The monastery of Montserrat, situated about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, is understandably one of the most popular day trips for visitors to Barcelona. But before I tell you about that monastery, allow me to take a detour to the Poblet Monastery—comparatively little visited, and yet the only monastery in Catalonia (which has three famous Cistercian monasteries aside from Montserrat) to earn the distinction of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The UNESCO designation largely rests on Poblet’s status as the royal burial site of the Kings of Aragón. Every king and queen of Aragón since James I (1208 – 1276)—save one—is buried in an alabaster tomb in the monastery’s church. The exception is the last king that Aragón ever had, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516), who married Isabel of Castile and thus merged their kingdoms—incorporating Aragón into Spain as we know it. Ferdinand is buried in Granada, a city that he “reconquered” from the Muslims, along with his wife. (With few exceptions, every monarch since this marriage—henceforth, kings of Spain—has been buried in El Escorial, in Madrid.)
My plan was to take a day trip from Tarragona to visit the Poblet Monastery. But I made a fatal error: I had waited until Saturday, when the buses aren’t running. My only option was to take a commuter train to a nearby town, Espluga de Francoli, and walk about an hour to the monastery. The problem with this plan was that, due to the train schedule, I would have to turn around as soon as I reached the monastery in order to catch the only train back to Tarragona. This was clearly not desirable. But, lacking options, this is what I did.
Luckily, the train ride to Espluga de Francoli was itself worth the trip, skirting around the edge of the Prades Mountains. Even Espluga de Francoli was a charming sight, sitting atop one of the range’s foothills, like so many villages in the area. And though I did not have time to appreciate it, I enjoyed the town’s Moderniste wine cellar, designed by Pere Domènech i Roura. The walk to the monastery quickly drew me through the town, however, and into the surrounding agricultural fields. It was winter and nothing was growing, though the hills in the distance were still green.
I arrived at the monastery with barely ten minutes to spare. But this was enough to go inside and take a look around. This Cistercian monastery is built somewhat like a fort, and for good reason. Like the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, it was founded when there were still frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus a strong wall surrounds the outside and there is a second layer of defense within. But it turns out that the monastery had more to fear from disenchanted Spaniards than from Muslims, since it was during the Mendizábal confiscations, in 1835, that the monastery was taken from the church’s hands and then destroyed by angry, anti-clerical mobs. In his youth Gaudí wanted to rebuild the monastery and turn it into a sort of religious commune; but this didn’t happen. Instead, the monastery was rebuilt later, starting in 1930, and began to house monks again in 1940. At present there are 29 monks living in the monastery.
But I had no time to dwell on any of this history. Indeed, I barely had time to rush through the church’s Baroque portal, walk down the nave, and peek at the royal tombs beside the main altar (designed by Damià Forment, who also designed the even more impressive altar in Zaragoza’s El Pillar). After that I had to speed away back through the farmland towards Espluga de Francoli, where I caught the train back to Tarragona. Thankfully, my trip to Montserrat went more smoothly.
As I said above, Montserrat is about 50 km (or 30 miles) from Barcelona. Getting there from the city center is easy. A commuter FGC train departs from the Plaça d’Espanya every hour: the R5 towards Manresa. You can hardly miss it: the ticket machines at the station are constantly swamped, and there are attendants on standby to help tourists buy the correct ticket. This train will, however, only bring you to the base of the mountain. There are two options for going up: a cable car and a rack railway. The second is slightly cheaper and the first has a slightly better view; but in the end it hardly makes a difference in the time or the experience.
Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain,” and the name is well-chosen. As you approach, its form looms up above you like a giant stone saw. The surrounding countryside is a deep pine green, so the greyish brown rocks that appear look as though they are slicing through nature herself. The monastery complex is nestled between these sawtooths, overlooking the surrounding countryside. From up close, however, the sharp edges of Montserrat look swollen and bulbous, even vaguely alive. They could have been designed by Gaudí himself.
Unlike Poblet and other two famous monasteries of Catalonia—Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges—Montserrat is Benedictine, not Cistercian. Its origins are somewhat unclear, and legend has extended them far into the past; but what is certain is that by the 12th century it was taking shape. The monastery grew steadily over the years, with Romanesque and then Gothic additions, until the 19th century, when it was struck by two blows. First, Napoleon’s invading troops burned the monastery in 1811 and 1812; and then it was taken by the government during the 1835 Confiscations of Mendizábal (which affected so many of the Spanish monasteries I have seen). Unlike Poblet Monastery, however, the Monastery of Montserrat was reopened less than a decade later, in 1844.
But this wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 the monastery was closed and confiscated by the Catalan government, the Generalitat. The wave of anti-clerical violence and persecution that took place during the war years resulted in the deaths of over twenty of the monastery’s monks. After the war’s conclusion, however, Montserrat was returned to the church. During Franco’s reign it became (like everything else in Catalonia, it seems) a symbol of Catalan nationalism, serving as a refuge and a place of protest. At present over 70 monks are still living, praying, and fasting within its walls.
Though many buildings make up the Monastery of Montserrat, the most impressive, by far, is the basilica. You cannot see it from the outside, since it is enclosed in a rather plain and unremarkable square building. But once you enter this through the front portal and stand in the enclosed plaza, you can see the basilica’s façade. This actually of quite recent date, having been constructed after the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless its fine sculptural friezes and decoration are perfectly in keeping with the place’s long history, as well as with the mountain itself, since the architect Francesc Folguera used stone quarried on site. The inside of the basilica is absolutely radiant. Numerous lights and candles illuminate the gold that seems to cover every surface. The vaulted ceiling, the walls, the altar—they all emit a regal glow.
In a space above and behind the main altar is the famed Virgin of Montserrat. Sometimes called the “Black Virgin” because of her dark skin, this is a statue of the Virgin and Child enthroned. According to legend it was carved by Saint Luke himself and discovered by some shepherds in the year 890 or so; but in reality it bears the clear marks of a Romanesque work. In any case, kissing this Virgin is supposed to bring blessing and good fortune, and so people line up for hours to do so. The expectant smoocher passes through an elaborately decorated doorway and ascends a staircase, at the top of which the Virgin patiently awaits—as she has done for centuries. For those in search of additional benediction there is a narrow passage in the space between the basilica and the mountain’s rockface, where for a small fee one can light a candle and place it on a metal rack. These candles are housed in colorful glass cups that glow attractively in the shadowy passage.
At this point I felt hungry and began searching for something to eat. Montserrat is well-stocked with restaurants, cafeterias, and vending machines. But they are uniformly overpriced. And since being stuck on a mountain is like being on an airplane—in that there are limited options—vendors can charge whatever they like for quite ordinary food. I bought a sandwich from a machine and scuttled away, unsatisfied. Heed my advice and pack a lunch.
Next I wanted to explore the mountain itself. Montserrat is full of walking paths, ranging from a quick stroll to mountain climbing. There are also funiculars for those who would prefer not to climb up any steep hills. The Funicular de Santa Cova takes one down to an important shrine in situated in a cave; the Funicular de Sant Joan takes one upwards, giving one a panoramic view of the compound. But I had just spent several weeks in city centers, surrounded by grey asphalt, so I wasn’t interested in either of those. I was aching to lose myself in nature; so I chose the longest path, up to the top of San Jeroni, the highest peak in the area.
The beginning stretch was the most difficult, leading up several steep staircases that had been carved into the mountain rock. After the first half-hour, however, the trail levelled out somewhat. Still, the constant pumping of my legs as I rushed ever upwards quickly had me panting. The scanty trees seldom provided any relief from the glaring sun. But the mountain spurred me on like a mystery story, gradually revealing itself in a series of twists and turns, each one bringing more of the whole picture into view. The undulating curves of the mountainside were covered in emerald bushes and spotted with the bulbous grey of rocks, like the scales of an enormous reptile.
Nearly an hour and a half had elapsed before I reached the top. The clouds hung lower and lower as I rose. The vegetation dwindled and finally disappeared, leaving only the swollen, jagged stone of this enchanting place. As often happens, there are many small cairns near the top—piles of stone that serve as miniature monuments to former climbers. Soon the whole surrounding landscape came into view; and the sight was well worth the exertion. The distant horizon faded into the atmospheric blue of faraway. The shadows of small clouds darkened the landscape below, where roads and towns looked like mere patches of dirt. But for the most part the view is a gently rolling sea of green.
So concluded my trip to Barcelona’s iconic mountain monastery. Now I must move on to another of Catalonia’s great cities: Tarragona.
One of the most visited museums in all of Spain is not in any major city. Indeed, it is not even close to one. This is the Teatre-Museu Dalí (the Dalí Theater and Museum), which can be found in Figueres, a small town—with about 45,000 inhabitants—located in the north of Catalonia, just 24 km (15 miles) from the French border.
The train ride from Barcelona to Figueres lasts about 2 hours. The route passes through another of the jewels of Catalonia: Girona, capital of its eponymous province. Though I only glimpsed the city through the window, its form has stayed with me. The cathedral stands proudly over the city, which is splayed out on the hilly ground surrounding the River Oñar. (Though it doesn’t look especially big, this cathedral apparently has the widest gothic nave in the world.) The city is visibly well-preserved, retaining the chaotic cobblestone of its medieval period. One of the city’s most iconic sights—reproduced in calendars and posters—are the colorful “hanging houses” that surround the River Oñar, reflecting brilliantly in the calmly flowing waters. A visit to this precious city is high on my list for my next trip to Catalonia.
When I wasn’t gazing out the window of the train, I was busy reading the poetry of Federico García Lorca. This is one of Spain’s greatest poets, who was also a great friend of Dalí, whom he met while the two were living in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid. Indeed it is rumored that the two had a love affair. In any case, though they worked in different mediums, Lorca and Dalí undoubtedly influenced one another, pushing each other into surrealism. Lorca’s poetry is the closest verbal approximationto a Dalí painting, which is what made it so good to read on the way to Figueres. Sadly, their friendship was cut short: Lorca was killed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War—executed by some fascist soldiers. Dalí was deeply saddened by this; but it did not prevent him, later in life, from cozying up with Franco.
Finally the train arrived. Figueres does not present such an immediately striking aspect as Girona. Indeed, if not for the Dalí Museum probably few people would visit this sleepy town. Dalí chose it for his museum because it was here that the painter was born. Nevertheless I was soon charmed by the city. As I walked from the train station towards the museum I passed a park where some sort of school festival was taking place. Dozens of children in matching costumes—as flowers, as cars, as construction workers—waited on the sidelines as groups took turns dancing in the center. The group I saw had a costume of a giant van, worn by two teachers, which they raised into the air. It all seemed appropriately absurd for Dalí’s hometown.
The line for the museum stretched far into the neighboring plaza. Luckily it was a sunny day. I took the time to examine the attractive Church of St. Peter, a fine gothic structure that sits next to the museum. The building of the Dalí Museum itself is visually absorbing. In Dalí’s childhood the building was a theater, where the young Dalí himself once had an exhibition. But this building was mostly burned down during the Spanish Civil War. Its remains were renovated to construct this museum under Dalí’s own supervision and guidance. He furnished the museum with his own personal collection, which is why it has the largest number of original Dalí works of any museum in the world. He also chose to be buried here, under the stage of the original theater. (His body was recently exhumed to check if he was really the father of tarot-card reader Pilar Abel, as she has been claiming for years. Her fortune-telling failed her, it seems, for DNA evidence revealed that he was not the father.)
The rebuilt theater now bears the clear mark of Dalí’s taste. Its red exterior is covered in rows of fleshy knobs. The roof is topped with alternating eggs and golden statues that look like Oscar awards, except that they have their arms upraised. One side of the building is shaped to look like a castle’s turret, while on the other side is a giant glass dome that crowns the old stage. One enters through the original theater façade—topped with the same golden figures; and below them statues of knights with baguettes resting horizontally on their helmets. A scuba diver stands guard above the entrance. Outside in the plaza is a surrealist sculpture: a towering, playing-card figure who grows out of a tree trump, and whose robe contains several other sculptural busts and friezes. The visitor is thus well-prepared for what waits inside.
Soon after entering, one comes to the courtyard. In the center stands the statue of a busty and curvaceous woman, her pose looking like some ancient fertility goddess. She is standing on an old cadillac, inside of which, at the driver’s seat, a dummy sits surrounded by artificial plants. High up above all this, suspended on a pole, is a small sailboat. Meanwhile, more golden statuettes raise their arms in nooks in the courtyard’s surrounding wall.
From there one can walk under the glass dome, onto the old stage. On one wall is a giant mural of a faceless torso standing in front of a landscape, his head cracking like an egg, a tree growing on his chest. On another wall a man with a cubic skull is climbing, suspended above one of Dalí’s famous paintings, concisely named Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20m is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. You might be surprised to learn that this image, when seen from afar, looks like Abraham Lincoln; but from up close one sees a woman looking out at the sea. Dalí achieves this effect by using large squares of color that, from afar, function like pixels. This painting is just one of the many examples of Dalí’s fondness for visual puns and for optical illusions, of which the museum is full.
Paintings and sculptures and other installations are found in the exhibit floors surrounding the courtyard and theater. These are impressive more for their cumulative effect than for their individual merit. The museum has none of Dalí’s masterpieces. But seeing so many works by Dalí—silly surrealist assemblages, Bosch-like doodles, and even a series of portraits of his mustache—gives the visitor a sense of the great artist’s witty and whimsical humor. One friend describes it as like “walking through Dalí’s head,” and this does capture the powerful impression of personality that pervades the space. This personality is irreverent, restless, even impatient, perhaps somewhat immature, certainly self-absorbed, but undeniably brilliant and sharp.
Some works do stand out for comment. One of my favorites is his Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon, an image of a melting mustachioed face, barely held up by several wooden crutches, sitting on a platform next to a strip of bacon. Another is The Specter of Sex-Appeal, a painting that is dominated by the huge form of a grotesque woman—her legs ham bones, her body pillows and blankets and bags, her head dissolving into the rock behind her. This specter, too, is held up with wooden crutches—one of Dalí’s motifs—and is gazed upon wonderingly by a young boy in a sailor’s outfit. Galatea of the Spheres belongs to Dalí’s scientific period, when he became deeply interest in physics and mathematics; thus the image of Galatea (a mythical sea nymph who, like so many women in Dalí’s works, is really his wife Gala) is broken into manifold colored spheres that float in space. Leda Atomica belongs to this same phase, and also takes a mythological subject (Leda, a woman raped by Zeus in the form of a swan) and transforms it into an allegory of atomic physics, with everything floating mysteriously in space without contact.
Apart from paintings there are many memorable exhibition spaces. The most famous of these is a room full of furniture—a couch, a fireplace and mantel, two pictures hung on the wall—that looks like the face of iconic blond Mae West when seen from a certain angle. There was a long line to walk up the raised platform, and I didn’t want to wait. Instead I moved on to see some of Dalí’s visual experiments, such as his stereoscopic art. These consisted of two similar images, often differing in a small detail like color, separated in a glass enclosure, so that the viewer must look at each image with one eye. The idea, I think, is that the brain would blend the images from each eye together to form a mental composite; but most often I just found these confusing. One room was furnished like an elaborate bedroom. A tapestry on the wall bore the image of Dalí’s most famous painting, the Persistence of Memory. Next to the bed was the skeleton of a chimpanzee, painted gold.
When I finished explored the main building of the Dalí Museum there was still more to see. In a separate location, though quite nearby, is the collection of jewelry that Dalí designed. He was something of a Renaissance man, you see, or at least that is how he liked to fancy himself. Now, I am not normally very fond of jewelry; indeed I rarely even notice it. But this was easily one of my favorite parts of the museum. The fine draughtsmanship one finds in his paintings is also seen in the exquisitely detailed gold and silver shapes that wrap around the sparkling gems. Dalí’s penchant for bizarre forms also translates well into this medium: a flower with arms for petals, an elephant with long spindly spider legs, a four-legged arthropod whose legs are elongated arms with hands on each end. You don’t normally see this sort of thing at Zales.
I was absolutely famished by the time I left the museum, so I went to a restaurant in town and ordered a classic Catalan dish: butifarra (a type of lean sausage) with white beans. It was delicious. Then I got on the train and read Lorca all the way back to Madrid.
I left the Dalí Museum with mixed feelings. The museum is undeniably impressive. Like the Museu Picasso and the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, the Teatre-Museu Dalí gives the visitor an opportunity to immerse herself in the work of a great artist, noting how his style evolved and how it remained the same, witnessing the mind of a brilliant painter grow and change over the years. Indeed, even more than those two museums, the Dalí Museum in Figueres gives one the sense of really meeting and getting to intimately know the artist, since every inch of the building is reeking of his personality.
Yet getting to know Dalí makes one realize that there are many reasons to dislike the man. Besides his tolerant attitude towards Fascism in life—a political shortcoming that Orwell famously decried him for—Dalí was personally off-putting. His narcism is grating, even from a distance. Now, I am willing to tolerate a certain amount of vanity from brilliant people; but Dalí could be positively (and literally) onanistic. This may or may not have negatively affected his art, but it is undeniably unpleasant. Egotism aside, Dalí was often superficial. He was the pioneer of “shocking” art—gestures, meaningless in themselves, only meant to upset conventional opinion. Oddity for the sake of oddity, vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity, the prototype of so much contemporary pop culture. He was also drawn to cheap wittiness, such as his love for visual puns (of which the Mae West room is an example). It is in the nature of puns, verbal or visual, to be cheap and empty, since they actively erode meaning rather than create it. Thus, much of Dalí’s art produces little more than a snort or a chuckle, and then is quickly forgotten.
All this may be true. But it is also true that Dalí was one of the great artists of the previous century, as even a cursory acquaintance with his work makes clear. His technical ability is undoubtable. More importantly, his visual genius, even if it strayed into shallow waters, was so fertile that he added greatly to our collective imagination. And for every time that Dalí is grating, there is another in which he is undeniably charming. For this reason, the Dalí Museum in Figueres is without doubt one of the best museums in Catalonia, and in all of Spain.
The Dalí Museum is quite a trek from Barcelona, which makes it a somewhat inconvenient day-trip. But there is another beautiful site that is quite a bit closer to Barcelona, which is what makes it such a popular destination: Montserrat.
Few cities can compare with Barcelona for the variety and depth of architectural pleasure on display. In my posts I have already had occasion to mention some of Barcelona’s wonderful gothic buildings, such as its cathedral and its basilicas. Even quite functional buildings are intriguing, such as the Fundació Miró, the Palau Nacional, as well as Barcelona’s former bullring, Las Arenas, and even its latest one, Monumental. Indeed, Barcelona is so full of fine buildings that many are barely noticed by the tourists. As an example of this I would offer the Casa Comalat, a bulging apartment building designed by Salvador Valeri i Pupurull, whose form would be eye-catching if it weren’t in the same city as Gaudi’s works.
Though Barcelona dates back to Roman times, its most fertile architecture period occured at the turn of the 20th century. This was the epoch of Modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. The most overpowering quality of this trend was its emphasis on ostentatious decoration. There is nothing light or understated; the architecture bursts forth like a flower into curves and colors. Modernisme also coincided with a resurchange of Catalan nationalism, and as a result many buildings from this fruitful period are explicitly or implicitly involved in the Catalan identity. This movement had many excellent practitioners; but two architects stand out above the rest: Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Antoni Gaudí.
Lluís Domènech i Montaner
I cannot say why Lluis Domènech i Montaner (1850 – 1923), an architect nearly as original as Gaudí, is not even one-tenth as well-known. Certainly he was a less Byronic figure. Far from the typical brooding, solitary genius, Domènech was a man of the world. A brilliant polymath, he was a writer, scholar, teacher, and politician in addition to his work as an architect. But his central concern, in all of these endeavors, was to create a Catalan nationalism that was forward-looking and unprovincial—a Catalan nationalism that celebrated the region without rejecting the rest of the world.
One of his best-known buildings stands in the Parc de la Ciutadella (discussed in a previous post), beyond the Arc de Triomf. It is the Castell dels Tres Dragons, which was made for the same 1888 World’s Fair as the arc and the park’s fountain. Originally it was meant to be the Café-Restaurant adjoining a nearby hotel, which Domènech also designed but which was subsequently torn down. Nowadays the fortress is home to the zoological museum. It is notable for its use of brick as a decorative material—looked down upon at the time, though Domènech liked it because it contained Catalan soil—as well as nakedly visible cast-iron supports.
Far more showy is Domènech’s Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music). This is a concert hall built between 1905-8 for the Orfeó choral society. Though unfortunately I have not yet gone inside—one of my biggest regrets of my visits to Barcelona—Robert Hughes considered this building to be Domènech’s masterpiece, and I have no reason to doubt him.
The concert hall stands amid the cramped streets of the old city center, hemmed in closely on all sides; so it is difficult to get a good look at its impressive façade. Nevertheless you can certainly appreciate the sculptural group exploding from its front corner, bursting forth like the prow of a ship. This is an allegorical representation of Catalan folk song, designed by Miguel Blay. Sitting on columns, high up above, are the busts of Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. (According to Hughes, Wagner was deeply loved in Catalonia at this time, since his own project of creating nationalistic art by combining different mediums—Gesamtkunstwerk—was obviously parallel to Domènech’s own aims, as well as those of his compatriots.) Colored mosaic enliven the building’s flaming brick-red exterior, giving the whole a playful, festive air.
Judging from the photos, and from Robert Hughes’s descriptions, the inside is even more impressive than the exterior. The roof of the concert hall is dominated by a glowing stained-glass skylight that droops down into the space. On either side of the stage are elaborate sculptural friezes. On the right, Beethoven’s bust swells into the smoke of inspiration, which then bursts forth into flying valkyries. Opposite Beethoven is the Catalan poet Josep Anselm Clavé, whose thoughts spring into a tree that blooms across from the winged warriors. Curiously, for a performance space, the concert hall is extremely open—both sides dominated by large windows. This means that, ironically enough, the acoustics are not great; and also that the space is poorly insulated from street noise. This hasn’t stopped many famous performers from adoring the space, including the famous Catalan cellist, Pau Casals (whose recordings of Bach’s cello suites, the first ever recorded, are still my favorite).
The building I have visited is Domènech’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul), begun in 1905 and not completed until 1930, after Domènech’s death, by his son Pere Domènech i Roura. This building complex is listed—along with the Palau de la Música Catalana—as one of Spain’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, and deservedly so.
The Hospital de Sant Pau replaced Barcelona’s far older and obsolescent Hospital of the Holy Cross, a gothic structure that had been in use since the middle ages. This hospital was overcrowded and wholly unsuited to the new technologies and techniques of modern medicine. Luckily, a hefty donation from Pau Gil, a wealthy banker, allowed the city to begin work on a replacement. (This is why the new hospital is named Sant Pau, to honor Pau Gil’s contribution.) The new hospital was to be situated in the recently constructed Eixample, away from the overcrowded old city, almost next to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família (which begun construction about twenty years earlier). You can still see some of the buildings that formed the old gothic hospital, by the way, since they have been refurbished—most notably as the Library of Catalonia.
The hospital that Domènech designed could not be further removed than the dreary gothic interior of its predecessor. Indeed, it is unlike any hospital I have ever seen or heard of. Far from the white, sterile, and crowded places I know as hospitals, Domènech designed a place open, colorful, and tranquil—a place of pleasure and peace. For me his design is so convincing that I wonder why every hospital does not emulate it. For if healing is not just a matter of treatment and cures, but of will and mindset—as I think is the case—then Domènech’s work is a model: catering to the mind as well as the body.
The entrance to the hospital is a sweeping, winged building that seems to embrace the visitor as she walks inside (see photo above). It is crowned by a magnificent clock tower and adorned with angels. These angels were designed by the neoclassical sculptor Eusebi Arnau and his more famous pupil, Pau Gargallo (who has a museum dedicated to him in Zaragoza), whose own angels reveal the growing influence of cubism in his work. Running across the outside of this central structure is a mosaic showing scenes from the development of medicine in Catalonia, ending with the creation of the hospital itself.
Once the visitor walks through this main building, she will find herself surrounded by several separate pavilions, arranged in two neat rows with their entrances facing one another. Domènech wanted a place open and green; and to do that he split up the hospital into these individual buildings, leaving a garden in the center. This decision had medical as well as aesthetic motives; for it allowed patients with different ailments to be separated and quarantined from each other, reducing infection and improving organization.
The central garden is filled with benches, where patients could sit and rest. But of course the entire effect would be spoiled if doctors, nurses, and orderlies were constantly rushing in-between the pavilions and through the gardens. To prevent this, Domènech built a network of tunnels under the hospital, which directly connect each structure in the compound.
Each one of the pavilions is a delight, with a glowing, multicolored dome crowning one side of its entrance, and a narrow circular tower on the other. This fairly narrow façade conceals the buildings’ lengths, their main bulk leading away from the central courtyard. Each of their slanting roofs is decorated with bright tiles in delightful swirling patterns, different for each building. The insides are equally inviting. A vaulted nave leads down to the back of the building, its walls and ceiling covered in shining tiles, making the visitor feel that she is walking inside a luminescent seashell. Windows run along the top of each side, providing enough natural light to render artificial lighting unnecessary during the day. Beside the entrance, beneath the frontal dome, is the sun room, whose large windows flood the space with light. This room was used for relaxation and also for receiving visitors.
The Hospital de Sant Pau stopped receiving visitors in 2009, when a new hospital was opened up nearby. Nowadays it survives as a museum and a monument. Judging from the informational video on display in the building complex, the hospital which replaced it is yet another modern care center—devoid of color and empty of air. This is a shame, I think, for Domènech’s building has much to teach us that we have yet to learn. Indeed, the Hospital de Sant Pau teaches the lessons of all great architecture: that beauty can be functional; that daily life need not be drab; that art and science can be merged. The building complex is not just a work of art, but a vision of what a cultured society can be: catering to and caring for the whole human being—not just the body’s obvious physical necessities but the mind’s subtler needs.
From the front steps of the administration building, the visitor can see the masterpiece of Barcelona’s next great architect—the Sagrada Família—whose work, albeit differently, illustrates the same lessons as Domènech’s.
The life of Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926) fits our Romantic mold of the eccentric artist far better than does Domènech’s. Neither a man of the world nor a public intellectual, but an austere man of deep spiritual convictions, Gaudí was every inch an artist. Uncompromising in his style, he accepted no projects unless he was given a free hand—complete creative control. Unyielding in his religion, he stood against the secularizing and cosmopolitan currents of his day. Fully obsessed with his work, he lived a monkish life, never marrying or even having any significant partners. He was killed by a tram on daily walk to confession—too deaf, apparently, to hear the oncoming train or the shouted warnings of bystanders. He was 73. His appearance was so shabby, and his pockets so empty, that he was originally mistaken as a beggar and sent to a public hospital to receive basic care. When his identity was finally ascertained it was too late to save him.
Gaudí came from a long line of artisans. At a young age he observed his father bending and molding metal into shapes. His profound understanding of structure and form, therefore, was anything but mathematical; he did not like drawings and hardly made any. He performed poorly in school. He thought with his hands, and thus preferred making models. Nowadays we have computers to aide architects in the difficult problems of support and weight distribution. Lacking (but not missing) these resources, Gaudí invented his own solutions. His most memorable one was to suspend little bags of birdshot from strings, showing how the weight naturally fell. When he photographed these models, and then turned the pictures over, he had perfectly sound structure. Unfortunately for history, many of his models for the Sagrada Família were destroyed in 1936, during the outburst of anti-clerical violence that followed the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Thus much of the work done on that building is little more than a guess at his intentions.
Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Gaudí, at least for us in the modern world, is his simultaneously radical style and ultra-conservative worldview. This is only a paradox if you blandly assume that avant-garde art comes with a left-wing perspective. Very often this is the case, of course, especially in the past one hundred years. But not necessarily. Now, Gaudí’s radicalism had many components. Most obviously it was religious. Gaudí was living in a time of growing secularism; anti-clericalism was a strong cultural force in Spain, occasionally leading to outbreaks of violence and destruction of church property. The famed Poblet Monastery of Gaudí’s native Tarragona, for example, was burned to the ground in the 1830s in one such outbreak. Gaudí thought that the only proper response to this was unconditional submission to the church and extreme acts of penance. He himself fasted intensely, sometimes endangering his health.
Gaudí was also an intense regionalist. He thought that Catalonia was ideally situated between the passionate south and the over-intellectual north. To this religious regionalism one must add his love of nature. The movement of Modernisme itself emphasized natural forms, particularly the colors and curves of flowers. But Gaudí took this love of nature to an extreme. In his works, for example, one can find scarcely a single straight line—since perfectly straight lines are rarely seen in natural objects. To make some of the decorative friezes on the Sagrada Família, Gaudí made casts of plants and dead animals, even asking nuns for stillborn babies to use for the little angels (and the nuns agreed). To make the crucifix for the Sagrada Família’s main altar, he had a workman tied to a cross in order to see how a body naturally hangs from such a pose (the body droops down far more than in conventional representation). In short, Gaudí saw nature as God’s creation and strove to incorporate its order into his works.
The majority of Gaudí’s works are found in Barcelona. I have only managed to visit three, but these were enough to fill me with awe and to give me enough imaginative food for a lifetime.
The first was the Casa Batlló. This building is located on the Passeig de Gracia, in the famous Illa de la Discòrdia (Isle of Discord), a block so-called because it is home to four famous houses by four architects with jarringly different styles. One of these was by designed by the aforementioned Domènech: the Casa Lleó Morera. Next door is the Casa Ramon Mulleras, by Enric Sagier, the architect who designed the expiatory temple atop Tibidabo. But the most attractive house, after Gaudí’s, is the Casa Amattler by Josep Puig y Cadafalch. Topped with a Dutch-style crow-stepped gabble, the house brims with color and charm—very appropriate for the home of a chocolatier, which it was. Barcelona has no lack of brilliant architects.
Yet even such showy houses look absolutely tame next to Gaudí’s construction. This home was built (actually renovated, from 1904-1906), like all the other fine apartments on the block, at the behest of a rich patron—in this case, Josep Batlló i Casanovas. Seen from the outside the building has three distinct levels. The lowest consists of the cavernous windows covering the first floor, with spindly stalactites for supports. The windows above are discontinuous; and each is fronted with a skeletal, even skull-like railing. The roof bursts from the building’s body like the frilled back of some tremendous reptile. Indeed, this is the most popular interpretation of the building’s form: that the apartment is meant to be the dragon vanquished by St. George—the bottom layer its cave, the windows its victims’ skulls, the top its back, and the turret on the left St. George’s deadly spear. This interpretation ties into both Gaudí’s religiosity and his regional pride, since St. George is Catalonia’s patron saint.
The inside of the building is just as spectacular. In the dining room, which overlooks the Passeig de Gracia through the cave-like window, the ceiling swirls like a hurricane, its undulations closing in on the central light—molded to look like a glowing iron sun. Above the windows and doors circular panels of stained glass shed colored light throughout the space. Every surface swells and shifts like a windswept pond. On the far side of the room is the fireplace seat—two seats situated in a mushroom-shaped nook around the fireplace.
The central lightwell is one of the most impressive sights. Each surface is covered in shiny blue tiles, darker near the light source at the top and brighter near the bottom in order to equalize the brightness. Ascending upwards the visitor reaches the loft, where white catenary arches (similar to parabolic arches) enclose a narrow passageway (supposedly representing the dragon’s ribcage). On the roof one can see Gaudí’s whimsically bent chimneys, covered in colored tiles, as well as his trademark blooming cross, whose flower-like shape allows it to appear cruciform from any angle. Like so many of Gaudí’s buildings, the whole thing has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality.
Undeniably, one of the Casa Batlló’s finest features are the tilework that adorns the surface, making them shimmer with color like a Monet painting. This technique is called trencadís, and is done by plastering together smashed up china. The credit for this fine work actually belongs, not to Gaudí himself, but to Josep Maria Jujol, who also collaborated with Gaudí to create the fantastic mosaics in our next site: the Park Güell (1900 – 1914).
The park takes its name from Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur who became one of Gaudí’s greatest patrons. The original idea was not to create a simply a park but a garden housing development, following the English garden city movement initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard (which is why its real name is the English word “Park”). The goal was to create a green neighborhood for the wealthy who wanted to escape Barcelona’s insalubrious city air. But the idea was a flop, since nobody wanted to move so far away from the center; indeed, most people with money preferred to build fancy apartments on the Passeig de Gracia, such as the Casa Batlló. In the end only two houses were sold, one to Gaudí himself, where he lived from 1906 until his death in 1926, and which is now the Gaudi House Museum.
Describing the whole park would be an exercise in futility, but there are some highlights that cannot be missed. The first is the statue (in Jujol’s brilliant trencadís) of a salamander, nicknamed the dragon, which seems to guard the water in the fountain below. This is found on the staircase leading up to a forest of columns—the “hypostyle room”—modelled after a Greek temple, whose pillars hold up the terrace above. This terrance is one of the most famous spots in Barcelona, partly for its view of the city, but also for its undulating, ceramic bench that slithers around the exterior. Below, one can see the two pavilions that flank the original entrance, with rough brown walls and black and white roofs, one of them sporting a large tower topped with Gaudí’s signature budding crucifix.
The park itself is full of structures dun-colored stone—walls holding up terraces, elevated roadways and viaducts, balconies and covered footpaths proceeding through columns. The aesthetic effect produced by all this stonework is unique—for me at least—being somehow both natural and unnatural, which was undoubtedly intended by Gaudí.
If you leave the park and head towards the shore, you will replicate a journey taken by Gaudí himself many times during his life, ending up with his greatest and most iconic work of all: the Sagrada Família.
The full name of this building is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, which translates to the Basilica and Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. To repeat an earlier post, it is not and never has been a cathedral. By the time construction on the Sagrada Família began, in 1882, Barcelona had possessed a cathedral for several hundreds years already and was in no need of a replacement. Indeed, it is only recently, in 2010, that the building was designated a basilica (which essentially means it is an especially grand church). Before this consecration it could not even be used for mass.
The history of the building is an epic in itself. Never an official church project, the idea was conceived by an independent religious organization and funded by private donations. Gaudí used himself to go visit wealthy families on the Passeig de Gracia, asking for “a sacrifice.” Even today the building’s continuing construction is funded by entrance fees. Construction began in 1882; and by the time Gaudí died, in 1926, not even a quarter had been built. Since his models were destroyed during the Civil War, we cannot even be sure if the final result will be true to his vision. The builders hope to have the main towers completed by 2026 for the anniversary of Gaudí’s death—but these things are hard to plan.
The building has grown from its controversial origins—many feared that it would outshine Barcelona’s cathedral, and arguably it has—into being the inescapable symbol of Barcelona, as thoroughly identified with the city as the Eiffel Tower is with Paris or the Empire State Building is with New York. Indeed, the Sagrada Familia is the most visited monument in all of Spain—surpassing even the Alhambra in its more than 3 million visitors per year. Even so, not everyone likes it. George Orwell infamously remarked that the anarchists showed poor taste in not blowing it up; and Gerald Brenan cited the building as evidence of Catalonia’s low cultural level. I admit that when I first saw it I was put off by the hugely exaggerated goliath that greeted my eyes. The bulging form struck me as garishly Disneyesque, all cheap flare with little thought.
But I was badly mistaken. For close inspection cannot but reveal the Sagrada Família to be one of the great edifices of the world. Like all of Gaudí’s work, the Sagrada Família does not conform to any particular style. But if forced to put a label on it, you might call it a mixture of neo-gothic and Modernisme—though it goes far beyond the bounds of both.
As you approach you can see the basilica’s famous towers that curve up like rockets waiting for takeoff. Its dusty brown color gives it an earthy appearance, almost like a giant sandcastle, which belies its bizarre and otherworldly form. The continuing construction is evident. The newer sections are visibly more mathematically precise and their material is fresh and clean, unstained by the years. And if that wasn’t enough, the towering cranes overhead let you know immediately that the building is still very much a work in progress.
The visitor enters through the Nativity Façade, the only one completed during Gaudí’s life. It was for this façade that Gaudí made all those casts of plants, animals, and babies—to emphasize the divinity in nature and the nature of divinity. The holy family stands on the central doorjamb, surrounded by smiling angels and onlookers, heralded by four musicians who celebrate the coming of the Lord. These figure are suspended in a quasi-natural space, much like that of the Park Güell, the rough and bulging stone looking like a cave or a cliffside. Animals can be seen, too, such as the two turtles—one aquatic and the other terrestrial, representing the stability of the sea and the land—as well as plants, such as the palm leaves that grow out of the two pillars. Crowning the whole façade is what looks like a Christmas tree: the tree of life. You might even be tempted to call such nature-worship “pagan,” if it weren’t tinged with such a strong dose of repentance.
Impressive as all this was, I was prepared for it. Like nearly everyone I had seen photos of the Sagrada Família beforehand and so knew roughly what it looks like. But I was not prepared for what awaited me inside.
Gaudí has created a space utterly unlike any I have ever seen. The effect was so strange that I felt as though I had been transported onto another planet or was exploring an alien temple. Several factors combine to produce this effect. Most obvious is the lighting. Radiantly colorful light pours in through the exquisite stained glass. There are lighted panels on the columns, too, as well as on the roof, and so color comes from every direction. The columns are designed to maximize this effect. They subtly change in shape throughout their lengths, going from eight-sided to circular to six-sided, and so on, which affects how the light hits their surface. Gaudí’s columns are special in another way. They do not sit perpendicular to the ground, but at a slight angle; and as they approach the ceiling these columns branch off like the trunks of trees. The visitor feels that she is walking through a petrified forest illuminated by the light of distant suns.
I found the interior of the building so stunning that, when I exited on the other side, I was somewhat exhausted. What greeted me here was the Passion Façade. This side was expressly conceived by Gaudí to contrast with the Nativity Façade. Where that side of the building bursts with curves and figures and thus brims with life, the façade dedicated to the Passion is bare, linear, and austere—a monument to death. The sculptures depicting the crucifixion were designed by Josep Maria Subirachs, who also designed the monument to Francesc Macià (discussed in a previous post). The harsh and almost cubist sculptures that Subirachs designed have proven somewhat divisive. Some, like Robert Hughes, think that the sculptures are not consonant with Gaudí’s aesthetic. Others were offended for religious reasons, since this façade has one of the few extant representations of Christ completely nude. In any case I liked the heavy, blocky statues, since they provided a nice contrast with the previous side. They are also, arguably, not very distant from Gaudí’s own work, since they are highly reminiscent of the sculptures atop another of Gaudí’s famous works, the Casa Milà (which I have yet to visit).
This exhausts my experience and knowledge of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona. Indeed, with this post I come to the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona. Yet despite my tour of Barcelona’s museums and architecture, one iconic Catalan artist has yet to be discussed: Salvador Dalí.
Barcelona, is a vast and cultured city, and has a correspondingly huge number of museums. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Catalan Modernisme; and a museum dedicated to archaeology and to design—just to name a few. But I have only visited the three most famous: the National Art Museum; the Miró Foundation; and the Picasso Museum.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
The biggest and grandest museum in Barcelona is the National Art Museum of Catalonia, situated atop the Montjuïc hill. The museum’s building itself is splendid: the Palau Nacional, a large palace built for the 1929 World’s Fair. It reminds me very much El Escorial, and for soon reason, since it was intentionally made in a Spanish Renaissance style. Four large towers flank a central dome, which rise above the city on its perch.
The museum’s collection is expansive, ranging from the Romanesque to modern art. The oldest pieces are arguably the museum’s most impressive. Whole church apses have been transported into the museum in order to display their frescos. And these frescos are exquisite. Romanesque art always impresses me with its fantastic stylization. As in Egyptian and Babylonian art, humans are idealized and abstracted, turned into cartoonish symbols. The volume of Greco-Roman art and the realism of the Renaissance are completely absent from these flat figures, residing in a two-dimensional realm of color and sentiment.
When I first saw medieval Christian art I found is disagreeable, almost childish in its lack of naturalism and its technical unsophistication. But now I find in the Romanesque a sense of otherworldly peace. It is a spiritual art, representing timeless truths, and thus the stylization suits it perfectly. Unlike the real world, where facts and details have no meaning beyond their own existence, every line in Romanesque frescoes is imbued with significance. Every scene is part of a cosmic drama; every man and beast symbolizes a divine attribute; every gesture illustrates a religious truth. The apparently simplicity of the works, then, is the result of a synthesis: focusing a whole worldview into vivid clarity.
Quite as enchanting as the frescoes are the Romanesque capitals. These often display what, to me, seems like a playful delight in the grotesque. The monsters, men, and vegetable motifs that weave around each other—their squat forms helping to hold up the structure—are almost pagan in their exuberant love of life. The friezes are ingenious, endlessly varying, each one a different pictorial solution to the puzzle of turning things into designs. Apart from the frescoes and the capitals, the museum also has a digital reconstruction of the monumental portal of the Ripoll Monastery (in Gerona). Using a projector you can explore the façades many excellent friezes in detail, and in 3D.
The character of the art changes quite noticeably once you go from the Romanesque to the Gothic section. Gothic representation is, on the whole, far more naturalistic than that of the Romanesque. The people are individualized—escaping the anonymously identical faces of the Romanesque—with flowing robes and fluffy beards. Frescoes and paintings have more sense of solidity and depth. This growing naturalism, if it lacks the purity of the Romanesque, does give the Gothic a greater visual delight, while maintaining a deep sense of spirituality.
Having finished with the medieval period, I ascended the stairs to the second level. Here you can stand under the building’s central dome. Its inside is decorated with an attractive, allegorical fresco by Francesc d’Assís Galí. From here you can skip ahead in time a few hundred years, and visit the museum’s collection of modern art. I must admit that none of the individual pieces made a deep impression on me as I walked through. But I did very much like the historical and sociological framing of the progression of modern art, which reminded me very much of how Robert Hughes introduced the subject in his documentary, The Shock of the New.
This about does it for the National Art Museum. Luckily, the next museum is only a short walk away.
The Fundació Miró sits perched on the same hill, Montjuïc, with the same grand view of the city beyond. Around it are the lush gardens of the hill, where many locals come to exercise, play, and walk their dogs. The building of the foundation looks incongruous amid such surroundings, white and angular like a warehouse. It was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, a friend of Miró’s, who managed to create an ideal museum space. Each room, bare and unobtrusive, is bathed in natural light; and the visitor is led effortlessly through the museum on a linear path.
The right angles and stark whiteness of the building offsets the colorful curves of Miró’s paintings. These are arranged both by chronology and theme. Miró’s earliest works are actually some of my favorites. They were made during his fauvist period, when he was painting realistic scenes of Montroig—his ancestral home in Tarragona, to which he returned throughout his life—using lush and vibrant colors. The influence of Cézanne also shows, with shapes somewhat simplified and made geometrical. To me, these works have a wonderful cheerfulness, purely absorbed in the joy of bright colors and the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape.
But this realistic phase is soon got through. Now we come to the Miró as we know him: the Miró of flat spaces and abstract shapes. The human form in particular becomes unrecognizably twisted in Miró’s works—a whole person being evoked with a few lines and dots and shapes. To me many of these paintings have a sort of childlike naiveté—completed with a seemingly simple technique, at times approaching stick figures. But there was nothing childlike in Miró’s thought. He was deeply interested in poetry throughout his life and aspired to make his paintings like poems, employing an idiosyncratic system of symbols. To the knowledgeable eye, therefore—which I do not possess—his paintings are deeplying meaningful.
On a purely formal level, however, they may still be savored. Miró’s bulbous and suggestive shapes, swelling and sticking, stretching and squeezing, evoke many things at once. Unlike Picasso, who bent form but never broke it, Miró’s paintings sometimes verge on the nebulous—the outlines floating on top of nowhere. It is a deeply organic world with no hard surfaces, with every simple form evoking the body and the natural world. And though grotesque and even monstrous, it is not a frightening world. Miró’s demons are cartoonish and his nightmares have laughing tracks.
This is the Miró that charms me. But when Miró attempts a grave statement, I cannot go along with him. His series of three paintings, The Hope of a Dead Man, which were painted on the occasion of a young anarchist’s condemnation and execution, provoke no reaction in me save boredom. They consist of a single blank stroke on a white background, with a ball of color floating nearby. Such art is too much statement and too little substance. In general I think Miró’s work is rather hermetic—floating in his own dream world—and so his attempts to be political fall flat.
The Fundació Miró also tells us something of Miró’s philosophy of art. One of his most quoted phrases was his desire to “assassinate painting.” This statement can be interpreted in manifold ways, but I believe refers to his desire to escape bourgeois commodification. (Notwithstanding this desire his paintings sell for millions of dollars at auction.) It is true, though, that Miró was never quite content with painting. He loved poetry and strove to emulate it, developing a complex system of symbols for his works. He also branched out into sculpture (of which the Fundació Miró has many examples) and even into tapestries. Apart from assassination, Miró was interested in the idea of anonymity, believing that art should be so popular that it cannot be said to have come from anyone. (According to what I’ve read, Miró liked popular music, especially Jimi Hendrix.) All of these ideas, taken together, seem quite odd in a painter who developed an individual style that is not widely popular.
I cannot say that I emerged from the Fundació Miró deeply shaken by an aesthetic awakening. But I did emerge deeply impressed by the diligence with which Miró followed the bent of his vision and his success in bringing forth an entirely new visual language. After visiting this museum one can hardly doubt that Miró was one of the great Catalan artists of the previous century.
(Unfortunately photos are not allowed in this museum, so you will just have to imagine the art.)
The last museum on my itinerary is quite a walk from Montjuïc: forty minutes away, deep in the old city center. This is Barcelona’s Picasso Museum. Picasso was not Catalan: he was born in Málaga (where there’s another Picasso museum) and spent several years in La Coruña. Nevertheless he is regarded as something of an honorary Catalan, since he spent his teenage years in the city and often returned to it throughout his life. This is why Picasso suggested Barcelona as the location for a museum dedicated to his artistic career.
The Museu Picasso occupies five aristocratic houses dating from the gothic period. Its collection is somewhat bipolar: with an extensive (approaching exhaustive) collection from the beginning and end of Picasso’s career, and very few from its famous middle. Despite this—or because of it—the museum is one of the best places to go to explore the workings of Picasso’s mind.
In the first rooms of the museum the visitor can see Picasso’s juvenilia—in itself not especially great, but showing great promise. These gradually increase in sophistication, under the influence of Picasso’s academic tutelage, until it culminates in Science and Charity. This paintings, which he completed in 1897 at the age of 15, is astonishingly finished. Picasso manages to be both allegorical and naturalistic. The morbid topic of death is portrayed with great realism, with the brown hues of the space and the sick girl’s palid face giving the painting a certain grimy edge. Belying this naturalness is the careful diagonal composition of the figures, and the obvious dichotic symbolism of the doctor (science) and the nun (charity). It is no wonder the critics loved it.
But Picasso does not continue down the academic path. Instead he turns toward the avant-garde, and thus commences his blue period. Here his work becomes decidedly unrealistic, completed in monochromatic blue; and his drawings of human forms reveals the influence of El Greco, with bodies extended and features exaggerated. In subject matter, Picasso turned towards poverty, sadness, and death—the darker aspects of the human experience. Though perhaps not technically in the Blue Period, The Madman (1904), which you can see at the museum, illustrates this trend in Picasso’s painting: a homeless man, covered in rags, his long fingers extended almost maniacally—all done in a single shade.
Also on display is The Frugal Meal (1904)—showing two gaunt, emaciated forms, the man desperate and the woman resigned, leaning over a bare table. This vein in Picasso’s early work reminds me of one of Van Gogh’s early works: The Potatoes Eaters. Both artists, it seems, were deeply concerned with the poor and neglected during their youths; and both used gritty hues and nightmarish distortions to represent it. As I mentioned, the museum has relatively few paintings from Picasso’s most well-known periods—when he was developing, perfecting, and then moving beyond cubism—but this time is not totally neglected. The museum has, for example, The Offering (1908), a recognizably proto-cubist work clearly reminiscent of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The museum also has a copy of Picasso’s famous etching, Minotauromachy (1935), made when Picasso was experimenting with mythological themes in the years leading up to Guernica.
The museum becomes, once again, close to exhaustive when it reaches Picasso’s later years. Most notably, the museum boasts the complete Las Meninas series (1957).
Las Meninas is, of course, a famous painting by Velazquez, on display at the Prado in Madrid. Picasso used this iconic image as the bases of a series of reinterpretations, 45 in all. Though many are excellent, I don’t think any of these paintings, individually, is a masterpiece. But taken together the series is an incredible look at the way Picasso can take a form apart and put it back together. Velazquez’s painting explodes under Picasso’s gaze, reduced to its basic elements. Picasso then experiments with the different ways these elements can be distorted, twisted, stretched, compressed, simplified, and how all these can be reassembled into a new work. Admittedly there is something trivial about all this; many of the paintings look somewhat slapdash and hasty. But their lack of finish does help us to see Picasso’s mind at work—to catch a glimpse of his cognitive processing of shapes and compositions. And one of the paintings, at least (the most famous one, in black and white) does capture some of the creative energy of Velazquez’s original.
Here I reach the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona’s museums. But the city of Barcelona, you might say, is itself a sort of museum, housing some of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen. It is to these buildings, and the architects that designed them, that I turn next.
The city of Barcelona is one of the most immediately inviting cities on the planet. Like New York, with its numbered grid of streets, Barcelona is intuitively navigable: you are either travelling towards the eastern coast or away from it, towards the mountains that bound the city’s western edge. Moving around is easy: the city has a clean and efficient metro and train system. Thanks to the Mediterranean, the weather is agreeable: Barcelona has mild winters and warm summers. And, most importantly, Barcelona is stuffed with restaurants and attractions that cater to every taste.
It is no wonder, then, that the place is swarming with tourists. This is a classic case of a city’s strengths becoming its weakness: visited by many times more tourists annually than its 1.7 million inhabitants, the city has—at least in my experience—less local character than many others in Spain. Every major street and site is constantly swarming with foreigners, visiting for a week or for a weekend, which can give the city a feeling of artificiality and anonymity. The city’s harbor is partially responsible for this influx: it is the European port most used by cruise liners. But the real culprit are the city’s many treasures, which make it worth visiting despite the crowds and despite the fact that it is the most expensive city in Spain.
Like many cities in Europe, Barcelona is far older than its surrounding country, having been founded by the Romans. But traces of that ancient people are mostly absent from the city. Nowadays the most important division is between the medieval city center and the newer expansions. It was only in the 1850s when the old medieval walls were torn down, which is why there is a sharp contrast between these two sections: the narrow, crooked streets of the old city, and the wide, cuadrangular streets of the new.
The most famous part of this old center is the Barri Gótic, or the Gothic Quarter. Its winding streets, unsuited for automobiles, are now home to one of the most fashionable areas of the city. It is somewhat like Madrid’sMalasaña or even Brooklyn: with trendy restaurants and quirky boutiques. This transformation from dreary old city to tourist haven was far from accidental; the place was heavily refurbished, in a Neo-Gothic style, in preparation for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona.
This is true even of one of the Gothic Quarter’s most famous landmarks: Barcelona Cathedral. The church’s magnificently pointy façade is, in fact, neo-gothic; the original exterior was, judging from pictures, quite unremarkable. Authentic or not, however, the cathedral’s façade is beautiful, resembling St. Patrick’s in New York City (which was built around the same time). Part of the old medieval walls (built on top of the ancient Roman walls) were incorporated into one of the cathedral’s sides, and have thus escaped destruction. The church is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, a young girl who was executed for being a Christian during Roman times. There is a magnificent tomb of the saint, with an exquisitely carved sarcophagus, in the cathedral’s crypt. But my favorite part of the cathedral was its peaceful cloister, which is home to 13 white geese (13 being the age when Eulalia was martyred) who mill about to the gurgling sound of a mossy fountain.
I should note here that this building, not the Sagrada Familia, is the true cathedral of Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is, rather, an “expiatory temple” (by contributing money to its creation you can expiate your sins). A cathedral, by the way, is not a cathedral by virtue of its size or splendor, but because it is the seat of a bishop (the word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word for “chair”), who oversees a diocese (a division of land). Each diocese normally has only one cathedral. This is Barcelona’s.
As attractive as is Barcelona’s cathedral, the city’s loveliest gothic church is undoubtedly Santa Maria del Mar. As its name implies, this church is found near the sea, in the Ribera quarter of the old city center. Its imposing outside, formidably stiff and monumental, gives way to an extraordinarily fluid interior. Unlike most churches of this size, Santa Maria del Mar was built relatively quickly, between 1329 and 1383, which means that historical progress did not create an mixture of styles. The word that comes to mind upon entering the church is, instead, “pure.” The curving lines of the columns and vaulted arches flow into one another, creating a shell-like space, liquid but still. This effect is partially the result of historical accident. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, there was a corresponding outbreak in anticlerical violence. Angry anarchists pilled all the pews and altars and, according to Robert Hughes, lit a fire that burned for 11 days, charing the stone and leaving only the building’s skeleton. The stark simplicity of the empty building allows one to more fully appreciate its noble form.
(A similar fate befell the nearby Santa Maria del Pi, another massive gothic church in the old city center. Anticlericalism seems to have been particularly strong here in Barcelona during the 1930s. On a tour I was once shown photographs of anarchists posing next to the exhumed bodies of saints and firing their rifles at crucifixes.)
The old center of Barcelona gives way to the new section at the Plaça de Catalunya, the true center of the city. This massive plaza is always throbbing with people—mostly tourists—since it stands at the intersection of so many corners of the city. The pigeons also like it, which is why the square’s many neoclassical statues are covered in fine spikes that prevent them from landing.
One of the most eye-catching of these statues, a monument to Francesc Macià, looks like an inverted staircase and is meant to symbolize the difficult road to Catalan independence. Macià was a Catalan separatist, you see, who led the Esquerra Republicana de Cataluyna, a leftist party that favored independence; and when his party gained a majority in the 1931 elections he duly declared Catalonia an independent Republic. This state of affairs lasted for a total of three days, from April 14 to 17, until they settled on partial autonomy within the Spanish Republic. As far as I know, these three days are the only time in modern history that Catalonia has been independent.
The Plaça de Catalunya hasn’t always been such a tranquil tourist haven. On a tour I was once shown bullet marks that remained from infighting between anarchists and communists during the Civil War. It was during this infighting that George Orwell had to go into hiding, after he spent three days posted on a nearby building with a rifle. In the early 1900s, when Barcelona was an industrial center riven by stark inequality, the city was a hotbed of leftist movements among the workers. Anarchism in particular was popular, as Gerald Brenan details in his classic study of the causes of the Spanish Civil War. The idealism of these movements, as well as the machinations which eventually destroyed the anarchists and brought the Stalinists to power, made a deep impression on Orwell, which he describes in his remarkable memoirs of the war. Anyone who wishes to learn more about this can contact Nick Lloyd, who also wrote a book about this chaotic time.
(To see another scar from the Civil War, you can visit the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, near the Cathedral. One side of the eponymous church is deeply pockmarked. During Franco’s time this damage was explained as having been caused by executions committed by the Republic side, as bullets missed their targets. This is a classic case of history being falsified by the victors. For the real explanation for the damage are two bombs that fell on this spot, hitting the church, which was being used as a refugee for children. Forty-two died in the blasts, mostly children, and a plaque now commemorates the spot.)
One of the major paths leading away from the plaza is La Rambla. The word “rambla” originates in the Arabic word for “riverbed,” for that it all it was, originally—a dried river that used to flow into the Mediterranean. Now it leads the tourist in the same direction, towards the beach, in a lovely procession lined with trees. Robert Hughes called the street “one of the great, seedy, absorbing theaters of Spain,” but I think it has changed somewhat since he wrote those words. He speaks of bursting flower stalls and vendors selling exotic caged birds. Nowadays, however, the walker is treated to a series of indistinguishable, gaudy restaurants, with their colorful menus displaying “authentic” cuisine and their chairs and awnings crowding the sidewalk.
In other words, tourism has largely eroded whatever distinct character this street once had, leaving it with the nowhere-in-particular quality of so many tourist centers—which, ironically, are travel destinations that all look the same. Another consequence of the huge influx of tourists is that the street is also popular with pickpockets. Indeed, Barcelona in general is one of the great pickpocketing capitals of the world; half of everyone who goes there seems to lose something—though I’ve been lucky so far. If you walk down the Rambla—and any time you are in Barcelona, for that matter—be aware of your belongings. This huge concentration of people also made La Rambla a target of a terrorist attack in 2017, when a man drove a van through the crowd, killing 15 people.
But you cannot let either pickpocket or terrorist dissuade you from walking down this street, at least as far as La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous market. I am no foodie and not usually captivated by markets. But the Boqueria is undeniably impressive, with stall after stall selling a huge variety of foods—all of it vibrant and delicious. Fish, sausage, fruit, vegetables, beans—cured, dried, pickled, freshly picked—you can find everything here. I didn’t even buy anything but I very much enjoyed just walking around.
The end of La Rambla spills into the sea. Here you can find Barcelona’s gigantic monument to Christopher Columbus. There is a joke that Catalonians like to claim everything; and thus many Catalans believe Columbus wasn’t an Italian at all, but a Catalan. (According to this article, he has also been claimed by the Italians, French, and Scottish.) This may partially explain why Barcelona has such a monumental dedication to the explorer. The main tower, on top of which stands the man himself, rises to almost 200 feet (60 m) tall; and its base is bursting with finely carved statues. But now that Columbus is coming to be seen as a subjugator and even as genocidal, perhaps these different places will stop trying to identify themselves with him. (The irony of Columbus, one of the great claimers of history, being himself claimed, reclaimed, and disclaimed after his death, will not be lost on the reader.)
From here you can walk along the seaside towards Barcelona’s finest park (aside from the Park Güell, to be discussed in another post): the Parc de la Ciutadella. The name of the park comes from a huge citadel that used to occupy the spot. This fortress was built after the Spanish forces conquered Barcelona during the War of Spanish Succession, in order to maintain control of the unruly province. Unsurprisingly it became a hated symbol of Spanish dominance, and was eventually destroyed. The park that later emerged was, for a long while, Barcelona’s only stretch of green. But it is not only attractive for its trees and grass. The park’s central fountain is massive and glorious, bursting with the granite and golden forms of horses. The final effect is undeniably impressive, much like the monument to Columbus. This is no coincidence. Both of these works were built for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition (a world’s fair).
A third surviving monument to this exposition stands right next to the park: the Arc de Triomf, a triumphal arch that served as the fair’s entrance. The arch looks somewhat lonely now, with nothing to lead to or from; but the lovely Neo-Mudejar design retains its sense of excitement. As you can see, then, the 1888 exposition and the 1929 exposition (in the Gothic Quarters) have left their mark on the city. So have the 1992 Summer Olympics, which were hosted here. It is a short walk from the Arc de Triomf to the Olympic Port, where you can see Frank Gehry’s wiry sculpture of a fish made for the event, in addition to some of the hotels erected for the influx of spectators and athletes. From here you can walk onto the sands of Barcelona’s beach—always crowded, of course, but with a bona fide Mediterranean sun.
Some years before the 1888 exhibition, an idealistic urban planner (and socialist) named Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer was laying the foundation for the next phase of Barcelona’s expansion. Up until the mid 19th century the city of Barcelona was still constrained by walls: Roman, medieval, and Spanish Bourbon (such as the citadel). Their destruction meant that the city could now expand into the largely uninhabited areas beyond. And it was Cerdà who was given the task of planning this expansion, from which the resultant Eixample gets its name (Catalan for “enlargement”).
Cerdà was a polymath who had studied urban poverty; appalled by the massive inequality and poor living conditions that plagued the city in his time (and continued to long after his death), he originated a utopian scheme for a city without center or division. If every building and street is identical, in a symmetrical space with no uptown or downtown, then there can be no segregation by class or wealth.
This was the ideology that motivated the Eixample’s grid pattern. Cerdà wanted his new city to be efficient and healthy, and he thought of everything: constraining the heights of buildings to allow sunlight; rounding off the corners of buildings to allow street cars to go by; and dedicating a large portion of the space to patios and parks. But the developers who built up the area were not faithful to this plan: the buildings are taller and there is very little in the way of green space. The final result is not nearly as sunny and open as was Cerdà’s original vision. And far from creating an ideal equality, the Eixample became yet another playground for the rich, with wealthy industrialists paying famous architects to design ostentatious homes. Idealistic plans have little chance against the combined strength of wealth and greed. On the plus side, though, many of these homes are now landmarks.
The most extraordinary of these houses—including two of Gaudí’s greatest works—are found on the Eixample’s iconic avenue: the Passeig de Gracia. Here one does not miss the narrow, twisting streets of the old city. The wide avenue is bathed in sunlight and warmth. The pedestrian enjoys a grand procession as she walks down the avenue, with beautiful building arranged like paintings in a museum. Even the street lights are lovely: ornate wrought iron that lazily hangs over the pavement; and each of these street lights emanates from a ceramic bench, giving the avenue many places to sit, rest, and enjoy the scenery. But it must be admitted that other parts of the Eixample are not so impressive, but recede into an undifferentiated dullness that seems to prefigure the inhumanity of modernist urban planning. This is the general drawback of grid plans: they lack the spontaneity and surprise of cities that have grown more “organically.”
The next point of interest is also to be found in the Eixample: the Plaça d’Espanya. This square itself is not particularly attractive. It was built on the occasion of the 1929 World’s Fair, and suffers from its monumental aspirations—being inhumanly vast. Admittedly, in the center of the plaza is an impressive fountain, full of sculptures; but so many cars swarm around the roundabout (it is the intersection of four major roads) that it cannot be seen from up close. On one side of the square is Las Arenas, a shopping center built in a beautiful old bullring—its neo-mudéjar design quite similar to Las Ventas in Madrid.
(Bullfighting, by the way, was banned by the Catalonian government in 2011, and hasn’t taken place since. This ban was, however, overturned in the Spanish courts—so I am unclear whether it is now legal or not. In any case, bullfighting is so symbolic of Spanish culture that it now arouses disapproval in Catalonia for political as well as ethical reasons.)
On the other side of this square are the two Venetian towers—also built for the World’s Fair—that welcome the pedestrian towards the famed mountain of Montjuïc. Well, Montjuïc is more of a hill than a mountain; and on it stand two of the city’s finest museums: the National Art Museum of Catalonia and the Miró Foundation (to be discussed in a separate post). In front of this first museum is the so-called Magic Fountain: a large fountain that has been programmed to be part of an audiovisual show. Basically, at a certain time at night the water is lit up with colored lights while it sprays in rhythm to music played over a speaker system. I did not enjoy the show very much, especially since so many people came to see it, but others may like it.
Standing on top of Montjuïc one gets an excellent view of Barcelona, the whole city spread out before you. And in the distance, rising above the city, is Tibidabo, the highest peak of the Collserola range that encloses Barcelona’s western edge. If you squint you may be able to see the pointed form of the Temple Expatriatori del Sagrat Cor, a modernist church designed by Enric Sagnier. Nearby you may also spot the ferris wheel of Tibidabo’s amusement park, the second oldest amusement park in all of Europe, having been opened in 1901. Easier to spot is the Collserola Tower, a huge telecommunications spire that extends almost 1,000 feet into the air.
This does it for my tour of Barcelona. Next I will visit some of the museums, beginning with the National Art Museum right behind me.
No region of Spain has been more in the news lately than Catalonia. And this region is also, by chance, the most visited part of the country, mostly thanks to Barcelona. So what sets Catalonia apart from the rest of Spain? In this series of posts I hope to give you some suggestions of an answer.
Catalonia (Cataluña in Spanish, Catalunya in Catalan) is a triangular plot of land that sits at the northeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula. To the north is France, to the south Valencia, to the west Aragón, to the east the shimmering Mediterranean. Divided into four provinces—Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Leida—the region is home to more than 7.5 millions people (about 16% of Spain’s total), most of whom are concentrated around Barcelona, the region’s capital. This storied city is the second biggest in the country, after Madrid, and is in the top ten largest of Europe.
The history of Catalonia is deep and complex. After the fall of Rome it came under the control of the invading Visigoths, and then eventually the invading Moors. After that it was made a sort of Frankish protectorate, serving as a heavily militarized buffer zone between the Carolingian empire and the Moors of the Iberian peninsula. The region became more and more independent until it was essentially autonomous; the hereditary title of Catalonia’s ruler was the “Count of Barcelona.” In 1137 one of these, Ramon Berenguer IV, married the daughter of the King of Aragón, effectively joining the two lands.
Eventually the Kingdom of Aragón came to comprise the whole eastern part of the Peninsula, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Then, in 1469, Isabel of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragón, thus swallowing up Catalonia into yet another large polity—the beginnings of Spain as we know it.
From the very beginning there was some tension in this unification. Catalonia, you see, has always been a mercantile area. Its Mediterranean perch makes it an ideal place for trade by sea. As such, Catalonia has historically been prosperous and liberal—with democratic institutions and limitations on centralized power. (Barcelona’s “Council of 100,” a group of 100 citizens from every rung of society, was one of the first democratic institutions in post-Roman Europe). This tendency has continued to the present day, with Catalonia typically voting for the left; and the region remains one of the wealthiest in the country. Castille (comprising the Western, inland half of the country), on the other hand, has a history of centralized rule and militarism; and many parts of Castille, then and now, are poor and agricultural.
This tension was dealt with, originally, by preserving the liberal institutions of Aragón—not only in Catalonia, but throughout the kingdom. (J.H. Elliot’s book, Imperial Spain, covers this subject and more with admirable clarity.) But Catalonians have a habit of backing the wrong horse when wars break out. This happened in the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), when the death of the last Hapsburg ruler, Charles II, without an heir (he was the feeble product of inbreeding) led to a fight for the Spanish crown. Full of anti-French sentiment due to the French occupation of Barcelona after the Franco-Spanish War (1635 – 1659), the Catalans rallied against the French Bourbon candidate to the throne. Unluckily for them, it was this candidate who eventually won the war and became Philip V.
Philip V was the grandson of Louis XIV of France—that famed “sun king” who brought about so much political centralization north of the Pyrenees. Philip V emulated his grandfather in this centralization, eliminating the Catalan institutions with his Nueva Planta decrees and replacing them with those of Castile. (He emulated his grandfather in another way, building his own version of Versailles in La Granja.) These decrees made Castilian Spanish the official language, thus limiting the use of Catalan. Clearly the new king had little scruples in curtailing the freedom of a people who had opposed his ascension to the throne. The same dynamic played out, three hundred years later, when Franco conquered Catalonia, forbade the use of Catalan, and eliminated the Generalitat (the name for Catalonia’s government).
In spite of this political oppression, Catalonia continued to be an economic powerhouse during Franco’s rule. As a result huge numbers of Spaniards from poorer regions, notably Andalucia and Estremadura, moved to Catalonia. This adds a touch of irony to the recent independence struggles, since many present-day Catalans are “first-generation,” so to speak, being descended from Spaniards.
Since the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, Catalonia has gained much of its previous autonomy. Now the Catalans have their own police force (Mossos d’Esquadra), their own parliament and president (in the aforementioned Generalitat), and control of their own educational system. The Catalan language is presently (along with Castilian, Basque, and Gallego) enshrined as one of the four national languages of Spain. It is the primary language of instruction in Catalan schools—a fact that bothers many Spaniards I’ve spoken to—and a major object of ethnic pride in the region (and thus not to be confused with Castilian Spanish!). This fact notwithstanding, Castilian is widely spoken and almost universally understood in Catalonia.
(It should be noted that Catalan is not only spoken in Catalonia. Many also speak the language in Valencia and in the Balearic Islands; but for political reasons they are called different named in these places. Nevertheless it is only in Catalonia where it is the primary language of instruction and where it is exerts such a powerful cultural force.)
Catalan is a Romance language with obvious similarities to its neighboring Romance languages, Castilian and French. But none of these are mutually intelligible. Knowing Spanish, in other words, will not allow you to fluently understand spoken Catalan. Both the pronunciation and the vocabulary of Catalan are strikingly different from Spanish; and consequently many Catalans speak Castilian with a marked accent. To get a taste for this difference, compare the Catalan beginning of the Lord’s Prayer (“Pare nostra, que esteu en el cel; sigui santificat el vostre nom; vingui a nosaltres el vostre Regne…”) with the Spanish version (“Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre, venga a nosotros tu Reino…”). With about ten million speakers—four million of them native, and many of them passionate—and a strong literary tradition, Catalan is in no danger of disappearing.
Languages, by their nature, are relatively closed systems; the difference in grammar and accent between neighboring languages prevent them from freely mixing, though individual words travel easily enough. (Languages are also more easily controlled by official bodies bent on keeping them “pure.”) But nothing prevents cultures from being so mixed. Thus while traveling from Valencia or Aragón into Catalonia there is not any especially noticeable cultural differences. It is not anything like, say, going from Spain to Portugal or to France; which makes me scratch my head when I see Catalonia described in English media as having “its own culture.” In my experience the cultural difference between, say, Madrid and Granada is far more striking than that between Madrid and Barcelona. To give just one example, typical Spanish foods, such as tortilla and paella, have made their way into Catalonia; and typical Catalan foods, such as butifarra, fuet, and toast with tomato, have become staples in Spain.
More generally, in terms of eating habits, dressing habits, and basic lifestyle I fail to see much of a difference between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. But some difference is certainly perceived within Spain and Catalonia. The stereotype in Spain, as far as I can make out, is that Catalans are more hardworking, stingy, and reserved than other Spaniards. I have not spent nearly enough time in Catalonia to give the Catalan side of the story.
More tangibly, Catalonia has several distinctive customs. Their most famous dance is the sardana, a bouncing circular style, accompanied by traditional oboes. More impressive, for me, is the tradition of Castell, which is the art of making giant human pyramids. I have unfortunately never seen it in person, but the pictures make it look incredible. (Click the links for videos.) Also worthy of note is the Catalan tradition on the Diada de Sant Jordi (Saint George’s Day, April 23), in which boys give girls a rose, and girls give boys a book.
I cannot write this post in good conscience without discussing the Catalan independence movement. Nevertheless I hesitate to, considering how divisive this issue is within Spain. Trump’s presidency is scarcely less controversial and absorbs hardly more media attention than the Catalan crisis does here.
Open displays of patriotism in Spain are quite rare, largely because of the nasty odor left by Franco’s nationalist regime. But in the wake of the Catalan referendum of October 1, 2017—which was not authorized by the Spanish government and which eventually led Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to declare independence—Spaniards started putting up flags on balconies and windows all over Madrid. Puigdemont’s declaration also provoked more decisive action from the Spanish government: article 155 of the Spanish constitution was triggered, which dismissed the Catalan government and led to direct rule from Madrid, until new elections were held in December. Puigdemont, meanwhile, fled into exile in Belgium.
But why was Puigdemont led into such precipitate action? Well, the roots of Catalan separatism extend far into the past. As we have seen, there were important institutional and cultural differences between Castile and Aragón; and these persisted long after their unification. We have also seen that the Spanish government has several times abolished Catalonia’s institutions and banned its language. But I do not think any reasonable visitor to Barcelona today would conclude that the Catalans are oppressed; indeed, they have regained their historic autonomy.
One persistent feature in Catalan separatism is a concern with taxes. Catalonia contributes more to the national government in taxes than it receives back in services. Catalans see this as a form of theft, and this is hardly a new complaint. As Gerald Brenan said in his 1943 book on the Spanish Civil War:
“We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live,” the Catalans would say. And they would go on to point out that, although their population was only one-eighth of that of Spain, they paid one-quarter of the State taxes and that only one-tenth of the total budget came back to their province. These were much the same complaints that their ancestors had expressed in 1640.
The Catalans may feel, in other words, that the lazy Spanish are stealing their hard-earned money; while the Spanish think that the Catalans are greedy and selfish. In any case, provided that the taxes contributed by Catalonia are not used for frivolous purposes, but are redistributed to the poorer regions of Spain, this tax deficit seems perfectly normal to me. All over the world rich regions pay more than they receive in services, in order to bolster up the poorer regions. Thus I have trouble seeing why this issue has been so bothersome to the Catalans. Further, I have difficulty believing something as dry as a tax deficit could be the true emotional driving factor in the independence movement.
Perhaps looking for a special cause is misguided, anyhow. For, as Gerald Brenan also pointed out: “The Catalan question is, to begin with, merely one rather special instance of the general problem of Spanish regionalism.” In the 1980s and 90s Spain had another separatism crisis: the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, which killed hundreds of people in their quest to achieve Basque independence. And regionalism is a major feature of Spanish culture more broadly. The English traveler Richard Ford perceived this as far back as the 1840s; and Spain’s leading philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, wrote a book about this very problem in 1922.
Nevertheless, it is true that Catalans have been especially proud of their independence. As evidence of this, Robert Hughes cites the medieval Catalan oath of allegiance to the Spanish crown:
We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are not better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.
It seems clear to me, especially after reading a collection of pro-independence writers, What’s Up with Catalonia?, that many Catalans want independence for its own sake—not for anything to do with taxes. Well, whatever the reason, the percentage of the population in favor of independence has been hovering somewhere around 50% in recent years. The pro-independence coalition which brought Puigdemont to power had a narrow majority; and though control of Parliament was retained after the most recent elections, their percentage of the votes fell to 47.5%.
In a time when Spain is relatively peaceful and Catalonia has a considerable amount of autonomy, why are millions of Catalans in favor of seceding from Spain? Separatism has a long history in Catalonia, but serious efforts for separatism only flare up once in a while. Why this should be so is an extremely complex question, of course; but I am inclined to agree with Joseph Stiglitz in blaming the European debt crisis.
The crisis of 2009 hit Spain hard, with economic contraction and unemployment comparable to the Great Depression; and it took a long time to even begin to recover from the shock. True, the situation has been improving recently, albeit slowly; but I think Tocqueville’s maxim applies here: “the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps towards reform.” In other words, when things are at their worst, as in a crisis, people are unlikely to try to change the political order; yet when the crisis abates somewhat, the memory of suffering lingers on and the disaffected regain the time and resources to point fingers. The economic suffering of the debt crisis is why, I think, so many Catalans have focused their energy on the tax imbalance.
While the Catalan independence movement can be seen more broadly as but one manifestation of regionalism within Spain, it is also but one manifestation of separatism in Europe. In a continent full of ethnic groups notoriously unable to get along, this is no surprise. The wealthy north of Italy might be the closest case to Catalonia, with the industrious inhabitants of Veneto and Lombardy resenting their support for the poorer south—though Scotland, Northern Ireland, Bavaria, and Flanders are also afflicted by this tendency.
It is difficult for me to envision how this separatism would play out. Should every ethnic group get its own polity? And if so, what qualifies as an ethnic group? These centrifugal forces, if successful, could divide Europe into a checkerboard of nations. Yet if Europe is to be competitive in the coming years, poised between the United States and China, it needs more integration, not less. Only as a continent working together will Europe have the clout to greatly influence world affairs. And I sincerely hope it does, considering how attractive the European way of life has proven.
But enough of these dreary political matters. Let us take a look inside this region, beginning with its capital city.
f“Wake me up when it’s time to go,” GF said. “And don’t bother me until then.”
She bundled up her jacket and her scarf, and laid down on the plastic airport seats to sleep. I was sitting nearby, reading my kindle. It was very early. Horribly early. We had a flight at 8:30; our boarding call was at 8:00, but we had already gotten through security by 6:20. We had a lot of time to kill.
Our destination was Mallorca. We weren’t going because either of us particularly wanted to go. Indeed, neither of us knew anything at all about Mallorca beforehand. We had booked the flights because they were cheap on Ryanair: €15 each way. With airfare that low, you’re crazy not to go, wherever it is. But the catch was that both flights, there and back, were so early in the morning that it was impossible to get to the airport with public transportation. Think about this next time you book a flight.
The long, early-morning hours between our arrival and our flight passed slowly and uneventfully, except for the loud, angry outburst of a passenger who was told that he bag was too big to carry-on, and he would have to pay to check it. Ryanair’s flight are cheap; but their fines and extra charges can be murderous.
Finally it was time for us to board. The plane was of medium size, big enough for 100 passengers. As befitting a budget airline, everything was bare and functional. The seats were plain rubber. There was no pouch on the seatbacks, there was no monitor to play a safety video, no nothing. But when you’re paying €15 a flight you can’t complain.
The plain taxied and took off right on time. Lucky for me, I had a window seat. It was a clear and sunny day, and the view of Madrid was incredible.
The last time I had seen this view, I was arriving here for the first time. I remember getting off the plane, feeling lost and confused. “What are we doing here?” we said to each other as we walked through the airport, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. Everything was so foreign then, so absolutely new and frightening
Now, far from foreign, the city and the landscape felt comfortingly familiar. It is amazing how fast we get used to things. Only a few months had sufficed to transform a mysterious place into a second home.
I could not get enough of the view. From the air, you get a real sense of how empty most of Spain is. The cities are all crowded together, leaving miles and miles of countryside totally empty, except for a few roads. This is partly why Spain is so picturesque: for a modern, industrialized country, it has retained much of its rural charm.
Another source of Spain’s natural beauty are its mountains. In minutes the plane was passing over the Madrid Sierra. This was the first time in my life that I was able to look down on the snow-covered peaks of a whole mountain range. I’d only ever seen such a thing in movies. I tried to read my book—James Michener’s excellent travelogue of Spain, Iberia—but the view kept pulling me back. I spent nearly the ride glued to the glass.
The flight would have been worth the money only for this experience, had not the constant crackling of the intercom been added to the mix. I suppose Ryanair has to make money somehow. They do it by barraging you with advertisements, for food, perfume, and lottery tickets, clumsily delivered from a script through the low-quality intercom system. The stewards on these flights are not stewards at all, but salespeople. Not five minutes passed without another sales pitch, in Spanish and mediocre English. I tried to block it out, but it was very distracting. Just when I began to feel very annoyed, however, we left the mainland and were flying over the sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean. A few minutes later we had landed in Palma de Mallorca.
Mallorca (or Majorca, in English) is the largest of the four main Balearic Islands, along with Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. Its name comes from Latin, meaning “larger island” (Menorca is the smaller one). With a population of 401,270, Palma is both the largest city on the islands and the capital of the whole autonomous region. As its Latin name suggests, these islands were long ago the stomping ground of Romans; and the city of Palma owes its origin to that ancient civilization.
By a lucky coincidence our Airbnb host’s wife was arriving at the airport at almost the same time as us, so he offered to give us a ride back to the apartment. We only had to wait half an hour. We walked through the sleek, commercial airport—one of the biggest in Spain—to sit on the benches in the sun outside.
As we passed through, I noticed that many of the signs were in another language, not Spanish and not French. This was Mallorquín, which is not really its own language but a dialect of Catalan. Or to be more politically correct, Catalan, Valenciana, and Mallorquín are all dialects of one another.
Languages have a political dimension here in Europe that is hard for an American to appreciate. By the time I was born, most of the native languages of North America had been ruthlessly marginalized or crushed. But in Europe the languages stretch back centuries and they are symbols of identity. The results of this are a lot of squabbles about what constitutes a proper language or only a dialect, with serious implications for the cultural autonomy of the area in question. Thus people from Valencia call their language Valenciana, people from Catalonia call it Catalan, and people from Mallorca call it Mallorquín, even though they differe only by few words and an accent.
Another advertisement caught my attention. It said something like: “There are lots of cold Norwegians looking to buy a home. Sell with us!” This was a service specifically geared to helping native Spaniards sell their property to Scandinavians. This is another distinct thing about Mallorca: it is like the Florida of Europe. Legions of northern Europeans—Germans and Brits, mainly—sick of their cold climates, move down here once they get old, in order to soak up some sun in their sunset years.
Palma de Mallorca is simply crawling with Germans—in the airport, on the streets, on the train, in the restaurants. (Germans have a joke that Mallorca is the seventeenth state of Germany. “We should just annex it,” one German said to me. “Well, actually it’s kind of a good deal for us. Spain pays for the infrastructure, and we get to live there.”)
Soon we had dropped off our bags and were out on the street. As is our habit, we wanted to see the cathedral first, but we took a detour to walk along the seaside to get there.
It was a marvelously sunny day. The great ocean was a shimmering pool of light. A solitary sailboat swayed in the distance; and if I squinted the scene could have been a painting by Sorolla. A bike path ran along the sidewalk, and every so often a couple of German cyclists would go by—all with white hair—chatting amongst themselves. I could well understand why the Germans moved here.
We picked an excellent angle from which to approach the cathedral. This one of the classic views of Mallorca. As you walk in from the shore you pass through the Parc de la Mar, a lovely park with large pools of crystalline water and fountains spraying aquamarine jets into the air. The sandy-shaded surface of the cathedral seems to rise out of the water, more like a tropical cliff than a medieval church.
An audioguide was included in our visit to the cathedral, and it was one of the best I’ve used. It had a big screen so that it could display a photo of your next destination. This removes some of the confusion of other audioguides.
The cathedral itself is known, or so I’m told, as the “Cathedral of Light” and the “Cathedral of Space.” These appellations are well-deserved. Unusually, there are rose windows on both sides of the building; and the bigger of these is the largest gothic rose window in the world (13 meters in diameter, and thus about 100 square meters in area). The result is a lot of light.
The cathedral is also voluminous. Among the tallest gothic cathedrals ever built (with the eighth tallest nave in the world, at 44 meters), it stands taller than the massive Cathedral of Seville, and contains 160,000 cubic meters within its walls. And because the cathedral has no central choir (Antoni Gaudí decided to remove it while he was working on the cathedral), the interior feels far more expansive than most gothic cathedrals.
Gaudí was also responsible for the baldachin, which bears the stamp of his originality. A heptagonal ring hangs from the ceiling; on top are wheat and grape plants (I don’t know how they were made), symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. Gaudí may have been planning something more elaborate, but he quit midway through the project (an embarassing fact that I believe the audioguide neglected to mention).
To the right of the main altar is a really daring piece of modern art done by Miquel Barceló. It is a giant clay sculpture that wraps around a semi-circular space. On the surface, molded into the clay, are representations of Jesus, the fish, the loaves, skulls, and other episodes from the Gospels. The style is both gruesome and abstract. It is hard for me to imagine anyone praying at a chapel like this, since the tone is so dark and brooding and the style so idiosyncratic. But judged on its own merits I thought it was an excellent work, if a bit excessive.
Our next stop was far off: the Bellver Castle (in Mallorquín, the Castell de Bellver). The castle sitting on a big hill overlooking the whole city, about a mile from the center. In this respect the castle is like the Gibralfaro Castle in Málaga.
After some mucking about (a friendly British resident of the island helped us out), we arrived in the park that led up to the castle. We were faced with stairs. Lots of stairs. We took it slow, not wanting to tire ourselves out—we are two unfit Americans, you understand—but even so, we had to stop and rest. Every time we turned a corner we were faced with yet another stairwell.
The Bellver Castle was built in the 14th century by James II of Mallorca. It is one of the few circular castles in Europe. Seen from above, the castle looks like four concentric circles: the outer wall, the moat, the inner wall, and the central courtyard. Apparently, the castle successfully withstood two sieges, in 1343 and 1391, but was captured in 1521.
When we arrived the place was swarming with people. There is a road that leads straight up the hill to the castle, which allows travel companies to dump busload after busload of tourists into the castle for guided tours. Nearly all of them were Spaniards over 50, which I found interesting. Where were all the Germans and Brits?
The castle itself was lovely—though, like all defensive structures, it was not especially beautiful. If it were only us two, I don’t think it would have taken more than half an hour to explore everything. But every time we wanted to ascend a stairwell, turn a corner, or enter a room, we inevitably had to wait for a parade of tourists to shuffle out, single-file, their coats hanging from their arms, brochures gripped in their hands, chatting happily amongst themselves.
The castle has two floors and a roof. Every room in the place opens up on the central, circular courtyard. These rooms are crammed with artifacts in display cases. This is the Museum of the City of Palma. Unfortunately, all of the information was written in Mallorquín, so I couldn’t understand anything. I’m sure it was interesting; many of the artifacts looked quite old, indeed ancient.
The best part of the visit was the view from the roof. From here you can see the whole city stretched out before you, and then the ocean beyond; and behind, you can see the green mountains of Tramontana. There is nothing like standing on a castle on a hill, looking out for miles on the surroundings. If you’re imaginative enough, and my imagination is typically overactive, you can easily feel like a king.
We left and found a bus to the city center. By now, we were pooped. After eating in a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant, we went back to the apartment and went to sleep.
We only had one thing planned for the following day: the Ferrocarril de Sóller, or the Sóller Railway. This is an old train line that runs between Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and Sóller, a small tourist town on the other side of the island.
The train between the two places is not only a mode of transportation, but an attraction in itself. The history of the railway goes back to 1911 and the original wooden train cars are still in use. Not only that, but the hour-long ride allows you to see some of Mallorca’s natural beauty.
We got a quick breakfast and walked to the station. Once there we found out that round-trip tickets are €21 and that you have to pay in cash. There was also an option to buy a combined ticket, for €30, that included a round-trip ride on the tram to the port. But we were trying to be as cheap as possible, so we only bought the train tickets. As you will see, this was a big mistake.
Soon we were on board and the old thing was creaking into motion. The train moved at a leisurely pace out of the city. The tracks underneath made that satisfying double clacking as we slowly accelerated.
We passed buildings covered in graffiti, overgrown fields and broken-down factories. We went under an overpass, the tracks running parallel to a highway. Cars zipped by, going much faster then we were, and two bicyclists in bright colors traveled alongside us. Then we passed a gas station and turned right into a field of olive trees.
Now the ride became really scenic. We were out of the city and away from the roads, surrounded on all sides by green countryside. The squat, twisted forms of olive trees, arranged into neat rows, filled a flat valley. Nearby were the farm houses, with their roofs of red tile. Beyond, the mountains, stony and jagged.
We went through a tunnel, the clack-clacking of the train echoing into a frightful jumble of noise. On other other side we saw a huge valley surrounded by mountains. In the middle of this valley was a little town, its white buildings and tile roofs shinning in the sunlight, its church spire looking tiny in the gaping space. This was Sóller.
By the time we arrived we were ravenous, so we found a place to eat in the main square. The menu was in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. It was a sunny day, so we sat outside, which also gave us the chance to enjoy the town. Sóller is quite a pretty place, though most people seem to pass through on their way to the port.
This is what the famous tram is for. The tram is one of the only first-generation trams in Spain still in use. Like the train, it is an cute, old, wooden thing that crawls along at the pace of a leisurely bike-ride. We watched it go by as we ate, and it was so picturesque that both of us regretted not buying tram tickets.
But when we paid for lunch, I asked the man at the bar if it was possible to walk to the coast, and he said yes, it isn’t a bad walk at all. We decided to try. We only had two hours until the last train from Sóller would go back to Palma, and according to our phones the walk to the port was one hour. This meant we would have to turn around as soon as we got there. But we didn’t have anything else to do, so what the heck?
Soon we were outside Sóller walking along a highway. Though it was February, the hot Mediterranean sun made it warm enough for t-shirts. Behind us we could see the craggy cliffs of Mallorca forming giant a semicircle around us. To our right and left were fields of lemon and orange trees. Every color was intensified in the intense sunlight.
We walked and walked, and I felt good to be using my legs on such a lovely day. And just as I began to forget about where we were going or how far we had gone, we arrived.
The whole landscape opened up and revealed a bay full of bright blue water. It was a natural port: two long peninsulas enclosing a circular area of water, with only a narrow opening to the ocean. On either side of the port’s mouth stood a white lighthouse. The place was a German tourist’s dream, filled with restaurant after restaurant, each with outdoor seats that faced the water. It reminded me of Robert Hughe’s comment on Mediterranean tourism, that it has been reduced to “endless kitsch, infinitely prolonged.” Though, to be fair, it was exceedingly delightful kitsch.
With the time we had, there wasn’t anything to do except enjoy the view. We walked along the port, passing restaurant after restaurant, going nowhere in particular.
My mind wandered until I chanced to see a small white cat. It was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. As I got closer the cat tensed its body and began to climb the railing that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I always forget what amazing acrobats cats are. With nothing but smooth, slippery metal bars to hold onto, the cat climbed to the top of the railing and balanced there like a gymnast on a balance beam. Then, it coiled its body and sprang five feet through the air to a boat that was sitting on the sand nearby. With its claws it gripped the canvas covering, steadied itself, it carefully climbed underneath into the boat. I wonder how many cats make their home this way in boats during the off season.
Shaking myself from this reverie, I checked the time. We had to go. Actually we were already late. We had to get back to Sóller as fast as possible or we would miss the last train back to Palma. Now the slog began.
We turned around and began power walking back to the town. No more enjoying the scenery, no more relaxing; just footsteps on concrete sidewalks and worried conversations about taking wrong turns. I did my best not to think about what would happen if we missed the train; but I couldn’t help it. Would we have to take a cab to Palma? How much would that cost? Would we miss our flight back the next morning?
After a distressingly long stretch of highway we made it back to the town; and from there it was only a few minutes to the train station. We made good time. We still had five minutes to spare. Tired but elated, we got onto the train and slumped into the seats. The train creaked into motion, and once again we were treated to the Mallorcan countryside.
If you take the train to Sóller, do yourself a favor and buy the tram ticket, too.
We were totally wiped out by the time we got back. We only had energy to eat dinner and sleep. Our flight was even earlier this time around: 6:20 in the morning, which meant we had to wake up at 4:00.
The next morning, disoriented, bleary, but full of nervous energy, I was once again sitting in the plastic waiting chars of our flight gate, with GF asleep nearby. Once again, I was reading Michener’s travel book about Spain; and once again, I was thinking about how great this country is. And you know something is great when it gives you warm fuzzy feelings at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Our long delicious winter vacation was coming to a close, but we still had one weekend left. Originally, we planned to stay home and relax; but traveling so much had gotten us addicted. After returning from Ávila, we hastily arranged and booked a trip to Valencia to savor the last gasp of our holiday.
Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. It is situated on the Eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula (a three hour drive from Madrid); and its port has long been, and remains, one of the busiest on the Mediterranean. The city has a deep history; Romans have been mucking around here since well before Christ. The city, as well as the surrounding province, even has its variant of the Catalan language: Valenciano. This language is not just spoken by the people, but it’s officially used; streets are called carrer and not calle here, which confused as we tried to look up the address of our Airbnb.
Our Blablacar driver was a native of that city, and spoke with their characteristic accent. Our fellow passenger was a gato, literally a “cat,” which is the slang term for people whose parents are both from Madrid. This is a lot less common than you might think; most people, if they didn’t themselves move into the city, have at least one parent who did.
Both of them were swell fellows. I tried keeping up with their conversation, but a question I asked inadvertently led them into a deep, energetic political discussion. This was just after the election in Spain, and obviously both of them had a lot to say on the subject. It’s interesting to me how much Spaniards enjoy talking about politics, even among people they hardly know. Americans usually avoid political discussions at all cost, even (or perhaps especially) among family. But these two guys, who had just met, seemed to be having a very deep conversation on the subject.
I wish I understood them. The political situation now in Spain (this was back in early 2016) strikes me as similar in certain respects to that in the States. Particularly, there seems to be a widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment, and this dissatisfaction expressed itself in the formation of two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos—something that is unsual for Spain, which has been a two-state country since the establishment of democracy. In the States, this anti-establishment ethos is expressing itself as new candidates rather than new parties, which I think is a consequence of our political system, but I believe the dissatisfaction is the same.
We got to Valencia at around dinner time (for Americans), checked in to our Airbnb—with another welcoming host and another comfortable apartment—and went out to eat. Although we’d only been in the car for three hours, it was about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer here. We went from winter jackets, scarves, and hats to light sweaters. It was even warm enough to eat outside, underneath a fruit tree laden with the famous Valencian oranges. Partially because of its mountainous terrain, Spain is a land of striking climatic contrasts. Still, it’s hard for me to get used to it. All these climatic zones seem jammed next to one another. In the States, we keep our hot and cold zones far apart.
We woke up the next day ready to experience Valencia. As per our usual routine, we visited the cathedral first. But on the walk there, we couldn’t help noticing the graffiti on the walls. Much of it was the usual stuff, but some of it was really excellent. There were abstract pictures of colored squares, detailed images of batman, and several grotesqueries I can’t adequately describe. Most interesting, though, was the image of a ninja that was painted all over the city, on walls, parking machines, in entrances to stores. I couldn’t help thinking that this ninja had some mysterious significance, that it had been drawn by some shadowy organization as a sign, or perhaps as a clue—but to what?
But perhaps the conspiratorial part of my brain was overactive from seeing the spray-painted slogans of anarchists all over the city. “No king, No God, No Owner. Revolution,” they said, under the symbol of anarchy: an “A” inscribed in a circle.
We got to the cathedral. I have to admit that my memories of this cathedral are pretty hazy; after a while, all cathedrals start blending into one another. The façade was the most pretty and distinctive part. At one entrance, the door is connected to a round wall with three levels; it looks like a section from a Roman amphitheater was just stuck on the side.
Outside the cathedral, in the surrounding plaza, high school boys were skateboarding, a fact that GF found particularly amusing.
“Can you imagine just skateboarding in front of something like this?” she said. “Europe is crazy, man.”
We went inside. Skipping the descriptions of the usual beautiful stuff—the altar, the stained glass windows, and so on—I’ll only mention that the Valencia Cathedral holds the best candidate for the true Holy Grail. Of course, there are many other chalices in Europe which are claimed to be this blessed object, but the opinion of most Christian thinkers and historians is apparently that this one in Valencia is most likely to be the real deal. It’s displayed in one of the cathedral’s chapels, somewhat external to the main area.
I sat in a pew for some minutes looking at it, without having any idea what it was supposed to be. All I saw was a shining gold object, nothing more. It was only after we left and GF looked up the cathedral on her phone that we found out. As often happens, admission came with audioguides; but lately, to practice Spanish, we have been asking for these to be set in Castellano. A consequence of this is that the majority of the time we have no idea what we’re looking at.
Next was the Torre de Serranos, an old fortified gate at the north end of town. Valencia used to be completely surrounded by walls (as were most major cities), but now only a few gates remain. What surprised me most was its height. Compared to the gates of Ávila, this one was absolutely massive. The visit was quick: Pay the fee, climb some stairs, and enjoy the view of Valencia. Perhaps since we’d just visited the castle walls in Ávila a few days before, standing on this tower wasn’t especially engaging. But the view is certainly nice. Valencia, like Madrid, is an interesting mixture of modernity and history. For the most part, it looks like any city in the twenty-first century, with concrete and glass buildings, except for the odd medieval tower popping up here and there.
We descended. It was lunch time now, and we knew what we had to eat: Valencian paella. That most famous of Spanish dishes, paella, originated in this city. Paella is often made with seafood—prawns and oysters and so forth—but, as I was informed by my Valencian Spanish teacher, “paella” with seafood is not true paella at all. To be traditional, it has to made with chicken, rabbit, and vegetables. So that’s what we would eat.
(The Spanish can be very finicky with their food; indeed, they are more puritanical than the Inquisition when it comes to paella. Thus the British chef, Jamie Oliver, got into trouble when he posted a photo of paella he made with chorizo. For whatever reason, this is blasphemous in Spain, and Oliver is dragged over the coals by Spaniards on social media. Ironically, however, according to this article, historically chorizo was used in paella. Personally I like it that way.)
Lucky for us, we usually get hungry for lunch a whole hour before most Spaniards, so we had no trouble getting a seat at a good restaurant. In fact, we were the only two people sitting outside. (As our Airbnb host explained to us, the Valencians have a different view of hot and cold; what was a beautiful day for us was a bit chilly for them.) The food was prompt, the waiter friendly, and the paella delicious.
Stomachs full, we went back towards the Torre de Serranos, and then to the Jardines del Real. The name (Royal Gardens) comes from the royal palace of the erstwhile kings of Valencia that used to occupy the area. The palace was demolished in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars in order to prevent the French from occupying it—a move that had no military justification whatsoever, and was partly motivated by bourgeois resentment of kingly privilege.
But I didn’t know that at the time. All I remembered from my conversation with our Airbnb host was that he said the word “palacio” when he recommended it, which led me to believe that there was still a palace to visit.
“Where’s this damn palace?” I said to GF.
“I thought there was supposed to be a palace here.”
We went from one end of the gardens to the other.
“Maybe it’s outside the gardens?” I said. “Think it’s that thing?” I pointed to a tall building.
We walked over to the building and looked up. It was a bank.
“Where is it?”
“Just forget it,” GF said. “Let’s go back to the gardens.”
At least the gardens were lovely. Most memorable was a big bird cage in the center, filled with a dozen or so different species of bird, including one lonely rooster. I thought it curious that all the birds congregated in their own corner with their own species.
We sat in a bench for a few minutes to enjoy the Valencian sun. The weather was perfect, though I was having some trouble appreciating it owing to my bitterness from failing to find that damned palace.
Next we went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, also recommended by our Airbnb host. In turn, I’d like to recommend this museum to you, for it was excellent. It’s free to enter; and the collection, though small, is tasteful and impressive. The art is arranged chronologically, with the oldest works near the entrance on the first floor and the most recent by the exit on the second. I enjoyed the older paintings the most. There’ is something about Medieval art, a certain simple tenderness, almost naïveté, that I find especially moving. No attempt is made at realism. The often disproportionate figures, with heads and bodies turned at unnatural angles, stand in an flat space with a gold background.
What’s more, the scenes depicted are often bizarre. One typical example is a portrait of Luke the Evangelist seated before the Virgin, writing his Gospel. The only reason you can tell it’s Luke (the faces are hardly individualized) is because there is a little, tiny bull, the symbol of Luke, pointing with his hoof at the page; the bull even has a halo. Apparently, to the Medieval mind this was not at all strange.
Upstairs there was some masterful Renaissance paintings, including one by El Greco and Velazquez. The difference between the gothic and the Renaissance era paintings is stark. Faces are individualized, bodies are solid, shadow is used to create a sense of space, and perspective transforms the two-dimensional flatland into a three-dimensional world. Medieval paintings are symbols, whereas these are representations. What happened to the European mind to create this huge shift?
We had seen nearly everything in an hour or so, and decided to leave. On our walk out, I noticed a painting of Jesus pouring blood out of the wound into a golden bowl, from which two lambs were drinking. Now, I’ve seen morbid Catholic art before, but this gives me goosebumps.
By the time we walked outside, the sun was setting. We decided that we’d walk down the Jardín del Turia. This is a long park that runs through the center of Valencia. It sits built in a riverbed of the river Turia. Like many major cities, such as Zaragoza and Seville, Valencia grew up along the banks of a river. But unlike those cities, Valencia’s river no longer exists. It was diverted from its course after it flooded in 1957, causing major damage to Valencia. Now the riverbed is home to a park, and quite a pretty one.
It winds its riverine way through town, below street-level, filled with trees, gardens, and ponds. Bridges transport cars and pedestrians overhead. The park was beautiful, but quite long—or at least we thought so, having by now been walking all day. We walked and walked, our feet sore, hoping to get to the end of the park so we could see the sunset on the beach. But we didn’t have enough time, or else underestimated the distance, and the sun had almost totally set before we reached the end.
This didn’t matter so much, for the park was nice enough. Garden after garden went by; palm trees swayed gently above. Pedestrians crowded the sidewalk; kids were skateboarding; adults were bicycling. Eventually we walked through a gate and into a gigantic playground. It must be the biggest playground I’ve ever seen. Instead of a jungle-gym, swings, a slide, or any of that, there was a massive plastic statue of Gulliver, tied down to the ground by the Lilliputians. His body was the playground; kids slid down his stomach, climbed up his cheeks, jumped on his belly button.
There’s something almost sacred about playgrounds. It’s a space that the community devotes purely to enjoyment. Kids from all backgrounds, rich and poor, natives or immigrants, are equal (or nearly so) in this plastic wonderland. They are happy just to run around and feel their legs, to shout and hear their voice. Only the severest misanthrope could remain cold at the sight.
Now it was dark; the day was over. Completely exhausted by now, we walked back to our apartment, had dinner at a burger place, and slept. We still had another half-day in Valencia.
Our first and only stop for Sunday was the Oceanographic, the largest aquarium in Europe. (TripAdvisor ranks it as the fourth best aquarium in the world; the best is in Lisbon.) It sits at the end of the Jardín del Turia, one of the buildings in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of museums, galleries, and other high-minded institutions.
This complex is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Valencia, and for good reason. Here, the Spaniards’ flair for modern architecture is on full display. Every building is given a futuristic design, looking like sea shells, tulip bulbs, shark fins, and other shapes too difficult to describe. The buildings are sleek and shiny, covered in reflective glass and girded with bands of metal. There is a planetarium, a science museum, a theater, and of course the oceanographic—which was designed to have the layout of a water lily.
The only bad part of our visit was paying the entrance fee, which was surprisingly steep. I suppose it costs a lot to maintain all these animals. It hurt to fork over the money, but in retrospect it was well worth it.
Our tickets came with a dolphin show; and the next one was starting almost immediately. We headed to the dolphin theater and found seats, high up so we didn’t get splashed. The show began, and immediately became very cheesy. Dance music started playing, and the announcer’s tone and manner were so exaggerated it felt like a WWE commercial.
The show began. It was exactly what I expected. Dolphins flipped, jumped, did backflips, swam backwards, and then towed around their trainers in the water like little speed boats. Simply for their physical ability, dolphins are impressive animals. Imagine how much force it takes to accelerate a dolphin fast enough to shoot straight out of the water to snatch a fish dangling from a fifteen foot ladder. Their whole body must be one giant muscle.
Two things bothered me as I watched the show. First, I had just re-watched the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a pretty mediocre adaptation, but which does start with a musical version of “So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish,” and now I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then, I remembered this quote from the book:
For instance, on the planet earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars, and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was to muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.
Second, I kept thinking that there was something morally questionable about the whole affair. As evinced by the show, dolphins are smart—very smart. Consider this: A dolphin can watch a human spin around on land, and then translate that movement to its own quite different body in the water. Monkey see, monkey do is not a sign of stupidity, but of intelligence. Imitation is a sophisticated cognitive task. And dolphins are not only smart, but highly social; like dogs and humans, they live in groups with their own hierarchies.
What’s the morality of keeping a creature like this in an aquarium? Do they get bored swimming around their pools? Do they get listless and depressed being isolated from the ocean? Does the loud music and the applause of the show bother them? I don’t know. The strongest argument I know in favor of keeping intelligent mammals in zoos is utilitarian: Yes, maybe they’re less happy here, but they’re safe; and besides, the publicity and good-feeling generated from zoos and aquariums makes people more likely to donate to charities and to set up nature reserves. So maybe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And perhaps the dolphins enjoy the exercise of performing and the bonds with their trainers? Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this show was questionable.
This led me to a deeper question: What is intelligence, anyway? How do you define it? Is it a measure of the complexity of tasks the brain can perform? Yet spider webs are enormously complex, yet we don’t think of spiders as intelligent. A spider does not need to be a chemical genius to synthesize silk. Perhaps intelligence is the ability to learn? This seems like a better definition. Humans, the smartest of animals (we think), are also the most adaptable; we can learn to make new technology, and then use this technology to live in new environments. Chimps can learn to use tools and even to use sign language; dolphins can be trained to perform like this.
The show ended, and we left to see the rest. The aquarium is divided into ten sections, each one a different natural habitat. Here are some of the highlights
One of the tanks was for the seals. They are lovely creatures, so dog-like that you can imagine keeping one in your backyard pool. As I looked at the seals, though, the same pang of unease shot through me as when I saw the dolphin show. They must be bored swimming around that cage all day and all night long. And having people point and gawk can’t be pleasant. Case in point, a little girl next to me began throwing a yellow toy—one of those minions from that Pixar movie—up and down, and a curious seal on the other side of the glass began following it. The seal even tried to snap at the toy, like it was a fish; though of course his teeth just bounced off the glass. The kid’s parents thought this was cute and neat, and I admit it was kind of cute. But it also seemed a bit cruel, adding insult to injury.
Of course, there were lots of fish. I like looking at fish, but not especially. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a fish? Nothing seems to look back at you. The same goes for birds, for the most part. In one section, under a big netted area which I believe was the wetland habitat, were lots of birds standing about. They were very pretty; but if I spend too much time looking at one I get unsettled. I try imagining what’s going on in their brain, and get nothing.
Also in abundance were lots of strange sea creatures. There were sea horses, those surreal beauties that look like fantasy intruding upon reality. Jellyfish also give me this impression, floating in their tank like plastic wrap, lit up like neon signs against the black background. How bizarre is it that something like this—something I can literally see through—can be alive?
In one cage were two spider crabs. I could hardly believe my eyes, they were so big. And according to the audioguide, they weren’t even fully grown. The two crabs leisurely made their way across the bottom, their thin, spindly legs—perhaps three feet long—supporting their armored body. Their shell must be tough; it seems such a slow-moving, easily visible animal would make easy prey. Less mobile animals also occupied the tanks, star fish and anemones. I find anemones particularly fascinating, since they as immobile as plants but are just as animal as you and me.
More impressive than the individual tanks were the tunnels. The Valencia Oceanographic boasts not one but two display tunnels, through which visitors can walk, surrounded on all sides by ocean creatures. The first tunnel was the more modest, consisting mostly of fish. There was, however, a beautiful bright green monstrous eel, swimming about in one corner. It opened and closed its mouth repeatedly, giving me a close up glimpse of its impressive row of teeth. The audioguide explained that the eel did this to breath better, not as a threat; but I still felt intimidated.
The second tunnel was many times more impressive. This was the deep ocean. It was filled with sharks of all kinds, with long, saw-like snouts, with flattened bodies, and of course the classical, recognizable form, an aquatic death machine swimming above your head. I don’t know anything about sharks except that they are terrifying and strangely beautiful. Also present were sting rays, looking angelic as they glided through the water, flapping their wings.
This brings me to a question: Why don’t the sharks in these tanks eat the fish? Why don’t the big fish eat the little ones? Are aquarium keepers just good at grouping animals in the right way? Or do they keep them well-fed, thus suppressing their instinct to hunt? There must be some art or science to it, since I’ve not once seen a shark even attempt a nibble. And I find this impressive, because if I was a big, mean shark floating around a tank all day with a slow, juicy fish, eventually my self-control would fail me.
As great as this shark-tunnel was, the most impressive section of the aquarium was the arctic region. It was there I saw the first living walrus I’ve ever seen—two of them. For such fat, fleshy creatures, they’re astonishingly graceful in the water, like mustachioed ballerinas. Even more astonishing were the belugas. These white whales are midway in size between dolphins and orcas—which means they’re quite large, dwarfing even the walruses. They’re cute, too, seeming to have a constantly inquisitive smile on their faces.
The chubbiness of both animals, walrus and beluga, is visible evidence of the harsh, freezing environment they’ve adapted to. It boggles my mind that these two huge creatures, which doubtless require enormous amounts of food to survive, have managed to arise in such an apparently barren environment. Natural selection works wonders.
Now, we were done. We had a Blablacar to catch. We ate some overpriced food from one of the aquarium cafes, and scrammed.
I can’t end this post without a description of our ride back to Madrid. We traveled with three others—the driver and two of his friends. All of them were Spaniards. The driver spoke excellent English. He had learned English from serving in Eurocorps, where he used English to communicate with his fellow soldiers from Poland. As a consequence, he spoke with an absurd and hilarious Polish accent, even using Eastern European mannerisms.
“Yes, yes, you speak English, very good!” he yelled back at us, as we spoke with one of his friends. “You make friends! A’right!”
This friend of his, who sat in the back with us for the ride, was a professional bodybuilder. The poor guy had to constantly be on a special diet, which I think gave him a food obsession. He couldn’t stop talking about how he wanted to go to Chicago to try the deep dish pizza.
“Oh my God!” he said, showing us a picture of the pizza on his phone. “Can you believe this? We have to go!”
“Oh, you like pizza?”
“Like pizza? I love it!”
“Have you ever been to New York?”
“Yes, it was magical. And there I had the best pizza of my life. It was from Dominoes. Amazing!”
The poor man.
Now our vacation really was over. Next morning, we would have to drag ourselves back to work, after not working for three whole weeks. It was an awful shock. But in the meantime, we had visited nine fantastic Spanish cities. I’ve never had a better break.
On the left back of the Seine, in an old Beaux-Arts train station, is one of Europe’s great museums: the Musée d’Orsay. Its collection mainly focuses on French art from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. This was a fertile time for Paris, as the museum amply demonstrates. Rarely can you find so many masterpieces collected in one place.
The museum is arranged with exquisite taste. In the middle runs a corridor, filled with statues—of human forms, mostly. They dash, reach, dance, strain, twist, lounge, smile, laugh, gasp, grimace.
On either side of this central corridor are the painting galleries, arranged by style and period. There were naturalistic paintings—with a vanishing perspective, careful shadowing, precise brushstrokes, scientifically accurate anatomy, symmetrical compositions. There were the impressionists—a blur of color and light, creamy clouds of paint, glances of everyday life. There was Cézanne, whose precise simplifications of shape and shade lend his painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire a calm, detached beauty. Then there were the pointillists, Seurat and Signac, who attempted to break the world into pieces and then to build it back up using only dabs of color, arranged with a mixture of science and art.
Greatest of all was van Gogh, whose violent, wavy lines, his bright, simple colors, his oil paint smeared in thick daubs onto the canvas, make his paintings slither and dance. It is simply amazing to me that something as static as a painting can be made be so energetic. Van Gogh’s paintings don’t stand still under your gaze, but move, vibrate, even breathe. It is uncanny.
His self portrait is the most emotionally affecting painting I have ever seen. Wearing a blue suit, he sits in a neutral blue space. His presence warps the atmosphere: the air seems to be curling around him, as if in a torrent. The only colors that break the blur of blue are his flaming red beard and his piercing green eyes. He looks directly at the viewer, with an expression impossible to define. At first glance he appears anxious, perhaps shy; but the more you look, the more he appears calm and confident. You get absolutely lost in his eyes, falling into them, as you are absorbed into ever more complicated subtleties of emotion concealed therein. Suddenly you realize that curling waves of air around him are not mere background, but represent his inner turmoil. Yet is it a turmoil? Perhaps it is a serenity too complicated for us to understand?
I looked and looked, and soon the experience became overwhelming. I felt as if he were looking right through me, while I pathetically tried to understand the depths of his mind. But the more I probed, the more lost I felt, the more I felt myself being subsumed into his world. The experience was so overpowering that my knees began to shake.
Consider this reaction of mine. Now imagine if a curious extraterrestrial, studying human behavior, visited an art museum. What would he make of it?
On its face, the practice of visiting art museums is absurd. We pay good money to gain entrance to a big building, so we can spend time crowding around brightly colored squares that are not obviously more interesting than any other object in the room. Indeed, I suspect an alien would find almost anything on earth—our plant and animal life, our minerals, our technology—more interesting than a painting.
In this essay I want to try to answer this question: Why do humans make and appreciate art? For this is the question that so irresistibly posed itself to me after I stared into van Gogh’s portrait. The rest of my time walking around the Musée d’Orsay, feeling lost among so many masterpieces, I pondered how a colorful canvas could so radically alter my mental state. By the end of my visit, the beginnings of an answer had occurred to me—an answer hardly original, being deeply indebted to Walter Pater, Marcel Proust, and Robert Hughes, among others—and it is this answer that I attempt to develop here.
My answer, in short, is that the alien would be confused because human art caters to a human need—specifically, an adult human need. This is the need to cure ennui.
Boredom hangs over human life like a specter, so pernicious because it cannot be grasped or seen.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss knew this very well. As a young man he ejoyed mountain scenes, because “instead of submitting passively to my gaze” the mountains “invited me into a conversation, as it were, in which we both had to give our best.” But as he got older, his pleasure in mountain scenery left him:
And yet I have to admit that, although I do not feel that I myself have changed, my love for the mountains is draining away from me like a wave running backward down the sand. My thoughts are unchanged, but the mountains have taken leave of me. Their unchanging joys mean less and less to me, so long and so intently have I sought them out. Surprise itself has become familiar to me as I follow my oft-trodden routes. When I climb, it is not among bracken and rock-face, but among the phantoms of my memories.
Dostoyevsky put the phenomenon more succintly: “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”
These two literary snippets have stuck with me because they encapsulate the same thing: the ceaseless struggle against the deadening weight of routine. Nothing is new twice. Walk through a park you found charming at first, the second time around it will be simply nice, and the third time just normal.
The problem is human adaptability. Unlike most animals, we humans are generalists, able to adapt our behavior to many different environments. Instead of being guided by rigid instincts, we form habits.
By “habits” I do not only refer to things like biting your nails or eating pancakes for breakfast. Rather, I mean all of the routine actions performed by every person in a society. Culture itself can, at least in part, be thought of as a collection of shared habits. These routines and customs are what allow us to live in harmony with our environments and one another. Our habits form a second nature, a learned instinct, that allows us to focus our attention on more pressing matters. If, for whatever reason, we were incapable of forming habits, we would be in a sorry state indeed, as William James pointed out in his book on psychology:
There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volutional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.
Habits are, thus, necessary to human life. And up to a certain point, they are desirable and good. But there is also a danger in habitual response.
Making the same commute, passing the same streets and alleys, spending time with the same friends, watching the same shows, doing the same work, living in the same house, day after day after day, can ingrain a routine in us so deeply that we become dehumanized.
A habit is supposed to free our mind for more interesting matters. But we can also form habits of seeing, feeling, tasting, even of thinking, that are stultifying rather than freeing. The creeping power of routine, pervading our lives, can be difficult to detect, precisely because its essence is familiarity.
One of the most pernicious effects of routine is to dissociate us from our senses. Let me give a concrete example. A walk through New York City will inevitably present you with a chaos of sensory data. You can overhear conversations, many of them fantastically strange; you can see an entire zoo of people, from every corner of the globe, dressed in every fashion; you can look at the ways that the sunlight moves across the skyscrapers, the play of light and shadow; you can hear dog barks, car horns, construction, alarms, sirens, kids crying, adults arguing; you can smell bread baking, chicken frying, hot garbage, stale urine, and other scents too that are more safely left uninvestigated.
And yet, after working in NYC for a few months, making the same commute every day, I was able to block it out completely. I walked through the city without noticing or savoring anything. My lunch went unappreciated; my coffee was drunk unenjoyed; the changing seasons went unremarked; the fashion choices of my fellow commuters went unnoticed.
It isn’t that I stopped seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, but that my attitude to this information had changed. I was paying attention to my senses only insofar as they provided me with useful information: the location of a pedestrian, an oncoming car, an unsanitary area. In other words, my attitude to my sensations had become purely instrumental: attending to their qualities only insofar as they were relevant to my immediate goals.
This exemplifies what I mean by ennui. It is not boredom of the temporary sort, such as when waiting on a long line. It is boredom as a spiritual malady. When beset by ennui we are not bored by a particular situation, but by any situation. And this condition is caused, I think, by a certain attitude toward our senses. When afflicted by ennui, we stop treating our sensations are things in themselves, worthy of attention and appreciation, but merely as signs and symbols of other things.
To a certain extent, we all do this, often for good reason. When you are reading this, for example, you are probably not paying attention to the details of the font, but are simply glancing at the words to understand their meaning. Theoretically, I could use any font or formatting, and it wouldn’t really affect my message, since you are treating the words as signs and not as things in themselves.
This is our normal, day-to-day attitude towards language, and it is necessary for us to read efficiently. But this can also blind us to what is right in front of us. For example, an English teacher I knew once expressed surprise when I pointed out that ‘deodorant’ consists of the word ‘odor’ with the prefix ‘de-’. She had never paused long enough to consider it, even though she had used the word thousands of times.
I think this attitude of ennui can extend even to our senses. We see the subtle shades of green and red on an apple’s surface, and only think “I’m seeing an apple.” We feel the waxy skin, and only think “I’m touching an apple.” We take a bite, munching on the crunchy fruit, tasting the tart juices, and only think “I’m tasting an apple.” In short, the whole quality of the experience is ignored or at least underappreciated. The apple has become part of our routine and has thus been moved to the background of our consciousness.
Now, imagine treating everything this way. Imagine if all the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells were treated as routine. This is an adequate description of my mentality when I was working in New York, and perhaps of many people all over the world. The final effect is a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. Nothing fulfills or satisfies because nothing is really being experienced.
This is where art comes in. Good art has the power to, quite literally, bring us back to our senses. Art encourages us not only to glance, but to see; not only to hear, but to listen. It reconnects us with what is right in front of us, but is so often ignored. To quote the art critic Robert Hughes, the purpose of art is “to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you.”
Last summer, while I was still working at my job in NYC, I experienced the power of art during a visit to the Metropolitan. By then, I had already visited the Met dozens of times in my life. My dad used to take me there as a kid, to see the medieval arms and armor; and ever since I have visited at least once a year. The samurai swords, the Egyptian sarcophagi, the Greek statues—it has tantalized my imagination for decades.
In my most recent visits, however, the museum had lost much of its power. It had become routine for me. I had seen everything so many times that, like Levi-Strauss, I was visiting my memories rather than the museum itself.
But this changed during my last visit. It was the summer right before I came to Spain. I had just completed my visa application and was about to leave my job. This would be my last visit to the Met for at least a year, possibly longer. I was saying goodbye to something intimately familiar in order to embrace the unknown. My visit became no longer routine, but unique and fleeting, and this made me experience the museum in an entirely new way.
Somehow, the patina of familiarity had been peeled away, leaving every artwork fresh and exciting. Whereas on previous visits I viewed the Greco-Roman and Egyptian statues are mere artifacts, revealing information about former civilizations, this time I began to become acutely sensitive to previously invisible subtleties: fine textures, subtle hues, elegant forms. In short, I had stopped treating the artwork as icons—as mere symbols of a lost age—but as genuine works of art.
This experience was so intense that for several days I felt rejuvenated. I stopped feeling so deeply dissociated from my workaday world and began to take pleasure again in little things.
While waiting for the elevator, for example, I looked at a nearby wall; and I realized, to my astonishment, that it wasn’t merely a flat plain surface, as I had thought, but was covered in little bumps and shapes. It was stucco. I grew entranced by the shifting patterns of forms on the surface. I leaned closer, and began to see tiny cracks and little places where the paint had chipped off. The slight variations on the surface, a stain here, a splotch there, the way the shapes seemed to melt into one another, made it seem as though I were looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock or the surface of the moon.
I had glanced at this wall a hundred times before, but it took a visit to an art museum to let me really see it. Routine had severed me from the world, and art had brought me back to it.
Reality is always experienced through a medium—the medium of senses, concepts, language, and thought. Sensory information is detected, broken down, analyzed, and then reconfigured in the brain.
We are not passive sensors. While a microphone might simply detect tones, rhythms, and volume, we hear cars, birds, and speech; and while a camera might detect shapes, colors, and movement, we see houses and street signs. The data we collect is, thus, not experienced directly, but is analyzed into intelligible objects. And this is for the obvious reason that, unlike cameras and microphones, we need to use this information to survive.
In order to deal efficiently with the large amount of information we encounter every day, we develop habits of perceiving and thinking. These habits are partly expectations of the kinds of things we will meet (people, cars, language), as well as the ways we have learned to analyze and respond to these things. These habits thus lay at the crossroads between the external world of our senses and the internal world of our experience, forming another medium through which we experience (or don’t experience) reality.
Good art forces us to break these habits, at least temporarily. It does so by breaking down reality and then reconstructing it with a different principle—or perhaps I should say a different taste—than the one we habitually use.
The material of art—what artists deconstruct and re-imagine—can be taken from either the natural or the cultural world. By ‘natural world’ I mean the world as we experience it through our senses; and by ‘cultural world’ I mean the world of ideas, customs, values, religion, language, tradition. No art is wholly emancipated from tradition, just as no tradition is wholly unmoored from the reality of our senses. But very often one is greatly emphasized at the expense of the other.
A good example of an artform concerned with the natural world is landscape painting. A landscape artist breaks down what she sees into shapes and colors, and puts it together on her canvass, making whatever tasteful alteration she sees fit.
Her view of the landscape, and how she chooses to reconstruct it on her canvass, is of course not merely a matter between her and nature. Inevitably our painter is familiar with a tradition of landscape paintings; and thus while engaged with the natural landscape she is simultaneously engaged in a dialogue with contemporary and former artists. She is, therefore, simultaneously breaking down the landscape and her tradition of landscape painting, deciding what to change, discard, or keep. The final product emerges as the an artifact of an exchange between the artist, the landscape, and the tradition.
The fact remains, however, that the final product can be effectively judged by how it transforms its subject—the landscape itself. Thus I would say that landscape paintings are primarily oriented towards the natural world.
By contrast, many religious paintings are much more oriented towards a tradition. It is clear, even from a glance, that the artists of the Middle Ages were not concerned with the accurate portrayal of individual humans, but with the evoking of religious figures through idealizations. The paintings thus cannot be evaluated by their fidelity to the sensory reality, but by their fidelity to a religious aesthetic.
It is worth noting that artworks oriented towards the natural world tend to be individualistic, while artworks oriented towards the cultural world tend to be communal. The reason is clear: art oriented towards the natural world reconnect us with our senses, and our senses are necessarily personal. By contrast, culture is necessarily impersonal and shared. The rise of perspective, realistic anatomy, individualized portraits, and landscape painting at the time of the Italian Renaissance can, I think, persuasively be interpreted as a break from the communalism of the medieval period and an embrace of individualism.
Music is an excellent demonstration of this tendency. To begin with, the medium of sound is naturally more social than that of sight or language, since sound pervades its environment. What is more, music is a wholly abstract art, and thus totally disconnected from the natural world.
This is because sound is just too difficult to record. With only a pencil and some paper, most people could make a rough sketch of an everyday object. But without some kind of notational system—and even then, maybe not—most people could not transcribe an everyday sound, like a bird’s chirping.
Thus, musicians (at least western musicians) take their material from culture rather than nature, from the world of tradition rather than the world of our senses.
(In an oral tradition, where music does not need to be transcribed, it is possible that music can strive to reproduce natural sounds; but this has not historically been the case in the west.)
To deal with the problem of transcribing sound, rigorous and formal ways of classifying sounds were developed. An organizational system developed, with its own laws and rules; and it is these laws and rules that the composer or songwriter manipulates.
And just as your knowledge of the natural world helps to make sense of visual art, so our cultural training helps us to make sense of music. Just as you’ve seen many trees and human faces, and thus can appreciate how painters re-imagine their appearances, so have you heard hours and hours of music in your life, most of it following the same or similar conventions.
Thus you can tell (most often unconsciously) when a tune does something unusual. Relatively few people, for example, can define a plagal cadence (an unusual final cadence from the IV to the I chord), but almost everyone responds to it in Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
As a result of its cultural grounding, music an inherently communal art form. This is true, not only aesthetically, but anthropologically. Music is an integral part of many social rituals—political, religious, or otherwise. Whether we are graduating from high school, winning an Oscar, or getting married, music will certainly be heard. As much as alcohol, music can lower inhibitions by creating a sense of shared community, which is why we play it at every party. Music thus plays a different social role than visual art, connecting us to our social environment rather than to the often neglected sights and sounds of everyday life.
The above descriptions are offered only as illustrations of my more general point: Art occupies the same space as our habits, the gap between the external and the internal world. Painters, composers, and writers begin by breaking down something familiar from our daily reality. This material can be shapes, colors, ceramic vases, window panes, the play of shadow across a crumpled robe in the case of painting. It can be melodies, harmonies, timbre, volume, chord progressions, stylistic tropes in the case of music. And it can be adjectives, verbs, nouns, situations, gestures, personality traits in the case of literature
Whatever the starting material, it is the artist’s job to recombine it into something different, something that thwarts our habits. Van Gogh’s thick daubs of paint thwart our expectation of neat brushstrokes; McCartney’s plagal cadence thwarts our expectation of a perfect cadence; and Proust’s long, gnarly sentences and philosophic ideas thwart our expectations of how a novelist will write. And once we stop seeing, listening, feeling, sensing, thinking, expecting, reacting, behaving out of habit, and once more turn our fill attention to the world, naked of any preconceptions, we are in the right mood to appreciate art.
Yet it is not enough for art to be simply challenging. If this were true, art would be anything that was simply strange, confusing, or difficult. Good art can, of course, be all of those things; but it need not be.
Many artists nowadays, however, seem to disagree on this point. I have listened to works by contemporary composers which simply made no sense for my ears, and have seen many works of modern art which had no visual interest. We are living in the age of “challenging” art; and beauty is too often reduced to confusion.
But good art must not only challenge our everyday ways of seeing, listening, and being. It must reconstitute those habits along new lines. Art interrogates the space between the world and our habits of seeing the world. It breaks down the familiar—sights, harmonies, language—and then builds it back up again into the unfamiliar, using new principles and new taste. Yet for the product to be a work of art, and not mere strangeness, the unfamiliar must be rendered beautiful. That is the task of art.
Thus, Picasso does not only break down the perspectives and shapes of daily life, but builds them back up into new forms—fantastically strange, but sublime nonetheless. Debussy disintegrates the normal harmonic conventions—keys, cadences, chords—and then puts them all back together into a new form, uniquely his, and also unquestionably lovely. Great art not only shows you a different way of seeing and understanding the world, but makes this new vista attractive.
Pretentious art, art that merely wants to challenge, confuse, or frustrate you, is quite a different story. It can be most accurately compared to the relationship between an arrogant schoolmaster and a pupil. The artist is talking down to you from a position of heightened knowledge. The implication is that your perspective, your assumptions, your way of looking at the world are flawed and wrong, and the artist must help you to get out of your lowly state. Multiple perspectives are discouraged; only the artist’s is valid.
And then we come to simple entertainment.
Entertainment is something that superficially resembles art, but it’s function is entirely different. For entertainment does not reconnect us with the world, but lures us into a fantasy.
Perhaps the most emblematic form of pure entertainment is advertizing. However well made an advertisement is, it can never be art; for its goal is not to reconnect with the world, but to seduce us. Advertisements tell us we are incomplete. Instead of showing us how we can be happy now, they tell what we still need.
When you see an ad in a magazine, for example, you are not meant to scan it carefully, paying attention to the purely visual qualities. Rather, you are forced to view it as an image. By ‘image’ I mean a picture that serves to represent something else. Images are not meant to be looked at, but glanced at; images are not meant to be analyzed, but instantly understood. Ads use images because they are not trying to bring you back to your senses, but lure you into a fantasy.
Don’t misunderstand me: There is nothing inherently wrong with fantasy. Indeed, I think fantasy is almost indispensable to a healthy life. The fantasies of advertisements are, however, somewhat nefarious, since ads are never pure escapism. Rather, the ad forces you to negatively compare your actual life with the fantasy, conclude that you are lacking something, and then of course seek to remedy the situation by buying their product.
Most entertainment is, however, quite innocent, or at least it seems to me. For example, I treat almost all blockbusters as pure entertainment. I will gladly go see the new Marvel movie, not in order to have an artistic experience, but because it’s fun. The movie provides two hours of relief from the normal laws of physics, of probability, from the dreary regularities of reality as I know it. Superhero movies are escapism at its most innocent. The movies make no pretenses of being realistic, and thus you can hardly feel the envy caused by advertisements. You are free to participate vicariously and then to come back to reality, refreshed from the diversion, but otherwise unchanged.
The prime indication of entertainment is that it is meant to be effortless. The viewer is not there to be challenged, but to be diverted. Thus most bestselling novels are written with short words, simple sentences, stereotypical plotlines stuffed full of clichés—because this is easy to understand. Likewise, popular music uses common chord progressions and trite lyrics to make hits—music to dance to, to play in the background, to sing along to, but not to think about. This is entertainment: it does not reconnect us with our senses, our language, our ideas, but draw us into fantasy worlds, worlds with spies, pirates, vampires, worlds where everyone is attractive and cool, where you can be anything you want, for at least a few hours.
Some thinkers, most notably Theodor Adorno, have considered this quality of popular culture to be destructive. They abhor the way that people lull their intellects the sleep, tranquilized with popular garbage that deactivates their minds rather than challenges them. And this point cannot be wholly dismissed. But I tend to see escapism in a more positive light; people are tired, people are stressed, people are bored—they need some release. As long as fantasy does not get out of hand, becoming an goal in itself instead of only a diversion, I see no problem with it.
This, in my opinion, is the essential different between art and entertainment. There is also an essential different, I think, between art and craft.
Craft is a dedication to the techniques of art, rather than its goals. Of course, there is hardly such a thing as a pure craft or a pure art; no artist completely lacks a technique, and no craftsman totally lacks aesthetic originality. But there are certainly cases of artists whose technique stands at a bare minimum, as well as craftsmen who are almost exclusively concerned with the perfection of technique.
Here I must clarify that, by technique, I do not mean simply manual things like brush strokes or breath control. This includes more generally the mastery of a convention.
Artistic conventions consists of fossilized aesthetics. All living aesthetics represent the individual visions of artists—original, fresh, and personal. All artistic conventions are the visions of successful artists, usually dead, which have ceased to be refreshing and now have become charmingly familiar. Put another way, conventional aesthetics are the exceptions that have been made the rule. Not only that, but conventions often fossilize only the most obvious and graspable elements of brilliant artists of the past, leaving behind much of its living fibre.
This can be exemplified if we go and examine the paintings of William-Adolfe Bourgeureau in the Musée d’Orsay. Even from a glance, we can tell that he was a masterful painter. Every detail is perfect. The arrangement of the figures, the depiction of light and shadow, the musculature, the perspective—everything has been performed with exquisite mastery. My favorite painting of his is Dante and Virgil in Hell, a dramatic rendering of a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Dante and his guide stand to one side, looking on in horror as one naked man attacks another one, biting him in his throat. In the distance, a flying demon smiles, while a mound of tormented bodies writhes behind. The sky is a fiery red and the landscape is bleak.
I think it is a wonderful painting. Even so, Dante and Virgil seems to exist more as a demonstration than as art. For the main thing that makes painting art, and the main thing this painting lacks, is an original vision. The content has been adopted straightforwardly from Dante. The technique, although perfectly executed, shows no innovations of Bourgeureau’s own. All the tools he used had been used before; he merely learned them. Thus the painting, however impressive, ultimately seems like a technical exercise. And this is the essence of craft.
I fear I have said more about what art isn’t than what it is. That’s because it is admittedly much easier to define art negatively than positively. Just as mystics convey the incomprehensibility of God by listing all the things He is not, maybe we can do the same with art?
Here is my list so far. Art is not entertainment, meant to distract with fantasy. Art is not craft, meant to display technique and obey rules. Art is not simply an intellectual challenge, meant to shock and frustrate your habitual ways of being. I should say art is not necessarily any of these things, though it can and often is all of them. Indeed, I would contend that the greatest art entertains, challenges, and displays technical mastery, and yet cannot be reduced to any or all of these things.
Here I wish to take an idea from the literary critic Harold Bloom, and divide up artworks into periodpieces and great works. Period pieces are works that are highly effective in their day, but quickly become dated. These works are too specifically targeted at one specific cultural atmosphere to last. In other words, they may be totally preoccupied with the habits prevalent at one place and time, and become irrelevant when time passes.
To pick just one example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which I sincerely loved, may be too engrossed in the foibles of 20th century American culture to be still relevant in 500 years. Its power comes from its total evisceration of American ways; and, luckily for Lewis, those ways have changed surprisingly little in its essentials since his day. The book’s continuing appeal therefore depends largely on how much the culture does or does not change. (That being said, that novel has a strong existentialist theme that may allow it to persist.)
Thus period pieces largely concern themselves with getting us to question particular habits or assumptions—in Lewis’s case, the vanities and superficialities of American life.
The greatest works of art, by contrast, are great precisely because they reconnect us with the mystery of the world. They don’t just get us to question certain assumptions, but all assumptions. They bring us face to face with the incomprehensibility of life, the great and frightening chasm that we try to bridge over with habit and convention.
No matter how many times we watch Hamlet, we can never totally understand Hamlet’s motives, the mysterious inner workings of his mind. No matter how long we stare into van Gogh’s eyes, we can never penetrate the machinations of that elusive mind. No matter how many times we listen to Bach’s Art of Fugue, we can entirely never wrap our minds around the dancing, weaving melodies, the baffling mixture of mathematical elegance and artistic sensitivity.
Why are these works so continually fresh? Why do they never seem to grow old? I cannot say. It is as if they are infinitely subtle, allowing you to discover new shades of meaning every time they are experienced anew. You can fall into them, just as I felt myself falling into van Gogh’s eyes as he stared at me across space and time.
When I listen to the greatest works of art, I feel like I do when I stare into the starry sky: absolutely small in the presence of something immense and immensely beautiful. Listening to Bach is like listening to the universe itself, and reading Shakespeare is like reading the script of the human soul. These works do not merely reconnect me to my senses, helping me to rid myself of boredom. They do not merely remind me that the world is an interesting place. Rather, these works remind me that I myself am a small part of an enormous whole, and should be thankful for every second of life, for it is a privilege to be alive somewhere so lovely and mysterious.
The word puente has two meanings in Spanish. Most commonly it simply means “bridge.”
But it is also the word for an extra day off given when a holiday falls in-between a weekday and the weekend. For example, December 8, 2015—a Tuesday—was a holiday; and as a result I got the preceding Monday off. (This holiday, which comes every year, is called the Día de la inmaculada, a day dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Unlike in the US, most holidays in Spain are religious—specifically, Catholic.)
In short, it was time to go to Seville.
But how to get there? Before I came to Spain, everyone told me that flying in Europe was remarkably cheap; but every flight to Seville I found was annoyingly pricey. How about the high-speed train? This was even worse. What, then?
“How about Blablacar?” someone recommended, as I vented my frustrations.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a ridesharing service. It’s like AirBNB, except for car rides. You pay the driver and then go together. It’s quite cheap.”
“And it’s a good way to practice Spanish, too, since you can talk with the driver. I’d recommend it.”
(As a side note, I have since used Blablacar dozens of times, and I have had nothing but good experiences. Though I was at first concerned for my safety—getting into a car with a stranger—the identity checks and the system of reviews on the site make it quite safe. And besides, what other ways are there of forcing a Spanish person to talk to you for hours on end?)
When you take the usual dross material of small-talk, and then throw in the difficulty of communicating in a language you hardly know, the end result is pretty stale conversation. Our poor Spanish driver had thus to deal with five hours of slow and painful attempts by me to be personable and interesting, while I fumbled for words and made a mockery of grammar.
Many hours after I had reached the full extent of my Spanish ability, we reached Seville.
Seville is a city with a long past and a bright present. Populated at least since Roman times, the city grew into a prosperous power under the Moors, who controlled the city for about 500 years—until, in 1248, the city was conquered by the Christian king Ferdinand III of Castille.
The city is 80 km (50 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean, crowded along the banks of the Guadalquivir River; and Seville’s harbor is the only river port in all of Spain. This port on the Atlantic Ocean gave Seville a huge economic advantage when Spain began the age of colonization in the New World—an economic dominance which lasted until the 17th century, when silting rendered the port unusable, thus leading to the ascendence of Cádiz (though by this time Spain was economically in decline).
Though not as dominant as it was in the past, Seville is still a thriving place. The fourth largest city in the country, with a population of about 700,000, the city is also the capital of all of Andalusia. It is also the metropolitan area with the highest average temperatures in all of Europe—its summer highs only exceeded by nearby Córdoba. Culturally, too, Seville is extreme: its massive Holy Week processions are internationally famous, as is the city’s raucous annual festival.
Our first stop was the cathedral. The Cathedral of Seville, Santa María de la Sede, is one of the largest church buildings in the world. Indeed, when it was first built it surpassed the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which had held the title of the biggest church for the previous 1,000 years. The cathedral was built on such an enormous scale as a way of celebrating the Christian reconquest of the city from the Moors, back in 1248, as well as the city’s growing wealth. According to an old tradition, the cathedral chapter wanted to build a cathedral “so big that those who see it think we are insane.”
Despite all this, I must say that, from the inside, the cathedral did not feel noticeably bigger than the other cathedrals I have been in. All of them are fairly gigantic.
In any case, the Seville Cathedral is not only big, but is one of the finest in the country. The cavernous space, populated by a forest of columns that branch into elegant ribbed vaults, is spacious and bright. The choir, the organ, the chapels—everything has been decorated with extreme skill and unfailing taste.
Even among this embarrassment of riches the main altar stands out. Like the cathedral itself, it is absolutely massive: 20 meters (66 ft) in height, 18 meters (59 ft) wide, and divided into 28 scenes of the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Considered among the finest altars in Christendom, this piece was designed by Pierre Dancart, and took fully 80 years to complete (by which time Dancart had long since died). The audioguide remarked that the altar can be thought of as a gigantic visual theological treatise, though perhaps calling it a visual Gospel would be more accurate. Several hours would be necessary to properly examine the whole work, savoring every scene and detail. As it was, I could only gape stupidly at the big hunk of finely decorated gold for a few minutes before moving on.
I do remember being somewhat disappointed with the audioguide. The visit took us to every small chapel in the cathedral—and there are many—directing us to look through the grilles at the altars and tombs inside, as the narrator simply listed off individual object therein. I would have appreciated more information about selected pieces rather than a catalogue. In any case, according to the guide the cathedral possesses one of the most important collections of religious paintings in all of Spain. Unfortunately this collection is difficult to appreciate, as—peering through the bars of the grille like a prisoner, squinting from 15 feet away—you cannot get a good look at most of the paintings.
So I was a bit bored by the time I circled through half the cathedral, and found myself standing in front of an impressive statue of four men holding a coffin on their shoulders.
“This is the tomb of Christopher Columbus,” said the guide.
I froze. This is an excellent example of what I call “European Travel Syndrome.” Let me explain. It is sometimes easy to forget that you are traveling in Europe. On a car, a train, a city street, often surrounded by other American tourists, you could be at home. But sometimes the reality that you are in Europe—the place which you spent so long learning about in school, the place where Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon performed their famous and infamous deeds—brings itself to your attention so forcefully that it nearly knocks you down.
This was one such occasion.
Most of the time, historical personages like Columbus are little different from fictional characters. We hear a few stories about them, stories which purportedly explain some facet of the present world; but really they remain shadowy figures in our imagination, in the same realm as Santa Claus and Huckleberry Finn. But here were Columbus’s bones.
I was staggered. It is not that I have any particular love or respect for the man—from what I’ve heard, he was horrid—but it was simply the shock of having an erstwhile figment of my imagination become a flesh-and-blood individual right before my eyes.
It’s worth noting in passing that Columbus’s remains roamed nearly as much as he did. They were first interred in Spain, first in Valladolid and then in Seville. Then they were moved to the Dominican Republic, and then to Cuba, and then finally back to Spain again. The man was well-traveled.
Columbus’s bones notwithstanding, the highlight of the cathedral is without doubt the Giralda. This is the cathedral’s famous and lovely bell-tower. It owes its form to two cultures: originally a minaret constructed by the Moors, the Christians later added a Renaissance-style top to the edifice, leaving the Giralda with a unique juxtaposition of styles. The result, however, is a beautiful structure, which stands nobly over the surrounding area, its tan façade shining brightly in the Andalusian sun. The tower’s 105 meters (343 ft) are topped with a statue (known as “El Giraldillo”) of Faith triumphantly lifting a cross, designed by Hernán Ruiz. (A copy of this statue greets visitors on their way inside the building.)
Though the Giralda is tall, the climb to the top is not so bad. This is because there are not any stairs. Rather, dozens of ramps lead the pilgrim gently up and up, without having to break a sweat. The original purpose of these ramps, by the way, was to allow people to ride their horses up to the top, which sounds like great fun to me.
Like the Empire State Building, the top of the Giralda is always crowded, with people jostling for space, squeezing into every spot with a view. I joined the contest, nudging and elbowing my way to a good spot. It is worth the struggle, for this is undoubtedly the finest view in Seville. You can see for miles and miles, all of Seville stretched out before you with its rows of white buildings glaring in the sun, so bright that it was hard to look at them.
The visit ended in the Courtyard of the Oranges—which, as the name implies, is a courtyard full of orange trees. This is typical of Seville: there are orange trees everywhere, in every park and alongside every street. Several times I considered plucking one of these oranges, but thought better of it when I noticed that nobody else was doing so. Perhaps there’s an obscure sevillano law forbidding it. Regardless, I’ve never seen fruit trees just sitting around a town like that, completely laden with ripe fruit. Don’t the oranges eventually rot and fall into the street? Do they have government employees dedicated to cleaning up all the fallen oranges? Are they ever harvested? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
In a rare spasm of foresight, I did a bit of research and bought tickets to a flamenco show before arriving in Seville. Andalusia is known for its flamenco; and being a longtime fan of Paco de Lucía, I simply had to see a show.
So after a stroll around the city, across two bridges which spanned the Guadalquivir river, we found ourselves in a cozy room filled with folding chairs—not more than thirty, I’d say—the walls covered in sundry Spanish guitars, sitting before a stage. The show was about to begin.
A young man with a full black beard, dressed from head to foot in plain black clothes, climbed onto the stage and sat down. He was the guitarist. As soon he began I could tell that he was excellent. Like all flamenco guitarists, he played with his fingers, not a pick. The nails on his right thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger were filed into impressive knife-blades, with which he plucked, strummed, tapped, and flicked the strings. Most of the interesting guitar-work in flamenco is done with this hand. The guitarist picked out complex arpeggios and sustained notes with a rabid tremolo, his fingers so precise that they seemed more like machines than human appendages.
But there was nothing mechanical about the music. The first song was in a free rhythm. It began in a whisper and ended in a roar. The harmonies used in flamenco are not the sweet and dulcet harmonies often heard in, say, classical guitar. Rather, they use (among other things) a lot of parallel octaves and fifths, which gives the chords a strong, striking, and slightly sour sound.
Partly as a consequence, there is a certain emotional flavor associate with flamenco music that I find hard to put into words. As in American blues, in flamenco sadness is the fundamental emotion of the music, and the problem to be dealt with. But whereas blues deals with melancholy using a winking ironic, in flamenco the response is passionate melodrama. The emotions are mastered, paradoxically, by pushing them to the limit of intensity. Thus there is something grandiose, even ostentatious, about flamenco; it is as if one must puff oneself up with pride before performing.
The show went on. The guitarist shifted to a faster tune, showing off his rhythmic chops. A man joined him on stage for this song, wearing leather shoes with high heels, who stomped and clapped as accompaniment to the guitarist. But in addition to being the drummer of sorts, this man was the singer; and for the next song he stood up, walked to a corner of the stage, and raised his chin into the air as he prepared to sing.
His voice was incredibly loud—almost painfully so. In flamenco, the goal of the singer is neither melodic flourish nor sweetness of tone, but intensity. To this end, the singing is done with the back of the throat, producing a thick, husky timbre, surging with energy. The result is extremely expressive; it is as if you are not merely hearing the sound, but being pummeled with it.
Next came the dancer. She was a young woman, wearing a bright dress. Before she began, she arched her shoulders back and looked straight out across the audience, her face scrunched up in an expression of both pain and the contempt of pain. She seemed somehow too giant for that tiny room and that miniscule stage. Her squinted eyes looked past audience and even the walls, penetrating far beyond.
The dancing began. She was wearing high-heeled shoes similar to the singer’s, which allowed her to use her feet as drumsticks to pound on the floor. It was staggering how quickly she could move her feet, sounding like a snare drum as she crossed the stage from right to left, left to right, creating a sound so tremendously loud that I considered plugging my ears with my fingers.
Soon I was completely absorbed. My sense of time disappeared; I was so involved in the sound, my entire attention focused on the little details of timbre and ornament, that no concentration was left for anything else. I forgot everything: where I was, who I was, even that I was anything at all—my mind so awash in notes and rhythms that, for all I knew, my whole life up until that point might have been a silly dream.
By now I was sitting on the edge of my seat, my feet tapping of their own accord, my heart thumping, my skin covered in goosebumps, the hair on my arms and legs standing on end. The singing was so loud, the rhythm so fast, the guitar playing so intricate, that the whole effect was overwhelming. It became as physical as it was mental, as if the sounds were reaching across the room and shaking me in my seat.
My mind started to race. Thoughts popped in and out of my head, new thoughts, strange thoughts, memories, hopes, dreams, fears, vague longings, all colored with ecstatic shades of excitement. I felt timeless and invincible; I felt that nobody has ever been so inspired or so creative. The world around me took on a new glow, and I saw and heard everything for the first time. Mad confidence surged through me: I
And then the music ended, my heart rate slowed, and I became tired and groggy, like I just woke up from a troubled sleep. I walked from the venue into the cool night air, which brought me back to my senses. Like all great music, the flamenco had lifted me into a heightened state and kept me there, refreshing my spirit in the process.
Because one day of the puente was taken up visiting Córdoba (an easy day trip on the train), we only had one more day to see Seville.
It was time to visit the Alcázar of Seville. Now, there are “alcázars” all over Spain. This word (as do many Spanish words that begin with “al-”) comes from Arabic (“al-” is just the word for “the”, and “cázar” comes from “qasr”, meaning palace, castle, or fort). After the Moors were banished from Spain, several impressive castles and forts were left behind, which the Spanish Catholics happily repurposed. The Alcázar in Seville is one of the most famous of these, and justly so.
After a long line that thankfully moved quickly, we had passed through the front gate—the Puerta del León, named for the painting of a grotesque lion, wearing a crown and holding a cross, which sits over the entrance—and had arrived inside.
The Alcázar of Seville is among the most fascinating building complexes in Spain. Gothic, mannerist, baroque, and mudéjar styles are crammed up next to each other, as different sections of the palace were completed in different phases of history. The most famous section of the palace is the mudéjar palace. Though the palace’s history dates back to the Moorish period, this palace was built under Peter I of Castille, a Christian king who hired Muslim artisans to construct a palace similar to the Alhambra in Granada, which had been built just 20 years before. This building is thus a testimony to the deep cultural exchanges between the medieval Christians and Muslims.
As a side note, the Alcázar is still a royal residence—where the royal family stays when they visit Seville—thus making it the oldest active palace in the country.
The intricate Moorish architecture, with its finely carved floral designs, its sweet blues and subdued sand-colored walls, its elaborate wooden and gilded ceilings, gave the structure a gentle nobility far removed from the ostentatious grandeur of the gothic architecture of Seville’s cathedral. Every surface of every wall was covered with complex designs: arabesques, calligraphy, and colored tiles running along the lower half. Horshoe archways (which the Moors copied from the Visigoths) separated chamber from chamber. Within was an open space, the Courtyard of the Maidens, containing a rectangular pool of sky-blue water.
The most impressive room in the entire palace is the Salón de embajadores, or the Ambassador’s Salon, which is covered with an intricate golden dome that has been ornamented with intricate geometrical designs. The adornments on the walls, too, are sumptuous and remarkably fine. One of the only reminders that this palace is not the Alhambra itself are the insignias of Castille and León which can be seen inserted into many of the designs.
Another clue are the floor tiles that contains the words Plus Ultra. This phrase is a reference to the phrase ne plus ultra (“not further beyond”), which was applied to the Strait of Gibraltar—believed in previous ages to be the limit of the navigable world. Columbus, sailing for Spain, proved this to be wrong, and thus the Spanish Coat of Arms contains the phrase “further beyond”: Plus Ultra.
There is also a gothic palace in the Alcázar. Compared with the mudéjar palace, this one looks rather shabby—some of the decorative tiles have even been installed incorrectly. But it does contain some excellent tapestries with images of old maps.
Beyond the palaces are the gardens. These are marvelous—and enormous, covering 60,000 square meters (about 15 acres), and containing more than 170 species of plant.
Tiled walkways cut through enclosures of big-leafed shrubs; tiny aqueducts lead from fountain to lazily bubbling fountain; palm trees jut into the air, towering high up above. It is very easy, and very pleasant, to get totally lost amongst the winding paths and tall trees. Suddenly you are not in a busy city, surrounded by tourists and street performers, but someplace far away, someplace quiet and green. It was lovely.
But we couldn’t stop and smell the palm trees; our time was running short. So, after just a half hour, we pulled ourselves from the garden and made our way to the Plaza de España.
This plaza lies in the heart of the Parque de María Luisa, the loveliest park in the city. Both this park and the plaza owe their current form to the Ibero-American exposition, a world’s fair held in Seville in 1929. Thus, unlike other plazas de España in Spain, Seville’s Plaza de España is not a city-square at all, but a massive exhibition space and architectural showpiece.
A fountain sits at the center of the large open space, embraces by a sprawling, semi-circular edifice. This structure was built in the Neo-Mudéjar (Moorish-Revival) style, and consists of a central building with two towers on either end, connected by curved wings. Separating the fountain area from the building is a moat, spanned by several bridges; and if you pay a price, you can rent a little row-boat and row around this artificial river. I didn’t do this myself, but the rowboats certainly added to the charm of the place.
Beyond the bridges, attached to the building’s façade, are rows of elaborately decorated benches. Each of these is dedicated to a specific Spanish city, and has a famous historical event depicted in colorful marble on the back. The cities were arranged alphabetically, making the Plaza de España a true celebration of Spain and all its history.
“Let’s take a picture in front of one of these,” GF said.
“Fine,” I said, and began to sulk. For whatever reason, I loathe the idea of bothering strangers to take a picture of me. First, I think it’s a silly reason to interrupt someone else’s vacation; and second, I have this reoccurring fantasy that as soon as my phone is handed over, they’ll just bolt with it.
In any case, we asked an elderly couple to do the honors. This little interaction led to a conversation—during which I learned that they were Germans, and that the husband was very displeased with Spain’s upkeep of its monuments. “They don’t clean anything here,” he said, and then went on to comment on the abundance of “black money” (money kept off the books) to be found in the country. They were Germans, all right.
Our last stop was the Metropol Parasol. This is a gigantic wooden structure that looks like a bunch of mushrooms sticking out of the ground in downtown Seville. Indeed, in Spanish it is known as Las Setas de la Incarnación, “Incarnation’s mushrooms.” This structure, which boasts to be the largest wooden structure in the world—judging from this and its cathedral, Seville has a preoccupation with largeness, it seems—was designed by Jürgen Mayer, a German architect, in 2011.
After another line (the omnipresent plague of holiday-makers), a three-euro fare, and a ride in a snazzy elevator, we were up at the top of the thing. A twisty passageway led from the elevator to the main platform. The view here was excellent, nearly as fine as the view from the Giralda. The sun was just setting, lighting up the horizon in a faint carmine glow, while the rest of the overcast sky was a dull bluish gray hanging lazily above us. A nearby church tower split the view of the city into halves; and beyond we could see the cathedral, standing proudly over the city streets. And as I looked out over the city of Seville, I could not help feeling the faint tug of melancholy, for our wonderful weekend had come to a close.
Our trip ended at a restaurant on the Guadalquivir river, eating tapas and watching the ferries go by. The lights from the boats and the bridges shimmered off the water, making the ground and sky melt into one another. Our waiter happily welcomed us to our seats, and then promptly forgot us—which is so typical of Spanish waiters. I sat and sipped my wine, watching a couple of children play on the fences nearby—and this is also typical of Spain, where parents take their young kids out to bars at night. In short, everything was perfect. There is something special about Andalusia.