Park Güell, Gaudí’s fairytale playground, pays as much homage to modernist art and architecture as it does to Catalan identity. But nowadays it all comes at a price…
Built between 1900 and 1914 and inaugurated as a public park in 1926, the quirky wonderland has, for nearly a century now, been lending itself to those searching for a bit of peace and quiet amidst Barcelona’s intense mix of city centre high rises and traffic jams.
What was once a tranquil haven set aside from the hustle and bustle of the Catalonian capital, Park Güell is now surrounded by fences, guards, workers and Guàrdia Urbana vans. Since 25th October 2013, the Ajuntament de Barcelona have been charging visitors €8 to enter, something that will amount to approximately €1 million euros a year destined to «help with park maintenance».
No longer can you venture up to Park Güell, bocadillo in hand, ready to awe at the sights and while away a sunny afternoon – a common pastime of my Erasmus days. Five years ago I spent 6 months studying at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona because I studied Catalan at university. While claiming to be no expert, I’m no stranger to the Catalan culture, independence plight and what some of Gaudí’s artwork represents and means to the nation. As a Catalanist (he hardly ever spoke Castilian), Antoni Gaudí incorporated many emblems of Catalonia, hidden or in plain view, into his works. Such emblems adorn the park and are often portrayed using the technique that many would say is synonymous with Gaudí: trencadís, or mosaicing.
Symbols of religion and nature are abundant and the use of water, both actual and allegorical, is a common denominator throughout the park. As well as the iconic dragon perched on the entrance steps, a serpent can be seen nearby emerging from the Catalan flag (right). This symbol of Catalan identity refers to Sant Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia who, as the legend goes, slayed a dragon to rescue a princess. Of course, the flag is a further, more direct use of imagery to portray Catalan nationalism. In fact, the park was the venue for the First Congress of the Catalan Language in 1906. The blue tiles that surround the flag may also be another reference to water and national unity. Yet another possible reference to Sant Jordi is made through the naming of the park – Gaudí and Eusebi Güell, who comissioned the project, chose to use the anglicised version of the word “park” because it has a “very English pedigree”.
Several of the above symbols are also present in Gaudí’s other works in the city such as the impressive (though incomplete) Sagrada Familia and eyecatching Casa Batlló, the latter offering skull-like balconies and an impressive serpentine roof reminiscent of the dragon which guards the gates of Park Güell. Visitors are also charged a pretty penny to enter each attraction, with prices for Casa Batlló and Sagrada Familia set at €21.50 and €14.80, respectively, with the extra fee of €4.50 to go up the spires of the cathedral.
The question is: how far are we to believe that the idea to charge an entrance fee is to «preserve the emblematic zone of the city», as stated on the FAQ’s on the official Gaudí Park website? Authorities now only let 400 people per half hour visit the monumental zone of the park, which covers the part stretching from the «Gingerbread houses», past the emblematic dragon/lizard, and the trencadís adorned balcony that offers unique vistas over Barcelona city centre. Basically, if you want to see any of Gaudí’s famed tile artwork (or any of his works in the city, for that matter), you have to pay up, son.
Have the measures really been put in place to protect Gaudí’s artwork from the adverse effects of mass tourism? Or is this just a scheme set to make money off of tourists who have their heart set on seeing the works of one of Europe’s and, arguably, the world’s most famous artists? Tourism is a polemic issue right now in Barcelona, with a huge new cruiseliner set to regularly drop off thousands more tourists starting from next year. But, for a country in crisis, is complaning about tourists spending money in your city really the way forward? Xavier Fernandez, a tourism consultant, told The Sunday Times, “Frankly, [the closure of the park] is a good idea…Tourism is pretty much the only industry that is working [in Spain] right now. So the authorities are constantly looking for new ways to raise revenue from tourists.”
One blog and Twitter account, Defensem Park Güell, made a documentary, El dret a Gaudir, to address the people’s fight against the park closure. They say, «Queremos ayudar a romper el silencio sobre esta iniciativa municipal, la que convertirá un bosque urbano, espacio de descanso vecinal y encuentro artístico, emblema de la historia de Barcelona, en museo privado.»
The fight against the initiative also saw vandalised ticket machines outside of the park in protest of the closure.
General views and comments on newspaper articles on the subject seem to depict the same sentiment… «ha sido un parque público… nos roban»
A recent trip to Barcelona sparked a mix of nostalgia and anger upon trying to reenter my favourite part of the city. If only I was a resident in one of the surrounding barrios, then I’d get in for free.
My view? Is it selfish to want a 100-year-old UNESCO park to remain free (or at least cheaper than €8) for all? After all, shouldn’t we be encouraging people to enjoy cultural, educational and artistic exhibits, not deterring them? I’m all for protecting the park but, in a country famed for its corruption, it would be interesting to see where those millions of euros really go.
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