In the Air to Barcelona
The train trip to Barcelona looked to be interminably long, so we took a Vueling flight. I prefer rail. In the past I have ridden the rails in freight cars from Chicago to Seattle, and I worked on an extra gang on a section of the Alaska Railroad around Denali Park. Michele and I have taken trains across India and Vietnam and love the pace. Often the perspective from a train car is unique. You catch glimpses of life through the back door.
Yet Vueling was our best option. Though the terminal looked the size of Mandalay’s airport, the restaurant was efficient and food quite sufficient. Landing in Barcelona, another safe and reliable 30 euro taxi ride brought us to our Patik Hotel.
The Patik Hotel qualifies as a Hip Hotel. There was no lobby, just a bakery drawing in young urbanistas. The aromas from the shop had us salivating from the moment we rolled our bags across the threshold. We checked-in at the counter, just past the espresso machine, fresh croissants and tarts. Our room card gained us entry to the elevator and our floor, but only our floor. Security was tight.
Unlocking our room door, we stepped into a modest yet remarkably well-designed space. Water closet and shower had glass doors, with midnight blue tile on all walls. Clothing rod, shelves and sink were framed with iron pipe continuing the urban steam-punk look. A floor to ceiling window opened wide with a view of the back alley and a small park that seemed far removed from Diagonal, a major boulevard a block away. Across the park and up a few stories on a narrow balcony, an elderly man sat in the sun – a quiet sentinel.
Walking to Park Guell, we had plenty of time before entry, and a gnawing desire to eat after only a croissant before the flight. Trip Advisor had alerted us to Mama’s Café (Torrejos 26) and we managed to squeeze in to a table. When we sat down, my head was only feet away from two womens’ buttocks since they sat on bar stools on a raised floor adjacent to our spot. It was intimate. The burgers were huge and delicious…even luscious.
Approaching Park Guell it is hard not to notice Gaudi’s phallic towers rising up from the site and probing the heavens. The multi-colored tile work on their bulbous tips looked like phantasmagorical condoms. And tiled labia structures are not too far away.
And for those who seek solace in perspective’s straight lines when faced with an uncaring universe of dark matter, this is not in your comfort zone. The curves undulate all around you creating rhythms of color and light through passageways, over roof tops and crossing thresholds.
The surfaces, often of broken tile, shimmer with patterns and though placed by design, create a busyness that made my eyes dance from place to place. Though this was a failed housing development project for wealthy Catalonians, the site has been transformed into a wondrous world by one man’s imagination that everyone can explore.
Dinner at Café de la Pedrera (Passeig de Gracia 92) continued our immersion in all things Gaudi. We entered on the corner of La Pedrera that is all lit up like a stage set. Climbing up the stairs, our hands rubbing iron railings that looked like seaweed, we sat under a ceiling that was designed as a lagoon’s shallow sandy bottom. The swirls of the stucco mimicking the traces of wave motion that sculpt sand.
Though we were not alone in the upside down blue lagoon (some travel guide for Asians must have highlighted this spot), we sat back and relaxed on our cushioned bench seat in our corner niche. Eventually the tourist group left and we had the tide pool to ourselves.
Along Avingoda de Gaudi
A thunderstorm with heavy rain meant our tickets to gain entry to the Nativity Tower at Sagrada Familia were null and void. So we toured the main nave and altar of the basilica and made arrangements for a return visit on a clear day.
You pass through the Nativity entrance, (the only part designed and built while Gaudi was alive) that has a neo-Gothic feel and end up exiting via a Cubist style Crucifixion themed façade.
In between, the nave has glorious windows and modernist pillars like trees creating a canopy of light that radiates through the interior. Yet the place has a schizophrenic look trying to project multiple identities. Below the altar is a subterranean chapel where Gaudi is buried, that has a traditional lay out – more evidence of the fits and starts of this project originally begun by Francesc P. Villar in 1882.
On our second attempt to reach the Nativity Tower summit, we made it as high as the Cedar tree sculpture complete with doves alighting on the boughs. A bridge between the towers lent a vertiginous thrill as the Sagrada Familia shadow lengthened across Barcelona. At this height we could get much closer to the other spire caps of enormous berries and fruits similar to Oldenberg’s oversize mundane items.
The cranes are working overtime towards completion of the edifice by 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death. A death most tragic. Gaudi was hit by a street car and the hospital did not recognize the architect who lay dying in front of them. For years prior to his death, he lived alone care for by nuns. His ego apparently not the size of later 20th Century architects, like Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and Louis Kahn.
Connecting the dots, we walked up Avinguda de Gaudi to the Hospital de Sant Pau designed by Domenech i Montaner.
Montaner had influenced many architects of Gaudi’s generation and you could see that in the exuberance of the style. Moorish style domes adorned roofs with flourishes that you would not expect in a medical facility. Connecting the multiple buildings (separated to keep patients of different ailments apart) were underground tunnels. This World Heritage site restoration includes an entrance through those tunnels with video projections of ghost-like apparitions passing along the halls – doctors and nurses on their rounds. OK this was just a little creepy. Like I see Dead People.
Though we could not spend a night in sterile sheets on a cot in the ward, (though that would be a strange but intriguing hostel concept), we could briefly inhabit the space and stop at the building’s café. Lunch outdoors at 1902 Café Modernista (Sant Antoni Maria Claret 167) allowed us feel we had immersed in the surrounding extraordinary architecture while enjoying a superb lunch. Though the businessmen at the next table were offered a collection of catch of the day on a platter, we avoided the cold dead eyes staring up at us and ordered salad and pasta. And a cappuccino.
After our quest was to find glue. I needed to make amends and repair a souvenir vase that I had dropped on a return walk from Parc Guell. Luckily the pattern was of broken tiles as a decorative element so who would notice the breaks once a little reassembly took place. It’s not like I was trying to reassemble the skull of Zinjanthropithecus (only Mary Leakey has that skill set).
For Dinner we selected Pau Claris 190 (just around the corner from Patik @ Calle Pau Claris 190) but the earliest reservation was at 9:30 p.m. The reviews had been so good that it would be worth the wait. We headed to our local café, Dora Tapas Bar (Calle Provenca N 275). A glass of wine and a mojito plus crispy chicken and garlic prawns tapas set us up for a gustatory delight.
All Things Gaudi
The mission, if we accepted it, was to cover Casa Vincens, La Pedrera and Casa Batllo in one day. We planned the route and landed at Casa Vincens before the gates opened.
Our pass to La Pedrera allowed us to enter anytime, so we did an end run around the line and took the elevator. The tour starts on the roof with a bizarre design. Stairs up and down running around the perimeter resembles an Escher drawing. Next to the never-ending staircase, a courtyard well drops away inducing vertigo, my palms sweating as I peeked over the edge. Multiple chimneys with tops looking like a phalanx of warriors with medieval helmets. Weaving among the multi-faceted chimneys, at one point we felt we were in the Shining – haunting moans emanating from the structure.
We passed through the attic of La Pedrera underneath arched supports that resemble the rib cage of a whale. Similar to Casa Vincens, models of various buildings designed by Gaudi are displayed in exquisite detail. On a floor below, an apartment was furnished to resemble the home of an early twentieth century renter. This would not have been considered affordable for families at the time. For the tenants, the place would have screamed, “We Have Made It!”.
At Casa Botillo, our tickets took us to the head of the line, we did take the headphones since they were included in the price of admission.
We managed to get tickets for the night event at Casa Botllo which included the tour, plus two free drinks on the roof as you listened to a DJ. Since we had already completed the surreal tour, we sped ahead getting photos of empty rooms and staircases. The rooftop event was crowded but the guests were just too cool. No one moved to the music. The nibbles were not making it for us, so we headed down the interior staircase…and since we were alone, I danced on the landing to the music still drifting into the blue-tiled light well.
It was too late for light meal at the café in back of the Puigi Cadafalch building (this was the Block of Discord so we had hoped to inhabit one more architectural marvel). Instead we wandered into Taller de Tapas (Rambles de Catalunya 49-51) for salads and lobster paella. Full of patrons but not so full of lobster in the Paella.
To Mont Juic
The ascent of Mont Juic looked like a killer in the heat as we approached via Tarragona and Av. Reina Maria Cristina. Parc Joan Miro was closed for renovation and all we could see was pavement for the next half-mile with no shade. Fading fast as we approached the Mont, we saw a mirage of water, that turned out to be actual water cascading down the hillside from pool to pool.
The museum’s medieval art wing displays frescoes salvaged from various small churches in Catalonia. Though there was serious debate about the removal of the art from the sites, given what damage occurred to those remote churches during the Spanish Civil War, it was probably a good move. The frescoes have been reinstalled on facsimiles of the original asp and nave spaces. Some of these curved forms look from the back like fiberglass molds for ship hulls. Stepping up to the reconstituted sacred spaces, your peripheral vision takes in the whole scene and, just like cinemascope theaters, you are engulfed and suspend your disbelief if for a moment as you move from one sacred spot to another. The art is highly stylized and flat, with images that are almost abstract.
As you move into the galleries of medieval art, you are greeted with the martyrs both men and women being boiled, stabbed, sliced and diced, sawed and decapitated. Mestro de Castelsardo’s Saint Vincent on the Gridiron (and we not talking football), Bernat Martorell’s Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia (1442-1445), Ayne Bru’s Martyrdom of Saint Cugat, (1502-1507) Moving into the early Renaissance, colors brighten but the butchering of martyrs continues but now the figures are depicted more realistically. Their expressions always remain blissful, no matter the affliction.
After viewing all the Madonna and child with Angels in gold leaf, on wall after wall, the experience can be stultifying.
And then along comes Reubens, with a voluptuous Virgin and Child with Saint Elizabeth and the Young Saint John (1618). Figures have full breasts, full rosy cheeks, and pink chubby thighs. Nobody is suffering from malnutrition in this bunch.
Down a hallway in a dimly lit small room, we pulled out large metal drawers (anticipating a security guard rushing in to demand we cease and desist). We were startled to be standing over the Katsushika Hokusai print of Bajo la ola de Kanagawa (the Wave painting) 1832,
During lunch at the museum café, Eurest Catalunya, we sat at a table feeling very exposed on the coliseum floor as epicurean gladiators. Though the coliseum seats were empty, we still ate our salads according to the rules of Emily Post…just in case. Ever since watching the Wings Of Desire by Wim Wenders, I can’t see large, quiet spaces such as this without imagining the Angels in long dark wool coats silently watching and listening to the babble of interior monologues among the living.
Next we took Berlin. Or rather next we took in 20th century European and American work without Leonard Cohen. After viewing Picasso’s Woman in Hat and Fur Collar (1937) you may end up screaming like the woman in Juli Gonzalez’s Montserrat Shouting No. 1, or take a breath to enjoy the former portrait with green hair and blue lipstick and piercing eyes (even if they are catawampus ). It can be a little unsettling to look at her eyes trying to determine which eye to focus on, wanting to do the correct thing like making sure you look directly into the good eye of someone with a wandering eye. You are drawn to stare at the odd one. Hermen Anglada Camarasa’s Woman from Granada (1914) is wildly vibrant and the pose is reminiscent of Gustav Klimet’s Lady in Gold (1903-1907). The first prize for unique titles goes to Ricard Urgell’s The Unfaithful Wife or the Charcoal Burner’s Daughter (1911).
A narrow staircase led to the roof and an expansive vista of Barcelona. In my travels, I treasure detailed maps of my destinations, and finding a view that gives you the perspective of a map is a dreamscape. Many past dreams of mine have been about flying over landscapes. Actually positioned above a city allows you to align your internal compass with all the familiar landmarks and gauge distance through your own lens.
Descending we were almost out the museum door before we realized there was a special exhibit on Dali and Gala as his muse. The many faces of Gala were displayed in an intimate gallery.
A short walk past the vast Olympic stadium is the Fundacio Joan Miro. The breadth of his work on display is mind bending.
We took the funicular down to Av. del Paral-lel. For a guy who commuted for 6 years to middle and high school on the New York City subways, this was still unsettling riding a subway car pitched at a 45 degree angle underground. It was a surreal Dali moment trying to adjust. Back on level ground, we walked La Rampla to Placa Reial for a meal. Hucksters were once again attracting the gaze of curious children with the blue-lit whirligigs launching into the air and drifting down to earth. Parents bought the toys and the kids raced around the plaza catching them. Not unlike the kids of Kabul who would run down streets and alleys to catch kites cut loose from their strings and swirling to ground. In Kabul, the first kid to catch the kite got to smash it to smithereens. Kids were gentler with their toys in the Plaza.
La Cuina del Do offered duck magrat with hoisin sauce and pork ribs with mashed potatoes. Sipping a house wine, we watched six pumped up male gymnasts jump and tumble and pass the hat. These guys were in shape and a shape that I never would attain. I have always been thin…but limber, though not as limber as a Katakhali dancer. As a kid I had watched the Jack Lalane, the Godfather of Fitness” run through exercise routines. He was a guy who seemed to be busting like the Hulk out of his clothes. Though I derided his physique for being muscle-bound, I had to admire his amazing feats such as towing 70 boats for a mile when he was 70. My muscle envy was sublimated with a few more gulps of wine.
La Merce 2018 festival
We switched hotels to be closer to the La Merce festival events and Hotel 1898 set us right on La Rambla. For better or for worse we were going to be near the action. In one of those odd synchronicity moments, on the wall of our room was a map of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines. Years ago, as a struggling editorial cartoonist I had traveled around Mindinao, a large southern Philippine island where some fighting between the military and rebels was disrupting life in the surrounding hills. To get off the island, I had booked deck passage on a ferry from Zamboanga to Cebu. Once aboard and finding my numbered deck space I settled in for an overnight sea voyage. I noticed a fair number of guys in fatigues dropping guns and gear around me. I checked with ship steward and this ship was heading to the Sulu Archipelago war zone – not the Love Boat voyage I signed on for. I was very happy to abandon ship and cross the pier to the right ferry. After my heart stopped racing, I settled into my reserved deck space and slept peacefully that night, snug in my mummy bag and the troubles slipping below the horizon. I was so comfy, I could almost imagine myself in a luxurious first-class cabin.
And now our room on La Rambla finally offered that 1st class accommodation I had dreamt of.
We headed down a narrow street (St Michael) and ended up following the sound of music reverberating off the old city walls into Plaza Sant Jaume. Large puppets lined the square as the band played, pairs moving to the stage to dance: a horse and dragon, King and Queen, phoenix, turtle, and more. Handlers and puppets carried fireworks, sparks cascading as they twirled until the music ceased and the fireworks exploded with a startling bang.
Before the next evening’s La Merce festivities, we stormed the walls of Gaudi’s Torre Bellesguard after a quick breakfast at…Starbucks. The coffee shop was right next door to our hotel entrance on La Rambla, and offered quick service of coffee, plus yogurt and granola. Forgive us for our sins we could not afford to linger with full service elsewhere.
Torres Bellesguard really was intended to look like a castle situated right next to the actual fortress ruins of the one of the last Catalonian Kings, Martin the 1st who died without an heir in 1410. This death marked the beginning of the end, the sunset of Catalonian power and the rise of the Castilian dominance.
We descended among the hoy paloy down De Salle, Augusta and De Gracia and stopped for another lunch at Mama’s Café. Cream of zucchini soup, white fish breaded with almonds and Puer Tea set us up for the afternoon visit to the Picasso Museum. Passeig de Sant Joan lead us to Passeig luis Companys where La Merce festival continued, food vendors packed the sidewalks. The Picasso Museum on first impression seemed too stuffed with minor works. (Later we were told that the collection was in fact a settlement over taxes with the family. So they gave all sorts of miscellaneous work.) Yet Picasso’s multiple takes on Velázquez’s La Menniers are a curious and fascinating exercise in deconstructing a classic work. He took a break from this fixation and completed a series of paintings of pigeons on his balcony. This preoccupation with La Menniers must be an indication of what a humongous ego Picasso possessed. Who would decide to try and “one up” Velázquez?
As young drummers paraded down a narrow street, they blocked our passage back to the hotel. As we were pressed up against the walls, I felt the impact of the pounding amplified by the stone buildings along the narrow route. The beat jarred loose a pathetic memory. In elementary school I had yearned to be a drummer but since my brother already had taken up the drums, our music instructor advised our parents not to have two percussionists in the same family. I was not sure if this was mental health advice for all concerned or a critique of my abilities. I had already mastered the flim-flam beat and I was certain that I was on my way to becoming the reincarnation of Gene Krupa. To turn a phrase from Ringo Starr, No one else saw drums as my legend. I got stuck with the clarinet – a liquorish stick for dwebs.