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The Seussian Whimsy of Gaudi’s Park Güell

If this colorful city park overlooking Barcelona is what failure looks like, sign us up!

The colorful curves of Park Güell are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book

The colorful curves of Park Güell are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book

When industrialist Count Eusebi Güell needed help transforming Montaña Pelada, Bald Mountain, into a one-of-a-kind residential enclave, he called upon his friend Antoni Gaudí. The two shared similar ideological beliefs: Gaudí was a spiritual man whose distinctive style was influenced by his great appreciation of nature as God’s creation. His structural forms mimicked the natural world and imbued life into his architectural masterpieces.

That collaboration led to Park Güell, which was not originally designed to be a municipal park. It was conceived as a luxury residential development with 60 plots just to the north of Barcelona’s city limits by Güell, who made his fortune from the textile industry.

Güell, whom the park is named after, was inspired by the garden city movement popularized in 20th century England, which is why the English word Park was used, rather than the Catalan equivalent, Parc.

He commissioned Gaudí, the Catalan architect responsible for some of the Barcelona’s most iconic landmarks, to create the parklike neighborhood. Gaudí made the most of the site’s uneven terrain, using organic shapes paired with symbolic references to Christianity and Catalan nationalism shared by his patron, Güell. Immediately noticeable when you enter the park is the administrator’s building, with its towering blue and white chimney topped with a gothic cross flower.

The administrative building and caretaker’s lodge are two gingerbread-like houses on the park grounds

The administrative building and caretaker’s lodge are two gingerbread-like houses on the park grounds

Making an Entrance

Wally and I arrived at the park early in the morning and were easily able to purchase tickets, which are limited to 400 people every half hour, to avoid overcrowding. A full price ticket costs 8 euros (or 7.50€ if you purchase them in advance here).

The park is limited to 400 people every half hour

The park is limited to 400 people every half hour

Just inside the entrance are a pair of whimsical lodges that look like lifesize gingerbread houses from the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” These structures, known as the caretaker’s lodge and administration building were designed to attract potential investors. The caretaker’s lodge includes an imaginatively embellished cupola, decorated with upside-down white ceramic coffee cups and supposedly was Gaudí’s way of telling the world he had giving up drinking coffee.

We paused to take a photo with a man dressed as the park’s mascot and symbol of Barcelona, the multi-colored mosaic gecko, known as El Drac, the Dragon (for a small fee, of course).

Wally and Duke pose with El Drac, the park’s reptilian mascot

Wally and Duke pose with El Drac, the park’s reptilian mascot

Immediately before us was the magnificent grand staircase. A riot of color, its balustrade and steps are covered with shards of ceramic tiles using a technique known as trencadísis, popular with the Modernisme movement. These fragments were discarded at a nearby factory and selected with great care. The predominant blue, yellow and green tiles symbolize faith, hope and charity, and each fragment is no more than 8 to 10 inches in size.

A mosaic sculpture of El Drac, Gaudí’s gecko — now a symbol of Barcelona

A mosaic sculpture of El Drac, Gaudí’s gecko — now a symbol of Barcelona

Perched at the base of the steps is a depiction of the beloved El Drac, created with frequent Gaudí collaborator Josep Maria Jujol. It’s plausible that Gaudí’s obsessive use of this mythological creature in his designs was influenced by his devout Catholic faith — in particular, the legend of St. George and the Dragon, symbolizing the struggle between good and evil. The likeness of the iconic El Drac is a popular souvenir choice from Barcelona, and you can purchase a variety of items inspired by Gaudí’s gecko throughout the city.

The square above the columned grotto gets crowded with all sorts of interesting people

The square above the columned grotto gets crowded with all sorts of interesting people

The Hall of 100 Columns

After climbing the first flight of steps, Wally and I entered the Sala Hipóstila, Hall of 100 Columns, referred to by Gaudí as the Greek Theater. The pavilion is a forest of 86 columns in the Greek Doric style, mimicking trees, made of mortar and rubble simulating marble. Each of the columns leans slightly and supports the upper plaza terrace above. Rainwater is filtered through the layer of stone and sand from the terrace square and runs through drainage pipes ingeniously concealed within the columns to be collected in a cistern below.

Amorous couples, tourists, kids playing ball and street performers all gather in Park Güell’s piazza

Amorous couples, tourists, kids playing ball and street performers all gather in Park Güell’s piazza

The entire ceiling consists of domes covered with white trencadís as well as brightly colored mosaic circles representing the four seasons and the lunar cycles.
Although this room was originally designed to hold the community’s market, today it is often used as a concert hall, due its impressive acoustics.

An African man in traditional garb and his new friend test out the aucustics of the Hall of 100 Columns

An African man in traditional garb and his new friend test out the aucustics of the Hall of 100 Columns

The public square, an open earthen terrace, located above the hall is framed by the Banc de Trencadís, a mosaic-tiled bench curving sinuously around its perimeter.

The undulating Banc de Trencadís is a great place to look out over the city

The undulating Banc de Trencadís is a great place to look out over the city

Wally and I stopped at the kiosk and purchased a couple beers. We found a shady spot to sit and take in the spectacular view of Barcelona before us, with the amazing La Sagrada Familia church, still under construction, in the background.

Wally couldn’t believe they sold beer at the park

Wally couldn’t believe they sold beer at the park

Duke says, “Salud to España and Gaudí’s fun aesthetic!’

Duke says, “Salud to España and Gaudí’s fun aesthetic!’

Incidentally, it’s also a great place to people-watch, and we dubbed one of the visitors Catalan Mema, as she was petite and quirky and had a shock of short white blonde hair like my mother. She was also having her hand kissed by an invisible man. Only at Park Güell!

The park is full of colorful characters, including a woman who resembles Duke’s madre — and her invisible man suitor

The park is full of colorful characters, including a woman who resembles Duke’s madre — and her invisible man suitor

The back of the terrace is formed by a row of stone viaducts, remnants of the project’s original design, intended to provide residents access to their individual plots of land.

By 1914, the project was deemed a commercial failure: Not enough people wanted high-class housing so far from the city center.

Barcelona — including la Sagrada Familia Church — stretches out below the park

Barcelona — including la Sagrada Familia Church — stretches out below the park

All that remained were the buildings described, as well as an irrigation system and meandering paths created by Gaudí in his inimitable manner. Guëll convinced Gaudí to purchase the park’s model home, designed by Gaudí’s assistant and friend Francesc Berenguer.

Despite its failings as a housing complex, the city purchased the estate in 1922 for use as a public park. But it wasn't until Gaudí’s death in 1926, that Park Guëll officially opened. If you’re visiting Barcelona and looking for an enchanting place to spend an afternoon in this remarkable city, look no further than this surreal architectural landmark. –Duke

Dan Brown’s “Origin” Tour of Spain

Follow Robert Langdon’s itinerary, from Bilbao to Barcelona, with stopovers in Madrid and Seville.

The whimsical Park Guëll in Barcelona is just one stop on an  Origin -inspired itinerary of Spanish sights

The whimsical Park Guëll in Barcelona is just one stop on an Origin-inspired itinerary of Spanish sights

You can always count on Dan Brown to serve up a whirlwind tour of a European country in his edge-of-your-seat thrillers. He’s got a formula: Robert Langdon, symbologist stud, and some attractive female companion follow a frenzied trail of clues, narrowly escaping death at every stop. What I like best about a Brown novel is that you’ll learn about religious history, conspiracy theories, art, architecture and technology along the way.

While The Da Vinci Code had Langdon darting from one Parisian landmark to another, Brown’s latest work, Origin, offers a tour of Spain, from Bilbao to Barcelona.

It wouldn’t be a Dan Brown novel without learning about a surprising but real-life controversial religious order.

Here are the main sites Langdon visits in his frenzied night trying to discover nothing less than the origin of our species — and what’s next in our evolution.

 

Bilbao

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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The story kicks off at this famous museum, designed by Frank Gehry in his signature style, consisting of massive, curving metallic strips. The Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997 and has helped draw tourists to what was a fading industrial port city.

Brown mentions a few of the museum’s more interesting artworks, including:

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La Salve Bridge, constructed in the early 1970s, now leads right to the Guggenheim. For the museum’s 10th anniversary, the bridge got an additional adornment, l’Arc Rouge (the Red Arch) by French artist Daniel Buren.

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Maman, a creepy metal spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that’s about 30 feet tall. The name means Mom, and the piece, built in 1999, is a (questionable) tribute to Bourgeois’ mother, who was a weaver.

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The Matter of Time, a massive spiraling, interactive sculpture that takes up an entire corridor at the Guggenheim. The immersive artwork by Richard Serra was created between 1994-2005.

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Yves Klein Exhibition, a tribute to yet another French artist. The enormous rectangle painted on the floor resembles an intense cobalt blue swimming pool. The artist patented the color, International Klein Blue, stating that it represents the cosmic energy that floats in the air.

 

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Etxanobe

While you’re in Bilbao, enjoy a dinner at this Michelin-starred restaurant. The glass dining room has tufted light fixtures and a fabric-covered ceiling, hidden away in the Palacio Euskalduna. The food at Etxanobe is the star of the show, prepared by Fernando Canales, a local hotshot chef. It looks as if it’s one of those modern restaurants where you get served large plates that hold small, gloopy food prepared with the most recent gastronomic techniques and decorated with artistic splashes. Most people seem to recommend the chef’s tasting menu.

 

Madrid

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Royal Palace

Much of the intrigue in Origin takes place in the Palacio Real de Madrid. Once the site of a fortress built to protect the Muslim rulers from invading Christians, the palace that stands today was begun in 1738 and took 17 years to complete. That’s no surprise, given that there are more than 3,000 rooms inside, including the Royal Armoury and the Painting Gallery, in which Salome With the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio hangs.

 

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Almudena Cathedral

Adjacent to the Royal Palace, this religious institution is dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena, a medieval icon that serves as the patroness of Madrid. Like many European cathedrals, construction of the Santa Iglesia Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena (phew!) came in fits and starts. While it began in 1879, it wasn’t fully completed until 1993!

 

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Reina Sofía Museum of Modern Art

The building that houses the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which opened in 1986, first served as the San Carlos Hospital.

Here are some of the famous works Brown calls out:

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Guernica by Picasso is, undoubtedly, the star of the museum. A 1937 Cubist masterpiece in shades of gray, the mural was a reaction to the Nazis’ bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

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La Verbena, or The Fair, by Maruja Mallo, painted in 1927, is a riot of color and activity. There’s almost a movement to the painting, with sailors, a test-your-strength game, a cyclops in a headdress, a deformed beggar and what might be a magician about to cut a woman in half, all tucked into various nooks.

 

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El Escorial

Built from 1563-1584, the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is said to be the most important architectural monument of the Spanish Renaissance. King Philip II wanted the building to be a place to bury his father, Charles V, as well as a monastery and palace. The complex is 28 miles northwest of Madrid. Be sure to visit the Pantheon of the Kings, where 28 kings and queens of Spain are entombed.

 

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Valley of the Fallen

Near El Escorial is el Valle de los Caídosa, a controversial memorial commissioned by General Francisco Franco, the dictator of an authoritarian regime that lasted for 36 years. A massive cross sits atop a basilica and crypt that have been carved into the mountainside. The site honors those who died in the Spanish Civil War and contains the tomb of Franco himself.
 

Seville

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Palmarian Catholic Church

It wouldn’t be a Brown novel without learning about a surprising but real-life controversial religious order. The Christian Palmarian Church of the Carmelites of the Holy Face (Iglesia Católica Palmariana) in El Palmar de Troya, 28 miles south of Seville, is so crazy, you’d think Brown made it up. But this far-right cult actually has declared its own pope dedicated to undermining the reforms of Pope Francis and worshippers pray to a host of new saints, including, shudder, Adolf Hitler.

 

Barcelona

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Park Güell

Barcelona is one of my favorite cities — in a large part because of Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical genius. His colorful aesthetic is on display in Park Güell, a large public space at the north end of the city. Mosaics decorate this park, including the winding benches on a large terrace overlook, where it’s as fun to admire the view of Barcelona spreading out before you as it is to people-watch.

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La Sagrada Família

I can say with confidence that you’ve never seen a church like this before. The façade evokes a towering sandcastle, while the interior features sprawling treelike columns dappled in rainbow hues as sunlight hits the stained glass windows. La Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is so otherworldly, I felt as if I were inside a spaceship. Oh, and it’s still being built.

 

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Casa Milà

It’s hard to miss Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera, or the Stone Quarry: Its undulating pale façade is what gave the building its nickname. The apartment complex, designed by Guadí, was built between 1906-1912 and now houses a museum highlighting the architect’s work on its top floor. Be sure to visit the rooftop, dotted with giant chimneys shaped like the helmets of soldiers.

 

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Barcelona Supercomputing Center

Leave it to Brown to weave quirky sites like this into his stories. The Centro Nacional de Supercomputación is indeed a research facility housed in the former Chapel Torre Girona. Its star supercomputer, MareNostrum, consists of neat rows of metallic towers encased in a glass box that fills the interior of the sanctuary.

 

As you work your way through this itinerary, following in Langdon’s footsteps, here’s hoping there’s not a murderous former naval admiral on your heels. –Wally