El Puerto (SOS)

I couldn’t blog about Barcelona without mentioning the port; sea trade brought prosperity to many European cities and here the port has been central to city life for two millennia.  Origin stories suggest that the city was either founded by Hercules, or by Hamilcar, the father of the famous Carthaginian military leader Hannibal.  In either event it was the Romans who began to fully develop the area to take advantage of the natural harbour here.

Nowadays the place is bustling with visitors, but to me it seems to lack a clear identity.  Is it a marina, a ferry terminal, a shopping mall or a historical monument?  The answer is that it is all of these in part, but what does that make the whole?

Most of the commercial activity (it is one of Europe’s largest container ports) takes place conveniently out of sight of most visitors, with the ferry terminal dominating the western end of the vista that greets you as you arrive at the end of La Rambla – the main street of the old town.

Here you will also find the Mirador de Colón, the monument to Christopher Columbus.  Here the explorer returned to his Spanish sponsors to report the discovery of America, further reminder of past nautical glories.  Best not mention that Columbus was Italian, or that his statue, intended to point in the direction of the Americas, actually points to Genoa, city of his birth._PW_0168

Around the fringes you will find the converted warehouses that house museums and restaurants, but then on a peninsula jutting into the docks is the commercial heart; an IMAX cinema, the largest aquarium in Europe, and the Mare Magnum shopping centre, which because of it’s tourist destination status is the only mall open on Sundays.

There’s some amazing art too, though I found myself less enthralled by Frank Gehry and Roy Lichtenstein than Spanish artist Andreu Alfaro.  His piece Onades (Waves) dominates the entrance to the ferry buildings and consists of great loops of polished steel.  At first I assumed they were an interpretation of the Olympic rings with a hint of Mickey Mouse ears, but as the work was installed well after that event any comment on the commercialisation of sporting ideals would be misinterpretation on my part._PW_0278_79_80

Standing guard over all of this are the towers of the cable car that ascends to Montjuic and the Olympic Park.  Inconveniently the central tower is no longer an access point, so you must start further along the coast if you want to take that ride.  It’s well worth it though for the panoramic views of the city that it provides.



La Moda (SOS)

Whenever I write about fashion I always feel like an imposter; any variance on my part from business suit or shirt and jeans is likely to result in some sort of faux pas. That’s not to say that I’m not appreciative. It is after all another visual art form that can embody colour, structure and texture just like any other. I suppose in its reliance upon the wearer to bring it to life it could almost be seen as performance art.

But I digress from the story I wanted to share.

I’ve never associated Spain with high fashion. If really pushed I might have been able to come up with Balenciaga as a Spanish fashion house, but more often than not the juxtaposition of “Spain” and “fashion” brought to mind an image of men wearing orange trousers. (I’m sure they would have been marketed as ochre!).

Fashion, I thought, was the preserve of the French and Italians.  I perhaps even assumed that we Brits had more credibility in the field._PW_9732

How wrong could I be? A walk down Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s most prestigious thoroughfare, will feature the usual suspects like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and more, and some very well dressed shoppers to boot, but then you realise that Espana stands proud here too. There are chains like Desigual, Mango, Zara, Bershka and the Italian sounding Massimo Dutti. Paco Rabanne. Manolo Blahnik. Sfera, Blanco, Stradivarius… the list goes on.   For men it seems the navy jacket is now the wardrobe essential.

The image of the orange trousers was finally banished from my mind,

but then…_PW_1965

Tapas (SOS)

Sometime in the 1980’s, I stayed at a hotel in the Swiss village of Morgins in the Porte du Soleil ski region.  I remember little about the skiing or location after so long, but one thing stuck with me.  One evening in the hotel, presumably so they could allow some staff a night off, they served a buffet in place of the more formal dinner.  Buffet’s normally disappoint but on this occasion the food was beautifully presented on mirrored surfaces, and its appearance was matched by its quality, with one dish particularly memorable.  Brochettes of lamb.

My palette was far less developed in those days, so I couldn’t begin to guess at what ingredients had been used to marinade and season these simple skewers of grilled meat, but they were succulent and delicious.  For years they were unsurpassed in my memory.

But this post is about Spanish gastronomy not Swiss, so let me change tack.

I’ve touched on tapas before; when writing about Venetian cicchetti for example.  Every nation that produces small bite-sized dishes inevitably finds it referred to using tapas as a reference (so Venetian Tapas, Brazilian, Korean, Philipino etc).  Being in Spain I thought I’d better try the original and did so twice in Barcelona (can’t think what I ate for lunch on the other days I was there!)

_PW_1899One of my experiences was distinctly average.  My guide-book recommended a particular brewpub and I ordered a selection of seafood tapas, only to received a single plate of seafood that seemed to offer nothing that was overtly Spanish or even cared for.  I could have eaten similar plates at home in the UK, and with better beer.

Thankfully that didn’t describe my experience at Tapas 24._PW_0086

I’d been walking for about 4 hours when I arrived there at 12.15 but this, I was told, meant that they were still only serving breakfast which perhaps explained the lack of customers.  I should return after 12.30 if I wanted tapas for lunch, which I duly did after a short detour to the park in Plaça de la Catalunya.  Now this little basement eatery was heaving with customers, but at least being a lone diner I could find a spot at the counter around the bar._PW_0075

An English menu was swiftly provided (why is it always so obvious to our European neighbours?) and I set to choosing some dishes, ordered a cerveza and began the anticipation.  Tapas 24 has a reputation to uphold.  Run by Carles Abellan, the chef who was contracted for 15 days to work in El Bulli (winner of the world’s best restaurant accolade a record five times) but who stayed for 15 years, it is renowned for serving gourmet versions of classic tapas.

_PW_0079My choices didn’t provide the most balanced diet, but each proved to be a revelation.  Bombes de la Barceloneta was a perfect sphere of meatball and potato croquette with a combination of creamy and spicy sauces expertly coating one side.  A safe start that was to be followed by a revelation.

Pinxo de Xai “Alhucemas” translated as simply a spicy lamb skewer, but this was nothing so ordinary.  I was finally transported back to my alpine experience of 30 years previously.  This was how lamb should be served, so I was already happy with my decision to lunch here.  _PW_0080The remarkable thing was that the lamb would then be overshadowed, and by something as straightforward as a cheese and ham toastie!

I’m perhaps guilty of oversimplifying, but the house speciality of Bikini Comerç 24 looks unremarkable.  Small and slender triangles of toasted white bread containing just three ingredients.  The cheese is mozzarella buffala, and the ham is of course Jamon Iberico, the Iberian ham which may even surpass the finest Italian prosciutto.  Two great ingredients but they are lifted to new heights by the addition of black truffle.  They were exquisite._PW_0083

I felt sorry for those whose experience of tapas hadn’t included such delights.  I hope they weren’t too disappointed.

Feeling peckish yet?



The Quarry (SOS)

There are a number of buildings within Barcelona that vie for the title of being the prime example of Antoni Gaudí’s work as a designer and architect.  The Sagrada Familia is of course the biggest most popular with visitors, but it’s vastness makes it impersonal, and harder to grasp the impact of his work.  Park Guell is far more hands on, but here it’s more about decoration than practicality, and Gaudí’s own house is outside the Park Boundary so not part of a visit.

Casa Battlo perhaps?  Extravagant and eccentric, and smaller scale so easier to understand.  It’s so full of visitors however that the rooms are largely empty to facilitate their passage around the building so you get less of a picture of life in such a building.   Nevertheless it is possible to see the design similarities with other European variants of Art Nouveau; the naturalistic curves of door and window frames are reminiscent of Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro signs, the rose of Rennie Mackintosh, or the French interiors seen in The Danish Girl (though these were actually shot at the Victor Horta museum in Brussels).

_PW_9743_4_5So where gets my vote?  That would be Casa Milà, the large apartment block just a stone’s throw from Casa Battlo.  Here you find it all; architectural innovations like a self-supporting façade that is structurally independent of the building behind it, an underground garage that now seems such an obvious solution, and the twisting chimneys of the roof top which better allow smoke to exit.  Then there is the decoration be it the wrought iron exterior railings, the courtyard murals, or the curving plaster walls.  The sinuous and sensual furniture.  The detail of door handles and drawer pulls.

There is the catenary ribcage of the attic room (which also provides a convenient display space for an exhibit on Gaudí’s style) and the rolling and alien landscape of the rooftop.

There is so much of significance on display here that it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, but then the other Gaudí works mentioned here also have that status!  The cornucopia of creativity on display isn’t solely the work of Gaudí; the wrought-iron balconies for example were designed by Jujol, but his vision is at the heart of the construction.

Casa Mila is the building’s correct name, having been commissioned by Barcelona businessman Pere Milà i Camps, but it has long been known as The Quarry, though in Spanish it translates as something which to my ear sounds far less prosaic.  For a structure so rich with curves the feminine nomenclature seems the most appropriate choice; La Pedrera._PW_9773_4_5-Edit

Palau (SOS)

Making my way towards the Olympic Stadium at Montjuic, it was another altogether more impressive structure that first appeared through the greenery to demand my attention._PW_0489

For all the attempts at creating a classical feel at the stadium to my less than discerning eye it felt like moulded concrete, and given that it’s a twentieth century structure that isn’t so surprising.  What was surprising was that the more impressive building nearby, for all its baroque pomp, is also a twentieth century construction.

The Palau Nacional (National Palace in Catalan), like the Olympic stadium, was built in the 1920’s for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929, but it has all the grandeur of something designed 300 years earlier._PW_0535

It now houses the contradictory-titled National Museum of Catalan Art.  Is it a national museum or a Catalan museum? In such a fiercely separatist area the hope is that Catalonia will be recognised as a nation and the confusion will be ended.  For now though it houses a collection of art from the region that runs from Romanesque church frescoes to a history of modern art.

We’ll consider some of the contents, and indeed the interior structure in later posts.  For now lets just enjoy the shell.


Sand and Sea (and a Little Spell of Sunshine) (SOS)

Beach holiday or city break?

One of the decisions that any travel agent might require of a prospective client, but for the indecisive Barcelona is the obvious solution.

Most great European cities have a connection to the sea, but few are as close as Barcelona.  London makes do with the mighty Thames.

Historically Ancient Rome relied on nearby Ostia.  The Greeks tried to feel closer to Piraeus by building long curtain walls to bridge the gap.

Nowadays Paris pretends to be a seaside resort each summer with the creation of the Paris-Plages where sand, palm-trees and more are imported for some very popular set-dressing._PW_0372

Barcelona has no need of such artifice, having the real thing in abundance.  On the morning of my arrival it was deserted, but then it was late October and raining heavily so that when a squadron of Segways arrived their ponchos created a uniformity suggesting something closer to an expeditionary force than a group of sightseers._PW_0366

The sun was already breaking through by then so I hung around while waiting for the Montjuic cable car to open.  I was soon rewarded with bright sunshine and soaring temperatures.  Barcelonetta, the name of the beach area, didn’t stay deserted for long, though most of the other visitors had a direct flight!



Sagrilege (SOS)

_PW_0760The Sagrada Familia, or to give it its full title, The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, is the “must see” structure in Barcelona, and from many places around the city it’s hard not to see it, or at least the cranes that are as much a feature of this building site as the 8 spires that tower over everything in the vicinity.  

It will be the tallest church in the world when the work is complete.  That is hoped to be in about 10 years time to celebrate the centenary of Gaudi’s death though some estimate it could take another 25 years after that.  Whatever the outcome the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, the oldest and for centuries tallest of the seven ancient wonders of the world took only 20 years in total.

So is it worth all that effort and attention?

The reviews are mixed with descriptions ranging from sensual, spiritual, audacious and whimsical to vulgar, pretentious and hideous (George Orwell being responsible for the last descriptor).

So what did I make of it?  Well I’m going to consider the exterior and interior as two different propositions, so you’ll have to wait for the full story, but let’s start outside.

There are three facades (why not go the whole hog and create four?), but as one is obscured by the construction at the moment I’m only able to comment on two; the Nativity Facade and the Passion Facade.

First to be constructed, and built during Gaudi’s lifetime, the Nativity Facade is packed with sculptural detail and is all about the birth of Christ, though the presence of a Christmas tree in the heart of the decoration seems incongruous.  To my eye it’s a mess.  The concept of “less is more” was clearly anathema to Gaudi.  Apparently he intended for every figure in the facade to be individually painted, and this might be helpful in guiding the eye to important details but for now it’s just a melee of masonry.

The Passion Facade isn’t entirely Gaudi’s work.  Although he had outline his concept and created sketches and models, the actual detail of the sculptures wasn’t addressed before his death.  The angular columns, inspired by the trunks of sequoia trees, were always part of the plan but the sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs come from another century, being quite literally designed almost 100 years after the building’s construction began.

Subirach’s style is angular and blocky, which to me seems completely inappropriate for a building designed by the man who hated straight lines.   I wondered at first if the figures were unfinished, they were so different to those elsewhere on the building.  Not as busy as the Nativity Facade, but whereas the designer loved his subject so much he couldn’t stop here, on the Passion Facade there seems no love at all.  Perhaps this was deliberate dealing as it does with the end of Christ’s life, but for me the building lacked any clear identity as a result.

The church is of course rich in symbolism, something that would normally fascinate me, but too rich a diet can leave you feeling rather sick, and I preferred to keep my distance.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona