He: Where you going?
A lyric from Steven Sondheim’s musical Company
One recent evening Kay and I found ourselves in Dry Martini, a bar not far from our hotel in Barcelona’s fashionable Eixample district. We had come as a prelude to the single extravagant dinner we would enjoy during our short visit to that splendid city. Dry Martini is the kind of bar all too rare nowadays. Its dark paneled walls, intimate lighting, and relaxed seating engendered in us a feeling of joy and well-being. We were mildly tired after a day of sightseeing.
As we sat sipping our drinks, we gazed at oil paintings on the walls depicting Dry Martini’s signature offering made from among forty different brands of gin. Near us we observed a group of Catalans, men and women of a certain age dressed as if they had come from the executive suites of nearby corporate headquarters. The women especially had a stylish elegance. As latecomers arrived each was greeted warmly, an additional chair was pulled up, and the seating shifted to make room. Some were drinking Scotch, and when a new drink was summoned, the waiter arrived bearing a tray with ice, a fresh glass, and the Scotch bottle from which he proceeded to pour for all to see. It was a gracious touch. Here was a worldly group, chatting, joking, and perfectly at home with each other.
I dwell on this scene and its surroundings because for me it exemplifies our Barcelona, a city as lovely and tasteful as any we’ve known in Europe.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so I’ll finish telling about that same evening’s dinner. Shortly after 8 we walked to the rear of the bar and were met by a person who guided us along a corridor next to a restaurant kitchen and into a dining room where we were the only guests. The restaurant is called Speakeasy, no doubt because of its hidden and secret access. That we were shown into an empty restaurant is explained by the early hour and the Catalans’ preference for late dining. In that respect, at least, they are like the rest of Spain.
Befitting a restaurant of Speakeasy’s caliber, we had outstanding service, our waiter patiently helping us to understand the menu and the daily specials. As a starter, Kay chose razor clams, a specialty of the region, whose shells about three inches long are the size of thick pencils when they are shut. My own more prosaic choice was ravioli with a filling of oxtail meat. Following the ravioli I ate meatballs made of ground squid surrounded by additional squid pieces. Both my starter and main were dressed with rich sauces to the point where I was on the verge of having a classic case of mal au foie. The cool, crisp white wine chosen by our waiter was a knockout: a complex vintage from Spain’s Galicia region known as Rias Viaxas from the Terras Gauda estate. The grape: Albariño.
It was close to 10 p.m. when we staggered out of Speakeasy only to get lost walking in the wrong direction. Although the center of Barcelona is laid out on a perfect grid, it was still confusing for us newbies. We ended up finding a taxi to get us back to the hotel where I slept the sleep of the just.
As in other regions of Spain, in Catalonia it is not necessary to order traditional meals. Tapas nourished us nicely both at mid-day and evening. And we chose from a bewildering variety. Among our favorites were patatas bravas, slices of perfectly boiled potatoes topped with a zesty sauce and plates of sliced roast pork dressed with a sauce of South American origin: presa iberica amb Chimicherri. Then there is Bikini, a small, toasted ham and cheese sandwich on very thin bread. Or how about a dessert of pure chocolate dressed with olive oil and sea salt. The list goes on and on. At a lunch counter in the city’s great food market of la Boqueria I ordered Boquerones, anchovies in a light vinegar, garlic, and parsley dressing. Kay, who has long had an outspoken antipathy to anchovies, liked these. It was a culinary breakthrough for her. I could go on about the food and drink, but you get the point: Barcelona is great for food.
We experience a city most directly by walking its streets and avenues, taking in their look and feel, and the life that inhabits them. Barcelona’s wide avenue named Passeig de Gràcia is Eixample’s main artery and one of the most elegant streets we’ve ever seen. It is what Paris’ avenue des Champs-Élysées used to be like before it became crowded with fast-food outlets, airline offices, and chain stores. The stores that line the Passeig de Gràcia are strictly luxury brands, and their windows dressed for the holidays were a sight for jaded eyes. Furthermore, the Passeig is the site of some unique architecture.
We first knew this style as Art Nouveau. In Germany they called it Jugendstil, in Austria Sezessionstil, but here in Spain it is Modernismo. It arose throughout Europe in the final decade of the 19th century and flourished until the First World War. Its theoretical underpinnings are those of William Morris and Britain’s Arts-and-Crafts Movement that sought to reestablish the integrity and methods of craftsmanship that had been displaced by the tide of mass production and industrialization. In its architecture and decorative arts, the features of Modernismo are asymmetrical compositions and sinuous curved lines inspired from organic forms found in nature. With our ways of looking at and thinking about architecture today, formed by Neo-Gothic, Beaux-Arts, and Post-Modern styles, Modernismo can strike us as outlandish, pure whimsy on the part of the builder. Probably nowhere is this more true than in Barcelona, and that is due to two innovators of genius and their followers who broke with earlier styles so completely. They were Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) and Luís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923), the architect who designed the extraordinary Palau de la Musica Catalana that opened in 1908 and about which I’ll write a few lines below.
Of the two artist-architects Gaudí is, of course, the most famous. His is a familiar name world wide even among those who don’t know his work. Before this visit and before reading Colm Tóibín’s wonderful Homage to Barcelona, we didn’t know much at all about Gaudí, the man, or about the details of his work. As a man, Gaudí was, well, pretty weird. A life-long misogynist who never married, and anti-clerical in his youth, he became a Roman Catholic of such devotion that he came to lead an austere almost monkish existence and to dedicate the last years of his life almost exclusively to designing and beginning to build the Sagrada Familia, a great, otherworldly church that was only begun in Gaudí’s lifetime and may not be finished for several decades to come. Gaudí’s expressed intention for the Sagrada Familia was to expiate the sins of his fellow Catalans. Personally, although I don’t love the church, I do recognize that it is a mysterious dream of one unlike any other ever built before.
My affinity is much stronger for two other of Gaudí’s creations that we were able to visit on this trip. Both are residential monuments and both are located near each other on the Passeig de Gràcia.
There is something dreamlike, too, about La Pedrera, the large apartment block that stands only a few meters from the Hotel Royal where we stayed. Our first impression of its façade is of a giant sand castle. Light beige in color and without any straight lines or edges, it looks as if it had been sculpted by hand. (“Sculpture” is a word that comes to mind again and again with Moderdismo – architecture as sculpture.)
La Pedrera, built between 1906 and 1912, is still a fashionable residence with all but one of its apartments occupied by tenants. The exception is one on the top floor restored and open as a museum.
The most singular and amazing part of La Pedrera is its roof where chimneys and ventilation shafts are bundled together and hidden within a series of surrealistic towers of various sizes and shapes. Again, there are no straight lines or flat surfaces. These must be seen to be believed.
Further down the Passeig de Gràcia on its opposite side is another Gaudí masterpiece. One author described the Casa Batlló as the architect’s most “hallucinatory” work. It is a 1906 renovation of an earlier building that Gaudí was hired to do by an owner who wanted his house to look like no other. It is just as well that our first sight of it was at night when its specialty lighting accentuates the remarkable features of its façade. The stone carvings that surround the large front windows of the piano nobile (the first floor above street level) give the appearance of a large mouth or mask. Within the mouth are some slender columns that very much resemble the jointed bones of human legs. They give rise to the casa’s nickname “the house of bones”. The mask-like motif is continued in the railings of the protruding balconies of the floors above. The surface of the upper façade that some liken to a pond of waterlilies features a technique known as trencadís that Gaudí used repeatedly. It consists of pieces of broken tiles and ceramics, some white, others multi-colored. It is a technique well suited for decorating curved Modernismo surfaces where whole tiles would not work.
Catalonia’s patron is Saint George, and the roofline of Casa Batlló as seen from the street has the shape of a dragon. Likewise, the interior staircase railing leading upwards from street floor’s vestibule has the appearance of a snake.
All of Casa Batlló is a museum, and we were amazed at some of the interior design features: On the piano nobile there is a small fireplace enclosed within a sculpted niche. Beside the fireplace are two hidden benches. This intimate space is ideal for a courting couple.
Like other architects (Wright, Alto, Mackintosh, Mies van der Rohe, the Saarinens come to mind) Gaudí designed furniture and interior objects for his buildings. He has the reputation of taking as much care with the small as with the large. His doorknobs and window latches are museum pieces in their own right.
Prior to this trip, Kay and I didn’t know of Luís Domènech i Montaner even by reputation, and we were surprised to learn that he had been an important architect in the city before Gaudí’s rise to prominence. It just may be gossip that the two men disliked one another. But if they did, it must have been a rivalry between the two giants of Modernismo because Domènech’s work certainly stands the test of time. The Palau de la Musica Catalana that opened in 1908 as the home of the Orfeó Català is a concert hall as respected today as it was when it was built.
The Orfeó Català was an amateur choral society consisting of blue-collar workers who lived in the crowded neighborhood where it was built. The popularity of choral music in Barcelona at the time is another story that we’ll need to learn more about.
Surprisingly, to us, the Orfeó Català had the Palau built and hired Domènech i Montaner to design it. To call the result exuberant would be to understate it even by Modernismo standards. The ceiling of the auditorium is a giant skylight whose center is dominated by an integrated stained glass light source that has the appearance of a fiery sun. The lines emanating from it divide the ceiling into multicolored pie-shaped wedges intersected by concentric rings. The outer rings contain women’s faces framed by long, brown hair. This is a sight to behold, yet it is all of a piece with the other elements of the hall’s décor.
We were lucky that at the time of our tour we were able to see and hear a full symphony orchestra rehearsing the Star Wars theme in preparation for the movie’s opening celebration a few days hence.
Before entering the great hall were treated to a short video containing short testimonials from famous singers, musicians, and conductors about their love for the Palau and the quality of its acoustics and general ambience. In the century since its opening, many of the great names of opera and classical music have performed at the Palau. Today, it is a venue for all kinds of music from jazz, to pop, to rock. When Kay and I return to Barcelona (and we will), we will be sure to attend at least one concert in this wonderful hall.
Barcelona has several interesting museums and of the three we visited, I mention only one. Pau Picasso, as he is known in Catalan, spent his formative years in the city, and the museum that bears his name contains many of his early works and even some of his later paintings. Nearing the end of his life, the artist gave a trove of 1500 works to the city, which make up the core of the museum’s collection, much of which is housed in five contiguous medieval buildings in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Apart from the works they contain, the architecture of these buildings with their courtyards and window treatments are museum pieces themselves.
Within the Picasso we were impressed by how precocious the artist was. By the age of fifteen he had mastered the composition and perspective control of Academic painting and had done Science and Charity, a large and accomplished work of social realism. Soon after, Picasso began the experiments that led to his Blue Period and his first works of what became known as Cubism.
We don’t exaggerate when we say that we did a lot during our four days in Barcelona. We had no choice but to leave the hotel early each morning because Kay, at my instigation, had bought tickets and tours on line that began at 9 and 9:30 in the morning.
We hadn’t been in the city long before we realized just how distinct Barcelona and all of Catalonia is from Spain’s other provinces. I took only a few minutes in our first restaurant to discover that the Spanish-language app on my iPhone was no help reading the menu. It was entirely in Catalan, the “other” language of Catalonia that often seems to come first.
Over the years, we have been vaguely aware of Catalonia’s sporadic bids for independence yet hadn’t given them much thought until now that our consciousness has been raised. We’ve learned that long ago, in the 14th century, for instance, Catalonia was an important independent Christian state in the Mediterranean world. This was at a time when the Moors ruled the rest of what is now Spain. And we hadn’t known of the short-lived Catalan Republic that existed prior to the start of the Civil War. By precedent and the will of many Catalans, Catalonia has a good case for its independence. Time will tell whether it succeeds or not.
In any case, Kay and I have become convinced that it is a worthy province to explore and hope to return in the not too distant future to do so.