01 February 2010


I've never been to Spain. But I kinda like the music.

OK. The first part isn't technically true. I spent about 4 hours in Spain in the early 1980s, a short train ride across the French border from St Jean de Luz one Sunday morning to find no way to change money, nothing open, no place to eat, and nobody interested in making exceptions for a 6' 4" 135 lb, perhaps smelly, American backpacker and his similarly undernourished and aromatic Austrian companion. So we wandered around an empty town for several hours until the first train bound for France carried us off (imagine that-- France was the friendly place. Ha!).

It is true that, despite realizing that my unpleasant experience there was my own fault (expecting things to be open on Sunday? Not knowing a single word of Spanish? C'mon...), I've never been back. And it's almost true that I've never even been all that tempted to go back. Something about not liking hot, or even warm, climates much and figuring that Italy fulfilled my Mediterranean culture interest.

But things change, and the case for going to Spain at some point had been building for a few years. With a 2-week block of vacation for Karen over the holidays, some cheap flights available, and cold dark dreary days fully enveloping Paris of late, we decided to go to Barcelona for 5 days just before Christmas. The 5th major city outside France we've visited since moving to Paris, it might just have been the most fun. Hard to compare with Tokyo, where we spent more time, and which was more fascinatingly foreign.

Since a month has passed since we were there, this'll just be a list of stuff we liked, making it easier for all of us.

1.) Architecture. It's hard to go to Barcelona and not get caught up with Gaudi. Not impossible, mind you: my mom remarked before we went and after we got back that it doesn't take long to get over that stuff. I can see her point. A lot of it is a little over the top and can actually get a bit monotonous. And all of the technical issues, like making the arches a slightly different shape so there would be perfectly balanced forces in compression, don't seem to my non-engineering mind to be terribly significant. It's not like the cathedrals built in the 1100s with the old arches have come crashing down unpredictably. But even in the most distractingly embellished buildings, there are moments of pure aesthetic elegance, curves and meeting of curved planes that are both breathtaking and serene at the same time. I absolutely loved the cathedral, a non-Gothic take on a Gothic form. The font is different in Gaudi's cathedral, but the text is the same-- it's telling the exact same stories with the same level of ornamentation and over-the-top presentation as the cathedrals of the middle ages. I dug it.

And there's plenty else aside from Gaudi. The colorful 19th century Eixample neighborhoods, the beautifully austere Romanesque Sant Pau del Camp, the twisty streets of the gothic quarter, and the 15th century hospital de la Santa Creu offer very different experiences of space and place. I've commented before on the pros and cons of Haussmann's Paris. There's a harmony and elegance, but there's also a bit of stifling sameness. Barcelona didn't suffer from that at all.

Casa Mila, a Gaudi apartment building.

Casa Battlo, an even gaudier Gaudi building.

The passion facade, by Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, on the Sagrada Familia cathedral is powerful and bleak.

The interior light in the unfinished cathedral is magical, and the stained glass, which doesn't photograph well with my crappy cell phone, was like jewels.

Gaudi's peaks culminate in colorful plant motifs, which seem pretty whimsical...

... but are they really any sillier than the giant marble cows (said to be among the finest gothic animal sculpture around-- not sure how much competition there is for that honor) atop the 12th century cathedral in Laon, France? 

The courtyard of the Hospital de la Santa Creu feels like an Italian villa...

... and Sant Pau's cloister is one of the most intimate and blissfully peaceful places I've ever been.

Sant Pau del Camp's simplicity reflects in part its role as a defensive structure, built outside the city's walls.

You're not allowed to hang your laundry outside in Paris. I like it-- it gives the sense that a place is lived in.

2.) Food. You can run the gamut in Barcelona, from the simplest snack foods (egg-and-potato omelets/tortillas) to the most cutting edge cooking technology. I loved the fish in romesco sauce I had one night, the stews of white beans or chickpeas, and the dishes that mixed fish and meat. But our favorite meal of the trip was lunch at Casa Lucio, a modest little place that does "standard" tapas at the bar up front and more inventive fare in the dining room in the back. Not having reserved, we got a couple of stools at the tapas bar and tried to communicate with the owner, who asked the other folks in the bar to help with some English. With a Catalan patron's help, we explained my shellfish allergy and that we were game for anything else. The owner pulled a little slip of paper out of the cash drawer that simply read "Trust me," and then mimed that we just needed to tell him when we've had enough. The parade of plates was amazing, marinated fish and vegetables, outstanding sausages, croquettes of Iberian ham, and one of the best cheeses I've ever had in my life. There was earnest pride and respect in the progression of the meal, and it was the kind of perfect simplicity I should be aspiring to in the kitchen. It was a truly memorable meal, both for the food and the intimate cultural experience. This, ultimately, is why I travel.

One of seemingly thousands of comfortable neighborhood wine-and-tapas bars, this one Bar Mut in the Exaimple, where we had a very good lunch our first, and only sunny, day in Barcelona.

La Bouqueria, the big and busy food market off of the Ramblas, wasn't such a novelty coming from Paris or even Philly. But local eating habits were on display in the dozens of stalls selling Iberian hams and the lamb's heads in this butcher case.

A little ways down the aisle was this cooler of small wild game. Now that's what I want at my butcher shop. Thoughtful of them to line the bottom of the cooler with red, rather than white, paper...

A small sampling of the treats at Casa Lucio's tapas bar, where we had a trip-defining lunch.

3.) Wine. You've got to wash all that good food down with something, and the Spanish wine washes down pretty well. In a world where vineyards of indigenous grapes are being replanted with French grapes to make generically international wines, it was really easy to find good Spanish wines made from the traditional Spanish grapes at reasonable prices, whether in the wine bars before dinner or at the table.

4.) Art. Though the museum capitol of Spain is Madrid, there's still plenty to see in Barcelona. The highlight for us was the Fundacio Joan Miro, both for the broad collection of Miro's own moving work and for the outstanding temporary exhibition of Frantisek Kupka's paintings and drawings. Our time-to-museum-saturation is usually fairly short, but we spent forever there.

It was raining, so I didn't stop to write down the name of the artist who created this sculpture outside the Fundacio Joan Miro.

A Kupka painting, the picture downloaded from the Fundacio Joan Miro's website, since I was about the only person in the museum complying with the no-indoor-photography request.

5.) Shopping. We don't spend much time shopping, generally, but something about Barcelona drew us in, and we had a lot of luck finding stores with a good combination of style, fit, and price. It didn't hurt that it rained almost constantly after our first day.

5.) People. I heard a number of (presumably non-Catalan) people in Barcelona make cracks about the impersonal and prickly Catalans, but we were impressed by how graciously hospitable people were.

6.) Vibe. Though the feel and prosperity of the city change depending on where you are, the central part of town has an energy and movement that's charming and compelling. Maybe that reflected our mood more than the city itself, but we had a sense of moving and looking forward. I suspect some of it's the whimsy and exuberance in some of the architecture and art in public spaces. I think I've said before that Paris, like Philly, has a bit of a yesterday-centric culture about it, even beyond the preservation of their histories. Barcelona felt optimistic, somehow.

Even the giant crustaceans in Barcelona are optimistic. You can't see it in this picture, but this menacing creature along the recently updated waterfront wears a goofy smiley face.

The very few negatives of the trip were the kinds of things one runs into anywhere-- a hotel that, while cool looking and nicely appointed, was lacking sound proofing and design common sense (are clangy metal shelves and minibar cubicle doors a good idea in a minimally soundproofed place? Not so much.), a hugely overpriced meal at Cinc Sentis that, although stunningly plated, fell well short of its mark both in service and taste (a chef needs to use more than 3 of the 5 tastes at that level-- where on earth was acid or bitter?, expensive wine pairings need to highlight the unique flavors of both the food and wine rather than pile the same gustatory experience on your tongue course after course, and with 48 h notice on allergies, the management needs to be more flexible in a tasting menu), and my umbrella was stolen from a store umbrella rack. Spain still has a reputation for petty theft, and it doesn't get any more petty than my 7-euro-buck folding umbrella. A tiny dose of bad luck. C'est comme ça.

I'd have put the mediocre coffee on the negative list, but it was still better enough than what you get in Paris that I think I have to put that on the win side, along with 95% of the rest of our Barcelona experience.

Goodbye, Barcelona. We'll probably be back.

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