More Barcelona

While there is an endless supply of things to do and see in Barcelona, one of my favourites is exploring the architecture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in this city. In Robert Hughes incredibly detailed history, Barcelona, he points out that the architecture and design of the city, and its expansion, clearly reflect the class tensions that would finally erupt violently as Franco’s regime began to take control. Like many European cities at the end of the nineteenth century, Barcelona experienced a rapid growth in population as industrialization promised work for many leaving the countryside for waged labour in the cities. Because of the Roman wall that contained the old city, expansion to accommodate the growing population would be a problem. Eventually the municipal government agreed to demolish the wall – portions of which can still be found near the port – in order to construct more living space. The civil engineer chosen to design the new neighbourhood of Eixample, Ildefons Cerdà, envisioned a place of wide-open spaces unlike the cramped, dark, and often plague-ridden areas of the old city. A progressive thinker, he wanted wide avenues, public gardens, and hygienic conditions affordable for the workers. He was a lone voice. The growing bourgeois class saw the new neighbourhood as theirs alone, a place of beauty far removed from the squalor of the old city. The end result is a fragmented city that meets incongruously at Plaça Cataluñya. Below the plaça as you walk down La Rambla is the old city, divided on the left by the neighbourhood of Gotico and on the right, Raval. But above this, as you stroll along Passeig de Gràcia, you will find the largest concentration of Modernist architecture, particularly reflected in the Art Nouveau movement, anywhere in Europe according to Hughes. Modernisme, as the Catalan architects like Gaudí, Puig, and Domènech i Montaner envisioned it, combined the aesthetics and opulence of nature with the ideologies of Catalan identity, particularly in its difference and separation from Spanish nationalism. While the most famous project remains the still unfinished Sagrada Familia, designed by Gaudí, it is Domènech’s Palau de la Música de Catalana that made me catch my breath. Built between 1905 and 1908, the building combines the decorative arts and the architectural design intended to bring in as much natural light as possible in a space crowded by other buildings and narrow streets. 

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Even the interior staircase supports use coloured glass to attract more light.

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The crown in the auditorium is the stained-glass skylight.

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The stage pays homage to eighteen muses, all from different countries and mythologies, each playing a different instrument, particular to her national origin.

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As part of the Catalanist project envisioned by the architect, music of all kinds is performed here. And Catalan pride is woven into the very fabric of the structure, as witnessed in the stained-glass windows of the Catalan flag. Following the victory of the Franco regime, the building was not destroyed or altered, like many others were, but the windows promoting Catalan nationalism were covered until after Franco’s death in 1975.

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The guided tours are well worth doing. They are offered in multiple languages in the mornings. Late afternoons are reserved for rehearsals of choirs and concerts that continue to provide entertainments in the auditorium that still demonstrates some of the best acoustics anywhere. I attended an evening of Spanish guitar by Manuel Gonzalez a few nights later, and was not disappointed. This beautiful hall represents the vision intended by Domènech and his contemporaries, of a place for the bourgeois to celebrate the arts, and be continually reminded of the Catalan spirit. 

But what of the working class, and their role in Catalanism? That will be for my next post. 

Until then, I wish a peaceful day for all of us.

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Barcelona, the enchantress

I arrived in Barcelona on March 25th, after cutting short my stay in Stockholm by two weeks. I’m sure Stockholm is lovely in summer, and it is certainly rich in history and interesting architecture, but I couldn’t take any more of the biting winds, the snow, and the grim people constantly rushing to find the warmth of shops. I could’ve stayed in Canada for that! So, on to Barcelona, the city that stole my heart the first time around. She has not disappointed this time either. This time I spent my first two weeks in the Raval neighbourhood, known for its large communities of immigrants, especially those from Indonesia, Pakistan and Eastern Europe. Close to La Rambla, this old part of the city was once the underbelly near the port, known for its high crime rates. There are still the pickpockets (in every neighbourhood in a city this large), but the area has changed a great deal, particularly as the economy relies increasingly more on tourism. I found wonderful food and amazing people. Like my host, Monica, whose non-stop energy is infectious. She made sure I knew my way around, introduced me to some great tapas places, and was just great fun.

During the two weeks i stayed there, I reacquainted myself with one of my favourite galleries, La Virreina, on La Rambla. This place always has incredible photo exhibitions, and once again I was left breathless. 

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This retrospective of works by Alberto García Alix explores self-portraiture in ways that are haunting, but not sentimental and never self-indulgent. I am still ruminating on this work. I love when art – which is always free to the public in this gallery – pushes me to question my assumptions. At the same gallery, in the studio space was an exhibition by photo-journalist, Guillermo Cervera, Bye-Bye Kabul. I had to return to see it another day because I was so overwhelmed by Alix’s work. I’m glad I waited; the two of them alone are incredibly powerful, and together would leave one’s psyche in tatters. Completely worth seeing. Intelligent and thoughtful responses to the very difficult worlds we all inhabit at times.

From there, in need of something a bit more whimsical, I went with friends to see the Magic Fountains near Plaza Espanya. I had resisted this on previous trips, as it is such a blatantly tourist venue. I know, I know. However, I will now say that a trip to Barcelona should include this amazingly fun experience. The show lasts for two hours, and I was completely mesmerized by the beauty and the sense of fun. It’s still early in the season, but there were at least a couple of thousand people there, all completely immersed (pardon the pun) in the display of light, sound and water. It truly is magical! Image

You really need to get there early to find a better vantage point than we managed. This photo doesn’t really give the perspective, but as the evening darkened and more people arrived, the party atmosphere intensified, and the lights were truly spectacular. And it’s free! 

On the absurdist side of things, following our trip to the Magic Fountain, my friends Paroma and Ben and I decided to get a quick and cheap bite to eat, so we set out on Avenida Paral.lel looking for pizza. As it was looking like rain, which eventually did arrive, we sought a place with some shelter so we could sit outside. One should always be aware of one’s surroundings. We ended up at a place called La Crepe, which turned out to be run by an Asian family. The hideously bad red wine was served ice cold, and the pizza was barely edible. However, what made it a great experience was the presentation of the food. The individual pizzas came on wooden trays, with the strangest cutting tool i’ve ever seen. It looked like a medieval weapon of war. Really. Here’s the proof. 

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I am still laughing about this particular experience. There were, of course, many other wonderful days and nights to follow. And soon, I will post about some of those. For now, I leave you with one of the many photos from Parc Güell, one of my favourite contemplative spots.

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Until next time…