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There’s a Lot of Spain in Barcelona, Vol. 2

21 July 2008

Soooo…continuing from the last post…

Sunday our tour guide hostess had clients, so we were left to our own devices, a thought that after the previous night’s metro-stop-missing debacle, left us a little unsure…

Never ones to be dissuaded by our own ignorance, however, we confidently set out for the Parc Güell, another of Gaudí’s architectural masterpieces. The park is situated almost directly northwest of the medieval quarter, which, conveniently, was mere steps from our hostess’s apartment. And by “mere steps”, I am of course referring to the 5,384 steps leading straight up the hill from the street level, the ascension of which is necessary to reach the park. The magnitude of this daunting challenge gave us pause, as we are not at our pinnacle of fitness (come on…high school track was a long time ago, and beer is just so, so good. Well, not here in Spain, but in general, yes.), but in the name of culture, we pressed on. We were relieved, however, when we rounded the corner and noted that the 5,384 steps were actually part of a moving escalator, which through the miracle of powered-stair technology, brought us to the top of the hill with minimal effort, agreeing perfectly with our corn-fed Midwest expectations. After winding through a hilly, pine tree-lined path, we discovered the main sculptural area of the park, which was impressive in its color, construction and vista. The main feature is a large, raised, gravel-covered park / sitting area, held aloft by a series of pseudo-Doric columns and tiled in the typically Gaudí-an broken tile style. Surrounding this raised park was a continuous undulating bench resembling some kind of freak serpent. Below the gravel area was a forest of altered Doric columns, between which concave domes with bright blue and green mosaics rose and fell, giving the impression of looking up at the rolling surface of a body of water from below. Surrounding this central park were a few small gingerbread-inspired houses, originally summer homes for the Barcelonan elite who commissioned the park as a getaway from the downtown summer heat. Overall, the place looked like Phidias and the Witch from Hansel & Gretel went on a bender with Timothy Leary and decided to build their “Happy Place”. We totally dug it.

From here we headed back to the Metro (making careful note of at which stop we were supposed to get off) and made our way across town to the Montjuïc hill, site of the remains of the 1929 World’s Fair. Our goals were to see the Mies van der Rohe-designed German pavilion—one of the harbingers of the modern International Style and a Mecca of sorts for design junkies like myself—and to check out this little nearby place called “Poble Espanyol”, a collection of quintessential Spanish architecture. The German pavilion was more-or-less (or less-is-more) a religious experience, as it embodies pretty much all the tenets of modern design and paved the way for design to become an integrated part of business and social development, instead of an ancillary afterthought of adornment. The space is very sparse and clean, constructed of marble, glass and steel, its flat planes intersecting at the sharp right angles to be expected of German precision. It is the physical embodiment of the “less-is-more” ethos and a revolt against the overwrought adornment of the Art Nouveau, seeking, in a way, to clarify the machine-inspired lines of Art Deco and the Streamlined movements. I could continue to bore you with lurid details of my experience, but suffice it to say it’s a good thing I brought along an extra pair of clean shorts…

Poble Espanyol was an interesting little diversion, the source of the title of these posts, and one which we immediately regretted spending €16 to get into. It’s not that it was all that bad for any particular reason. In fact, after we got over the idiocy of our decision, we kinda enjoyed ourselves, and we had a decent lunch and some ice cream, which can soothe the pains of any tour book-inspired folly. Here’s the back story: Basically, Poble Espanyol is a one-stop quintessential shop for all the architectural variation of the entire Iberian peninsula, created to give visitors to the 1929 exhibition a sense of what the rest of Spain was like, assuming that they had neither the time nor fiscal ability to actually visit each of these diverse places. It’s a little like Disney Land, except that everything’s in Spanish (which, come to think of it, is exactly like Disney Land…). You walk through a turreted portal in a large stone wall (reminicent of the Medieval city wall of Toledo), into a quintessential Plaza Mayor (like in Madrid), which is surrounded by buildings featuring stores and restaurants on the ground floor with apartments and offices above (just like Madrid), then stroll down narrow whitewashed streets (Sevilla), pass Mudejar cathedrals and bell towers (Cordoba, Granada), through open-air markets (Valencia, Barcelona) and past little white thatched-roofed pueblos—all within a 20-minute walk from end-to-end. In actuality, it was well done, and being designed and built by Spainards in Spain, it retained a fairly high degree of authenticity. The stupid part of the whole thing—as Al so graciously pointed out to me amidst her fits of laughter at the lunch table—was that we just spent €16 to walk through fake versions of the real cities we’ve spent the last 10 weeks wandering through. I attribute our decision to the fact that we were starving and light-headed prior to entering, facts which clouded our judgement. Upon leaving the place, we made a pact not to tell our tour guide hostess of our waste of time.

"Oh wow! Fake Spain!"

"Oh wow! Fake Spain!"

After a stroll past the nearby art museum (which was closed), we headed back to the Old Quarter, intending on visiting the Roman Museum. Barcelona was a major outpost in the Roman era, and as such, there is a great amount of their architecture and infrastructure still remaining. In fact, the Medieval cathedral is built on the foundations of the old Roman walls and, nearby, there are Roman columns standing the middle of an apartment block’s courtyard (they had previously been built into the buildings, but were “exhumed” during some recent reconstruction), among numerous other examples. Though both the tour book and our tour guide assured me that the museum would be open all day on Sunday, it in fact was not, having closed at 3pm. We got there at 4pm. Mierda.

This was a minor inconvenience, as the Picasso museum was just around the corner and was in fact open, contrary to the listing in the guide book. Go figure. We did take a wrong turn somewhere, however, and ended up in an open plaza near city hall. As we paused here to consult our map, we were approached by a hip-looking young woman who politely asked us in subtly-eastern-European-accented English if we spoke English. Not immediately taking her for a bum, we said “yes”, at which point she began her ploy, asking for money. Wising up, we said we didn’t have any, at which point she stormed off, curing us and calling out over her shoulder, “You guys are wires! Wires! You have monies!”

We were flattered. Even despite our escalator-taking habits to Parc Güell, we still appeared lean and fit enough that this young lady felt compelled to compliment our slim physiques. The day was lookin’ up.

We got back on track and found the Picasso Museum, which was a great retrospective tour, showcasing a great wealth of his early work and evolution to abstraction; the parts of the story that rarely get told in most museum settings. The collection was especially robust due to Picasso’s own donations as well as those of his widow, making it one of the premier groupings of his work in the world. The biggest lesson here: the man could draw. Like REALLY draw. And he could mimic just about any style he wanted. And once he was bored with mimicry, he would just invent a new style. Not a bad way to make a living.

After our nearly three-hour tour of Picasso’s mad genius, we turned for home, ultimately enjoying dinner and drinks with our hostess before crashing into bed.

The next morning found us fighting through protesters at the Ave high-speed train station in order to board our car for the journey back to Madrid. Apparently they were irritated that they weren’t getting enough of the subsidies from the government on the profits from the train…? I’m not really sure. Having just gotten a hold of basic 5th-grader Spanish, I was a little under prepared to read train-related political jargon scrawled on bedsheets being waved about by overly-energetic, whistle-blowing Spanish college students. Especially at 8 in the morning. I still was at a loss when we returned to Madrid to find another group with nearly identical bedsheet slogans awaiting us at the disembarkation platform. If nothing else, though, I was commended their level of coordination. I mean, to get us coming and going? That’s a lot for college kids.

So that rounds out our 2.5 days in Barcelona. We’re nearing the end of adventure, with only a week of class left and two more cities to hit before we leave. Next up: Córdoba & Granada with more (somewhat) Big, Tall American friends (these ones are different though…and one’s a doctor and really knows what antioxidants do)!

More photos are up,

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