Well I Never Been to Spain, Parts I & III

I just got back from a fantastic trip to Spain to attend an origami conference, the CFC or Conference for Creators in Zaragoza. I took Jeannie with me, and along the way we spend a few days in Barcelona, a beautiful city.

We flew out on the redeye Tuesday night and landed in Barcelona Wednesday morning. The first thing we wanted to see was the famous Basílica de la Sagrada Família designed by the architect Antoni Gaudí. It was a nice walk from our hotel.

La Sagrada Família is well nigh indescribable. It’s been under construction for over 130 years and still not finished. Giant, ambitious, architecture as high art, at once deeply traditional and fiercely, playfully radical. Completely mind blowing. I mean, we’ve seen some of great European cathedrals, and I get to whole thing with the totality of symbolism, faith and grace made stone. But this takes it to whole ‘nuther level. For one thing it’s huge. When it’s finished it will be the tallest building in the city and the tallest church in the world. The outside is a riot of sculpture and symbolism and crazy spires and multiple, conflicting styles. So busy it almost makes you queasy. Inside is a maybe the largest room I’ve ever been in, and even though there’s alot going on visually it’s minimalistic compared to the façades, grandly ordered and strangely tranquil, like being a forest of giant redwoods made of stone. I could go on but words really do not convey the experience.

We walked down to the marina district near our hotel, where lots of yachts were parked, and got our first close up look at the Mediterranean Sea. There was a sort of boardwalk there where lots of people came to jog and bike and just hang out. We watched the sun go down and then headed back to the hotel for dinner of yummy Spanish food.

Next day we got up and had breakfast in the hotel. It seems Spain is big on thinly sliced smoked ham and thick sliced meaty bacon, and also lots of fish and seafood. And I gotta say the bacon, with farm fresh eggs, is totally awesome for breakfast. Also local cheeses and of course cappuccino and croissants.

Our first destination Thursday was the Picasso Museum. On the walk over we passed thru a really cool park full of gardens and fountains and statues and a sort of grand structure like an open air art deco temple. I also noticed they have giant ducks in Spain that we don’t have at home.

The Picasso Museum itself was really cool. It’s in a old neighborhood of winding street too narrow for cars, although that doesn’t stop all of them. The building used to be some sort of old palace or mansion for some noble; parts of it are hundreds of years old and it’s been modified at least a few time over the centuries. The bottom level is full of interlocking courtyards and long, vaulted concourses. The galleries are all upstairs. Most of it was plain white walls, but one room was kept in it’s original (?) condition, so ornately rococo it looked like it belonged in Schloss Schönbrunn.

Picasso went to art school in Barcelona, and the museum has alot of his early work. He was a master of the realist style and did quite a few landscapes and portraits, and dabbled in a few different takes on surrealism before he really came into the style he’s famous for. So it was cool to see that development unfold. I also noticed in some photographs he had a crooked nose, and I wonder if his whole style grew out of an inability to be at peace with that. His antigeometric faces began with just a bit of asymmetry around the nose and eyes, and took off from there.

We wandered around the city some more, and made our way to the beach, which was not too far. I stuck my hand in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and Jeannie got her feet wet.

There was a tram nearby the went over the harbor and up to Montjuïc, a hill in the heart of the city and a meter higher than the Gaudi basilica. Up on top was nice views of the city and place for lunch, chicken croquets and local beer. Lots of food prepared with tomatoes too. Jeannie had a memory the the Olympic diving pool from the ’92 games was up there somewhere so we hiked around to try and find it, but didn’t know exactly were to look.

Later on, back at the beach we had dinner at at Barcelona’s idea of an American style beach bar. I had a burger that of course had bacon and fried egg on top. Jeannie got a seafood dish, a plate of fried whole prawns, heads and all. Maybe it was just the drink menu that was American style, with things like Long Island Iced Tea and Cosmopolitans.

In the evening we got on the train to take us to the origami conference in Zaragoza. It’s about 4 hours away by car, but the train goes 300 km/hr, so it’s only about an hour and half.

Monday morning were on the train again, coming back from Zaragoza, and on to a monastery called Montserrat, in the mountains outside of town. The train to Montserrat was part of the local subway system, although it was mostly above ground once it got out of the city center. At the base of the mountain we transferred to a cog railroad that took us halfway up the mountain to where the monastery is.

The mountains themselves are really weird looking, all puffy and cartoonish with lots of bizarre peaks and mounds, cliff faces and deeply cleft valleys. Close up the stone is unusual, soft sandstone full of rocks ranging from pebbles to good sized stones, so it almost looks like concrete. The range is not long, but it’s pretty high, a dramatic local upthrust.

The monastery is nestled right in the side of the mountain. There’s a whole complex there with a beautiful gothic church, a courtyard, shops and restaurants, an art museum with some really cool stuff including a bunch of medieval religious art, presumably from the monastery’s past, and alot of famous painters and sculptors, spanning from classical to modern, mostly Spanish but also French, Italian, Dutch and others.

From there you can take the funicular up to the top of the mountain. We hiked along the trails to the various peaks. To the south you can see Barcelona and the sea. To the north the snow-capped Pyrenees near the French border. To the east it’s hills and to the west high plains and desert. There’s even a shrine to Sant Joan up there.

There’s also some interesting plants and birds. There’s a very distinctive black and white bird I’ve never seen before. About the size of a crow, but much prettier. There’s also a variety of cyprus tree that grows around there, tall and thin and very dense so it looks like it’s been pruned. They tend to grow in clumps or rows. Almost certainly the inspiration for Guidi’s Nativity Façade. There’s also palm trees (not so much on the mountaintop, but all over town), and pine trees and cacti and other succulents. In fact it’s alot like California. Even the weather is similar, very mild and often foggy.

Then we caught the same set of trains in reverse order and were back in Barcelona. Our hotel the first leg of the trip was out near the beach, but this time were in the middle of downtown, right near one of the main train stations. We were pretty tired by the time we got back to the hotel, but luckily there was a row of restaurants right across the street. We found a great Lebanese place that serves shawarma and things like that.

I didn’t have a problem with the language. I didn’t really study up on Spanish like I did with German and Hungarian for the last trip. Still I was able to read the signs and understand a bit of conversation. Alot of people spoke english, but when they didn’t I found I could still communicate well enough to order food and that kind of thing. However I found myself wanting to say “danke” instead of “gracias” all the time.

Tuesday was the last day of the trip. We spent the morning walking around the neighborhood. Right next to our hotel was another funky park, and past that another picturesque old neighborhood. We made our way to Montjuïc from the opposite side, happened upon some castle, and past that the big Catalonia art museum. Spain seems to have alot of great artists and holds them in high regard. Although we didn’t have time to go inside, the grounds around it were pretty impressive, as was the architecture.

Then it was back the airport and home. Cold and rainy New York City.

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