Barcelona: Modernism, Nationalism and Oceanview Patios
The last leg in our Spanish honeymoon was to visit the remarkable city of Barcelona. It seems appropriate that we flew into Barcelona rather than driving or taking the rail. Although each city we had the opportunity to visit in Spain had its own unique ambiance, passion, energy and cuisine, flying into Barcelona was rather akin to traveling to a different country. As the plane taxied down the runway, there really should have been a sign saying, “Welcome to Catalonia! And Congratulations, You Are No Longer In Spain.”
As Canadians, we’re well versed in embracing different provinces which are part of the larger country, but have their own unique culture, language and traditions…..and want, in no uncertain terms, to be recognized as separate and disassociated from the larger whole (yes, we’re looking at you, Quebec).
Barcelona, situated in the province of Catalonia, has it’s own language, flag, cuisine, culture and history. The residents make sure that you know that, and we suggest, from experience, that you don’t try out the few paltry Spanish phrases that you learned before visiting, because they will be met with confusion at best, and hostility more often. The street signs are mostly in Catalan, which at times seems to be more similar to French than to Spanish. The Catalan flags wave tall and proud, the menus and transit system communicate almost entirely in Catalan, and every museum in Barcelona has posters explaining why the rich and diverse history of Catalonia is unique, awe inspiring, and in no way related to that dogpile called Spain.
To begin, Spain may have Dali, Miro, El Greco, Goya, Picasso and Velázquez, but modern Barcelona bears the inexorable stamp of Antoni Gaudi’s creative genius. If you’re a fan of Gaudi’s modernist architectural and aesthetic sensibilities, this is the place for you. A good place to start would be a stroll through the Park Güell, where Gaudi turned his hand to landscape architecture in a 3km modernist playground. From the serpentine walkways to that infamous mosaic salamander at the entrance, this is a perfect place to visit during off-peak hours when you can enjoy the remarkable design work with some semblance of solitude.
…even if certain parts of the fairy tale park do make you want to sprinkle a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way home, lest you get inadvertently shoved headfirst into an oven. It could totally happen, you know.
The next stop on your Tour of Gaudi is, of course, the must-see La Sagrada Família, one of the most dramatic and intriguing cathedrals in Europe. In true European cathedral style, the edifice was designed and construction began roughly 130 years ago, and will likely not be completed until close to 2040. Sagrada is the project to which Gaudi dedicated the latter part of his life, and although construction continues based on his original plan, many renowned Spanish artisans have taken up the torch and, often, put their own stamp on this unique vertically sprawling building.
Consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, the main nave is now open for daily mass and frequent guided tours. The unique design articulation and aesthetic seems at first to be more reminiscent of a circus than a church, but it really speaks more to Gaudi’s creativity and passionate attention to detail. A very pious man, this was his greatest endeavor, and every detail was carefully planned and modeled in plaster or wires weighted by sand before construction began.
I can’t say enough about the Sagrada Familia, a site that we definitely want to revisit in 30 years time. Light bursts in through the Passion facade, part of the exterior design which has the theme of Christ’s last days, and washes every visitor, wanderer and believer in a warm, colorful haze, as glow which is emblematic of the building itself.
Enthusiasts of Gaudi’s Modernisme can’t miss Casa Battló on the Ile of Discord. The local name for this building translates to “House of Bones”, but for the visceral, curving and skeletal feel rather than a sense of the macabre. Like most of Gaudi’s work, every element in the design has been carefully thought out, from sea-colored mosaic tiles that lighten in color as they rise to complement effects of the natural light, to ergonomic brass door handles that are carefully molded to fit comfortably in the palm.
A final must-see Gaudi masterpiece is La Pedrera (the Stone Quarry), formally called the Casa Milà after the building’s benefactor. This private apartment building (let’s not think about how much a flat would cost) allows daily paid tours up to the extraordinary roof and museum-cum-attic. The facade of the building is done in typical Gaudi style with curvature and lines that mimic ocean waves and balconies reminiscent of brittle seaweed. The roof has a majestic view over the city as you wander between oversized “chimneys”, and mosaic sculptures of masked men and what look suspiciously like aliens. Hiking up and down the many small flights of stairs becomes almost rhythmic, like riding waves of brick.
The best part of this building is the lavishly decorated flat, done up in the manner that a posh family in the early 1900s may have enjoyed. The details were lovely, from traditional clothing hanging in the closets to the toys and art in the children’s room. To see an example of what the building inhabitants likely experienced when the apartments were new was an indulgent experience.
Barcelona is more than just Gaudi, however. If you’re looking for an exercise in gallery or museum fatigue, you’ve come to the right place! From modern art to erotica, Picasso to a decadent Art Nouveau music palace, Barcelona has so many erudite charms to discover. My personal favorite was the small and very nationalistic Catalan chocolate museum, Museu de la Xocolata in La Ribera. Maybe it’s because I like the thought of statues made of chocolate, or perhaps it’s because the admission ticket was, literally, a chocolate bar, but we actually learned quite a bit about chocolate tradition and technique in this sweet little spot.
Shopping for local comestibles is always one of the most exciting parts of a trip for us, and Barcelona’s sprawling Mercat de la Boqueria did not disappoint. One of the best stocked and most diverse fresh food markets in Europe, the vast building was teeming with activity as people jostled elbow-to-elbow while surveying the impossibly fresh seafood, sweets and spices. The market is located just outside of the Liceu metro station on a busy pedestrian boulevard where you have the opportunity to traipse on top of an actual work of art by Miró (Mosaïc de Miró) embedded in the sidewalk. I quite enjoyed that. I would have enjoyed it more if there had been some dog-poop that I could have scraped off on the way, because some ‘art’ is just not for everyone, but a shuffling stomp did the trick just fine.
Now then, it’s about time that we started investigating the food scene, because a city as cosmopolitan and rooted with deep tradition as Barcelona has something for everyone. We found the tapas to be, generally, of higher quality and more variety than in Madrid. There were the standby favorites of course, like salt cod croquettes and Spanish tortilla, in addition to the ubiquitous Catalan favorite of Pa Amb Tomaquet (grilled bread with olive oil and tomato pulp). We also enjoyed the variety of broad bean dishes, tiny sausages and meatballs in a seafood sauce….strange, but common and for delicious reason.
Of course, what I always enjoy the most is rustic comfort food that really speaks to tradition and how most people live and eat. For example, there is the popular Sopa de Ajo, which is essentially a peasant dish of garlic soup with chicken broth, stale bread and occasionally a few threads of egg. The next time I get the flu, this is what I want to drink buckets of. Chicken noodle can suck it.
Another favorite, which is widely regarded as Spain’s best hangover cure (we put that theory to the test, in the interest of realistic reporting, of course) is Pisto Manchego. A tangy but comforting blend of soft vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, onion, carrot, etc) in tomato sauce, this is like a saucy ratatouille with a perfectly fried sunnyside egg on top, ready to ooze rich yolk into the mix.
Near the end of our trip, we had an incredibly memorable meal at the Michelin starred restaurant Alkimia. We ate what felt like 65 courses, but really couldn’t have been more than, oh, I don’t know, fourteen or so. We have too much to say about that dining experience to fill you in here, but rest assured that the review is coming soon.
On our last night, after spending two weeks feasting on tapas, sausage, jamon, eggy tortilla, salty cheese and olives and deliciously greasy fried potato products, we were craving Barcelona’s lighter side. However, we also did not want our last night in Barcelona to feel anticlimactic by hunkering down in some neighborhood dive. Rather than going to a traditional restaurant for our last extravagant, homey, or bite-sized tapas meal, we opted to spend a day in the sun and dine seaside afterwards on the beautiful white sandy beaches of Barceloneta.
What a brilliant end to an amazing honeymoon. As the sun set warmly over the Mediterranean, we licked our fingers and dug into a decadent feast of the freshest seafood. Our generous platter included lobster, white clams, mussels, razor clams, cockles, barnacles, langoustines, crayfish and oysters. Served a la plancha, or roasted over high heat on a charcoal fueled griddle, this was simplicity itself; a drizzle of bold olive oil,light sprinkle of fresh parsley, and plenty of fresh lemon on the side. We have access to a lot of great ‘fresh’ seafood in Ontario, but there is no substitute for the mild and sweet briny flavor or tumescent ripeness of shellfish that was just plucked from the sea. Sweet, fresh and perfect, we will never forget cracking shells and sucking our fingers as the waves washed in the dusk.
Barcelona has often been touted as “the jewel of Spain”. A deeply cultured and metropolitan city, there is truly something for everyone here. From the delightful and whimsical aesthetics of the Modernists to the dynamic culture and entertainment, it is clear why the natives feel such a sense of national pride.
Running through the heart of the downtown shopping region is a broad pedestrian boulevard named “La Rambla”. On it stands adrinking fountain which is reputed by folklore to be just a little bit magic. Apparently, folks who drink from the fountain are destined to return to Barcelona one day.
I’m not much for superstition, but in this case…..well, I wasn’t about to take any chances.