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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

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The following was re-printed from The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper.

Trippy Barcelona

This spirited Spanish city takes great pride in its independence, from its language to the adoration of the weird and wonderful Antoni Gaudi.


By John Pope
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

BARCELONA, SPAIN — So here we were on a glorious spring day, trooping through the somber mansion that this city’s most famous architect built for his patron about a century ago. It is big and imposing, full of furnishings with sinuous curves that anticipated the Art Nouveau movement more than a decade later.

Some of architect Antoni Gaudi’s trademark witty features are still intact, such as a gallery that let family members spy on guests before deciding whether to admit them, and a well-appointed room big enough for musical programs and Masses. But mostly, the Palau Guell (pronounced “Gway”) was gloomy.

Onward and upward we trudged. Then, at a point 113 steps above the street, everything changed when we opened the door to the roof. It was a moment as dramatic as Dorothy’s discovery of Technicolor in the Land of Oz: We entered a delightfully wacky world with chimneys in all shapes and colors surrounding us, brilliantly bright under the cloudless sky. Some looked like elongated mushrooms; one resembled a barber pole with rainbow stripes. We frolicked and snapped pictures of chimneys decorated with smashed bits of the household crockery; one display, we were told, featured a priceless signed shard of Limoges porcelain.

Such a wonderful surprise was typical of what my wife and I found in this capital of Spain’s Catalonian region, where marvels can lurk in the most unexpected places — around corners, down dark side streets and in the middle of otherwise ordinary neighborhoods.

For instance, we feasted at one restaurant behind a farmers’ market and at another that bore no identifying sign — more about them later — and we stumbled upon the magnificent cathedral where Indians whom Christopher Columbus brought back from the New World were baptized. And the serpentine alleys of Barcelona’s oldest sector let visitors see life as it has been lived for centuries.

Viva Catalan!

Our first surprise was linguistic. Though Castilian Spanish, the kind of Spanish taught in American schools, is spoken here, with a lisp, many signs and menus are also in Catalan, a regional language that has enjoyed a resurgence since the 1975 death of Spain’s fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who had suppressed every dialect in favor of pure Castilian during his 38 years in total power. Any Louisianian familiar with the story of Cajun French can empathize.

Those who don’t speak Catalan — and most visitors don’t — don’t have to worry, though. Most people who deal with tourists speak at least some English, although they seem to appreciate efforts to communicate in Spanish.

Even though this city of 1.6 million inhabitants sprawls, the center is relatively compact, so exploring it is easy on foot and on the Metro, which is swift and clean and goes near most tourist spots. The fare is about 80 cents.

Many of the more popular sites, such as the Palau Guell, sprang from the brilliant, if quirky, mind of Antoni Gaudi, the mystic — some might say mad — architect who probably is the closest thing this city has to a secular saint. Gaudi, who worked from the 1880s until his death in 1926, is venerated in artistic circles for his brilliance and in religious quarters for his unshakable Catholicism. Gaudi is a sure-fire draw — and the subject of special tours — for this reason: He put up buildings that couldn’t be mistaken for anybody else’s.

For instance, Gaudi plunked an opulent apartment with bulging, irregular balconies festooned with faux vines running up the façade, on the city’s ritziest street, Passeig de Gracia, hard by the boutiques of Giorgio Armani and Cartier. At the end of a dusty road in the Parc Guell is a plaza ringed by an undulating Gaudi bench that is embellished with — what else? — smashed pottery. It overlooks yet more of Gaudi’s output: a fountain with a concrete iguana bearing mosaic scales — a favorite photo-op spot — and two houses flanking the park’s entrance that look like leftovers from “Hansel and Gretel.”

No romance, just work

Down a path from the plaza is the combination house and museum where Gaudi lived and worked. It’s bright and reasonably airy and open to tourists — even the bathroom — and it is decorated with his drawings and art that influenced him. Also on view is the room where Gaudi, a man of ascetic tastes, slept in a narrow bed; according to those who know, he never had any sort of romantic relationship with anyone.

Guidebooks say that Gaudi was a firm believer in penance. The desire to atone for the world’s sins, we are told, was the motivation for his mightiest creation, the still unfinished Temple de la Sagrada Familia. In the middle of an otherwise ordinary neighborhood, its spires, which seem to be encrusted with barnacles, jut toward the sky.

The façades are equally stunning. On the east face is a series of stone tableaux depicting Jesus’ birth and early life; at the opposite end are tableaux showing his passion and death.

Besides being visually arresting, these façades show the evolution of artistic style as construction has proceeded, with interruptions, since the late 19th century: While realism is dominant in the scenes of Christ’s early years, abstract modernism had taken over by the time workers got around to interpreting his last days on Earth on the west façade, which was not finished until the late 1980s. Indeed, it’s hard to keep from thinking that the soldiers’ helmets might have been inspired by the “Star Wars” costumes for Darth Vader’s storm troopers.

Never-ending project

While the church’s exterior is a visual feast, the worship area is crammed with scaffolding and spaghetti-like tangles of wires. Construction began in 1882, and no one knows when — or whether — it will ever be complete. After stepping around what seems like the city’s biggest job site, visitors can head downstairs to a museum featuring a history of the church, mock-ups from Gaudi’s studio and a weird apparatus of hanging strings that he used to measure stress. Through a window, one can peer down into the crypt to see Gaudi’s grave.

Of course, he is not the only artist who won fame in this cradle of creativity. Don’t miss the Fundacio Joan Miro museum on Montjuic, near the site of the 1992 Olympics. The museum is bursting with the terrific colorful art that established Miro’s reputation. (It’s also the site of our favorite souvenir store in Barcelona.) Pablo Picasso spent formative years in this city; a museum dedicated to his work is in the Old Quarter.

But there’s no getting away from Gaudi, even on the streets. The sidewalks in downtown Barcelona feature a whimsical repeating Gaudi-inspired pattern of seashells and pinwheels.

You see the design wherever you walk, and you will walk. Even though vehicles roar through town, there is a dramatic, vibrant pedestrian life: Among the chief activities are walking and hanging out in squares and cafes.

The evening stroll

In early spring, we enjoyed watching Barcelonistas indulging in the paseo, the ritual early-evening stroll. The most popular place for these promenades is La Rambla, also called Las Ramblas, a mile-long, tree-lined allée stretching from the Plaça de Catalunya to the waterfront.

It’s a grand pedestrian boulevard, lined with cafes and newsstands, and peopled with jugglers, mimes and dancers. Barcelonistas, however, seem more delighted in themselves as they preen and look about to see who else is around. Visitors, who have no idea of the city’s social pecking order, don’t need to know anything to enjoy the parade. Just plunk down in a cafe, order snacks called tapas and a drink or two, and then sit back and feast on the passing scene.

Our favorite spot on La Rambla was the Café de l’Opera, across from the city’s great opera house, the Gran Theatre del Liceu, where we sipped sangria cava — sangria made with champagne — and watched the swells sweep in for a performance of “Aida.” As twilight settled in on a cool evening, we understood why poet Federico Garcia Lorca called La Rambla the one street that he wished would never end.

Enjoy your drinks, but move away from La Rambla for dinner; its restaurants focus on the passing scene instead of fabulous cuisine. The best food is hidden on the narrow streets or off tucked-away squares.

Not far from the waterfront end of La Rambla is Passadis del Pep, a restaurant identified only by a 2 (its address) over a nondescript door facing the Plaça del Palau. Don’t bother looking for a sign. Open that door, walk down a dark 30-foot passage and step into a big, bright room that should remind anyone of an upscale version of Mosca’s, complete with the jolly atmosphere and copious portions. Everyone is greeted, and the regulars obviously know each other.

First, some champagne

There is no menu or wine list. In fact, nobody asks any questions about what you might want. Instead, someone starts filling flutes with champagne. Then come the bread and the food. It’s seafood, and there’s plenty of it, served with more champagne.

First came a Spanish version of prosciutto, served with what became our favorite food accompaniment: slices of bread rubbed with garlic and a ripe tomato. Then, in sequence, we feasted on tiny mussels; snails; flash-fried whole fish with eyes and all; barbecued shrimp (tame by Mosca’s standards); succulent fat octopus; crawfish with onions; and enormous prawns.

With each course, we did more than eat. We sopped up the sauce with bread that never stopped arriving. Even though we were offered more, we moved onto dessert: crema Catalana, a rich variant of crème brulée, and profiteroles with thick chocolate. Then came grappa, two other liqueurs and espresso. The bill: just over $100 for the two of us.