Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barcelona: Urban Fantasy

This past weekend I once again journeyed away from Sevilla, this time flying to Barcelona, which is located in lovely Catalonia.

Casa Battló at night.
To say the least, it was a busy weekend.  We spent the better part of each day on our feet, hurrying from one architectural marvel to another, and only calling it quits after the sun set.  Yup, absolutely exhausting.  Thankfully, my friends are, well, my friends…And that means that an evening curled up  with good books while feasting on bread, cheese, chocolate and cheap champagne is just as good (probably better) as a night at a discoteca.  So we were nice and rested for the next day's adventure.

Our program guide, Antonio, introduced Barcelona as a city of fantasy and magic.  At first glance, that's a little difficult to see.  After all, Barcelona is a huge metropolitan city, complete with skyscrapers, flashy lights, and an upscale shopping district.

But that's what's special about it.  The fantastical is subtly woven into the modern city, making Barcelona a living example of urban fantasy and maybe even magic realism.

Let's take a stroll, shall we?

Casa Battló on the right.  Notice the scaled roof.
We exit the hostel and there, just a block away and standing on a perfectly normal street, is the Casa Battló, which in my opinion belongs in some sort of twisted Candyland.  The walls are supposed to look like a garden, while the balconies and columns are meant to represent bones. Kind of creepy, right?  The roof is scaled, like the back of a dragon, and the chimney is San Jorge's sword--being plunged into the dragon.

The dragon is the symbol of Barcelona, and it's everywhere (but still subtle enough that you have to look for it).

The roof of La Pedrera.
Then just a few minutes away is La Pedrera, another house by the same architect (Antoni Gaudí, the man behind all of Barcelona's most famous sites).  Again, it's a palace on a normal city block, easy to miss.  It's most interesting feature is its roof, which looks like an alien desert.

La Sagrada Familia
And of course, there's Barcelona's most famous tourist attraction:  the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral designed by Gaudí in the late nineteenth century, and is still under construction today.  It's interesting, for sure, but like most of Gaudi's work, I don't know if I'd call it gorgeous.  (Personal opinion).  To me and my writer's mind it would make an awesome palace for a villain.  I can easily imagine an evil queen standing in the tower, peering at her kingdom with disdain.

Magic and fantasy are everywhere:  in the design of the sidewalk, the fountains that dance to changing colors, the paintings that line Las Rambas.

As I said, Barcelona brings urban fantasy into the real world, so the city got me thinking about writing in the genre, especially because my WIP is, among other things, urban fantasy.

Why does it appeal to us?  What makes it special?

I'm no expert on urban fantasy (my current WIP is my first venture into it), but I might have a little insight.

In general, people like cities.  For hundreds of years we have been migrating to them, usually in search of work, or in order to escape the trials of country living.  We're naturally drawn to them, usually not because of aesthetic appeal, but because of the opportunities they offer.  Yup, cities are goldmines of opportunities, and not only in real life.  Plot and character-wise, they're invaluable.

You aren't going to find a character like this in the countryside:

Not gonna lie, this guy was probably my favorite part of the trip.  He was standing at the highest point of the Parc Güell, playing guitar in front of an elevated cross, while singing "Jesus Christ Superstar."
As for plots, cities tend to provide more opportunities for your characters to do different activities (just like in real life).  They can go to a nightclub; they can be pickpocketed on the metro; they can get lost in the slums; and so forth.

A bar in Barcelona called "Bosc de las Fades,"
which translates to "Forest of the Fairies."
Yup, it's enchanted forest themed.
For this reason, cities are prone to stories.  Real stories.  History happens everywhere, of course, but it's concentrated in the cities.  Where did the French Revolution start?  Paris.  What about the birthplace of American independence?  Philadelphia.  The conquest of Mexico?  Tenochtitlán.

But where does the fantasy part come in?  Well, cities offer opportunities, but once you throw in elements of magic, those opportunities become endless.  Absolutely anything could happen.

Of course, there's more.  Urban fantasy allows us to bring magic into our own lives.  While deep down we realize that we probably won't ever be whisked away to Middle-earth or Narnia, we can go to cities like New York.  Like London.  Like Barcelona, where it's easy to imagine magic happening all around us, though we may not be able to see it.

And no matter how childish it is, we always hold onto that hope that someday the fantastical adventure will be ours.  At least, I do.  In Tangiers I hoped to find a magic lamp.  In Rome I wanted some angels and demons (get it?).  And in Barcelona, I was just itching to fight off a dragon.
Barcelona viewed from the Parc Güell.  I can easily imagine a dragon soaring through that sky.
We like magic, so the idea that it can be threaded into modern society is highly appealing.  Which is why people come to Barcelona.  Let's face it:  you don't come to Barcelona for traditional Spanish culture.  You won't find the narrow winding streets (try Toledo), flamenco (that's Andalusian), bullfighting (it's banned in Catalonia), or even Spanish (the official language of Catalonia is Catalan).  No, people flock to Barcelona for the fantasy, for the magic.

Unfortunately, I didn't find any fairies or dragons (I guess I wasn't looking hard enough.  Or I'm just a silly muggle).  Though I'm in Istanbul this week, so you can be sure that my quest for a magic lamp will be renewed!

Enough of me!  What about you?  Have you ever been to any "magical" cities?  Or if not, which ones would you like to go to?  What are your favorite urban fantasy books?


  1. Did you take that last picture?!

    1. I did :) Though admittedly, iPhoto certainly helped me doctor it.