I was very interested to visit Barcelona. Before I left Tufts, many people had told me that I wasn’t going to like Madrid very much, and that I would prefer Barcelona. I heard this sentiment over and over, but no one ever told me why. I guessed that having a beach was a pretty important factor, but I couldn’t figure out what Barcelona supposedly had that Madrid lacked. Having now visited Barcelona, I have to say that I’m still not sure.
Don’t get me wrong, Barcelona is a great city. We arrived around 6 AM and went straight to the beach where we watched the sunrise. We saw the city come to life, as joggers and swimmers slowly appeared, shopkeepers began to open their stores, and the city woke up. I can’t think of a more picturesque way to begin the trip.
Next, we went to tour the Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. It’s an immense structure with leaf-encrusted towers that reach up to the sky like fingers. It’s hard to believe that the tallest of the towers hasn’t even been built yet.The (necessary) audioguide couldn’t possibly inform the viewer of the significance of every detail, but it is clear that every intricate carving has been purposefully designed and painstakingly sculpted to exactly reflect Gaudi’s orginial design. Upon entering, you are greeted with giant columns that look like cement trees, branching to hold up the canopy-like ceiling. Stained glass covers the walls, and allows light and color to flow into the interior of the church. The design and color of the stained glass, too, symbolize the cardinal direction that each window faces. In many sculptures, traditional religious scenes are displayed, but the style is anything but traditional. The bodies are angular to reflect the harshness of the story they tell. Climbing the tower (or actually taking the elevator up and walking down) gives a expansive view of the city all the way to the ocean. You gaze out at a sea red-tile roofs while artists continue everyday to add to the tiled mosaics and sculptures of the church. Overall, it is a breathtaking conglomeration of classical influences, contemporary techniques, and avant-garde styles that simultaneously confounds and inspires the viewer.
Over the next two days, we saw a little bit of everything the city has to offer. From the cactus and tree-lined jungle of Montjuic Mountain, to art museums, monumental fountains, larger-than-life statues, and massive stadiums, we alternated between tourist attractions like a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, and cultural activities like the Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya with plenty of time to wander around the cobbled streets of the Gothic Neighborhood. Before heading to the airport, we took a detour back to the beach one last look at the ocean.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a fantastic trip. We celebrated a friend’s, went to the beach (twice!), saw incredible art, and relaxed. Despite this, there was something that nagged me all weekend. To me, Barcelona felt American. Perhaps this is why other people told me I would prefer Barcelona to Madrid.
While Madrid is full of uneven, cobbled streets patched together at odd angles, and surrounded by charming, old buildings, Barcelona has modern architectural masterpieces interspersed between bland apartment buildings that have small metal balconies hanging precariously at regular gridded angles on their facades. After being in Madrid for five weeks, the wide boulevards in Barcelona made me uncomfortable. Barcelona didn’t feel radially different from an average American city. The signs were in Spanish, Catalan (the local language), and English; and I heard and spoke more English than I normally do in Madrid.
After being back in my routine in Madrid for a week, I can quite concretely conclude to everyone who doubted my decision to study abroad in Madrid that I am quite happy with my decision. I am glad to be surrounded by historical buildings and plazas in which I notice new things everyday. From the moment I stepped out of the taxi from the airport to the hotel where I spent my first night, I could feel the character of Madrid, as if each building has its own charisma and wants to tell you its story. The bustling atmosphere is full of life that happens at a slower pace, letting visitors soak up every detail. Every city is beautiful in its own way; and Barcelona had its attractions, but I, for one, was happy to return my new home in Madrid.