Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Park Güell, the fanciful failure

One of Barcelona's most iconic attractions was a complete failure when it was built. Commissioned by Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur, Park Güell was intended to be a 30-acre planned housing site for wealthy families. Güell (pronounced "gway") was a patron of Modernisme architect Antoni Gaudí. He gave Gaudí total freedom over the project.

Built on a rocky hill without much vegetation, the site featured excellent views over the city to the Mediterranean Sea. It was free from the smog of the city's factories. The homes would be connected by a network of trails, stairs, and viaducts, with a central space for a covered market. Sixty triangular building plots were available. To preserve green space only one-sixth of a plot could be built upon.

Unfortunately, Gaudí's plan was ahead of its time. The rocky slope was tough for building, the pool of potential buyers was small, and no proper transport to the city was available. And, of course, Gaudí's startling and eccentric architecture was not particularly popular in his own time. When construction stopped in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, only two plots had been used (and neither designed by Gaudí). One of those two homes was intended as a show house, but when it found no buyers Gaudí moved in with his family and stayed until his death in 1926. No more homes were ever built.

After Güell's death his heirs offered the site to the city council, which waited until just after Gaudí's death to open it as a public park. Despite its commercial failure, Park Güell has become a beloved city attraction, enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. The surrounding neighborhoods are among the ritziest in town.

The main entrance to the park is between two gingerbread houses, linked by a wrought-iron gate with palm fronds. The houses were intended as a reception area and porter's lodge, the porter vital for carrying things up the steep hill.

Gingerbread-esque porter's buildings at the entrance to Park Güell.
Gaudí's father was a blacksmith, so he enjoyed wrought-iron work such as these lampposts and the palm frond gate.
Just inside the entrance is a grand staircase leading up to large terrace. Its convex walls converge and then open for the placement of fountains. Along the walls are mosaics made from trencadís -- decorations made from small pieces of broken ceramics, usually tiles and dishes, and frequently scavenged for use from demolition materials or discarded objects. Gaudí utilized trencadís on many of his structures, such as Casa Batlló and the rooftop of Casa Milà (see here and here). Most of the trencadís mosaics in Park Güell were created by Josep Maria Jujol, one of Gaudí's collaborators.

The stairs lead up to the columned market, above which rests the terrace.
Naturalistic fountain at the base of the stairs. Unnatural frozen smile on Jackson.
Trencadís on the staircase.
Next up the stairs is a fountain with a Catalan shield and a serpent? dog? what?
Further up the stairs is another of Barcelona's famous dragons. This trencadís dragon has become one of the symbols of the city. To some folks, including me, it looks more like a salamander, but I am assured it is a dragon. Pictures of this dragon adorn all manner of trinkets and gewgaws throughout Barcelona.

St. Jordi wouldn't struggle too much with this dragon, methinks.
At the top of the stairs you come to a large columned hall that was intended to serve as a market for the mansions in the community. Called the Hall of 100 Columns, it has . . . umm, well, sorta-kinda . . . only 86 columns. Besides providing a covered hall for a market, the columns support a large terrace for public events (see below). Rainwater drains through the terrace through natural filters, slides down inside the columns, and empties into a 300,000 gallon cistern. Since this water was far from the city's pollution, it was considered healthful. A bit of the water powers the fountains.

The hypostyle marketplace of 100 . . . er, 86 . . . columns.
The gargoyles and stone droplets hint at the function of the terrace and columns.
Before you ascend to the terrace, you can wander down the Portico of the Washerwoman. While cars can drive on the upper level of the viaduct, pedestrians can stroll below in a funky covered portico.

The washerwoman carries the basket on her head.
Totally rad surfing tube, dude.
The terrace atop the Hall of 86 100 Columns is the centerpiece of the Park Güell. Called the Nature Theater, around its perimeter runs a sinuous, continuous bench, stretching 360 feet and covered in brightly colored trencadís mosaic. Supposedly, Gaudí used a worker as a model for how to comfortably design the back support on the bench. From the terrace you can overlook most of the park, and see over the city toward the sea. The terrace was and is used for large public events, such as concerts and dances.

The sandy floor of the terrace provides a flat space for entertaining and allows water to drain into the cistern below.
The crowd cleared away from Kate. Was it something she said?
Something she ate?
Bench on the opposite side of the terrace. Note the upper and lower levels of one of the viaducts in the background.
The holes at the bottom of the bench allow rain water to drain away.
Jackson made good use of the open space on the terrace. He followed the charms of an older woman and raced strollers all over the expanse, to the amusement of onlookers.

Double wheelies.
The tongue isn't for panting, it's for concentrating.
He moved on to an even older woman and helped her construct a stone circle. She was the builder, he was the delivery man.

When she left, he tried to carry on, but couldn't bear to do so.
Further up the hill is another double-level viaduct, top for cars and bottom for pedestrians. Below the viaduct is a twisting and meandering paved path that, after dozens of turns and switchbacks, finally arrives at the park's entrance.

Jackson descending on the path. He likes the daredevil feel of no hands on the stroller, but the grading is generally shallow enough we could walk alongside without worry.
Rough, unhewn stones clad the viaduct.
The portico provides excellent acoustics for musicians.
Gaudí, ever the naturist, endeavored to work around existing trees in building the park.
At the upper reaches of the park, you encounter the model home that never found any buyers and into which Gaudí eventually moved for the last years of his life. Though he didn't design the home, it houses a small museum about him. Also from the top of the park you get fine views over the city to the Mediterranean, as well as to other large hill in the city, Montjuic.

The model home is pretty, but it obviously wasn't enough of a draw to entice wealthy Barcelonans to build their own homes in the community.
The big hill in the far distance is Montjuic.
From the top, it's easy to glide down the meandering path to the exit, enjoying the plantings and gardens integrated into the fanciful architecture designed by Gaudí.

You can follow the wide main path or take one of the shortcut trails or stairs that branch off into the gardens and plantings.
Starting with a scrubby, leanly-vegetated hill, Gaudí transformed the 30 acres into a colorful, leafy garden village -- just without the village. The hoped-for occupants never came. Their loss is our gain. Park Güell is one of the jewels of Barcelona, a highlight of any visit to the city.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A dram for Santa

We had a lovely Christmas. I hope you did, too.

Christmas season starts earlier here than in the States. You know how people complain when they start seeing Christmas decorations or hearing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving? In the U.K. there's no Thanksgiving. Christmas decorations started to appear in stores before Halloween. (And Halloween isn't a big deal in Scotland, either.) Television advertising for Christmas starts sometime in mid-November.

And long before that, there are signs and print advertisements. Indeed, the first Christmas advertising we encountered was in July. A large banner was hung along a street corner on the Great Western Road (one of Glasgow's main thoroughfares), encouraging folks to make their Christmas dinner reservations as soon as possible. Although that banner was an early outlier, we started to see more and more signs and banners in early fall, exhorting us to make dinner reservations for Christmas and/or Hogmanay (i.e., the Scottish term for New Year's Eve). It seems that going out for a fancyish family meal on those holidays is a popular activity, though my own anecdotal measurements reveal the majority of people still celebrate at home.

We started to get into the Christmas spirit in the middle of December, which is earlier than normal for us. I think that's partly because the Christmas season had started earlier than we're accustomed to, and partly because this was the first Christmas that Jackson somewhat understood and was excited about. One Friday night we headed downtown to see some Christmas lights and a holiday fair.

No need for Rudolph's nose to glow when the entire reindeer herd are piercing apparitions.
Kate and Jackson are in the red and blue "balloon." This was Jackson's first ever fair ride.
Ice skating around the Sir Walter Scott pillar and statue. Glasgow's City Chambers are in the background.
We also took Jackson to sit on Santa's lap. In the U.K., it's typically called visiting "Santa's grotto." Is Santa in a cave? No. At least, not any more. Apparently, some department stores in Britain used to make fairly elaborate caverns for kids to visit. Nowadays, it generally looks more like a house or workshop.

Not particularly grotto-like.
Jackson has a decent grasp on Santa. He understands that Santa wears red and white, has a white beard, brings presents, rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer (especially Rudolph), and lives at the North Pole. But he doesn't completely grasp that Santa visits only once a year, and keeps asking where Santa is right now. He woke up from one nap, spread his hands in confusion and said piteously, "I can't find Santa anywhere!" As though he had somehow misplaced Santa in his crib.

During his visit to Santa's grotto, Jack got to watch a short movie about Santa, eat some candy (called "sweeties" here), sit on Santa's lap, and receive a small present on the way out. He was excited to see Santa and watch the other kids sit on his lap. When it was his turn, Jack took a minute to warm up, but eventually mustered the courage to ask for "choo choo tracks."

Jackson was not instantly at ease . . .
. . . but conquered his misgivings.
As we neared Christmas, the days were getting shorter and shorter. I've written previously about how our daylight has been fading. On December 21, sunset was at 3:45. Even during the day the sun never gets high overhead, so it always gives the impression of being early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Facing west over our backyard on December 21 at 3:45 pm. It was completely dark within half an hour.
Sun at midday in early December.
We received several Christmas cards from our Scottish neighbors. All of the signatures came with an "x". We assume that means a "kiss," as in XOXO. But we haven't asked. None of the cards came with hugs, apparently.

The "x" is a "kiss," right?
For our Christmas meal, we decided on turkey. There were, however, some other options available in the grocery store, including goose and duck. So we picked up a duck to eat earlier in the week.

Delicious duck.
One of our friends from Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, explained that Christmas could be a little more austere in the highlands and islands than in the lowlands. Presents weren't numerous, and often they were handmade. On Christmas Eve, they traditionally would leave some carrots for the reindeer, and biscuits (i.e., cookies) and a dram of whisky for Santa. We decided to adopt the dram of whisky tradition.

Making cookies for Santa. Note the "Bicarbonate of Soda," which is what baking soda is called here.
A gift tube of whisky.
Daddy tested a couple of drams to make sure it was acceptable to offer to Santa.
We had wrapped most of our presents a little bit early this year and kept them in one of our guest bedrooms. If we had put the presents under our little tree, they would have been too tempting for wee hands to avoid. To ward off Jackson from finding the presents, we told him Mattie got the room really dirty and muddy, and thus the door had to be closed and he couldn't go in. Our story worked. After he went to bed on Christmas Eve, we loaded up the tree, took a picture, and went to bed.

Presents hiding.
We got the narrowest tree we could find, to avoid taking up precious floor space.
We don't have a chimney or mantelpiece, so we borrowed a clothes rack from Jackson's room to hang stockings. And yes, Kate insisted that the cat and dog each got a stocking, too.
Jackson was delighted with his Christmas haul of loot. We had skipped his June birthday this year because we flew to Scotland two days later and didn't want to add stuff to bring with us. (Friends and family still got him birthday presents, so he was still in good shape.) Our plan had been to celebrate his birthday late, but in the midst of getting our lives set up here and having months of visitors, we never got around to it. Moreover, since we had packed almost all of his toys in May to cross the Atlantic in a shipping container, their arrival at the end of June was an exciting explosion of old toys that were suddenly new and exciting again. I doled out his old toys over the next several months, which kept him happy and amused. Actually, I still have a box of old toys that haven't been used since May.

We've had some new presents for Jackson stashed in our closets since this summer, which were intended to be birthday presents but ended up as Christmas presents. So Jackson made out obscenely quite well this Christmas. In general, we gravitate toward simpler and classic toys -- wooden trains, Mr. Potato Head, books, Play-Doh, etc. -- though he got a LeapPad, as well.

We followed advice to get IKEA tracks (plain, good quality, much cheaper than other tracks) and dress it up with Thomas the Tank Engine trains and fancier bits and pieces from other wooden train sets. I think it was good advice.
Mr. Potato Head was a hit.
The kid got nearly 40 books from various friends and family.
Mattie got a sock monkey and an antler, among other goodies.
We spent all of Christmas day opening presents, because after every toy was opened Jack had to spend time playing with it. He actually savored the experience, rather than ripping through everything all at once. We were still opening presents when a few lonely vet students dropped by for drinks in the evening; one student stayed for dinner and played with Jack.

Christmas day also had a slew of "Christmas editions" of popular television shows. Sitcoms, game shows, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, all had special holiday episodes. We were interested only in the Downton Abbey episode, but there were all sorts of choices available.

In the U.S., the public holidays are usually December 24 and 25, but in the U.K. the public holidays (called "bank holidays") are December 25 and 26. The 26th is Boxing Day. Although the exact origins are unclear, the day in Britain historically was when workers or servants received boxes of gifts or money from their employers as a thank you for the year of hard work. Since oftentimes the servants had to work on Christmas for their masters, they were allowed off the following day to visit with family and could take home their boxes, sometimes with leftover food.

Nowadays, Boxing Day in the U.K. is a major shopping day, somewhat akin to Black Friday in the States. Retailers offer sales, people line up early, and folks go out and spend, spend, spend. According to some estimates, one in five Scots went shopping on Boxing Day this year.

We didn't go shopping. Instead, we've had mostly relaxing days of playing with toys, walking the dog, and reading. We spent one morning in Edinburgh being tourists at the National Museum of Scotland -- a fantastic museum that deserves its own post, at some point -- and on another morning we took a gentle hike in Mugdock Park.

Looking across a tiny loch at the ruins of Mugdock Castle.
Kate had off six days for Christmas, with a bit of working at home. She'll be in to work for Monday and Tuesday this coming week, and then off for five more days, again with a little working at home. We're pondering heading up into the highlands next week for an overnight trip to see some dolphins, but the details aren't quite worked out yet and we might wait until the spring.

So, it has been a quiet Christmas for us. We mailed some late presents. {Ed.'s note: "late" is how they roll.} It's the first time in many years that we haven't spent Christmas with either my family or Kate's family. They all got extensive Skype and Facetime visits, though, and we haven't felt lonely. I'm hoping next Christmas we'll either travel back to the States or have visitors here. But this year was a fun change of pace and an easy introduction to Christmas in Scotland.

"Daddy, that's not for eating." Darn, just before I took a bite.