Your browser version is outdated. We recommend that you update your browser to the latest version.


Spain March and April 2015

Spain is Europe’s southernmost outpost.  This is ancient soil, first trod by humans 800,000 years ago. Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians were here from 1100 BC, the Romans from 218 BC, Moors from the 5th to the 11th centuries then the Catholics sending Christopher Columbus west in 1492.  The succeeding Habsburgs began the decline, spending the New World’s riches and losing the American colonies.  In the twentieth century Anarchism, a Republic then Franco provided a disparity of unworkable regimes.  Present-day Spain is nominally a Constitutional Monarchy, part of Europe and precariously balanced on the edge of financial survival.


I was to spend nine days in Barcelona here are just a few snapshots.

Three flags fly from public buildings in Barcelona: Catalonian, Spanish and European.  Catalan is the first language here and the tourist soon encounters alpha-male Catalonians who consider their city to be amongst the first in Europe.  In opposition traveller judgements would have it as a place where the tourist is likely to be swindled or robbed.  Wise visitors take great care at the station and step warily into the streets at first.

For this Antipodean a priority is to renew an acquaintance with the Mediterranean so I leave the hotel on day one to navigate La Rambla eastwards.  Most pedestrians today seem headed in this direction warily skirting promontories of loitering baleful youth reaching into the walkway centre.  The local football team is to play international foes Manchester United this evening and the journey toward the sea is punctuated by low-brow provocative commentary from loaded hotel balconies.  Partway down I take refuge in the mediaeval magnificence of the Church of St John The Baptist and intercede in the cool gloom for absent friends and those in need.  I note a most photogenic baldachino but the quiet presence of praying faithful precludes flash photography.

Back in the brilliance of springtime Iberian light my next stop is the fresh food market where I lunch upon delicacies selected from stalls laden with produce.  Bumping haunches of venison and pork hang amongst fresh herbs, tomatoes, olives, and sheaves of spices of every variety.  Muscular fish vendors slice delicate fillets from the huge corpses of this morning’s catch and scimitar wielding prosciutto harvesters shave millimetre thin portions from dried pork thighs for immediate selling.  Niche pasta makers have a quiet alcove of their own contrasting with the busy commerce of nearby burgeoning fruit and nut stalls.  Citrus is pressed on demand for my luncheon juice.  Mostly the architectural prospect on the way down La Rambla is a pleasing mixture of periods with narrow walkways leading inland to spacious squares.  At the end the rhythm is lost and harmony dissolves in a muddle of disjoint building shapes, tawdry commercial stalls and newer port buildings.  Columbus on his pedestal wisely looks away and out to sea across the opalescent waters of the fabled Med.

From the coast I head back onshore to the Old Town visiting, enroute, the lofty mellow spaces of 14th century St Mary of the Sea rising above the narrow cobbled streets.  Here in the confines of mediaeval Barcelona I join battle with the tourist multitude.  Bored, inattentive school groups, ubiquitous multitudes of shuffling bewildered Mainland Chinese and heaving masses of loud Americans; all following brolly-wielding guides or milling around overpoweringly large coaches.  Here very obviously is the competition!  Fortunately I am not so put off my stroke that I cannot find the Picasso Museum.

Picasso (1881-1973) arrived in Barcelona at the age of 11 leaving in his early 20s to return several times before departing Spain permanently for France at the time of Franco.  The museum contains works donated by him.  The building is an amalgam of five medieval properties in the La Ribera neighbourhood and is a triumph of adaptation.  Its contents amount to a treasure trove of work from perhaps the 20th century’s most celebrated artist.  Of greatest interest are early works of the teenaged Picasso and the later masterpiece, ‘La Meninas’ with its attendant studies.  The early works demonstrate a thrilling confidence of line, security in composition and use of colour which anticipated a bright future for the 15 year-old. 

‘La Meninas’ (The Maids of honour), following from the original of Velasquez, adds to the mysteries implanted in the work by the original master and studies show the 20th century maestro struggling with and clarifying spatial and subject relationships unearthed by Velasquez.  The main work’s cubist structure subtly illuminates the original enigmatic composition and leads us unobtrusively into the creator’s 17th century mind.  Remarkably it is virtually monochrome.

After the 20th century geometry of Picasso I head home via the 14th century foundation cathedral.  The building has been added to for 600 years and is particularly strong in barouche determination to show the relation of high art to religious devotion.  Ebulliently decorated side chapels are set into every wall whilst the nave and aisles remain uncluttered and commodious.  Today was the day when visitors were allowed to ascend in the rickety cathedral lift to the roof.  Vertigo notwithstanding I take the journey and gaze downwards, yes downwards, on flying buttresses and study elegant mediaeval solutions to rooftop drainage as well as glance tremulously over the edge to suburban Barcelona, knuckles whitening on the friendly handrail.


Tourist guides and popular histories promote Antoni Gaudi as the greatest exponent of Catalan Modernism.  But Gaudi was surely its greatest, international champion also.  His wonderful houses within the Eixample District of Barcelona and above all his famous unfinished Cathedral of the Holy Family, the Sagrada Familia, show a practical flamboyance which so exploited and extended the ideas of Modernism that those early 20th century ideas resonate today. 

One takes the Metro to the ‘Sagrada’, as it is colloquially known, via the university so carriages are bulging with chattering youngsters.  On arrival one’s ascent to the street yields not a view of an architectural marvel but level after level of tawdry flats lining plain streets stretching away from the station.  Rearing upwards from the pavement behind you, though, is the dripping Nativity Facade of Gaudi’s masterpiece.  Lot’s wife looked back to her doom looking back at the Sagrada is an elevating experience.

Not so elevating the nondescript milling crowds at each entrance mostly there to add to the number of ticked boxes on their itineraries.  Once inside the minority of genuine pilgrims and interested travellers become obvious; they are those who aren’t engrossed with their Facebook pages or taking pictures of themselves!  Certainly the majority of visitors, once the initial impact of the building had dissipated, quickly resumed normal personal commerce coolly ignoring signed requests to treat the interior in a meditative and reflective way.  Some even pushed their way into sacred roped-off spaces. The delicate filigree strength of the cathedral stands as an imposing monument to one man’s faith, a city’s determination and the glory of God.  It will probably have to go on enduring dispassionate tourists.

Gaudi was the second architect employed on the project.  The first, Del Villar, the Diocesan architect, resigned after one year following disputes with church authorities.  Gaudi stayed 43 years, raising money himself for the project, and ending his commission only when run over and killed by a Barcelonan tram.  Appropriately he lies buried in the crypt.  Others have carried on the work following notes and models left by the master.  Modernism remains a potent guiding force.

Even so the cathedral design follows essentially Gothic thinking: cruciform shape, formal west front, east end with ambulatory, cloisters, towers with the largest at the crossing, ranks of nave windows, clerestory, and a grand eastern sanctuary culminating with raised main altar.  All macerated through the inspired mill of Gaudi’s creative genius.

The 20th century cathedral architect has the same essential problems to solve as his mediaeval predecessor not the least of which is how to support the roof without filling the interior with space-consuming columns.  Gothic architects invented the flying buttress which adroitly transferred the weight of the roof outside.  Gaudi reinvented the flying buttress.  His elegant columns rise through interior spaces then branch at the top, trefoil fashion.  Thus one slim column consumes negligible space at floor level but spreads its support over a large area at the ceiling.

He left detailed plans for glass design.  Bright colours were to be used for lower windows and lighter pastels for the upper ranks.  This disposition allowed maximum natural light to flood the building; albeit coloured by the window sections.  Joan Vila I Grau has been glass designer since 1999, taking the immense responsibility for putting the master’s plans into practice and solving the many problems Gaudi could not possibly have envisaged.

The result is a triumph, not something one can always say of modern glass.  Liturgical south is lighted in the nave by tessellated planes of blue, paling as the windows ascend whilst the north is illuminated in facets of varying red, ruby at the base.  The eye travels effortlessly into the clerestory where the colours are more subdued but still paradoxically vibrant.  At the east end lower ranks of glass and clerestory are translucently clear to allow the ingress of light without distraction at this most sacred part of the building.

Transepts have splendid high rose windows, smaller rose windows sit atop double lancets throughout the cathedral.  Gaudi saw light as rather more than a tool.  Seeing ‘by light’ became a metaphor for infusing faith and Grau has carried out this intention with inspired acumen.  His glass magnificently complements and extends Gaudi’s vision.

Metaphor flourishes without and within Sagrada Familia.  There are twelve external towers and four internal porphyry columns support the crossing each with the sign of an evangelist.  Spare design prevails at the Passion whilst the Nativity is treated more buoyantly.  Lively exotic and local fauna climb with soundless exuberance around the ‘Hope’ entrance.

Along with its more ancient predecessors at Rome, Canterbury and Chartres, Gaudi’s creation at Barcelona has become a place of pilgrimage.  Hopefully not just for those who wish to add to their list of touring achievements but also for those who wish to enter quietly and join their faith with Gaudi whose very soul is embodied here in stone, concrete and glass.  The building is a work in progress.

After the radiance of the ‘Sagrada’ the traveller can do no better than visit at least one of Gaudi’s remarkable houses.  La Pedrera (The Stone Quarry) had the shortest queues.  Dominating its corner site this modernist miracle attracted a bad press from local conservatives when its sinuous, balconied façade appeared in the centre of Eixample.  There are no straight lines in the 8-story structure which is designed around two curved courtyards.  Windows let on to ironworked balconies.   Inside, every early 20th-century creature comfort is included designed in Gaudi’s lively modernist style.  Each upstairs apartment is different.  Downstairs were commercial premises let out to cover the running costs of the building and the building retains essentially this usage pattern today.  The roof is an integral part of living space.  Here crazily shaped sculptural vents, lift shafts and a number of human-sized stone hoops dominate the skyline.  Sighting through one of the hoops reveals a view of the still-emergent Sagrada.

Roman Barcelona

After Gaudi’s transcendental architecture one can head underground in the nearby Barri Gotic to Roman Barcelona at the history museum. It is a nice paradox in a city best known now for Gaudi and Modernism tht lurking just a few metres underground from La Pedrera are the superbly preserved remains of architectural work of equal splendour but nearly 2000 years older.  The Roman engineers designed and built to the limit of their technology just as did Gaudi.

Here beneath the bitumen streets are mosaicked pavements, spacious rooms with decorated floors and painted walls, trackways with visible contemporary wheel ruts, fish processing factories, a laundry complete with dyeing facilities, and a fully-fledged winery.  There are complete streets, drains, sewage systems, a bathhouse, watch towers, a city wall and defence systems.  Clever digital work has recreated whole streetscapes.  The Roman Christian church and Bishop’s palace, built post Constantine, can be seen as the Romans would have seen it through superbly conserved surfaces and artefacts. 

The visitor goes on a Time Team tour of Barcelona at the Historic Museum from about 30 BC to 900 AD when the Visigoths subsumed Roman facilities.  What a privilege to spend time in busy Barcino of Roman times and the time of St Paul.  Here is a Roman citizen riding his horse and captured by a contemporary anonymous muralist.  He is as fresh as the day his image was added to the wall.

Above ground the history continues.  Directly above Roman Barcelona is the 14th century cathedral whose foundations can be seen in the underground museum.  And nearby are the 14th century town hall, governor’s palace (c1403) and, built into the Roman city wall, the archdeacon’s house.  Here too is the Royal Palace where Queen Isobel received Christopher Columbus on his return from the Americas.  Alas the day I visited the palace was closed and not receiving visitors.

A short walk away is the church of St Jaume (James) and St James himself may have preached in northern Spain.  The present church is built on an earlier site; that of the church of the Holy Trinity (1392) which being in the Jewish quarter presumably catered for proselytising Jews.  The community of St James moved here in 1853.

The Hill of Montjuic

Here is a pedestrian’s paradise.  Rising from the pavement near the university the hill-park houses a plethora of attractions: the Catalan National Museum of Art, The Fundacio Joan Miro-The Joan Miro Museum, Ethnographic and Archaeology museums and the Palau National within which are the spectacular Romanesque and Gothic art museums showing one of Europe’s best collections of both.  How fortunate that wise rescuers saved gothic treasures from the depredations of the Reformation. 

After visits to the Catalan gallery, Romanesque and Gothic galleries the next obvious objective is the Miro museum set up with the cooperation of the master himself.  Here is a world-class venue with dozens of masterpieces by this wily, suggestive, tongue in cheek Surrealist painter.  Surreal experiences begin at the door with Alex Calder’s ‘Mercury’, (a ‘Water feature’) highly toxic Mercury replaces water in this flowing miracle.  Silver droplets of the element scurry down various chutes after release at the top in contrast to water which would flow continuously.

To Madrid