Under Construction, Possibly Open, Needs Pepper: Michael and Dan in Spain
Daniel Emberley, September 2009
Having toured the fringes of the Spanish Empire in previous trips (Santa Fe, Texas missions, Buenos Aires, Belgium, Holland) we decided it was time to hit the motherload, and go to Spain. Our indomitable friend Catie agreed to join us, having survived our excursions through the Low Countries and on a road trip to Boston. Sadly, this was not a great trip. The buildings and landscapes of Spain are sensational, and worth the effort. The people, however, are not. Individually most were polite, but collectively they oozed an air of entitlement, greed, and sloth that we found unattractive. I suspect that if we had been before Spain went on the Euro, we might have enjoyed it more, as we would at least have felt that we were getting a bargain. As it is, however, you’re paying for Germany, and getting … Spain. All the cities we went to are undergoing major infrastructural investment as the EU invests to bring the country up to European standards. So, streets were often construction sites, and many cultural sites closed or under refurbishment. The major museums (Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza, Alhambra, Sagrada Familia) were all open as posted, but many of the smaller institutions were not. Worst of all, the food is BLAND. One would think that some chili peppers had tagged along on the New World silver galleons, but apparently not.
Short story: I would not recommend Spain, unless one had already seen much of the rest of Europe, had low expectations, or you really want beaches/mountains, not cities. Long story, read on.
Friday, September 11
Our first error was to fly US Airways. When will I remember that this company is just Allegheny, with a newer name? We made our connection in Philadelphia, but my luggage did not. Jet lagged and tired, ten of us faced a well-staffed counter in Madrid Barajas where only one person was actually working. The woman ahead of me wore a vulgar Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt that one would think her mother would condemn, except that WalMart Mom was similarly attired beside her. Charming. Per our friend and Spain-expert Jorge’s advice, we picked up Madrid Cards and Metro passes at the airport, and took the Metro into town. Not following Jorge’s advice, and not trusting my ability to give directions to a cab driver en Espanol, we transferred twice to arrive at our hotel. Madrid and Barcelona both suffer from some of the most foolish subway engineering I’ve ever encountered. Station entrances are far from the train platforms, you often have to go up stairs then down stairs then up again to get to the platform, station transfers are often 2-3 blocks away underground, and there are few elevators or escalators. Would be interested in knowing why; am hoping is to protect foundations/ruins, but suspect is because Franco never rode a subway train. Made me glad my luggage was still in Philadelphia, didn’t have to schlep it. On the plus side, most trains are new, frequent, and very well signed, so you never feel disoriented. We’d been warned of the inconvenience, were expecting it, and found ourselves aboveground on the Gran Via less than a block from our hotel.
The Best Western Arosa was a Jorge recommendation. Boring rooms, the smallest elevators in Europe, and a sensational location on the Art Deco Gran Via. We checked in, checked it out, and set off to discover Madrid. An easy walk down to Puerto del Sol (a cool plaza on a bow-tie intersection) then east on the Carrer San Jeronimo. Made sure our ATM cards would get us Euros, and subjected a patiently-suffering waiter to our first attempt to order food in a bar on the Calle Principe.
Catie had asked for something easy on our jet lagged brains, so I led us to the smallest of the Big Three art museums of Madrid, the Thyssen Bornemisza. The Baron T-B built on his father’s already great collection to supplement the holdings in the Prado: they tried to find works that would fill gaps in the Spanish national collection. They then led Spain on a decades-long tease on whether they would leave the art to the country or not. Think Jack Kent Cooke or Abe Pollin playing the District for a sports team, but with Titians and Rembrandts. In the end Spain got it; Rafael Moneo renovated the Palacio Villahermosa to house it, and recently the Baroness gave an additional pile of art to supplement. The result is one of the world’s best art museums. You expect the Italians, Flemish, and Dutch masters, but not of this quality, and not including Caravaggio. A big surprise was galleries full of quality American painting, something you never see in Europe. Gilbert Stuart, Copley, Harnett, Hopper; also German and Dutch 19th century painting, incorporated with the French and English masters as if they were all part of the great Western cultural experience. Which they are, of course, but one is so used to being told we’re the periphery of the art world until World War II.
Brain freeze from all the art; took a walk up the Paseo del Prado to defrost. This is a main north-south boulevard on the eastern side of downtown. It’s a lot more park than we expected, with pleasant Victorian gardens, fountains, and sculptures in what would be just a median strip with less planning. East through the elite Retiro neighborhood and into Retiro Park. Walking up the Paseo de Argentina, you see a sprawling sculptural mass ahead of you. I knew that this anchored an enormous pool, the Estanque, but the landscaping is so well done that you don’t actually see the water until just as you reach it, where you discover pleasure boats, kids with balloons, ice cream vendors, everything you want from a park lake. Sort of like when Mary Poppins jumps into the chalk picture. It is the kind of surprise that Olmstead talks about delivering in his park landscapes, but rarely have I seen it done so well. Up to the triumphal arch of Puerta de Alcala and through the Plaza de Cibeles, where goddess Cybelle in white marble rides her chariot in front of the world’s most elaborate post office. Disco nap back at the hotel.
You know your friends love you when they let you wake them up, post jet-lag, post-Stendhal syndrome, after just two hours of sleep. We were hoping to keep ourselves up long enough to fall asleep at a normal hour, and jump into Madrid time. We wandered through the center of town, through FNAC (Best Buy with more media and less appliances) and Corte Ingles (Macy’s by way of Belk’s). I was disappointed by Corte Ingles, which is much less snazzy than I’d hoped, but was impressed to see a department store selling the full range of consumer goods, right down to groceries and hardware. I wonder why European department stores have held on to that model, while American have become clothing and shoe stores? Through the gentrified-into-restaurants Mercado San Miguel, into the Plaza Mayor. Lots of tourist traps, but still surprisingly residential for a downtown area. Found a tapas bar for the first of many brilliant dishes of grilled squid, vino tinto, and gazpacho. Staggered back to the Gran Via and really slept.
Saturday, September 12
The Spanish condescend to American fast food, although they’re very fond of their own. Doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of McDonald’s, with a smattering of Burger King and KFC’s, and Starbucks is everywhere. The local chains, though, really do serve better food. Pans & Company has a sandwich theme, with a convenient location just across from the Arosa, sidewalk seating, and inexpensive breakfast coffee and sandwiches. In the last decade Madrid has successfully returned some major streets to pedestrians; yesterday’s Carrera San Jeronimo was one, and this morning we took another, the near-parallel Calle Huertas. For a non-grid city, Madrid was not hard to negotiate; the sidewalks are in decent repair, and the traffic usually kept separate by some calming measure like bollards or chain barriers. About a third of the streets seem to be ripped up for renovation, but at least one can see some good coming from EU investment.
The Prado’s big show was Joaquin Sorolla, the most important Spanish Impressionist. A big chunk of Sorolla’s paintings ended up in the Hispanic Society in Manhattan, which has been unable to maintain them properly. The Prado gave them a proper restoration in prep for this blockbuster. The show was sold out, but we look forward to seeing the work fresh when it heads back to New York. Not that there isn’t enough to see in the Prado proper. The Rafael Moneo extension works brilliantly with the original Villanueva building. The Prado got a lot of bad press for neglecting care of its holdings and building, but has clearly listened. Brilliant Italian (early Renaissance, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens), Flemish (Bosch’s “Seven Deadly Sins”, Breughel’s “Five Senses”), German (Durer), and of course, Spanish (Velazquez, Ribera, El Greco). Goya gets entire wings, one set of galleries for the Black Paintings, another for the lyrically pastoral tapestry cartoons, one giant room dedicated to the two paintings of the 5th and 6th of May (you know the 5th; guy in a white shirt in front of a firing squad; they look like Cossacks, but are French). Surprises were the fine collections of Greek and Roman sculpture, and the Dauphin’s Treasury, where we learned we could like rock crystal if presented as a dragon tureen.
The Spanish meal schedule is radically off from ours. They have an early coffee and croissant, then often a second heartier sandwich-snack breakfast around ten. Big lunch from two to four, and dinner usually not until ten. We never got into the second breakfast, but managed to adjust to lunch at two, then dinner between eight and nine. Usually meant having a more authentic Spanish meal for lunch, then fast food or ethnic for dinner, but worked. Moneo’s café in the Prado addition is quite lovely, and a great place to decompress. There’s more Prado coming; they’re renovating a convent and part of an old palace, can’t imagine how people will see it all.
Then we hit the Spanish siesta. Despite what you may be told, they still shut down at 2PM, and may or may not reopen later. The Casa America, in the Palacio Linares, is supposed to have an excellent collection of Western Hemisphere art and stellar restaurant; couldn’t say, we tried getting in three times, each time both were closed. What restaurant closes for lunch? Naval Museum, in a hulking 1960’s office fortress, ditto. We found a little bar off the Paseo Recolletos for squid, oxtail, and flat beans. Every meal comes with French bread; you have to search hard to find whole grain anything, or even vegetables without ham. Given that Catie’s a vegetarian, this would have been more of a challenge if she hadn’t been so accommodating, and we hadn’t learned to order meatless dishes like tortilla espanola (potato omelet) and green salad. The side benefit of eating with a vegetarian is that the Ensalada Mixta comes with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper on the side. Oh, how we dove for that pepper, and wouldn’t let it off our table until the last tapa had been served! On the plus side, wine was always good, always inexpensive, and bottled water with and without fizz a staple.
We walked off lunch by crossing town westward past the Opera to the Palacio Real (as in Royal, not an alternative to artificial). Michael especially had been looking forward to visiting with the Hapsburgs and Bourbons. The current palace is really a Bourbon concoction, with styles ranging from Louis XIV to Arts and Crafts. You enter via a spacious plaza, with arches at the further end overlooking the Manzanares River and Casa del Campo. We got to see a storm cross over the former royal hunting grounds. The royal apartments are stunning, with ceilings by Tiepolo and Mengs, an appropriately over-the-top red and gold throne room, and carpets that matched the marble patterns that they covered. A porcelain room shows off the royal ceramics factories, adjacent to a music room with four Stradivariuses. A dining room whose table supports a gold and rare stone centerpiece that was bigger than my office. Toward the end of the tour, as the décor gets more recent, is an Arts and Crafts billiard room and a sitting room of almost modern porcelain-enamel “Japanese” panels. Back in the entry courtyard there is a Royal Pharmacy (cool rooms of odd jars) and Royal Armory (tons of Hapsburg ceremonial armor, room smaller than we’d expected, and with some of the prime pieces currently in D.C. at the National Gallery). A street performer was playing Vivaldi in the plaza between the palace courtyard and the Cathedral; lovely. Good café above the gift shop, where I discovered my first Magnum. A revelation in ice cream on a stick. Made by Nestle, in several flavor combos, this would become my insulin-shock treatment of choice. Can highly recommend chocolate-chocolate and white-chocolate-raspberry.
The Vivaldi and the dome drew us over to the Cathedral. Madrid is a relatively young city. Phillip II moved the Spanish capital there during the period when Queen Elizabeth I was running Great Britain. It didn’t get a cathedral until the last century. I’ve seen lots of bad Catholic art in churches built after 1950; this one is a wonder. Helps that the structure was in place by World War II, but they avoided trashy Modern glass and sculpture, instead decorating in a mix of Arts and Crafts and Modern styles that work together to make a stunning contemporary space. Didn’t know it was possible. Fabulous polychrome ceiling, and window glass with abstracted Holy Spirits. Modern Spanish creepiness in some of the side chapels, including one in honor of the founder of “bring back the Inquisition” lobbyists Opus Dei. Around back, near an historic (Roman? Visigoth? Arab?) wall, a wedding was coming out of the crypt church, beautiful people in a fun and welcoming urban scene.
The Calle Bailen is the west side of downtown’s answer to the Paseo del Prado. This is serious Franco-auto land. Think about all the damage we did to our cities when we built the Interstate system. Now picture that happening in a historic capital under a Fascist dictator. If Jane Jacobs had lain down in front of Franco’s steamrollers, instead of Robert Moses’ Fifth Avenue, she would have been one flat professor. So, while the walk had its moments (Jardin de Sabatini, the national Senate), it was unpleasantly near high speed traffic with tough pedestrian crossings. We were heading toward what was supposed to be a weekly craft market at Plaza de las Comendadores. Nope. Then to a design store called Vincon. Building closed like a drum, no sign of anything design-wise. Discouraging. Hiking east through the residential neighborhoods of Malasana not bad; found a music market of old LP’s and CD’s in Plaza Dos de Mayo. Coming south on the Calle Fuencarral we shopped trendy stores in Chueca all the way down to the Gran Via. International chains like Muji and Spanish ones like Desigual perked our interest, but not enough to invest. We didn’t see anything worth buying in Spain until we got to Barcelona. By this time even Madrilenos were eating an early supper, so we tried the Art Nouveau-meets-Beaux-Arts McDonalds on Gran Via. The usual, although the salad comes with oil and vinegar in clever hermetically sealed packets that keep them together but separate.
Took an evening paseo through Chueca. Paseos were one of the best parts of the trip: just walking through neighborhoods, or along main drags like Puerta del Sol or along the river, watching the Spanish walk and watch each other. Chueca is the historically gay neighborhood of Madrid. Twenty years ago Antonio Banderas, Pedro Almodovar, and Penelope Cruz would have been club hopping here. Today it’s more tourists and trendy locals, a mix of Dupont, Capitol Hill, and Adams Morgan crowds. We’d set ourselves the impossible goal of a drink where we wouldn’t end up smelling like cigarettes; settled on a cava in a plaza bar outside. Still too early for the party crowd, but as we tended to be asleep by 11PM, we never got (or expected) to play with that set.
Sunday, September 13
Through the stamp market in Plaza Mayor, on our way to El Rastro, the most famous flea market in Spain. What a waste of time. Like a bad NYC street fair without the food: underwear, vulgar t-shirts, tons of American-aimed merchandise. Went on for blocks, downhill toward the river, making me wonder how we were going to avoid climbing back up through the dreck. Fortunately it went on so long that at the end we were not far from a Metro station. Sure, climbing through the damn station was probably as much work as hiking back up the hill, but at least there were stairs, and we didn’t have to look at Metallica posters. Got off at Retiro, exiting with a flock of the Madrid version of Chevy Chase ladies. More disappointments followed: the Museum of Decorative Arts was closed, but possibly reopening Tuesday. Right (we were learning!). The Casa de America had a half-hour wait for a tour, of what they couldn’t tell us, and the restaurant was still closed. The Naval Museum was open, but tired and boring, like if Navy Annex had a museum and only concentrated on battles before 1880. Still, two great rooms with leaded glass ceilings, and some interesting models of ports, fortifications, and schools. Can you tell we were desperate for distraction? The Museo Arqueologico Nacional was being refurbished, but had a free gallery open of their greatest hits. Discovered I liked pre-Roman Iberian sculpture a lot, don’t know if I’d ever seen any before. Reminded me of Aztec, without the blood cult.
Got a decent meal at a restaurant called Cibeles, which looked too Retiro-rich for our blood, but the set-lunch turned out to be affordable and good: chicken cutlet, pasta, salad, a lovely pudding with chocolate sauce and a ripe melon.
West across town through the University district, where there were some lovely Art Nouveau mansions and designed-for-the-car-but-cool Modern apartment buildings. Near the Manzanares we hopped on the Teleferico, a cable car that takes you across the river to the Casa de Campo. Why bother? The “park” was dry and browned out, like the hills in Los Angeles. We stopped under a tree, reviewed the view, looked at each other and jumped right back on for the return trip. Plus, our Madrid Card didn’t cover the cost; that would have required the elite level. The whole Madrid Card thing turned out to be a waste – it did get us in a few more convenient museum entrances, and prevented our having to struggle with Euros at each place. Overall, though, since most museums are only open 10-2, it would be hard to see enough sites that charge to justify the cost of the card. If you go, skip it.
The Parque del Oeste has an enormous rose garden where we waited out a rain shower (the only real precipitation of our trip). South back toward the Royal Palace to the Templo de Debod. This is a temple that Egypt gave Spain in thanks for their help saving treasures from the Aswan Dam. Nicely sited in a reflecting pool in the park, with good views of the storms passing over the valley. The Museo Cerralbo, one of the great house museums of Madrid, advertised open in tourist info we’d been handed in Madrid, closed for renovation. Back through Franco-auto-world to the Jardines de Sabatini. Beautiful landscaping, with some of the hedges so involved that they looked like mazes, but weren’t.
Disappointed by a day in which so much wasn’t available to us, we rewarded ourselves with dinner in the Plaza Mayor. The Plaza is a great pedestrian colonnaded square of residential and commercial buildings, built in neoclassical perfection and opening to the city via great arched entries. In the Inquisition they burned Jews, Moslems, and Protestants here, retains the sense of a public auditorium. We never passed through without seeing something, a market, performers, cafes. Very touristy, but that’s exactly what we needed right now, something designed for us and delivering as advertised. The Museo del Jamon is actually a deli/restaurant chain around Madrid; their Plaza Mayor outlet fed us plates of Serrano ham, cheeses, salads, tortilla Espanol and vino by moonlight.
Monday, September 14
It was starting to look like the trick was to do a small museum or two in the morning, when they were most likely to be open, and in the afternoon hit one of the big-deal sites, which tended to stay or re-open later. I’d been worried about not having enough time for the big museums, but that wasn’t turning out to be the problem, scheduling was. So today we tried a new strategy, despite the fact that it was Monday, always a dry well in the museum world. We caught the Metro up to the Paseo de la Castellana, lined with business skyscrapers. It reminded us a lot of Friendship Heights/Bethesda: new vacuous office towers, bland condos, boring but high priced retail. First stop was the Museo de Escultura al Aire Libre, “the Museum of Open Air Sculpture”. I was expecting a sculpture garden; but it’s actually a bunch of contemporary Spanish sculpture plopped under a highway overpass. A massive stone suspended a few inches above the ground was the most important piece, by Eduardo Chillida. Yawn. Nice rushing waterfall at the rear of the space; it was probably supposed to counter some of the traffic noise, but despite its large size was so far in the dark that we almost missed it.
Off the main drag are former mansions now rubbing shoulders with a mix of office towers and embassies. The American Embassy an embarrassing concrete bunker. Our destination was the Fundacion Lazaro Galdiano. As we approached, the roads were torn up, the building appeared to have scaffolding, and we groaned anticipating a rerun of the previous day. To our surprise, however, it was open, and fabulous. Senor Galdiano was a publisher at the turn of the last century. He took on the goal of introducing Spain to the cultural world they’d missed over the previous 200 years. He was a serious book and print collector, looking for both outstanding examples of Spanish heritage, and contemporaneous pieces from the mainstream European cannon. He married an Argentine heiress who enabled him to upgrade to collecting paintings, first editions, jewels, and oddities in wood, textiles, glass, and other technical/crafts. Together they built the Palacio Florida as both their residence and eventually a museum. The galleries show the art, interpret the house as used by the family, plus tell the story of the couple. The parquet floors and ceiling paintings, which use classical imagery to show the couple’s passions, are exquisite. The top floor is arranged as a “collectors cabinet”, with rooms of medals, metals, textiles, carvings, ceramics, and weaponry. The paintings include Goyas, a Bosch, a cool Brueghel Noah’s Ark, even a Gilbert Stuart. Galdiano fled to Paris during the Civil War, then New York during World War II. After the war he created the Foundation to preserve and educate. This is one of the best house museums we have seen, a Frick or Gardner for Madrid.
We caught the Metro down to the main train station, Atocha, and got tickets on the AVE high speed to Toledo for Wednesday. The old train shed has been beautifully renovated into a palm garden with a lake of live turtles. The station serves commuter trains, regular and long distance rail, and the high speed AVE’s, all from separate areas. Is confusing, but a miracle of organization. There is supposed to be a memorial here to commemorate the dead from the terrorist bombing during the Iraq War, but we couldn’t find it.
Across the street is the Reina Sofia. Jeane Nouvel renovated a former hospital into Spain’s national Modern art collection. It picks up around 1850; where the Prado and Thyssen leave off. The big deal is Picasso’s “Guernica”. I hadn’t seen it since it left the MoMA to come to Spain in the 1980’s. They’ve given it a beautiful installation, with approach galleries that show Picasso’s working drawings, the World’s Fair pavilion it was painted for, the cultural situation in Spain that led up to the Civil War, and photos of the War itself. The use of the painting to educate is brilliant. Also on display are the usual Modern Masters, plus major pieces by Spanish artists one has never heard of. The temporary/contemporary shows were the usual pretentious video offerings, but a show on Madrid artists in the 1980’s was enlightening – I have to learn more about gay artist Perez Villata. Nouvel put the visitor support services in separate buildings in the back: a stunning but too expensive café, bookstore, and library. Sadly, there are few books worth buying in Spain; anything in English is cheaper and more easily purchased via Amazon. Even the best bookstores follow the Buenos Aires habit of shrinkwrapping volumes so you cannot open them. I’m going to buy an art book without riffling through the illustrations? I think not.
We walked past the Museum of Anthropology and National Astronomical Observatory on Alfonso XII, a street of bookstalls, very Paris Left Bank. The Royal Botanic Gardens are huge, and still a research institution a la Kew. Even though little was in bloom, the hardscaping and layout of plant types into individual parterres was amazing.
Heading back to the hotel, we stopped at a supermarket for picnic supplies for tomorrow, then rested. Dinner in Chueca; Michael and Catie at a falafel chain called Maoz, me at Chicago Hot Dog. I mean, how could I pass up a place like that, even if the dogs were small and the relishes like nothing I had ever seen on a bun before (certainly not in Illinois).
Tuesday, September 15
Getting out to the Escorial was a headache. It’s on the commuter trains, the Cercanias, not the regular RENFE trains. Because it’s a commuter route, a complex system has evolved without a lot of instructions. (Think about a tourist trying to figure out MARC, or the B&M.) We got to Atocha early to catch an 8:15 out, but the train never showed on the departure monitors. We suspect it arrived at a platform and just didn’t make the board, or it never came at all, or whatever. Eventually figured out it would probably leave from a single platform, waited there, and caught the 9:30. Tedious. Fortunately the service itself was good, and we got there by 10:45. Plenty early to avoid crowds. We then discovered that Rick Steves is right, we should have taken the bus as they leave much more frequently, and from the train we still ended up taking a local bus to … the Escorial bus station. Lesson learned. A not unpleasant walk through the town uphill to the Escorial.
How to explain this building, on all its levels?
It’s one of the biggest buildings ever, still. Phillip II had it custom built as a place from which to run half the world: Spain, Belgium, Holland, Burgundy, Austria, big chunks of Germany and Italy, Mexico, Peru. Even though the country was rolling in New World gold, this is the only major Renaissance building in Spain, it cost that much to bring it in on time.
It’s technically a monastery dedicated to St. Lawrence. Lawrence was grilled; he supposedly told his killers “turn me over, I’m done on this side”. Such savoir faire when facing martyrdom. In his honor the layout is of a giant hibachi grill, with the royal residence the handle, a school and monastery the front grid, and management wings in between, all centered on a Basilica. There are wicked morbid aspects: Phillip and his daughter’s bedrooms are both set up so they could see the High Altar from their beds; underneath several wings was enough mausoleum space that every Spanish royal since has been buried here. The Inquisition got its most sophisticated incarnation in this building; Protestants viewed it as the embodiment of everything wrong with Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Between the scale and Renaissance restraint, it would be boring if it weren’t so intimidating.
Are we all looking forward to seeing it now <smile>? It’s actually pretty cool. You start in the Museum of Architecture, basement galleries that teach the architecture and construction of the building itself. Next are the Galleries of Paintings, with more Catholic art than you ever need to see. Upstairs, the Hall of Battles is frescoed floor to ceiling with illustrations of how to go to war and win it, Hapsburg-style. The Hapsburg Apartments are where Phillip and selected successors lived. There is another wing of Bourbon apartments, but they and the main mausoleum were (my feet thank you) under renovation. We did get to the Pantheon of Infantes, where unwed royal children were interred, quite gruesome enough. The Chapter Rooms take you back to a museum gallery environment; they have brilliant Bernini and Cellini sculptures. The Library was as important for its wall and ceiling frescoes of noted and approved writers as for the books under lock and key. You exit to the Patio of the Kings, a welcome outdoor recuperation space before you enter the Basilica. It’s a little bit like the marathon walk through every gallery of the Louvre or Vatican, but with more residential spaces interspersed. Exhausting, but you feel like you’ve accomplished something by doing it. This is also where Catie began developing her “the problem with religious art in Spain” thesis. This wasn’t going to get nailed down until Barcelona, but I’m throwing it in here so you’ll know what was brewing.
Spanish churches, museums, and houses are encrusted with religious art. You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and we didn’t, we were seeking it out. Still, something seemed wrong. We kept seeing the same stories over and over: Immaculate Conception, Nativity, Passion, Crucifixion, Ascension, Assumption. Not that those aren’t core pieces of the Christian puzzle, but over everything was an aggrandizing of the part of Mary, and downplaying of the role of Jesus as a teacher. There was almost no imagery of the Old Testament, or of the life and miracles of Jesus. Michael, with his food-centric focus, could not find any Weddings at Cana, or Loaves and Fishes. No Sermon on the Mount. Almost no stories/pictures of the Apostles, except for the Four Evangelists as verifiers that Yes, the Jesus Miracle happened. Coming from American Catholic and Unitarian-Universalist backgrounds, that totally pissed us off. If you focus on the divinity of Jesus and the sanctity of Mary, you can use them to justify almost anything. Like, enslaving entire New World cultures, stealing their wealth, and funding the Inquisition to murder the children of Jews and Moslems you’d worked out a convert-and-live deal with less than a century before. It’s enough to make you want to pull a Martin Luther.
But as I said, we hadn’t worked up that righteous anger yet. We retreated to a plaza in town for the picnic we’d packed. I’d been afraid there might not be food easily available, but nah, there’s an entire town ready to feed you. Still, pleasant to sit by a fountain, watch kids play, and tourists pore over menus that we didn’t have to translate. We caught the bus back to the train station, where we’d just missed a train. Again, hard to tell which platform was the right one, so we fretted for an hour before getting it right and back to Madrid.
We got off at Chamartin station, where there’s a cool water-wall built in, and switched to the Metro. We rode to Sol to get tickets for the Monasterio de las Descalzes Reales (Convent of the Shoeless Royals). This is where princesses and widowed Queens would retire to live out their lives in poverty and luxury. The Sisters are still there, but evacuate the principal rooms and corridors on a schedule to allow tourists to see the art. Similar “anonymous” art to the stuff that fills the Escorial, but more pleasant. Walls of chapels, canvases by Brueghel, Titian, Zurbaran, ceiling painting by Claudio Coello. A beautiful palace/convent, with an air of peace so profound that you forget the bustle of Puerta del Sol just outside the walls.
Got dinner at Fast Good, a Ferran Adria co-production with NH Hotels. Was overhyped, to be honest; made me feel I wasn’t cool enough for my expensive French fries. As Catie noted, we were paying for the Formica circles. Rewarded ourselves for the day’s train wrassling and Catholic slog with Chocolateria San Gimenes, a drinking chocolate bar in an alley behind Saint Jimmy’s church. Chocolate and churros are one of the great gifts of Spanish cuisine: fat, salt, caffeine, and creamy goodness all together.
Wednesday, September 16
If the Escorial was a bit of a trial, Toledo was a joy. AVE from Atocha got us there in half an hour, through semi-scrub Castille that reminded us of L.A. The station is a Mudejar (Moslem architects working under Christian rulers) Revival masterpiece. A not-unpleasant walk from the train station up to the mountain that the city sits on, then around to a set of escalators that carried us up to the rear of the tourist city. Each museum/site nickel-and-dimes you to death, but no one place is too expensive, and each was worth the price. More important, all was open as advertised. Toledo is famous for its heritage of religious tolerance, with Jews, Moslems, and Christians living together for centuries before the Catholics bollocksed it all up after 1492. Like Bruges and Quebec City, it is a town of winding streets and alleys running between shops, churches, mansions, and museums. The joke is “everything in Toledo is uphill”. I’d been practicing running up the stairs in our apartment building, so was ready. We started in the Jewish Quarter, at the Church of St. Tome. Actually, for El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz”, which is all they let you see for your three Euros. Stopped for a Magnum in the plaza outside, then into the Sinagogo de il Transito. A few of the synagogues and mosques of Toledo were saved by being converted into churches; this one has been restored back to how it looked as a synagogue, with an adjacent museum of Jewish life in Spain. This was the first (but not last) place we saw a painting of Mary sending a chasuble (holy poncho) to San Ildefonso, the “miracle” that legitimized Catholic rule over the city. The Museo d’Arte Contemporaneo is under major renovation, but wide open so we could see how the houses had been built.
The Sinagogo Santa Maria la Blanca is a gorgeous Mudejar confection of white columns and horseshoe arches. Jesuits do the best Baroque; their Church of San Ildefonso did not disappoint, with a Baroque altar in a neo-classical interior. Also a wonderful tower walk up for a birds-eye view of the city. The Iglesia de San Roman is a restored Visigoth church; who knew there was a post-Roman, pre-Moslem culture? Now serves as the Visigothic Museum/Museo de los Concilios. No really breathtaking exhibits, just the pure space and restored frescoes. Brilliant, and free! At the Monasterio de Santa Domingo el Antiguo we bought marzipan pastries, a specialty of Toledo, from a nun. We walked around the old fortress Alcazar, being turned into a military museum/Falangist shrine. The people of Toledo trapped the Fascist military here in their fort, and Franco was forced to send reinforcements to free them. How telling that the contemporary army sees it as a site for commemoration. Great view over the Tagus/Tajo River.
Not bad for a morning, eh? Sounds exhausting, but each site very manageable, and the historic center small enough to be easily walkable. Had lunch at Palacios Restaurant, on Calle Alfonso X el Sablo. Totally tourist, and delicious: roast pig, chicken Toledana, fish-stuffed red peppers. Having learned to keep big sites for post-lunch siesta, headed over to the Museo de Santa Cruz. This is the main art museum of Toledo; it’s been under renovation so long that even old tour books talk about the “free admission, but only until the restoration is complete”. The museum was originally a hospital, on a cruciform plan with vast wooden vaults and lovely cloisters. Boring contemporary local art, and historic pottery, but the show is the building.
The E Ticket in Toledo is the Cathedral. It’s one of the largest Gothic churches ever built; so big that the choir, blocking the center of the nave, is bigger than most churches. Astounding polychrome wood carving, metal, painting, altars, chapels. No memory of the glass; wonder if the windows were boring, or just not able to compete with everything else? The Chapter Rooms now house the painting collection; El Greco is the local boy wonder, but also Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Van Dyke. The Treasury has gem-encrusted hats-on-skull relics, a piece of glass from Toledo, Ohio, and a Fra Angelico crucifix given by Benito Mussolini to Franco. In 1732 they decided the altar was too dark, so knocked a window into the wall behind it. A simple window was insufficient to reflect the glory of the Church, so they created the Transparente, an elaborate Baroque stage piece. It shows the exaltation of the Eucharist via frescoes, sculpture, oil painting, and multiple altars, all integrated into an image of Christ rising (descending?) through the Mystic Birth Canal into the Sunday cracker. I’d thought Bernini’s “Agony of Saint Theresa” in Rome the pinnacle of Baroque excess, but it is an Arthur Miller play next to the Transparente’s Ziegfield Follies.
Having conquered the must-do’s, we surrendered to Toledo’s charms, and strolled the city, letting alleys and plazas take us where they would. We found a new set of escalators, only put into service recently under a new convention center, and marked it for a quicker way back to the train station. Bought more cookies from nuns. Delicious dinner off the main plaza, the Zocodover, of Toledo red pepper soup, Sopa Castellana, pork stew, and chicken plancha. Got back to the train station just in time to beat a summer shower.
Thursday, September 17
Saying goodbye to the Arosa’s tiny elevators and Gran Via’s Deco charm, took Metro to Atocha and AVE to Seville. Castille/La Mancha was less barren here, but not much. As the train descends the plateau things get greener, but never really green, with organized agriculture. Olive and orange groves, and some corn-like plant we didn’t recognize. Tobacco? Andalucia is definitely agro-industrial, like California’s Central Valley.
Santa Justa, Seville’s main train station, is new, Modern, and cool, with a swoopy roof that serves as a landmark. Should have grabbed a cab, but instead crossed uptown via Avenida de Kansas City (?!?) to the Barrio Santa Cruz and our hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia. This was the most luxe hotel we stayed in, totally worth it. They’ve combined eight courtyard-style houses via sculpture-crowded garden paths and skylit tunnels. Feels like you’re in a Roman ruin that’s just been excavated, or maybe lived in for centuries by Victorian-era Spaniards who couldn’t be bothered to shift the statue of Apollo out of the entry. Several roof decks, courtyard fountains, piano bar, even a rooftop pool made the place eminently explore-able. Impeccable service, and they gave us two adjacent rooms so we had a floor (and seemingly a whole courtyard) to ourselves.
We had lunch at a tapas bar in the Plaza Santa Maria la Blanca just outside the hotel. Finally felt like we were getting the hang of ordering tapas: spinach & chickpeas, calamari, pork stew, ham croquettes, ensalada Russa (aka, potato salad). We got happily lost in the back ways of the Barrio Santa Cruz, which is one of the things to do in Seville. Almost no streets were signed; what worked was to see where you were on a map, figure out the general direction you wanted to go, and use the map without looking at any of the words. Interesting, like orienteering with church plazas instead of forest clearings.
Seville Cathedral is the biggest in the world (by volume? depends on how you count these things), but unlike St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s, did not overwhelm. The choir is too big, ditto the high altar, a collection of polychrome dioramas a la Toledo. Overwrought side chapels and treasury. Columbus’s tomb, and Ferdinand of Aragon’s flag. The best parts were the remains of the Moslem mosque that had once stood here: the Courtyard of the Oranges, with the irrigation troughs leading to each tree, and the Giralda Tower. The latter had been designed with an interior spiral staircase with low risers so the muezzin could ride a horse up for call to prayers. Sounds dumb, but actually works. It’s a pleasant hike up, with displays on each mezzanine about the bells, construction, and history. Stunning views from the top.
We went looking for a specific convent that sold pastries, got completely lost but found the shopping strip on the Calle Sierpes instead. It would appear that people really do still buy flamenco outfits and lace mantillas here; those stores were too high end for the average tourist. Sort of like in Nashville, where lawyers still dress in 1950’s seersucker and performers buy cowboy hats.
Followed signs to the Museo Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija. The Condesa created a private palace museum that is still in the family. Although her kids are not in residence, retired retainers live upstairs. The palace was built in the 16th century and renovated in the 19th. The Countess inherited title and wealth from Golden Age Spain. She used it to figure out how to preserve antiquities from Roman sites like nearby Italica. She was the first person to lift entire mosaic floors and move them to a safe site; in her case, her house. Several courtyards and rooms in the palace have Roman floors; the walls are trademark Spanish tiles, and the furniture Louis XVI. The English-speaking tour guide, once we got her off script, was hysterical. She confided that “American English, she is too difficult”. We decided she’s right. Europeans, including the English, often speak a more basic language that allows non-native speakers insight. Americans, who rarely have to worry about language barriers, have littered our speech with idioms and jargon. Interesting.
Siesta at the hotel, then an extended walk to find dinner. We chose our route poorly in terms of restaurants, but brilliantly re seeing Seville. The Jardines de Murillo extend along the back of the Alcazar garden walls. They lead to the Royal Tobacco Factory, where Bizet’s “Carmen” worked. It’s now the main campus of the University of Seville, and welcomed us into modern art installations via giant arched entries and courtyards. Seville has a new tram network that runs just four stops; we got to see it here at its northern terminus and trailed it down to the Cathedral. Not useful to us, but an intelligent step toward a better transit system. Ended up at a sandwich chain for dinner; crustless Wonder Bread with cream cheese and mayonnaise-loaded fillings. Was like eating in England. Walked up around the Cathedral, and discovered the Calle Mateos, which led us almost effortlessly through the maze of Santa Cruz to Santa Maria la Blanca and our hotel.
Friday, September 18
The breakfast buffet at Casa de la Juderia is astounding; all the usual suspects from England, America, Spain, and Germany; plus eggs cooked to order. Fresh squeezed orange juice (as all over Spain), but also peach juice. Awesome. The Church of Santa Maria la Blanca next door was open, we saw the sensational ceilings and what we think was a Murillo. Walked off breakfast south to the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. When Spain closed the convents and monasteries in the 19th Century, there was a fear that the art treasures these groups had held were in danger of being destroyed or sold abroad. A group of citizens turned a convent into a “safe house” for the best of the art that could be collected; that became the Museum of Fine Arts. Three courtyards, two levels, an entire church/convent crowded with Murillo altarpieces. Tile walls, paintings of Seville Holy Week processions, Zurbarans, a great series of early Renaissance Four Seasons.
Walked southeast back downtown to the Plaza Cabildo. This houses an artisan craft market when it isn’t under renovation. The plaza is created by a lovely curved building with an interior courtyard, spitting distance from the Cathedral. Lo and behold, there was the pastry-vending-convent we’d missed yesterday. It’s inside the plaza; and yes, there is a blue and yellow sign for El Torno bakery across from the Cathedral on Avenida de la Constitucion, look close.
Post-cookies, went to the Alcazar. Most Alcazars were Moslem rulers’ palaces that we taken over by Christians. This one was built from scratch by a Catholic king using Moslem artisans. A great pre-show to the Alhambra, tons of Mudejar courtyards, tile patterns, arches, and rooms opening onto other rooms. Somehow, though, not fun. The gardens behind, though, mucho mas fun: peacocks, ducks, killer carp (they liked the nun’s cookies), a gutter in the sky feeding a huge cistern tank, a maze, acres of formal gardens. Fabulous.
Lunch at a tapas bar just to the north; ropa vieja, steak bits in savory potatoes. Siesta at the hotel’s rooftop pool. Then a walk to the Parque Maria Luisa, site of the 1929 World’s Fair. Bummer timing for the Fair, but the exposition buildings remain in decent shape. Several countries’ pavilions became their consulates. Most architecture a kind of Neo-Plateresque, but also some Mudejar and even Art Deco. Spain, Mexico, Columbia, Guatemala, and Brazil’s buildings all stand out. The grounds are a common place for Seville’s Paseo, and crowds of families and tourists share space with flocks of white pigeons. Not doves, must be some kind of albino variation. The Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares (Museum of Popular Arts and Customs) is a complete waste of time; exhibits of Spanish trades that look like they haven’t been updated or possibly dusted since 1950. If you want to see galleries of poorly lit lace, this is the place to be.
Down to the Guadalquivir for a further paseo along the river. There are major auto roads along the river, but nice walks once you get across the traffic. Much of this had been built for the 1992 World’s Fair, and was in pretty poor shape. The space around the Torre del Oro is well maintained, but then it declines. I’d thought of having us cross the Santiago Calatrava bridge to the main Fair site on the further side of the river, but every guide book had discouraged this, and visual inspection corroborated. Looks like the city hasn’t found a use for the site, and the buildings are going to ruin. Not yet ruined enough to be interesting, just enough to be creepy. Instead checked out the Triana bridge, walked around the bullfighting arena, through the Arenal neighborhood and back up to Santa Cruz.
Saturday, September 19
We packed and left our bags at the front desk, then headed out to the Casas Pilatos, also known as the Palacio Medinacellis. This is the noble family that turned Seville’s Holy Week procession into a major tourist event; they figured out that the distance from their palace to the Cathedral was the same number of paces as Christ walked from Pontius Pilate’s to Calvary, or something like that. Their palace served, and still does, as Seville’s Passion kick off every Good Friday. Three fabulous courtyards, upstairs used in winter and downstairs in summer, minor paintings by great painters (Leal, de Cano, Ribera, Goya). Upstairs ceilings painted by Pacheco, downstairs ceilings with Mudejar stucco muquarnas (that’s the hanging stalagtite-like stuff on a Moslem ceiling). Everywhere were fabulous iridescent tiles.
On the map was a space that intrigued me, the Alameda Hercules. It’s a long plaza with pairs of pillars at either end. Was probably once green, was definitely once a sewer that filled with overflow from the Guadalquivir, but is now well paved and full of middle class families enjoying the weekend. Down to the river, and back into town via the Campana and Calle Tetuan, partner shopping street to Calle Serpies (from October 17th, please keep up!). Said goodbye to the Cathedral, picked up our bags, and schlepped back to Santa Justa to catch the regional train to Granada.
The train across Andalusia to Granada was uneventful. The landscape reminded me of Flanders, not in terms of topography (dry vs. wet, rolling vs. flat), but being totally worked/owned/farmed/developed over the centuries. As we climbed the Sierras, it started to look more like southern Utah, but green. Took a cab from the station to the Melia Granada. Melia is a Spanish hotel chain, several levels of service, ours like a Holiday Inn/Sheraton.
Granada is surrounded by mountains in the Daro River valley. The Alhambra sits on a mountain on the east side, the Albaicin (old Moslem/Jewish city) and Sacromonte (historically gypsies, now with hippy dropouts) on another on the west. In between in the valley is the city, which really is a regional capital, like Denver or Cleveland, not just a village supporting the tourist attractions. That was a pleasant surprise. We walked up the Avenida Reyes Catolicos, the main drag. The “Catholic Kings” were Ferdinand and Isabella, who whupped the last Moslem kingdom here in 1492, sent Columbus to the Caribbean, and moved the capital into the captured Alhambra. There are Moslem reminders/ruins all over town; we walked into the Corral de Carbon, a Moslem caravanserai where merchants would park their camels and goods when they came to town. Later used as a coal shed (hence the “Carbon”), now a free museum space open 24/7. Not so much stuff to see, as cool to stand in the courtyard and feel the centuries of traders who passed through. Dinner at a paella place in the Plaza Bisrambla, where we got the only free tapas we saw in Spain. The people and food got friendlier and better as we went further south. Apparently Granada is the last city in Spain that still remembers tapas as a freebie with your vino, rather than a small dish that they try to get you to upgrade to a bigger portion at twice the price.
If we were going to see the Alhambra by moonlight, tonight was the only night it was going to be possible. We jumped into a cab and waited at the Alhambra ticket office to get in. With reservations you can walk right up, but without you stand in line and hope to get in. Not a busy night, wait was just half an hour, and though crowded, worth it. The Nasrid Palaces are the only parts open at night; you’re not really getting moonlight, but electric lights shining up the walls to emphasize the stucco carving, tile glazes, and atmosphere. The crowds prevent any channeling of Moslem princes, or even Washington Irving, but it’s still a magic place. Back at the hotel, Michael had a card letting me know that he was treating me to a drink and dinner tomorrow for my birthday.
Sunday, September 20
The Melia buffet was almost as good as the Casas: even included baked beans and greasy sausage for the Brits. We caught the bus to the Alhambra, which was as brilliant as I’d always hoped. Now that we were there in the daytime, we were able to appreciate the ruins of the town that had once served the palace. There are extensive garden areas that the Moslems and Spanish built between the buildings. The Alcazaba is the original fortress that made the Alhambra worth building, and impregnable. We got into line for the Nasrid Palace, and went with the crowd through the rooms. These were not actually palaces, and were only connected into the path we walk today by the Spanish, who created a lot of mythology that Washington Irving later embellished. The buildings were probably originally hunting lodges for the court, used only at night, and a madrassah, or mosque-related college. Now it’s a pastiche of legends. What is real, and in front of you, and in the flash of a million cameras are stucco walls in every geometric pattern you’ve ever seen. M.C. Escher saw these walls and created his distinctive style of interlocking images. Also real are the fountains and gardens created by the Spanish on the Moslem foundations: probably not authentic, but so old now that they are their own reality that has influenced garden design for 500 years.
We wandered through Charles V’s Renaissance palace, plopped into the midst of the Moslem structures and never finished before Charles’ son Phillip moved the capital to Madrid anyway. A perfect square building holding a perfect round courtyard, we loved it despite all the critics telling us we shouldn’t. It houses a small but good museum of Moslem art from the grounds and other sites.
We left the main walled area via the Partal Gardens, and what was advertised as the “wall walk of the month”. Led us onto ramparts and along the foundations of walls leading back to the entrance to the complex. Nice reminder of the engineering we’d seen in the Alcazaba, and also a close-up look at the aqueducts that made life in the fortress possible and lush.
The final big site here is the Generalife. This was the “escape” palace for the Nasrid kings, about fifteen minutes further up the mountain. It reminded us of the Grand Trianon at the Louvre. The gardens stellar, the siting of buildings for views of the valley perfect. You start in a 1950’s era very Modern garden/auditorium space, then go uphill to 1930’s box hedges, into a cool small palace, and then lose your orientation. Orange blossoms, jasmine, baths, courts. A water stair with fountain channels on either side. I’d wanted to see the Alhambra ever since reading Washington Irving in high school. It did not disappoint.
Bus back to town, and our best meal of the trip, at Meson Andaluz. Were we getting better at ordering, or was the food in Granada really the best? Sherry fino, tinto verano, jamon, artichoke salad, bacalao ceviche with oranges, fried eggplant with honey, spinach and eggs, grilled squid. Back to the hotel for a siesta.
We slept, then went to scout the airport bus stop. The Capilla Real, adjacent to but separate from the Cathedral, was open, so we hopped in to see Ferdinand and Isabella, their daughter .Juana the Mad, and her husband Phillip the Fair. Tombs, eh. Art, cool. Isabella had collected one of the finest piles of art ever assembled by a woman; Napoleon nicked the best stuff for the Louvre. What he left behind is here, Derrick Bouts, Memling, Van der Weyden, Botticelli.
Walked up through the Albaicin, which was supposed to be so steep we should take a bus, but was not so bad, to the Mirador St. Nicolas. This is a plaza with view over the Alhambra. Postcard perfect, but the plaza full of bums, hippies, and trouble looking for a place to happen. We slipped out before we were marked, to the new Mosque of Granada next door. Same view, much nicer crowd, at a center built to rehab the Moslem heritage of Granada and Spain after 500 years of Spanish slander. Downhill via stairs to the river, where craft stores greet tourists on paseo. Michael treated me to my birthday dinner back in the Plaza Bib-Ramblas, then back to the hotel.
Monday, September 21
Having conquered Granada, we could now enjoy just walking through the city. Wandered west, through the modern St. Augustine market and baroque coolness of the Church of Saints Ignatius and St. Paul. With the regular weekday retail open, it acted like a whole different city. The pomegranate, Granada’s symbol, is carved into bollards along the sidewalks, and we saw pomegranates growing on bushes in gardens and parks. Many of the streets have unique and funky lighting, ranging from pseudo-Victorian gas lights to a 1970’s Borg-ship Modern. Bought saffron, mint, and olive oil at an herb store.
The Cathedral is the second largest in Spain, Renaissance, with tons of large Cano altarpieces and fluted quadrefoil columns. The sacristy is a museum of vestments, but still an active sacristy, with ladies of the Holy Rosary Guild equivalent folding up altar linens around us tourists. It was calming to be in Renaissance spaces after the dynamism and occasional headache caused by the Baroque/Plateresque that predominates in Spain.
Easy and cheap run out to the airport by bus from the Cathedral. Granada sitting in the mountains, it would have taken all day to get out of town and up to Barcelona by train. Instead, the small airport and Spanair made it a breeze to get between the two cities. Barcelona’s airport now has two terminals, and the rail options haven’t caught up. The subway and train connections only run from the original Terminal II. Having come into Terminal I, we discovered there was a $5 euro bus direct to Placa Catalunya, and hopped on it.
Barcelona was the most urbane of the cities we visited, with the best shopping, architecture, and transit. Also the one where we were served the worst food, treated most rudely, and blatantly cheated. It evokes mixed emotions. I think it may be like New York City in the 1950’s, with more money and people coming in than they know what to do with, and a commensurate drop in civility. The Catalan thing is totally annoying: after fifty years of being forced to hide their culture, I can understand their desire to revel in it again. However, resurrecting a limited language like Catalan in place of a widely spoken one like Spanish/Castillian seems insane and arrogant. I thought I was going to like the idea of a Catalan heritage, but after exposure I’m shocked to find I hope it fails. They should either be Spanish, or French, and since history has put them with the former they should suck it up, rule the country economically, and move on.
So much for travel broadening the mind <wink>.
Placa Catalunya is the center of Barcelona, where the old Gothic city meets the Victorian Eixample grid. Walking up Passeig de Gracia, the main drag, is a tour through Modernisme, the distinctive local version of Art Nouveau. I’ll be dropping the names Antonio Gaudi, Domenech i Montaner, and Puig i Cadafalch frequently from here on. They worked at the same time, blending floral natural motifs with curves and swirls with industrial materials and colors that shouldn’t work together, but do. The “Manzana de Discordia” is a block of P. de Gracia with a masterpiece by each of them; it shocked Barcelonans 100 years ago, and symbolizes its architectural tourism today.
The Gallery Hotel is conveniently located at Diagonal and Passeig de Gracia. It wants to be a W, and could probably fake it as an NH Hotel, except that its corridors smell like urine. Room acceptable. Our room looked over the Catalunyan Information and Exhibit Center. Picked up brochures, and saw their decent show on special effects in movies (big emphasis on “Pan’s Labyrinth”, which must have been filmed here).
On the walk down Rambla de Catalunya we had our first pleasant surprise in Barcelona: they have worthy retail. For the first time in Spain, we saw items for sale that were not identical to what we had at home, or made in China with “SPAIN!” written on them in big letters. Pleasant craft market on the median of the Rambla, with home and design stores on either side. At the end of the street in Placa Catalunya we found FNAC and Habitat, a branch of Terence Conran’s empire.
The Rambla de Catalunya is a regular street. When people say “The Ramblas”, they’re referring to the main drag of Barcelona, a set of connecting boulevards down the west side of the Gothic city, where there were once city walls. The Ramblas is supposed to be the spiritual heart of the city, where residents and tourists mingle among sidewalk cafes and markets. The tourists have tipped the balance: while the street performers are excellent, the scene overall is tawdry and artificial, and the restaurants overpriced and poor. The Mercat Josep la Boqueria is still a real food market, in a large Victorian wrought-iron shed, crowded and selling meat, fish, and vegetables with a sweaty undertone like Boston’s Haymarket. We weren’t bringing raw fish home, though, so continued down the Ramblas to the Columbus Monument harborside. It is gracious of Barcelona to erect a monument to Columbus, as the discovery of America made Seville the major Spanish port and plunged Catalonia into a depression they didn’t come out of until the Industrial Revolution. We had dinner at a Basque-themed restaurant on the Ramblas. An error: cockroaches, dirt in the salad, and the most expensive meal of our trip for TGI Friday’s quality food. Then the waiter wondered why we hadn’t tipped (even though the tip is included in all Spanish checks, and we hadn’t shorted him, just not left any more). Welcome to Barcelona.
We figured out the Metro, ducking in at Liceo and out at Diagonal; a breeze. The system is doing a major rebuilding of the Diagonal station, to make transfer between the different lines there easier (who knows, maybe they’ll eliminate some extraneous sets of stairs?) Meant that it would be a construction zone for our stay, but was not a big deal, they had signed the street-level transfers clearly enough for even us tourists to understand.
Tuesday, September 22
After breakfast we walked down Passeig de Gracia to the Via Laietana. The Laietana separates the Gothic Quarter, the oldest part of the city, from the Born, the pretty near as old. At the top end is the Palau de la Musica Catalana, Domenech I Montaner’s Modernisme theater. We picked up tickets for an opera/flamenco performance on Friday. The Born is famously one of the most renovated and trendiest parts of Barcelona; its heart the renovated Mercat Santa Caterina. Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue graced the market with an undulating roof of colorful green and earth-tone tiles; tres cool. Inside were exemplary food stores; we made a note to come back before we left town.
The Picasso Museum is a couple blocks away. Several medieval townhouses were combined to create the museum, which has probably the best collection of early Picasso. Eh, Picasso; none of us can figure why he’s so popular, but he is. This is the most visited tourist site in Barcelona; lines regularly form for admission. If you go, make sure you flash your ArtTicket (worthwhile combined admission to six art museums) to avoid the line. If you’re buying an ArtTicket there, look for the separate window/entrance, in a different building from the main.
Across the street, the old Textile Museum has merged with the Ceramic Museum to create DesignHub Barcelona. This is a venue for cutting edge design. The more tired collections of fabric, pottery, and furniture have been moved out to Pedrables. The Born space had a show on travel souvenirs. A blast, both because we were in the midst of transforming Spain into our own travel memories, and because much of what they showed we owned. Fun video compilation of tourist clips from movies. Also a show on dressing tables, which you would think would be a drag, but was pretty fascinating, especially the disassembled pieces showing how construction changed over time. Swiss art gallery Gallerie Maeght has a major location just down the street, in case we wanted to take home some real Miro’s as souvenirs. Perhaps not, but always fun to see decent art with a price tag instead of curator’s text. The Born Market is a wrought iron confection being rehabbed into a city museum; we sat across the street for lunch at the Sandwich & Friends bocadillo chain.
The Museu d’Historia de Barcelona’s main spaces are in the Placa del Rei. Neither while we were there not now can I figure out quite how the spaces all fit. They are, though, one of the best things to see in the city. Excellent English translations all the way through. After a series of welcoming galleries, you descend into excavations of ancient Roman Barcino. This section of the city contained a textile finisher, wine merchant, and fish sauce factory. What you see are stone and brick foundations. The text and audio guide, however, put you back into the period. Even better done than similar sites in Brussels and Quebec. Returning to ground level, you’re in a different building, and learning about the Medieval city. Two adjacent buildings from that period, the Salo Tinell and St. Agatha’s Chapel, are used for contemporary shows. We got one on WWII concentration camp photography, and another on how international immigration is changing Barcelona today. Latter especially was great; is hard to envision an American city taking such a frank look at itself. The bookstore is worth seeing; it has a mural/street map of the city where the streets are made out of the text of the names themselves, in stark Helvetica black on white. Cool.
In Placa de l’Angel we found a fantastic confectioner, and also a branch of Kukuxumusu. This is a t-shirt shop founded by a Pamplona hippie who turned that city’s bulls into cartoon images. He’s continued the chain across Spain; we’d seen them before, but finally bit the bullet and bought his take on Barcelona: cartoon dragons transformed into Gaudi buildings. Schlepped back through the Eixample toward the hotel, taking a detour to Vincon. Vincon is the best design store in Barcelona; it’s been in business since the 1960’s. It’s served Catalonia like Design Research used to serve Boston; introducing new furniture, fabric, and housewares almost as soon as creators could get them manufactured. Very good shopping. The building is a valuable bit of Modernisme; from the terrace upstairs you have a killer view of Gaudi’s Casa Mila. Settled for a coffee mug and a sketch of a light fixture I’m stealing/installing in our dining room.
Wednesday, September 23
The Casa Mila is the one Gaudi building to see if you can only see one. They start you in an exhibition space in an attic formed by parabolic arches made of brick. From there you ascend to the roof, full of little plazas, staircases, corkscrew chimneys, and vistas over the city. On the fourth floor an apartment has been restored to 1910, when the building was new, the residents rich, and Modernisme cutting edge. Excellent interpretation of the architecture in the context of the social changes convulsing 20th century Barcelona.
West through the Eixample, then south through the University neighborhood. Okay, what’s the Eixample? The literal definition is “the extension”; after 1860, the city tore down the medieval walls and began pushing inland. City leaders realized they could have a London-like maze of uncontrolled streets, or they could make a plan. An architect named Cerda won the contest for same; his plan is a grid with the corners cut off. The octagon-shaped blocks allow more light into buildings, more pleasant streets, opportunities for terrific facades, and wicked annoying pedestrian crossings. Major avenues were extended across this grid, including Paral.lel and Meridiana, which follow the Earth’s latitude and longitude. The Diagonal was planned to run from so far out on the waterfront that it only got formally implemented when development caught up with it thirty years ago. Yes, the period in Paral.lel is intentional; Catalan uses a dot in words borrowed from foreign languages to ensure that “ll” is pronounced like an L, not a Y. Oi.
So, a pretty visionary plan. They were blessed that at the same time they were filling it in, their industrialists were creating new and cool materials like wrought iron trim, bright tile glazes, and patterned bricks. Also that they had architects able to see the possibilities of the plan, materials, and technologies together, who created the style Modernisme. Just walking through these neighborhoods is a fun way to spend a morning.
The Raval neighborhood partners the Gothic Quarter, on the west side of Las Ramblas. On the Placa dels Angels (yes, that’s another major plaza with almost exactly the same name as yesterday in the Born, go with me here) is the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA). This is a pristine Richard Meier white structure, at least as good as his High Museum in Atlanta, possibly as good as his Getty. The art on display, however, was HORRIBLE. This is not a small museum, it has a world-reknowned collection, and the works on view left us glazed over. Not just us, we noticed everyone around us was equally dazed, like they knew they were supposed to be learning and respecting what the curators had hung, but couldn’t get their heads around it. We know contemporary art. This is crap, tarted up with Foucault-speak by curators who are condescending to their visitors. Such a cheat, and a waste of great space.
Around the corner, the partner institution Centre de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona (CCCB) was much better. Steep steps take you down, then long escalators into, a rehabbed factory. CCCB is a kunsthalle, an exhibition space without a permanent collection. This idea has filled an important gap in Europe between traditional museums (with collections that eat up most funding) and the desire to show contemporary creation. The show we saw was “The Jazz Century”: how jazz influenced art, and vice versa. Great curatorial job, started with 1900, the evolution of jazz music in St. Louis, New Orleans, and outward, coincident with the art movements that paralleled and were influenced by the music. Film, music, TV, advertising, and timelines supplemented formal fine arts. The show took the cross-influences right up to the 1980’s. Would do credit to an American museum; after all, we created most of this stuff.
Our friend Judy Furukawa had recently reconnected with a former high school Spanish student, David Taylor, and recommended him to us. Oregonian David lives with his Andalucian husband in the Gothic Quarter. He met us at MACBA and led us for a walk around the Raval. What a treat – David has the perspective of several years in Barcelona, a city he’s grown in love with. At the same time, he has the perspective to understand some of our confusion, and brought clarity to a lot of things we’d sensed, but weren’t sure were real. Yes, the Barcelonans were trying to cheat us whenever possible; it’s that aggressive a society. No, the pasta-based paella we’d had was not a cheat, but is actually a local specialty. Fascinating to share the city with him. He took us for a great lunch, then we ambled down the Rambla del Raval by the Drassanes, where medieval Barcelona’s navy was built, to the waterfront. For the Olympics the city extended the Ramblas across the harbor via the Rambla del Mar to Mare Magnum, a shopping mall and aquarium. On top of the Palau del Mar, which houses the Catalan History Museum, we stopped for coffee in the rooftop restaurant with a view of the harbor all around us. David has distinct ideas about the resurrection of Catalan as a language; we seem to agree that there’s more than a little hubris behind the movement. In the lobby I got a quick peak at a show of paperdolls published during the Civil War that Spanish kids would assemble into dioramas of the battles. Slot A, Tab B, history, right up my alley.
David left us at Barceloneta Metro, and we took the subway up to Sagrada Familia. This is Gaudi’s most important project; under construction since 1882. I’d thought it was just two facades, but they’ve almost enclosed and roofed the whole building. Very cool to see a cathedral under construction (D.C.’s was completed the year before I arrived), also to see people creating Art Nouveau architecture almost a century after its heyday. The Gaudi and Subirach facades get most of the press; yes, they have a lot of sculpture in contrasting styles. Better was the elevator ride/climb up the towers and vistas over the city. By the time we were done with Sagrada Familia, the cathedral school below, and the grounds, we were pretty Gaudi’ed out. Had we really only seen Casa Mila that morning? We headed back to the hotel via more Eixample, stopping for dinner at an okay Chinese restaurant. Not as bad as Chinese in Argentina, and nowhere as good as in the States or Hong Kong. Just as we crossed Passeig de Gracia we caught a glimpse of fireworks opening Barcelona’s annual festival, Merce.
Thursday, September 24
I usually avoid city festivals like the plague: if I’m only going to be in a place once in my life, I want it to be on a standard day when I won’t have to fight crowds to get into a museum. I’d checked with David and the hotel desk; Merce is a big deal festival. But, it’s not one that attracts a lot of out of towners. We got the benefit of seeing street performances and music that we would never have seen any other time of year, and didn’t have to give up too much due to crowd inconvenience.
That said, my reaction was to get out of town for this first day of Merce. After a fruitless search for the Passeig de Gracia RENFE station at Placa de Catalunya, we found it at the Passeig de Gracia Metro station. Go figure. The train out to Figueres takes about two hours, inland and northeast almost to the French border. Figueres surprised us; it’s a lovely small town with some high end retail. The draw for us was the Teatre Museu Dali. Salvador Dali had grown up here and in nearby Cadaques; and returned after he achieved fame and fortune. He and his wife/muse Gala transformed an old movie theater into a museum of Dali’s unique brand of Surrealism. No masterpieces here; all the best stuff is in the States, mainly New York and Florida. What you get instead is the-building-as-piece, an enormous Surrealist environment installed by the artist. The usual suspects are all here. The Paris taxi that rains inside, the room that turns into a portrait of Mae West from the right angle, melting watches, bread and eggs as construction trim. Masturbation symbolism everywhere, also portraits of Gala, who seems to have dumped poet Paul Eluard to take up with Dali. A couple of pieces are coin activated; bring some 20 cent and Euro coins to get the full effect (less prepared touristas will thank you). A separate wing, paid for by an American collector, presents jewelry and jewel-encrusted pieces. I was glad we saw this toward the end of our trip, you can see how the Flemish masters, reliquaries, and endless Madonnas in Spanish collections influenced Dali’s work.
Back toward the town center is the Museu de l’Emporda, the local museum. It’s free with Dali admission, and presents the provincial art world that influenced the young artist and that has reacted to his fame.
Caught the train back into Barcelona, got off at Clot, and transferred to Metro to Arc de Triomf. This area northeast of downtown has some of the outstanding parks of the city. The Parc Estacio del Nord replaced a Victorian train shed with neighborhood gym, police district office, and a tile-covered Beverly Pepper sculpture dominating and breaking the park up into separate areas. Around the corner is the Arc de Triomf proper, a red stone monument left over from the Universal Exhibition of 1888. The Expo was an early world’s fair; the grounds became the Parc Ciutadella, and was one of the first sites of Modernisme. For Merce, the park hosted an Asian festival. Mainly Indians and Pakistanis, totally mobbed, and fun. Domenech i Montaner’s expo buildings, now science museums, were topped by giant inflatable dragons and dragon eggs. The Umbracle is an interesting lobster trap of palm trees: not closed to the weather, but definitely a sense of enclosure. Best of all is La Cascada, a major fountain and symbol of the city, with waterfalls, grottos, spouting dragons, classical nymphs, Art Nouveau sculpture, all too much, and suitably Spanish.
An ugly walk around the Zoo along the Circumval.lacio, past the Edifici Gas Natural (same husband-and-wife architects as Saint Catherine Market), into the Olympic Village. Some okay parts (Frank Gehry’s fish, marina at Port Olimpia), and definitely better than the abandoned wharfs and factories that had been here pre-1992. Overall, though, over scale, dehumanizing, and ugly. Got worse as we walked inland through Poblenou. This is supposed to be hip, gentrifying, and happening. All we saw was dark, closed, and deserted. This was the first place in Barcelona, and one of the few in Spain, that we went to that felt dangerous. Metro back to hotel. Pans & Company for dinner, since we were braindead. To our delight, they were handing out free dishes for Merce. Gotta love “free”.
Friday, September 25
Today was Mont Juic day. The main Olympic events had been held on Mont Juic, a park on the mountain that anchors the southwest corner of the old city. Metro to Paral.lel, then funicular up the mountain. You can also take a cable car across from the harbor, but was too expensive for just transport. Tons of school kids on the funicular, but we pretended to be deaf and made the best of it. Fortunately, the park is so large that we lost them on arrival at the top.
The Miro Foundation was designed by Joan Miro’s friend Josep Luis Sert – you know him if you live in Boston, former head of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Holyoke Center, Peabody Terrace, Harvard Science Center, BU Law School. Before he fled Franco/Hitler he designed the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris 1937 World’s Fair, the one for which Picasso painted “Guernica”. Interesting building. Sadly, none of us really like Miro’s work; happily, many of the galleries were being renovated, so we didn’t feel obligated to look at as much. Good bookstore and shop.
There’s an upper track and a lower track to touring Mont Juic. The upper track takes you to the Olympic stadium, swimming pool, and other facilities. We blew that off. The lower track took us to Puig i Cadafalch’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC). If Catalonia was a real country, this would be their national gallery. Building left over from the 1929 World’s Fair held here, decent space, brilliant collection. The headliner is the collection of Romanesque wall paintings from churches endangered all over the province and brought here. Mediocre Renaissance and Baroque, even with a supplement from the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Things get better as you walk into the 19th and 20th Century galleries of local Catalonian artists. Not unlike American art from the same period; peripheral to the main art trends, but with local boys attempting to keep up. People we did not know but should, like Mariano Fortuny and Ramon Casas. The Modernisme furniture fantastic, of course. Unexpected but great were temporary shows on Robert Capa, the photographer who leapt to fame in WWII, and his personal and professional partner, Gerda Taro. Had never heard of Gerda, but her work at least as good as Capa’s. She died in Spain during the Civil War, cutting off what should have been a stellar career.
Steps descend from MNAC in what is billed as the Font Magica, Magic Fountains; turned off. Over to the Barcelona Pavilion. Mies van der Rohe designed this as the German Pavilion of the 1929 fair. It is a seminal building in Modern architecture; some would argue that it is the first Modern building. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is certainly one of the first European designs to take what Frank Lloyd Wright had been saying and develop it in a new way. It doesn’t so much create usable space, as envelop space so you feel enclosed, but still connected to the outdoors. It’s very simple, two rooms and a pool terrace. As a national pavilion it didn’t have to do anything except say “In Germany, we’re very modern”; and it does that well. The building was torn down after the fair, and rebuilt about fifteen years ago on the same site. You’ve probably sat in the famed Barcelona Chair, designed for this space and churned out by Knoll to furnish dentists’ offices across America.
Walked uphill to the Poble Espayol, a fake-village of structures copied from around Spain with craftspeople and, supposedly, regional restaurants. We decided the $8.50 Euro admission was too steep for potential food; instead trudged downhill, through the “Fira Barcelona” (aka, convention center) complex, and around Placa de Espanya to an Indian restaurant, perfect at $11 Euros.
Caixa Forum is just outside of Mont Juic. We’d had to ask David what “caixa” translated to; we’d seen it everywhere from ATM machines to museums. It basically means a cash counter; and has become ubiquitous because Caixa Barcelona is the biggest bank in Spain. Its Caixa Foundation is a major cultural sponsor. They’ve converted an abandoned Puig i Cadafalch textile factory into a kunsthalle. Permanent install of a Joseph Beuys lead room (yawn), permanent collection 1980’s dreadful (Gerhard Richter, Tapies, Julian Schnabel). Temporary shows on Fair Trade and Fauve painter Maurice de Vlaminck both excellent.
Back at the hotel, Michael bought bottled water, Catie rested, and I explored the Palau Robert gardens. Our room overlooked this space, but we hadn’t gotten into it. The garden is small but neat, the adjoining exhibition room had a show of World Press Forum political cartoon winners for 2009. Out for an early dinner at French burger chain Quick, then over to the Catalan Palace of Music for our opera/flamenco performance.
It must be hard to perform when you know half the audience came just to see the room. It is magnificent. An inverted stained glass dome dips into the orchestra, terra cotta nymphs (Graces?) wrap the stage, more figures pop out of columns, one whole wall is a sculptued tribute to Beethoven (Wagner?) and all around is a sense of Modernisme celebrating Catalunya’s embrace of Europe over Spain. The performance wasn’t bad, either. Totally aimed at tourists, flamenco dancers took turns with Zarzuela and opera singers in what would have been an all-Spanish performance, except that “Carmen” was written by a Frenchman, and “Il Trovatore” an Italian. Walking back up Passeig de Gracia, past the open air bookstalls, fountains, and lit up Casa Batlo, Barcelona was never lovelier.
Saturday, September 26
We decided we had enough time to run up to the other half of DesignHub Barcelona, at the Palau de Pedralbes. Metro drops you at the foot of what were once royal gardens, but now a city park. A Gaudi arbor and fountain there, to our surprise. The palace was more of a great house; got the sense that a rich industrialist was pressured into making his home over to the state to serve as a royal residence. Most of the marble/wood was paint on canvas, but beautifully done, and appropriate to the Victorian trashiness of Isabelle II (amazing what we learned about Spanish royalty). The ceramics collection perfectly arranged, from Moslem work through Andalucian azulejos (tiles) to Miro and Picasso, with an emphasis on Catalonian production. Furniture/design galleries showed a great collection from late medieval to the 1992 Olympics. Best were the galleries dedicated to the former Costume Museum. How we dressed, and why we dressed that way, with an emphasis on modifying the body to stress the fashion of the moment. Again, Gothic to now; we especially liked the rooms dedicated to the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Love seeing stuff we wore in a museum vitrine.
Metro back to the Bari Gotic; checking out the artisan food and tourist art market at Santa Maria del Pi, then back to Mercat Santa Caterina for the olive oil, mustard and vinegars we’d promised ourselves. Wandered the Born, on an attempt to find the confectioners we’d liked on Tuesday. Of course, couldn’t find it anywhere in the maze of streets, but did find several design stores. Gave up, got lunch, then found it, La Colmena in Placa de l’Angel. If you go, resist the chocolate and try the hard candy: funky flavors like rosemary, currant, and pomegranate; all delicious.
Siesta at hotel, then off to a fabric store near the Palau de la Musica. Cool textiles, most woven and printed in Spain. Bought some blues for the new apartment - the shop boys were too cute to resist. Metro to Lesseps, then cab up the hill to Parc Guell. This is another Gaudi masterpiece for the Guell family (he designed an urban palace and a country house for them as well). Was supposed to have been a property development, but when only two lots sold, was transformed into a park. This is where you find the statue of a squirting lizard and curvy walls all covered with broken tiles. Also a Doric colonnaded grotto which was supposed to have housed the town market, and now shelters gypsy souvenir vendors. A large plaza tops that, full of people enjoying the sunshine and vista. A building on site houses another Gaudi museum, with furniture and pieces from all his major projects. Wooded paths snake through the park, most with at least one guitar busker providing delightful ambiance.
Walked downhill through the Gracia neighborhood (our street, the Passeig de Gracia, was the main road to the once separate town). It got trendier as we approached their market, but none of it impressed us as worth going out of one’s way to see. Dinner at a Moroccan falafel shop. Michael and Catie hung at the hotel, while I went on an excursion to see light events.
There are several light show kind of things around the city. Torre Agbar, a Conehead-shaped Norman Foster skyscraper for the local water authority, is supposed to be lit every half hour in a computer-controlled, multicolor display. Got out of the Metro at Glories, found myself in one of the world’s largest and ugliest rotaries: too small to be a highway interchange, too big to be anything else. Good view of the dimmed office tower. Knew I was in the right place, as locals leaving the Metro station kept glancing up to see if it was “on”, and my company was three photographers and a group of gay French tourists. Nothing ever happened. After twenty minutes, the French and I looked at each other, shrugged the shrug of people who had been let down once more by Spain, and ducked back into the Metro.
Better luck at the Font Magica. Got out at Espanya, and the whole avenue that earlier had been as dead as L’Enfant Plaza on a federal holiday was now crowded with revellers. Plumes of water lined the street from what I had thought were abandoned planter boxes. Ahead of us, klieg lights pierced the sky in a sunburst effect around MNAC. Below it waterfalls flowed, fog machines did their trick, and cheesy music (Donna Summer, Bee Gees) filled the air. At the base, a giant circular fountain sent up plumes, jets, and dancing arcs programmed to change color and pattern with the music. Made the Bellagio fountains in Vegas look restrained. Totally cool. Got back to the hotel around eleven, just as the natives were setting down to dinner at the sidewalk restaurants.
Sunday, September 27
How to spend a last day in Spain? Catie was Gaudi- and Catholic-arted out; went off last-minute gift shopping and to see the Naval Museum at Drassanes. Michael and I decided to take an agenda-less walk around the Gothic Quarter. Was an excellent day to do this, the Merce festival was in full swing, and we got to see performances at almost every plaza. Down the Ramblas to Gaudi’s Palau Guell; closed, but lovely from outside. Into the Placa Reial, where Gaudi did the light posts. The Casa de la Ciutat is supposed to be open for visitors, and there was an info desk/bookstore, but no one could tell us how to enter for the tour. Suspect closed for the holiday. Eh. Went across to the Cathedral cloister (geese) and sacristy museum (a major monstrance). Just as we were settling into the museum we heard horns and drums in the plaza outside. The nice guard let us out, where we saw competing teams of castellers do their thing. Castellers are a Catalunyan folk tradition; teams dressed in white and red create human towers, often as high as seven people standing on each other’s shoulders. The top person is traditionally a young boy. This once all-male tradition has been integrated, and the pinnacle person now frequently a young girl. Thought this was something I’d only see in guide books and post cards, not in real life.
Around the front of the Cathedral teams were dancing a Sardana contest. The traditional dance of Catalonia, the Sardana is a circle dance with almost nothing happening above the waist, but incredibly elaborate foot work. Under Franco, dancing the Sardana was one of the few ways Catalans had of presenting their identity. The Cathedral steps gave us a great view over the plaza of competing circle/teams do their stuff.
Finally, into the Cathedral. I know we went in, but have to confess, I’ve got nothin’. No photos, memories or post cards. How do you know when you’ve been away from home too long? Suspect it was fine. More Gothic Quarter: artisan markets, Roman walls, Picasso’s bar El Quatre Gats. Got kicked out of the Romantic period Museu Mares; didn’t want to pay for 19th century dreck. Opera performance in Placa Catalunya as social service groups ran an info fair (no giveaways).
Picked Catie up at the hotel and got lunch at El Raco, a decent Italian-themed chain restaurant. Would be Olive Garden, except no diner in Europe would put up with that quality, nor restaurant serve those portions. Fun. Debriefed on our mornings - she couldn’t get into the Museu Maritim due to Merce crowds, but had a good walk along the waterfront. Took the Metro up to Mundet, through the University of Barcelona, past a velodrome with real live bicycle races going on, and up into Parc del Laberint d’Horta. This was hard to find, definitely on the second tier of tourist attractions, and deserves to move up the roster. You enter in the foothills, and climb upwards onto the escarpment above Barcelona. Toward the base is a Mudejar-Revival mansion, behind that the labyrinth. Uphill further to a Neoclassical Pavillion/folly, then down one side through a damned rivulet, the “Romantic Canal”. An inspired garden; we toured the full circuit, then went back to run the labyrinth. This was a blast; a yew or box garden about seven feet high, well maintained, and big enough to hold groups of young adults, and families with kids. All of us got lost inside and helped each other. Just when a group of us thought we had it figured, found ourselves dead center. Using process of elimination, we worked together to map ourselves out.
Metro’ed over to Maresme/Forum, one of Barcelona’s newest neighborhoods, where Diagonal meets the Mediterranean. The Forum is a convention center designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Big, blue, contemporary, and ugly. Adjacent to an American-style shopping mall; because a Sunday, the only stores open were on the food court level. Don’t bother. The widely hailed Parc del Mar was hideous, the scale all wrong, with pointless aluminum loops arcing over pavement that should be grass and water elements that served to separate, rather than center, areas. The main canal stagnant, crossed by a bridge that zig-zags for no apparent reason. Pretentious and alienating. Through the eastern parts of Poblenou, which my guides promised was better than the part behind Barceloneta. They lied; expensive loft condos toward the water, ugly housing behind, and unrehabed Industrial worker housing scattered between. Was this all going cool, then the market crashed? Is it more fun at 2AM, drunk, on drugs, and pretending to be a party city? We couldn’t see it.
Took Metro back, getting off at Verdaguer for a new look at the Eixample east of our station. Some amazing Modernisme, including the Casa de les Punxes, a Puig i Cadafalch Medieval castle.
Monday, September 28
Checked out, bus from Placa Catalunya to Prat airport, and out. US Airways managed to keep our luggage together with us this time; changed in Philadelphia and home to National. Lovely to sit in Philadelphia’s terminal drinking cheap Diet Coke with tons of ice, eating food court Chinese, and reading trashy magazines in English.
Okay, this is nineteen pages of whining. Who really gets to complain when being given three weeks to play around in a foreign country? We got to see art, architecture, and places that we’d previously only dreamed about. Here are the best things we discovered in Spain:
- Fresh fruit, whole or as juice, on demand
- Subways with five minute or less time between trains, announced, and clean
- Mudejar, Moorish, Modernisme, and Deco architecture
- The Prado and Royal Palace in Madrid
- The Alhambra
- Barrio Santa Cruz in Seville
- A pastry/sweets tradition that is its own meal, not an afterthought as dessert
- Plates of ham
- Real coffee almost everywhere
- Wine better than what gets exported, and cheaper than Diet Coke
- Fried eggplant with honey
- Grilled octopus
- Escalators that run slowly in dormant mode, then accelerate when you get on them. Cost effective, and cool.
- Euros are easy, especially with the current exchange where one is about a buck-fifty
And what should people be prepared for if you go?
- An atmosphere of cheapness, despite the high cost: A general thing, but evidenced in little ways like thin nasty paper napkins, crispy toilet paper, and hand dryers vs. paper towels in bathrooms. Bring packets of Kleenex. We knew and did; bring more than you expect to need.
- Hotel bathrooms without a designer who’s thought about how you would use it, with no places to put soap, or towels, or a toothbrush.
- Subway connections that require blocks of walking and redundant flights of stairs.
- Stupid meal schedule, with lunch at 2PM and dinner at 11PM. Not like we ever held off for dinner at that hour, and neither did most of the other tourists, we noticed.
- Filthy air, especially in Barcelona.
- Lack of street signs, or building names. Learn your saints, will help in identifying churches and plazas.
- The Black Legend is alive, well, and justified. Spanish people have done horrible things to others, live with the physical benefit of that, and don’t seem to feel too bad about it. You can sense it in the art, and buildings, and world around you. Creepy.
- The Spaniards haven’t learned that smoking looks trashy and is invasive. Expect it, and don’t bother fighting, just move if necessary.
- You can trust that most places will be open from 10-2. That’s it. Roll with the rest.
- Too much French bread and iceberg lettuce. Not enough spice, or heat. Bring Tabasco.
- Salads will often not be washed. Watch for dirt/grit.