I have a bone to pick with Antoni Gaudi. Of course, his iconic architecture peppered around the gorgeous city of Barcelona is undoubtedly awe-inspiring. The beautiful apartments of Casa Batllo are timelessly chic, although I wasn’t so convinced by Gaudi’s anti-theft measures for the building. He at least considered making the first floor more secure by putting in security bars in front of the windows. Yet, I would have been more convinced by their deterrent powers if they were good old solid iron bars. Gaudi chose however to use what looks like a collection of dried out thigh bones from a herd of anorexic giraffes with a calcium deficiency. Although far more aesthetically pleasing, the simplest of karate chops from the limpest of thieves would appear to be enough to snap these ‘bars’ in two and render them useless in protecting the casa beyond.
The sophisticated block of neighbouring La Pedrera too is utterly delightful; its tactile, curvy m-shaped arches and rafters – which Ronald McDonald must have visited just before he opened his first ever eating establishment and was stumped for a logo – and its medieval-knight-shaped chimney pots are simply beautiful. But Gaudi, if you were going to put in a desirable roof terrace why didn’t you have the sense to level it off flat so one can walk across it without fear of losing balance and falling over the side?
As for his cathedral masterpiece La Sangrada Familia, well it certainly took my breath away … but not for the reasons one may think.
I first visited the construction site (will it ever be finished?) in September 2002. It is an amazing feat of architectural engineering – the bit that’s actually built – but it does look a bit grubby in parts, and could probably do with a good rub from a duster.
To truly appreciate the intricacies and vision of this part-building, I ventured up to the top of one of the completed bell towers. The view from the very lofty top was just wonderful, not only for looking across the sexy Catalonian horizon but also for seeing up close the detail Gaudi lovingly added to the structure of the cathedral; a little sculpted bird here, a fully bloomed flower of stone there, tiny details hidden away up in the rafters. Space though up there was understandably limited. With camera-wielding tourists frantically elbowing each other out of the way for yet another photo of their loved ones smiling like buffoons, it wasn’t too long before I decided to make my way back down to ground level.
The queue for the workman’s lift however was rather long, and as I resigned myself to a laborious wait at the back of it, I suddenly noticed a doorway to my right indicating another exit down. I poked my head around the door and sure enough there was the start of a stairway down. Gaudi obviously had designed a stairway up to this level so maybe there would be more hidden Gaudian touches to discover along it. And, with the tower’s honeycombed appearance on the outside there would surely be plenty of observational openings along the way. Its lack of discovery from my fellow queuers made it even more inviting and elicit to explore. So, being the adventurer that I am – and also terribly impatient in queues – I decided to take the stairs.
After a few harmless flights down, I reached the start of a spiral stairway that appeared to carry on all the way down to the bottom. Now, I generally don’t suffer from vertigo, but inside the heart of that bell tower I certainly felt fear. Either this stairway wasn’t finished or Gaudi clearly had no concept of health and safety, for there was no central column to the stairway whatsoever. It may have looked aesthetically pleasing seen from above – like the curl of a snail’s shell – but a step too far to the left on those very narrow steps and there would be nothing but air and a sudden, rejuvenated belief in God to break a crashing fall all the way down to the bottom. I couldn’t even turn back because a rather large woman with an equally rotund teenager in tow had suddenly appeared just behind me and there was no way I was even going to attempt to step my way around them to get back up to the top. There was no choice but to carry on.
I splayed myself out along the outer wall like Botoxed skin on the forehead of an ageing Hollywood star, and very slowly took one step down at a time. There wasn’t even a rail to hold onto. I have never felt so scared in all my life, and as I put all my concentration into staying alive I abandoned any appreciation for Gaudi’s art along the way. It took the best part of an hour to finally reach the safety of ground level (longer for my descending female companion who frequently stopped to reassure her sniffling son they were nearly there, although from the sound of her voice she clearly needed time to convince herself). People eagerly queuing for the lift going up stared at me as I stood at the exit door physically shaking after my ordeal. I almost resorted to kissing the ground like a Pope I was that relieved to be back at ground level and still alive.
I returned to Barcelona seven years later with my gentleman friend who hadn’t been to Barcelona before, and I brought him to the steps of the cathedral. “Are you allowed up those bell towers?” he asked. I peered at him with a look of disgust before answering him. After a few moments more appreciating the view, he turned to me and said “Would you mind if we don’t? I’m not a particular fan of heights.”
If it had been a leap year, I would have asked him to marry me there and then.