No pain no spain

Looking for a perfect weekend break? Head to Spain for Picasso's art, medieval mansions and the Gaudi house.

Gaudi house 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gaudi house 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
First-time visitors to Barcelona often feel that if they’re going to see one Antonio Gaudi building, it has to be La Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Holy Family.
And they’re right. This awe-inspiring, though still unfinished, cathedral-sized church is a truly exceptional example of Gaudi’s Catalan-rooted version of Art Nouveau, but people who prefer a less monumental (and less crowded) piece of architecture should head for Casa Batllo, a private house he designed in 1905 for a textile industrialist’s family.
Entering the Casa Batllo is like walking into a Jules Verne novel. Situated on the grand Passeig de Gracia avenue in the Eixample district, just outside the old city, this superb example of Modernism is both a stunning work of art and a practical, functional private residence. With its lack of straight lines, its beautifully crafted wooden doors and its stained-glass windows – some shaped like portholes – living inside this house must, in some ways, have been like dwelling in a fantasy submarine.
The blue-tiled central light well that runs down the middle of the house further emphasizes the underwater theme, while the stark white attic, with its rib-shaped contours, makes one feel like Jonah inside the whale.
Everywhere in the house, there is something to marvel at, be it the small details of the ventilation fans at the bottom of the doors to the special lettering Gaudi created to mark each room. In the reception room, there is an alcove fireplace that looks like a goblin’s home carved into a tree trunk. Surrounding the fireplace are two benches made of heat-resistant tiles, one on either side. The one on the right is designed for a couple, while the seat opposite is a single bench, where the chaperone would sit to ensure the fireside tryst did not become too hot.
An extremely religious person, Gaudi also made sure the first-floor living room contained a space that could be turned into a chapel with a separate side room serving as a sacristy for the officiating priest.
A tour of the house takes about an hour or so, with a well-scripted audio guide (included in the admission price) taking you through this amazing building, room by room. Not to be missed is the climb up onto the roof of the house and the fantastical chimneys topped off by an iconoclastic Gaudi cross, something that has become a symbol of Barcelona.
If you don’t want to take the tour of the house, at least spend a few minutes outside and take in its remarkable facade, thought to represent the legend of Saint George, the patron saint of Barcelona, and the dragon. The skull-like balconies and the glossy-tiled roof that can be viewed from street level take the breath away.
The boutique hotel at which we stayed, the Hotel Eurostars Bcn Design, was just a few meters’ walk away. In terms of location, one couldn’t do better, but the standards of service left much to be desired. Wake-up calls were ordered but never materialized, and the desk could not be relied upon to provide information about standard Barcelona attractions such as the musical Magic Fountain on Montjuic, where the waters “dance” to the mixture of sounds and colored lights that beam from inside the fountain. When a fellow guest complained the next morning that they had been sent to the fountain after it had closed, the manager behind the counter shrugged his shoulders and said, “What do you want me to do about the clerk? Cut their finger off?”
From a room costing around 200 euros a night with breakfast, you expect better.
STILL, LA Rambla, the city’s main artery, is just a short walk away from the hotel, and walking is the best way to enjoy this city. Starting at the top, at the Placa de Catalunya, La Rambla makes its way down to the sea front a kilometer or so away and to the 50-meter-high monument to Columbus, marking his return from the New World.
As you stroll down the pedestrian precinct that runs down the middle of La Rambla, just enjoy the atmosphere of the tree-shaded boulevard, the tapas bars, florist shops, kiosks selling songbirds, and even the hustlers trying to sell whistling children’s toys or, at night, cans of beer (which for the life of me I couldn’t understand, as there’s no shortage of bars in the area).
Just off La Rambla, less than halfway down, is the Barri Gotic, the Gothic quarter, at the center of which is Barcelona’s Cathedral. This Gothic masterpiece, built between the 13th and 15th centuries, sports a slew of fascinating gargoyles and a cloister famous for its small pond full of geese.
Tucked away in the Barri Gotic is El Call, the city’s Jewish Quarter, with its medieval synagogue. While the cathedral is massive, this synagogue is just two underground rooms and today serves as a tiny museum. There’s not much on exhibition, nor does the museum tell the story of the local Jewish community, but it’s still worth a quick visit just to soak up the atmosphere of the place. Walking around the twisting narrow streets of El Call at dusk as the sky darkens, one can get a sense of what it must have been like to live in these cramped streets centuries ago.
Not far away, in La Ribera district, the Picasso museum houses thousands of pieces of Pablo Picasso’s art, spread out through five medieval mansions. Although not born in Barcelona, Picasso regarded it as his early home after his family moved there when he was a teenager, and he donated some 2,500 paintings, engravings and drawings to the museum a few years before his death in 1973. Not surprisingly, the museum is exceedingly popular, so be prepared to stand in some very long lines.
IF YOU’RE in Barcelona for a couple of days – and it really is a perfect weekendbreak type of town – then it’s worth moving away from the old part of the city and spending at least half a day at Montjuic, the hill overlooking the harbor to the southwest of the city center – named, some say, after a Jewish cemetery that used to be on its slopes. (Another explanation is that the name is perhaps related to the Latin phrase “Mons Jovicus,” or “hill of Jupiter.”)
Using Barcelona’s superb and easy-tounderstand metro, go to the Paral.lel station and then take the little train to Parc de Montjuic. From there, you can take a cable car right to the top of the hill and the Castell de Montjuic fortress, which dates back to 1640, and enjoy some splendid views of the harbor and the town.
Halfway up the hill, which can also be climbed by foot, is the Fundacio Joan Miro, a museum devoted to the works of Joan Miro – a Surrealist described by Andre Breton as “the most Surrealist of us all.” Just as Gaudi symbolizes the high point of Catalan architecture, Miro is considered Catalonia’s greatest artist. His early work in particular is rooted in Catalonia, most obviously in The Farm, one of his early paintings based on the family farm in Mont-roig. Born in 1893 in Barcelona, he is famous for declaring an “assassination of painting” in favor of upsetting the visual elements of established painting.
It’s definitely worth taking the audio guide around this museum to receive an explanation not only of what you’re seeing, but how Miro’s career developed from his early representative works to his later Burnt Canvas – in which the canvas is no longer a solid surface, but an object that becomes part of the world around it – or his giant triptychs, The Hope of a Condemned Man I, II, III and Fireworks I, II, III.
For an insight into 20th-century Spain, Catalan nationalism and the effects of the Spanish Civil War, as well as the opportunity to see some marvelous pieces of art, the Fundacio Joan Miro is well worth a few solid hours of your time.
■ The writer visited Barcelona as a guest of AXOM3.