Hand in Hand with Picasso and Gaudi through Spain:
A First-Timer's View of Madrid and Barcelona

By D. Fong

France’s acclaimed museum The Louvre is well known by nearly everyone, but Spain has a wealth of art to offer, too, like in Madrid’s Palacio Real and Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. The legendary luxury of Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has now emerged into a delicate ensemble of unique architecture, high fashion shops, and old and modern art.

This July, I traveled with my parents and two brothers to Spain. Here is my account of the journey through this unique country.


When you compare Madrid versus Paris, you have to accept the fact that the two cities are completely different. Madrid has a mixture of old and modern buildings, whereas Paris has chosen to keep their old buildings uniform. Paris has definitely the more romantic atmosphere. Yet, both have beautiful architecture and little cafes snuggled into alleyways. Madrid has a thriving nightlife, more so than Paris. I was surprised to see so many young adults lounge around past 10:00 PM.

We stayed at Hotel Mora , which had pleasant rooms and a location in the center of Madrid. The only discomfort was the grimness of the hotel clerks, who barely budged a smile at our appearance.

At the Museo del Prado (6€ for adults, 3€ for students), works from famous artists like Goya, Velasquez, Rafael, and Rembrandt were breathtaking. There was even a special temporary exhibition called King of the Planets: Felipe the fourth, but I thought the permanent art collection was far better. The museum is incomparable to the Louvre, but you still shouldn’t miss out on Las Meninas by Velasquez, Goya’s reclining women, and Rembrandt’s portraits of royalty. Audio guides are available for 3€ (2 hours long).

The Palacio Real has a gigantic stone laid courtyard (8€ general admission, 3,50€ for 5-16 years old). It has extremely ornate rooms, like the Hall of Columns, Throne Room, and Dining Gala Room. The decorations are so luxurious they are nearly overdone. Yet, I was amazed at the excellent artistry and the Spanish royalty’s wealth. I had never seen a Porcelain room before, where the walls are completely covered with porcelain, for an Oriental look. I wasn’t prepared for the biggest shock yet: four Stradivarius instruments! Two violins, one viola, and one cello. The worth of just one is a couple million dollars!

Lunch at Casa Luciano . It cost 7€ for one paella. I was sorely disappointed by the quality of the food. Granted, I was grateful for something to eat, but the paella was nothing like I had expected. It was dry, a little overcooked, and very salty.

Since Spain is known for its contemporary art, the Museo de Reina Sofia holds some of finest modern art I have ever seen (3€ for adult, free for 16 and under). We got confused by the construction going on; the entrance stairway is kind of hidden. I thoroughly enjoyed Picasso’s sketches and paintings, even if I couldn’t understand them all. Probably one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, El Guernica spans an entire wall and is simply amazing to look at. Although I never actually "understood" most of the modern art, the beautiful array of clashing colors and shapes laid against the white paint of the museum will capture your attention.

On another day, we ate lunch at Cervantes Pizzeria , kind of hidden in the back alley. In retrospect, we had the best Spanish lunch here. There was a 9€ special for a drink and two courses. One of my brothers tried lasagna for course one and fried fish for course two.

For some relaxing fun (like shopping), take the metro to Plaza Mayor and Plaza de Sol . There are countless women’s clothing stores and shoe stores. Huge bustling crowds, so watch out for your bags.
We took the train (called RENFE ) to Barcelona. Tickets are expensive, but the ride was comfortable and more convenient than renting a car for my family.


Barcelona, a city by the Mediterranean Sea, hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. An Olympic Village still stands, and beautiful crowded beaches line the shores.

We stayed at a hotel hidden behind dark alleyways. The bad news: it was unsafe; the good news: it was cheap.

Masses of tourists, mimes, parrot sellers, and flower sellers line Las Ramblas , a long street running through Barcelona to the Mediterranean Sea. Compared to Paris’ Champs-Élysées, this street is a complete disappointment. At the end of the street there’s a tall, greenish statue of Christopher Columbus on a pedestal pointing southwest…onward to his journeys. A nearby shaded farmer’s market La Boqueria sells fruits, vegetables, meats, and icy drinks.

Just the Sagrada Familia was worth my entire visit to Spain (8€ adults, 5€ students). My first impression of the Catholic temple was far greater than any expectations I ever had. Began in1882, it is still in construction today, under Antoni Gaudí’s architectural foundations. The two existing facades (two more will be built) were so alien to my eyes I would have thought that they were from some fantasy world. The Temple has grandiose twisting columns, mosaic encrusted towers, sculptures, and interesting geometric shapes. Gaudí loved modeling his designs after nature and animal forms.

For example, the columns in the nave are structured like tree trunks. I thought the façade of Jesus’s death was most touching. The stark, dry, simple sculptures captured the grave mood of the sacrifice. My dad, my brother, and I walked up one of the towers to see the tips of the towers up close; the view of the ornate mosaic designs on the tips and of the surrounding city is amazing. Definitely use an audio guide (3,50€) if you don’t buy a book to explain all the symbols, or you’ll get lost trying to understand them all.

Other works of Gaudí are apparent all over Barcelona, like the Casa Milia, which has wavy balconies and twisted railings. Shop along the Passeig de Gracia , a street filled with expensive designers and jewelry. The layout of the buildings is similar to Paris’: several floors with balconies on each and the shops on the ground floor. Trees line the street. My mom and I had a pleasant walk window shopping and drinking plenty of water.

As an enthusiastic art admirer, I was delighted to see a lot of Spain’s culture and style in the museums. I had seen a poster of Las Meninas in my Spanish 3 class, but now I had seen it with my own eyes. Above all, the Sagrada Familia exceeded all of my expectations for Barcelona. My brother and I even resolved to come back once the construction has finished. My only regrets were not seeing traditional flamenco dancing and guitar playing. I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of tourist shops, but all in all I had a great experience applying some of the Spanish I had learned to real life and having a fun time with my family.


* Asking for the bill in a restaurant is "la cuenta" in Spanish.
* Let me warn you that there are many pickpockets here. Use your common sense and street smarts to avoid any trouble. My family didn’t encounter any problems because we were always alert—not paranoid—just aware.
* People in this northeastern region of Spain speak in the Catalan dialect, a mixture of French and Spanish.
* Buy your own bottled water . Most restaurants in Spain’s major cities make tourists pay 2€ for one small container of water. And no refills.

D. Fong is a senior at a Bay Area high school. This is her third article for BAFT.

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