Thursday, 27 October 2016

Homage to Barcelona

Let me try the impossible -  to summarise  personal impressions of Barcelona in a couple of pages.  The opinions are based on two visits there in six years.

“Barcelo-o-na,” as sung so exuberantly and with such emphatic national fervour by the Catalonian capital’s operatic diva Monserrat Caballé in a duet with Freddie Mercury. 
This was my modernist operatic image of the city that hosted the 1992 Olympics, when BBC television adopted the Queen song to introduce its coverage.  
The exhilaration of the musical theme heightened my anticipation of our first visit in early autumn 2010.

Emerging from our nearby hotel, helpfully located only about 100 metres off the city's main throughfare, my first surprise was to encounter Las Ramblas heaving with people.  This, after all was a midweek in October.   
After viewing the city from the nearby portside Columbus Monument, an American tourist informed me that today was a public holiday marking the discovery of America.  
I had begun to wonder that if these crowds are typical of autumn, what must the peak of summer be like.

Las Ramblas has the air of a permanent carnival.  There are countless stands and kiosks, some selling exotic flowers, others selling assorted fluffy pets.  “Living sculptures” abound. Barcelona takes mime artistry to a sublime level.  

Not content with standing statuesquely and faces painted to match elaborate and colourful outfits, most of the city’s street artists play for laughs and obligingly pose for photographs. One had squeezed herself into a baby’s stroller making jocular squeaking noises, another hid beneath a table from which three heads - only one of which was his (or hers) - protruded like grotesque gargoyles.

The Picasso museum comprehensively traces the development of the artist’s style ranging from conventional art of his youth to the more abstract style of his later years.  
I loved the use of photographic technology to demonstrate his reworking of the Velazquez masterpiece Las Meninas.  Zooming in, section by section, the slideshow superimposed Picasso’s swishing brushstrokes over the classic original, much to everybody’s amusement.

We go to see Bizet’s Carmen in the Liceu Opera House.  The renowned tenor, Roberto Alagna is the leading male in a modern and risqué production.  It includes 11 Mercedes cars; a naked male singer grabs our attention; and a voluptuous Carmen unzips the leading man’s trousers.  All done in the best possible taste as sleek contemporary style meets classical genius.

Gaudi is the pervading influence.  In bright autumnal sunshine, we tour the city on an open top bus.  
His “expiatory” cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, is a hectic building site (and still is when we return in September 2016).  

Sparks fly from celestial heights as teams of artisans work furiously.  A Papal visit beckons.

A century ago, Gaudi steadfastly refused to give a deadline because (and I love this quotation), “my client is not in a hurry.”  Mi Dios.

Park Guell sees Gaudi’s riotous imagination at its creative best - buildings eschewing straight lines and features embellished with fairyland ornamentation. The very entrance pavilions look like wholesome and tasty gingerbread concoctions.

It is only after the event that the impact of our visit sinks in.   
My impression is that Barcelona likes to shock to impress.  Gaudi’s architecture, the development of Picasso’s art, the radical production of Carmen, the Ramblas entertainers - all break the rules and conventions.
Perhaps Barcelona is motivated by an unstoppable urge to emphasise its own identity and to differentiate itself from Castilian Spain.  The result is fantastical creativity, innovation, and joy for cultural tourists.
Five days is too little time but it gave my wife and I a good excuse to return.
In 2010, our accommodation was a boutique hotel on a side street off Las Ramblas.  In 2016, we were self-catering in an apartment[i] which overlooked the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. You could almost reach out from the balcony and touch the Cathedral's spires.

On this second visit, we were accompanied by our youngest daughter, her husband and their two-year-old son.  A wedding reception in an edge-of-city historic house awaited.

Despite the proximity to the always-popular cathedral, it is reassuring to know that dining out in such a locality is not always dominated by tourists.  We found two top-quality[ii] and good-value restaurants[iii] serving Catalonian cuisine, frequented by local people and located very close to our apartment.

I would recommend one book.  
The award-winning author of bestselling novels like Nora Webster, The Testament of Mary, and Brooklyn is Colm Tóibín.  He has also written what is, arguably, the definitive book about the city and region, “Homage to Barcelona.”

©Michael McSorley 2016