This week we proudly feature a remarkable travel series from Darcy Rhyno, centred around a young man’s shocking fall from a famous work of art in Barcelona.
1. Gaudi and the Fall
On a recent trip to Barcelona, I witnessed a man in the glory of his youth fall from a work of art. The young man had been posing for a picture on a viaduct in Parc Güell, leaning on the back of a stone bench and beaming for his two female companions when the stone crumbled beneath his weight and he fell.
Like the man at the moment before he fell, I was filled with joy at first seeing the work of the modernist architect Antoni Gaudi who designed the viaduct, the park and most of the buildings that make Barcelona worth visiting. Intended as the spectacular setting for a commercial housing development dug into the slopes of el Carmel, one of the hills that snug Barcelona up to the Mediterranean, and in spite of its designation as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Works on Antoni Gaudi,” Parc Güell is a glorious failure.
Gaudi imagined Parc Güell residents and visitors strolling along the walkways and viaducts, looking out over the city below – a city dominated by the 18 towers of his masterpiece, the cathedral named for the holy family, the Sagrada Familia – and the Mediterranean beyond. Only two houses were ever built on the 60 triangular lots. One of those was a show house that went unsold for so long, Gaudi himself bought it in 1906 and lived there with his family.
The mosaic lizard straddling a fountain at the entrance to Parc Güell is one of Barcelona’s most famous landmarks, for over a century an emblem of the city’s vivacity – and one of the world’s irresistible tourist attractions. The day my partner Alison and I visited Parc Güell, young travellers lined up in the heat for their chance to pose with the blue-green lizard. But it’s the terrace towering above that startles the eye, a structure that resembles the gaping mouth of a dragon. The terrace stands on elegant inclined columns. Gaudi surrounded the suspended terrace with a long, undulating bench – reputedly the longest in the world – and decorated it with broken shards of pottery, tile and Murano glass. Walking onto the terrace is like stepping into a gigantic ceramic pie plate with serrated edges. The undulations in the bench force people to sit facing each other. To make the seats as comfortable as possible, Gaudi had one of his workers sit naked in wet clay.
Nothing about Gaudi’s designs is accidental. He lived in a world populated with natural and Christian imagery, building into all of his creations layers of metaphor. A walkway built of the rugged local stone winds up the hill, the uniform brown, rough-hewn stone contrasting with the fine lines of the terrace below. Sections of this walkway run along switchback viaducts supported by columns built to mimic the palm trees that grow above the walkway.
The Bugadera or Washerwoman Path gets its nickname from one of the columns constructed in the form of a woman with a basket of laundry on her head, one of Gaudi’s many gestures to the nobility of manual labour. Along one viaduct Gaudi built tall stone planters, a variegated agave growing atop each one, giving the effect of a line of towering torches. The walkway, the columns and the sculptures are so roughly hewn and assembled, they seem about to crumble at any moment.
This is where the young man fell. Alison and I had just plunked ourselves on a stone bench built into this viaduct to rest in the shade. I’d pulled a mercifully cold beer from our pack and taken a long swallow. We were sitting so close to the victim either one of us might have caught him by a flailing arm. But who can act more quickly than accident or good intention? The scene has looped like a video through my brain countless times since:
Four girls dance along a stone walkway, singing a song in Spanish. As they pass, a young man and two young women skip into view. Like everyone else in this park, they’re giddy with the joy of walking about in a work of art. One of the women has a camera. She motions for the man to sit on the bench opposite us. He sits and smiles, Barcelona, this city of youth, the background for the shot of him at its pinnacle, the man himself a monument – tall, limber, clean cut, good looking. He poses by leaning his hand against the stonework of the bench behind and it crumbles. Open-mouthed and in silence he tumbles shoulder first with the loosened stone, his legs trailing behind. For what seems a very long time, there is no sound.
Sometimes I imagine the scene in reverse, the bits of stone flying up and fitting back together. Defying gravity, undoing the past, fitting stones and bodies together again as if I were all the hopeful king’s horses and king’s men. In such moments, these are not the things that seem impossible. These are merely ways of undoing what are the true impossibilities, that a young man alive and smiling one moment might be dead the next, that a work of art can kill, that danger and beauty are co-conspirators, that the pleasures of travel are fleeting and can be scattered as easily as a flock of pigeons in a busy plaza.
Tomorrow night at 9 pm PST, and every night until January 8th, we will feature an episode of The Fallen Traveller series by Darcy Rhyno. We hope you’ll visit…
“Parc Guell terrace from below” © Darcy Rhyno. All Rights Reserved.
“Terrace in Parc Guell” © Darcy Rhyno. All Rights Reserved.
“Darcy Rhyno with Parc Guell lizard” © Alison Stanton. All Rights Reserved.