It must be BARCELONA! – home of Picasso, Gaudi and Olympic Gold Medalist Pickpockets.

Kind of a weird title, but it will become clear as you read the post.

Travel, from my own experience, has always been a very positive experience. I have met some wonderful people from all around the world, seen some marvelous sights and had some very positive, at times life-changing moments. In all my years of international travel (I first travelled overseas when I was 14 so that’s 45 years of experience), I have only had the displeasure to experience either muggers or pick-pockets three times. 

The first time was way back in the mid 1980’s in Harlem, New York City – partly my own fault as I was still a bit green and didn’t have much in the way of street smarts – when I encountered a couple of guys who wanted to relieve me of my bag – containing my camera, wallet and passport among other things. Fortunately I was young and fit and managed to turn heel and out run them….almost bowling over a railway security guard in my haste to get away.

The second and third times involved pick pockets or, I should say, attempted pick pockets. Once in Nice in the South of France and, yes you guessed it once in Barcelona and both within a month of one another….but we’ll get to that event later.

I had visited Barcelona very briefly over 40 years ago as a 16 year old and remember being propositioned by the prostitutes along the main street through the centre of Barcelona called las Ramblas. Other than that and the statue of Columbus at the sea shore end of las Ramblas along with the flower sellers stalls in the middle of the street, I can’t really remember much about it.

Columbus statue at the end of las Ramblas.

For our recent visit though I had a reason to be there, or two reasons to be exact – one being Pablo Picasso the world famous artist, and the other being Antoni Gaudi equally famous for his fantastic architecture…..or at least equally famous here in Barcelona.

I had bought a book “Gaudi – the Complete Works”- by Juan-Edwardo Cirlot, with photos by Pere Vivas and Ricard Pla –  on arrival in Barcelona and flicked through the pages in awe of the genius of the man.

But first Picasso. Picasso was born in Malaga, southern Spain in 1881, but in 1895 moved to Barcelona where he thrived. He looked upon Barcelona as his true home and it was here that he was accepted into the School of Fine Arts at the tender age of 13. At 16 his father and uncle decided it would be best for him to go to Madrid and attend Spains foremost art school the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando. He hated the structured regime there and quit soon after enrolling. He remained in Madrid though for a time visiting the museums and galleries for inspiration.

In 1900 he made his first visit to Paris and it was love at first sight…..as it is for many of us. He then divided his time between living and working in Paris and Barcelona. However in later years he lived prodominantly in France, which became his new adopted home.

It’s here though, in Barcelona, where you will find the museum completely dedicated to Picasso – The Museu Picasso – which opened in 1963 and houses over 4,000 pieces of Picasso’s work. Although he’s most famous as an artist and was a leader of the cubist movement, he was also a sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, collagist, stage designer, poet and playwrite. A busy and versatile man!

entrance to the Picasso Museum.

The museum is very much worth visiting to view the range of his work. It is housed in 5 adjoining medieval palaces in Barcelona’s La Ribera district – a haven for artists, artisans, designers, tradesmen and merchants – on Montcada Street. The museum is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays). For full details of opening times and ticket prices see their website. http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en

Even though Picasso is an artist of world renown, who’s works sell for millions of dollars, he is not my main reason for being here in Barcelona. The focus of my trip is another artistic genius, Antoni Gaudi. The difference being that his artistic genius manifests itself in architecture – amazing, imaginative, magical and almost mythical architecture.

The buildings he designed were highly individualised one off designs – very much stand-out buildings and a feast for the eyes. Having visited a number of his buildings in Barcelona, as well as Park Guell – a public park composed of gardens and architectural pieces – I can confirm the genius of this man. The park and the buildings he designed in Barcelona have been given USESCO World Heritage status. His most famous building, mainly due to the size and difficulty of building it, is without a doubt the still unfinished, massive church known as the Sagrada Familia.

To view many of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona we went on a “Free” walking tour with Runner Bean Tours. The tour is, as it says, free of charge…..but you can make a donation at the end if you thought the guide and the tour itself was good value. Some people take the tour and give nothing. Others, myself included, chipped in around $10 per head as a thank you for the almost 3 hour tour. Well worth at least $10….probably $20 would not be out of place. They also do paid tours for groups and for individuals. Website link is:  https://runnerbeantours.com/

Our guide was wonderful. Very clearly spoken, amusing, patient and knowledgeable. Our tour began at the meeting place just off las Ramblas, at the Placa Reial, by the water fountain. We were asked to look around the square and see if we could see anything that Gaudi may have designed. It was pretty obvious that the guide was referring to the ornate lamp posts – complete with serpents and winged helmets – so brightly coloured.

The tour took in several of Gaudi’s buildings – the first stop being Palau Guell – a building designed for The Guell family who were Gaudi’s primary patrons – very wealthy. As we were standing on the footpath opposite the building and our guide was giving us the spiel of all the facts and figures relating to the design and build of this amazing building, I noticed that 3 extra people who were not on our tour had tagged on to the back of the group. Two men and a woman. But, instead of looking at the building they seemed to be concentrating on the other people in the group. Naturally this was a signal to me that something wasn’t quite right. 

I had a rather expensive camera with me, but other than that only had a few euro’s in a zipped cargo pocket down by my knee. Of course our three tag alongs had no way of knowing that. As the tour guide wound up his talk and motioned for the group to follow him to the next destination we turned into a narrow alleyway and it was here that they made their move. I had hung back, at the back of the group and as soon as I entered the alley, the bigger of the men cut in front of me and immediately bent down as if picking something up that he’d dropped. It was such a sudden movement that I couldn’t stop myself from bumping into him and coming to a halt. The instant I bumped into him, the other two – the man and woman – “accidentally” crashed into me and the guys hand went straight into my my pocket. Although this was obviously a practiced move of theirs it was clumsy. I grabbed his wrist, spun around and started yelling obsenities at him to attract attention and hopefully that someone in our group would hear and come to the rescue. Pick pocketing is so common in Barcelona that no one even blinked at the incident unfolding in front of them.  Passers by just kept on their merry way, minding their own business. Three on one are not good odds and there was no way I could contain all three of them. As it turned out, once I had rumbled their plan they simply put up their hands in a “Woops OK you caught me” gesture, smiled and shrugged apologetically and turned and left in the other direction.

Once I had caught up with our tour leader I took him to one side to explain what had just happened and to suggest that maybe he should issue a warning to the rest of the group – just in case. During his warning speech that he gave at our next stop he commented that pick pocketing was so rife here in Barcelona that if it was to become an Olympic sport, Barcelona would become the undisputed Gold Medalists…..hence the title of this post. He also said that most pick pockets are not violent and unlike muggers will not resort to force…..and if caught are usually good natured and walk away.

Our tour continued taking in a number of Gaudi works and buildings of architectural merit of some of Gaudi’s competitors. All very interesting and beautiful to see unlike a lot of todays modern monstrosities which have cost as their primary concern. The building I was most interested in seeing though was Casa Batllo – with its dragonlike roof. It’s been called a number of names including “the fairytale in stone”, “the house of yawns” and even “the cat house”. You can see from the photos that follow how it got those names.

I was very keen to see inside this amazing building, but entry to the buildings is not included in the tour. Each Gaudi Building, being privately owned, cost pretty decent money to get in to do a tour of the interiors. My wife and I decided to come back the next day and pay whatever it cost to view the inside.

The tour concluded at the Sagrada Familia. Again only viewed from the outside. It’s amazing that when Gaudi died in 1926 the church was only about 15% to 25% completed. The building work began in 1882 and is not expected to finish until around 2026…..although the expected finish date has been pushed back several times already so don’t hold your breath.

If you’re wondering what the literary connection is in this post…..other than the Gaudi book I mentioned earlier – the Sagrada Familia was commissioned by a book seller named Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph).

The next day we visited the interior of the Casa Batllo – and marveled at it’s hand carved staircase that looked like a huge curved spine as if it was made from bones, were frankly amazed at the amount of thought that went into this building particularly when it came to bringing daylight into the various rooms on each floor. There was a sort of central courtyard….just a few metres across that went from roof level all the way down to the ground floor. The walls of this “courtyard” were tiled in blue and white tiles and topped by a glass roof allowing light to enter the interior. The top floor was closest to the light, so this section of the courtyard walls were tiled mainly in dark blue tiles as the top floors were well lit and didn’t need to receive a lot of reflected light from the courtyard walls. As we travel downwards toward lower floors, more light is needed so the next floor down has a mixture of both blue and white tiles on the courtyard walls….lower still you see more white and less blue. There was also a ventilation system bringing in air from the outside and carrying it throughout every room of the house. These things may seem straight forward now but remember this building was built back in the early 1900’s.

There really are too many features to mention here, except to say that Gaudi was not a fan of the straight line. In his own words “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature, therefore there should be no straight lines or sharp corners in architecture”…and….”The straight line belongs to man, the curve belongs to god”. One feature that I will quickly mention – the roof – is said to be a nod by Gaudi to Catalonia’s saint, Saint George (also the saint of England). This is represented by the dragon-like roof and the turret with a cross on top. Said to represent the dragon killed by St. George – his sword being the cross on the turret. We don’t know for sure if this is correct as Gaudi refused to either confirm nor deny the speculation.

Our final place of interest in our search for everything Gaudi is Park Guell. Again commissioned initially by the wealthy Guell family. Actually Gaudi pretty much bankrupted them with his outlandish style and his habit of redoing work over and over again until it was absolutely perfect. Every job that Gaudi did, he blew the budget wide open. It is free to enter the park and to look at the gardens and architectural features created by Gaudi, but there is a small area that is reserved for paying customers. You can see into this area from the “free” area, but you don’t get the tactile experience of touching Gaudi’s creations or seeing them close up.

Words don’t really come close to describing the wonder of Gaudi’s creations so again I am putting here a gallery of photos to show the variety of his work within the Park Guell.

Just a couple of final observations. Within the park, officially you are not allowed to set up stalls and sell tourist merchandise – there are police patrols to enforce this. It doesn’t seem to stop dozens of entrepreneurs form laying out their wares on blankets along the pathways in the park. as soon as the police are in sight, they gather the corners of their blankets and disappear like smoke on the breeze – to return moments later when the police have gone by. It would seem also, by the grafitti on one of the picnic tables in the park that the locals are not 100% behind having tourists invade their space. See photo below.

Not exaclt a welcoming message.

We were in the great city of Barcelona for a week, so obviously saw more than the Picasso Museum and Gaudi’s buildings……so I may take another look at Barcelona in another post sometime along the way. Meantime, thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you liked it, please do click on the “Like” button and I have many more articles to share with you, so please feel free to also hit that “Follow” button. As usual any comments or constructive criticism are gratefully received. Adios for now.

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