famous street in the city and which he regarded as resembling the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Strange to think that the man who so defines Barcelona and its contemporary appeal, the architect Antoni Gaudí, was in his prime when Clancy visited the city but does not merit so much as a mention in his writings.

Noting that some of his contemporaries held that Barcelona was more beautiful than Paris, Clancy pronounced: “. . . but surely not in its architecture, for my bird’s-eye view shows only a tiresome mass of white and buff plastered buildings with flat roofs and scarcely a red tile to brighten the picture. . .

“. . . the skyline is rarely relieved by a church or public building, and then it has no great interest.” Oh dear, what Clancy missed! Architecture, and the genius of Gaudí more than anyone else, is surely what makes Barcelona special.

His Palau Güell, a mansion in the centre of the city built for an industrialist, was finished in 1885. Casa Vicens, another substantial family home in the city centre, was complete by 1888. Made of rough stone and bricks, and of coloured tiles – a nod to the fact that its owner Manual Vicens had a brick and tile factory – it displayed many of the traits that define Gaudí’s later work. Park Güell, his wonderfully eccentric park with its giant salamander made of brightly coloured tiles, was finished in 1900. Six years later, La Pedrera, or Casa Mila, his giant apartment block with its sinuous, almost flowing facade and weird chimney pots, was finished by 1912, and not without stirring controversy.

So it is not as though in galumphing around Barcelona, the name Gaudí would have been a stranger to everyone’s lips. And what of that extraordinary building, the Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Holy Family, that is Gaudí’s towering – literally – monument?

Work began in 1882 and by 1899, masons under Gaudí’s direction, began adding sculptures to the nativity facade. Two years after Clancy failed to notice (or at least failed to tell his readers back in New York any of this), Gaudí was putting the first tile letters on the tower of Saint Barnabas, one of the four bell towers atop the facade, inspired by sea shells and which today, probably more than any other single image says: Barcelona. Though for a certain contemporary demographic, Lionel Messi may be a tad more familiar. . . In 1912, the cathedral building site was in the middle of nowhere. Early photos show fields and cattle where today it is surrounded by apartment blocks.

Every day now, hundreds of tourists queue to get inside, or stand outside staring up at it all – the magical collection of carvings of chameleons, snails, lizards, salamanders, and frogs. It is all slightly daft and very amusing, and a lovely marriage of religious imagery and homage to nature.

Clancy, meanwhile, rattled around trying to get his Henderson fixed (which he did, apparently losing his gun in the process) before catching himself a ferry to Mallorca and from there to Algeria.

I, on the other hand, must rush to get a ferry home, leaving Messrs Hill and Walker to soldier on without me, following Clancy’s trail to Sri Lanka, southeast Asia, Japan and the US. . . where Dr Frazier awaits.

l Continue to follow the Centenary Ride by reading Geoff Hill’s reports on the motors pages of The Irish Times , and online also, from Wednesday next, and also on his blog at adelaideadventures.com

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