Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Modernism Marvel and Montjuic

The next morning, although sunny and bright, a cool breeze was blowing from the Mediterranean towards the western mountains surrounding the city, bringing with it thin high clouds and the faintest presence of a haze. Having grown up on a peninsula this kind of weather in the morning is not unusual for a city near the sea. It would burn off quickly and another beautiful sunny day was ahead of us. It would turn out to be our hottest day in Spain.
 Casa Amattler (left) and Casa Batlló (right)

If you search the Internet for Barcelona’s top attractions you will find several of them relates to the buildings of Antoni Gaudi, and other Catalan architects famous for their Modernism era (roughly from 1880 to 1911) designs. On our first day we visited the Passeig de Gràcia, one of the city’s major avenues and gaped at the multitude of Modernism buildings that line the avenue: Casa Amattler (designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch) next to Casa Batlló (by Gaudi). Further down are another Gaudi, Casa Mila, and Casa Lleó Morera by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and standing on the Plaça de Catalunya one can hardly miss the rooftop of the Casa Rocamora with its distinct orange ceramic roof tiles designed by the brothers Basegoda. The Passeig de Gràcia is certainly a most unique street. No wonder Barcelona brags so much about it and its beautiful buildings.
Casa Mila by Gaudi

But there is one building that trumps them all. No matter which Barcelonan high ground or rooftop you are on its incomplete towers and ever present construction cranes are visible from anywhere in the city.  Begun in 1886, and projected to be completed only by 2026, 140 years are actually a short time compared to how long it took to build many other buildings of this kind, this Modernism masterpiece by Antoni Gaudi has become the symbol of Barcelona, not to mention a major source of tourists Euros.

 The Basilica de Sagrada Familia 
Call it whimsical, wacky, wonderful, weird, and wayward or whatever w-word you want to employ to describe it, the Basilica of the Sacred Family or simply the Sagrada Familia is something rather exceptional and singular. I am not saying it is the best church I’ve seen, that will come later in the week, but it is different and architecturally the church is a tour de force of ingenuity and light as oppose to the usual darker Gothic churches. Inside and outside it is the amalgamation of the spiritual and the natural according to Gaudi’s vision of the human’s existence in relation to God.

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia 
His ability to envisage something of this magnitude, then made detailed drawings of nearly every square feet of the church’s surface, inside and out, a really extraordinary detailed thinker, and then to build one of the highest naves without the customary flying buttresses and allowed for a kaleidoscope of color from the stained glass windows to provide the décor to compensate for the near absence of the expected ornate chapels, made him a standout among his already phenomenal peers of the Modernism movement of Barcelona.  

 The Passion Façade of the Basilica de Sagrada Familia

Upon leaving the basilica we enjoyed a moment’s contemplation in the park across from the church, taking in the big picture, as if that’s possible, on a bench in the shade of one of the many trees with the reflection of the Nativity Façade crystalized in a shallow pool.

A Modernism marvel 
Interestingly enough, as we sat in the park, my initial thought on the basilica was that it lacks ambiente, ambiance. The place felt cold because of the grey colored stone used on the inside, the extremely high pillars of the nave, and the overall perception of ginormous openness because of the sheer size of the building. But I was making the mistake of comparing it to the many Gothic churches I have seen. There is a huge gap between the technology, tools and design of the early 20th Century and those from 13th to the 15th Century, the same way that Gothic-styled churches were more advance in construction techniques than the Romanesque churches, although artisanship could be of the same quality throughout all periods. This is a relative modern church, a Modernism marvel and should be judged and admired accordingly.  After all, no Gothic architect has ever dared to build an altar that looks like Jesus is parachuting in from the heavens.

The suspended altar in the Basilica de Sagrada Familia 

Afterwards we found a sunny sidewalk table at Farggi, a coffee shop on the quiet side of the church, but still in full view of the basilica, for café con leche and a light, late morning pastry. It wasn’t quite lunchtime yet.  Snack time was short-lived however, time was running out and this was our last day in Barcelona, so we pushed ourselves to move on, out of the massive “shadow” of the Sagrada Familia and headed to the opposite side of the city, to Montjuic, the Jewish Mount. 

We rode the metro to Plaça d’Espanya, a major circular square on the southeastern side of the city, with massive, but beautiful proportioned statues and fountains, walked pass the tall Venetian Towers and slowly made our way up de la Reina Maria Cristina Avenue that leads to the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Along the way I marveled at the treasure-trove of different architectural styles, the buildings and much of the area erected specifically for the 1929 International Exhibition.  

 View from Montjuic with the unfinished Greek columns and the Venetian Towers in front of us and the Church of the Sacred Heart on the hill in the distance 

We climbed some of the stairs up the hill and for the rest use an escalator to the museum level. We never actually went inside the museum. We were not in the mood for artwork. On the horizon the Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, the Church of the Sacred Heart, dominated the Tibidabo Mount on the edge of the Barcelonan bowl. Towards the west, where we just came from, the Sagrada Familia stood high above the surrounding neighborhoods, and immediately below us the varied architectures of the exhibition area and the plaza provided enough panoramic stimulation. Instead of art we were contented with the views from up there, eating a ridiculously overpriced ice cream at the café on the terrace in front of the museum while being serenaded by a Spanish troubadour on a guitar in the hot sun. Unfortunately the huge and famous cascading fountain in front of the museum was not running at that moment.

 The old Catalonian farmhouse inside Barcelona’s Historic Botanical Gardens

One of the surprises we found on Montjuic was the Jardi Historica de Barcelona, Barcelona’s Historic Botanical Gardens, just behind the Catalonian Art Museum. We saw the direction board towards the garden, went in search of it, incorrectly took an escalator to a higher level of the mount, realized we must have passed the garden somehow, took another escalator back down and then found the garden’s entrance hidden behind a non-descripted bear-brown wooden gate. It was not a very big garden, really nothing more than two large hollows into the hill’s side filled with local and foreign species of flora. The tallest and oldest trees in Barcelona is said to be located in the garden. Wandering through the sunny side of the garden some cycads brought back memories from Kirstenbosch in Cape Town for M, while a massive Agave plant reminded me of one that stood in front of my childhood home in the same city. We cross to an area with tall trees and found a pleasant vista. In the garden’s second hollow, a series of rough terraces and stone steps were created, planted with varied thin-stemmed hardy shrubs mixed with ivy ground covers, a large wisteria, its support of small trees groaning under its weight, and many trees, all covered in cool shade, and in the bottom of the bowl what looked like a lovely Tuscan villa, gloriously baking in the bright and hot afternoon sun. It is actual not Tuscan, but a reproduction of a Catalonian farmhouse. I would vouch the house of a very wealthy farmer since I cannot imagine it being a house of a typical Catalonian farmer. The average Spanish farmer has never been that well-off to build such a large house. We took the weight of our feet on the stone steps for a good 20 minutes or so, we sat there chatting, absorbing the greenery, the view, the occasional twittering of birds, the soft whisper of a nearby fountain and the overall tranquility of the unexpected location, and enjoyed the absence of crowds.

Upon leaving the garden I spotted more Catalonian buildings in another garden further up the hill and tried to entice M to climb the 50-odd steps with me but she was more than happy to wait for me at the bottom of the stairs on a bench in the sun on the gravel walkway, Passeig de Jean Forestier, that runs along the front of the museum area.

 National Art Museum of Catalonia

By now it was already past three in the afternoon and I suggested we slowly descend Montjuic in the general direction of our apartment, which was somewhere out there below the mount, but not too far away. A good rest, a cold beer or two, an early dinner and early night were ahead for the rest of the day seeing that we had to catch the early morning high speed train to Madrid the next day. Just as we started to walk away from the area, the monstrous fountain in front of the museum started to flow and a river of water cascaded over its precipice. What a sight! Good photo opportunity too.

So, on a zigzag course down narrow backstreets, not quite sure the exact location of our apartment, I led us down the mount, keeping Avenue Parallel, a major road that I could see as we descended, always in my eye. We reach said avenue one block from our apartment and came across Restaurante Manolo, which advertised chocolate and churros on their menu and spontaneously decided to tick off another item from our bucket list. When we gave our order the waitress was rather surprised, probably realized we are Americanos and not aware of the Spanish culinary protocol to eat churros late at night, but 10 minutes later we received freshly fried churros and a cup of thick sweet chocolate. The snack and drink were absolutely delicious, and the service so prompt and friendly that we decided to return to the restaurant for dinner too.

Ticks of the bucket list: Churros and chocolate, authentic seafood paella, and a whole plate of the most delicious acorn fed jamón (Spanish ham). 

The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, the Church of the Sacred Heart, dominates the Tibidabo Mount on the edge of the Barcelonan bowl.

Early evening, the sun was already behind the Serra de Collserola, the mountain range that surrounds Barcelona in the southwest, and dusk was slowly descending, I stood on our apartment’s tiny balcony, sipping a pre-dinner glass of Rioja red wine and looked down on the fresh produce shop and the activities on Carrer de Vallhonrat.  

A couple walked their dogs, a man popped into the shop and emerged with a baguette, the butcher on the corner rolled down security rails, closing shop for the night, two gentlemen of advanced age were in deep discussion on a corner leading to a narrow alley, across the street two kids took trash out to large bins near the small square at the end of the street, and a steady stream of pedestrians continued to hurry home from work.

Further down the street two kids was noisily hollering to each other while kicking a soccer ball, and next door a television broadcasted highlights of the past weekend’s football. Meanwhile, the number of customers to the produce shop steadily increased, the smell of food being prepared hung in the air like fog in a valley, and the aroma entered my nostrils and made my stomach rumbled. The neighborhood of El Poble-Sec was doing what it has been doing for the past century. Live and let live. Not much has changed.
Prior to my visit to Barcelona, whenever I heard the city’s name, the song honoring the city, performed by Freddie Mercury from Queen with the soprano Montserrat Caballe involuntary used to start playing in my mind. But since my visit the song has faded a little to the background and the memories now being recalled are filled with the feeling of cool sea breezes on my face, with the footfall and voices of pedestrians and traders on the Las Ramblas, with the smell of seafood and red peppers from a freshly baked paella, with the silence from the Roman remains underneath the narrow passageways of the Barri Gotic, with the sound of soothing ecclesiastical music in the Basilica de Sagrada Familia, and with vivid images of medieval, classical and Modernism architecture.

For a too short period of time M and I were fortunate to be part of this exquisite city. Observers, participants, temporary Barcelonans!     

More Sagrada Familia

Around the Plaça d’Espanya area

Barcelona...Vibrant and Beautiful

There was something surprisingly refreshing to walk out on a tiny balcony with a container of profusely blooming red geraniums and place for only a tiny table in a foreign city, with the morning’s first cup of coffee and look down on the red tomatoes, the orange oranges and tangerines, the green lettuces and celery and yellow apples in the small tienda de productos frescos, fresh produce store, across the narrow Carrer de Vallhonrat.  It instantly brightened what already looked like a perfect spring morning in Barcelona, Spain.


Carrer de Vallhonrat. El Poble-Sec, Barcelona
After coffee I ventured out into the narrow streets in search of freshly baked croissants for breakfast. M was sleeping in; recuperating from an allergy attack due to a sandwich that must have contained red peppers on the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Barcelona. It was just after eight in the morning and the neighborhood streets of El Poble-Sec was still mostly quiet except for building contractors that were clearing rubble from an old building being remodeled. On the corner of the street a butcher shop was already opened, the butcher preparing meatballs, and across from the butcher on Carrer de l’Olivera a fishmonger was placing fresh fish on ice. Further down the street a small supermarket was still closed and across from it the fleca, a bakery, had no croissants in their display window yet so I continued my wandering down the street, found an open bar and through its windows I saw that it had croissants on the counter but decided against it, the freshness possibly questionable. On the next corner I found a small convenient-cum-produce store, the attendant behind the counter totally absorbed in his smartphone and did not look up when I entered. I bought some bottled water for coffee in the apartment. I retraced my steps back to the bakery, still no fresh croissants visible, but I nevertheless went inside, ask for four croissants, which they went to fetch from the kitchen in the back, still hot and smelling buttery and toasty and headed back to the apartment.
Barcelonan delicacies.  
After breakfast we took a metro train to Liceu station and emerged from underground into bright sunshine on the famous Las Ramblas, a tree-lined street that cuts through the center of the city and where they sell anything from flowers, tourist knickknacks, fridge magnets, and artwork, to books and off course food. Barcelona’s outside-in Champs-Elysees due to the pedestrian area in the middle of the street and cars driving on the outside of the pedestrian walkway. We slowly followed the human river, tourists and locals alike, westwards, passed the Erotic Museum where a faked Marilyn Monroe look-alike, dressed all in white with black sunglasses, paraded on a balcony, a human advertisement and every now and then M stopped and browsed a vendor stall, sometimes purchasing a small souvenir for someone back home, until the pedestrian lane poured into the Plaça de Catalunya, a large square which is considered to be the center of the city and together with Las Ramblas a popular destination for some Barça football fans to celebrate championship wins or for Barcelonans to gather in protest.  

 Wandering through the Gothic Quarter, the Barri Gotic

On the square we snapped some photos, rested under a shady tree, crossed the Passeig de Gracia, rumored to be Spain’s most expensive street, and then allowed ourselves to get totally lost in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the Barri Gotic. For the rest of the day until long after dark we ambled along narrow medieval streets, some that rarely feel sunshine on their cobbled surfaces. We were modern pilgrims, memory-moment hunters with light backpacks and digital cameras who ended up on large squares in front of gigantic Gothic churches with hundreds of tourists or tiny plazas mostly devoid of people except for old locals seeking a sunny spot. We came across quaint and leafy courtyards with soothing water fountains and walked underneath intricately decorated archways that link ancient buildings and along very old walls with statuesque windows and doors from a time when builders were patient artisans and architects cared to build beautiful buildings.

 Inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia

For a while we dawdled on the square in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, drank in the atmosphere and grandeur of the 13th Century buildings, then went inside and later onto the roof for beautiful views of the city.  After an excellent lunch and superior table service at Taverna de Bisbe on the square next to the Cathedral we went under ground in the Plaza del Rei where we walked through the very modern glass reception hall of the city’s History Museum (Museu d'Història de Barcelona, the MUHBA) and stepped back nearly 2,000 years in time to explore buried Roman origins of Barcino as Barcelona was known then. It was fascinating to see the remnants of old Roman streets, a laundry where they washed and dyed clothes, the round vats for winemaking still in the earth and many more interesting excavated artifacts.

Street scenes in and around the Barri Gotic

When we emerged from the museum the day’s last golden sunlight was still lingering around and we went in search of the remaining pieces of the old Roman walls that once surrounded the city. We found a huge corner of the wall on a quaint little plaza where restaurant waiters were arranging tables and chairs for the cocktail hour crowds. As twilight descended glowing pools of light from tapas bars and general shops lightened the darkening alleys, giving it the appearance of dappled sunlight in a jungle. Our wandering continued until we found a cozy plaza with several restaurants and we decided to rest our weary feet and had a tapas dinner al fresco under large umbrellas at El Paraigua’s while the sound of a live band playing Dave Brubeck style jazz spilled out from one of the restaurants and filled the square 

Ticks of the bucket list: Gazpacho and Spanish omelet. M's foie gras was just as delicious.

A splendid end to a thoroughly entertaining day in the Gothic Quarter of the city. Barcelona, vibrant and beautiful, ancient and modern has become one of my new favorite cities. 
Dinner on Plaça de Sant Miquel 

Late night heading to the metro station on Las Ramblas 
A city of statues
On Barcelona's Cathedral Square

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Conquering Spain...Neither Did

Spain, the land of conquistadors, Don Quixote, Goya, the Reconquista and the Inquisition, but also the land often conquered.

Although it has been planned for some time and a fair bit of time, but not enough it seems, was allocated to study our destination, it was always going to be one of those cultural enrichment vacations that could turn out to be less than expected and a minor disappoint or a pleasant surprise and a total delight. What was in stored for us?

Spain! I wouldn’t say it was our first choice, but any country further north was still too cold for our liking this time of year and Greece, well, with its current Syrian refugee problem did not enticed us at this moment. So Spain fitted the bill from a weather point of view and its rich cultural contribution to the Mediterranean and European history, culture, cuisine and art makes it a natural must see on any one’s bucket list. 

The Temple of Debod in Madrid, a rarity of ancient Egyptian architecture that can be seen outside of Egypt. It was a gift from Egypt to Spain as it was possibly going to be submerged due to the building of the Aswan Dam   

Upon our departure I did not feel the usual adventurous excitement during the flight from Lexington to Chicago or from there to Frankfurt, Germany.  With so many current distractions and so much in our lives in flux at the moment, the run-up to the vacation and its immediate preparation felt more ritualistic than the usual flutters of exploration. Flying over France the grey and brown landscape below was not encouraging either, but the moment that opened the front door and let in all the vacation vibe I needed was when the plane made a slight turn to the left while flying over the black and shadowy mass of the Pyrenees Mountains, but with its peaks still covered in snow, out over the deep blue Mediterranean Sea and then banked right again to fly all along the Spanish coast, past what I presumed were the towns of Premia de Mar, El Masnou, and Badalona until we banked to the right again to come in to land at Barcelona’s El Prat airport.

 A cozy little plaza in the shadow of a Roman period relic built around 70AD as daylight was disappearing.  

So off we went in search of Roman ruins below and on Barcelona’s streets and its intriguing buildings that float on the eye like waves rolling in on a beach, and to Madrid where we found architecture and palaces as classical and beautiful as any on offer in France or Italy. We ambled through Gothic-encapsulated streets in Toledo and Segovia to stimulate our history-starved senses and satisfy our inquisitiveness, and I indulged on local cuisine like gazpacho, Spanish omelet, Castilian soup, Catalonian paella fresh in seafood and sweet in red peppers, tapas of all kind at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, delectable acorn fed jamón (ham), and every morning freshly baked croissants and, well, anytime during the day too, the delicious Café con Leche. Grande, dos, por favor. Two large ones please.  

Tapas, Churros and Chocolate

At the end of the vacation I felt the longer I stayed in Madrid the more I like Barcelona. Madrid started off with a drive through the historic side of town and I felt here was a city that could give Paris a go for its money. The architecture was nearly comparable. But the worse the service got and the overwhelming crowds I realized I had my best moments and ate the best food in Barcelona, and there I also experienced the best restaurant service and more friendliness in general than anywhere else in Spain. Whether it was a waitress that went beyond than what can be expected to introduce us to Catalonian food and the chef coming to our table to talk to us about the food (he did make a half-sized paella specially for me) or a metro assistant helping us buying tickets and took the time to explain the metro system to us, in English, and when I thanked him he said “de nada, I was only doing my job”. So different from Madrid where a metro assistant told me it was not his job to help me buy a ticket, and where every time we went to a restaurant I always had the feeling that I was intruding upon the waiter’s privacy or free time because service in Madrid was slow, unfriendly, less than expected and certainly below par for Europe according to my past experience, except on our last night in Madrid when we dined at the restaurant La Diavoletta on Rondo de Atocha near our apartment where the service was exceptional and the food top class. Even got 2 lemoncellos on the house.
Strolling along centuries ancient streets of Barcelona's Barri Gotic area
We arrived in Madrid at the start of a 4 day long weekend, it was Holy Week ending with Easter Sunday, and although some Madrilenians, no doubt, left town for a short vacation outside the city or to spend time with their family in their home town, many more Spanish and tourist alike poured into the city. The place was a hive of activity and constantly moving masses. Very crowded! After our arrival that Thursday we went out exploring, ended up at one stage at Puerto del Sol square, but it was so crowded we left the plaza immediately again for quieter streets. We were weary of crowds after 2 pickpocket attempts on M in the first hour of being in Madrid’s streets and the events in Brussels the same week. It didn’t look like there was anything of interest in Plaza Puerto del Sol in any case. Overrated! Another New York Time Square!      

 Holy Week procession through Plaza Mayor in Madrid

But Madrid did deliver one of our highlights during its Semana Santa, Holy Week. The Thursday evening before Good Friday we stood with thousands of Spaniards and others for more than 3 hours in Plaza Mayor and waited for and observed the Church of San Pedro’s famous Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, El Pobre, and María Santísima del Dulce Nombre procession. Although not Catholic or religious for that matter, I found the procession quite spectacular and a moving experience in sheer determination from the men, the costaleros, carrying the pasos, the religious icons.

The tale of two streets in Toledo, Spain
In our effort to flee from the Madrid crowds we went to Toledo and Segovia over the weekend. Unfortunately Toledo was a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. With Toledo being much smaller than Madrid and the crowds seemingly larger than Madrid, navigating some of the ancient narrow streets was bumper to bumper traffic. By late afternoon walking on the major streets inside the city walls became totally claustrophobic and we escaped through the Puerto del Sol gate, watched how darkness descended on the old city on the hill and instead of taking a bus or a taxi we took a long slow casual walk to the station to catch our train back to Madrid.  
Segovia skyline with snow-capped mountains in the background

Segovia was slightly less crowded but only because we stuck to the quieter streets on the outskirts of the city, sometimes inside and at other times outside its walls. With snow still on the surrounding mountain peaks, Segovia was also much cooler than Madrid and Toledo. But more about these cities in a later blog post.  
Dusk descending in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, the Barri Gotic.

In the end we did not conquered Spain, the time we spent there was far too short. Although it was a hectic visit, and although we spent more actual hours sightseeing than on most other European vacations, we regularly ran out of time and energy before we could accomplish what we set out to do. We barely scratched the surface of Madrid and Barcelona and I am convinced that Toledo could be a real jewel on a different day and on a longer stay.    
But Spain did not conquer me either. There were many highlight that I will remember for a life time, but Spain did not blow me away the way France and Italy did. But then I have not seen the winemaking valleys of La Rioja, or the hilltop towns of Aragon. Nor did we ventured south to Andalusia with its Moorish history or experienced the desolated plains of Extremadura or the white beaches of the Costa del Sol. But what I saw was more than enough to justify the visit and I certainly would not mind returning one day again. 
Puerta de Alcalá, The Citadel Gate in Madrid.