BARCELONA, Spain In retrospect, traveling 6,000 miles to see a band does seem a bit … crazy. And maybe buying concert tickets for two nights in a row and then flying out at dawn the next day wasn’t the best idea. And, yes, it might have been unwise to spend only three (well, 2 1/2) days in beauty-crammed Barcelona, where even the sidewalks are works of art.
But it wasn’t just any band, and it wasn’t just any trip for my sister, Alison, and me. It was our favorite band, a British group called the Stone Roses, and they were launching their first concert tour in 16 years.
By chance, we had gone to what turned out to be their last U.S. show in San Francisco, before it all ended in tears. So seeing their first official show after reuniting had a certain symmetry to it.
And maybe even more than that, it proved we weren’t so ancient and spontaneity-free that we couldn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision to just … go.
A lot of things were aligned on this magical trip, starting with pilgrimages to two buildings by the most rock ‘n’ roll architect of all time, Antoni Gaudi, who unleashed his wild genius all over Barcelona.
We knew with our impossible schedule that we couldn’t see all, or even many, of the buildings. So we started, right after we landed, at his still-unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church. At last report, construction may be finished in about 15 years, but the Sisyphean nature of the task, at 130 years and counting, adds to its wonderful eccentricity.
My canny sister had bought our tickets to Sagrada Familia online; she knew we didn’t have time to stand in lines on this trip. So we walked right in.
On the outside, it’s a bit like a traditional cathedral – but one with wax dripping all over it, like a wine bottle that’s been used as a candlestick holder. As a whole, it reminds me a bit of the French description jolie laide – pretty-ugly, used for unconventional beauties.
Close up, you can see millions of fever-dream details in the exterior: a frieze with roosters, a cluster of rodents huddling around a post, a large turtle holding up a pillar.
I stood staring at the doors alone for a good five minutes. Massive, with every inch filled with words of praise to God in stunning 3-D carving. I loved how certain words were highlighted in gold, such as the repeated “Jesus Jesus” and “Gracies” (Catalan for “thank you”).
Inside, it was just as mind-blowing. We had timed it beautifully, and the setting sun made the stained glass glow like one of those old-fashioned kaleidoscope toys. At the peak of one spire, light poured in from a circular skylight, as if transmitting the rays of a higher being.
We walked back to our apartment, in the architecturally astonishing Eixample (pronounced “ay-shamplah”) neighborhood, stopping by the Mercat de la Concepcio, one of the lovely old food markets of Barcelona and a lot less touristy than the famed Boqueria market. We bought several kilos of produce for the next three dinners and headed home.
We had chosen the apartment, rented through a stylish outfit called Destination BCN, for two reasons: It had a stunning roof terrace, with views of the old town to the south and the mountains to the north, and it was just a block from Gaudi’s Casa Mila apartment building.
Once again intent on avoiding lines, we headed out first thing one day to Casa Mila, an undulating building that is organic architecture with a capital O. I could have spent hours on the roof, with its chimneys out of a “Star Wars” set and its spectacular view of Sagrada Familia. But time was the one thing we didn’t have – except for a quick stop at the gift shop, which is the place to get stylish souvenirs.
I wanted to do something a little offbeat on this trip, so we headed one morning, by subway, bus and, finally, a charming old funicular, to the retro Tibidabo amusement park on a mountain overlooking Barcelona. It even has had its Hollywood moment, in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a ride in a bright red 84-year-old plane suspended from a somewhat antique-looking rod and flown a few circuits high above the city. (A mist came in while we were there, but on a clear day you can see to the Mediterranean.)
We kept the retro vibe going with lunch in the village-y Gracia neighborhood below, at the pop-art dream called Flash Flash. It’s a ‘70s institution serving up classic Spanish tortillas, surrounded by mod photos of the model wife of the owner. Everything is in black and white (including the waiters’ clothes), with the red salt shakers and the red kitchen door the only splashes of color.
But we didn’t forget the more distant past and spent one of our mornings walking the tiny back streets of the old Gotico and Born districts. We snapped up souvenirs at the legendary espadrille maker La Manual Arpargatera, where a (newly trendy) basic espadrille sets you back only 10 euros, or a little more than $12, and at the foodie destination Formatgeria la Seu, where a lovely Scottish woman sells local cheeses.
But there was no time for dallying. We had another show to get to.
At the second concert, we felt like the Stone Roses’ cool crowd, comparing the audience and nodding to one another when the band sang a song that was different from the previous night’s set.
We had met some sweet newlyweds the night before who had returned from their honeymoon in Cape Verde off West Africa, dropped their bags at home in northern England and flown straight to Barcelona for the show. The second night’s crowd seemed just as committed, starting up with Roses-related football chants before the concert began.
My adrenaline level had dropped several notches from the first night, and the band seemed more relaxed too, less jittery at the start, sure that it was indeed adored.
After the show, our ears still muffled from standing a few feet from an enormous speaker, we sat on the terrace of our apartment having a last glass of very nice Spanish Priorat wine. We watched stars disappear behind clouds and the twinkling lights of a city that was very much alive, and we agreed that it had all been worth it.
Maybe we were thinking a bit differently when we had to head, groggily, to the airport a few hours later as people in late-night Barcelona were just returning home.
In retrospect, I don’t think it was crazy. It was genius, and I’d do it all again. And a note to the Stone Roses: Schedule a U.S. tour. We’ll be there.