Barcelona and Madrid, first week of December, pre-holiday season. It’s also a week of two national holidays in Spain, so many Spaniards are on the move, along with the stream of tourists.
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi has put his stamp on Barcelona more than anyone else, not only in the Sagrada Familia cathedral, most visited site in Spain, but also in various houses in the city. On the beautiful bouvlevard Passeig de Gracia, you can admire two famous houses he designed: the Casa Mila or known as the Pedrera, and the Casa Battlo.
When La Pedrera was unveiled in 1910, local residents were horrified. What was this strange façade doing on the city’s most fashionable street? As you can see, the exterior has no straight lines – as one critic said about the wavy lines and wrought iron foliage on the balconies, “it’s as though you are on board a ship in an angry sea.”
Casa Battlo, a little further down on the other side of the street, also shows Gaudi’s preference for curved lines and his famous whimsical fairytale like designs. The outside is like a rainbow of colored glass, tiles and toothy looking balconies.
When Gaudi got his degree from the Barcelona Architectural School in 1877, the dean declared (in Catalan) “Qui sap si hem donat el diploma a un boig o aun geni. El temps ens ho dira” (Who knows if we have given this diploma to a nut or to a genius. Time will tell.) Gaudi, whose passions were architecture, religion and nature, has been seen over the years as both a nut and genius. I believe the same was said about Dali, another Catalan native, whose surrealism was much influenced by Gaudi.
The Passeig de Gracia, with its impressive houses and upscale department stores, is not the most famous street to walk along, that’s La Rambla. Before the 14th century, La Rambla was a watercourse that ran down to the sea but then it was filled in, and gradually became a thoroughfare of peddlers, farmers and tradesmen. Frederico Garcia Lorca called it the only street in the world he wished would never end.
Today it’s more of a river of humanity. Walking up the street to the central square Placa de Catalunya (that separates the old from the new town) the first weekend we were visiting Barcelona, was like being swept up in a tidal wave of bodies. I could only imagine how it must be in the summertime.
Along La Rambla you find the Boqueria market with its stalls of fresh fish, seafood, wild mushrooms, jamon iberico (Iberian ham), places to sit and eat and drink at the counter
Further down, the touristy restaurants start to proliferate, with the heaters and signs offering special deals on bright yellow paella, along with all the shops selling little flamenco dresses and bullfighting T shirts (neither flamenco or bullfighting being Catalan customs). When you get out to the sea and promenade. this will lead you to the interesting Museum of the History of Catalunya and Barceloneta. If you keep walking to the left, you’ll get out to the beaches.
When Barcelona hosted the Olympic games in 1992, it was a rundown industrial port city. For the games, historical buildings and neighborhoods were restored and sand was imported to create beaches. The city promoted its location, climate, culture and architecture, and overnight it became one of the most visited cities in the world. The large port, as our old town walking tour guide told us, can hold up to eight cruise ships at a time in its terminal. The numbers: in 1990, there were 115,000 cruise passengers and in 2017, 2.7 million.
Of course Barcelona is not the only city to face problems of overtourism. (In Athens too, the residents of the Plaka neighborhood are protesting a saturation of Airbnbs, and increased noise and street pollution, along with fears that the city might be losing its soul.)
You need to get off of La Rambla to see the famous restaurant Els Quatre Gats, modeled after Le Chat Noir in Paris. (‘Quatre gats’ or ‘four cats’ means a few people. The Catalan language written looks like French, but spoken totally different). Picasso used to meet his friends here around 1900.
The painting on the interior wall, from 1897, which looks like a poster, is by Catalan moderniste, or art nouveau artist Ramon Casas. It represents him and Pere Roneu,one of the promoters of the restaurant, on a tandem bicycle.
In Madrid at the Reina Sofia museum, we also admired another of Casas’ poster-like paintings of Els Quatre Gats.
Nearby, the 1908 Palace of Catalan Music, shows other Moderniste architects at work besides Gaudi. You can book a tour of the building inside or attend a concert.
Even though some areas are very crowded, we were lucky to have booked the small Fashion House hotel with its helpful young staff, a few blocks from Catalunya. We had a suite with two rooms with a kitchen and private veranda and a small breakfast. There was a common veranda as well which I imagine in the summer heat and crowds would be a nice quiet oasis.
Besides Gaudi’s houses and the Parc Guell, his most famous creation is his (unfinished) Sagrada Familia cathedral, about a 20 minute pleasant walk from our hotel in the quiet Eixample area.
Its history is fascinating and controversial like Gaudi himself. It was conceived in 1881 as an “expiatory temple,” dedicated to the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph (there was a cult of the time about Joseph). When the young Gaudi took over as architect a couple of years later he downplayed the planned Gothic revival style to emphasize his use of art nouveau or modernisme, and integrating nature and religion.
At first he was promoted by the rightist party as “the genius of Catalonia” and his work on the cathedral was seen as a way to spread the message against left wing and anarchist elements. Catalans were encouraged to contribute financially to the construction and in doing so they would buy forgiveness, thus the expiatory nature of the church.
Gradually Gaudi gave up other projects to devote his full time to the new cathedral. By 1926, he had moved a bed into his workshop in the cathedral and was working on it full time. In that year however, as he was crossing a street in Barcelona, he was hit by a tram car, taken to the hospital and died a couple of days later. (In his obsession to work on the cathedral, he had started to dress like a beggar, with old torn clothes, and unrecognized, he was taken to a hospital for the poor).
After his death, work stopped, and then in the 1930’s during the Spanish Civil War, revolutionaries burned his studio and destroyed most of his drawings and models. When George Orwell, who was recovering from a wound in Barcelona (he had gone to Spain to fight), visited the cathedral in 1937, he declared it “hideous” and that it should have been totally destroyed!
After World War II, artisans and historians worked at trying to interpret Gaudi’s ideas, but in 1964 in another setback, a group of intellectuals and architects deplored the quality of the post Gaudi additions and construction again was temporarily halted.
Gaudi knew from the beginning that the cathedral would not be finished in his lifetime (he liked to say “My client [God] is not in a hurry.”). Only the Nativity façade facing east, showing the birth of Jesus, life and joy, was completed while he was alive.
It has that unique melted wax quality with stalactite looking fluid lines. Near the top you can see a tree of life with white marble doves. He also includes turtles, salamanders and leaves and flowers. It’s really hard to take your eyes off it.
On the west side the Passion Façade, with its scenes of death, has a very different look. The architect Josef Maria Subirachs (noted for his aetheism!) was famous for his very stark and sharp style. The bone like archways are from a design by Gaudi.
On one detail of Jesus lifting the cross, the architect included Gaudi, to the left, pen in hand, making drawings. The Roman soldiers have a Star Wars look!
The aim is for Sagrada Familia to be finished by 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death. (However, there is much still to be done, including the Glory facade which will be the main façade of the church, more spires and towers, a bridge etc. Time was lost during the pandemic when it was closed and no tourist income).
It strikes me as strange that the Spanish government is not funding the completion of this most famous work and it depends on the visitors who buy tickets! (And a small number of donations) That’s why the price is steep, 25 euros to see the interior, more to go up in the towers. Keeping to the spirit of an expitatory temple, I suppose the entrance fee is connected with forgiveness of our sins… There are no ticket windows; all booking must be done online. In any case, the cathedral was booked solid for our visit, so we got together our guide books and really studied the exterior…
But the price for any Gaudi monuments seems a bit overinflated. The Casa Battlo for example, is 35 euros and at night, 45, but here you’re not getting atonement for your sins as with the cathedral!
You really do have to plan in advance your Barcelona visit. (I like to just waltz into buildings but you can’t do that) We also unfortunately didn’t get into the Picasso museum. We had to satisfy ourselves with the mural in Placa Nova by a young Picasso (as well as seeing his most famous work “Guernica” a few days later on a very rainy afternoon in Madrid in the Reina Sofia Museum). Hopefully next time!
The one Gaudi site we trekked around was the Parc Guell (Guell was a wealthy benefactor of the work of Gaudi and other Moderniste artists). I expected to see some elves lurking around the doorways of his playful houses. This is where Gaudi was living the last few years of his life, but the last six months, he was increasingly frail and couldn’t take the uphill walk from the cathedral, where he moved in. I can vouch for the steepness of the climb!
Soon after you enter it looks almost “normal” except for that melted wax look on the bridge columns. Here there are ticket windows. You can wander around a lot of nature trails.
The area with Gaudi’s gingerbread houses and other Art Nouveau touches is called the Monumental Zone, and gets pretty crowded. As you’re high up in the northern part of the city, you can look down to the sea.
The bottom of the Grand Staircase is guided over by a colorful dragon, one of the images promoting Barcelona.
Of course you can see Gaudi’s influence all over Barcelona, in souvenir shops in ashtrays, turtles and mugs. Here we see his art nouveau style in the foyer of this small hotel off of La Rambla
If you do get tired of Modernisme, you can escape to the medieval Barri Gotic or Gothic quarter, one of the most charming areas of Barcelona, built on top of the Roman settlement. (In the Barcelona History Museum, you can see a vast network of excavated Roman streets or neighborhoods, including wine making facilities, much as you can see the ancient streets below the Acropolis Museum as you follow along a raised metal walkway).
“This is Barcelona’s birthplace,” Rick Steves writes about the Barri Gotic in his book on Spain, “where the ancient Romans built a city and medieval Christians built their cathedral, where Jews gathered together, and where Barcelonans lived within a ring of protective walls until the 1850’s.” We did a walking tour with Runner Bean Tours (that also do Gaudi monuments). We started our tour in Placa Real, off of La Rambla, with its delicate arched buildings and palm trees, a sight you see on many streets and placas.
We had walked through the Gothic quarter on a Sunday with crowds, street musicians.The two tenors below singing operatic airs were amazing.
Our guide Lisa, originally from Ireland, was enthusiastic and informative. On this Monday morning, crowds were blissfully gone. It was a working day, kids were in school, and we even had some plazas to ourselves .
Our guide pointed out the significance of symbols we wouldn’t have known. For example, this not very attractive head of a young lady is a sign to sailors that this is the site of a brothel.
The site of the 14th century cathedral (but not the main part) was open to take a walk around. The most popular site was of the geese that live inside the garden.
Sometimes places look medieval but they’re modern, as in the Carrer del bisbe bridge, built in the 19th century.
Behind the cathedral was the Jewish Quarter of the Barri Gotic, known as El Call, its name from the Hebrew kahal meaning community. In medieval times Jews paid taxes to the Crown and in return received protection. During its peak, 4000 people were crammed into the narrow streets. Still it was a center of intellectual life, with physicians, scholars and translators, as in Cordoba and Granada (see blog, great-cities-of-spain-exploring-madrid-cordoba-granada/….)El Call came to a sad and bloody end in 1391, when during a time of famine and disease, a mob attacked the population, spurred on by Church anti Jewish sentiment. Nearly the entire population was killed or forced to convert. This was 99 years before all the Jews were expelled from Spain.
In the quarter is a stone plaque in Hebrew dedicated to a certain Rabbi and his generosity. Actually this is a replica, since the 1980’s the original can be found in the Barcelona History Museum.
The symbol of Catalonia is a donkey, our guide told us, stubborn, hardworking like the Catalan character. She repeated that bullfighting is not part of the Catalan tradition, telling us when Woody Allen went to make the film “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” he originally intended the Javier Bardem character to be a Catalan bullfighter. The locals were up in arms about this, so he made him an artist instead.
It’s a long tradition for Catalans to take to the streets, not just in recent times, but over the centuries in various sites of protest. This square is built on top of a cemetery from 1714 where defenders of the Catalan War of Spanish succession were buried. Every September 11, Catalans gather at 17:14 (14 minutes after 5 pm) and a flame burns here every night.
The Catalans take great pride in their language and culture. During his long dictatorship, Franco prohibited the Catalan language and insisted that all signs were in Castilian Spanish. There is indeed great pride, but the separatist movement seems to have died down (seeing Brexit problems, they don’t really want to be out of the EU). I saw that saying Catalan “bon dia” when I went into a shop was appreciated.
It was next to the 14th century cathedral where we saw one of the Barcelona Christmas customs in action, known as “Tio Nadal” or “Caga Tio.” Instead of waiting in line to see Santa, kids wait in line and are given a stick. To the tune of a children’s song, they beat the trunk of wood! The idea is that with each beating, the trunk will grow larger and by Christmas, it will “poop” candy, as they express it, to the kids.
All over the Christmas markets you see these little trunks of wood in different sizes.
There’s another odd custom, related to this, called “caganer.” This figure in traditional red Catalan cap and white peasant shirt is also known as I kid you not, “the Crapper.” And you can see it, often in manger scenes, always shown with pants down about to….poop. These figures are everywhere. Now what can be the origin of this figure? Symbol of fertility? That no one can be prepared when something earthshaking happens? (Some questions have no answers!) Also in stores, no one, no matter how famous, escapes being shown in this position…
One more custom not just Christmas, has to do with these famous giants in the church of Santa Maria del Pi in the Barri Gotic, huge puppets that are taken out on parades and feast days. “Mustafa” is supposed to represent a medieval Muslim, and “Elisenda” a medieval lady. In 1780, the King declared them “too grotesque” for religious celebrations, but due to popular demand, they were returned. During the Civil War, they were packed away and saved, and here they gaze out at you behind the glass.
Well, it’s time to wish Adeu to Barcelona to take the express train to Madrid. Spanish trains are fast, comfortable and punctual. The scenery of the plains as the train moves westward is pleasant, but not as dramatic as in southern Spain with its mountains and miles of small olive trees, or of northern Spain with its terraced hills and grape vines.
Now in Madrid, more damp and chilly, we plan to spend some time with son Theo. In the area of Lavapies, we enjoy some tasty tapas at La Mancha de Madrid, where the tables are Singer sewing machines of years ago.
We’re staying in the Barrio de las letras, (a barrio that has excerpts from literary works on the street) at the Pension Corbero on Calle Cervantes run by the very friendly Jose and Maria (who speak no English).
Near us is a string of tapas bars (great if you’re not starving) on Calle Jesus. Inside, the Taberna de la Daniela has a beautiful tile interior and a vermouth de grifo machine. These are elaborate machines in some tapas bars that serve “on tap” vermouth, a popular drink before dinner.
The food is okay but the wine again is exceptional.
Tired of wine and tapas? Theo led us to a beer and falafel place with special vegetarian dishes with pligouri (bulgar wheat). The best dish was the one at the top with the meaty tasting mushrooms. In the background we were amazed to hear the music of renowned Greek singer Stelios Kazantzides!
But the most memorable meal was at the Piccolo Diavolo, an Italian restaurant (the name is from a well known Roberto Benigni film)
Indeed it had devilishly delicious dishes of pasta, with a starter of bruschetta and parmesan, salad, and a velvety Sicilian wine chosen by our guest Elisa, Theo’s Italian friend.
Elisa gave the tira misu a B+ as she said it was a little too sweet and needed to have a more coffee taste. But it certainly tasted heavenly anyway.
No visit to Madrid is complete without visiting Mercado San Miguel, a historic iron and glass structure from 1916 and a more upscale version of la Boqueria in Barcelona.
You might go in thinking you’re not hungry but inside you start drooling from the exquisite tapas and all sorts of produce and glasses of wine. Mushroom and olive lovers, this is the place for you.
Here I can’t wait to try the pulpo a la Gallega (octopus from Galicia, in northwest Spain).
The Mercado is next to the Plaza Mayor, a cobblestoned plaza from the 17th century, on the site of a medieval marketplace. There’s a lot of history here, bullfights, fires, even the Inquisition tried so-called heretics. As Rick Steves tells us, “the guilty were paraded around the square before their executions, wearing billboards listing their many sins. Bleachers were built for bigger audiences, while the wealthy rented balconies.” At this time of year it’s the scene of Christmas markets. Here you can find exquisite tiny models of not just the manger scene but everyday life in the whole village.
In the Plaza was a strange creature who was shaking up and down. You can also find the opportunity that you’ve always wanted to take your picture by putting your head into a costume…
Inside the very helpful tourist information was an exhibit where we learned about the life of Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro and his wife, who lived in the 12th century.
If you go past the mercado down calle major, you get to the oldest walls in Madrid built in the 9th century while the Moors ruled Spain while in the background is the Almadena cathedral, the most important church in Madrid. The bush of myrtle is an emblematic plant of Andalusian gardes and there was a veritable forest of rosemary planted, with a sign describing its beneficial qualities. (What is cat thyme?)
Streets are colorful. The Neptune fountain too has a splash of color.
Even with rain on and off and threatening skies, we paid a visit to to L’Estanque, the artificial lake in Parque del Retiro and to the Glass Palace, with its 1916 glass and iron structure. It’s a perfect greenhouse.
We also don’t want to miss a visit to the Prado. We notice that around Madrid are various parodies of the Infanta Margarita in Velasquez’ famous Las Meninas – here’s one in Santa Ana Plaza, where she’s dressed, appropriately with the World Cup going on the past few weeks, as a jugador de futbol.
We decided to take a day trip to Segovia (buses are also excellent) about 1 ½ hours away in Castile- Leon
It had been raining heavily along our way, but as we approached the town,the rain stopped and a rainbow covered the sky. This was about the time that our young driver, who was dancing in place to the sounds of G L O R I A, ran the bus up onto the curb, fortunately not causing any damage or injuries.
Segovia is a delight to walk in. As you walk up the hill from the bus station, you notice first a kind of round like cathedral in a romanesque style. This is Santa Millan from the 12th century.
Inside the church was not just a Nativity scene but a whole miniature town —
The road leads you up to a market with lovely ceramic plates and handiwork where you can look down at the houses with their decorated walls, a decided medieval Moorish influence.
Before you is the Roman aqueduct, one of the largest intact aqueducts in Europe, built in the 1st century A.D. It carried water from the river Frio and supplied water to the town even into the 20th century. It’s a 14 kilometer (9 mile) aqueduct 29 meters or 100 feet high with 118 arches, made frm 20,000 granite blocks, with hardly any mortar You can climb up the stairs and look at it close up.
The 2nd main attraction is the Cathedral. You can see it up ahead as we make our way toward it.
Built during Renaissance times, the Cathedral is Spain’s last major Gothic building. It’s actually in the style called Flamboyant Gothic and you see how embellished the design is on the exterior.
In the cathedral square, Theo is contemplating which type of empanada to buy (many choices, from octopus to pork loin with leeks to vegetables and more)
We’re heading toward the Alcazar, the medieval fortified palace with its Moorish décor, one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of Castile.
As we leave the Alcazar, we can see the town off in the distance from the valley.
Soft raindrops are starting to fall when we stop to read a plaque against a stone wall.
If you listen well in the afternoon
The wind will still recall the pain
Of whom, in the caves of this valley
Were waiting together the shared bitterness
Leaving behind houses and villas
Expelled without honor
The Jews of these lands.
Trail of Sighs
I thought about what sighs and tears must lie along this trail. The caves referred to in the plaque are actually the caves where the Jewish community of Segovia, who had lived in the city for centuries, fled in 1492, when the edict for expulsion came through. Here they asked in vain for respite.
We felt the wind blowing now, and rain was heavily splashing on the stone. Huddled under umbrellas, we made our way through the town to the bus station. Darkness was coming on.
Our trip was coming to an end.
Happy Hanukkah / Merry Christmas/ Feliz Navidad / Bon Nadal!