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.
I so enjoyed my visit to Miro’s studio in Mallorca last year that I decided to visit the Fundacio Miro in Barcelona. It’s situated up on Montjuïc the mountain where the Olympic Park was in 1992 and which continues to be a tourist attraction. Three stops on the Metro to Parallel and the the Funicular up to Montjuic.
It was a disappointing trip compared with the ones in Bilbao, Budapest and San Sebastián in that it’s almost entirely in a tunnel with just occasional sights of scrappy play areas and none of the vistaS across the city I was hoping for. However, a few steps from the top of the funicular, my wish was granted with this view dominated by the magnificent Sagrada Familia.
On the way to the Miro Foundation was a sculpture garden with some of the worst signage I’ve ever come across – tiny aluminium stakes with titles engraved – totally illegible. At Miro, things were handled much better. There is a huge collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and found objects displayed in spacious galleries. I’m glad I’d been to the studio in Mallorca to get an idea of Miro’s working methods. It’s also good to see that artists who choose to follow a different kind of visual vocabulary are well grounded in basic draughtsmanship.
I particularly love his amusing sculptures from everyday objects. As a not-very-royalists person I was much taken by King, Queen and Prince (below right), the huge (nearly 6 metres across) Sobreteixim with eight umbrellas and the dramatic use of a coat hanger.
Another artist provides a fascinating object here. Alexander Calder was the only non-Spaniard invited to contribute to Spain’s pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition. Alongside several Miro canvases, Picasso’s Guernica, Calder’s Mercury Fountain was seen as a further protest against the atrocities of the Franco regime including the attack at Almaden the town that provided a substantial quantity of the world’s mercury. Calder donated the sculpture to the Miro Foundation and we view it from behind a glass screen since the toxicity of mercury has been discovered. Funny thing is the Egyptians knew about mercury too and thought it chased away evil spirits – may have killed some of them too.
I had a coffee in the cafe before continuing my walk along Montjuic. I was heading inexorably to the National Art Museum of Catalunya, which I had told myself I wasn’t going to bother with on this trip. I remembered, bothwith the children ages ago, and with Dee more recently standing on its terrace on a Friday evening eagerly awaiting the magic fountain’s display. No use waiting for it on Wednesday afternoon. I do remember it as quite spectacular with water jets synchronised to different music genres at different times and changing colour appropriately. Looking down at it brought back good memories. I then thought ‘Well I’m here, it’s free with the Barcelona card so why not?’.
The majestic central dome covered an area in which there were easels for wannabe artists and a fabulous soft play area with kids swarming all over. If that what it takes to get folk in and keep galleries alive, I’m all for it.
I decide to eschew the old masters which I have seen before and head for the modern floor upstairs. Neatly divided into four areas it shows the development of Catalan art from the turn of the century to the present day. In the very first gallery devoted to modernisme, what did I see but the actual dining table Gaudi had designed for Casa Battlo.? There were lots of beautiful wooden, glass and metal objects in that fluid style.
As I progressed through the galleries I saw works by familiar names like Rusinol, Sorolla and Picasso. I was especially taken by a cunning Rusinol self portrait. Look carefully!
In the next room I was introduced to the work of a female photographer Mey Rahola who shared a love of sailing and photography with our friend Joe Weiler in Boston. She was lucky to be around at a period 1934-36 when it was OK for a woman to engage in such pursuits. The Civil War put and end to that as she went into exile in France but had developed her own documentary style and continued to take photographs professional during the Second World War.
A new set of rooms for 2022 are devoted to the art of the Civil War period and range from propaganda posters, depictions of the horrors of war reminiscent of Goya – one wall of etchings reminded me of Los Caprichos. It’s interesting to see how Spainis re-evaluating the whole period that was so traumatic for so many. When I raised the refugee elements in Isabel Allende’s book with Rosa and Pepita over lunch Pepita didn’t really want to discuss it as, although born after the end of the war, so much of her childhood and early years were shaped by it. One of Rosa’s video installations Lost was on the subject of babies stolen by the churchduring the Franco period. It casts a long shadow.
Enough gloom. Back out into the sunlight of Montjuïc and a walk through the Botanic Garden towards the Olympic Stadium where a convenient bus arrived and took me back to the funicular. A little later a further trip to the Cerveseria rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable day up above the city.
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 contomate 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.
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.
I always thought the Accu part of Accuweather was short for accurate or accuracy – not any more. It was one of those grey mornings that don’t encourage you to leap from your bed into enthusiastic activity. When I did venture onto the balcony it was windy and there was a hint of drizzle on the breeze. So bye-bye lazy day by the pool. One of the great things about paradors is they all have loads of corners where you can sit and knit, read, sew or paint according to your inclinations. However once I had made the effort I decided to drive up the Ebro valley for a bit towards a place we had visited before – the so-called Cathedral of Wine – a modernist masterpiece in Pinell de Brai. There might be a theme emerging here! First however I detoured into Xerta which lies right on the banks of the Ebro and its clever canal. I parked and sat down in the main square for a coffee and the sun came out. Coffee done my jacket went back into the car as it was already 20° at 11:30 and I’m only 10 Km up river from Tortosa which still looks cloudy. It’s a typical old medieval village with one exception to the norm. Being on the river bank it’s flat whereas all the other villages I went to today are built on the top of extremely steep hills – ooh my calves!
The river bank walk reminded me very much of a similar stroll also beside the Ebro but way west in Haro in the Rioja. Elegant wooden fences, plenty of places to sit and picnic and the interesting contrast of the slow-moving Ebro and the rushing canal.
As I walked back through the village there was evidence that the citrus season is all but over although I did see another septuagenarian scrumping a few remaining oranges – to be fair he may have been legit. I didn’t like to ask. On my perambulations through the narrow streets I concluded that a third of the population was over 70, a third pregnant and the other third at work or in school. Back in the main square I discovered the reasons for the canal.
This marker up the side of the church shows the level of the floods – it’s ten metres at the top – that used to devastate the whole area because of the unpredictability of the flow in different seasons. So in 1857 they built a diagonal dam across the river – some evidence points to a much earlier Moorish effort to control the river – which siphoned large amounts into the canal which is used to supply towns and villages and irrigate the fertile lands of the area. A hydroelectric plant followed in 2002 so the waters of the Ebro are put to good effect.
That’s my history quota for the day so I set off for culture. The town of Horta de San Joan has a Picasso Cubism Centre so I think I’ll pay a visit. On the way I get diverted by an amazing mountain rock formation. This one is in the Natural Park of Els Ports and it made me think how, wherever you go in this amazing country, you’re a never far away from mountains with amazing outcrops. This one is known as the Dog’s Head and, of course, The Castle. I think the dog’s a spaniel given its long ears – maybe a setter. But as I looked at them I remembered the mountains at Montserrat far north from here and those of El Torcal hundreds of miles south near Antequera all with amazing shapes. Fabulous!
The dog’s head and the castle
The dog’s head
Dee on the way to Montserrat
Dee in El Torcal
On the way I have an opportunity to snap one of the roundabouts I obsessed about the other day and a sign that I thought would amuse any of the IT buffs out there with its nifty digitalism.
Of course after parking up and mounting the steps and steeps to Horta de San Joan I discover that the Picasso place only opens on Saturdays and Sundays – rubbish planning again. It also seems only to have reproductions and photographs of the mates he spent time with in Horta – might have been quite interesting but not essential, I think. After all that effort there was an attractive square with a bar with a beer with my name on. It was lunch time for the workers who are destroying the town centre before rebuilding it and they are all playing cards – quite competitively I would say.
On I go with a brief stop in Gandesa to El Pinell de Brai and the Cathedral of Wine. Designed by César Martinell, a follower of Gaudi, it opened in 1917 and has elements in common with yesterday’s winery at San Sadurni. There’s a lovely ceramic tile frieze showing the wine making process. Sadly since we were there before it has now opened a Michelin starred restaurant but it’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays – poor planning again. Totally inadequate prior research I’d say. For me the amazing brickwork of the vaults inside and the windows that look like wine bottles to me are pure mastery of form and function. And the way the modernists use light is brilliant. Glad a made a return visit.
I also walked up to the top of the village up streets so steep they reminded me of a trip to Zahara de la Sierra in Cadiz province where we and the locals traversed diagonally from side to side in order to make it up vertiginous slopes. It also gave me an insight into how quickly and recently Spain has modernised. This municipal water supply was only turned off in 1998 when piped water was made available to the whole village.
Back to Tortosa and back into the gloom – warm gloom it has to be said and a wander through its excellent central park and splendid market hall – a pre-modernist architect making great play with light again (some dispute about who actually designed it) – and past a poster that told me the medieval festival – Renaissance I stand corrected – happens every year in July – probably won’t make it back this year though.
Wednesday morning, still glowing from our lunch at Martin’s gaff and the warm reception for Wellington’s compatriots the night before, we rose, finished packing and went to our convenient café just round the corner from the hotel for coffee and croissants to start the day. A call to our trusty cabbie resulted in us soon being whisked through the ring road and motorway suburbs to where our hire car awaited. If ever there was a misnomer Hertz San Sebastian City Centre was it. Twenty thoroughly confusing minutes later we find ourselves in a massive Centro Comercial with the car hire offices as far from the entrance as possible. However, the car was ready, there weren’t too many blemishes to note and photograph – essential as we were doing a one-way rental – and we were soon retracing our route onto the motorway and this time passing right by San Sebastian and heading for Bilbao. As we’d been there relatively recently we decided to stay on the motorway and bypass the city this time, while noting that it would be good to go back there again on another occasion.
We also decided to carry on past Santander although people have said it’s a great city but we were drawn to the touristy attractions of Santillana del Mar once described by Jean Paul Sartre as the prettiest village in Spain.
And it did have a certain charm with ancient well-maintained buildings dating back to the 15th century, narrow cobbled streets contrasting with a massive church and many imposing palaces. We wandered happily in the sun with lots of photo opportunities, bars to sample cider and eventually a good place for lunch. Apparently there are strict building regulations and no access to cars unless they have a garage within the town which did make it a very pleasant place to while away a couple of hours. We decided against going to nearby Altamira since all you can see are replicas of the 35,000-year-old cave paintings since the originals have become too fragile to withstand the breath and sweat of visitors except a very few people each day. We later read that the waiting list is three years – almost as bad as booking at El Bulli in its prime.
Instead as big Gaudi fans we decided to head off north to Comillas where one of his first ever buildings, and one of the few outside Catalunya, still stands in its decorative glory. El Capricho was built as a summer palace for a merchant who had found wealth in the Indies – like so many nineteenth century Spaniards – and was completed in 1883 the same year as Casa Vicens in Barcelona so they are of historical interest in demonstrating how the ideas that were later to find their way into the Sagrada Familia were already present in embryonic form in his first commissioned works.
It’s a fascinating small villa with an interesting combination of materials, stone, red brick, glazed tiles and lots of wrought iron. It has a tower like a minaret and reflects Gaudi oriental interests. There are repeating motifs of sunflowers and leaves and the use of the rooms follows the path of the sun. Seeing close up the designs Gaudi chose for door furniture, the windows that play tunes when they are opened, vermillion roof trusses, beautiful wood finishes and tiles and carvings of flora and fauna was an eye-opener which helped throw his later and more famous works into context. El Capricho had a chequered history being abandoned in the civil war, then becoming a restaurant and then thanks to a Japanese corporation which presumably included a Gaudi fan it was restored and opened as a museum in 2010. We had a brief rest in the tranquil garden and then back to the car for our hotel for the next three days – the Parador at Cangas de Onis, the gateway to the Picos de Europa.
I routinely make booking requests in most places for a room with a walk-in as opposed to an over-bath shower but didn’t bother here as we’ve never been in a parador that didn’t have both bath and separate shower. However we’ve never been up north before and they only have one in the disabled room. We can use that for the first night but a guest in a wheelchair is arriving tomorrow so we’ll have to move. So we made full use of it with a shower to wash off the effects of travelling all day and enjoyed an evening cocktail in the spacious room before going for dinner. The staff kindly agreed to move our bags during the day while we went to explore the Picos de Europa. We are both fans of a good blue cheese and one of Spain more famous one cabrales is made just down the road and there’s a cave-museum that shows the process and has a tasting tour so that’s where we headed first. The cave is quite small so groups are limited to twenty people and tours set off at quarter past every hour. So we had time for a coffee before joining the 12:15 group for a fascinating visit with video clips of the cows, sheep and goats high in the Picos with herdsmen still living up with them for weeks at a time, then a look at the equipment used to make the milk into cheese and then the actual shelves where the cheeses sit to age for between four and six months.
We were surprised to learn that they make two types of cabrales – one just with cows’ milk and the other with a blend of cows’, goats’ and ewes’ milk. They are all controlled by strict Denominacion Cabrales regulations and are quite powerful blue cheeses. I marginally preferred the three-milk blend but both were highly acceptable.
The cave is on the outskirts of Las Arenas and after this little appetiser we decided it was time for lunch flowed by a drive higher into the mountains. It’s a small town but still too many restaurants to choose from but after the usual dithering we decided on La Panera which was a friendly family run place with good local food and of course a plate of cheese to finish off with. Our drive was exhilarating as we wound our way up through the breath-taking peaks often on single track roads and lots of reversing – the protocol seems to be give way to those coming down or maybe I’m just too polite. Eventually we arrived in the village of Sotres hoping to descend back to the main road via another valley but only belatedly consulted the map to find there were no other roads to Sotres than the one we had just driven.
The view does look quite different going the other way so no real complaints. They are very impressive mountains and we really enjoyed being able to get out and grab some warm, fresh mountain air. We stopped off in the town of Cangas de Onis – the parador is about three kilometres north in Villanueva de Cangas – to have an aperitif after a hard day’s tourism. Parking was a nightmare even with our blue badge translation but eventually we found a spot and headed off for a bar.
But there’s a steep Roman bridge over the river Sella so we had to walk up that and take a selfie first. We settled down in front of El Campanu with a much needed – it’s very steep that bridge – beer and a glass of rosado when our pleasant stay was disturbed by a mother with an uncontrollably sick child which vomited freely in
the street making all around most uncomfortable. The staff quickly arrived with mops and buckets but we had by then retired inside to avoid feeling nauseous ourselves. The restaurant looked very good, so despite our setback, we agreed that we’d come back tomorrow night for dinner.
After travel and tourism for two days we agreed to suspend normal Raggett holiday mode and have a quiet day around the parador and Villanueva. This started with a sunny stroll beside the river to another hostelry for breakfast and Dee was moved to sketch a prominent sandstone outcrop across the river. We returned via the colourful little village which had a number of typical Asturian granaries or hórreos.
Originally raised grain stores to prevent rats and other rodents getting at the grain, some are still used for this purpose, others as garages but they are interesting structures found all across Asturias and Galicia. The village also had one shop-cum-bar and even with gentle strolling a thirst had developed so a beer was called for. We went back to the parador for a light lunch and found elaborate preparations for a wedding in full swing. We were later able to observe the guests from the balcony of our new, perfectly adequate room. A taxi took us back into Cangas for dinner and there beside our table in El Campanu was a photo of the owner with none other than Martin Berasategui who clearly approved our choice of local restaurant. Apparently he still spends quite a lot of time travelling to sample authentic local cuisine all over the country.
The restaurant didn’t disappoint. The platter of simply grilled local fish was delicious and they had a good wine list as well as their speciality ciders which we did have to sample first or cause offence to the very attentive staff. I never fail to be impressed by how much Spaniards regard waiting as a real profession and do it with such enthusiasm and concern for their customers’ tastes and comfort. It wasn’t the bag pouffe and white gloves of Martin’s but it made our evening really pleasant and memorable. It seems that back home corporations with restaurant chains still haven’t learned that people by people not things. But then brands wouldn’t rule would they? As we are driven back to the parador through bright moonlight and with the mountains silhouetted around us, we are really glad we chose to explore a part of Spain we didn’t know.