Travel - The antidote to luxury

2015-03-15 08:15

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I’ll be honest, I don’t associate Europe with spirituality. A grand Catholic cathedral in Barcelona does less for me than a modest Confucian temple in Taipei. Even mid-Mass inside the 14th-century Gothic masterpiece Catedral de Barcelona that rears like a dragon slayer into the sky above the old city – now all cobbled streets and fashion stores winking a 60%-off autumn sale – doesn’t change this view.

We walked here wide-eyed on a Sunday morning, minutes after checking into the beautifully serviced Catalonia Square Hotel a few blocks up. (I just need to say that the small, modern boutique hotel has a Bloody Mary station at breakfast and staff you want to stop and get to know.)

“Awesome!” said my friends when I told them I’d been invited to the unveiling of Samsung’s new smartphones ahead of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.

“Pity it’s so much flying for just four days, though.”

I’ve never slept on a flight to or from Europe – not once in my life. I’m tall. My legs get angry. It’s a fairly common privileged, white, middle class problem, one that loses you whole days of adventure.

But that all changed with Spain.

Our small group of journalists was booked in business class, alongside the suits, the NGO bosses, the wealthy elderly, the frequent flyers and Mamphele Ramphela. (I kid you not,

she was on the flight back, coming

in from Frankfurt.)

Reclining chairs that become 2-metre beds, with a little remote panel that allows you to extend certain cushions for support. And then you hit “massage”.

After being graciously served your dinner with actual cutlery, crockery and Champagne, a movie?...?cognac?… sleep?…

Leaving the cathedral, to the left I see a beautiful renovation in progress. It’s the studio of the architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926).

He chose this space to work in the shadow of the giant that he matched with his own epic church, the Sagrada Familia, in a relatively poorer part of town. Don’t tell Samsung, but it’s the main reason I wanted to come to Barcelona – to see the echoes of Gaudí, a man whose buildings I have looked at for years in books and online, who built structures that look like they are made from clay, somehow allowing natural forms to shape the cityscape.

On Monday night, after the first day of the MWC, a global trading floor for smartphones, where brilliant male industrialists spin the future, my head is ready to explode from information overload.

I step outside our restaurant for a cigarette and across the road is a lit-up dragon of a building. It’s Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, furnished with scales on the balconies.

People hurry up and down the stairs. Some are tourists; most are locals out for a walk in a fantastical space.

The next morning, I bunk the MWC. I head to the subway and, using the free Barcelona Wi-Fi, ask my Barcelona Metro app to take me to the Sagrada Familia. (I have met the geeks and they have changed my smartphone habits.)

Inside, I am struck by a display of theatrical lights on the ceiling, to discover they are the effect of sun and stained glass projecting on to Gaudí’s earthy, majestic cathedral with its kaleidoscopic roof. I am moved by a Western church for the first time in my life.

I head to Park Güell, the modernist’s grand project above the city, where he lived until his death and pondered his faith. In him, Catholicism, mysticism and Catalonian nationalism were meshed together by a need to combine the modern with the ancient – a very Spanish project. His unfinished work carves into the mountain, creating tunnel-like walkways that extend from the soil, the platforms held up with skew pillars, a mosaic staircase with pools of water and a grand salamander.

Above the houses is a walkway of arches built from stone, where a couple sits kissing as they listen to the buskers on their violins. There’s a sense of oneness with nature in the heart of a bustling, smart city.

I pick up a pebble, as I do every time I have a perfect moment. If there are no pebbles, I will pick up plastic. I keep the pebbles in a display cabinet at home, a small shrine. Occasionally, as I hurry to get to work, the cabinet will catch my eye and I’ll pause to acknowledge the small pile of epiphanies there.

Blignaut was a guest of Samsung

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