Last day observations

Despite not being in the best of health throughout, it has been a great stay in this wonderful city. I’ve visited familiar places and several new ones, heard great music and seen amazing art. I need to catch a train from Passeig de Gracia around 14:30 to get to the airport in good time for security and check in so decide to forgo further wide exploration today and walk about other part of the Eixample. Apart from the Berasategui restaurants, there are other reasons to come back – I didn’t do the ‘immersive Dali experience’ at IDEAL, the Digital arts Centre, I didn’t get to the European Museum of Modern Art and of course I’d love to go to the Liceu Opera house again to hear something to my taste performed.

One of the things I love are elegant shop signs from the golden age. Dee had an obsession with door knobs and knockers, mine is with shopfronts. Dee also loved hat shops so there’s one here for her! I collected a few more this morning as I strolled the nearby streets. It’s a little more cloudy today but still pleasantly warm although down a bit from yesterday’s 22 degrees (that’s 72 Daisy).

I also snapped a few more of the elegant houses that jump out from the streets at regular intervals. It’s a city where you need to be sure to look up as you walk through the streets.

But I needed to look down at the top of the Passeig as I came across this excellent manifesto which is something that as a sort of creative I feel very strongly about. It’s set in the pavement outside a Barcelona city office.

Just round the corner at the Palau Robert a poster for an exhibition reminded me of a day in the spring when Frances, Rosa and I went to see Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers. Alongside the usual convoluted emotional stories of two women, he finally addresses the horrors of the Franco era. The film involves a search for the body of a great grandfather in a mass grave. The poster examines 85 years of trying to reunite families with lost relatives. So far of the 114,000 ‘disappeared’ only 19,000 have been recovered. As Almodovar said in a Guardian interview, ‘Now is the time to remember Franco lest his victims be forgotten’.

Inside the Palau is a much happier image – Barca’s first heroes. There are displays of other sports – boxing and motor sport very popular – and fashion during the early part of the 20th century. This is the 1919-20 season team that won the Catalunya championship as well as that of all Spain. The caption claims that the 20s was the decade when football became a mass popular sport.

Sipping a last beer before boarding the train I noted that at none of the bars I’d been to had I been offered the little complimentary dish of olives, crisps or nuts that had been common on previous trips. Now whether this is a factor of the cost of living crisis or just a metropolitan thing I’m not sure. Certainly the news programmes were filled with analysis of the government’s crisis measures – reducing VAT on food staples, capping fuel prices and handouts of 200 euros to those most in need as well as some measures to encourage businesses to recover. I didn’t find Barcelona quite as depressing as London from the point of view of rough sleepers and boarded up shops – but I was in a rather posh part of the city for most of my trip. And as I descended to the train station my last view was of Gaudi’s brilliant Casa Mila known as La Pedrera (the stone quarry). It was his final civic architecture before devoting his life to the Sagrada Familia. A fitting end to an excellent week in this great city.

Ancient and modern

My children returned from a trip to Egypt raving about it and insisting it be added to the bucket list. When I mentioned this at lunch on Boxing Day, Pepita and Rosa who had both been and loved it, suggested I visit the Museu Egipci in Barcelona. My visit to the Sagrada Familia was booked for 14:30 so what better way to spend the morning? Also it was directly along Calle Valencia a left turn out of the hotel. It proved very rewarding. As all had said, the time zones are astounding. Craft, writing, tools of such complexity 3000 years BCE do blow the mind. Yes some of the names are familiar – Rameses, Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Tutankhamen – but how do they relate? The museum is small, on three floors of a town house, but highly informative with several modern x-rays conducted with Imperial College in London and others to analyse what had been collected over the years, by Howard Carter among others. These showed levels of skill that are mind-blowing given the eras involved. Quite a civilisation! Bucket list duly updated.

I headed off along Calle Valencia in the belief that this would bring Me to, or close to the Sagrada Familia. To my delight I found another local market on the way and decided to have an early lunch as everywhere near the basilica would charge a premium. I’m not entirely a cheapskate but don’t like being ripped off. I had a very fine fish soup with pan con tomate and was equipped to revisit the icon of Barcelona after a good many years. I first came when the children were young and we could roam among the half constructed towers, then later with Dee while they were still hoping for investment to finish it, probably ten years ago. As a deeply religious man, Gaudi would probably appreciate my OMG reaction on stepping inside. The nave is finished – it’s not open to the sky any more. The stained glass is all in place and it looks magnificent. Only once back outside do you see the tell-tale crane and realise that some of the towers are still to be finished. But they say it’s on track for 2025 only 135 years after the foundation stone was laid.

The exterior is equally brilliant with enough religious and natural symbolism to fill several volumes – available in the shop of course. But here are some of my favourite elements.

Having walked all the way there, I took the Metro back to Passeig de Gracia, put my feet up for a while in the hotel and then headed out to the Gastropub Obama – yes really – for a light supper. Claims to be British American but the most prominent beer on offer is Guinness. It was fun but the Cerveseria Catalana gets my vote for the best place in the area.

Nadal i Sant Esteve

Christmas Day was always planned as a quiet one. I needed to give my feet a rest so began the day with a leisurely buffet breakfast in the hotel for the first time (not included and cheaper on the Rambla!). A little light blogging, music and reading saw the morning whizz by. I decided to take a brief stroll around the neighbourhood finding a pretty passageway with orange trees – the mind turns to marmalade making in a month or so. There were a large number of other splendid examples of modernisme architecture – there were even plaques on the pavement showing on was on the correct route.

I’d been debating spending quite a lot of money on a meal at one of the two restaurants run by Martin Berasategui. Dee and I had a memorable meal in 2016 in San Sebastián at his original place. However I walked by them, looked online and Lasarte (3 Michelin stars) isn’t open until Thursday when I leave and Oria (just the one so far) on its site, won’t let me book for fewer than four people. My appetite is not that great at the moment so maybe I’ll leave it for another trip.

Boxing Day was all set up for a trip into the countryside to join Rosa and her mother Pepita for lunch. We’d agreed that I’d catch the 11:51 from Passeig de Gracia. I made an small error – I thought the Metro and train stations were connected – they are not – so I walk briskly to the train station three blocks up the Passeig. As I reach the platform the clock says 11:51 and there’s a train there so I jump on. After ten minutes it stops at Estacio de Franca which I think is jus a pause at a major calling point. After another ten minutes I investigate and find the train is at the buffers and I have to take the next one back to Passeig de Gracia and then get the 12:51 to Sils where Rosa will collect me. Quick WhatsApp to confirm late running and we’re underway again. We rendezvous OK and go to the lovely Terme Orion where Rosa and Pepita have spent the last three days relaxing after a flurry of family activity. My Spanish is a bit more relaxed this year and we are able to have a reasonable conversation with only occasional translating duties for Rosa. Food was great, wine all included and they wouldn’t let me contribute anything. A lovely afternoon – if a little shorter than planned.

Rosa and her mum are heading back home to Terrassa and fortunately Sils is on the way so they drop me off with twenty minutes to wait for a train that will categorically got me to the Passeig de Gracia – albeit ten minutes later than promised. It’ll be a bit tight to get to my Sant Esteve concert but more brisk walking to the Palau gets me there in time to hear the applause for the conductor coming on stage – from outside the door. They won’t let me in for ten minutes so I miss the first three items in full glory.

When I do get in I find that my seat is high up in the gods with only a partial view – I think I asked for ‘best available’ and it was certainly a sell out. In keeping with its Orfeo Catalana label, the only instruments were a piano, the giant organ and a trumpeter while there were choirs ranging from the junior and middle childrens’ choirs to the professional choirs of the Palau. There were some familiar carols – Silent Night, Little Town of Bethlehem and a Catalan one I’d heard at a concert by Pegasus the choir my son sings with back in London – Fum, fum, fum. It was a spectacular event full of joy and tradition and I think at one point there must have been close to a thousand voices on the stage and in the galleries on either side. Fantastic!

As an encore we had a rousing version of the Hallelujah Chorus which culminated in a flurry of unfurling of Catalan flags and shouts of ‘Independencia!’ It seems the prime minister has ruled out another referendum but there are general elections in May so it’ll be interesting to see what happens then.

I had a voucher for three euros so decided to have a glass of wine and send friends and family my reactions to the concert via WhatsApp What a great end to a great Christmas. As I walked back to the hotel I was struck by the variety of lights on each street – much less showy than London but original and (sorry) delightful. Here’s a selection.

Music, markets and Moritz

I’ve managed to do a few things I wanted to experience while in Barcelona but a combination of occasional hip gyp (osteoarthritis quite advanced) and less breath from the lingering flu, I’ve not been roaring about the place as I maybe would have in the past. I love the fact that the city is so well supplied with benches so I can sit and take a rest when necessary. Isabel Allende has a fine quote in her book I just read A Long Petal of the Sea: ‘Pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional’. As I set out on Christmas Eve to enjoy the guided tour of the Palau de la Musica, I was able to have a coffee, perch on a bench and contemplate life at a slower pace.

Benches and cafes on the Rambla de Catalunya.

It also gives me a chance to look around and see elegant buildings like this. There have been some rather (imho) unsuitable replacements and refurbishments to the classy streets of the Eixample, the area into which the wealthy of the city expanded in the early twentieth century with its grid of vertical and horizontal streets so it’s hard to get lost. Enough rambling – on to the Palau.

At the Palau, I join a group of two Americans, one Hungarian and eight Chinese – probably statistically representative of relative populations. Our guide is Marta who is Catalan and a pianist with the organisation who also used to play cello but gave it up as too difficult. As often, the tour begins with a ten minute video of the history and diverse nature of music played at the hall – Montserrat Caballe and Pablo Casals of course but also Ute Lemper and Herbie Hancock. Marta returns and asks if any of us has ever been so I can show off with my attendance two nights ago. I can also answer her enquiry as to whether anyone knows the architect. I do – it was Lluis Domenech i Muntaner, another of the famous group of modernista artists, which included Gaudi. Together they designed the Catalan equivalent of art nouveau or Jugendstil elsewhere in Europe. What I couldn’t answer was how long it took to build – a staggering two and a half years. My guess would have been ten. There were obviously lots of wealthy merchants investing their profits from the Americas in a cultural centre of some magnificence in Barcelona.

The interior is just breathtaking. Every surface is decorated with trencadis, there are thousands of plaster roses – the flower of Catalunya – and sculpture and plasterwork of great significance. There are lots of red and white cross flags which are familiar in England especially around football tournaments. St Jordi (George) is the patron saint of Catalunya too. Lluis certainly thought about what he was building. Alongside the name of the Palau are the words Orfeo Catalana reflecting the origins of the hall as a place for choirs to practice and sing – well they couldn’t watch Strictly or The Voice so they had – and still have – lots of local choirs. I’m hoping to see some of them at the special Sant Esteve (Boxing Day) concert which is said by some I’ve spoken to to rival New Year’s Day in Vienna. As with the exterior a few photos won’t do the venue justice but let’s just say a bust of Beethoven surmounted by horse-riding Valkyries on one side of the stage and sculptures of all the muses behind the performers on stage make this a very special place. The glass sunburst at the centre of the ceiling which allows natural light through is a masterpiece of both design and engineering.

The sunburst with Valkyries behind.

After a coffee in the cafeteria, I set off through the old city centre towards the cathedral – I’ve never seen it without works going on, maybe one day. Then I just have to stop for a beer in Plaza Reial a long-time favourite. One of the limited advantages of travelling alone is that I’m doing far more reading than usual. Instead of chatting over a beer, out comes the kindle. So far I’ve read William Boyd’s rambunctious The Romantic in which we meet Byron in Italy and discover the source of the Nile. This was followed by Kate Atkinson’s fabulous Shrines of Gaiety featuring the dodgy world of nightclubs in interwar London. And as mentioned before, Isabel Allende’s epic Long Petal of the Sea which begins with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in Catalunya and escape to France and from there to new lives in Chile only to become involved in another coup there. And now I’m enjoying Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa – another tantalising excursion into the strange world of Japanese fiction. And the Mcs are lined up next Ian McEwan and two from Cormac McCarthy.

From here it’s a short step along the Rambla to the Liceu opera house which sadly had nothing I wanted to see this trip and then for a walk through the fabulous Boqueria market. I’ve probably rambled on about my love of local markets and my regrets at living in a hotel – maybe an apartment next time. The colour, the noise, the camaraderie of the market is infectious. No room at the market bars though so I found a small bar in a side street for some gambas al ajillo and esparragos.

I have another short stroll to my next destination MACBA the museum of contemporary art in Barcelona. It’s new to me although it opened in 1995 so we must have missed it on previous trips. It’s a great white palace with a warning to watch out for skateboarders on the approach – what is it about art centres and skaters? One attractive aspect is that it has slopes not steps to link the various levels – reminding me a bit of the XXI gallery in Rome I visited in 2017. My appreciation of cutting-edge contemporary artwork is somewhat unrefined but I found two of the artists exhibiting here quite affecting. The Colombian Maria Teresa Hinchcapie which involved performance art, exploration of every day objects and photography gave me plenty to think about. Cynthia Marcelle is a Brazilian artist who had given a number of collaborators some materials to arrange as they wished. The result reminded me of a Cornelia Parker explosion of objects. There was another exhibit based on a Mexican Mixe myth which I found impressive in scale and impenetrable in meaning.

In the permanent collection were a number of pieces I really enjoyed – a Tapies bed and a series of pages taken from a book as if they had been typed without a ribbon so that light projected the text onto the wall. It’s by Mar Arza and is called Nada reiterada (nothing repeated). Most enjoyable for a bibliophile.

Sudden Awakening Antoni Tapies 1993.

The evening was rounded off in a convenient microbrewery Moritz opposite the hotel which was one of the few places open on Christmas Eve. It has a fine selection of house beers – lagers, IPAs a red IPA and a porter style Moritz Negra (black beer). Oh and it had a perfectly fine food menu too.

Culture magpie

So Friday morning begins with a trip to El Corte Ingles to secure a USB to lightning cable. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Spain without at some point setting foot in the country’s prime department store. It delivered what I needed on the seventh floor – escalators all the way I’m pleased to say. Next on the agenda was to follow the advice given me on Wednesday evening and book a guided tour of the Palau de la Musica Catalana – all sorted for 11:30 tomorrow.

Next stop the Museu Picasso Barcelona – also free with Barca Card but they make you get a paper ticket from the box office as well. I’ve been here a couple of times before and while there’s always a good selection of Picasso’s paintings, prints and ceramics there is a major exhibition as well. This one is devoted to David-Henry Kahnweiler the German born dealer, collector and patron who did much to launch the careers of Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris.

Kahnweiler was quick to spot the movement that would become cubism and established a tiny gallery (four square metres) at the age of 23 where he exhibited early works by the then unknown Picasso, Braque, Leger, van Dongen and Vlaminck. He was friends with all of them and made good sales to kickstart their careers. As a German he had to go into exile in Switzerland during the First World War. He was considered an alien and his entire collection was sold by the French authorities in auctions at the Hotel Drouot. The sale catalogues make for interesting reading and a comprehensive listing of early twentieth century art.

Picasso sketching Kahnweiler, one of the photos in the exhibition.

There were works by many of his protégés and details of weekly soirées at Bourgogne-Billancourt where he entertained artists and potential purchasers. Picasso once wrote, ‘Where would we all be without Kahnweiler’s sense of business?’ I found it all fascinating, so much so that I took no photos – sorry. That is until I came to the huge room devoted to Picasso’s deconstruction of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. He made a series of over 50 paintings in which he analysed and recreated aspects of the famous work. This is my favourite. I love his self-portrait at the bottom right and the dog and the use of many images of his familiar iconography that find no place in the original.

After nearly three hours it’s time for some lunch. Everywhere in this area – the Born – will be expensive as it’s a major tourist attraction. However I find a corner in a popular venue and emerge refreshed. The Messi shirt shows that Argentina’s captain is still much loved in Barca. I was also surprised to find a flight of Japanese kites in an adjacent courtyard.

A few metres along Calle Moncada is a Museum new to me – MOCO. It has a branch in Amsterdam and opened in Barcelona in 2016 and I haven’t been here since before then. It’s devoted to MOdern/COntemporary artworks and features Keith Haring, Julien Opie, Damien Hirst, Dali and Banksy as well as less familiar local names. I did take a few photos here.

As I’m quite a way down in the old part of the city I think it’s time to see the sea – well at least Barcelona harbour. As it’s Christmas time there are lots of tacky amusements on offer spoiling (for curmudgeonly me) a stroll along the waterfront. But there are some highlights. Graphics have always been wacky here since the Olympics, there’s always one seagull that won’t conform and I enjoyed the peace of the sun going down across the harbour looking out to the World Trade Centre where we filmed material for a promotional video for the Direct English franchise several years ago. All of course under the watchful gaze of Cristobal Colon.

Music of the stairs

One of my reasons for choosing to come to Barcelona this year was to visit Gaudi’s famous Casa Battlo. I became friends during the year with a young composer Dani Howard who had composed the tracks for the guided audio tour of the house and I was keen to see inside the amazing building and hear how Dani had responded to her brief. The hotel has a breakfast buffet but I went in quest of something simpler. Opposite Casa Battlo was a Santander Bank work cafe which I thought I’d try. Result too, as Santander account holders get a 30% discount, so it was a very cheap juice, coffee and croissant. Loads of other industrious people were poring over laptops, negotiating on the phone and working hard. Interesting idea.

The first part of the tour is in the basement in a Yayoi Kusama style mirror room. You step onto a moving metal platform and make a large circle through projections of the architect himself slumped exhausted among his drawings and the objects from nature that inspired his designs – fish, shells, mushrooms, rock formations. This is accompanied by a very watery track, whooshing waves mixed with orchestral sounds and set a theme for the tour which likens Gaudi’s structure to a section through an inverted ocean – I didn’t write the script!

The tour proper is guided by a tablet with sixteen icons to select when you enter a room with that sign and commentary and music play. I absolutely love the building – the innovative elements, gorgeous woodwork, wrought iron balustrades and typical Gaudi trencadis – the patterned facades we usually call mosaics which combine broken tiles, glass and other materials making Gaudi the great recycler. I’ve added a few images from the house but it’s very tactile as well – you need to be there.

The house is tall and has this fabulous double atrium from floor to skylight flooding it with light – a very clever touch. So the the tour heads inexorably upwards until you reach the roof with great views over the city. As you mount each flight and select the next images so Dani’s music changes to fit the atmosphere and function of the room you’re in. It is wonderfully varied – simple piano pieces at times, what sounds like a marimba and cello rippling away for another but generally fully orchestral and often choral themes that work extremely well. The huge uplifting crescendo for the top of the stairs gave even my weary legs a jolt of energy. I think there’s a Battlo Suite for concert performance in there – rights permitting of course. The great thing is that the orchestra at the recording was under the baton of Pablo Urbina, now Dani’s husband.

After a few moments contemplation on the roof marvelling that the large structures were in fact the house’s water supply we descend through another work of art. What was once the fire escape has been transformed by the Japanese sculptor Kendo Kuma who has draped the walls in swirls of aluminium links of chain mail which are aesthetically pleasing and highly tactile.

You exit through an immersive screen cube with projections of Gaudi icons and responses by artist Refik Anadol. The website suggests an hour and fifteen minutes – I went in at 11:00 and out at 13:30. House and music in utter harmony and I even made it up and back downstairs. I’d heard of the nearby Cerveseria Catalana and thought that would be a good option for lunch. Hah! Why I’d heard of it is that everybody else had, so I waited a little less than the threatened twenty minutes – it sometimes helps being just one – and enjoyed the amazing atmosphere and some great carved ham with a beer and then a glass of Verdejo with some anchovies and padron peppers a combination I’d not had before.

Cerveseria Catalana

Tourist or traveller?

Excuse the philosophical start to my Barcelona trip but my friend Frances has just come back from a guided tour in Vietnam and Cambodia which she thoroughly enjoyed. Over a few beers with Graham in Liverpool last weekend we talked about the difference between travelling and touring. As my family and late wife will attest Raggett holidays were always travelling. Planned by me, booked by me and executed, however badly, by me. But as age creeps on it made us all wonder the time for a bit of organisation by others might be timely. Graham’s fear was that he’d find himself in a group of Daily Mail reading Brexiters and be most uncomfortable. Fran’s tour was happily free of such companions and Graham was a little reassured.

But as I set off for Stansted to begin this latest venture I had a rare sense of unease. Could I still do it? Should I be with Tui rather than intuition? Hey I’ve done Rome, Lisbon, Malaga and Cadiz and Mallorca – with Covid tests – so why the worry? I’ve had real, not man flu for a week – three lots of Benyllin at home and a trip to the pharmacy for Mucosan (better I would say after two doses) and cancelled a Barbican concert on Sunday because I didn’t want Rattle’s baton picking out the cougher in the stalls. So maybe confidence is down a bit through illness. There was a moment during the miles of steps through Stansted that I thought there must be a better way to do this. But hey, if you buy and fly Ryanair you know what to expect. Everybody chooses Priority so that queue is longer the the Other Q, but at lest you do get on first.

Flight was fine, great snow over the Pyrenees and a wonderful descent into Barcelona along the coast. Then the traveller took over. I’d booked a Barcelona 5 day card for unlimited travel and free entry to 20-30 museums several of which I intended to visit. However Terminal 2 is huge and the Tourist Office is at the other end, the best part of a kilometre away. I get my card and set off back to where I started to get the train into town when I realise I’ve left my second bag on the floor while sorting out the card. So steps are retraced, bag retrieved and the trudge to the train is on again.

It’s a nice train, with diverting behaviour from two young ladies, whose black suitcase rolled towards me as the train pulled out. I rescued and returned it amid great giggling. The journey was initially through industrial suburbs and just as it got interesting it went underground, But it delivers me to Passeig de Gracia station five minutes from the hotel – if you come out the correct entrance. So fifteen minutes later I rock up at the hotel where they let me check in early which is a relief as I need to sit down for a bit. It is an OK hotel in a modernisme building but sadly my room does not have one of those nice balconies overlooking the street. There is a swimming pool on the roof but not open in December. Great views over the city though.

Refreshed, I was soon in proper holiday mode with a beer and tapas in a local bar on the Rambla de Catalunya. The eagle has landed!

The evening’s plan, cough permitting, is to go to the Palau de la Musica Catalana to hear Philippe Herreweghe, the Belgian conductor doing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I knew vaguely where it was – no Google maps with roaming charges back – and I was on the verge of asking a waiting taxi driver for directions when I spied the exterior. Almost as embarrassing as one day in a market when I pointed to a cauliflower and asked ‘come se llama?’ To be told with an uproarious laugh ‘coliflor’. I’d booked my ticket online and was shown to my seat in the magnificent auditorium – the absolute epitome of modernisme design and execution.

Soon after I was seated I was hissed at by a lady of some few years younger than me I would estimate, indicating that I was occupying her seat. My neighbour explained that a group of them usually sat together but there had clearly been an “error” at the box office. She didn’t seem that bothered and despite my offer to swap several times I was told ‘no pasa nada’ – it doesn’t matter. Maybe my limited Spanish kept her from an earbashing.

The orchestra, choir and soloists arrived followed by the rather ancient-looking conductor – he’s four years younger than me but you wouldn’t guess it. He also had to take a couple of comfort breaks between segments – unusual in this work – but pee breaks are something I sympathise with for anyone. I love the Missa and this was an enthusiatic rendition but not the best I’ve heard although the soloists were outstanding.

It was exceptional to hear a great piece of music on my first night in town and my companion recommended a guided tour and the cafeteria in the basement. ‘Cafeteria si,’ she said ‘restaurante no – es muy caro!’.

Boxing Day Walk

Well it’s a tradition to go for a walk on Boxing Day but as I had totted up about thirty miles over the last two days, I had planned a visit today to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which is less than ten minutes from the hotel. I set off around nine in time to take breakfast on the way and arrive at opening time at 10 when I hoped it would be less busy than later in the day. The streets were totally different today – still plenty of Chinese tourists – but lots of Portuguese people grabbing a bite before going to the office, workers in hard hats everywhere, cranes swinging overhead – like most major cities, Lisbon will be lovely when it’s finished. With a fresh orange juice, a cinnamon croissant and the obligatory pastel de nata inside me I arrived at the foundation and followed signs through a large, very dark and leafy park to the main entrance.

I knew from earlier emails that I’d get in for half price as an senior and happily parted with my 7 euros. As I walked out just over four hours later it felt like good value.

Gulbenkian made most of his money from oil in Iran and the Gulf and as well as being an avid collector of ancient and modern art and artefacts also instituted a series of cultural and educational programmes. There are two main areas: The Founder’s Collection and The Modern Collection at opposite sides of the park. I started in the antiquities building with a sense that I was back in the Getty Mansion in LA, surrounded by a similar array of amazing pieces from ancient Egypt – how does glass survive 24 centuries? – encompassing pottery and jewellery as well. I was struck by the nautical theme of the last few days with this bronze from 500 BCE and also by the clarity and spaciousness of the galleries. I also fell for the Egyptian cat and her kittens.

I suspect that even on busy days you would be able to move around and read the captions without too much of a struggle. It was also a pleasing feature to catch glimpses of the garden through the large windows. The exterior is a bit brutalist for my taste but you forget all that concrete once you are in these intriguing galleries.

There’s a progression though Greek, Roman and a lot of Islamic art given the Gulf connection – lovely tiles and carpets and illustrated manuscripts. I ambled happily through the rooms until arriving at the French collection – all that overgilded, overblown Versailles furniture – not for me! But then the big surprise which proved I did a bit of reading but not enough, but then of course it wouldn’t have been a surprise. Gulbenkian also had an eye, or good advisers, for French, Italian, Dutch and English painters and OK Singer Sargent was American and his lovely Ladies Sleeping in a Punt under Willows is here. I positively wallowed in some excellent Corot landscapes, Guardi’s views of Venice which I have always slightly preferred to Canaletto, a brooding Rembrandt Old Man, a wonderful ahead-of-its-time Durer duck.

I was also taken by the Edo period Bento box with its flowery lacquer. Gainsborough and Lawrence portraits and two magnificent Turners, Monet, Manet and Degas completed the feast. Happy morning!

In the temporary exhibition space was a display of sculpture from Rodin’s time in Paris including one of the Burghers Of Calais. It was nicely arranged with section on standing poses, non-posed naturalistic work, group sculpture and nursing mothers. I then took myself across the park to the Modern building passing on the way a splendid amphitheatre at which concerts take place with a lake in the background. Should I ever be here for a performance I’ll bring a cushion as the concrete seats looked rather hard. Kenwood music by the Lake without the stately home.

The modern collection is mostly of Portuguese sculpture, painting and installations one of which really caught my eye and ear. There are 34 boom boxes forming the word NO while playing the spoken word YES in as many different tones.

Otherwise there were some interesting pieces and it’s odd isn’t it how you get drawn to particular items. I approached one thinking that’s good to find it was by Jim Dine and to another that proved a Rachel Whiteread, Maybe the old adage is true ‘Class will out’.

In suddenly realised it was after two o’clock and I needed to find somewhere to watch Watford v Chelsea so rushed back to the hotel only to look at my calendar and realise that it’s a 19:30 kick off. On my way I did pass a sports bar so I should be OK. My other afternoon disaster was to attempt to rent a car. I had always thought it would be a good idea to get out to Sintra and back via the coast at Cascais and Estoril. There was a conveniently close Europcar who could rent me a VW Polo or equivalent. The clerk then said: “I’d better tell you the price before we do the paperwork.” Doesn’t augur well. 210 euros for a one-day hire. The Raggett pauper reared again – I had a car in Spain for ten days in the summer for less than that. So if the rail strike permits (60-odd % running according to the news) I’ll go by train tomorrow. Then back to the hotel to blog and be amazed by the day’s Premier League earlier results – How many goals? – and prepare to pop off to the sports bar for 19:30.

The sports bar was part of a hotel and had a few scarves and shirts (Benfica, Sporting, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Man United) I didn’t bring mine with me or they’d have had a Watford one to add. What they did have was the game on TV and an IPA which truly sprung (or Springed) off the shelf:and at 6.5% it might well have had even me doing karaoke. As it was the few others in the bar were amused but not disturbed but my oohs and aahs and scream of delight at the equaliser. Their penalty was never in much doubt but the Portuguese commentators were adamant ours was a nailed on penalty on Deleofeu. They showed it in close up and from five angles about five times and were most agitated on our behalf. The bar had wings, nachos, burgers and other suitable sports bar fare so I consumed a modest supper during the second half. I’m not sure whether it was anger at the ref or the food but I had a very disturbed night and was actually quite glad I wasn’t going to be driving first thing in the morning.

Heading south

Breakfast and packing accomplished, the SatNav lady asked me politely if I wanted to avoid toll roads. I’m in no rush, many motorways are boring so I elected to avoid them. There were a few tricky sections on the NII south from Girona as they convert it into an autovia – the A2. I’m not sure how that will go down as it’s pretty well parallel to the AP7 in which the P stands for Peatge or pay. It’s a commercially operated 900 kilometre toll road that goes the length of the Spanish Mediterranean coast from the French border to Vera in Andalusia. Now there are already free to use sections around the major cities as part of the deal between government and contractors but it’s an interesting point here.

It then heads off to the coast and I have wonderful sea views and holiday apartment blocks all the way down to Mataro where we cut inland to bypass Barcelona to the west, passing the Circuit de Catalunya where the Spanish Grand Prix will be held a week on Sunday. I’m very glad at this point that she seems to know where she’s going because there are some sections that would have had me asking my navigator to reach for the atlas. However we pop out the other side of Barcelona with signs to Tarragona which is good since I know that’s on the way. Much of my route is on the N340 which must be incredibly long as I’m at kilometres in the 1100s. I later confirm that it’s the old Roman Via Augusta and starts in Cadiz and goes to Barcelona. 375px-Spain.Catalonia.Roda.de.Bara.Arc.BeraIts Roman nature explained an odd bifurcation of a twin track section round a stone archway the Arc de Bera – I couldn’t stop but, thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I can show you what I saw. It was a sunny day, progress was good until a saw a signpost for San Sadurni d’Anoia. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the town but I’ve read it on lots of bottles of cava. San Sadurni is the capital of cava so a diversion seems essential.

It is situated among field after field of very neat low level vines – I later learn that the spring pruning restricts each wine to two branches to increase quality at the expense of volume. As I enter the town the first winery I happen across is Juve y Camps the cava we enjoyed at Martin Berasategui’s last August. Sadly they only do tours by prior arrangement both here and at their winery at Espiells out in the fields. Maybe one year there might be a cava winery tour like the excellent Bilbao and Rioja one a few years back. However the best known and marketed of the cavas, Freixenet, did have a tour about to start so what was I to do? There’s a fine building dating from 1914 and then a huge new factory stretching off into the distance. One good thing is that it’s right next to the railway station so if you are in Barcelona and fancy a cava tour you can do it easily by train.

There was a good introductory video, much of the content of which our guide repeated. With vines destroyed by phylloxera, a couple of families, Ferrer and Sala decided to plant new vines and make a different kind of wine. The Ferrer’s farm was called La Freixenera so a brand was born. They used the methode champenoise but couldn’t call it champagne because of DOC rules. So because the wine was stored in ancient deep caves in the hillsides they called it cava. Freixenet was founded in 1914 and the king and queen came to mark their centenary three years ago. The tour takes in the original barrel hall and caves with racks of bottles for hand turning in the traditional style. However most of their production is now totally mechanised in the new factory building.

In my group I was good at naming the three grapes used in most cavas – perellada, x-arello and macabeo – too much time reading labels! But I failed miserably when it came to guessing their output in bottles per year. I thought millions because they are big. I guessed 10. The answer is a staggering 80 million bottles a year most of which go to Germany and the UK. After plunging to the depths of the cellars we were then conducted on a little train – spared a lot of up on this occasion – back to the tasting room. The Brut Nature was to my taste – very dry but with lots of fruit – but only one as I had to drive. IMG_2321I was tempted to continue my journey in this but security wouldn’t let me near it.

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So onwards to Tortosa and my next castle – a proper fortress this one. It’s 200 feet above the town – fine in the car with some good brake and clutch control but later on foot – that’s a lot of steps and all up. Some of my readers don’t do up and I think I might abandon it soon. Boy did the ticker pump! Yes, I know it’s good for me! When Dee and I first (and last) came here, we checked in, had a swim and a shower, frocked up and walked down into town. It was and still is easy going down. We were amazed because everyone was dressed in medieval gear as part of a July fiesta. There were displays of contemporary crafts and I remember us spending a lot of time with a guy making chain mail – one craft I’m glad didn’t come home.

It’s quieter today but I have an explore, come across this beautiful modernisme example with fabulous plaster work and then trek back up and scribble this from my balcony with views of the mountains to one side and a courtyard with bouganvillaea and the Ebro to the other.

One thing has become clear – I love to travel and explore new places. It’s sad when I can’t share them immediately, but thanks for helping. Good weather promised again for tomorrow so it might just be a day by the pool and nothing to blog about. We’ll see.

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

1 San Sebastian

We’d explored a lot of Spain together over the years and I suppose with some inkling of the future Dee suggested we should go somewhere we hadn’t been before and so I started planning a visit along the north coast with a couple of injunctions: not the usual one night here and move on Raggett itinerary; not two weeks in the same place; explore new areas at a leisurely pace. The compromise reached, and fully endorsed, was three three-night stays in San Sebastian, Cangas de Onis, Vilalba and a final five-nighter in Baiona to chill. And so on August Bank Holiday Monday we set off for Biarritz. Yes it’s in France, but it was the most convenient destination for flight times and it’s under an hour to San Sebastian by coach from the airport for just seven euros each. As we approached the toll booths and border control Rafael the coach driver did the most amazing set of manoeuvres and lane changes to speed us through well ahead of where we had any right to be. Respect Rafa! He also had to deploy the windscreen wipers briefly as we approached the border but we never needed them again for the next two sun-filled weeks. Soon we’re in the middle of San Sebastian disappearing into an underground bus station from which we were able to take a lift to the taxi rank and were swept up by Jon Andoni Uson who spoke a little English and with my Spanish – no Basque I’m afraid – we got on fine and he offered to be our private taxi service for the time we were in San Sebastian. He came up trumps within twenty minutes of being called on both occasions we needed him.

IMG_7252 IMG_7234Dee with film tin billHe delivered us swiftly to the Astoria 7 Hotel where we were shown to the Charlton Heston room – I might have preferred the Sophia Loren next door – which was very comfortable and funky with quotes and posters from his films. The lobby has a sofa where you can sit next to Alfred Hitchcock and the whole place is filled with film iconography – even your bill comes in a film can.

The hotel is a bit out of the centre but the number 28 (and several other buses) whisk you up to the main shopping area and the beach in five minutes – sorry Jon taxista, we like buses. We found a good place for lunch and sat outside, but the interior of Bideluze was fantastic with wood panelling and glass display shelves behind a great bar. It’s well known for its pintxos – the tapas equivalent in the Basque country – something we discovered a bit later from a guide book or online, must be that PM nose. We then walked across Guipuzcoa Square and found stop number 3 of the City Tour sightseeing bus and decided to get ourselves oriented with the town. The narration was a bit awry in places and repeated in others but gave us good snippets of history and culture. It also told us of the festival held on 31 August to celebrate Wellington leading Anglo-Portuguese forces to liberate San Sebastian from the French – hey there’s somewhere Brits are still welcome – and we’ll be here.

We got off the bus on the main beachfront the Playa de la Concha and during our evening stroll came across La Perla a thalassotherapy spa originally opened in 1912. We enquired about times and prices and determined to visit next day. We then walked north into the old city centre where a number of pintxo bars had been noted from Tripadvisor or the guide book.

P1020489There’s a whole street named for the 31 August which is lined with excellent bars and restaurants. It was the only street that survived when the Brits and Portuguese sacked the city and drove out the French. The bars didn’t disappoint with hams hanging from the rafters, cider being poured from a great height into tiny glasses, P1020488glass cabinets displaying mouth-watering delicacies and crowds of people having fun. It had been a while since lunch so we just had to try a few. A stroll along to the harbour and then the bus back to the hotel for a break before deciding what to do for dinner. With an early start, travel and a new city to absorb we decided on a snack at the hotel which was perfectly fine – the restaurant and bar were both very pleasant places to sit and plan.

The upshot of the deliberations that we would spend a couple of hours at La Perla and then go up Monte Igueldo which is at the west end of the bay – Jon and the guide books said the fun fair was indeed fun and the view of San Sebastian fantastic. But first thalassotherapy. What a delight – warm sea water with jacuzzi like jets toning your body at different positions all indicated on signs above – feet and ankles; knees and calves; thighs; waist; back or chest and shoulders often in combinations. It was great. And then we found the underwater gym – exercise bikes, cross-trainers, treadmills all for use while half submerged in slightly less warm but very pleasant salt water. After all the energetic stuff, we were also able to laze in a warm pool looking out onto the bay. Our two-hour session ended all too soon but we dried off, changed and then had a coffee at La Perla’s café up on the promenade. But not before booking a repeat for tomorrow.

Energized by our watery workout we walked the length of the promenade passing Queen Cristina’s Miramar Palace – La Perla was also built for her benefit when she decided the court would spend its summers in San Sebastian. They even built a tunnel for traffic so the palace lawns to extend right down to the beach without the inconvenience of crossing a road. Isn’t royal prerogative a wonderful thing? The Miramar marks the point at which Playa de la Concha stops and the next bay – Playa de Ondaretta begins. There a fewer hotels and restaurants on this stretch but more beach volleyball pitches, sailing and surfing outlets and a pleasant park. By the time we reach the elegantly tiled façade of the Igueldo funicular, we were thinking about lunch.

funicularAs we rise up the views become more spectacular with the island and sweeping bays and the mountains beyond all with bright sun, blue skies and golden sand – the temptation to cancel the trip westward and stay in San Sebastian was growing stronger.

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Spoiling the view?

The top of the mountain is a giant fun fair which we had been expecting – tacky, touristy but hey we’re by the seaside. We looked around and then spied a cafeteria which we thought would be good for lunch but no it was 3:30 and they were closing. Are we still in Spain? Now quite peckish we turn tail, descend in the funicular – we decided against the walk down – and along the promenade again looking for a suitable late lunch location. I think I mentioned this area was less populated with hotels and restaurants – devoid might be a better term. Leaving the main drag we entered a warren of side streets and hit upon Bar Pepe a good old-fashioned family neighbourhood bar with no pretensions or tourists. All the staff seemed to be engaged in a twenty-strong table enjoying a family lunch to which people came and went at random with at least four generations involved. A lovely spectacle to observe. They did however find time to take our order and serve us a selection of tasty tapas. It was after seven when we left so we took the bus back to the hotel for a quiet evening in preparation for the big day tomorrow.

San Sebastian is renowned for having more Michelin stars (14) per square kilometre than any other place on earth – it’s just been supplanted by Kyoto where we’ve also eaten very well. It would be foolish not to sample the delights of one of them wouldn’t it? But which one? Not realising the festive nature of 31 August we had tried to book Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui, all of which have three stars, from the UK several weeks before. Polite refusals from all except Martin Berasategui who regretted dinner was fully booked but that we might enjoy lunch even more given the location of his restaurant out in the hills behind the city. So we jumped at it, fixed on 14:00 and come Tuesday 31 August headed off for a work out at La Perla prior to our faithful taxi driver coming to sweep us out through confusing suburbs to the imposing entrance stairway of the restaurant. It may have his name in wrought iron beside us but for Dee it would always be ‘Martin’s gaff’ well his surname is a bit of a mouthful but what delightful mouthfuls would await us inside? Well plenty. Service was amazing from the moment we entered the door. We were offered a choice indoors or out and of three unoccupied terrace tables and chose one that would furnish a full view of the whole restaurant so we could see what was going on. Attentive wait staff provided a pouffe for Dee’s handbag and a sommelier offered a glass of cava as an aperitif. Our waiter and waitress donned white gloves to turn our glasses upright ready for pouring a divine glass of Juvé y Camps Reserva de la Familia, not a cava we’d ever had before, but which made a great start to the afternoon, quite citrussy and light. Dee’s appetite has been greatly diminished of late so she decided not to join me in the 15- course tasting menu but was guided to a number of selections which would interlace with mine quite nicely. As it was the service was seamless but unhurried, the food magnificent and the only blot on the landscape was when I exclaimed ‘Oh this is real caviar’ and then didn’t give Dee any to taste. So different from the lumpfish roe served in our own sweet home! I just got carried away honest!

A couple of hours later the chef himself appeared to greet most of the diners and posed for a treasured photo with Dee and myself after a chat about the menu, the area and his continued presence in the kitchen. He can’t be there all the time as he has also other restaurants to attend to – another three Michelin stars at Lasarte in Barcelona, the two-starred MB in Tenerife and six others in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica – and his reputation as the chef with the most Michelin stars to maintain.

During our time dining our attention was drawn to a woman in red sitting across the other side of the restaurant from us. Dee was convinced it was Laura Mvula, featured in a recent South Bank Show and speculated as to where she might be performing next – Paris in two days’ time (thanks Google) so it could be. We never approached her or asked the staff – celebs deserve their space too. But she did attract a lot of attention from the staff and had a long chat with Martin. After a wonderful and peaceful afternoon with outstanding food and well-matched wine, we called for Jon and were soon heading back to the hotel in his taxi. Dee took a sensible siesta while I, overexcited I suspect, went walkabout round the neighbourhood with my camera. We later got the bus back into the centre and witnessed the great parade and musical festivities of the 31 August Festival, packed streets in the old town, choirs and bands, poets declaiming and everybody having a good time.

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Walking about and standing watching were tiring but finding bars with somewhere to sit down was quite tricksy but eventually we managed a couple and rounded off a fabulous visit to San Sebastian with a bus ride back to the hotel which neatly exhausted our three-day travel cards. A quick pack and so to bed, dreaming of warm oysters with iced cucumber; red mullet with fennel, saffron and squid and drifting off with Martin’s selection of ‘The local cheeses that I like’.