Little plates and big ideas in Barcelona

Our landlords in Barcelona gave us a special gift – a certificate for an evening of regional treats at Quimet & Quimet, a local bar/bodega. We decided to go there on our return from Bilbao.

At Quimet & Quimet

The minute we walked in, we felt a great sense of camaraderie. A tiny, one room space, Quimet & Quimet has been going since 1914 passing from one generation to the next and currently run by a brother and sister team. The small room is filled with bottles of wine and spirits floor to ceiling (some, perhaps, that have been there since the bodega opened). There is a long prep counter along one wall, where the owners were busily working.

The place felt full with only 14 customers. There were no chairs and only two tables to stand at, so we parked ourselves beside a long refrigerator filled with wine bottles. When the owners understood that we had been given a gift certificate, they filled our glasses with Cave, put the remainder of the bottle in the fridge beside us, and told us to fill our glasses whenever we needed. Then, over the course of the next hour and a half, they treated us with 16 different montaditos – little cold tapas creations on crusty breads.

The montaditos are improvised every night, depending on the fresh ingredients at hand. We explained that we were eating pescatarian/vegetarian and were presented with assemblages of fish, shellfish, roe, beans, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. We set them out along the top of the refrigerator and shared them amongst the four of us, only regretting that we didn’t know what most of the ingredients were. Joana, one of the owners, told us what she could, but between her Spanish, and our ignorance, we were not always sure of what we were eating. However, they were exciting and unique tastes, lovingly and individually created.

Because there were no tables, we felt as though we were in someone’s home, at a great party. The hosts were creating food, non-stop, but also chatting with people and keeping the “party” going. Soon we had met and had great conversations with almost everyone in the place.

The owners, busy behind the bar at Quimet & Quimet

Quimet & Quimet specialize in local cheeses. Someone told us about Cabrallas, “the strongest sheep’s milk cheese”, made in the north of Spain. It is wrapped in “vegetable matter”, buried in the ground under cow manure and left to age for a couple of years. Apparently, the homemade version is eaten with the worms that gather around the edges. The commercial version, we were assured is worm free.

Of course we had to try some. It was that kind of a place, that kind of evening.  (It was a very strong cheese. A little went a long way)

We finished the evening with Portado Miso, a chilled herbal digestif from Galicia. We walked back to the apartment feeling really lucky to have been invited and wishing that we could spend a lot more time there.

Tim, Amanda and Hinda at Quimet & Quimet

We spent the next day walking along the harbor and visiting galleries. We went to the Joan Miro gallery on Muntanya de Montjuic overlooking the city, and to the Picasso museum in Gothic palaces in the centre of the old city. Both gave us insights into the artists’ connection to their Catalan childhoods and the influence that they had on each other’s work. Inspired, we decided to go to see the work of the third great Catalan artist of the twentieth century. We went to the small town of Figueres, about 60 miles away, to experience the Dali museum.

The back of the museum, covered in little loaves of bread and giant eggs
A whimsical Dali out front

Dali created his museum in a renovated theatre in his hometown. He knew it would put the town on the map as a tourist destination and it certainly has. Figueres is a pretty little Spanish town, quite ordinary, except for the fact that it houses the world’s most elaborately eccentric gallery.

The Dali museum is totally fun. It is arranged randomly, although there are arrows to guide you so that you don’t get too lost. It is filled with whimsical things that Dali made specifically for the museum. He also built it knowing it would also be his “final resting place”. His tomb is in the middle of the gallery, in a surprisingly conservative setting, surrounded by his gold jewelry creations, turning him into a kind of Faberge icon.

The central courtyard of the gallery is filled with a sculpture based on an old car.

Car sculpture in the courtyard

When you look inside the car, the driver is being consumed by ivy.

Inside the car

For one euro, you can make it rain inside the car.

The “Face of Mae West which can be used as an apartment” installation is an apartment size recreation of a Dali painting.

Face of Mae West which can be used as an apartment, intstalation
Face of Mae West through the glass

By looking through a concave glass, the three-dimensional pieces come together to reproduce the painting.

Throughout the gallery there are wonderful drawings and paintings, reminding you how technically accomplished Dali was. Because we had spent the previous day with Miro and Picasso, we saw connections –  a Dali hologram with elements of the same Velazquez painting that we had seen recreated as a cubist painting by Picasso. A mannequin leg sculpture almost identical to one of Miro’s sculptures we’d seen.

Dali Sculpture
Miro sculpture

The gallery became greater than the sum of its parts. Politics, art, environment. Food and wine. All in the eye of the beholder, and we had beheld a lot.

Visiting this surreal gallery in the midst of a very ordinary, but lovely little town, made Dali’s work seem even more startling. We sat outside at a café in the main street of Figueres to soak up the sun and the juxtaposition. It was a fitting farewell to our time in Spain, a land of many surprises.

Lunch on the main street in Figueres

Bilbao and more surprises in Spain

Bilbao sits at the head of the Estuary of Bilbao in the Bay of Biscay, in the north central part of Spain, along the river Nervion. It is the largest city in the Basque country, which is an “autonomous region of Spain”. I have always heard about the Basque fight for rights and independence, but know none of the politics or history. Going to Bilbao gave me an immediate appreciation for the distinctiveness of the region.

Bilbao along the river Nervion

No one in Bilbao refers to it as “Basque”. The correct name is Euskadi, which comes from the standardized version of the language, called Euskara Batua, developed in the 1960s and based on the central Basque dialect. It is now the most spoken language in the region and has official status in Spain. As a cosmopolitan city of 350,000, the tourist centres in Bilbao provide information in Euskara, Spanish, Catalan, Galacian, French and English.

The minute we arrived we knew that we wouldn’t really have enough time to do the area justice.

We had come to Bilbao from Barcelona to go to the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. This world famous building was designed by Frank Gehry in 1997 and it has put Bilbao on the tourist map. In 1995, before the museum opened, Bilbao had 25,000 tourists.  In 2009 there were 615,000 visitors annually. Bilbao is definitely worth the pilgrimage because, aside from the museum, it is a livable and welcoming small city with delicious regional cuisine.

The 14th century cathedral in the heart of the old city

We arrived on a sunny morning, settling into a small hotel in the old city Casco Veijo.

The centre of the Casco Viejo

The original city was developed in 1300, with the cathedral at the centre of seven streets surrounded by a walled enclosure. It has a picture perfect central square with stores, cafes and a very friendly feel. A quick café con leche and we headed out for a sunny walk along the river in search of the museum.

Bilbao has a great river walk, with dramatically designed bridges and wonderful buildings set against a mountain backdrop.

Tim sitting by the river in the sunshine

It is the perfect way to come upon the Guggenheim Museum bringing you, effectively, from the back around to the front of the museum.

There is a reason why this building is world famous. It is a stunning sight from every viewpoint and much larger than any of us had imagined.

The Bilbao Guggenheim

We kept circling around it, trying to fathom its shape, which seemed infinitely changeable. Being on a river, it was designed to resemble a ship, but one that is in constant motion. The organic sculpted contours create folds, curves and angles that catch the light.

When we finally made it to the front of the museum we found “Puppy”, by Jeff Koons, a wonderful living sculpture. “Puppy” sits out front fully clad in flowers that change with the season. It is about 20’ tall and gives an incredibly cheerful welcome to the museum.

"Puppy" by Jeff Koons

Inside, the museum was equally surprising. We toured the space, walking out onto the terraces and touching the soft titanium panels of the outer shell that remind you of fish scales. The museum is the art that people come to see and we were not disappointed.

The museum, and Puppy, at the end of the street

We did take some time to go through the exhibits, of course. A vast Richard Serra show, built for the gallery, takes up almost half of the first floor. The show is very much an extension of the gallery, losing us in a maze of metal, making us dizzy in the weight of the structures around us. I’ve never really appreciated Richard Serra, but seeing this work, in this space, was quite mind-bending.

Serra’s work was paired with the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. A marvelous room with soaring high ceilings was the perfect setting for Brancusi’s bird sculptures. After the density of galleries in Italy, it was wonderful to see these sculptures given such an open, spacious setting.

The Guggenheim on the river Nervion

We walked back along the river, and journeyed back in time to the old city. Tourists off-season, we went to dinner early, 9:00, for meal of new fish discoveries. Tim had the “best fish soup” of his life – a dark rich thick broth that made every other fish stock seem anemic. We each had different kinds of fish – biscayan cod, gilthead fish, pastry parcels stuffed with mussels and prawns, monkfish.

Up early the next morning, we decided to visit the market, to see some of these local fish on offer. On the way we passed a small park that had public exercise equipment, designed for easy use. A woman was sitting reading her paper while quietly biking in place.

A well designed park for exercising beside the river

This is not a place for heavy sweating, but a lovely way to build up a few muscles, gently, while still enjoying the river. After all of our eating, we probably should have spent more time there.

Our last adventure in Bilboa was to take the Metro out the old port of Getxo. The Bilbao Metro is clean, efficient and easy to use. In fact we were treated to some great entertainment en route with a couple of Mexican mariachi musicians serenading the car.

HInda on the Metro with a Mexican musician

Probably illegal, we realized, as they hastily put everything away before the doors opened at the next stop. But quite wonderful for us.

We didn’t have much time to explore Getxo, unfortunately. But we were able to walk in the sunshine, look out to the Bay of Biscay, and to see some of the ships that brought us our fish last night.

Heading up the cliff

We spotted a restaurant on the edge of the cliff. A quick climb and we were sitting outside in the sunshine, enjoying delicious local olives, perfect salads with gorgeous fresh anchovies and local wine at Cafe Usategi Algorta. It’s an amazing restaurant with many local specialties, and a complete surprise for us. We had come with no expectations and were treated to one of the best meals of our stay in Spain.

Tim and David choking on laughter at the Cafe Usategi Algorta

Our visit to Euskadi was all too short.

The Bay of Biscay

Organic structures and learning how to eat bread in Spain

Functionality and form on the roof top of Casa Milà

One of the main reasons for wanting to go to Barcelona was because of the work of Antoni Gaudí. I have always been enchanted with photos that I have seen of his work – large fantastical monuments, whimsical and daring, connecting earth and spirit. I found it hard to believe that the buildings and forms would really be there, in the midst of a busy city.

Gaudí grew up in the countryside in Catalunya, a sickly child who loved to be in nature.

“With the flowerpots, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, cheered by the clucking of hens, the song of the birds and the buzzing of the insects, and with the mountains of Prades in the distance, I captured the purest and most pleasant images of nature that is ever our Mistress” (Gaudí).

Everything in his work was dictated by a connection to the organic forms in nature and to a deep spirituality. There were three main works of Gaudí’s that we wanted to see in Barcelona: the cathedral Sagrada Familia; Parc Guëll; and the apartment house Casa Milà.

Sagrada Familia

The first stone for Sagrada Familia was laid in 1882. They think it might be finished in the first third of this century. Thousands of builders and artists have worked on it over the last 125 years in what is truly a labour of devotion. Gaudí himself lived on site for the last 10 years of his life.

Sagrada Familia sanctuary

Visiting Sagrada Familia was an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. This, I thought, must have been what it was like to go onto the construction site of Notre Dame Cathedral, which took a mere 80 years to build. Sagrada Familia is vast in size, scale and imagination – everywhere you look there are carvings, images with resonance to Christian symbolism. There is light, space, and a feeling of soaring energy.

Sagrada Familia the trinity triangle above the alter, made with mosaic and light.

“The expiatory church of La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.” Gaudí.

This commitment to the people included building a school, on site, for the children of the workers. A cozy place to learn.

Sagrada Familia school

In these days when we expect instant results, when monolithic buildings are built in a matter of months, it is extraordinary to think of the commitment that Barcelona has made to this long-term, monumental building project. You can see it from every part of the city. Words and pictures cannot do it justice. You will have to go to see it yourself. And when you do, you will be reminded that your entrance fee will go toward helping to complete the cathedral. A good reason to go.

Sagrada Familia. The passion and resurrection entrance, detail

A few blocks from Sagrada Familia we found ourselves in a perfect little “Tienda y Restaurante”. It was our first big meal in Barcelona and without knowing it we began an incredible three-hour lunchtime extravaganza at Los Bellota, productos de Extremadura.

Extremadura is in western Spain, an entirely different climate and markedly different cuisine from Catalunya. It was at this meal that we were taught the Spanish way of enjoying bread. A basket of bread, deliciously toasted and rough on one side, was brought to the table, as well as several whole tomatoes and large cloves of fresh garlic. We were a bit mystified until our waiter came over to show us what to do. Rub the garlic directly onto the warm bread. Cut the tomato and rub it directly into the bread. Dip it into olive oil. Simple and really, really good. The trick is in the roughness of the toasted bread – it must have the right kind of grating quality to liberate the garlic and tomato juices.

Bread was followed by multiple dishes of exciting tastes: “Torta Extremeña”, a baked and runny cheese that we scooped onto little toasts; “Boquerones con tomate”, anchovies on tomatoes with a parsley drizzle; “Bacalao Dorado con Cebolla y Patatas”, a kind of fry up with cod, onion and potato; “Ensalada con Queso y Frutos secos con Miel”, salad with greens, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, honey and potato (thin crisps, really) with a kind of wine vinegar reduction. Honey is used a lot in Extremadura cooking and the honey and potato combination is apparently common. The table was heaped with food and everything was incredibly good. We drank a wine from the region, “Macabeo Campo Barro”, and when we were sure we couldn’t fit in one more mouthful, the waiter brought us a digestif, on the house – a frosted drink that seemed to be a kind of aqua vitae with caramel liquour dripped in. It was delicious, the perfect finale to the meal. He left the bottle at the table, encouraging us to have as much as we liked, which was generous but considering how full we were, impossible.

There is something amazingly wonderful about huge meals in the middle of the day. This was to be the first of many extravagant lunches, with many tasty plates and incredibly good local wines. It was a good thing we had so much walking to do, so many sights to see.

La Pedrera

Gaudí was commissioned by Pere Milà 1906 to begin work on Casa Milà, affectionately called “La Pedrera”, the stone quarry. The apartment building was a showcase for L’Eixample and represented the pride in the growth of Barcelona. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the building is now owned by CatalunyaCaixa, an organization that focuses on Cultural, Environmental and Educational social projects. A portion of La Pedrera, including an apartment on the 4th floor, is open to the public. It recreates the home of a bourgeois Barcelonian family of the early 20thcentury, complete with all original fittings.

Kitchen in the apartment at La Pedrera

There is a softness to the lines in the apartment, and ingenious “modern” design elements including a composting and heating system that make the apartment feel far more contemporary than it is. On one side the apartment building circles around an inner, private courtyard. On the other it faces outward to the busy city.

Looking down into the inner courtyard for the apartments of La Pedrera

The roof top terrace was the most exciting part of the building for me. Gaudí created harmony in all of the elements of his buildings, always embracing beauty and natural forms.

The roof top of La Pedrera

The curves on the front of the building are mirrored in the dipping and swooping of the rooftop. The architectural sculptures on the roof  are fully functional and encompass stairwells, ventilation towers and chimneys. And the rooftop gives a fabulous view of the L’Eixample and Sagrada Familia beyond.

Tim on the roof top of La Pedrera. Sagrada Familia in the distance

Going to Parc Guëll, we had a different view of the city.

The entrance to Parc Guëll with the city and ocean beyond

Funded by Count Eusibi Guëll, the park was originally envisioned as a housing site on a rocky hill with little vegetation called Muntanya Pelada (Bare Mountain). Sixty houses were planned, but in the end there were no buyers, so Gaudi designed the site as a fantastical public garden, filled with symbolic, historical and spiritual elements.

Entrance to Park Guëlll, the terraced benches above

The focal point of the main entrance is a huge mosaic dragon that curves around to become a large terrace surrounded by mosaicked benches. Apparently Gaudí used the impression of a workman’s buttocks in wet clay to give him the shape he wanted for the curvature of the bench. It is a wonderfully social space, and the curves invite weary buttocks to rest. Small groups cluster on the benches. There is a feeling of intimacy and privacy.

Tim and Amanda on the mosaic benches

Weird and wonderful stone columns create walkways amidst thick vegetation.

Stone arches amongst the vegetation
Parc Guëll stone archways

Mock Parakeets flit through the trees. We walked away from the main tourist area, to the quiet of some stone archways. A lone classical guitar player was playing soft sounds that resonated off the stone and into our hearts. A human creating beautiful sounds on a simple instrument. As the park bathed us in organic shapes and texture, natural and manmade, the music completed the experience. Gaudí and a simple street musician, brought us to a sense of home.

A musician under the arches

Barcelona. Passion made visible.

Our friends David and Hinda escaped the ice and snow of Canada to meet up with us in Barcelona. We share a love of architecture, art, food and wine. Barcelona was the perfect place to rendezvous.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was that the signs were in Catalan, English and Spanish. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, the centre of the world for more than 7.5 million Catalunians. Tim and I had been immersing ourselves in regional cultures of Italy but we had never been to Spain and thought of it as a solid mass. We were soon in a crash course learning about the exciting region of Catalunya.

Plaça de Catalunya. The central Catalunian square.

The city of Barcelona has a population of 1.7 million, but Barcelona’s influence and importance far exceeds its size with a surrounding metropolitan area of 5 million people. It is a city with a proud history, and a city that has made very conscious decisions about its growth.

Incorporating the Roman walls into the city

The city’s original Roman roots can still be seen in the Ciutat Vella (the old city). In the 19th century, L’Eixample (the expansion) was built to connect the old city with surrounding communities. L’Eixample was designed along a grid system with the corners lopped off (chamfered corners). Buildings were built on these octagonal blocks and the resulting intersections are more spacious with greater visibility than in ordinary grids. Courtyards for residents were built in the centre of each block, and the whole area was designed to ensure that there were markets and schools within each 10-block radius.

It is a city with a fascinating mixture of styles, architectural ideas, city planning and happenstance with the people placed firmly at the centre.

We began by taking the funicular up Muntanya de Montjuïc. The original fortifications for the city were built here, affording a view of the city and the port beyond.

A view from Muntanya de Montjuïc

Walking through the gardens we began to get a sense of the city as we headed for our first architectural pilgrimage, the Mies van der Rohe “Barcelona Pavilion”.

The Barcelona Pavilion was actually built as the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. An icon of modern architecture, it is known for its simple form and straight lines that guide the visitor’s movement through the space.

Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion

Made with marble, onyx, glass and travertine, it was designed to be the exhibit, not to house an exhibit.

Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion, detail

It contains a single sculpture and 4 “Barcelona Chairs” of van der Rohe design. It was envisioned as a “zone of tranquility”, for the weary exhibition traveller.

Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion, detail

The building was torn down following the Exhibition but reconstructed on its present site in 1983. Coming upon it as we did, in a park overlooking a city of curvature, of buildings created to mirror organic shapes and reflect human usage, it’s simplicity was a shock.

By contrast, construction on the Hospital de la Santa Creu began in 1902 as a vast project to respond to the expanded needs of a growing city. Designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau opened in 1930.

The Hospital de la Santa Creu I de Sant Pau

With 48 different health care pavilions, it functioned as a city within a city, with ingenious tunnels between buildings and gardens and open spaces for patients.

In 1987, UNESCO declared The Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau a world heritage site. Hospital functions were moved to a new location and in 2009 a new project began, the Sant Pau Historic SiteThe original buildings are being restored, and will be the home for an exciting international think-tank.

Pavilions of The Hospital de la Santa Creu I de Sant Pau

Working with the United Nations University Institute for the Alliance of Civilizations, Sant Pau aims to collaborate with various international organizations to generate new solutions for environmental, financial and social problems facing the Mediterranean. Through an alliance of nations and cultures, it is envisioned as an “incubator for new ideas”.

“…different ways to approach the issues and find solutions, by mixing corporate enterprise with social groups, and by mixing social groups with international bodies, with universities, with centres of research…” Gemma Sendra, director of St. Pau’s Historical Site.

one of the pavilions of the Hospital de la Santa Creu

Visiting the site, which is under reconstruction, we were struck by the beauty and the infinite optimism. This is a city that believes in its history and in its place in the world. The architecture is a home for ideas and it continually reflects the boldness of the city’s vision.

We ended our day of architectural exploration with an evening walk along the boardwalk and onto the beach to see people building castles in the sand. A city of contradictions and passion made visible. A city of the people.

Tim, David and Hinda on the beach, at night, in Barcelona
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