Category Archives: People

Odysseus and George Clooney

odysseusMy path has crossed that of the mythical Odysseus several times already on this trip. The Nekromanteion in Greece is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, as is Nestor’s Palace in the Peloponnese where Telemachus sought help from the king while searching for his father Odysseus. In Sicily, the port of Aci Trezza is supposedly the site where Odysseus escaped from the cyclops Polyphemus and the picturesque islands in the harbour are said to be the rocks that the blinded cyclops threw after him.

dscf5961Now, I find myself having lunch in the Bay of Guidaloca, believed to be the place where Naisicaa found the shipwrecked Odysseus and helped him to set off on the final part of his return journey to Ithaca.

dscf5956Not far away is the Tonnara di Scopello, an old tuna fishery set in an idyllic cove, guarded by ancient watchtowers built upon rocky columns. Since it closed down in the 1980s it has become a tourist attraction and was also used for the filming of ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones.

dscf5964In Castellamare del Golfo, the largest of the local fishing ports along the coastline, I learn more about the tuna fishing industry in the Museum, which is housed in the Norman castle overlooking the harbour. I’m amazed at the size of the tuna fish shown in the black and white photos and wonder if any of the tuna are allowed to get that big these days due to overfishing.

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Women of Syracuse – Arethusa, Saint Lucy and the Weeping Madonna

dscf4560In order to help her escape from the river god Alpheus, the goddess Artemis changed the nymph Arethusa into a fresh water spring. She swam to Sicily from the Peloponnese and arose at the island of Ortigia in Syracuse. Legend says that when animal sacrifices took place at the Sanctuary of Olympia, the blood would flow from the Peloponnese and emerge at the spring in Ortigia,

Today, the freshwater spring of Fonte Aretusa emerges into a pond filled with Papyrus and fish. The area is full of bars and restaurants overlooking the water and both locals and visitors are enjoying a New Year’s Day drink in the sun.

dscf4553As well as the Fonte Aretusa, I visit the Cathedral, which was built on the site of a Greek Temple dedicated to Athena. The 5th century Doric columns still support the building though they’re a bit crooked since the devastating earthquake of 1693. In the large piazza outside, two policemen are parading in very elegant dress uniform.

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dscf4617Also in the Piazza del Duomo is the 17th century church of Santa Lucia alla Badia which is dedicated to the city’s patron saint and features a painting of her burial by Caravaggio. Whilst in the newer part of town, is the Basilica di Santa Lucia, marking the spot where she was martyred in 304 AD. An octagonal chapel next to the church used to hold her remains until they were taken to Constantinople in 1038 and then stolen by the Venetians in 1204. She now lies in St Geremia Church in Venice.

dscf4725The city of Syracuse may have lost their patron saint but they now pour their faith into the Madonna delle Lacrime (Madonna of the tears). On the 29th of August 1953, in a small house near to the port, a statue of the Madonna hanging in the bedroom began to cry. She continued to weep for 5 days and crowds flocked to see her. Scientists even tested the liquid and identified it as human tears. The house is now a small chapel where a replica presides over the altar.

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dscf4608The original statue is now located in a much grander place. The conical sanctuary can be seen for miles and was supposedly designed to look like a giant teardrop. The locals have given it the nickname ‘lemon squeezer’ and when I visit, to me it seems to look and feel like a concert hall. The cavernous interior echoes with each footstep as people approach the statue to pray for assistance.

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dscf4607Evidence of the miracles performed by the Madonna delle Lacrime can be found in the equally huge crypt, located below the main church and looking rather unfinished. Here I find a small museum with photos from 1953 and the slide and pipette used by the scientists to confirm the miracle. There are also hundreds of items of gold jewellery given in thanks to the Madonna and the robes worn by Pope John Paul II when he inaugurated the sanctuary in 1994. Another room houses ex votos, including many sets of crutches and half a dozen wedding dresses.

 

In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Mani

plf-and-goatI’ve been reading the book ‘Mani’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor (affectionately known as Paddy) in order to prepare for visiting this region of the Peloponnese. Paddy was a nomad, like me. He left home aged 18 and walked through Europe to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then onto Greece. In 1958, he visited the Mani, travelling by bus, boat and on foot, while I am making my journey in a motorhome. In 1958 the region was still remote and cut off from modern life but now there are good roads around the coast and through the mountains as well as down to the tip of Cape Tenaro, the most southerly point in Greece.

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dscf2938Contrary to everyone else and also Paddy, I am travelling around the Peloponnese in a clockwise direction which means I start my tour of the Mani in Gythio where Paddy ended his. He described it as having Victorian charm and as being full of life with wirelesses, motorcars, law courts, schools and greengrocer scales. He stayed at the Actaeon Hotel, which still exists today and overlooks the small island of Marathonisi (Fennel Island). It is believed to be Kranae, where Paris took Helen after abducting her and they spent their first night together. Today the island is accessed by a narrow harbour wall which is barely wide enough for Trixie.

dscf2933In the centre is an 18th century tower house, surrounded by pine trees, which was formally the home of the Grigorakis family and more recently a museum of the Mani. However, the museum has now been relocated to the former girls’ school at the other end of town. It’s a very educational place, with interesting exhibits about the traditional Mani way of life, a lifestyle that still existed 60 years ago when Paddy first arrived.

dscf2979As I leave Gythio it starts to rain and sets in for the afternoon, so I drive to the small port of Kotronas to wait out the bad weather. Paddy was also left waiting in Kotronas, though he needed to shelter under a fig tree from the hot summer sun until the steamer to Gythio arrived. He noted the fishermen making nets along the shore and I also find piles of netting on the dock but it’s the commercial plastic kind. He also found a fierce bandit-like kapheneion keeper who has luckily been replaced by a charming lady who now runs the bizarrely plush bar overlooking the harbour.

dscf3030The new road takes me south and across the saddle of the mountain ridge to the village of Vathia, sitting proudly on a hilltop overlooking the west coast. Paddy met a young girl called Vasilio, carrying a lamb around her neck, who came from the village and invited him to stay in her home. Her family owned one of the tallest tower houses and they dined on the roof in the cool breeze, hauling up chairs and food by rope, and Paddy even slept there overnight. From his eagle’s nest he observed Vasilio’s sister threshing on a sledge pulled by a horse, a mule and a cow, circling a stone disc, while their mother sat weaving. It’s hard to imagine such activities taking place in the 21st century when we can buy bags of flour at the supermarket and ready-made clothes from the shopping mall.

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Today Vathia has sadly been abandoned and most of the towers are in a perilous state of semi-collapse, though it is possible to wander around them and even inside them without any difficulty.

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dscf3025I leave the village of ghosts and drive south to Cape Tenaro which Paddy rounded in the caique ‘St Nicholas’ (a Greek sailing boat). I’d barely seen another car on the roads for the last two days so imagine my surprise when I get to the end of the Mani and find another British motorhome. Michael and Judith were rather shocked too.

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dscf3043Paddy had sought out the entrance to Hades, where Orpheus had searched for Eurydice, using his lyre to put Cerberus to sleep, and Hercules had dragged the hell dog out of the underworld. There are other entrances to Hades, such as the Nekromanteion of Ephyra. He swam from the boat to a cave that could have been the spot. Given the strong winds blowing across the cape there wasn’t much chance of me following him, but the three of us seek out the ruined church built on the Temple of Poseidon and the beautiful mosaic floor of a Roman villa, part of a larger Roman settlement, before walking out to the lighthouse. We are rather surprised to find a lone Navy guardian posted there as I had believed it to be unmanned. He is equally surprised by the arrival of three British tourists but doesn’t seem to mind us sitting there, enjoying the views and watching the ferries and cargo ships pass around the point.

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dscf3060It is a bit too windy to stay at the cape so I drive down to Geromelinas where Paddy also spent a night. He dined at a local house where some sailors were also eating. When the hostess gave him some water with his coffee (as is the Greek custom), he noted that it had a slight taste of wine. Apparently a barrel had split above the cistern and the wine had slowly leaked into the water. When Paddy asked to pay for his meal he discovered that the sailors had already settled the bill. Such was Greek hospitality in those times before the commercialism of tourism took hold. I enjoy a ¼ litre carafe of rose in the local hotel where the four members of staff are clearly excited about having an off-season client. Unlike Paddy, I have to pay for my wine and the manager even short-changes me. It’s still ridiculously cheap so I ignore what I hope is just an error on his part.

dscf3068The next day I drive up to Areopoli, the capital of the Deep Mani and still the largest town in the region. The main road is lined with ugly garages and supermarkets but I strike off into the old cobbled streets trying to imagine how it was 60 years ago. Paddy describes the small cathedral as being surrounded by mulberry trees with a whitewashed cupola and a tapering belfry. I locate it in a small square but the mulberry trees have been replaced by cars and the church is no longer white.

dscf3089There is one tale in ‘Mani’ that has gripped me more than any other and I stop at the tiny coastal resort of Limeni to try and verify the story. When Paddy was there, he was researching the miroloyia (funeral dirges), created and sung at the graveside by Maniot women. He is introduced to Eleni who sings a miroloy about an English airman who was shot down at Limeni during WWII and was buried by the local villagers. It mentions the Church of Saint Saviour, amongst the olive trees.

dscf3113I find three small churches in the village of Limeni. The first is close to the main road and in ruins and the second is next to the restored tower house of the Mavromichalis clan, and appears to be a family chapel. The last is out beyond the port at the point and is the only one to have a cemetery but there are no more than half a dozen graves and none belong to an English airman. Unhelpfully, none of the churches are named and my scant knowledge of iconography means I am unable to identify them from the icons inside.

dscf3103I stop for a drink in the nearby village of Nea Itilo and ask the friendly taverna owner, who speaks very good English, about the story of the airman. Eva goes to get her brother Ilias, who then goes to get Ioannis, an 86 year-old resident who may know about the tale. The old man speaks no English but Ilias translates for me. Ioannis was small boy, tending goats in the hills, when the British fighter plane dived at a German boat. It struggled to pull up, having been damaged by return fire and crashed into the bay. The pilot washed ashore in pieces but the navigator / gunner survived for 3 days before succumbing to his wounds. They were buried at the small church at the point but later removed by the British and returned to the UK, which explains why there are no gravestones in the cemetery.

dscf3117-2It’s incredible to find someone who still has first-hand knowledge of this event and I am humbled to meet Ioannis and hear his story. Later, I meet Panayotti fishing next to Trixie. He happens to be the President of the village and invites me for a drink later at the taverna. There, I get to experience the same Mani hospitality as Paddy and I’m not allowed to pay for anything.

 

 

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The last town on my tour of the Mani is Kardamili, one of the first places that Paddy experienced after travelling over the Taygetus Mountains from Mystras. He describes it as a castellated hamlet of the Mourtzinos clan, possibly direct descendants of the Palaeolgi, the reigning dynasty during the Ottoman Empire. I find the fortified settlement beyond the old town, recently restored and now opened as a museum of Maniot life. The bargain €1 entry fee gives me access to the tower with its ladder-like steps and I finally get to experience tower living as Paddy did all those years ago. Sadly, I’m unable to access the roof.

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Following a cobbled footpath beyond the Mourtzinos tower, towards Agia Sophia, I also find the tombs of Castor and Pollux (the Gemini twins), as Paddy did before me. Though, as he said, they seem a bit short for such heroes!

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dscf3226Paddy described Kardamili as,

…….too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously damaged by tourism.

Sadly, that no longer is the case for the town has become quite the tourist resort with everyone advertising rooms and the supermarket shelves filled with overpriced ‘local’ products. It can only get worse since they filmed ‘Before Midnight’ here in 2012, the last part of the Sunrise/Sunset trilogy, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I wonder if Paddy is turning over in his grave at the thought of his primitive and hospitable Mani becoming just like any other seasonal tourist region.

 

Searching for Mucha

I’ve always been a fan of Art Deco, both architecture and art. One of my favourite artists is Alfons Mucha and, until I visited Prague, I had no idea how connected to the city he was. So I decided to discover more about him by seeking out the places where he left his mark on the city.

dscf1756My first encounter is at St Vitus Cathedral in the castle complex. As I enter, my eye is drawn to one of the first stained-glass windows. I recognise the style instantly. Mucha was commissioned in 1931 to design a window for the cathedral. He was already a well-established artist and had become very famous in Prague following his exhibition of the Slav Epic in the Trade Fair building in 1928. The women depicted in the window resemble the many posters of Sarah Bernhardt that Mucha produced for her numerous stage plays between 1894 and 1898.

 

I next find his influence in the beautiful Obecni dum (Municipal Building) which he helped to design in 1911. Although I am unable to see the ornate halls, I can appreciate the dining areas and hallways which boast features representative of Mucha’s art.

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alfons-mucha-photoIn order to learn more about Alfons Mucha, I visit the museum located not far from Obecni dum. It’s a small exhibition of some of his theatre posters, sketches and a few paintings. I find the black and white photos of models posing in costume for his Slav Epic particularly interesting as I hadn’t realised that artists were using this technique a century ago.

 

 

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Alfons Mucha was born in 1860 in Southern Moravia and started his artistic career painting scenery for a theatre. When the theatre burned down, he moved on to house painting where his talents were recognised by Count Karl Khuen, who sent him to study at the Munich Academy of Arts and later to the Academie Julian in Paris. Mucha also spent time on book illustration and designing jewellery for Fouchet. However, his real desire was to create an epic work which told the mythology and history of the Czechs and other Slavic people. He began work on it in 1910 and the 20 canvases, many of which are 8m x 6m, were finally displayed in Prague in 1928.

mucha-banknoteMucha was greatly influenced by the Freemasons and connections to this can be seen in his work. In 1918 he established the first Czech Lodge and later became a Grand Master. Following the Independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, he designed the new banknotes and also stamps, some of which are displayed in the museum.

dscf1978Sadly, at the beginning of WWII, he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken for questioning. He never recovered from his ordeal and died 8 days later on the 14th of July 1939, aged 78. I walk up to the Vysehrad fortress to see the cemetery where he was laid to rest. His name is displayed on a plaque on the Slavin Monument. He is in good company for Kafka is also buried there and not far away is the tomb of Czech composer Dvorak.

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dscf1998After paying my respects I decide to take a peek inside the St Peter and St Paul church which borders the cemetery. What I find inside is the most fitting tribute to Mucha. The colourful interior is decorated in his unique style with saints adorning the pillars, looking just like Mucha’s theatrical posters. Soft organ music is playing in the background and I feel very peaceful.

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The Painful Price for the Perfect Travel Photo

Last year I wrote about several deaths caused by people taking travel selfies in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, this problem only seems to be getting worse. The Telegraph newspaper reported that last year there were more deaths caused by selfies than by shark attacks and Wikipedia now has a dedicated page to record these incidents.

23 year old British traveller, Zoe Woolmer died while trying to get the ultimate travel photo. She fell as she attempted to climb onto a rock ledge in Kings Canyon, having been encouraged to do so by her tour guide.

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Australian student Kristi Kafcaloudis, 24 years old, fell from Trolltunga Rock, a popular photo spot in Norway.

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A young Japanese climber, Eri Yunanto, fell into the volcano crater on Mount Merapi while taking photos on the edge with his friends. This incident has prompted the local officials to set up a dedicated selfie platform and hopefully prevent future deaths on the mountain.

Mount Merapi by Deborah Young

Mount Merapi by Deborah Young

Bull running in Spain has always led to casualties and last year, David Gonzalez Lopez , 32, was gored to death while filming the spectacle in Villaseca de la Sagra near Toledo.

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Finally, an engineering student named Prakesh was very unlucky when he posed for a picture on a rock ledge in the Koli Hills in India. The ledge collapsed beneath him and he fell 60ft to his death.

Please don’t risk your life for a photo and please stay away from the edge.

Barcelona – Guided by Gaudi

DSCF0345It’s hard to visit Barcelona without bumping into Gaudi. Even the aire where I am staying is next to Gaudi’s Crypt, the unfinished church which was designed by Gaudi and built for the textile workers of Colonia Guell. But was he a genius or a madman? I decided to find out.

My plan was simple: to visit the exteriors of all the Gaudi designed sites in Barcelona using the metro and my own two feet. While researching, I came across a FREE Gaudi walking tour, operated by Runner Bean and decided that the additional information that could be provided by a knowledgeable local guide would be invaluable, so I immediately booked online.

DSCF1175It’s 10.45 and I easily find my guide in Placa Reial. He’s very tall, wearing a luminous green vest and holding an equally bright green umbrella. Marc greets everyone with a smile, while his colleague checks us off on her list and brands us with a small numbered sticker, red for the Gaudi tour and green for the visit to the Gothic Quarter. The Gaudi group are multinational, with representatives from Holland, Poland, France, Korea, Brazil, Canada and the USA.

DSCF1129We start our visit in Placa Reial where the ornate lampposts were the first, and only, public city commission which Gaudi received. While we admire them, Marc gives us some background information on the famous architect. He was born in Reus in 1852 and was a vegetarian for most of his life. A fierce Catalan nationalist, he preferred to speak only in Catalan and, as a young man, he had petitioned for the Monastery of Poblet to be restored and used as a commune for artists and writers.

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A short hop across Las Ramblas and we find ourselves in front of one of Gaudi’s early masterpieces. Palau Guell was commissioned by the wealthy industrialist Eusebi Guell who became a long term patron of Gaudi, offering him projects with unlimited resources. The Palau was built in the 1890s but the family were kicked out during the Spanish Civil War and the building was later given to the city in 1945, being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980’s. The exterior is very dark and austere, with only the colourful chimneys poking above the rooftop suggesting a more playful design.

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DSCF1147We take to the metro for a two stop ride to Passeig de Gracia where several modernista facades await us. Gaudi’s Casa Batllo is the most striking, with its unusual balconies and rooftop tiles. There is some debate over the symbology. The balconies could be masks suggesting a happy carnival theme. However, more people subscribe to the story of George and the Dragon, with the tower representing the knight’s lance, the roof tiles are the dragon’s scales and the balconies are the skulls and bones of the victims. Gaudi was originally commissioned by Josep Batlló i Casanovas to renovate an existing building on the site. The house is now owned by the Bernat family who are known for the manufacture of Chupa Chups lollipops.

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On the same block are two other modernista buildings: Casa Amatller and Casa Lleo Morera. It is possible to enter the ground floor of Casa Amatller to admire the beautiful staircase and stained glass ceiling without having to pay. There is also a chocolate shop and café inside which is very appropriate as the building is owned by a family of chocolatiers.

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DSCF1140DSCF1154A short walk along the pavement, which features seafloor designs by Gaudi, and we find ourselves in front of Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera. Built in 1906, Gaudi used a revolutionary technique of structural columns to enable a more open plan design for the interior apartments. The exterior is quite austere with its limestone façade and wrought iron balconies. Apparently, Mrs Mila, whose fortune was used to finance the construction, was not very happy with the design, along with many Barcelona locals. The rooftop features some unique chimney designs, including one which supposedly inspired George Lucas’ characterisation of Darth Vader. Marc told us of one long-term inhabitant called Carmen who has benefited from rent control, paying only €500 per month to stay in such an iconic building.

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DSCF1166Another metro ride brings us to the final stop on our tour, La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi was a very religious man and the design and build of this church was his life’s passion. Construction began in 1882 and it is anticipated that it will not be completed until at least 2026. Founded by the donations of sinners (or tourists), it receives over 3 million visitors each year.

 

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The nativity façade was completed by Gaudi before his death in 1926 when he was hit by a tram. Thought at first to be a tramp, due to his dishevelled appearance, there was some delay in getting him hospital treatment, and by the time his friends realised what had happened he was already dying. He was buried in the crypt of his beloved church and immortalised by the architect Josep Maria Subirachs as a character in the passion façade.

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All this walking has made me hungry so, following Marc’s suggestion, I head towards the St Pau Hospital in search of a restaurant with a good menu del dia. Just before I reach the Hospital, I find Firo Tast with an intriguing menu for €14.95. Inside, it reveals a rather posh décor and when my food arrives it is beautifully presented. Feta salad with strawberry dressing, garlic lamb chops and a light panna cotta for dessert. They are not stingy with the wine either.

DSCF1178While enjoying my lunch I decided on a plan for the afternoon. Despite there being no queues for the Sagrada Familia I didn’t have a good enough camera to do it justice and besides, I’d just spent the entrance fee on lunch! Instead, I decided to take a quick look at the modernista hospital of St Pau and then take the metro to Parc Guell.

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Marc had mentioned an escalator which assisted with the steep climb up to Parc Guell, but all I found was a never ending set of steps which brought me to the rear of the site. Although you now have to pay an entrance fee to visit the monumental area of Parc Guell, much of the surrounding park is still free and it’s possible to view quite a lot of Gaudi’s creations. Also, the views across the city are quite wonderful.

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DSCF1244From the park, I walk back downhill to Place du Lesseps, in search of one of Gaudi’s earliest creations. Unfortunately, when I locate Casa Vicens, I discover it is shrouded with scaffolding and in a state of renovation. The house was commissioned by stockbroker Manuel Vicens i Montaner and built between 1883 and 1888. Despite the scaffolding, I could see many of the decorative details, such as the iron fan palm railings and the tiles of yellow marigolds.

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The day is drawing to a close and, although I have managed to visit much of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, I have still only just scratched the surface. However, it does give me a reason to return to the city and next time I’ll bring a better camera and perhaps venture inside some of the amazing houses and monuments of ‘God’s Architect’.

So, genius or madman? Probably a bit of both, but that’s usually the combination needed to become a great artist or architect.

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Gaudi in Barcelona

Sagrada Familia 1882– [Completion estimated 2026–2028] – €15 (€22 with audioguide)

Casa Vicens  1883–1888 – closed for restoration

Güell Pavilions 1884–1887 – €4

Palau Güell 1885–1890  – €12

Teresian College 1888–1889 – still used as a school

Casa Calvet 1898–1900 – now houses a restaurant

Casa Figueres (Torre Bellesguard) 1900–1909  – €9 with audioguide or €16 guided tour

Park Güell 1900–1914 – €7

Casa Milà (La Pedrera) 1905–1907 – €20.50

Casa Batlló 1905–1907 – €22.50

Church of Colònia Güell – Santa Coloma de Cervelló (Barcelona) 1908–1914 – €9 with audioguide tour of village.

Sagrada Família Schools 1909 – used as offices for the Sagrada Familia construction.

Gaudi beyond Barcelona

El Capricho – Comillas (Cantabria) 1883–1885 – €5

Episcopal Palace of Astorga (León) 1883–1913

Casa Botines -León – occupied by Caja Espana Bank

Bodegas Güell – Garraf, Sitges 1895–1897  – now houses a restaurant

Artigas Gardens – La Pobla de Lillet 1905–1906 – €4.15

Other Modernista buildings in Barcelona

Casa Amatller – €15 (or 22.60 combined ticket with Casa Lleo I Morera)

Casa Lleo I Morera – €15 (or 22.60 combined ticket with Casa Amatller)

Hopital St Pau – €10 (or €16 guided visit)

 

Colonia Guell

I’m sure many people have heard of Parc Guell and Palau Guell in the city of Barcelona, created by the artist and architect Gaudi and paid for by his greatest patron, Count Eusebi Guell. However, few will know of Colonia Guell, situated west of the city in the town of Santa Coloma de Cervello.

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DSCF0335The Guell Colony was established in 1890 by industrialist Eusebi Guell on his property outside Barcelona. He built his new textile factories with all the latest technology and provided houses close by for his workers. He was keen to improve their social conditions and so included a school, cultural centre, theatre and doctor’s house enlisting some of the best architects of the time.

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Gaudi was commissioned to design a church and work started in 1908. It was an ambitious project incorporating many new architectural techniques and featuring many recycled materials. However, after only completing the lower nave, work ceased in 1916 leaving a small but usable church, more commonly known as Gaudi’s Crypt.

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After civil war broke out in 1936, the factory became a collective. The Guell family later recovered the property but sold it in 1945 to another industrialist who continued to produce textiles until the factory closed in 1975.

DSCF0407Today, the workers colony is a peaceful but popular place. The original school and schoolmaster’s house is surrounded by fencing and in need of some repair but a new school up the hill is full of excited children. The locals sit outside cafes in the main square and the cultural centre is still used for community functions. The old cooperative building is now a tourist office and interpretation centre offering audio guided tours of the colony, while the old factory buildings are being renovated and a modern business park established within them.

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Eusebi Guell’s original colony may have dispersed but his vision of a happy and healthy community and successful business venture still exists.