They were fighting in Spain in 1979 -- gunshots in the Pyrenees, on the beaches, over nuclear development, Basque self-rule, the capturing of the Grapo guerillas, at tourists, too -- if available. Everyone was warned to stay away. But it was my first time in Europe since I had learned Gaudi was a Spaniard.
My ex-husband and I, following the advice of friends who'd shot slides of it, but couldn't remember in which country it was, had searched for the Sagrada Familia church in Switzerland in 1960. It's hard to believe now how unknown outside Spain Gaudi's architecture still was thirty-five years ago. Especially since at his death in 1926, 10,000 people followed his coffin to the crypt when he was buried in the Sagrada Familia, his unfinished masterpiece.) I wanted passionately to view that sonorous architecture, pay my respects.
So I bought a ticket from Paris to Barcelona and Barcelona to Pisa. In and out -- I would have three hours. I was going to see the church which is called the last of the great Gothic cathedrals. Not even bullets would stop me.
The train pulled into the station and I hit the platform running. I ran, sensing my direction as much as knowing it, through the streets which looked not unlike Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn where even the cops warn you not to walk in the daylight: lots of little stores, lots of litter, lots of people. I asked directions, and asked again. I paused long enough to get some eggy thing which served for breakfast, lunch and, as it turned out dinner, too. Unfortunately. For the only thing I took from Spain, except my memories of Gaudi's stone symphonies, was a very bad cold purchased from the snuffling handler-of-food in that Spanish version of a "greasy spoon."
On I ran.
I was shocked, of course, when I finally got to the church. For it sits on a blank and dismal plot of land in the middle of urban sprawl facing an empty lot that looks as if it survived the blitz, but not well. Papers, metals, cans and refuse, the detritus left on open city spaces clung to its rocks and lack-luster dirt. The church itself looked like a left- over from some medieval conflict, unfinished, ill set -- or like an Everest, Annapurna, or Kanchenjunga moved by man from the Himilayas unto the flatness of a city block.
Its spires lifted into the clouds, its lofty spaces were as if moulded from lace, some of its cave-like-dripped-in- stone doorways opened into nothingness. Piles of unused or about to be used lime, brick and stone lay about in the court yards.
They were trying to finish it. But without the soaring imagination of its creator, the new parts were like paste-ons: stiff, rectilinear, four-square. I wanted to cry: Stop! Just stop! Plant some grass. Trees. Let it go. Why does everything in this world have to be "finished?"
Stepping out of a glassless window in one of the needle-like towers on to a roof rib, I met a young woman. We stood together looking down onto that bomb-out- looking square, and beyond to all of Barcelona, to Spain, to God. Atop such moumentality we shared a moment of bliss.
Then, as my three hours was running out, and she, too, wanted to see Gaudi's work in Park GŁell, we joined hands and took off across the city.
As we raced, she, a Bostonian, fell in love with Barcelona. "How exiting cities are!" she cried seeing the romance. "How grimy," I, from Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, replied seeing the sooted stones, the grey concrete, the smoky streets. But, under the grime were wonderfully exotic, wavey fronted apartment houses with web-like windows between stalactites and stalagmites. Many, I guessed, were either inspiring to or inspired by Gaudi. The whole gritty town was a splendid work of Art Nouveau.
We were both enchanted by the oddities and colors of Park GŁell, the gardens of a never-completed, high-rent housing project which was donated to the city by Eusebi GŁell. Beloved by the Barcelonians it sits atop Mont Pelat. Here Gaudi created a fantasia of serpentine ceramic benches, mysterious vaultings, slanting pillars which suggest a civilization once buried and but partially excavated.
I was panting hard by the time I got back to the depot just in time to snatch my soft, gold LeSportsac from a locker and leap to the train as it left for Italy.
On the way out of Spain, I met another woman my age, also on her first trip pleasure trip alone, also an admirer of Gaudi. We were both delighted with ourselves for having risked the bullets to have a look at that unique man's imagination immortalized in stone. That night we slept crisscrossed with a black-cowled priest and a relocating military family, all our bodies sagging across the empty space between the compartment's seats.
From that eggy thing I wound up immobilized in bed in a farm house -- high ceilings, huge rooms, hand painted walls, historic masonry -- at the end of the most famous drive in all of Italy, the five miles of cypress leading to Bolgheri. Bleary-eyed, drippy-nosed, I concealed myself from my friend's friends. I lay in bed reading my hostess's script based on Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa while the svelt jet-setters tanned themselves on the beach and wolfed down immense quantities of exquisite cuisine.
Of the rest of Barcelona, I remember only plazas and gardens, and strollers. There was a bridge some place, with much foliage along a river. It seemed a festive town. For all its grime, I liked it, it gave me much to muse about even though I had heard no shots. Re Gaudi: color photography is as wonderful as wine.
Was the Sagrada Familia worth risking my life for?
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Selections from SPAIN were published in "Travelers' Tales, Spain." Other travel stories by Jan Haag include HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH INDIA, TERROR, ZEN WALKING, and MISSION WALK, which was first published in "Travelers' Tales, A Woman's World."
Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO