Thursday 26 January 2023

2023 Barcelona


Sitting in the splendid cathedral in the Gothic Quarter.  The wild, interlocking arches look like something out of Piranesi.  Lots of chapels filled with gilded polyptychs.  The Gothic area looks like Venice without the canals.  Lots of high buildings squeezing narrow alleyways beneath.  Glorious day, cold but sunny.  Cloisters complete with geese.  Bells boom.

In the Plaça del Rei.  Strange construction in one corner with rows of empty arches, the Mirador del Rei Martí – reminds me of the 
Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, as used in Greenaway's “Belly of an Architect”.  Already a few guided tour groups.  Must be hell in summer.

Good to be back in this civilised city.  The third time for me – once, 40 years ago, when I came here on my Interrailing.  Don’t remember much of that, except the then rather run-down Gothic area.  Now it is all splendidly restored, like everywhere in the city.  The second time was just before Covid struck, when I gave a talk to LIBER, the library association, in the Maritime Museum.  Managed to see the great Picasso Museum – still remember his amazing variations on “Las Meninas”.

Flew in yesterday evening – just one hour 40 minutes from Gatwick.  Picked up by taxi, efficiently, to our flat near Entença.  Strange design in what were probably warehouses, nicely converted with lots of exposed brickwork.  Went out for a meal in C
afé Bassy, very near.  Felt almost exactly the same as the little café in Rue Dauphine.  Big portions, good Rioja, from a freshly opened bottle.  Neither of us could remember the Spanish word for “glass” (copa).  Very interesting to see Catalan signs everywhere, but more Spanish spoken, I think.  (The service in the cathedral was in Catalan).  On the way back, bought fab strawberries, grapes and apples from a fruttivendola – local produce, presumably.  Good quality.

This morning, by metro to here.  Modern, clean, efficient – and very extensive.  Unlike London or Paris, the metro is more of a mesh.  Very good value – paid 11 euros for 10 trips – less than a quid each.  Eating churros, decent coffee.

Now in Els Quatre Gats.  Rather nice, even if a famous tourist hotspot.  Quiet, only half the tables occupied, suitably cool jazz playing.  Lovely tiles, ceramics, paintings, photos (black and white).  Strange bowls on the wall with chunks missing of the rim: not broken, because the pattern stops.  Clearly functional… Food OK, nothing special, but ambience good.

At the airport yesterday, and a first for me.  Seeking to avoid the usual queue, we went to one side as directed, to scan our passports automatically.  So far, so normal.  But the scanning unit also wanted our fingerprints.  Needless to say, this failed abysmally, and took two or three minutes to sort.  So much for automation…

Sitting on the steps by the port, the sun low in the sky in front of us.  Obscenely big motor cruisers before us, a monstrous cruise liner in the distance.  The thin wires of the Telefèric del Port visible with the cars passing now and then.  Wind strong, quite cold.  Lots of people out, taking their passeggiata.  

Before, went along to MACBA, the big white museum of modern art.  Looks like Centre Pompidou, but with only its white underwear on.  Didn’t go in, because I have Bilbao and the Guggenheim in a month or so.

Waiting for the  Telefèric lift – queue not too bad.  Reminds me of Bratislava…  Slow and beautiful slide across the harbour, Barcelona laid out like a map.  Reminds me of Hong Kong, although much less elevation in the buildings.  Sagrada Familia dominates the scene.

When we arrive at the other station, on Montjuic, the wind had risen, and the temperature fell as a result.  But the view great – almost identical to that from Bratislava castle, although the details were obviously different.  The problem was how to get down to the nearby metro Paral·lel.  After wandering around for a while, we came across a taxi, and took it down to the metro, which proved further away than it seemed on the map.  On the way back, got on the train going the wrong way – I claim the signage was misleading…

Barcelona confirms itself as a great, flourishing city.  Lots to see and do, and everything working well.  London is obviously a greater city, but it is far more unequal, with evident dysfunctions.  Still, Barcelona is clearly a fab place to visit, as it has been for many years.


Sitting in Santa Maria del Mar: fabulous. Soaring columns, raw stone, very spacious.  Mottled rock makes the view incredibly varied, adds to sense of something built, block by block.

Up to another glorious day, then on the metro to Diagonal.  Streets quiet, even more impressive because Passeig de Gràcia is pedestrianised in the middle, with traffic creeping by shamefacedly.  To La Pedrera, first of an intensely Gaudiesque day for us.  Fairly restrained for Gaudí, only the ironwork of the balconies out of control.  Unlike Casa Batlló – totally bonkers, with frightening Venetian masks on the balconies, weird alien eyes behind.  The roof even more insane. The other buildings in this fine boulevard are inventive with their crowns and pepperpots.  The street feels like Champs-Élysées with better architecture.  Down past Plaça de Catalunya, then walking towards here through the Gothic quarter.  The amazing Antic Theatre – equally crazy.  Clearly something in the air here.  The backstreets remind me strongly of Venice again…

Amazing the columns by the altar of Santa Maria del Mar: eight thin pillars holding up the roof.  Bare for two thirds, then fluting up to the centre.  All sturdy octagonal pillars, with tiny, barely pointed arches between them at the top.

On the metro, to La Sagrada.  Already booked ticket for 2.30pm, plus trip up Passion tower.  So until then, along to Granier café nearby. Honest little place, basic fare.  Better than nearby La Sagrada, with its huge heaving crowds.  Madness.  Dread to think how it is in peak season.  Looked in estate agents, prices here very cheap (compared to London…).  But more generally, things are cheap here – food etc.  Very liveable as a city.

On the  Telefèric yesterday, the curve of the beach emerged clearly.  Another remarkable aspect of Barcelona – it has a good beach nearby.  I can’t think of another major city that has all the facilities of Barcelona, and a beach, plus the ancient quarter.  San Francisco has the first two, but not the last.  And here, the mountains are not far away, either…  A city that has everything…

Back past La Sagrada – you forget just how massive it is, how it looms over everything.  And the main tower is still unfinished – it will be so tall…. Up along the Avenida de Gaudí – lovely pedestrianised area, full of people out in the sun.  Strangely, reminds me of Armenia, Vazgan Sargsyan Street leading to the main Republic Square in Yerevan.  Up to Sant Pau – not quite Gaudi, but extravagant.  The old hospital being converted to galleries – even more of them, in a city already well endowed.  Another reason to return.

In La Sagrada.  Insane levels of security – full airport scans of clothes and person.  Inside, impressively high nave, with jagged angels on high, tree-like branches on top of the columns.  Gaudy (sic) colours stream through the stained glass windows – oranges, reds, greens, blues, geometric shapes that probably represent something.  The altar unimpressive – the canopy over the crucifix looks like a circus big top.  Indeed, the whole place is close to tipping over into the vulgar.  Perhaps the external view is best to dwell on…

Up the tower.  Views OK, nice to see the other towers being built.  But the overall feel is still that it is the view from outside that will impress, not the interior, once everything is finished.  Even the outside is spoilt (IMHO) by the words built on the surface of the building – they look like ads.  Descending inside the tower was a good reminder of the reality of heights, all-too hidden by lifts.  The 400 steps down the spiral staircase went on for ever; the central void that went from top to bottom – no guard rail – was quite stunning.

Perhaps the most telling moment was at 3pm, when the bells struck: four times for on the hour, three for the time itself.  At least the bells were good.  Nope: as we moved through the tower, we saw there were no bells, only loudspeakers.  It was all recorded…

A long walk along Passeig de Sant Joan to the Arc de Triomf – which looked rather Indian to my eyes.  Then on the metro to here, the Plaça Reial, for a drink in perhaps the most civilised square here.  The sun still visible on the eastern side, illuminating the tops of the palm trees...

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