Montserrat

España

About 60 kilometres outside of Barcelona the landscape transforms into a breathtaking mountainous range containing astonishing arrays of serrated pink peaks with patches of lush green trees. From each angle of the wonderous Montserrat mountain the peaks bend and morph into shapes and creatures of your imagination; be it a baby elephant or a rabbit looking at the sky. Montserrat sprouts from the ground and towers high above the surrounding Catalan Pre-Coastal Range, which makes the sand-castle peaks easily distinguishable as it bears no resemblance to the surrounding landscape.

The name Montserrat literally means “serrated mountain” in Catalan, which describes the mountain’s peculiar rock formations that can be seen from miles away. It is composed of pink conglomerate sedimentary rock and large-scale layering.  The main peaks of this rocky range are Sant Jeroni –the highest peak at 1, 236 metres –Montgrós at 1, 120 metres and Miranda de les Agulles at 903 metres.

Montserrat is Spain’s first National Park and a place of pilgrimage since 1025. It is well-known for its Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, which hosts a sanctuary for the Virgin of Montserrat. The origins of this sanctuary date back to the year 888 when the image of Our Lady of Montserrat, popularly known as La Moreneta (The Dark One in Catalan), was found. The Virgin of Montserrat is a 95-cm statue of a Black Madonna sitting on a golden throne wearing a crown and holding a golden orb in her left hand with a crowned black baby in her lap. She is a 12th-century Romanesque polychrome carving and one of Europe’s only Black Madonnas. Legend says that the Benedictine monks could not move the statue and thus had to build the monastery around her. She now sits atop an altar of gold at the back of the church on the mountaintop. Many people take the pilgrimage to visit the Virgin and kiss the statue. Montserrat, along with Sant Jordi, is the patron saint of Catalonia.

The Montserrat monastery is made up of about 80 monks who practice the Rule of Saint Benedict. The summit can be reached by funicular railways, which take people over the steepest parts of the mountain. Many people also hike the terrain and some even dare to climb the steep, serrated peaks. At the mountain’s summit, there is the Museum of Montserrat, Santa Cecília de Montserrat Church and art space, an interactive exhibition and Montserrat Library.

Montserrat is a natural Catalonian beauty and one of the most unique mountains in the world. It is no wonder that many Catalan females take the name of this majestic geological masterpiece.

 


Sagrada Familia

España

Cross the threshold into the world of Antoni Gaudí where every shape, colour and sculpture bursts with symbolism. For the last 40 years of his life, Gaudí dedicated his time to the construction of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.

At the centre of Barcelona with peaks that reach the heavens, Sagrada Familia is the perfect combination of nature and Catholicism. The unfinished Roman Catholic church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was even consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010.

The massive basilica will have a total of 18 towers with the highest dedicated to Jesus Christ and surrounded by four towers representing the Gospels. One tower is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the other 12 to the Apostles. These towers exemplify an elevation towards God as the pinnacles fuse with the sky.

The basilica also has three facades that represent crucial events in Christ’s existence: his birth, crucifixion and resurrection, and his present and future glory. The facades are strategically placed as the Nativity Facade (the birth) faces the sunrise and the Passion Facade (the crucifixion and resurrection) faces the sunset.

Within the walls of the crafted structure are branching columns, colourful stained-glass windows and hexagonal figures on the ceiling to represent an enchanted forest. In this forest, Gaudí invites visitors to pray and worship God in a natural setting.

The origins of Sagrada Familia date back to 1866 when Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer founded the Spiritual Association of Devotees of Saint Joseph, which purchased 12,800 m² of land in 1881. The first stone was laid on March 19, 1882, on Saint Joseph’s day. The original architect was Francisco de Paula del Nillar y Lozan, who resigned after a short while due to disagreements with the promotors and Antoni Gaudí replaced him in 1883.

Once Gaudí took over, he abandoned the Neo-gothic plan and developed an innovative structure with immense symbolism that conveys the teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic Church with a hint of naturalism in every corner. Subtle details like a turtle supporting a pillar, lizards sunbathing on the roof and animals supporting religious sculptures depicting Bible passages show Gaudí’s belief that God is in nature.
Since the construction of Sagrada Familia is solely based off of donations, Gaudí decided to construct the Nativity Facade first because it is richly decorated and ornamented; he felt that the Passion Facade would be rejected.

In 1914 Gaudí decided to exclusively work on Sagrada Familia and did not produce any other works. He became so involved in the construction of the Church that he lived his final months near his studio workshop. Gaudí was only able to see the first bell tower completed reaching 100 metres high and dedicated to Saint Barnabus because he died on June 10, 1926. The brilliant architect was hit by a TRAM streetcar and died three days later from injuries. He was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia and his tomb can still be visited today.

Sagrada Familia has endured several periods in Barcelona’s history including the Spanish Civil War in 1936 where revolutionaries set fire to the crypt, burnt down the Provisional School of the Sagrada Familia and destroyed the studio workshop containing Gaudí’s blueprints. Regardless of the setback, construction continued according to Gaudí’s original vision.

Today, 136 years after the first stone was laid, the church is 70 percent completed. The holy masterpiece is set to be completed in 2022.

Gaudí’s masterpiece breathes life within its walls and transforms a simple stone into an elaborate work of art. Sagrada Familia demonstrates Gaudí’s ability to imitate nature and his devotion to God.

Parc del Laberint d’Horta

España

In the Horta-Guinardó district of Barcelona next to the Collserola ridge, lies the green jewel of the district, the oldest garden of the city, Parc del Laberint d’Horta. The garden is located on the estate of a former marquis family, the Desvalls, and is composed of an 18th-century neoclassical garden and a 19th-century romantic garden.

Construction began in 1791 when the owner, Joan Antoni Desvalls i d’Ardena, and an Italian architect, Domenico Bagutti, created the design for the neoclassical garden.This garden has three terraces: a lower terrace with a 750-metre hedge maze of trimmed cypress trees; an intermediate terrace with two Italian-style pavilions with Tuscan columns and statues of Greek mythological characters Danaë and Ariadne; and an upper terrace with a pavilion dedicated to the nine muses. The overall theme of the neoclassical garden is love and the hedge maze labyrinth gives the park its name.

In the mid 19th-century, the Desvalls family hired Elies Rogent to expand the garden. Rogent created the romantic garden adding flower beds, gazebos, a waterfall and small squares all under the shade of massive trees. The overall theme of the romantic garden is death as there used to be a small cemetery.

In 1967 the Desvalls family gave the city of Barcelona ownership of the park and it was opened to the public in 1971. The former home of the family –Torre Soberana, a 14th-century country house –is now an institute of gardening education with a specialized library.

Parc del Laberint d’Horta is a 9.1-hectare peaceful garden museum full of mythological sculptures hidden in every corner and beautiful Mediterranian forestry and flowers.

Montjüic Castle

España

As you linger towards the clouds atop Montjüic hill in Barcelona, you travel back in time to a 17th-century castle towering 173 meters above the Mediterranian Sea. You enter the castle grounds through a bridge that once extended above a moat that is now a parterre garden –a garden consisting of plant beds in symmetrical patterns in an ornamental arrangement. Castell de Montjüic, an old military fortress, provides breathtaking panoramic views of Barcelona and its port.

The foundation of the fortress was laid out in 1640 and only a year later saw its first battle during the Catalan revolt when the Principality of Catalonia challenged Spain’s authority. In 1694, the fort was demolished and redesigned by architect Juan Martín Cermeño who reconstructed the fortress into the currently standing castle and equipped it with 120 cannons.

Since then, the cannons of Montjüic were used to gun down the city of Barcelona and its citizens. The castle had been used as a prison and torture centre for political prisoners for three centuries. From 1936-1939, during the Spanish Civil War, both sides of conflict used the fortress to imprison, torture and shot political prisoners. Among these prisoners was the former president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Lluis Companys, who was executed by a firing squad in 1940 upon orders of the Franco regime. In the 20th century, dictator Francisco Franco converted Montjüic Castle into a military museum to serve as a reminder of the Catalan defeat to Spain.

In 2007, the castle came under the ownership of the Barcelona City Council and now belongs to the citizens of Barcelona. Castell de Montjüic is now a beautiful and peaceful place with 360° views of the city, but will always serve as a historical symbol of the repression of the Catalan people and of the city’s struggles during various periods in history.

Les Falles

España

From March 15 to 19 the streets of Valencia transform into a distorted Wonderland of massive dolls that stare down at you in satirical delight. These dolls, called ninots in Valencian, are mounted onto floats with other ninots, which are all filled with firecrackers waiting to be set aflame on the final night. These giant floats contain specific scenes that range from Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un taking a rollercoaster missile ride bearing sinister smiles and Mickey Mouse ears to football rivals Gerad Pique and Sergio Ramos sharing a friendly embrace in a teacup ride.

During these festivities, you can find beautiful fallera girls of all ages dressed in handmade ballgowns bearing handstitched flowers and lace. On their necks hang dazzling pendants and earrings and their hair is adorned with a hairdo fit for Star Wars’ Princess Leia with two earmuff buns and a braided labyrinth at the back complete with golden clips and pins. The complete fallera outfit can cost from 2,000 to 10,000 euros; an outfit suitable for a princess bride!

All day and night marching bands fill the streets with music, children throw noisemakers at the ground and the thunderous sound of firecrackers echo off the buildings. Les Falles is undoubtedly one of the most unique and popular festivals in all of Spain as the population of the city triples during the celebrations as people come to enjoy around 800 falles (floats).

This extensive street festival is a celebration held in commemoration of Saint Joseph. Each neighbourhood of the city has an organized group of people called the casal faller, that works all year long to produce these intricate falles that can extend up to five stories high and are burnt on the final night of the festival. The casal fallers hold many parties and dinners during the year to fundraise money for these falles.

The festivities begin on March 15th with La Crida, an opening ceremony beneath the Serranos Towers. At this ceremony there are displays of light, sound, music and fireworks and the Fallera Mayor (the Festival Queen) invites everyone to join the festival. After the opening ceremony, each day begins with La Despertà (the “wake-up call”) where a band marches down the streets playing loud music and fallers throw firecrackers in the streets at 8 a.m.  Throughout the festivities, there are several parades, the most memorable one being Cabalgata del Ninot, where participants dress as famous personalities or politicians to criticize current events in a satirical way.

On March 17 and 18 the casals fallers take an offering of flowers to an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary in an event called L’Ofrena de Flors where the statue’s pedestal is covered in flowers. Each day as the clock chimes 2 p.m., the Fallera Major calls from the balcony of the city hall, “Senyor pirotècnic, pot començar la mascletà!” (Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascletà!), thus commencing La Mascletà, a coordinated display of firecrackers and fireworks held in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament. Each night of the festival there are fireworks, until the final night on the 19th where the falles are burnt in the La Cremà celebration.

Les Falles is an outstanding festival of fireworks, fire and complete satirical creativity that brings the Valencian culture to the world stage.