Archive | February, 2016

Practicalities in BCN

29 Feb

A few bits of practical advice from our month in Barcelona:

***Mass transit:  the Barcelona transit system is excellent: diverse (subway, busses, trains, even a few trams), comprehensive, and efficient. We have taken a lot of busses, most of the Metro (subway) routes, and even the trains. And the connections are included in Google Maps (unlike Vienna transit)!  You will see if you look on Google Maps that you will be given a variety of options. The Metro is usually, of course, the fastest method, but we actually found the busses to be more fun because you got to see so much of the city that way. Eventually, we even got to know places well enough that we could figure out our own routes from the many options available.

You will only occasionally find assistance at some of the stations of the Metro, and then they will often not speak much English anyway, but will do their best to help you. The cards for all lengths of time are available from the machines in the stations, and the machines give instructions in English. If you are going to be in town for any length of time, the best thing to get is a T-Mes card–a month card, right now about 52 Euros for unlimited travel on all lines. You may have trouble getting one on your own in a machine, because it will ask for your DIN number (more on that in a minute).   I realized that we had been lucky to have an assistant at the station when we tried to get ours, and she must have made it possible to override the DIN number question. Otherwise, get a T-10 card, for 10 rides for a Euro each ride.  The cards themselves are very flimsy, so try to put it away each time you use it, don’t bite it (I don’t know, that’s what the station master said I’d done) or roll it in your hand. Mine got so that it kept reading ”defective” and I had to get an assistant to make a new one for me.

When trying to find the correct bus stops, don’t expect the tour bus information people who might be standing around at Placa Catalunya or elsewhere to give you the correct information–they don’t know where anything is except their stops! We did find it hard sometimes to find anyone who could answer our questions about where specific bus stops were–in either English, Castilian, or Catalan. But otherwise, we found the systems great! For one entire week, we had to take transit from Poblenou, where our apartment was, to Centro Medico Teknon, which was nearly to Tibidabo, Barcelona’s old amusement park on the mountain behind the city–so about as far as one could go and still be in the city. We took several routes and were given good directions online for how to get there.

***The mention of Centro Medico Teknon leads to my next bit of info: English-speaking doctors. Because there is such a big ex-pat community in Barcelona, the U.S. Consulate here is extremely helpful on all fronts, and in finding doctors, they are especially good: they have an enormous list on their website (–listed by specialty.

Unfortunately, along with our traumatic robbery, I also needed to visit two doctors, one for gastro issues, and one for knee injections to keep these creaky bones going for just a little bit longer. I found both of them through the consulate’s list, and both of them answered my email requests themselves on a Sunday evening, and both of them had offices at Centro Medico Teknon ( The center is in the toniest section of town, and is completely state of the art. It is, therefore, pricey if you are not on a Spanish health insurance program. I hope and pray that my travel insurance will reimburse me for some of these expenses, since, given that I needed to pay them right after we had been robbed, it left us pretty skint.

That being said: the doctors were splendid. Dr. Fermin Mearin worked at the Mayo Clinic for three years, and is a specialist in digestive health. He is the first doctor I have spoken with who took my IBS symptoms seriously, and gave me very good treatment. Truly, I have never had anyone explain things as well or as thoroughly as he did.

Same with Dr. Enrique Boada. Trained in orthopedic surgery at Case Western Reserve, and with continuing connections to the U.S., h,e gave me the injections I needed, and charged me a lower rate than he would have since I had to pay out of pocket. I would definitely recommend him for anyone looking to have hip, knee, or shoulder surgery, at what would probably be lower prices than in the States.

All up, these little episodes set us back almost $1,000. But that was 5 office visits, six injections, and lab work. Fingers crossed some of this will be reimbursed!

***Internet: because we lost everything in the robbery, we tried to order somethings online through  In Vienna, we had no trouble buying stuff through, or even But Spain, apparently, wants online purchasing only to be for their own citizens. Each time we tried to buy something, we were asked for our DIN. This is a tax ID number that all Spanish have, and it’s a pain in the neck to get around. We actually found the formula for devising the number, and figured that since we had a six-month EU visa from the Austrian government, we were legit. It almost worked, but then amazon wouldn’t accept our payment methods, which may have had to do with the cards recently being replaced, we’re not entirely sure. But then we tried to book train tickets online and the same thing happened:  request for DIN, then the need to have some other number to do it. Our friend Annie says that Spanish internet seems to be set up only for the Spanish!

So be aware: it isn’t always easy to buy anything online in Spain. But unlike Austria and Germany, where train tickets are vastly cheaper if purchased ahead of time and online, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  When we went to the train station today to buy a ticket to Girona for Wednesday, we were told that we couldn’t buy tickets ahead of time, and had to come on the day and purchase them, but that the cost would be the same.

***Using Smartphone/Android: I’m afraid that we are still thoroughly confused about how all of this works. We had been continuing to use our phone SIM card from Vienna, because the rates weren’t bad, and we could use it for internet access pretty well. When the phone was stolen, however, and we had to go get new phones (at the Phone Store, branches everywhere in Barcelona–although, despite the English name, don’t expect the clerks to speak English!), we found that the plan (actually, prepaid cards) we got made it much, much easier to access the internet, the WiFi services throughout town, and it was cheaper, too. I suppose that once we get to our next destination, Athens, we’ll have to buy a new SIM card.

We really don’t feel at all qualified to tell anybody what to do or how to do it when it comes to the phone/camera/internet.  All we can say is that each country is different in terms of what’s available and how it works, and everywhere it is an EXTREMELY competitive market.

***Post Office: in one of our more baffling discoveries, we found that our post office here in Poblenou didn’t have stamps! We had to go to the Tabac–the tobacco shops–to buy them. We’re still not quite sure if this is a normal occurrence or not, but the people at the tobacco shop, when asked why this would be, just shrugged and said ”Correos”–it’s the post office!–so I guess it’s not that unusual. Annie also tells us that she’s been waiting for months now for a package to be delivered that is held up in Customs, so mailing anything can be a pain.  I’ll let you know if Max succeeds in covertly sending our replacement credit cards through FedEx.

***Museums, etc.:  tickets ahead of time for museums CAN be purchased online and ahead of time! One nice thing about the museums and other public institutions is that most of the ones that do have fees are not too expensive and do have senior rates (except for the Gaudi venues, which are pretty pricey). Seniors also get in to some venues for free after certain times (late in the day) and/or on certain days.  At the Palau de la Musica Catalana, for example, one has to buy the tickets at the office in order to get the senior discount, and in most places, we have had to show our ID to prove that we’re over 65!

That’s it for now.  We have loved being over in Poblenou, so near the beach and in a real neighborhood. Oh, one last thing: remember that ALL shops are closed between 2 and 5 (or 4:30) everywhere except in the most touristy parts of town. So plan your day accordingly.  Of course, restaurants are open during the 1:30 to 5:00 lunch time.




Barcelona bits

27 Feb


As our time in Barcelona winds down, I want to make a few observations and to present bits of cultural information that we have learned since being here. We will just skip the part about our unfortunate interaction with gypsy thieves (see our earlier post on warnings and lessons learned from that experience!) and focus on more amiable and/or thought-provoking episodes.


The photo above shows us at a feast of calçots, a particularly Catalan kind of green onion grilled on an open fire, wrapped in newspaper and then served with romesco sauce. One then peels off the burnt parts and eats as I am doing here. Catalonians are known to eat hundreds of them at a sitting! Extremely messy and lots of fun!  Tasty, too! We are so grateful to Annie Graul and her husband Eduardo and son Oscar for inviting us to their beautiful house IMG_20160220_165504.jpgin beautiful Premio de Dalt outside of Barcelona to experience such a treat! After the trauma of our theft, this was the nicest gift they could give us. (Along with Eduardo’s
gift of that cool Repsol jacket! Who ever saw a nearly 70-year-old American woman wearing a Honda Motorbike pit crew jacket of bright orange? I’m thrilled!)






Barcelonan TV–and, I suspect, all Spanish TV–is by and large horrible. I have found about 2 channels that show some documentaries and/or educational programs in a variety of languages. Other than that, there are a few channels with game shows, an entire channel for Barcelona Football Club, some soap-opera and sitcom stations in Spanish and/or Catalan, and one station that shows endless episodes of ”The Mentalist,” sometimes in English, sometimes dubbed into Spanish–oh, and one channel that airs ”Inspector Rex” episodes in Italian!  For me, the most fascinating part:  at least 4 stations at the end of the channel run that are Psychic Call-in stations!  One person, usually an older woman but there are also male psychics, sits there, with props like a crystal ball and cosmic paraphernalia in the back ground, and reads tarot cards or stones for people who call in with their problems. People must have their favorites, since there are IMG_20160227_120937.jpgat least 4 stations with different ”helpers” assisting their clients. The woman on this channel is reading ROCKS of some kind while giving specific advice to a woman who has called in about trouble at work.

That being said, we have found splendid classical radio stations on the cable TV service that we have in our apartment. A real mix of international and local music that has been very enlightening. We have been quite intrigued to hear of Renaissance and Baroque composers from Spain that we had never heard of before.


We have been surprised that so many people in Barcelona, including those in shops and in service positions such as at banks or the train stations, do not speak English AT ALL. Even younger people often have trouble. I do not want to sound like one of those Americans who can’t possibly imagine that English won’t be spoken everywhere, but after Lisbon, where EVERYONE spoke a little English and most young people spoke American English fluently, we were surprised by this lack here. There seem to be a few reasons for this difference: first of all, in Barcelona, people already have to be fluent in two languages, Catalan and Castilian Spanish, so a third may be just too much to ask. Then, as we learned in our reading, in the Franco years, English was not taught in the schools, so older people will have had no exposure to it at all. Finally, and most importantly, in Portugal, all TV programs, taken directly from American TV, were shown in the original English with Portuguese subtitles; in Spain, everything is dubbed, on TV and at the movies. Apparently this makes a huge difference in how people learn English. Everyone we talked to in Portugal said they learned English because of TV, and Spaniards acknowledge that having everything dubbed into Spanish means they never hear English spoken in the media.



Postcards from the beginning of the contemporary Catalan Nationalist movement, 1890s. In the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya.

Speaking of the Catalan language leads, of course, to a consideration of the current drive by some to bring about Catalan independence from Spain. As a microcosm of the arguments and to gauge the impassioned feelings this question  arouses, the Barcelonan cab drivers seem as good a place to sample attitudes as any. The cab driver who brought us from the airport (and ripped us off, as we later realized) DID speak some English (he learned from SIRIUS radio talk shows!) and when we asked him if the nationalists now pushing for independence were going to succeed, he was appalled by their actions, said it would ruin the economy, and that it was a ridiculous idea. But in another cab, the driver, who was thrilled that I would try to speak a few words of Catalan (”adéu” for goodbye, ”gràcies” for thank you, ”si us plau” for please), launched into a hugely loquacious defense of the need for Catalan independence (this was carried out in Castilian Spanish, which they are willing to speak to  foreigners who are feebly trying to speak something other than English, but apparently are often less amiable about it when Spaniards speak to them). He really wanted to find out what side Americans were on in this fight for freedom, as he saw it. It is all  about emotion, identity, and not being oppressed by Madrid.

As our new-found friend Annie and her (Spanish, not Catalonian) husband describe it more pragmatically, the Catalan nationalists who are trying to push independence through only won 50% of the vote, but are determined to implement what most people see as a disastrous economic step for a romanticized “victory.” The EU has already stated that if Catalunya implements independence, the Union will not automatically recognize its status as a sovereign nation, and Barcelona would have to go through the whole process of admission again. Since Spain is  in pretty awful economic shape–some 25% unemployment over all , and as high as 55% for young people–such a disruption would be even more unsettling and possibly catastrophic.  The logistics alone would be daunting, and such practical concerns as army, taxes, etc., seem to be lost on the most rabid of the nationalists. While having a longer, more impassioned history, these sentiments seem comparable to Texans declaring that they want to be a separate country. We will watch this process with interest.

We do find it very positive, nonetheless, to hear Catalan spoken so readily. What a fascinating thing language can be!


For a people as fiercely proud of their heritage and as adamant that they are a separate nation from Spain, the Catalan acknowledgment of the horrors of the Civil War of the 1930s and the oppression under Franco is bafflingly muted. In The Ghosts of Spain (2006), the author Giles Tremlett addresses this ”pact of forgetting” which has led most Spaniards, including Barcelonans, to ignore as much as possible the tragedies of the past. We were intrigued to see how the Civil War was handled in the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya, the best place to learn about the history of this region. The museum really gives an excellent survey, through artifacts and descriptions, of the entire chronological development of Catalonia, from prehistoric times to the present, displayed in state-of-the-art exhibitions.  As we turned the corners leading up to the period of the Civil War, we grew increasingly intrigued to see what they would say about this awful time.

The presentation was, as the photos above show, rather subdued. One wall of photos and one wall of posters, a bit about the battles in Catalonia, and some artifacts that would be hard to understand if one didn’t already know something about the time. (The one brochure in the photo  above is in commemoration of LLuis Companys, the leader of the Spanish Republic, turned over by the Nazis to Franco, at which time he was executed. As the Wikipedia entry points out, ”Companys is the only incumbent democratically elected president in European history to have been executed.”)  If you read the wall label, it is clear that in present-day Spain, 40 years after Franco’s death, one still needs to be a bit careful in how one presents this story.

And here’s what really intrigued me:  the place was filled with school groups being given tours of the museum. They had stopped at all the sites about the Crusades, about the origin of the Catalan flag, but when it came to the 20th century, they stopped at a display of a 1930s kitchen–then walked straight through the Civil War section to focus on the differences in a 1970s kitchen! This is where we then found them playing Crusaders and Inquisitors–a Barcelonan version of Cowboys and Indians?



These four cats are the ONLY cats we have seen in Barcelona! The black one was on a leash attached to a homeless person’s bicycle in a park–he was not at all happy that we took a photo of his animal! The white one was in a gallery in El Born, and the last two belong to Annie Graul, in her lovely house outside Barcelona. We haven’t even seen any feral cats where one would expect them, around the docks or in the vacant lots. All we can figure out is that the city has done a good job of eliminating ferals, and that all pet cats are kept inside.

LOTS of dogs, though, of all sorts. In our neighborhood, pugs and French bulldogs seem to be most favored, but we have seen all types, from mutts to greyhounds to Afghans and Jack Russells. I would describe Barcelona as a City of Dogs.


FOOD!  It  may just be impossible to get a bad meal in Barcelona. The Spaniards take their food very seriously, to our great pleasure. We did have a couple of mediocre meals, which were really the fault of our choice of venues.  Don’t eat at the cafeteria in Corte Ingles, for example: a gorgeous view of the city, and we thought since so many Barcelonans were eating there, it would be like eating at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, with the blue-rinse ladies. But it wasn’t. Just mediocre.

Since we are 1) poor, and 2) old Americans, we didn’t eat out that often, but cooked at home. And alas, we just could not adjust to the Spanish custom of eating so late. We managed to get used to eating lunch at 2 or so, but the dinner after 9 just escaped us. Consequently, we ate our big meal at lunch time, and never went out for dinner! We have now realized that Spaniards actually eat all the time–something quick and sweet with a coffee first thing in the morning, then a little sandwich or something about 10,  a big lunch that can last for hours at 2 or 3, then perhaps some sweets with coffee in the late afternoon, and then a smaller dinner VERY late. Sorry, folks, but we’re in bed by 11!

And Spanish coffee! I have written elsewhere that it may actually be better than Viennese coffee! And you all know what a claim that is coming from me.  I could drink ten cortados a day.

Alas, we can’t give you reports on wine. George has been drinking the local cheap reds and finds them perfectly passable as vin ordinaire, but a connoisseur he is not. And my wine ship sailed some 20 years ago (in fact, I got a 20-year medallion from a Barcelona AA meeting just last week!). We have heard from Annie Graul that the Freixenet cavasfreixenet

are well worth the visit!

More practical advice to follow!

Biblioteca Arus

24 Feb


Upon the recent death of the great Italian writer and scholar Umberto Eco, The New Yorker published his wonderful ”How to Write a Thesis, ” which includes this lovely tribute to librarians:   “You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian,” he writes, “because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation.”

barcelona_biblioarus_signToday in Barcelona, we discovered one of those neglected–or at least little known–treasures: La Biblioteca Pública Arús, given to the city as a public library in 1895. I read about this place in, of all things, the Vueling Airlines magazine as we were flying from Lisbon. It has all the desirable aspects that we library nerds look for: an eccentric founder, a fantastic building, and a fascinating back story. Rossend Arús i Arderiu (1845-1891) was a writer, playwright, Republican and Catalan nationalist, and, most significantly, a committed Mason in a country where Freemasonry was tantamount to atheism, anti-Catholicism, and radical politics. The library remains in the building where Arús lived; the collection  of about 20,000 volumes specializes in ”social movements”,  anarchism, labor history, Masonic ideals, and contemporary cultural developments. There is still only a huge card catalog–the librarians say that a digitization process is ”underway”–and the rooms do have WiFi hookup. When we were there, several people arrived to sit at the old-fashioned desks to use their computers.

And yes, that is a REAL Statue of Liberty gracing the entrance! Apparently Arús, in his activities as a Mason, communicated with his fellow Mason Frederic Bartholdi at the time the Frenchman created the original statue, and acquired this smaller version for his own home. But Arús’s collecting of the works of another Masonic acquaintance was of more interest to us.

On display in the vitrines outside the Library’s main Reading Room were myriad versions of Sherlock Holmes as a character in the the French writer Maurice Leblanc’s series with the fictional gentleman thief Arsène Lupin! We had no knowledge of these versions, but, of course, the librarian–who spoke no English–was able to tell us that the Library’s collection of Holmesiana is vast–because Arthur Conan Doyle was barcelona_biblioarus_holmesbadgeanother Mason, and friend of Arús. The Library even sells pins of Sherlock Holmes. We bought two of them–one for George’s father, who is a devoted Sherlock Holmes purist.





Needless to say, a library devoted to Freemasonry and anarchism was not at all favored during Franco’s regime. How it survived is a miracle. It was closed in 1939, and wasn’t able to re-open until the 1960s.  Now it is considered a Barcelona treasure, and carries out lecture series and other library-related functions.  We were so excited to find such an eccentric gem!





Gaudí goes on and on

23 Feb


We have done Gaudí backwards–from latest to earliest completed works. We made the long bus ride trek from Poblenou to his famous Parc Güell on a gorgeous sunny day. By this time, we had figured out that we needed to buy the tickets online and for a specific time. We were surprised about the specific time, but understood why this had been instigated when we arrived at the Park by taking Bus 92.


You can enter the Park for free, but the Zona Monumental–where all of Gaudí’s fantastical designs are located–requires a timed entrance to keep down the pig push that collects at the single spots where every tourist wants his photo taken.  The Park itself is wonderful–beautiful plantings, stunning views across Barcelona down to the sea, and some fascinating trails up and down the hill . We had entered from the side entrance, so were at first not aware of the main entrance, where most tourists enter, and where one needs to line up for the appointed time to enter the Zona. Seeing the fantastical shapes and colors of the totally non-functional designs made me realize that these WERE the forerunners of Disneyland and all theme parks!

And, yes, here is where the whole experience begins to take on the atmosphere of Disneyland. After standing in line with the hundred or so that are let in every half hour, people throng into the area with the Serpentine Wall. The picture at the top of this blog is where everyone goes to barcelona_parkguell_serpentinewall&ee3take their selfies looking down onto the entrance. That image epitomizes the experience: it is as close as I could get to the lookout without shoving myself into a gillion other people’s images of themselves smiling into their phone cameras or selfie sticks.

This photo of me on the Serpentine Wall was the only spot where there weren’t other people cramming in. The space is delightful, but it is difficult to enjoy the experience as Gaudí intended people to enjoy it. I give Barcelona credit for trying to control the crowds–which must be impossible in the summer!

Once one leaves the the top floor of the Zona, and walks down to the grotto levels, the crowds thin out a bit. The Park is, I think, Gaudí at his most playful, and the sinuous shapes are marvelous.

But what is the deal with the tiles, the mosaics of broken-up ceramic pieces? I am fascinated with these colorful designs, which, as far as I can read them, have nothing to do with Gaudí’s love of nature and organic recreations.  Robert Hughes’s explanation of them is that Gaudí used them as colorful illuminated bits to reflect and to shape his forms in interesting ways that structurally would not be possible without ceramic inclusions known in Catalan as  trencadis (”Gaudí was fascinated by how the mosaic fragmentation of trencadis, its shifts of color and pattern, could play against the solidity of architectural form, dissolving its stability”). OK, but I still am perplexed by their playfulness, when most of Gaudí’s work seems nearly spooky in its striving for some spiritual concept, and his writings seem to be so deadly serious in their religious and political intent.

And our next Gaudí building, one of his earliest, led me to even more rumination about those tiles. We went by the Palau Güell, Gaudí’s first project for his most ardent patron, the textile industrialist Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi. Built between 1886 and 1888, together client and architect created an extravaganza of craftsmanship, beginning with the barcelona_palauguell_ext_ironworkmetalwork on the facade (Gaudí’s family had been metalworkers for generations). Every room of the house contains another grandiose display of artisanry, from the lamps to the stonework to the paintings.

The individual craftsmanship is simply stunning, and so diverse that one is kind of sated by the opulence. And then the organ began to play!

By the time we reached the famous roof, the house’s effect on us was rather gloomy and lugubrious.  All of it is dark, and one needs to look closely to appreciate the incredible work involved in the details.

And then on the roof:  there were those chimneys!!! Utterly fantastic! Twenty of them, with the most eccentric bunches of glass, ceramic and stone all mixed together. Again, Robert Hughes maintains that all this ornamentation and colorful materials serve a structural purpose, but there is more going on than that.

How and why does Gaudí’s use of broken bottle tops and ceramic pieces differ from Simon Rodia’s in his ”folk masterpiece” of the Watts Towers?  Or does it differ?  That’s something I will be thinking about for a long time.

Finally, we wanted to see Gaudí’s first major building, Casa Vicens, from 1877. Many people had told me this was actually their favorite one of his buildings. Unfortunately for us, it is undergoing renovation and is covered in scaffolding and drop cloths! The barcelona_casavicens_detone bit I could see, however, told me that I would probably enjoy this house the most, with its sumptuous take on Aesthetic Movement  color and forms. Already innovative, but not yet in stratospheric realms of innovation and idiosyncratic creativity.



Now, except for my promise to go see and comment on the interior of Sagrada Familia, I have probably written enough about this fascinating, innovative, totally original figure who created such monuments to Catalan culture.


Sagrada Familia

22 Feb

Because of our recent unfortunate distractions, I have not yet been able to get back to Sagrada Familia to visit the interior–which everyone who was aghast at my less than effusive assessment of Gaudí’s ”Templo” insist that I do. I promise I will get there, but I want to get down all of these thoughts about this and his other creations before I forget my initial impressions.

We had not yet realized that we really needed to buy tickets ahead of time when we ventured forth to see this church that I have heard about all my teaching life. We arrived about 11:30, to find–once again–lines and lines of people, entire busloads, waiting to get in to the building. Police and guards were everywhere, and the whole building was encased in construction materials–netting, cranes, and scaffolding. I was barcelona_sagradafamilia&eeappalled at the new building going on. Aesthetically, the new construction–to me–looks like computer-generated, cookie-cutter reconstructions of what some tourism architects think Gaudí might have wanted his Temple to look like. The newly added sections struck me as if they were something designed for a Trump Tower or a Hyatt Hotel.

Perhaps it was all the construction chaos and the touristic excessiveness, but I can’t say that I was that impressed with Gaudí’s original elements, either. I really think that by the time he became obsessed with this building, his ”obsessive inventiveness” had sent him over the edge into an expression of idiosyncratic religiosity akin to Outsider Art visionaries the world over. It may just be too much ”drippingness” for me–but as people I admire consider my attitude to be tantamount to sacrilege, I will go visit the interior and see if I change my mind. I don’t think I will ever cotton to the new stuff, though.

I will have more to say about my ambivalence concerning this aesthetic, and my own quandary about why I can so admire an untrained religious visionary such as Simon Rodia making his Watts Towers, but recoil at Gaudí’s ultraconservative religiosity. We have lots of Gaudí to go–all of it fascinating, all of it provocative and stimulating.

I did just want to finish by pointing out that I’m not the only one to find Sagrada Familia unappetizing. George Orwell, in his magnificent Homage to Catalonia about his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War, described it thus:

”For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral–a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It had four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution–it was spared because of its ‘artistic value’, people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance, though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires….”

Granted, Orwell was on the lam from the Fascists when he wrote this, and he has never been especially known for his aesthetic assessments, so we can perhaps write off his impressions as critique under duress. And as I said, it could turn out that  I will completely change my mind and understand his intentions once I have been inside the great Temple of Light that has affected so many people spiritually.






Gaudi days

19 Feb


I thought I would start a discussion of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, the most famous Catalonian architect and a near-God to those in awe of his phantasmagorically colorful structures, with a simple detail of the exterior wall of his masterpiece, Casa Milà (now La Pederera). Gaudí was nothing if not passionate about the perfection of the details; it was in the details that he excelled, in what Robert Hughes calls ”his obsessive inventiveness”, and these are the aspects of his creations that I admire the most.

But now we first have to talk about the contemporary world of international tourism. Gaudí’s buildings have become the major tourist attraction in Barcelona, and in the global Disneyland that massive tourism has created, this means that every single one of his buildings is so swarming with people that it is nearly impossible at times to have any aesthetic experience while there. To cope with the numbers, every venue requires tickets for a precise time, which then, of course, requires standing in line for a while before a surge of tourists enter the space to take their requisite selfies in front of the most iconic aspect of the building they can find.  I give Barcelona credit for trying to deal with the crowds–and remember, I’m talking about February crowds, not the overwhelming numbers of the summer–and I’m trying to get a better attitude about the situation, by saying that so many people want to appreciate the wonders of the world.


We hadn’t realized that we should have ordered tickets ahead of time when we went to our first Gaudí house, the Casa Batlló (1904) on Passeig de Gracia. When we saw the crowds and the line just to buy tickets, we bailed, taking pictures of the incredible facade. This is the only one of Gaudí’s works that was a renovation of an already existing building. I remember reading in one of my art history texts that in the 1950s, when the architect’s works were decidedly out of fashion, that residents of the building had placed a placard on the front door, stating that they were not responsible for the building’s design! We haven’t yet gone inside, which is supposed to be even more amazing…barcelona_passeiggracia_casabattlo_ext_det









But right next door to the Casa Battló is a building by another, lesser known Modernista architect, Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Casa Amatller (1898-1900), built, appropriately enough, for a chocolate manufacturer, in a style described as ”urban Gothic.” This building is filled with just as many lovingly detailed elements, all of them carefully coordinated to evoke elegance reminiscent of the Aesthetic Movement era of the 1870s. As fiercely nationalistic as Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch hearkened back to Barcelona’s medieval period, with less wildly inventive flights than Gaudí. You can take a tour of this house, too. This is where we saw the first examples of decoratively etched stone, which seems to be a specialty of architectural detail in this city–so many buildings have this kind of ornamentation that it is as common here as tiles are in Lisbon.

Our next Gaudí stop was what I consider to be his greatest work, the place where he pulled out all the stops while still constructing a functional building: the Casa Milà (1907-1912), now more popularly called La Pedrera, the Stone Quarry.

Here one can see his obsession with organic forms and an integration of all design elements into a fantastical whole applied to living spaces in the most ”Gaudian” way. For some reason, while there were crowds, this site was easier to get into, and the custodians–now a private foundation that actually uses some of the entry fees for conservation and preservation causes–have tried very hard to make the experience a satisfying and less crowded one. The lobby felt like a floral aquarium, all dreamy colors and cell-like ornamentation.

I was particularly happy to see the apartment on display, in which his incredible ability to bring light into interior spaces was so elegantly evident. (People still live in the building, which must be an interesting experience.) And what innovations in materials he used in the artisanal details! The door frames and lintels, for example, were made out of a combination of plaster, reeds, and hessian.

And then, of course, there is the famous roof, with its fantastical forms, none of which seem to have any functional purpose, but simply express Gaudí’s obsession with organic formations that relate to his intensely visionary religiosity. And yes, these forms were the model for George Lucas’s Star Wars warrior uniforms!

But here begins one of the great conundrums of Gaudí.  As Robert Hughes points out, the architect that we now praise so extravagantly for his organic aesthetic, for the continuity of his vision, actually had atrocious and rather scarily conservative taste in art. It turns out he wanted to cap this gorgeous structure with a hideous gigantic sculpture symbolizing the Rosary. Fortunately, the owners who had commissioned the building (who, by the way, were not at all happy with the finished product), rejected his idea, for fear that the Anarchists would then target his building. By this time, in my view, Gaudí, for all his innovation and technically dynamic abilities, was starting to turn into the ascetic, ultraconservative religious crank that puts him in the company of outsider visionaries such as Simon Rodia and his Watts Towers. More on that idea later, as we move on to the next installment!






17 Feb

I was in the midst of a lengthy disquisition at last about Gaudí when we were the victims of an elaborate street con that, if we had read our tour guide warnings, we may have escaped. But we didn’t, and lost everything except our passports (thank God!). Here are the shares I put up on Facebook about this unfortunate disruption:

”Beyond upset. We have just had EVERYTHING stolen in the most elaborate street con imaginable. Not our passports, but everything else: glasses (I had on my sunglasses), drivers license, camera, and phones. And we were being so careful! I am inconsolable. We have no money, no way of getting any money (until we get our cards again), and no possibility of renting a car, since we now have lost both our drivers licenses.
This may be the last straw. On top of this, I’m still sick. I’m going to the doctors at last tomorrow, but don’t know how I’m going to pay for it.
I don’t even want to go into how slick these gypsies were….
I think we may just pack it in and come home–but we don’t have a home to come home to.
Apparently, we are too dumb or naive or whatever to be in these countries….”

I just sobbed on the street, and all the way home on the Metro. I think it was just too much–having been robbed TWICE, although we thought we were being so careful, just makes me feel like we have big signs on our backs saying ”Dumb Iowans” or something. And then we have all these other things to fret about at home–G’s dad, our new grandchild who we can’t wait to meet, and worries about what we are going to do when this adventure ends and we can’t afford to live in our Pasadena house just top the list. George was nearly homicidal yesterday, but today we are feeling a little better, as we begin to replace everything.

Since this may be a public service, and so many of my FB friends asked how it could have happened to us, this was my next FB installment:

”OK, since folks have asked, I’ll tell you how this happened. It turns out to be a classic thieves’ trick in Barcelona, and if we had read our tour guide, they even mention this particular method. And it is just a confluence of coincidentialities that led to BOTH bags being stolen with EVERYTHING in it that we keep thinking there must be a reason for it–perhaps to find out how many wonderful friends we have!
So here’s the scam: we were walking down the Carrer de la Princessa in El Born–near the Museu Picasso. Because I had had an urgent run to the bathroom, G. was holding both of our bags. A man came up to us and pointed out that some paint was on the back of our coats. another supposed passerby says ‘oh, dear, you need some water’ and points down the street. We go into a shop and buy a bottle of water and some paper towels to wash it off, go outside to put the coat down to clean it, and put the bags down on the ground right next to our feet. This same guy who pointed out the paint offers us a tissue, and as we look around to see him, the bags were taken in that nanosecond of confusion. The second guy who had told us there was water down the street also walks by at that moment to distract us further. And boom, they’re gone. We feel like such FOOLS!”

Quite an elaborate and apparently well-known scam!  These guys are pros, and as several friends said, we didn’t stand a chance. So we have learned and pass this on to you:  ANY social disturbance of any sort while on the streets in Europe might mean that you are going to be assaulted in some way, by pickpockets, thieves, or con artists. While you are in a city, never go out with more than you need for the day: one credit card, a little money, no drivers license unless you need it, a photocopy of your passport for ID, and not every pair of eyeglasses that you own, just in case you need them! Trust no one! Keep your bag over your chest and under your arm. If you are travelling as a couple, make it someones’s sole responsibility to have your bags always in their possession.

We have now replaced most everything at great cost and inconvenience, and are still waiting on eyeglasses and a new camera.  Thankfully, we were not hurt, only depressingly chastened.  So many friends have been so kind and caring and supportive that we think perhaps this is the reason such things happen–to find out that you are a part of a wider community. And, as one friend said, it’s only stuff.

And Barcelonans are so dismayed to hear of this happening. This hasn’t turned us off of this beautiful, exciting, vibrant city. We just realize we may not be savvy enough or paranoid enough or whatever to live here–which is unfortunate, since two days ago we were thinking this would be a wonderful place to live.  Maybe if we were younger or more resilient, or more street wise…We’ll leave it to the young!




Museu Nacional d’Arte Catalunya

11 Feb

When I was in graduate school at Bryn Mawr, I had to do written exams for my Ph.D. finals. We had to choose a topic in 4 fields:  Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern. I had never taken any medieval classes, because I worried that having no Latin, I wouldn’t be able to read the primary sources. For this reason and because I could read Spanish (which I now realize was not the right reason), I chose as my medieval topic the Beatus manuscripts–those very early Spanish illuminated manuscripts based on the Commentaries of the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. I was fascinated by these illustrations of the Book of Revelations, so unlike any other medieval manuscripts I had seen, with bold colors and primitively expressive imagery.  (The images above of the Beauts manuscripts are not in any Barcelona libraries or museums; some are still in the original churches, others in Madrid and one at the Morgan Library in New York.) As I began to research them, I kept thinking of the great art historian Erwin Panofsky’s assertion that “In Spain, anything is possible,” meaning that Spanish art in this early time followed no rules but its own, that one saw here a merging of traditions outside the predictable ones of Western imagery. The more deeply I studied, the more entranced I became with the whole subject of Spanish Romanesque. All these tiny 10th and 11th-century churches in isolated Pyrenees villages, painted brightly with elaborate Biblical scenes! These were the first images that made me understand Walter Benjamin’s statements about the aura of art and its beginnings in cult.

I knew that the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya has an extraordinary collection of Romanesque frescoes and paintings, but I had no idea how extensive it was and I knew nothing of the tremendous story concerning their rescue and retrieval.  When we entered

the galleries of the frescoes and saw the first rooms, I literally got tingles up my spine. I don’t know what it is about the Romanesque, but these images, and displayed the way they are–as if still in the tiny stone churches where they were found–simply move me to the core. I can imagine how powerfully they would affect simple pious peasants seeing them for the first time–and probably some of the only images they would ever see in their lives!

The story of their retrieval and detachment from the walls in their churches is a moving and fascinating one. In the late 19th century, when scholars began to notice that many of these isolated churches were being plundered and their treasures sold overseas, a campaign began at this Museum to rescue their Catalan patrimony before it was all lost. As early as the 1910s, teams went to places such as the remote Vall de Boi and carefully detached the remaining frescoes. Unbelievably delicate work, but thankfully, these have now been retrieved.

I just can’t get enough of these paintings, with their bizarre figures, complex (to us) iconography, and–for me the most pleasing–their fantastic decorative ornamentation. I took a gillion photos of details:

And then there are the delightful carved capitals, also removed before they were stolen. Such creativity and imagination!

I was thrilled to spot the mermaid on such an early column. George and I once wrote an article about mermaids in Mexican folk creches, tracing their appearance in The New World back to such archetypal representations (and then suggesting that a mermaid’s inclusion in a nativity scene was an act of syncretism, meshing an Old World symbol with the Aztec water goddess Chalchiutlicue. Here’s the paper:

I could go on. The Museum, which is located at Parc Montjuic in the Palace built for the 1929 International Exposition (where Mies created the famous Pavilion), is enormous, and also has an extensive collection of modern Catalonian art, which is nice enough–as Robert Hughes writes in Barcelona The Great Enchantress, painting of the Modernista period is pleasant and of a type: what struck him ”when I first saw some examples of it in the Museu d’Art Modern in Barcelona back in the late 1960s, was how much it resembled the kind of impressionism that filled the museums of Sydney and Melbourne.” But the real treasure, the overwhelming draw of this place, is the wing of the Romanesque. We will go back!



Barcelona beginnings

8 Feb

barcelona_accordionplayer_placadipiOnly a few days in, and I am already overwhelmed with sights and sounds, tastes and experiences!  I can certainly understand how people get hooked on Barcelona, and never want to leave. As a way of trying to catch up, I’ll just try to encapsulate some of the events of the last few days. I am going to wait to write more about Gaudi, since I have already been pilloried for expressing dismay about Sagrada Familia before seeing the interior; once I have seen all the Gaudi buildings, I’ll comment further!

P1030719 (1)We are staying in an apartment in Poble Nou, a section of town that used to be working-class industrial (my friend Judy Sobre, who lived and studied in Barcelona in the 1960s, says her Barcelonan ex-husband was from this district, and that it is now unrecognizable), but is now very trendy and gentrified. We found the apartment through While the apartment is not our style–all Ikea and hard stone floors, and ELECTRIC COOKING, which we hate–the location is ideal: 4 blocks from the beach, barcelona_beachplaygroundand 2 blocks from the Metro. I’m pretty sure this was built and/or renovated for the 1992 Olympics, when everything in Barcelona changed. The beds are comfortable and the view out the back window looks onto charming old backyards, which I always love seeing. It also includes an interesting vision of the most reviled building in Barcelona, Jean Novel’s Torre Agbar, known by many scatalogical terms, including more tamely ”The Blue Cigar” or ”The Suppository.”

It’s no surprise that one of the first places we went was the fabulous Boqueria market, about which I have already written. We have now found our own local market, which is also splendid, if not as grand. On Saturday, when we discovered the place, the shopkeepers were all dressed like pirates. We had already noticed that children were in costumes on the street. Why pirates, we asked? Because it’s Carnaval Week!

Called Carnestoltes in Catalan, Carnaval in Barcelona is geared largely toward the children and is celebrated locally. Each barri (district) has its own celebrations. In the 1980s and into the mid-90s, Barcelona had a grand Rio-style decadent parade down the Rambla, but decided to end that, and encouraged each neighborhood to return to more traditional festivities. Our neighborhood of Poblenou had a small parade on Saturday down the main pedestrian street, with groups of kids in costumes, playing drums and other instruments, IMG_20160206_184642walking past a jury who playfully graded them, and awarded prizes. It was delightful.

On Sunday in La Ribera, or El Born, one of the oldest parts of town, the city puts on La Tronjada, the Festival of the Oranges, another old tradition in which oranges used to be tossed into the crowds. Now it’s orange balloons and confetti and entertainment, but the barcelona_carnaval_elborn&costumescrowds are just as big and lively. We also found costumed families at the restaurant where we ate on Sunday. Big, joyous, raucous doings!






Going to La Tronjada allowed us to visit what many describe as their favorite church in Barcelona, Santa Maria del Mar. I can see why: an absolutely magnificent Gothic church of

the Catalan style. Robert Hughes writes that the Catalonians were masters of the WIDE Gothic church rather than HIGH. The interior space of this structure, which has always been the church of the working classes, was simply stunning. So inviting that one wanted to sit down and stay there.  We will go back for a tour to the rooftop, which my new-found friend Annie Graul–one of my former students who has lived in Barcelona for nearly 30 years–says is an enlightening experience.

And on that note, alth ough there is already so much more I could write about, we are off for some more enlightening experiences in this amazing city. I do wish that I could have known Barcleona back before it was discovered by shiploads of tourists, and things were a little more casual in terms of visiting (everything involves a ticket now and standing in long queues), but life goes on. And it’s still one of the most accessible places we have been. One final single shot of Santa Maria del Mar, because it is so wonderful.



Mercat de Boqueria

5 Feb


barcelona_boqueria_entrance_signIn his evocative Homage to Barcelona, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín includes a charming description of the stall holders at his beloved market, Mercat de la Boqueria. Writing in the mid-1990s, he depicts fondly the women who served him there when he lived in the city in the 1980s:

”The women in the market dress like queens and behave like duchesses. If you touch any of the fruit, or try to break the queue, you are in trouble. But if you ask how best to cook the many varieties of mushrooms which grow in Catalonia, and are on sale in late November, they will go to great lengths to explain. Most of them wear make-up, and have the appearance of women who go to the hairdresser every day.”

While the days of heavy make-up and everyday hairdressers seem to be past, the people at the market still display a passion about their products, and a Spanish seriousness about food is still apparent. The Boqueria is the most amazing market I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them.

Toibin also wrote that the central aisle is the one for show, and that nobody buys there, it’s too expensive. This seems to still be the case; but there are rows and rows of other stalls to choose from, mixed in with eateries that are almost always crowded. The atmosphere is sheer joy, if you like food at all. The mushroom stalls are still there, and the seafood is, as Toibin mentions, indescribable–literally! We have no idea what half of the fish would be called in English, if they have a name at all! But seafood served is just too delicious to pass by. Viva zarzuela!