Sunday, February 23, 2014

Gaudí Week #7: Casa Vicens in Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This post is the last installment in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Casa Vicens by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Façade of Casa Vicens
This little-touristed house is visited by none but the most dedicated Gaudí fans (i.e., yours truly), so when I managed to turn onto C/ Carolines during a sunny Barcelona siesta, I ran into only a handful of Asian and European travelers, some toting guidebooks and others cameras. I lingered for a few minutes, snapped some pictures, and headed back down a major street to get some croquetas for lunch. Casa Vicens is—surprise, surprise—still a private home, and so tourists have to be content to admire its architecture from behind iron grillework. Finished in 1889 at the request of Manuel Vicens, a man in the brick and tile business, the house has subtle nods to Vicens’ industry: warm, red bricking and happy white-and-green tiles that give the fortress-like house a pixelated look.

Casa Vicens by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Gate, Casa Vicens
As Gaudí’s first work, his trademark style isn’t clearly evident yet here, but Moorish elements abound without falling into the exoticist trap of Revivalism: you can catch hints of the Alhambra in the arches and columns, and the overhanging roofs are reminiscent of the flourishes found over entrances to Moroccan homes. Seashells (palm fronds?) populate the iron gate to the property, reminding us of Gaudí’s lifelong fascination with the shapes of nature.

Currently it’s up for sale—to the tune of 30.000.000€. Yes, that’s thirty million euros. Think of it less as a piece of property, though, and more as a work of art, especially since Gaudí designed everything from the doors to the toilet seats (probably). It’s still on the market, and I wonder if some philanthropic business or foundation might take it over, clean it up, and re-open it to visitors as the next Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, or Palau Güell. Or maybe it will escape becoming a museum for a few generations, remaining just as the architect intended it to be—a home.

How to get there: Casa Vicens is house Nº 24 on C/ Carolines (Gràcia district). Take the L3 (green line) on the Metro and get off at the Fontana stop. Head north on C/ Gran de Gràcia and turn left at C/ Carolines. If you reach Av. Príncep d’Astúries, you’ve gone too far.

If you’ve ever been to Barcelona, have you ever seen Casa Vicens? Do you think it should become a museum or stay a private home? Comment below!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gaudí Week #6: The Crypt-Church of Colònia Güell near Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This post is the sixth in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Colònia Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Colònia Güell patio
Eusebi Güell was one of Antoni Gaudí’s most important patrons, commissioning the Palau Güell mansion in Barcelona’s old town and the popular Park Güell. For this post, however, we’re leaving crowded Barcelona for a quiet village on the outskirts of the Barcelona area, Santa Coloma de Cervelló. It was here that Sr. Güell moved his textile operations at the turn of the century, establishing an industrial estate to be run by the business on behalf of his employees. Called Colònia Güell, this company town stood out from its contemporaries because Güell actually tried to improve his workers’ lives instead of focusing on profits-profits-profits; e.g., he sponsored the construction of Mondernista-style homes as well as a parish church for the “colony.

After years of analysis and experimentation, Gaudí began work on the construction of this church in 1908 but was forced to leave it unfinished after funding ran out in 1914. Only the crypt-like lower nave had been completed at this point, even though there were plans for a soaring upper nave as well. The next year, the fully-finished lower nave was blessed by Barcelona’s bishop and the upper floor was bricked over. This lower floor has functioned as a church ever since.

Colònia Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Crypt, Colònia Güell
Outside, you get the feeling that a giant brick- and mosaic-clad daddy-longlegs has emerged from the earth. But inside, you’re welcomed into an intimate, earthy space. When I visited, I was really surprised how tiny the interior of the church was; pictures I had seen made it appear like a gargantuan, roofed-over outside auditorium. Instead, it was a small, warm circular nave held up by leaning tree trunks stone pillars and bricked vaulting. Goodies within include whimsical stained-glass windows, a giant clam shell repurposed as a holy water font, and ergonomic pews designed by Gaudí himself.

Colònia Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Hanging chains, the “blueprint” for
Colònia Güell
It’s a real shame Güell ran out of money for the project, because the church would have been a surreal work of true beauty: a spaceship-like beehive of a complex with rockets and towers and spirals and light. At the very least, the crypt-church let Gaudí warm up for his later work on the Sagrada Família; here he perfected his hanging-chains method in which he would look at a mirror on the floor and see the “blueprints” right-side up.

How to get there: The church is in a suburb of Barcelona called Santa Coloma de Cervelló. I entered the underground system in Barcelona’s Plaça de Espanya and headed to the FGC regional train line (orange square & white chain logo). At one of the machines, I bought a combined admission + round-trip ticket. Any train marked S4, S8, or S33 will drop you off at the Colònia Güell station, and there are little spray-painted footprints that will lead you straight to the church, which is on C/ Claudi Güell.

Have you ever been to Colònia Güell before? Would you be interested in making a daytrip here if you haven’t visited Barcelona yet? Comment below!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gaudí Week #5: Palau Güell in Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This is the fifth post in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Palau Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Palau Güell from the street
The only work by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona’s old city, Palau Güell (“Güell Mansion”) fits in with the historic feel of the neighborhood and reflects the architect’s budding creativity. Owned by the same Eusebi Güell as #3 (the park) and #6 (the church), it was Gaudí’s first commission for the textile magnate. Although the Catalan word palau is best translated as “mansion,” its cognate, “palace,” could just as easily be used to describe this *ahem* palatial home.

Palau Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Residents and guests would enter from the street under one of two eye-like parabolic arches decorated in intricate ironwork. Once inside, their horses and carriages would be led down to the subterranean stable, which, despite its lowly function, reflects the elegant arches and vaulting Gaudí would later use in the Sagrada Família. The living quarters are cozy but not gloomy, warm but not gaudy, made of stone but not cold, and solid without being cave-like. The smooth, finished stone from the exterior continues inside—a simple, sophisticated skeleton that was fleshed out with rugs, lamps, and furniture. The whole house centers around the main living area that was used for welcoming guests. This space was used both for entertaining and for praying; a brilliant, gilded chapel is balanced by a powerful organ whose notes fill the dome-capped hall.

Although Palau Güell isn’t as obviously-Gaudí as his later works, you can still see his nascent style coming to life: he flirted with Moorish elements by installing a golden ceiling and bathroom tiles that look more at home at Sevilla’s Royal Alcázar than a Barcelona palace; he put slender, yawning parabolas everywhere, from windows to arches; and he incorporated natural elements by forging vines, seed hulls, and even a phoenix out of iron.

Palau Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
As with Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, Palau Güell also has a surprise on its roof. Although the chimneys are evenly distributed around the perimeter, they’re just as whimsical and fun as those on his other two works in the new part of town. Decorated with tightly-arranged trencadís mosaics, the chimneys look like anything from rainbow frozen yogurt and bulbous Christmas trees to zebra skin and goblin faces. If you look hard enough to the east, you can catch glimpses of the simple-yet-beautiful octagonal belltowers on the Catalan churches of Santa Maria del Mar and Santa Maria del Pi in the distance.

How to get there: Palau Güell is house Nº 3-5 on C/ Nou de la Rambla in the Ciutat Vella (old town) of Barcelona. If you take the L3 (green line) on the Metro, you can get off at one of two Las Ramblas stops: Liceu to the north and Drassanes to the south. C/ Nou de la Rambla is directly opposite Plaça Reial on the other side of La Rambla dels Caputxins.

If you’ve ever been to Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic before, did you get a chance to visit Palau Güell? Comment below!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gaudí Week #4: Casa Milà a.k.a. “La Pedrera” in Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This post is the fourth in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Casa Milà / La Pedrera by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Façade of the “La Pedrera” apartment block
Between 1906 and 1912, Antoni Gaudí worked on the most distinctive apartment block on the Passeig de Gràcia, a lovely, wide north-south avenue spanning Barcelona’s Eixample district or modern, gridded “expansion.” At the request of the industrialist Pere Milà, he created a structure that is actually two separate apartments joined by two oblong patios and an other-worldly terrace with a wavy floor and weird chimneys. It’s officially called Casa Milà, Catalan for “the Milà House,” but informally everyone calls it La Pedrera because it looks like an open-face rock quarry. Part of the reason the wavy façade is so dramatic has to do with the street grid system that covers the Eixample; at every intersection the corners are cut off like those desktop calendars with triangular pockets, so each street crossing is actually a little plaza and feels open and accessible.

La Pedrera houses a restored family apartment that you can stroll through wistfully and get a taste for what turn-of-the-century bourgeois Barcelona would have been like, a time of hopeful innocence before the tragic events of the twentieth century. Up in the attic there’s a small museum that educates you on Gaudí, his architectural style, and his building methods.

Casa Milà / La Pedrera by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Roof of Casa Milà
The real draw to La Pedrera, though, is the roof and its terrace. The ceiling of the complex’s attic undulates like a sine curve, and the rooftop is no different. Stairs and ramps move you up and down and offer lovely views of the Passeig de Gràcia and the rest of the city. Instead of seeing chimneys as something to grudgingly put up with, Gaudí eagerly incorporated them into his design, capping them with surreal, face-like tops that look like helmet-clad stormtroopers or Pacific Islander totems. Frozen-yogurt ice cream cones tempt you to stay longer as stoic guardians keep vigil, but ultimately the whirling, spiraling patios will draw you back down to street level.

How to get there: Casa Milà sits on the northeast corner of the intersection formed by the Passeig de Gràcia and C/ Provença (Eixample district). Take the L3 (green line) or L5 (blue line) on the Metro and get off at the Diagonal stop.

If you’ve ever been to Barcelona, did you climb up to the terrace of La Pedrera? Does this building look cheesy or intriguing to you? Comment below!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Gaudí Week #3: Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This post is the third in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Park Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Entrance to Park Güell
Park Güell is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Barcelona, but first, a little background on who this Güell guy was (pronounced “gway-ee” [gweʎ]), since he shows up in two more buildings I’m talking about later in the week. Eusebi Güell made a fortune in the textile business as the Spanish region of Cataluña rapidly industrialized in the late 19th century. Early on in Gaudí’s life, the two met and Güell became one of the architect’s biggest patrons. Between 1900 and 1914, work was done on an idealized subdivision for the wealthy on land purchased by Güell, but because few of the upper class at the time cared for Gaudí’s style and/or Modernisme, and the project was halted. Still, both Güell and Gaudí ended up living in two of the handful of houses built in the park, none by Gaudí himself, though.

(There seems to be a lot of confusion about how to spell this neighborhood-turned-city park. Güell was inspired by England’s Garden City movement, or utopian urban planning that emphasized parks and green space, and so spelled it Park Güell instead of the Catalan parc or the Spanish parque.)

Across the park, he decorated buildings and structures with a technique he popularized called trencadís. Taking shards and pieces of broken ceramic tiles, plates, etc., he arranged them in such a way to create flowing mosaics and shapes, covering walls, ceilings, benches, and statues with these imperfect tiles. The most beloved piece he created is el drac, “the dragon” or lizard that’s crawling down toward the entrance to Park Güell, covered in fun blue, orange, and green tiles.

Park Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Trencadís tile mosaics at Park Güell
Main sights include: the two unassuming pavilions at the southern entrance; the Sala Hipóstila—it looks like a wavy Greek temple with a forest of columns and has the world’s longest bench on its roof; vaulted, colonnaded paths made from local stone that swoop into hillsides; and a megalithic mini Calvary with three crosses on its summit which offers a commanding view of the whole city. There’s a lot to be said for simply strolling around the grounds and enjoying the mix of deciduous and palm trees, a welcome break from the city air. As you wander, try to imagine what the currently-empty estate was supposed to look like: luxury homes set on roomy lots, all surrounded by lush, shady vegetation.

Park Güell by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
The lizard, Park Güell
How to get there: Park Güell is located up a hill to the northeast of the Gràcia district. Take the L3 (green line) on the Metro and get off at either the Lesseps or Vallcarca stops. If you get off at Lesseps, head east on Travessera de Dalt for a few minutes until you see escalators that will carry you north up the hill and leave you near the main southern entrance. If you get off at Vallcarca, head due east until you run into escalators that will take you east up the hill and drop you off at the western gate.

If you’ve been to Barcelona, did you visit the touristy Park Güell or did the crowds scare you away? Comment below!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Gaudí Week #2: Casa Batlló in Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This post is the second in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Façade of Casa Batlló
Pronounced “buhl-YOE” [bəʎˈʎo], Casa Batlló was my favorite of the Antoni Gaudí-designed residences I got to visit in Barcelona last year. A wealthy textile industrialist named Josep Batlló had purchased Passeig de Gràcia Nº 43 but was unhappy with the house’s design, so in 1904 he commissioned Gaudí to do something about it. By 1906, the architect had completely remodeled the townhouse in his signature style.

The front façade offers a way to appreciate Gaudí-style buildings for free. From a distance, the house appears a rather drab bone-gray, but upon closer inspection, faint bacterial colonies of red, green, purple, and blue tiles emerge that bring the façade to life even as the weird balconies and windowpanes whisper a subliminal message about skeletons.

Whenever people mention Casa Batlló—nicknamed the “House of Bones”—they always mention that Gaudí basically tried to avoid incorporating any rigid, straight lines. Maybe, but perhaps this is just what happens when you draw all your inspiration from the sea and underwater life? I don’t think the architect purposefully omitted straight lines and right angles, but merely copied the organic, smooth forms found in nature.

Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Lightwell of Casa Batlló
From the very entrance you get the impression you’re under the sea: the foyer walls are decorated in scale- or bubble-like patterns and a groovy banister looks like the “lips” of a giant clam. Above, on the so-called Noble Floor, you’re led into a large drawing room with a toothed ceiling lamp made to look like either a whirlpool or a nautilus shell, and the vast street-facing window is decorated with blue and pink stained glass circles—or should I say sand-dollars, sea urchins, and plankton? My tour through the house put me in a calm, relaxed mood, just as tidewaters can have a healing, soothing effect.

The audioguide pointed out an ingenious feature of the house’s lightwell, or inner patio/gap that brings light to interior rooms: to ensure an even distribution of light at the upper and lower floors, Gaudí graded the tiles so that darker, light-absorbing blues float above and paler, light-reflecting blues dominate below. Gill-shaped windows are narrow on the top floor and gradually expand to take in more air the farther down you go.

Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Dragon-like roof on Casa Batlló
The roof is, like all Gaudí houses, pretty cool, but the attic is equally fascinating. You walk through a colonnade formed by dozens of white, plaster upside-down catenary curves (think the St. Louis, Mo., Gateway Arch). 1960s-like in their pale minimalism, you begin to wonder if you’re slipping past the ribs of a sardine skeleton. Emerging from the ethereal tidal pool, you walk out onto a clean, spacious terrace. The architect grouped the house’s many chimneys into four clusters, but the chimneys look less like sooty smokestacks than deepsea tube worms, or frozen-in-time backup dancers swaying to rhythms, rhythms that could be the regular crashing of waves or the coming and going of the tides.

And capping it all is a sharp mound, festooned with lumpy blue and brown scales shingles and bookended by a cross-bearing turret. You might say it resembles a coelacanth, the body of a coastal bird, or even a dragon. Gaudí was a very devout Catholic, and the patron saint of Cataluña is St. George (Sant Jordi). Since St. George, according to legend, slew a dragon and saved a damsel, it’s thought that Gaudí inserted this regional symbol right onto the house: the ridged spine of the lizard drapes over the façade while the gleaming white cross-topped tower represents the piercing spear of St. George.

How to get there: Casa Batlló is house Nº 43 on the west side of the Passeig de Gràcia (Eixample district). Take the L2 (purple line), L3 (green line), or L4 (yellow line) on the Metro and get off at the Passeig de Gràcia stop.

If you’ve ever traveled to Barcelona before, did you get to take a peek inside Casa Batlló? Comment below!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Gaudí Week #1: Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain

This week on the blog I’m celebrating works by the famous turn-of-the-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who designed everything from churches to mansions to public parks. This post is the first in a seven-part series; check out the introduction here!

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
The Sagrada Família’s Nativity Façade
Unquestionably Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Família is a Catholic basilica that takes up a whole city block in Barcelona’s Eixample district, the new part of town where the streets run on a grand grid. The church is arguably Spain’s most significant and beautiful piece of architecture (vying with the Alhambra, a Moorish palatial complex to the south in Granada). And it is without a doubt an iconic symbol of Barcelona, much as the Golden Gate Bridge represents San Francisco or the Cristo Redentor statue does for Rio de Janeiro.

Many people assume the Sagrada Família is the city’s cathedral, but it’s actually a minor basilicaBarcelona’s Gothic-style cathedral can be found in the old town, where it has stood for the past half-dozen centuries. (Side-note: a cathedral is home to a bishop or archbishop, referring to the cathedra or seat that represents their authority.) The Sagrada Família is instead a basilica, a significant and important church that has been granted special privileges. Pope Benedict XVI gave the church said status when he consecrated it in 2010. The church is dedicated to the Sagrada Família, Catalan for the “Holy Family” of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Nave of the Sagrada Família
Although in its fourth year as a fully-functioning church (now that the naves have been completely roofed-over), the Sagrada Família is still a work in progress. I think this makes visiting it now, before it’s finished mid-century, so interesting, because it gives us a feel for what the Middle Ages would have been like when all the great Gothic cathedrals were erected. It often took centuries for such monumental works to be completed, and the Sagrada Família will be no different. I would love to come back to Barcelona in a few decades when all the bell towers have been raised; it’s going to be unbelievably beautiful.

Construction began on the church in 1882 and Gaudí became its architect the following year. Initially, he had planned to do a Gothic Revival-style church (see, for example, the crypt and the apse) but a few sketches later and the church had been transformed into something never before seen in Western architecture. He went all-in with his avant-garde architectural ideas, making the stonework on the Nativity Façade look like oozing slime and the main pillars inside the nave branch out like trees. He also took advantage of geometric calculations with hyperboloids (no idea what those are!) and, with his fractal-like columns, was able to construct a massive, soaring, weight-bearing space without the use of Gothic flying buttresses.

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Tower caps that make me hungry
The exterior of the church is alive with a myriad of statues, sculptures, and statements. On the Passion Façade, Star Wars stormtrooper-looking Roman soldiers lead a chiseled Jesus to Calvary, four root-like pillars reach down at dramatic angles, and the entrance door is covered in selections from the gospels in Catalan. Some phrases on the door are illuminated in gold/bronze, like Jesus de Natzaret, Rei dels Jueus (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) and i què és la veritat? (“and what is truth?” — Pontius Pilate). Some of the lower pointy towers are capped with what looks like raspberries and Skittles, and the taller bell towers are inscribed with words like Oració (“prayer”) and Credo (“I believe”).

The interior is, excuse the cliché, a riot of colors—you can find bright reds, blues, and greens in the many stained glass windows as well as in the bug-eye looking pillar capitals that represent the four Evangelists. Light pours in from the western wall, the many large windows, and skylights in the above. And the ceiling supported by the branching pillars makes you feel like you’re inside a pink springtime forest, or beneath a sky of exploding fireworks, or in a fantasy undersea world of coral, sea anemones, and kelp.

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Stained glass windows
Come to get the chills, to appreciate a revolutionary architecture, to pray. It’s one of the coolest places you can visit in Barcelona, or anywhere in Spain.

How to get there: The Sagrada Família can be found at the block formed by C/ Provença, Marina, Mallorca, and Sardenya (Eixample district). Take the L5 (blue line) on the Metro and get off at the Sagrada Família stop.

Please tell me you made a stop here if you’ve ever been to Barcelona…right, right?!? Comment below!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Introducing the Architecture of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain

When I was in Barcelona a year ago this February for a weekend Sigur Rós concert, I ended up spending most of my time in the city hunting down homes and churches designed by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (pronounced “uhn-TOH-nee guh-oo-DEE” [ənˈtɔ.ni ɣəwˈði]). Born and raised in the Cataluña region of which Barcelona is the capital, Gaudi was associated with the Modernisme or Art Nouveau movement and worked in Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries. The buildings he planned are as much a symbol of the city of Barcelona as Frank Lloyd Wright’s are of Chicago.

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain
Nave of the Sagrada Família basilica church
Gaudí was fascinated by the natural world and by geometry, two fields of study that greatly influenced his design philosophy. Flowing, organic forms appear all over his buildings, and scary math terms like paraboloids, hyperboloids, and helicoids create arches and ceilings that are at once elegant and very structurally strong. Instead of making traditional blueprints, Gaudí devised a complex set of hanging chains that he attached to a ceiling to figure out the design for many of his religious commissions like the still-in-progress Sagrada Família or never-finished Colònia Güell. These catenary curves (from the Latin word for “chain,” catena) represent the shape that chains take when suspended and allowed to droop down naturally under gravity’s force. Looking in a mirror on the floor, Gaudí would then make his plans for a building.

Antoni Gaudí
(Source: Wikipedia)
This unique combination of natural elements and geometric forms—a fusion of biology and mathematics—is what attracts me so much to his architecture. His early works, which are creative and original takes on the Gothic- and Mudéjar-Revival styles of his day, are also interesting, but his later commissions are simply fascinating because they’re just so different from conventional design.

Over the next week or so I’m going to be publishing a post every day about one of Gaudí’s seven major works in Barcelona:

* the Sagrada Família basilica church (February 17)

* the Casa Batlló personal home (February 18)

* the Park Güell public park (February 19)

* the Casa Milà / La Pedrera apartment block (February 20)

* the Palau Güell mansion (February 21)

* the Colònia Güell unfinished crypt-church (February 22)

* the Casa Vicens personal home (February 23)

So get excited! At the end of “Gaudí Week,” let me know which one is your favorite.

Have you ever been to Barcelona before? Are you a fan of its modernista or Art Nouveau buildings? Comment below!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

10 Tips for Rolling the Spanish R

Ah yes, the infamous Spanish trilled R. Found in words like perro (“dog”), rama (“branch”), and ferrocarril (“railway”), I’m sure the double R has probably caused more grief to students of Spanish than the subjunctive, conditional, and imperfect…combined. Although most intermediate Spanish learners tend to pick up on how to “tap” or “flap” their Rs—think the way Americans pronounce the “TT” sound in the word butter—trilling or rolling their double Rs is almost always a lot trickier.

Rolling the Spanish R
(Source: chrisinplymouth)
The main reason it’s so hard to trill the Spanish R is because many native speakers of English simply can’t reproduce the sound—no matter how hard they try—since the English language has no place for the alveolar trill in its set of sounds, preferring instead the R we all know and love, found in words like wrap, ream, and terabyte.

Nevertheless, everyone is born with the ability to make all the sounds in every human language, from the clicks of the Khoi-San languages to the rounded vowels of French. But infants, mere months out of the womb, begin trying to figure out what sounds belong to the language they’re hearing…and discard the ones they don’t hear. Even at the age of six months, babies have already made serious progress in determining the phonemic system of their new mother tongue, focusing on the sounds they’re hearing and forgetting (most) all the rest.

Of course, many native English-speaking children are still able to roll their Rs despite not being Scottish (ahem), but if you were anything like me, all you could do was blow raspberries with your lips—no such luck with trilling your tongue.

However, once I began seriously studying Spanish in college, I set my heart on learning (re-learning?) how to roll my Rs. Two years of practice later, and a lively, strong trilled R rolled out of my mouth one cold December night. It is still one of the happiest days of my life; I had finally figured out how to roll my Rs!!!

If you’re still struggling to get to that point, read through these tips and suggestions below. I hope they help you in your quest to sound more native than gringo or guiri in your Spanish accent!

1) Understand what a trill is

This is just the technical stuff, but it helps to know what exactly is going on before you attempt to learn this sound. Wikipedia describes an alveolar trill in simple, easy-to-understand English:
The sound of this consonant is formed by placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge just behind the top row of your teeth. This is what is meant by “alveolar.” The sound is then made by vibrating your tongue against that ridge. This makes it a trill consonant.
So, to sum up: the rolled R is alveolar—meaning it’s produced in the same place you would make the T, D, S, Z, N, and L sounds—and a trill—meaning it’s like that repeated sound you make when imitating a motorcycle or when you gargle mouthwash in the back of your throat.

2) Substitute a breathy/airy flap to make a bridge between the flap and the trill

If you make a transition zone between the tapped R that you can make and the rolled R you can’t, you might be able to trick your tongue into inadvertently going full speed ahead and trilling that R. Practice saying “rhrhrhrhrhrhrhrhrhrhr” over and over again (alone, so people don’t think you're strange). The extra breath you’re giving to your flapped R might just tip you into the Land of Rolled Rs.

3) Listen to other people make the sound

If you have friends who do know how to trill, ask them to demonstrate it for you so you can “take notes,” if you will. Plus, simply hearing other people doing it live will subconsciously help you mimic the sound, giving you a little more edge to get over the rolling-the-R bar.

If you don’t know anyone who can roll their Rs (or think it would be weird), listen to Peruvian singer Susana Baca belt ‘em out in her song “Resbalosas.” There’s a particularly mournful part of the song near the end where Baca drags out the word cierra that really helped me to hear the rolled R. Your mileage may vary, but it worked for me.

4) Make two flaps in a row

This method can get a little tiring after a while, but if you attempt to do two tapped Rs in a row (remember, it’s that sound Americans make for the TT sound in butter), you’re basically 75% of the way there. If you keep it up, you might accidentally stumble upon a rolled R! It’s not for nothing that a rolled R is called a vibrante múltiple in Spanish linguistics; if you can approximate a trill with a series of flaps, in no time you’ll be doing the real deal!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

If You Love Castles, You’ll Love Spain’s Jaén Province

There’s a lot to love about Jaén, the Spanish province where I lived and worked for the 2012-2013 school year. From olive oil to Renaissance architecture, to free tapas and natural parks, Jaén is one of my favorite rincones (corners) of southern Spain. I talked about all these things in a guest post I wrote on Young Adventuress a year ago, but I completely forgot to mention one of the biggest draws to Jaén, its castles!

Castles in Jaén, Spain
Castillo de Santa Catalina, Jaén
Fun fact: the province of Jaén has the greatest concentration of fortresses and castles of any region in Europe! Due to its strategic location as the frontier between Christian Castilla and Muslim Granada in the Middle Ages, almost 90 castles in this province alone have been preserved down to the present day.

When I lived in Úbeda, I only had the chance to visit half a dozen of the myriad of castles this province holds. Most are within walking distance of major city or village centers, but a few are in isolated mountain towns that are difficult to get to without cars. Still, public buses can take you from major hubs like Jaén, Úbeda, or Linares to most of the pueblos that are proud of their castles to this day.

Here are ten of Jaén’s most interesting castles…some of which I had the chance to visit, and others I’m kicking myself for never getting out of my apartment to see when I had the chance!

Jaén capital

Castles in Jaén, Spain
(Source: Juan Almagro)
The Castle of Santa Catalina is what remains of a fortress complex that dates back to pre-Roman times, given the strategic location of the Cerro de Santa Catalina. After Jaén was conquered by King Fernando III in the 1200s, the existing Arab castle—the alcázar viejo—was taken over and a new structure was built as well—the alcázar nuevo. The old Muslim fort fell into disrepair over the years and was damaged during the 19th-century Napoleonic occupation, ultimately (and tragically) getting bulldozed in the ‘60s to make way for the new Parador, or fancy state-run hotel. From the grand viewpoint of the giant marble cross beyond the prow of the castle, you can take in the entire spread of the capital and also make out tiny villages in the distance.

How to get there: As the provincial capital, Jaén is well-connected to the region and the country via trains and buses. To get to the castle, drive up in a car, take a taxi, or follow the signs and hike up on foot.

Friday, February 7, 2014

How I Stopped Worrying About Taking Pictures and Learned to Love Siena, Italy

After leaving Florence in December, I was really looking forward to making a pitstop in nearby Siena before continuing on to Rome. I had seen many photos of Siena that were just dripping with drama—like this one of the Piazza del Campo from high above. One photo in particular of the cathedral’s interior was so awe-inspiring it actually made me change my original travel plans from Orvieto to Siena. Naturally, as an amateur photographer, I couldn’t wait to get “my” shots of the city and reproduce some views I had seen online or in books. However, on the bus between Florence and Siena, the fog grew thicker and thicker until I could barely see even a few dozen meters in front of me. I panicked.

Siena, Italy
Siena Cathedral
I was so excited to take “amazing” pictures of Siena but those plans appeared to have been shot down by the reigning fog. I paid the big €€€ to hike up the Palazzo Pubblico’s Mangia Tower in the hopes that the fog hadn’t hidden away the entire city…yet when I arrived at the summit, I emerged in the middle of a cloud. I could literally see nothing from the bell tower except for a few wary pigeons hanging out on the bricks. So. Very. Frustrating. Back on the ground, I could see that the “crow’s nest” part of the bell tower was completely covered by fog—no dramatic sunlit pictures for me, I guess.

Piazza del Campo and the Palazzo Pubblico
By the time I made it up to the cathedral’s lookout point, I realized there was no point in being angry about the fog any longer. There was no way I was going to be able to gaze across the well-preserved medieval city from the cathedral museum’s façade, so instead of getting annoyed with the photo-ruining fog, I embraced it. After all, traveling is more than just snapping your picture and moving on with life. It’s about appreciating the moment and soaking in the location: eyes wandering over exquisite architecture and cityscapes, nose picking up on busy kitchens, ears listening to singsong Italian, and mind imagining this very spot half a millennium ago.

The cathedral's never-completed expansion nave
And even though the fog put a hamper on my grand photography schemes, I was still able to comprehend the scale of Siena’s cathedral. If you’re not aware (I certainly wasn’t), during the Middle Ages, the city-state of Siena competed with nearby Florence. The rival cities both enjoy grand marble cathedrals today, but when the plan for Florence’s shiny, new Gothic cathedral was unveiled, Siena felt like it had to Keep Up With the Joneses and began work on expanding the city’s existing church.

However, it wasn’t a mere let’s-make-the-nave-a-little-longer project; this plan involved keeping the present building intact while rotating the whole orientation of the church from a north-south axis to an east-west one. The larger nave to be constructed would have intersected at the dome, relegating the already-massive central nave of the church to mere transepts (“arms” of the cross shape). However, the Plague was a, uh, minor problem in medieval times, and destroyed the willpower to continue work on the church, which has been left as-is today.

Streets of Siena
In the end, I did get to take some fun, moody pictures of this beautiful city. The fog lightened up as the day went on, and the sun even came out as I hopped on the bus to leave town. But I think I was able to actually enjoy the city a tiny bit more without the burden of feeling like I “had” to hunt down the perfect photo of this or that square or church.

What was your favorite photo from this post? Do you ever stress out over photographing places when the weather doesn’t cooperate? Comment below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Photo Post: Cazorla, Spain, Gateway to the Mountains

Cazorla, Spain
Back home in the States, I’m really fond of cities that snuggle up to the foothills of nearby mountain ranges. Although cities like Hot Springs, Ark., Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Estes Park, Colo., all have a lot to offer, they still manage to keep a really cozy, comfortable mountain atmosphere about them. I was reminded of these kinds of towns when I took a daytrip last year from Úbeda to Cazorla, which sits at the boundary between the mar de olivos or “sea of olive trees” that governs most of southern Spain and a triplet of mountain systems that range southwest to northeast. Pronounced “kah-THOER-lah” [kaˈθoɾ.la], this town of only 8,000 doesn’t feel like a sleepy, middle-of-nowhere pueblo; instead, monumental reminders of the village’s past stand alongside busy streets filled with open-air terrace bars and restaurants.

Cazorla, Spain
Ruins of the Church of Santa María
What would have been Cazorla’s major church is also, uh, open-air today. It was built in the 1500s as yet another work by local Renaissance architect Andrés de Vandelvira in the province (see Úbeda, Baeza, and Jaén for more examples); it would have been a grand, three-naved church for this capital city of the Adelantamiento de Cazorla administrative area. However, in 1694, the Cerezuelo River flooded, causing serious damage to the structure that still wasn’t completely finished. All of the decorations were destroyed, but the worst part was that the floor fell out, because…

Cazorla, Spain
Vaulting of the Cerezuelo River
…the Cerezuelo River had been diverted into a canal that runs beneath the foundations of the Church of Santa María. Local authorities created this underground river in order to have a wider position to build the church on, but when the storm came through and the river flooded, the bóveda (vaulting) of the canal collapsed, taking the church down with it.

Today you can stroll around what little is left of the church, and the city often hosts music concerts in the newly-restored apse. You can also take an inexpensive guided tour of the river’s passageway, a long cave-like canal filled with the echoes of the roaring river. It’s a very cool way to experience Renaissance-era engineering.

Cazorla, Spain
Yedra Castle
Cazorla’s crown is the Castillo de la Yedra—the “castle of the ivy.” Built over Moorish foundations, this medieval-era castle sits on top of a hill around which the Cerezuelo River flows. It’s not incredibly big, but you can go up the keep tower, see its restored interior, and learn about traditional life in the attached Museum of Popular Arts and Customs.

Cazorla, Spain
Streets of Cazorla
What was your favorite photo from this post? Have you ever been to Cazorla before? Do you enjoy the cozy vibe mountain towns usually have? Add your voice to the comments below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.
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