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Enjoy the amazing art & architecture of native son Antoni Gaudi

To be in Barcelona is to be in Gaudi’s Barcelona. This Spanish port city and the famed architect are as linked as a good Rioja red and a chunk of Manchego cheese. Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region of Spain, and the Catalan translation of Gaudi is “enjoyment.” It’s certainly easy to enjoy the mark that Gaudi left on Barcelona.

Born in 1852 in Reus, just an hour outside Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi eventually moved to the city to study architecture at the College of Sciences of Barcelona. He received his first major commission in 1878, when he was hired by wealthy Barcelona families to design various buildings and factories. Little did these families know then that Gaudi would make his mark on their city like no single architect has ever done for a city anywhere else in the world.

Many have called his style “Gaudi-ism,“ but his work was really a unique combination of Modernism, Gothicism, Surrealism, Moorish, and more. After almost 40 years of constant commissions--a majority in or near Barcelona--Gaudi was accidentally killed by a passing Barcelona streetcar in 1926. Dressed in rags, taxi drivers refused to take the “vagabond” to the hospital. He was buried in the crypt of his beloved Sagrada Familia.

To see Barcelona through the eyes, and mind, of Gaudi is actually quite simple today, thanks to the ease of visiting many of his works located throughout the bustling city. Most cruise ships that call on this popular Western Mediterranean port (we were on Windstar’s Wind Surf) actually offer shore excursions with names like “Gaudi’s Barcelona” and this certainly makes it much more efficient for passengers with only a day in port (on our excursion we were able to bypass several long lines at two of Gaudi’s more popular places).

Our tour started with Park Guell. which provided a great introduction to Gaudi’s work in a peaceful garden-like setting. Now a 40-acre city park, the former real estate development is situated on the southern slope of Carmel Hill.

Gaudi often worked with a wealthy Barcelona businessman named Eusebi Guell, who owned a number of textile factories in the area and gave Gaudi free reign in a number of designs. This was the pair’s largest project and it was designed to become an upscale neighborhood of residences and gardens.

From about 1900 to 1914, Gaudi created roads, pedestrian walkways, and a hilltop square that was to be used as a social area and marketplace. Though there were very few cars in use in Barcelona at the time, Gaudi had the forethought to make the streets wide enough for auto traffic. In many ways, this was the world’s first contemporary “planned community.”

After the infrastructure was in place, Gaudi and Guell split the land into 60 plots, with plans to sell detached homes with gardens. However, Barcelonians were long accustomed to living in the city, with apartments and shared living spaces. They also didn’t want to live so far from downtown Barcelona (the city has since expanded well beyond Park Guell). In retrospect, of course, Gaudi was a pioneer of urban and suburban planning.

By 1918, when the development’s failure was obvious, Guell sold the land to Barcelona, which allowed him to cut his losses and also avoid the huge taxes owed to the city. In 1922, Barcelona declared the land a city park. In 1984, Park Guell was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From the moment you enter this Gaudi park playground, it’s obvious that his goal was to have architecture become an extension of the natural setting. Highlights of Gaudi touches throughout Park Guell include: 55 round concrete stones to signify 55 rosary beads; parabolic arches (the colors and shapes are from nature); park benches made from broken tiles and ceramics (Gaudi was a legendary recycler and re-used whatever whenever possible); a town square supported by 86 Doric columns; a staircase anchored by a salamander; and two small and typically whimsical Gaudi-designed buildings (one was to be the real estate sales office and one the home of the watchman).

We had some time to explore Park Guell on our own, and the genius of Gaudi’s design could be found at every turn. For instance, the wave-like park benches were curved to promote conversation among residents. Plus, underneath the aforementioned town square is a shady site designed to be a town market. Today's arts & crafts sellers enjoy the great view Gaudi built for the vendors in his planned market--a ceiling filled with multi-hued ceramic tiles. Park Guell surely served as a colorful introduction to Gaudi’s work.

We moved to downtown Barcelona for our next stop, Casa Batllo, which is portrayed as Gaudi’s residential masterpiece--at least the one that’s open to the public. Gaudi was hired to remodel the building, originally constructed in 1877, and divide it into apartments, which he dramatically accomplished from 1904 to 1906. The patron, Josep Batllo, lived on the lower two floors an rented out the upper stories as apartments.

Gaudi added a new (and wavy) Modernist façade to the stone building, with enlarged windows, bone-like columns, skull-like balconies, ceramic circles, and lots of trademark colored-glass fragments. He also completely reworked the interior--which has to be toured to be believed--and even added a fifth floor replete with attic spaces and whimsical chimneys.

The interior of Casa Batllo is a cornucopia of colors and architectural details that we found hard to fathom in one crowded visit. Most of the walls are curved, with a hallways and rooms making surprising appearances around every bend.

The attics and chimneys up on the roof terrace added by Gaudi were re-opened on the anniversary of his renovation and remain a popular destination for many of the building’s visitors--including us. Gaudi used images of the four elements of nature (air, fire, water, and earth) to create several attic spaces (including the old laundry room), as well as colorful chimneys, a light well, and vaults that look like an enormous rib cage. Many have called this undulating roof reminiscent of a dragon’s back.

Nearby is Gaudi’s Casa Mila, and although our tour didn't go inside, the apartment building is well worth visiting, if only to see the eerily shaped wrought iron balconies. Gaudi aficionados can seek out many other works by the architect located throughout the city that aren’t typically part of a cursory shore excursion.

The seemingly endless construction site--and sight--of Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church) is Barcelona’s most famous tourism attraction and, along with the Prado and the Alhambra, one of the most-visited places in Spain. It was a fitting end to our exploration of Gaudi’s Barcelona.

The church was originally planned by another architect, and Gaudi took over in 1883. At the time, Sagrada Familia stood more than a mile from urban Barcelona; it’s now in the middle of the city’s bustling heart. Gaudi worked on the building for more than 40 years, devoting most of his last 15 years to its construction. He even lived in his Sagrada Familia studio the last year of his life.

The church wasn’t even close to complete when Gaudi died in 1926 and it’s still just over 50 percent finished. The current estimated completion date is about 2026, on the centennial of Gaudi‘s death; but this is totally dependent on funding, which is mostly donations. When (and if) completed, it will be a Roman Catholic church, not a cathedral--Barcelona already has one.

Gaudi started work on the church when he was in his early-30s, so he brought lots of his new ideas to the drawing board. Today's construction is still based on his original drawings, notes, and other information. Any overall picture of Sagrada Familia is bound to include cranes and scaffolding.

The dramatic exterior’s visual highlights include: the main entrance dedicated to the life (Glory) of Christ; the eastern side door façade dedicated to Christ’s birth (Nativity) and the western side door to his death (Passion); dramatic entranceways decorated with words from the Bible in various languages (including Catalan); and so much more that it‘s difficult for human eyes to take it all in during one visit. Each entrance will ultimately have four towers, commemorating Christ's 12 disciples (the entries are about two-thirds complete). The towers rise more than 300 feet and are topped with colorful pinnacles featuring, of course, multihued mosaics.

When we visited, the roof was open to weather conditions, which is generally still the case for most of the structure. Once the roofing is complete (relatively soon, we‘ve read), work will begin in earnest on the interior of Gaudi’s dream building.

Pick up one of the lavishly illustrated guidebooks that beautifully detail these and Gaudi's other designs, The three masterpieces we visited are the ones most often included on a shore excursion and definitely provide a great introduction to his work. These tours are the best way to see Gaudi's Barcelona. And by focusing on this important aspect of everyday life in Barcelona, our limited port time was better spent here than on a cursory overview tour of the cosmopolitan city.

The port of Barcelona just opened its new Palacruceros terminal, a modern complex capable of handling today's largest passenger vessels. Barcelona serves as both a homeport and port-of-call for every major cruise line plying the Western Mediterranean. Cruise travelers can further explore Gaudi's Barcelona, and discover the other wonders of this marvelous city, with an easily arranged pre- or post-cruise land extension.

For more information contact your travel agent; log on to www.barcelonaturisme.com; or write the Tourist Office of Spain (Cruise Travel Magazine), 666 Fifth Ave./35th Floor, New York, NY 10103.