There are several free walking tour companies in Barcelona – as in most major European cities – but Tour Me Out was the one with signs and advertisements plastered throughout the hostel I stayed in. They also run at a reasonable time in the morning (picking us up at 10:10am), which would allow me to do the walking tour and then have an unscheduled afternoon to visit the sites or further explore the neighbourhoods of Barcelona.
There were two tours offered: the Gothic tour, which walked through the old Gothic neighbourhood and the old Roman city; and the Gaudí tour which focused on everyone’s favourite mad genius/architect. The Gothic tour was a walking tour in the strictest sense of the word as you pounded the pavement between stops. The Gaudí tour, meanwhile, required two trips on the subway during the tour itself and ended at the Sagrada Familia where a third subway trip would bring you back into the core of the city.
The Gothic Tour
I did the Gothic tour first as I planned to buy tickets for the Sagrada Familia and see it at the end of the Gaudí tour. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic Spanish girl named Angela who was originally from Madrid and extremely passionate about her country – I was given lots of useful travel tips and have even changed my planned itinerary based on one of her suggestions. She’s the city manager for Tour Me Out, responsible to make sure all of the tours run on schedule and as advertised (including the pubcrawls), and had been working for the company for a few years.
There were about ten people doing the tour, most of us backpackers, and we wandered through the narrow streets of the Gothic district trying to avoid being hit by delivery vehicles, bicycles and mopeds. Please trust me when I tell you that this was the most challenging part of my day.
We were brought to George Orwell square, which was interesting to me because I didn’t realize that Orwell had any connection with the Spanish Civil War. This is likely a flaw in my education, and I should probably be embarrassed, but to my defense, no one else on the tour seemed to be aware of the connection either. When I think of authors and the Spanish Civil War, I think of Hemingway and his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Orwell also wrote a book about his experiences, Homage to Catalonia. The main difference between the two, however, is that Hemingway went to Spain as a reporter and Orwell went to Spain as a soldier in the fight against fascism. Orwell was also wounded – he stood head and shoulders above the shorter Spanish men, making him an easy target – shot in the throat by a sniper.
Making our way through the old city, Angela pointed out the remains of the old Roman wall and we could go see where there were foundations of Roman baths. We also stopped and peered into a small chapel dedicated to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. I have a small St. Christopher medal that I picked up several years ago and I emptied my pockets of change for the donation bin. I’m not religious, but there’s nothing wrong with looking for a bit of protection, right?
Stopping at the church of Santa Maria del Mare, Angela told us that it was her favourite and gave us a few minutes to go inside and walk around. This church was completed in the mid-1300s and was to be used by the poorer people of Barcelona, while the larger cathedral further inland (which under construction during the same period) was to be used by the wealthier families. Built in the Gothic style, the interior is rather sparse save for the beautiful stained glass throughout the building. There was a tragedy in this church, however, as the stained glass window over the door actually fell out and into the church during an earthquake in the 15th century, killing over two dozen parishioners.
Angela wore a necklace with the design of the stained glass window, but she told us that she had bought it before she knew the history of the window and the church. She still wore the necklace, but felt the need to explain herself as she told the story.
She brought us to a small, quiet square called Plaça Sant Felip Neri, to tell us about the Spanish Civil War. Looking at the buildings surrounding the square, and the flaws in the brickwork, I knew exactly why she had picked that particular location to delve into that part of Barcelona’s history. The walls around the square were pockmarked, clear evidence of shrapnel from bombs that were dropped in the area. The bombs that caused these marks, however, killed 42 people – most of them children from a nearby nursery school.
Moving along from the square, suitably sobered, we headed towards Barcelona’s architecture school – an ugly building decorated with a Picasso napkin scribble – and the cathedral. We didn’t go inside and the entire area was filled with tourists, an antique market, buskers and souvenir vendors. It would be easy to get lost in the chaos so we walked past the cathedral, ending the official portion of the tour outside of the city’s history museum.
Everyone tipped Angela – free walking tours work on tips, as opposed to fees charged per person – and she invited the group to come along with her, back to our starting point, for a three course lunch with sangria. Having no other plans, I tagged along… but that’s a story for another post!
The Gaudí Tour
I had heard several positive reviews of this tour from other travellers, the only caveat being the one about having to use the subway. We were late to be picked up for this one and rushed through the streets of Barcelona to get to the regular meeting point in Plaça Reial where there was a group of travellers and two guides waiting for us. One word of warning, though, is that when I reviewed my photos from this tour I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as I thought I did – I think I was too distracted by the crazy architecture and stories of Gaudí.
The guide for this tour was a British girl named Lily and she was able to clearly explain to us exactly how this tour was going to work. She also suggested that we share metro cards, if anyone had any rides left on their 10-ride cards, since it would help to cut costs and we could easily just pass the metro pass back to each other. Another important tip was to watch out for pickpockets, especially on the train to the Sagrada Familia since it’s one of the busiest routes in the city – for tourists and thieves.
Looking around Plaça Reial, Lily told us that our first piece of Gaudí architecture was right in front of us. Quickly scanning the square, looking for something that didn’t fit in, I zeroed in on the lampposts and blurted it out. One of the girls from Busabout questioned whether that was a lucky guess or if I already knew – it was a guess, but after looking at examples of Gaudí’s work and then at the square itself it was pretty easy to tell what didn’t really belong. Apparently this was the first and last of Gaudí’s public commissions since working for the local government was a headache for all involved… except the lawyers, who always seem to come out ahead.
Our first stop outside of the square was the Palau Guëll, the beautiful and intricate palace that was built for Eusebi Guëll. He was not only a tycoon and one of the wealthiest men in Barcelona in the early 1900s – he was also a close friend and patron of Gaudí’s. He basically gave Gaudí carte blanche to create a magnificent building for his family’s residence. I didn’t go inside – the fee was about €12, but I was told that it was stunning. The front doors of the Palau were tall and wide enough for Guëll’s horse and carriages to come right inside and a ramp would bring them to the basement stables.
There are several architectural standards and beliefs that seem to permeate through Gaudí’s work, including the belief that light should be uniform and should never overpower. The windows on Gaudí buildings, therefore, have different sizes on each floor. Smaller windows on the top floors serve to let in the same amount of light as the larger windows on lower floors and, when looking at each floor from the ground, the effect is quite gradual.
Palau Guëll was the residence of Eusebi Guëll from its completion in the late 1880s until he moved into Park Guëll. Our guide told us that the house, however, remained in the family’s possession and his daughter lived there until the Spanish Civil War when she fled the city. The building, due to its strategic location and size, was taken over by the army to be used as a military headquarters and when the daughter returned to the home she was dismayed to find it heavily damaged. Unable to afford the reconstruction and renovations necessary, she entered into an agreement with the city of Barcelona to donate the building as a museum on the condition that it not be destroyed, that it remain true to her father and that she be paid a lifetime pension. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation which further protects the building for future generations.
Our second stop, and our first subway ride, brought us to the Casa Batllo, a strange and fantastical building that some refer to as the “House of Bones”. This is the most expensive Gaudí building to enter as a tourist with regular priced admission fees of €21.50 and student fares of €18.50. Lily told us that it was worth it – but added the caveat that her father had paid when she went. For the sake of comparison, I was paying €21.90 a night for my bed at the hostel. I wanted to go in, especially after seeing some of the photos and the exterior, but the cost was prohibitively high and I’m trying to do this trip on a budget. I’m going to add it to my list of things to see the next time I’m in Barcelona (with more money) – I love the city and know that I want to come back, but increased funds will be necessary.
There are several theories with respect to the design of the building, ranging from a Venetian masquerade to the bone theory to one involving St. George and the slaying of the dragon. I have no idea what Gaudí was thinking when he designed this one, but I do know that I like it. The Batllo family lived in the majority of the building but there were also two floors of apartments.
A short walk up the road is the Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera (which means “the quarry”). Gaudí received this commission after the homeowner saw the work done on the Casa Batllo and he wanted a similar, if not better design. Unfortunately for us, the building was covered in scaffolding when we arrived which means that we had to content ourselves with photos and peering through the windows in order to see the details on the ceiling.
La Pedrera was a disappointment for the family who commissioned the work and an exercise in frustration for Gaudí. He fought with the city over several elements of the design – after construction was completed. One of the pillars on the building extended too far out onto the sidewalk, for example, and apparently he made the building too tall for building codes. Work was stopped several times until the city finally ruled that it was a monumental building, or piece of art, and therefore didn’t have to strictly comply with building codes.
Gaudí also wanted to install a large statue of the Virgin Mary on the building, which the homeowner refused to allow. This led to a standoff between the famously religious and stubborn architect and the family which was never resolved – Gaudí threatened to walk off the job and he followed through with his threat. The Mila family eventually had to hire a construction company to finish the work and Gaudí sued for his full fees, which were eventually awarded to him by the courts.
The more I learned about Gaudí, the more convinced I became that the best paid Barcelonian of the early 1900s was Gaudí’s lawyer.
One or two of the floors, and the roof – which is home to the Stormtrooper chimneys that George Lucas saw – are open the public. Similar to Casa Batllo, La Pedrera also had several apartments included in the design and some of these apartments are still lived in today. Lily told us that rents are only about €500, the result of rent control regulations similar to New York City.
Once we finished at La Pedrera we hopped on the subway to go to the Sagrada Familia – I won’t bore you with those details again, you can read all about it in my earlier blog post!
I couldn’t tell you which tour I preferred since they were both quite different. I really enjoyed learning about the history of Antoni Gaudí and his famous buildings, but the Gothic tour brought us through the streets of the oldest part of the Barcelona – and I mean that quite literally, as we walked through what used to be the old Roman city. I went back later to do some browsing through the shops of the Gothic quarter and was happy that I could get lost in the alleyways, but thanks to the tour I always had a slight idea of where I was.
I would definitely recommend doing both tours, if you have the time. Finishing off the Gaudí tour with entrance to the Sagrada Familia was, in my opinion, the right way to do things. I had booked tickets for the 1:15-1:30pm window, which gave me time for a quick lunch after the tour finished at 12:30pm. If you do the late afternoon Gaudí tour, however, I would advise against this as I don’t think you would have enough time to really appreciate the Sagrada Familia before it closes. You do not want to rush the Sagrada Familia!