Monday, January 26, 2009

On not Ramblasing through Barcelona

Leaving Italy, we caught a night train from Milan to Barcelona under the impression that we would have compartment to ourselves. This impression was endorsed by the fact that we had paid a premium to do so (we thought). However, we wound up sharing a compartment with an Italian man and a Russian woman. This would have been fine except that the only person who managed to get a full night’s sleep was the Russian woman whose snores drowned out the sleep-inducing rattle of the train. (She was large and ebullient and the only thing bigger than her personality was her suitcase, which took up the entire floorspace of the car...SS) As they say ‘Live and learn’ or, in this case, learn to live without sleep.

We rented an apartment in the Barrio Gotik. It was very centrally located at the top of Las Ramblas and above a Hard Rock Café. Opposite was a park, and just in front the footpath acted as a Mecca for buskers. I would like to say I have nothing against buskers but that would be lying. Some, I am sure, are fine individually, but, en masse, they are a plague that should stamped on until they are dead as smelts (I don’t know what it means either but I like the sound of it). O.K. I’m being a bit harsh. In my favour, I cite the recent phenomenon where a couple of buskers whack one of those ‘relaxation’ or ambient music CDs into a sound system then both bash, pluck or plink away on home-made instruments in the pursuit of ‘world music’. I mean, really! Whale songs and a bit of repurposed twig and string does not music make. It makes a repetitive drone somewhere at the far end of the annoyance scale between bagpipes and ‘A Horse with No Name’.

On the upside, in the morning, I could look out the back windows (O.K. the only windows) of the apartment and watch the sun rise over the Mediterranean Sea while pigeons circled around the bell-tower of an old church two storeys below. Delightful. (The bit where the lifts broke down and we had to walk up and down six flights for the last 2 days of our stay, including lugging our luggage out... slightly less so. ss)

I have read Robert Hughes’ book ‘Barcelona’ but thankfully forgotten every word except that he mentions La Ramblas a lot. La Ramblas is the root source of the term ‘rambling’ ie: to wander aimlessly. The street itself is nothing but a wide avenue along which people with nothing better to do walk annoyingly slowly while looking at a ridiculously large number of living sculptures. I mean, really, what goes through peoples’ minds. ‘Hey honey, look at this guy. He’s doing nothing. Oh wow, that’s amazing. Let’s go look at this other guy, he’s doing nothing too!’

To make matters even more pointless not all the ‘sculptures’ model themselves on sculptures. We saw Edward Scissorhands, Michael Jackson and other fictitious characters. I got the feeling that if I stood still for five minutes some idiot would want their photograph taken with me. When, if ever, the sloth-like crowd became bored with the immobile beggars, they could go and look at small creatures freeze to death in the open-air pet shops that line the walk. I thought of calling the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but realized they would have a hard time deciding which dumb animals – the pets, the sculptures or the audience – were most in need of euthanising. After one stroll down La Ramblas we decided there were far more interesting streets to get lost on and stuck to them.
We had hoped to see a lot of stuff in Barcelona but the weather and the festive season were against us. Australians have a reputation as fans of the long weekend. It is thoroughly undeserved – Australians have nothing on the Italians and Spaniards. We suffered closed museums, bars and galleries from Xmas in Milan to New year in Venice and Bologna to Epiphany in Barcelona. The epiphany we underwent was not to try and tour between the 23rd of December and the 7th of January. However, we did get to see the ‘Feste del Trio Reyes’ which is a big thing for everyone under the age of 12 in Barcelona, and a bigger thing for those older than 12 who have fond memories of freezing their arses off while watching an endless procession all viewed through the rose tinted lens of nostalgia.

It is a huge parade dedicated to the three magi who brought presents to the Christ child. At the head of the parade was a troop of horse-borne paramilitary folk, followed, delightfully I thought, by a phalanx of mechanized street sweepers. This was followed by every juggler, mime and living sculpture in the city finally earning their keep. They were interspersed with floats dedicated to the magi and seemingly immune of the problems with racial stereotyping.

The floats were bedecked with children who cast lollies into the crowd. There was one kid who had a really good arm and was, I am sure, targeting individuals. Luckily I was out of range because I was tempted to catch a treat and throw it back at him, just to see what would happen. It being Spain I decided it would probably lead to bloodshed and dancing and thus refrained. Anyway, the point is most of the sugar laden missiles fell well short of me. Nevertheless, I am sure a good many spectators went home with lollie-shaped bruises on their faces. As hard as it is for a skeptical old fossil like myself to admit, I enjoyed the whole thing. Especially one dancer who was obviously suffering motion sickness in her precarious crows-nest of a trolley. She blanched, sat down, gagged into her hand and finally got up to nervously to nobly carry on with the dance routine woefully out of time with her more cheerily robust colleagues. As I said, I enjoyed the whole thing immensely.

Of all the places we visited, two stand out particularly. One was a little tapas bar where we ate great food and drank fine wine. I’m sure Shiralee will fill in the details but I think she ate another rabbit.

The other place was the Frederic Marés museum. Marés was a collector. He was a collector’s collector. The amount of stuff he managed to get his hands on is simply staggering. I now believe that the reputation the Communists, Anarchist and Republicans got for stripping the churches during the Civil War is all down to Mares. The museum has walls of crucifixions, rooms of saints and warehouses worth of stuff both religious and secular.

The collection ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is a gallery dedicated to objects made from human hair and not one of them is a wig. Between it and the room dedicated to fans, are a gallery of tools, a couple of walls covered in keys, his collection of risque photos, a particularly lame collection of time pieces, several generations of ceramic ware, two collages of cigar labels, a room of flower arrangements and religious scenes made entirely from shells and a couple of cigarette machines that look like 1:20 models of combine harvesters. And that is not the half of it. The man did not know when to stop. If anything came in multiples Mares collected it. He was obviously mad but it was a good kind of madness. Collectors everywhere should raise shrines to his long suffering family who put up with him and allowed such a collection to survive. It is a must see.
Speaking of must sees; the Sagrada de Famiglia is not one. If you admire the pictures you have seen of it, leave it at that. Up close, everything about it fails to live up to expectations. The best that can be said for it is that it is unique and thank God for that. It is also horrible. Individual aspects are interesting but, by and large, it is an example of something being less than the sum of its parts. The sculptures are cack-handed and should be destroyed immediately. The brightly coloured organic tile work is awful and at best distracts you from the dreadfulness of the rest of it. At a close view the whole thing looks like a much better building that has been left partially dissolved by acid rain.

The famous façade is nothing more than that. It has been half-arsedly, and noticeably so, tacked on to a gothic substructure. The so-called organic globules that cover the two towers look like fossilized pigeon shit except that the local pigeons have found far nicer buildings for their ablutions. It is awful. The interior is of noble proportions and commendably light and airy although most of that comes from the recent additions.

The recent furtherance of the design is an interesting, but abject, failure. It raises the question of how you complete the work of a megalomaniac. Obviously by adding more rubbish sculpture and extending the catenary arches well beyond the catenaries. And, by the way, what’s so innovative about catenary arches? Isn’t that the way most medieval cathedrals were built? I have seen the drawings and understand how architects can be tempted to believe that the whole thing must be completed before it makes sense. But I believe that once it is done people will realize it was a big mistake. The man was the Albert Speer of Catholicism.

Frankly the building looked its best in 1936. If they want a piece of evocative architecture they should complete it then drop bombs on it. It will make an interesting ruin. I have seen more evocative cathedrals in England. The building doesn’t stand comparison with work of Sinan. It’s about a subtle as Stonehenge. What’s more once you have seen it up close you develop a distaste for all his other work. Frankly, writing about Gaudi has put me in such a bad frame of mind I am going to stop now.
Another Gaudi building (see, we did give him a go!)

Oh, one last thing. We saw an excellent exhibition of Rodchenko’s works and a couple of other things but if you want to hear about them you will need a dinner invitation or have to offer one. (JB)
The Rodchenko show was actually in Casa Mila, another famous Gaudi building. Given that it cost 10euros to visit the Gaudi part, Rodchenko for free was a bargain! And it was kickarse show.
Mysterious slow slow and quiet dancing around central totems composed of handbags and puffy jackets...?
Museum of the History of the City -- beautiful building from the outside -- and has a lovely flag from one of the Armada ships (or something at least as long ago). It is also built over the original Roman wall and foundations which have been exposed on the bottom-most floor. However, it is rather expensive, they don't let you take pics and we'd seen far superior museums for free elsewhere... so not a must-see

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