Perhaps the 20th century’s greatest evocation of the infinite variety and magic of life, Gaudí’s Park Güell occupies Mont Pelat (Bald Mountain), a natural balcony over the city. The park owes its name and existence to Eusebi Güell, who bought two farms here in 1902 to lay out an exclusive English garden suburb (hence the English ‘K’ in Park). To maintain its island-like exclusivity, Güell made sure it was carefully kept apart from the public tram lines, a fact not lost on the locals (in fact, when Gaudí died after being struck by a tram, the joke went around in Barcelona that they were getting their revenge).
To attract buyers, Güell gave Gaudí free rein to design a grand entrance to the park, a pair of lodges for guardians, a central market area for residents and terraced drives for them to cruise leisurely up to their abodes. In spite of it all, Park Güell, the original gated community, turned out to be a complete flop; of the 40 planned houses, only three were ever built, for Güell, Gaudí and a lawyer friend named Trias. Güell was too rich to care. But he liked living there; he left his fancy palace in El Raval to live in the park’s Can Muntaner, and allowed charities to stage fund-raising parties here. After his death in 1918, his family donated the park to the city. In 1984 it was listed as a World Heritage Site, and in 1995, after years of decay, it underwent a thorough restoration.
In the midst of the unremarkable urbanizaciónes that were later built on Bald Mountain, the Park Güell glows like an enchanted mirage, its now-mature palm trees colonized by parrots. As in most of Gaudí’s work, there are layers of sometimes obtuse symbolism in every aspect of the park’s decoration—some of it personal, some of it from Güell, all of it as inventive and playful as the architecture itself. According to Gaudí scholar Josep M. Carandell, there's much more to Park Güell than the usual Catalan nationalism: look closely and you'll find Masonry, Rosicrucianism, alchemy and all the garam masala of religions and mysteries that fascinated the elite of the time.
Carandell suspects that the park never achieved its purported destiny as a residential suburb because potential tenants were carefully screened and none measured up to the philanthropic secret Catholic missionary spirit of its creators. The truth may be that Güell, Gaudí and Trias really didn’t really want any neighbours sharing their mystic Delphic Utopia. And curiously, their three houses do form a Masonic triangle...
The stone wall surrounding the park is topped by a red and white band of trencadis (broken tile mosaics) and medallions shaped like cigar bands as a reference to Güell’s tobacco interests. To the left of the entrance, the words alaba/por are an anagram of labor and paa, which in 19th-century Masonry meant a boarding-house, suggesting that Güell and Gaudí saw the park as a giant al fresco lodge of labour.
On either side of the ornate gate (a copy of the palm-frond grille from the Casa Vicens, added after Gaudí's death) are two fairy-tale pavilions, possibly inspired by a 1900 staging of a Catalan translation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel. Both are crowned by superb sloping roofs of swirling coloured mosaics, cupolas, mushroom forms (a magic amanita muscaria on the wicked witch’s house) and Gaudí’s signature steeple crowned with a double cross (on the good children’s house).
The wicked witch's house, more properly known as the Casa del Guarda, houses an MUHBA interpretation centre dedicated to Gaudí, Guëll and Barcelona.
The grand stair swoops around the most jovial salamander imaginable, clinging to the fountain and covered with brightly coloured trencadis that symbolize fire. Güell studied in Nîmes, which has a Place de la Salamandre in honour of François I, who dallied in alchemy and made the creature his personal symbol. Equally, the symbol of Nîmes is a crocodile and a palm tree, and there was a statue of one with two palm trees in that city’s Parc de la Fontaine, where young Güell spent many an afternoon. Originally there were two palms planted next to Gaudí’s salamander, too.
Above the salamander is a tripod with a stone representing the omphalos, navel of the universe: a reference to the Pythia and omphalos at Delphi as the seat of wisdom. The bench above is shaped like a Greek tragic mask.
The Parc de la Fontaine in Nîmes has a Roman temple, and so does the Park Güell. This is the remarkable, cavernous Sala Hipóstila, planned by Gaudí as a covered market. Known as the Hall of a Hundred Columns (actually, there are only 86 —a number that reoccurs in other measurements in the park), its Doric columns are hollow inside, allowing rain water to run down into a vast cistern below, designed to store water for emergencies or irrigation.
The shallow vaults of the ceiling look as if they were soft as marshmallow, covered with a blizzard of white trencadis and beautiful plafonds or medallions, representing four large suns (the four seasons), the phases of the moon and spiralling shapes, designed by Gaudí and brilliantly executed by Josep Maria Jujol. He used reject ceramics from Gaudí’s other projects supplemented by whatever broken glass or plates the park’s workmen found in the streets on their way to work.
If you look closely at the plafonds (perhaps best in the evening, when the lighting system at the base of the columns illuminates the ceiling), you can see that Jujol didn’t limit himself to ceramics, stone and glass; wine goblets, bottles and even porcelain dolls are stuck up there, long before the Cubists began to incorporate objets trouvés in their work.
The scalloped roof of the Sala Hipóstila is rimmed with a snaking ceramic collage that also serves as the back of the serpentine bench. It is a masterpiece of three-dimensional art, a Surrealist, Cubist collage that predates Surrealism, Cubism and collages (recently, Gaudí scholars found what they believe was Gaudí's own prototype for the bench, at the Hospital Sant Boi south of Barcelona).
To form the mould of the benches (which are surprisingly comfortable) Gaudí got a naked man to sit in wet plaster, while the trencadi design was the work of Jujol, who was so inspired that he broke up his own cupid-painted dinner ware for the project. His seemingly random patterns of colour, and simple and abstract designs, offer new delights with each turn and each change of light; the restorers discovered, with some consternation, that they had to match 21 different tones of off-white to fill in the gaps.
Among the figures are stylized crabs and symbols of the zodiac, and Catalan or Latin graffiti which had been inscribed in the clay before firing by Jujol. These inscriptions so well hidden that the words weren’t discovered until the 1950s. No one knows what’s going on here; some believe the words form a mysterious dialogue, perhaps with the Virgin Mary, who trampled the serpent, symbolized by the bench. But the snake was also an ancient symbol of health, linked to the Greek healer god Asclepius.
The platform by the bench was originally known as the 'Greek Theatre', and there were plans to stage Oedipus Rex here (a play about epidemics, one of Güell’s great interests; he wrote a book on vaccine theory) with temporary seating overlooking the city, but the riots of the Setmana Tràgica of 1909 got in the way.
Among the trees near the bench is the Casa Museu Gaudí, the house that Gaudí bought and inhabited from 1906-1925, before he went all hermit-like and moved to the building site of the Sagrada Família.
Then there are Gaudí’s extraordinary porticoes and viaducts, 3km of them, as serpentine as the bench, sloping in and out of the hillside. All are made of stone found on the site and fitted together to form magical, sinuous passageways with walls shaped like curling waves and fanciful stone tree-planters with aloes growing on top. Apparently they drove Dalí crazy.
None of the viaducts are alike; one has a column that resembles Carmen Miranda holding a pile of rocks on her head instead of fruit salad; she is called the Bugadera ('washerwoman')—but Carandell suspects she is really ‘Sister Mason’.
There is more esoteric weirdness just off the path leading to the nub of the hill: a six-lobed, truncated stone tower called the Chapel, shaped like a Rosicrucian rose, but hermetically sealed. If there’s an underground entrance, no one ever has found it. There are three stone crosses on the chapel, esoterically pointed on top like arrows; look towards the east and the three merge to form a single arrow.
To prevent crowding, only 400 people are admitted into the park every half hour; see the website for information on booking tickets online up to three months in advance. Tickets can also be purchased at the ticket offices or ATMs located at the Park itself or and at the Lesseps and Vallcarca metro stations, but entry will be subject to the number of visitors in the park and may involve queues. With a printed ticket or QR on a smart phone or tablet, you can enter directly through your chosen entrance at your designated time. You can also download a free app guide to the park on iTunes and Android.
Hours Jan- Mar, Nov-Dec 8.30am-6.15pm (last entry 5.30pm); Apr, mid Sept-Oct 8am-8pm (last entry 7.30pm); May-early Sept 8am-9.30pm (last entry 9pm)
adm €8; €5.60 ages 7-12 over 65. Under 7 free. Discounts for online purchases.
metro: Lesseps. From the station, signs point the way to the park- it's about a 20 minute walk.
+34 934 091 831
Images by: David Davis, Dom Crossley, Łukasz Dzierżanowski, David Blaikie