The Grande Dame of Avenues

The grande dame of Avenues

Starting from the main Plaza, Plaça de Catalunya and heading north is Barcelona’s largest, most imposing of avenues, the Passeig de Gracià. Originally known as the “Camino de Jesus,” it was the only road leading to the village of Gracià, which was an independent village until 1897. The only construction at the time was the convent of the Franciscans of the Virgin Mother of Jesus, which consisted of a convent, a church, a cemetery and a garden, which were all destroyed during the War of Independence in 1808.

After many false starts, the Passeig was inaugurated in 1827: it was 42 meters wide and became the favorite lane for 19th century Barcelona aristocracy to demonstrate their abilities with horse and carriages, hence the name Passeig or Promenade.

Casa Batllo

It then became the central point for the development of the Estanche, the first neighborhood of Barcelona that was the project of Ildefonso Cerdá for the 7,46 km² area. Soon the Passeig became the right address to have for the Barcelona bourgeoisie. It became even more famous when the Modernism movement (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau) began, in a search of a renewed Catalan culture during the “Renaixença”, or Catalan Rebirth, The modernists architects Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch, Domènech i Montaner and Sagnier built their architectural wonders on that very street, which gave birth to the Casa Llegó i Morera, Casa Amatller, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Casa Batllo, and, a bit further out, Casa de las Punxes. In 1906, Pere Falques designed the “bancs-fanals” –trencadis benches topped with street lights– that tied the street to the houses. Modernism also extended to furniture and domestic objects, painting, literature, etc.

Trencadis tile

However, not everyone was happy about the new architecture. For a time, the area that encompasses the Modernists buildings was called the “Illa de la discordia” or Block of Discord, because residents felt that the new style destroyed the aesthetics of the time.

It is true that the Modernist houses break from the architecture of the times of grand façades, wrought iron balconies and sober decorations. These bourgeois residences are, in fact, still delightful and quite a contrast to the cramped, dark, and often dank (and smelly) alleys and dwellings of the Barrí Gothic, or to the plain four to eight stories of newer neighborhoods.

Not all Modernist art is the same and you can count Gaudí as being the extreme of the group. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, although I can appreciate Gaudí’s genius and his incredible thinking process for creating almost alien (as in outer space) structures, I can’t warm up to him. I find him difficult to understand, probably because I don’t know enough about Catalan history, just as Miró, Picasso and Dalí (who was an admirer of Gaudí) can be obscure without knowledge of their background and their artistic evolution. Incidentally, Miró was a Catalan and Picasso considered Barcelona as his city of adoption.

Palau de la Musica

I’m much more attracted to other Modernist architects such as Domènech i Montaner Who built the magnificent Palau de la Música Catalana. It has touches of Modernist decorations on the outside but it’s inside that his artistic genius shines, especially in the concert hall. The Musical Palace is ” typical of Catalan modernism in that curves predominate over straight lines, dynamic shapes are preferred over static forms, and rich decoration that emphasizes floral and other organic motifs is used extensively” (Wikipedia). But it’s its skylight and surrounding stained glass instead of walls that makes it, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen. And going to a concert there, as we have, is truly magical.

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