Barcelona is jam-packed with 5 star sights that everyone visits (including us). But there are so many other wonderful, fascinating and significant places to visit, that are not overrun with tour groups and day trippers. La Sagrada Familia is almost synonymous with Barcelona, and it is stupendous, but just a few hundered metres along the Avinguda Gaudi you’ll find the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista.
Sant Pau Recinte Modernista is the largest Art Nouveau site in all of Europe. It was designed by Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner between 1902 and 1930 to upgrade the medieval Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau ( The Hospital of The Holy Cross and Saint Paul) which was founded in 1401, and had become inadequate for the needs of the city. This was a fully-functioning hospital until 2009, when due to the demands of a rapidly growing city, and the pace of medical advancement, all medical activities were moved to a new building and the site was exquisitely restored and opened to the public. Sant Pau Recinte Modernista was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1977, and currently houses several organisations dedicated to learning and knowledge.
A wealthy Catalan banker, Pau Gil i Serra bequeathed his substantial estate when he died in 1896 with instructions that it be devoted to building a new hospital in Barcelona. The will made it clear that the new centre had to bring together the latest innovations in technology, architecture and medicine, and be dedicated to Saint Paul. The result was the Hospital de Sant Pau.
Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850–1923) was one of the great masters of Modernisme. (Modernisme is the Catalan version of Art Nouveau). He travelled widely, and clearly had a prodigious intellect, with knowledge of everything from mineralogy to botany to medieval heraldry, and he was an architectural professor, a prolific writer and a nationalist politician. He believed in the power of colour and light to heal, and was inspired by the most modern hospitals in Europe. Embracing the latest thinking on sanitation and hygiene, he designed a hospital organised as a series of separate pavilions, surrounded by gardens and interconnected by an ingenious network of underground tunnels. Domènech wanted to make the hospital a vibrant colourful space, so included many decorative details in the design using glazed ceramics and carved stone. Each pavillion is different, with designs inspired by the natural world, as well as religious symbolism. Mosaics around the walls tell the history of the hospital. We loved wandering around admiring the different pavillions, following the excellent audio guide which helped us to see details we surely would otherwise have missed and learn more about the history of the site. It was the perfect start to our visit to Barcelona!
Many of the interiors are not open to the public as they are working buildings, and some are still undergoing restoration. The main administration building, where many of the interior photos below were taken, is open to the public and is just stunning. The arches, the tiling, the stained glass, everything was lovely to look at. There is one pavillion which is set up like a hospital ward, and another with an innovative display about the life and work of Lluís Domènech i Montaner in the shape of a dragon. Outside the stone carving, the multicoloured tilework, the variety of shapes and decoration on the many domes and turrets are a delight.