Barcelona

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved. And isn’t the city too full of temples, enclosed squares and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by, along with every shop sign, every flight of steps and every gateway? The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist. And he would be happy to trade “all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away.” – Walter Benjamin

In many ways, Barcelona is the untidy city of the flaneur rather than the tourist; one can only get to know it by walking round it, rather than by visiting individual sites (just as well since the dreadful transport system exists for the sole purpose of educating foreigners as to what Orwell meant when he observed that Spain would be a fascist state par excellence, though not as efficient as the Germans. As Houellebecq observed, travel does tend to reinforce national stereotypes). As such, upon arrival, a walk by Port Vell (Looking down into the water I noticed a jellyfish lazily drifting by; not something I had expected to see so close to the harbour) and then down the Ramblas, (seeing ordinary buildings with beautiful ceramic tiling and others such as the Liceu) with it’s predictable array of living statues and painters, and less predictable array of tarot readers and poultry or exotic bird sellers was in order. But before that, I climbed to the top of the Columbus tower at Port Vell, (which, depending on your point of view, either looks forward to the Americas or is simply turning his back on the city) and looked over the city, with its avenues of palm trees hemmed in by the Mediterranean on the one side and steep hills on the other, especially Montjuic with the Palau Nacional at its summit. After this, I began to walk.

The Palau Guell, one of the few architectural masterpieces in the old town, is the most interesting example of Gaudi’s early work; ostensibly a palace for his nouveau riche patron, it more resembles a fortress in many ways, not least of which must rank its battlements. This most hostile of buildings has an elaborate interior design which contributes to a somewhat convoluted and claustrophobic feel, aided by the grey marble, black iron and dark wooden panelling (ironically, the most colourful room was the servants area with its traditional tiled ceiling). On the roof, the chimneys and ventilation stacks had been covered with coloured tiles and had been contorted into the same organic shapes (like an inverted image of the pillars in the cellar) that would characterise his later work up to the small lizard sculpture resting on one of the stacks, but which seemed oddly out of place here. The later Casa Mila, or La Pedrera, seems similar in many ways; a bland stone exterior mixed with black ironwork on the balconies. However, the undulating surface of the exterior, the glass door with octopus tentacle-like iron frames, the inner courtyard painted in the colours of forests and seas, suggest further development.

The two works that most seemed to fulfill this promise were Parc Guell and Casa Batllo. Of these, the former combined strange earthen pillars, sometimes surmounted with sisal, alongside the paths with the shining greek theatre area, a mosaic made out of largely white tiles, but which suddenly erupts into colour, as with the famous lizard fountain at the base of the steps or the bench back rests. The gateway buildings are amongst the most eccentric Gaudi designed, while the house that currently forms the Casa Museu is much more conventional, save its pink icing colour. This forms a museum now, set amongst a tranquil garden filled with such items as Gaudi’s iron fencing (in the shape of seeds and palm leaves) and tiling (patterned with ammonites and starfish). Within the museum, the Ibarz-Clapes furniture (more explicitly art nouveau that Gaudi’s own modernism) is perhaps the most striking exhibit, alongside the Casa Calvet mirror. The latter is perhaps the most beautiful building in the city, with its ‘house of the bones’ balconies jutting out of a sinuous exterior that increasingly resembles fish scales as it reaches the roof. Inside, the light wooden furniture and window frames, the stained glass windows as well as the white and blue inner courtyard (as a result of which it all becomes rather like walking round an aquarium), show the contrast with the earlier Palau Guell, the centrepiece being the way the front room ceiling swirls around the central light fitting.

On the other hand the temple of the Sagrada Familia, had me wondering whether Orwell might not have had a point in his intense dislike for it. The stone has weathered and darkened over time, something that normally enhances the beauty of gothic cathedrals, but which would seem to have had the opposite effect here, especially given the bright colours of some of the ornamentation. What enlivens the cathedral is the sculpture, such as the rather weary tortoises that sit underneath the columns or the snails and sea urchins that crawl across them. On the other hand, the rather harsh modern sculptures that cover the angular facade seem utterly at odds with the Gaudian aesthetic (the facades that do exist somewhat resemble melted wax) and I am unconvinced that concrete is an appropriate medium to continue the construction.

In all honesty,I was more impressed with Montaner’s Hopital de Sant Pau. Donemech Montaner easily demonstrates the problems of speaking of modernism in Barcelona, since much of these total works of architecture draw heavily on traditional styles, creating a perhaps rather stronger resemblance to arts and crafts (the same applies to Gaudi, but where Gaudi redefined the language of architecture, Montaner subverted it, turning this redbrick building into a secular cathedral with elaborate ornamentation). That said, these examples of Viennese architecture have some interesting parallels to Gaudi.

Montaner’s own house, the otherwise rather modest Casa Montaner is covered in murals) than art nouveau. The same can almost be said of the Palau de la Musica Catalaner, where the ornamentation has become some profuse that it outweighs the normal aspects of architecture, as with the stained glass skylight that bulges downwards in the aspect of a raindrop, the ubiquitous flower ornamentation with the pillars being trees and everything so brightly painted as to remind one of the witches’ house in the Brother’s Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel.

The other great Catalan architect, Puig Cadafalch, is perhaps simpler, having a penchant for gothic with elaborate stonework and crenellations, something which can be somewhat staid in the case of the Casa Macaya, but which can equally be extraordinarily effective as with the Casa de la Punxes with its green and red tower (resembling Gaudi’s chequered red white and green Casa Vicens) and sundial, or the Moorish Casa Amatler. The latter, next to Casa Battlo and near Montaner’s Casa Lleo Morera on the Mansana de la Discordia formed a particularly breathtaking sight, though sadly I was unable to see the stained glass on the interior of Casa Lleo Morera (I did note the same egg shaped style sculpture atop the building as at the Palau de la Musica, a bizarre fixation also displayed by Dali).

Montaner also designed one of the buildings for the Citadel Park (the building is now a zoological museum, and with its dark brick and crenellations looks oddly like a Cadafalch design), the site for an international exhibition, a rather delightfully idiosyncratic place where you can never quite guess what is round the next corner. Next to the boat lake, there is one of the most elaborate and ornate fountains I have ever seen, requiring a large flight of steps to reach he summit, while next to it is the model of a Mammoth. Elsewhere, the park has the city’s Museum of Modern Art, which is perversely filled with nineteenth century art and nothing from the twentieth century. Walking inside, I disturbed some rather noisy green parrots that seem to have taken residence in the trees there (the more common sight in the city is the pigeon and stray cats; walking to the Park, I had looked inside a closed nineteenth century market and observed that its sole occupant was a sunbathing cat). Though Spanish art does seem to veer between the conservative and the derivative (at least until Picasso, Dali and Miro), it did have some impressive pieces, such as Maria Fortuny’s painting of Morocco and the battle of Tetuan, or the paintings of Casas and Rusinyol of Parisian and Barcelonan life, though it must be said that the best exhibits were those showing design rather than art; the furniture that the architects designed for many of the above houses. Finally, a rather surprisingly conventional painting of Dali’s father was rather well done.

The other gallery I visited, the Palau Nacional, has a rather more slim collection of Gothic and Romanesque art (which impressed in terms of colour if less so in terms of artistry and subject matter; there are only many martyrdoms one can tolerate). This is a rather bombastic neo-classical affair at the summit of Montjuic, which was perhaps more notable for its nearby Botanical garden. This covered Mediterranean style environments from a number of countries; so that Canarian pine grew alongside palms, alongside scarlet bottlebrush, paradise flowers, broom, euphorbia, crassulae and strawberry trees.

Outside Barcelona, I visited Tarragona, a rather nondescript and unlovely town along the coast, which has a number of Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre and the remains of the circus and forum. A more interesting part of the town was the archaeological museum, with a wonderful mosaic of the Medusa, red Roman lamps and rather fine glass funereal vases (and more idiosyncratically, a marble phallus with an inscription that read ‘hic habitat felicitas’). But the most interesting part was the Casa Castellarnau, onetime residence to the Hapsburg Emperor. Painted scenes as well as painted columns adorn the walls, creating the aspect of Versailles within a small villa, the upper sitting room in particular having an enormous chandelier. The most pleasant room was probably one with Louis Quinze furniture upholstered in blue and large windows looking out onto a tiled balcony, but the most tranquil was an inner courtyard filled with plants, and the sound of a small fountain.

Since Catalan cuisine is now apparently equally worthy of mention as its architecture, I should mention some of the food, such as eating at Els Quatre Gats a restaurant founded by Casas and Rusinyol, build by Cadafalch and which was later to house the first Picasso exhibition. Eating at such places is rather nice if only for the venue, but the food was rather good. Over the week, at various restaurants (including one dedicated to Eastern European cooking called Vildsvin) I became acquainted with cuttlefish, reindeer and goat, and obviously dishes like squid and cuttlefish paella cooked in black ink. Another holiday pursuit worthy of mention is examining the coinage; the number of non-Spanish Euros was quite high, about half of them though predictably lower in Tarragona, with the coins mainly being from France, then Germany, Italy and some from the Netherlands and Portugal.

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