September 1st - 30th, 2014
The past is a foreign country. The first month of our trip, September 2014, was spent in Barcelona. We chose to begin here on account of our at least partial grasp of the language, the abundance of fresh seafood and the Mediterranean climate. Lo and behold, we soon learned we couldn't actually speak 'Spanish' at all but 'Castellano' and the best seafood would come in a can. At least our expectations of the weather weren't off!
An early view from the balcony of our apartment in the barri Poble Sec, capped by the spires of the Palau Nacional. Every morning our wake-up call was the repeated clang of a nail on a hollow steel can rising from this street, which we were quickly informed is how gas vendors tell residents fresh tanks are available. Rather than pay a monthly bill, just buy a new one when yours runs dry. The straightforwardness of the routine was refreshing - the sharp metallic clamor, not so much.
The aforementioned Palau Nacional, steps away from our apartment on the hill of Montjuic. It may look antiquated, but in truth is a Neoclassical construction for the International Exhibition of 1929. This choice of style was controversial at the time because the exhibition was meant to advertise Barcelona's modernity.
In architectural terminology this is an image of the 'axial promenade' approaching the Palau Nacional. In other words, it's a nice view. The Catalan architect Puig i Cadafalch drafted the first designs for the Palau, which were promptly ignored by his successors who completed the project. The only remnants of Puig's original composition are the four columns, a dead giveaway that the piece is Neoclassical rather than authentically Classical because they support nothing, defeating any purpose as 'columns'. Another instance of pastiche visible in this photo is the distant tower between the right hand pair of columns, which has a twin hidden behind the second from the left. If you've been to Venice they may look familiar given they're shameless copies of San Marco's campanile.
We came upon this utterly different tower while walking on our first day in the city. Built for the Olympics in 1992, it uses the same surface covering of broken tiles, trencadís, as many works of Gaudí and other Catalan Modernisme architects. Trencadís was popular in Barcelona's Modernisme designs, which like Art Nouveau strove to create organic forms using modern technologies, because it's much easier to cover a round shape with randomly shattered fragments than with squares.
Anchoring the historic core is the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. The majority of this Gothic building dates from 14th century, but the elaborate façade pictured here is a neo-Gothic remodel from the late 19th century which replaced the plain face typical of Catalonia. During the Spanish Civil War the Anarchists spared this structure from their ruthless campaign of church burning due to its perceived 'artistic value'. This perception is far from universal: George Orwell's thought it "one of the most hideous buildings in the world", and felt "the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance". Apparently he had more refined tastes than we do, since we found it grand. The Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gotic, was one of the most rewarding to explore. This neighborhood ranks among the best preserved medieval centers in Europe because Catalonia reached the height of its empirical power during the middle ages but declined quickly afterward. Later generations of wealthy residents elsewhere cleared out medieval areas to make space for grand avenues and palaces, whereas in Barcelona financing simply wasn't available for such destructive renovations. The winding streets haven't changed much since the 1200's and are hardly on a grid, which can get you quite lost quite fast, making for an experience as enthralling as it is occasionally frustrating. More than once we discovered a place we wanted to return to then had a great deal of trouble finding it a second time. Of course, every route we took while looking for a place we'd been revealed another worth circling back to and the cycle perpetuated. Our recurring joke was that the Barcelonese had to make this quarter so damn alluring so that disoriented travelers wouldn't mind passing hours wandering off-course.
Spanish breakfast tends to consist little more than coffee and a cigarette, so we made most of our morning meals at home. Figuring out how to use this Moki coffee pot (which actually hails from Italy) the first time required some research, but we were soon devout fans. Chelsea used her barista skills to foam the milk with an immersion blender.
The Palau Nacional houses the National Museum of Catalan Art, a collection spanning more than a millenium. Among the newer pieces is this mural by Joan Miró and Joan Gardy Artigas. Miró adored the Romanesque paintings of his ancestry (many are now also housed here) due to the way they equalized objects as disparate as christ and a flower by depicting both on the same visual plane with bold outlines and flat colors. He paid tribute to this period by employing the same techniques in his surrealistic works a thousand years later. The story goes that as a youth Miró couldn't draw very well by formal standards, but had already developed a profound love of color from the vibrant vegetation, soil and skies of his native landscape. Attempting to round out his skill set, his instructors asked him to realistically depict bland objects like glasses of water and bowls of potatoes, or to close his eyes and feel the shape of his subjects with his hands rather than view them. Invariably, the resulting pictures still looked like sunsets. Miró and other artists frequently collaborated with craftsmen such as the tile-making Artigas family of whom Catalans are extremely proud. They rightfully gained global reputations of their own, evidenced by their work on the customs offices of Ellis Island. More than a century after their construction of these vaults, only three out of tens of thousands of tiles were found to be in need of replacement.
At the date of its completion in 1929 the Palau Nacional auditorium was one of the largest enclosures in the world.
An anonymous good sumeritan entertained these kids on the grounds of the Palau Nacional. We encountered a few bubble artists over the course of the month - the poster for the 2014 Festes de la Mercè (Barcelona's grandest annual festival, held at the end of every September) also featured giant soap bubbles, allegedly representing the transience which makes the celebrations so enticing and the inevitable transience of prosperity. And here we thought them a simple pleasure.
A statue contemplates impermanence.
Adjacent to the Catalan Gothic basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, this square occupies what was once a cemetery for those who died defending Barcelona at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714. September 11th is la diada, the national day of Catalonia and the anniversary of the final siege on the city. Long lines of Barcelonese lay flowers at the base of this eternal flame in commemoration of the deceased. Between the diada and the Festes de la Mercè we experienced an exuberance of Catalan nationalism.
In Barcelona feral cats seemed significantly more abundant than dogs. Fortunately, cats are usually quite a bit less intimidating, a fact these odd ladies took full advantage of while seeking donations for their personal animal orphanages. There were a few exceptions prowling the cemetaries though... for instance one with only half a face we won't force you all to suffer a photograph of.
The Palau Güell, the first major project in the city by the now legendary architect Antoni Gaudí, was commissioned as a home for the family of Gaudí's lifelong patron, Eusebi Güell (pronounced gway). Eusebi shrewdly enlarged the family's prestige through works such as this, funded by the industrial ventures of his tycoon father, Joan Güell. These ventures were in turn initially funded by Spain's colonies in Cuba and the Bahamas, thereby earning Joan the title of Indiano or Americano. Both Gaudí and Eusebi were fervent nationalists, and the wrought iron bird seen here is meant to be a phoenix, representing the rebirth of Catalan power during the artistic period known as the Renaixença.
Gaudí's catenary arch, for which he became renowned, made its public debut in the façade of the Palau Güell. A catenary arch is the curve made by hanging a chain or string from its two ends. Whereas in a circular arch the weight of the structure above creates an outward thrust, in a catenary arch the entire load is directed into the ground. This innovative principle allowed Gaudí to design voluminous spaces without the need for the buttresses of Gothic architecture, and is still leveraged by contemporary architects and engineers. Gaudí was equally innovative regarding the movement within his buildings, and was the first architect to propose an interior spiral ramp leading to an undergroud parking lot for automobiles. In the Palau Güell, the two arches support an entry and exit large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to circle through.
It would be deceiving if we led you to believe traveling on the cheap is always glamorous. One ugly truth about being thrifty is that we couldn't spring for the guided tours allowed to skip to the front of cues, which were even longer than usual because we planned to hit the most popular sites on select days admission was free. Of course we were never the only visitors with such ideas. This line, stretching a few city blocks, marked the scene a full hour prior to the opening of the Palau Güell. Those sloths who showed up only half an hour before opening time sadly didn't make it in. Happily for us the wait was worthwhile.
Atop the Palau Güell hides a sculpture garden of Gaudí's chimneys. The organic forms he experimented with here reappear in later works. As of recently the roof was closed to the public because tourists insisted on chipping off pieces of the trencadís tiles and slipping them into their handbags as souveniers. Fortunately UNESCO managed to curb such petty theivery since declaring the collective works of Gaudí a World Heritage Site, and visits are again permitted.
In Catalonia, the best seafood comes in a can, called conservas. The freshest mussels, anchioves, tuna and other marine delicacies are preserved in oil and sealed off to allow the flavors to mature, like wine in a barrel. We indulged in some tuna belly and caviar- a far cry from the tins of smoked oysters most of Americans have endured while camping or scrimping. Bon profit!
Conservas are best paired with cava, the Catalan cousin to champagne. Richer Catalan fare, for instance the salted cod bacalao, pairs well with vermut, an aromitized and fortified wine. Stateside we only ever seem to drink vermouth as an overshadowed component in a martini, a shame because it is exquisite in its own right. The briny, spiced concotion with hints of oregano, poured over ice and often served with olives or a slice of Valencia orange quickly became our favorite afternoon libation. Most every bar and restaurant had a distinctive house variety. The Barcelonese sometimes commence la hora del vermut, the hour preceeding lunch, with the toast "salut is força al canut!". Salut means 'health', and força al canut references leather coin purses called canuts, but literally meaning 'strength to your testicles'.
On many of our outings we happened upon a less well-known Gaudí building or some other architectural dream left out of most brouchures. This gem, Casa Vicens, we saw while strolling through the quiet bohemian neighborhood of Gràcia. Unusually, it still serves as the residence of some lucky inhabitants. Covered in floral tiles with a lush garden, the styling of Casa Vicens recalls the often surpressed Arab occupation of Barcelona as much as the profession of the original tile-making owner.
Chelsea admires the quaint grace of Sant Joan in Plaça de la Vierrana, which we thought to be among the most endearing squares in the city. The outstanding gelateria on the corner to the right of the church didn't hurt the appeal either.
Gràcia grew to be our favorite neighborhood, as it offers some respite from the streets of the city center, constantly packed with tourists like sardines in a conserva. Once an isolated village swallowed in the early 19th century by the Eixample, or 'extension', Gràcia retains it's low-rise character and is home to lots of organic grocers, carnicerias decorated with hanging legs of jamón ibérico, funky clothing and jewelry stores, gelaterias, and restuarants of many ethnicites. We found a piadini shop alongside the Sant Joan church, called La Piadina easily enough, and returned a couple of times for the affordable yet filling lunch. The district's creative culture also suits many musicians, a few of which we stumbled upon, along with a señorita dancing to the impromptu flamenco. El duende, or the soul of flamenco actually hails from Andalucia whereas Catalans tout their much more conservative virtue of seny, roughly translating to common sense, but you wouldn't guess it from enthusiasm with which this band performed. Che Guevara has something of a cult following in the city due to the parallels Barcelonese draw between Cuba and their own seperatist aspirations, thus this group led a rendition of the revolutionary ballad responding to Che's farewell letter, entitled Hasta Siempre, Commandante. If we were ever to move to this city it would be to this part of town. ¡Hasta la victoria, siempre!
This monster of mesh designed by the architect Frank Gehry is meant to be a fish, befitting its site on the shores of the Mediterranean. The fish, along with the two skyscrapers in the background, were constructed for the 1992 Olympics. These and other constructions motivated by the games signalled the transition from Barcelona's period of publicly oriented development, which strove to remedy the dictator Francisco Franco's 36-year legacy of negligence, to the present period driven by private interests hoping to profit from tourism. In terms of diversity and human interest, we felt a marked difference in the attractiveness of this out-of-scale area compared with the older parts of the city.
Although the locals find it to be not much more than overcrowded sand, we found the Somorrostro Beach quite enjoyable. If you come from Colorado, or from Northern Europe as did many of the other occupants, a 'dirty' beach is a beach nonetheless. The swimming area was fairly clean and the sand was warm and sticky. If you stay more than a few minutes you'll hear men shouting "fresh mojitoes, cold water, cerveza, beer!", often in Indian accents. Hawkers pop out and try to sell as many beverages as possible before spotted and stopped by a roaming security guard. The whole affair is sort of a socio-economically charged game of tag. Vendors aren't permitted to sell alcohol without a license, but apparently the business is lucrative enough to keep them at it all day. Given how watered down the cocktails were it's hard to say if they were actually committing any offense.
As mentioned, September 11th, la diada, is as big a deal for the Catalans as it is back home, albeit for entirely different reasons. On the eve of this fated day we followed this procession through our neighborhood. We carried our camera, they carried burning torches and chanted patriotic slogans to the rhythym of drummers at the end of the line. Barcelona loves its drummers and we seemed to hear a marching band somewhere in the city at least once a day. Some marchers arrived wearing their Catalan or FC Barça flags, and others in full traditional costume, such as that of a colonial captain.
Thanks to amiable cooperation between the security forces and Captain Hook, the demonstration was wholly peaceful.
Early mornings are the best time to see the photogenic post card spots, like the Carrer del Bisbe Bridge, when the mobs of tourists with their selfie-sticks (a groundbreaking extendable cell phone mount allowing individuals to take slightly less awkward photos of their own fake smiles) are still in bed and the locals have not yet had their first espresso or cigarette. If you follow our Instagram, you may have noticed the many photos of decadently thick hot chocolate. Xocolata sounds devilish for breakfast, but is in fact the perfect way to wake up and feel like a true Spaniard. However, we advise that you get your caffiene kick from the treat before strolling any mysterious streets because the first day we decided to catch the sunrise, we weren't awake enough to realize we were being pickpocketed. Word to the wise: if a greasy kid tries to teach you the perfect football tackle technique in an empty alley at the break of dawn, he is most likely not being a friendly sport.
Spanish xocolata, a rich potion better eaten with a spoon than sipped, deserves more praise than we're able to give it here. Suffice for now to say this little oasis on las Ramblas, Escriba, mixes up a mean mug of the stuff. More information can be found in our guide.
Muggings aside, we found Barcelona to be a welcoming city filled with people extremely proud to call it home. This is evident in the innumerable Catalan flags hanging from balconies, the love they express for their food, their frequent festivals (we witnessed two in one month), and their beautifully kept buildings, both old and new. The flag pictured here isn't actually the official Catalan banner, la Senyera, whose crimson stripes reputedly represent the blood from a war wound of the famously hairy national hero Guifré el Pilós, but rather an adaptation named la Senyera estelada, or 'the lone star flag'. Americans may well recognize the symbol and appellation from our very own self-proclaimed Republic of Texas. Independentist movements have gained momentum in Catalonia since the crisis of 2008, and have a significantly more compelling case to argue than that of the Lone Star State (no offense intended, Tejanos). In an oversimplified nutshell, Catalans have for centuries associated themselves more with the cultures of the Mediterranean and Northern Europe than with that of greater Spain. Currently, Catalans pay a good deal more in taxes to the authorities in Madrid than their provinces recieve in federal services, and complain that despite Madrid's promises of provincial autonomy the decisions made by the Catalan government are often ignored, undermined or overturned by Castille. Citizens will vote to determine if they'll pursue independence in the elections scheduled for this coming November, but whether or not Madrid will oblige remains unclear.
The Santa Caterina Market located in el Born, the trendy neighboorhood just north of the Barri Gotic across Via Laietana, is the laidback sister to the bustling Boqueria on las Ramblas. A less hustled and far less crowded shopping experience with a comparable if marginally less colorful selection of products, this market has gained preference among many locals. The architecture by EMBT is worth mentioning not only for the interest of the undulating tiled roof, but for the way this roof is suspended over the façade of the old convent of Santa Caterina, thereby preserving and repurposing the historic building.
Most every piece of art in the city has some political connotation. The English Saint George, referred to in Catalan as Sant Jordi, is the city's adopted patron saint. Barcelona's long-standing Anglophilia is another hallmark of their culture's differentiation from the rest of Spain.
Michael in the cloister of la Catedral, contemplating the divine, or where to grab lunch.
In contrast to the Neoclassical Palau Nacional in the background of this photo, Carles Buigas' Magic Fountain of Montjuic successfully advertised Barcelona's industrial modernity for the International Exhibition. Coordinating thousands of jets and bulbs, this fountain is purportedly the first synchronized water, music and light show in the world. After it's premier in 1929 the installation was badly damaged during the Spanish Civil War, and didn't operate again until repaired in 1955.
Of all Barcelona's historic conquererors, the Bourbons may have been the most disliked. The Catalans backed the losing side of the Spanish War of Succession, the Hapsburgs, and for this insult were severely punished. The invading monarch Felipe V banned the Catalan language from public use, and began to systematically subdue the Catalan national identity. The capture of the city in 1714 is still commemorated in Barcelona as la diada. To keep the rebellious populace at bay, Felipe commanded the construction of a much loathed citadel in the city center, now a public park, and this castle crowning Montjuic. We thought the castle more appealing as a home for creeping bougainvillea tha creeping autocrats.
Chelsea stands entranced by the spectacle, which looks as though it ought to be set to a soundtrack of Wagner or Beethoven, but was in fact set to a cycle of twenty-second portions of 90's pop hits including Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. No complaints.
Michael overlooking the port from Montjuíc, realizing the vastness of the city's trade. In the Middle Ages Catalonia was the seat of a maritime empire spanning Valencia, the Baleric Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and breifly Athens. Among Spanish ports, Barcelona was later overpowered by those botter positioned to facilitate imports from the American colonies, but retains ambitions of being a major player in the Mediterranean and has plans for a near future expansion.
One blazing afternoon we took a stroll through the Cemetary at Montjuíc. Not exactly an advertised destination, it was very difficult to find the entrance. The struggle proved rewarding though, and we discovered it can be read as a miniature model of the city and its history. For starters, one explanation of the name Montjuíc is as a reference to the Jewish cemetery that once occupied this spot, but was purged in the Inquisition. These days, for the average folk there are walls built up of grave-drawers stacked on top of each other, reminiscent of tenements. The drawers are sealed in with a concrete slab and covered with a stone marking the family's name. Most of the modules seemed to be for entire families rather than just one body and listed up to a half dozen names; we couldn't help but wonder how so many people's remains fit inside. Like the living, the deceased wealthy rest in larger individual tombs or mausoleums, sometimes including a private chapel like the one below. Immediately after snapping this photo we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes and a black cat, which we took as our que to get out- if only we could find the way.
A few of the crypts were designed by Barcelona's leading architects of the time. Some of the more egotistical designers were easy to identify, because they'd had their names inscribed on their late client's memorial. We found this an odd venue for publicizing one's prestige.
We spent many afternoons sketching and writing in the lovely squares around the city. At least those that provided a bench.
The surreal roofscape of Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera. The wierd chimneys are meant to be the centurions which occupied Barcelona in its infancy as Roman Barcino, and the trencadís stairway entrances are distorted crucifixes. All of these figures were intended to accompany a monumental statue of the Virgin Mary, which Gaudí planned to tower over the street below. The Virgin never materialized because the Anarchists commenced their iconoclasm and the building's patron thought such an overt religious symbol might jeapordize her investment.
To portray more realistically the experience of visiting the most prominent sites of Barcelona, we took this picture of taking a picture. Many of our views of bucket-list attractions were endlessly mutliplied in the lenses of other tourist's cellphones. Chelsea, being the vertically challenged person that she is, had little chance of actually seeing some of the actual objects as there was always someone in front with their arms extended overhead capturing the same photo as each person in front of them. More or less the same photo would also be on a postcard for sale in the respective gift shop. The act of being a tourist is always a bizarre and occasionally dehumanizing experience. Although we did our best to avoid such stereotypes, certain moments are cliché for good reason, and we weren't altogether immune from their charms.
Wagner, the German composer of particularly grandiose operas, was all the rage within Barcelona's bourgeois circles. Regrettably he wasn't able to revel in the Catalan fanaticism since the Barcelonese were a little slow jumping on the bandwagon and didn't host the first performance of his works until 1883, the same year as his death. Gaudí moved in such cultured circles and was certainly aware of Wagner and of German fairy tales, accordingly it's been proposed that these gate houses in Park Güell allude to the gingerbread houses of Hansel and Gretel. Whether or not that's the case, they are surely fantastical enough to suit a witch.
The Ramp Larrard of Park Güell is a perfectly tubed stone wave. The inclined columns seem to grow naturally from the rock.
This detail of the trencadís covering of the bench at Park Güell demonstrates the plethora of patterned ceramics recycled for this purpose. Gaudí's undervalued protégé Josep Maria Jujol is likely responsible for the artful disarray.
The project that is now Park Güell was intended to be a gated suburb, until financial difficulties brought that scheme to halt. This elegant forest of columns would have sheltered the community marketplace.
Nestled in the woods of Park Güell sits this house, where Gaudí lived out his final days before being violently killed by a tram. Rumor has it the architect was so badly lacerated by the collision as to be unrecognizable, thus he was taken to hospital reserved for Barceona's poor. When his identity eventually came to light, the staff offered to have him moved to another hospital so as to receive better treatment, but the pious old man was adamant about remaining 'with his people'. A funny demand looking back, for Gaudi spent most of his life alone or in the company of moneyed and influential patrons.
Barcelona's Festes de la Mercè take place at the end of every September in remeberance of the martyrdom of the city's co-patron saint Eulalia, who shares her position with Saint George. Eulalia was martyred by the Romans for her refusal to renounce Christianity in the year 303 AD, a mere 77 years before Constantine made an about face and the entire empire joined her team. Legend has it she was subjected to 13 tortures, ranging from being rolled down a hill in a barrel pierced with knives to decapitation. Mercifully, the celebrations in her honor are infinitely less gruesome. One of the older traditions is human castle building. Starting with robust men at the base, successive layers of smaller and smaller people stand on one another's shoulders, sometimes reaching up to 8 stories. The angel crowning the castle is always a young, light, extremely brave (if parentally coerced) child.
Numerous concerts are also scheduled for the 5 nights of the festival. We found the setting of this venue surreal. Watching contemporary musicians play folk songs from generations past in front of a centuries-old cathedral next to Roman walls dating from not long after the birth of Christ really puts a moment in perspective. Our favorite act was a flamenco group featuring a intensely passionate dancer. The duende of Andalucia cut deep on the Catalan stage that night.
A more recent aspect of the Festes is the correfoc, or fire run, in which teams of dancers dressed as devils light off fireworks and escort lifesize mythical creatures down the Via Laietana. Observers are strongly advised to wear long sleeves and hats to protect themselves from the showers of sparks, and scarves to cover their faces from the billowing smoke. It's a minor miracle the city hasn't gone up in flames during one of these events. Such unabashed pyrotechnics would never meet regulations in North America. The image of devils dancing through fire in the streets isn't easily forgotten.
The beasts on parade included dragons, referencing the legend of Sant Jordi...
Three headed dogs, referencing the legend of Cerberus...
Jackasses, referencing Catalan peasants' preferred frieght carriers...
Pigs, referencing the iconic cured pork jamón Ibérico...
Mosquitos, perhaps referencing the endless pests that gave us hell for our sweet, foreign blood...
...and gorilla-esque turtles, referencing God knows what.
In case our photos of the planned pyrotechnics aren't enough to convince you how out of control these events appear to be, here's a photo of an utterly unintended explosion. This box, containing the fireworks for the next round of devil dancers, went up in flames inches from the gawking crowd when a spark from the current dancing devils flew just a bit too far.
Luckily no harm was done. A team of firefighters, in Catalan reassuringly known as bombers, and this wizard had the situation under control.
An unstaged example of the all-too-common 'stranger's cell phone perspective'.
The culmination of the Festes is the xambanga de gegants, the cavalcade of dancing giants. The Barcelonese love their effigies so much the pageant was cancelled this year to protect them from a lingering storm cloud. We were seriously dissapointed, but fortunately got a sneak preview of the line-up on Las Ramblas the evening beforehand. The giants are modelled after historic figures like Catalan peasants, Spanish royalty, maritime merchants and...
...these guys. May the seny be with you.
The closing ceremony of the Festes consists of fireworks that put most Fourth of July shows to shame. This is the view from the roof of our apartment in Poble sec of the fireworks over the Palau Nacional.
Don't fear for your capacity of artistic apprecaition if this looks to you like a glass cube filled with trash, because it is. Evidently it's also the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies' tribute to Pablo Picasso, and the trash is intended to represent the minds ability to produce images from fragments. Another reading is as a misguided rallying cry against the recent facist regime, because no facist authority would ever tolerate such a peculiar installation.
This mural entitle Todos Juntos Podemos Parar el Sida, together we can stop AIDS, was created by the New York artist Keith Haring. The artist himself tragically passed at a young age due to the same disease. In the 1980's and 90's, when this mural was commissioned, the neighborhood in which it's located, the Raval, was notorious for drug use. The city government has been moderately successful in cleaning up the area since, but as this photograph shows there are still social ills to deal with. Por la crisis is a phrase not uncommonly heard in Spain, which in many ways is still recovering from the crash of 2008.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, MACBA, is housed in this austere building designed by the American architect Richard Meier. Interjecting public assests like this museum and others into blighted neighborhoods was one technique for urban renewal employed by city officials. While lauded for bringing in money, light and space, no solution is foolproof and these developments have been criticised for the clearance of housing they required without providing adequate compensation for the displaced, as well as the gentrification they catalyzed.
The stark face of the MACBA could never tell of all this fun being had inside.
The clean lines of the MACBA were a welcome counterpoint to the lavish articulation of Modernisme.
Similar to how wealthy leaders of the American republican party tout rural morality some Catalan nationalists, despite leading comfortable lives in the city, still feel themselves connected in spirit to the fiercly independent farmers working the land. Their agricultural ethics are visible in these unusual figures traditionally placed outside the manger of nativity dioramas. Known as a caganers, or immaculate fecundadors, their defecation symbolizes the return of nutrients to maintain the fertility of the soil. Conventionally depicted as peasants wearing red stocking caps, souvenier shops now abound with such caganers as Picasso, Mandela, Elvis and Obama, all squating to do the dirty deed with an innocuous grin on their faces.
In addition to kitschy souvenier shops, Barcelona is bursting at the seems with crafty boutiques. Michael made it a point to smell every scent in this specialty soap store's full-spectrum display, and left slightly dazed by olfactory overload.
This scene adorning the Nativity façade of the Sagrada Familia has an amusing backstory: Gaudí was so meticulous about attaining realism in the sculpture of the basilica that he used live models for every single figure, including the dozens of animals depicted. Legend has it that when this donkey refused to stop moving long enough for the artist to copy its anatomy, Gaudí ordered the ass lifted off the ground with a pulley and canvas straps. Supposedly, this calmed the donkey sufficiently for it to remain still. Always one to cite divine intervention, Gaudí claimed that by being raised toward the heavens the donkey was imbued by God with awareness of his role in so holy a task. Given the opportunity, PETA may have begged to differ. Another instance of the hyperrealism insisted upon by Gaudí is the Roman centurion opposite this donkey, who has six toes on one foot, because somehow Gaudí managed to find a blacksmith who really did have six toes to act as a model.
The altar of the Sagrada Familia.
The interior columns of the Sagrada Familia split into smaller branches sized according to the loads they have to carry. Determined rigidly by the physical laws of the structure, they gain a resemblance to natural forms, like trees.
The Nativity façade of the Sagrada Familia was the only of the eventual four façades to be completed prior to Gaudí's death in 1926. The rest of the work to finish the building, which is still underway and estimated to be completed around 2025, has been guided by the creative interpretation of the models and drawings the architect left behind. The interpretation has had to be especially creative because many of Gaudí's records were destroyed when the Anarchists burned down his studio. Whether or not the physical construction actually accords with Gaudí's designs has been a point of much contention, but the project is privately financed, so will go on largely independent of public or expert opinion.
Barcelona boasts a slew of contemporary architecture to match that of bygone eras. Much of these works have been completed since the Olympic games of 1992, when the authorities started commisioning more international firms in their effort to establish Barcelona as a 'global city'. One cluster of new buildings centers around the DHUB, which houses the Design Museum of Barcelona, pictured above.
Of the recent architectural monuments the Torre Agbar must be counted as one of the most imposing. So named as a conjunction of aigua, water in Catalan, and bar, signifying Barcelona, the tower is owned by the Agbar Group, a company whose holdings include the water company Aigües de Barcelona. The illumination is said to be based on the movements and colors of water, steam and fire. The shape of the tower is said to harken back to Gaudí's catenary arch, still we couldn't help but make other associations- we'll call them 'phallic' for the sake of remaining intellectually aloof.
The new building of the Barcelona flea market. Not exactly the grungiest flea market we've ever visited.
As a matter of diplomacy we traded a home-cooked meal with the two wonderful ladies whose spare room we stayed in. We wanted to cook up something essentially American, but were limited by the ingredients available in Spanish supermarkets, so went with the simple route of biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. Our hosts' meal turned out to be as Italian as it was Catalan -canelloni- but was no less delectable for it.
We don't want to make the classic mistake of giving the impression Gaudí was Barcelona's only admirable Modernisme architect. This regal structure, Casa Fuster, was designed by Domènech i Montaner, arguably a more influential figure in Barcelona than Gaudí during his lifetime. He undeniably had a more balanced personal life than his maniacally obsessive colleague. The Casa Fuster is now a 5 star hotel, and consequently not open for public tours. We jokingly declared that the next time we visit Barcelona we'll be staying here. Half-jokingly.
The Rambla de Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia connect the old city to the Eixample and Gràcia. Once home to the urban elite, who came to feel the city center was too crowded and dirty, these parallel boulevards are the site of some of Barcelona's most lavish mansions. Today, they serve as the city's shopping center. We found this sidewalk stall captivating, and are willing to bet the apartment of the woman selling these tomes smells of rich mahogany and leather bound books.
Two of the best known mansions on the Passeig de Gràcia are Gaudí's serpentine Casa Battlo and Puig i Cadafalch's stepped Casa Amatller. Another mansion of note, Casa Lleó Morera by Domènech i Montaner, rests on the corner to the other side of Casa Amatller. All intoxicating works individually, together their decor clashes in a overwhelming stew more gaudy than Gaudí. Hence the nickname bestowed on this group, manzana de la discordia, the block of discord.
Sculptures are also counted among Barcelona's public artworks. This pensive bovine, a play on Rodin's Thinker, depicts the Spanish emblem of the bull. Bullfighting is not a Catalan tradition and is regarded as faintly savage, so it's significance is suspect. Perhaps the bull's introspective pose is representative of Catalan sentiment towards Madrid and its 'barbaric' pastimes?
Interspersed with the publicly commisioned installations thrives a form of expression far more public in nature.
With such boisterous Catalan patriotism it's easy to forget Barcelona is indeed diverse and cosmopolitan. The Japanese have made a noticeable mark on the city, due in part to their reverance for the samurai-like hermitic life of Gaudí-san. Sushi also abounds, and at least this one ramen shop, whose neon sign is set off remarkably well by the crimson stripes of the Catalan flag.
Anna-Lina, one of our two gracious hosts. Anna grew up in Majorca, and while the island speaks a dialect of Catalan, she is not considered by law enough of a Catalan to vote on the independence question. Her case reflects the situation of a good portion of Barcelonese residents, many of whom immigrated to the city from other Spanish territories and have even less substantial claims to Catalanism. Whereas some Catalans feel they are living in a homeland occupied by outsiders, namely Castellanos, some Barcelonese surely feel as if they live in a city occupied by radical Catalans.
The view of the city from the Miró Foundation, or Fundacío Joan Miró, which houses many works donated by the artist as well as a handful donated by other modern artists and collectors. In the background Norman Foster's Collserola communications towers can be seen. To the right of the tower, on the crest of the hill, is Tibidabo, which gets its interesting name from the story telling how the devil took Jesus Christ to an 'exceedingly high mountain' overlooking 'all the kingdoms of the world and their glory' and said tibi dabo, 'I will give you' in Latin. According to popular tradition this very hill was the 'exceedingly high mountain' itself. Hopefully you can now appreciate, as we came to, what a tempting offer the city of Barcelona must have been.