What Gaudí loved during his day was religion and nature. At the 11th-century Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, an hour outside Barcelona, I find both. It’s a vast complex, built into the rocks of Sant Jeroni mountain. The structure itself is imposing and houses a rare Black Madonna, but it’s the surrounds that steal the show: picture a micro mountain range made up entirely of rounded boulders seemingly stacked up against one another, a bit like a real-life version of a Super Mario World backdrop from the early 1990s. Lively-looking trees spring out of crevices, warm light bounces off smooth, camel-coloured rock and the muddy River Llobregat caresses the foot of the mountain, looking much like a mini Mekong. It’s the perfect place to leave your worries behind and, in any case, lugging mine up 1,236m isn’t a prospect I can reconcile with being on vacation.
Perhaps it’s the religious theme, but the hike from the abbey to the top of Sant Jeroni feels a bit like a pilgrimage. With every metre I climb, the air in my lungs seems to be getting crisper and the rock beneath my feet more solid. And the very way I experience the setting changes, too: from below, a mountain seems grand, crushing and utterly external. But ascending it, the body constantly grapples with the sheer force of its size and, in some strange way, it almost becomes one with it. Of course, I’m not the first person to feel this way. The idea of a corporeal intelligence – a body that can sense its surroundings – has filled volumes of philosophy books.
It’s something we all feel in infancy, on a non-articulate level, long before the confines of language rationalise our experience of the world around us. As adults, having traded our instincts for reason, we only tend to feel our surroundings in extreme, natural environments. Such places have an immediacy that confronts us with our physical awareness of the landscape: if ever you hiked through the thicket of a rainforest or scuba-dived in open waters, you’ll know what I mean.
What’s so precious about this experience is that it reminds us of an indescribability to natural phenomena that’s perhaps the very essence of their purity. No words can truly capture the monumentality of a mountain or the feeling of standing on a beach when the tide rolls in and submerges your feet in a body of water so vast it’s home to both icebergs and coral reefs, tens of thousands of kilometres apart. In those moments, we experience nature not as a grand other, but as something absolute, inherently within ourselves. It’s an experience neither purely physical nor merely concerning the mind and the only appropriate reaction to it is to pause and feel in silence as we look out into the world and find our very selves staring back.
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Standing on Sant Jeroni’s summit, with the sun hanging in the sky like a lantern on fire, I do a lot of looking. The panorama stretching out all around me is easy to get lost in. So easy, in fact, not even a Ukrainian backpacker with an obnoxiously loud phone manages to distract me as he tries to show me a YouTube video of his favourite eastern European pop star (thankfully, there’s no signal at this height). From up here, I notice the subtleties of the surrounding Catalan countryside for the first time. They make it distinguishable from other Spanish landscapes: there are wave-like elevations running all across the land, rock formations that have been smoothed down by millennia of rain coming in from the Mediterranean and the very atmosphere itself is like a hazy veil hovering patiently above the sea. It makes for a perfectly distinctive landscape – one in which Gaudí’s impetuous pursuit of the grand, ethereal and pure seems reflected back at me. And one so full of spirit, you’d be tempted to think the things the artist ‘loved the most’, religion and nature, are indeed intrinsically intertwined. This, I think, must be Gaudí’s soul and, just perhaps, the underpinnings of Catalan culture.
As I make my way down, a visibly exhausted hiker stops me mid-trail.
“Are the views worth it?” he pants. I look at him and smile.
“Tienes mucho por avante.”
A forest in stone
It was only in 2019, 137 years into its construction, that a building permit was granted for Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Basílica de la Sagrada Família. A sacred site for architecture aficionados and a thorn in the eye of Catalan bureaucracy at equal parts, the Sagrada is impossible not to be amazed by. As my gaze scales its facade, I can’t help but notice the way in which it evokes the spirit of the Catalan landscape I saw from Sant Jeroni: the reiteration of spires not unlike the mountain’s boulders piled upon each other, its reliance on golden-hued and sun-beaten sandstone and a wealth of detail that keeps the eye wandering. Though that’s nothing compared to the spectacle that awaits on the inside.
They say Gaudí wanted the Sagrada Família to be a ‘bible in stone’, but I find it’s a forest too. Tree-like columns shoot from the ground, splitting into a canopy of branches that hold the sun and the stars in the sky above. They sparkle from a foliage of a thousand tiny recesses, filling the upper realms of the basilica’s atrium with a glow so dense, it seems almost tangible. Standing in the nave, I notice the stained-glass windows facing east – they feature pale, cooler colours reminiscent of a chilly morning – and those to the west – dominated by fiery reds and bright yellows that burn with the arrival of the late-afternoon sun. There are sinewy elements, structures that remind me of bones and a crypt that feels positively womb-like. In short, the Sagrada is incredibly organic. And, just like nature, Gaudí’s biggest inspiration, it holds something wild, eluding even the fanciest of adjectives. In this respect, the basilica isn’t a mere translation of Catalan landscapes. It speaks of their ability to appeal to one’s senses. As I look up towards the main opening above the apse, I imagine the old man winking at me from above, a cunning smile on his face.
Whether Gaudí ever stood atop Sant Jeroni, envisioning the Sagrada, I’ll never know for sure. What’s more important, however, is that he gave physical manifestations to Catalonia’s way of life, making a case for its right to exist independently by depicting its idiosyncrasies. He was opposed to the region’s culture being absorbed into a general Spanish value system, with its more bourgeois overtones. In contrast, the Catalan heart leans towards the more chaotic, lavish and sometimes bombastic – Anna had certainly been all three of those things. But it’s also anchored in the pure and divine, from celebrating nature to savouring life’s simple pleasures. Catalonians eat well, drink better and have few inhibitions about sex. The unique physicality of Gaudí’s works speaks of their joy, and of what’s to be expected from a trip to Barcelona.
Before the architect’s life was tragically cut short by a passing tram in 1926, he’d applied the Modernist mindset to a level far below the surface. More than his contemporaries, Gaudí wasn’t merely concerned with aesthetics, but with the very nature of things as such. His striking edifices and grand ideas, from the Colònia Güell to the Casa Batlló, are love letters to the Catalan spirit. And their foundation, quite literally, remains deep within the region’s soil. It can take you a while to understand this, but once you do, the city stretches out in front of you like one gigantic playground waiting to be explored.