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Click on an image to scroll through the pictures of Barcelona…
‘For us, the hall ranks alongside the Musikverein in Vienna, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, or the Royal Albert Hall in London’ – Lluís Millet
Friday the 15th June was my birthday and on account of having one or two glasses of wine over what was really sensible I was surprised next morning over breakfast to find so many night time pictures in my camera of the Sagrada Familia; also, I was wearing a brand new Barcelona tee-shirt. Wow, I must have way too many because it turned out that I had been shopping as well!
It was our last half day in Barcelona and after breakfast I walked to the tourist office and bought tickets to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palau De La Musica Catalana and on the way back to the IBIS hotel I bought another Barcelona tee-shirt and the only explanation that I have for that is that the alcohol was still working its way through my system. I am pleased to report however that I hadn’t lost complete control of my senses or of my wallet because it was only a cheap tourist shop and not the official Sagrada Familia boutique with prices to match the height of the towers.
After packing and checking out we set out now on foot back towards the old Gothic Quarter of Barcelona which was relatively straight-forward now that we had mastered the geography of the grid system of Eixample and within half an hour or so we were close to our intended destination. Actually, even though we had made an unscheduled stop at a market hall we were about thirty minutes early.
We had bought scheduled tickets for the Palau De La Musica and this seems to be the preferred way of doing things in Barcelona these days. There are discounts for booking on-line and a guaranteed timed visit but, maybe I am a bit old fashioned here, the system seems to rob a city visit of any spontaneity and imposes time pressures that are a bit of a burden and I found that I was forever keeping an eye on the clock I suppose that a city that has thirty-five million visitors a year needs to have some sort of organisation. Some statistics suggest that Barcelona is the fifth most visited city in Europe after London, Paris, Rome and Prague.
So we waited for the visit to begin and the sense of expectation began to rise as we sensed that what was about to begin was going to be rather spectacular. And we were not disappointed.
The Palau is an icon of modernist architecture in the city, if there were to be an arm wrestling competition with the Gaudi experience then this would hold its own for sure. It is an exercise in opulence, grand salons, tiled columns decorated to reflect nature and a concert hall that would surely distract any performer or spectator through a musical performance of any kind.
And at the very top of the building a great glass dome, a drop of water hanging from the ceiling like a tear from a melting icicle with reflections of the sun, a source of both light and inspiration. Effectively, this is a large skylight, the centre of which forms an inverted dome over the rectangular auditorium, the dome is described as ‘a giant droplet just about to fall from the ceiling‘, or ‘one of the most remarkable works of stained glass art of our times’. The effect is such that the hall is claimed to be the only auditorium in Europe that is illuminated during daylight hours entirely by natural light.
For me this was the highlight of the visit to Barcelona and we had saved the best till last. In a city that has Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia the Palau De La Musica was easily the best of all attractions and my advice to anyone going to the city would be to make this an absolute priority visit. It has grand architecture, a riot of colour, opulent decoration and a rich musical history. It left me wide eyed and open mouthed, overawed and drooling.
It was fabulous and I could have stayed there all day but the tour was drawing to an inevitable close and after a final look around the ornate reception area we were back on the streets and in our favourite bar at Plaça Catalunya making an assessment of our visit before returning to the hotel to take a taxi back to the airport and a flight home. I was planning to pick out my top five places in Barcelona but it was impossible, I had enjoyed everything about the city and the short five day visit. I might have to go back!
The train from Montserrat arrived back at Plaça d’Espanya in the middle of the afternoon and this was our chance to take a look at another famous district of Barcelona – Montjuïc, a flat top mountain area which overlooks the port and the city.
The Plaça d’Espanya was included in the plans for the expansion of Barcelona in the mid-nineteenth century and was laid out with wide boulevards and six main roads all converging on the centre of the square where there is a monumental statue surrounded by a Baroque colonnade. It was completed in 1929 on the occasion of the International Exhibition which was held in this area of the City.
The statue at the centre is designed as an allegory representing all of Spain. Three sides with sculptures that symbolize the three principal rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, Ebro, Guadalquivir, and Tagus, around the central sculpture, three decorated columns which symbolise a Spanish/Catalan self-assessment of the qualities of themselves as a Nation – Religion, Heroism and Arts.
The Plaça d’Espanya is a busy roundabout, on one side is the old bullring, now a shopping centre (because bull fighting is banned in Catalonia) and on the other are two bell-towers known as the Venetian Towers, on account of the fact that design and construction was heavily influenced by St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice. From there a walk up a gentle gradient towards the imposing structure of the Renaissance style Palau Nacional, built in 1929 as the main exhibition hall and today The National Art Museum of Catalonia.
This is a lovely part of Barcelona that has a national and international ambiance with architecture borrowed and copied from across Europe and with buildings designed to give a representation of all of Spain. A shame then that large areas of it were destroyed in the calamitous Spanish Civil war of 1936 to 1939. Fortunately everything is now rebuilt and restored in the original style.
To illustrate this, at the centre of this Spanish showcase, next to the Palau Nacional, is an attraction called Poble Espanyol, built in 1929 and still there now as a tourist attraction. I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities. For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.
The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.
An interesting thing about the attraction is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop? So, I have looked it up; apparently the research designers were unable to organise a visit to the Canary Islands for economic reasons and LaRioja didn’t exist as an Autonomous Community of Spain until 1980.
We stayed around the area for a while but it was too late to visit the museum or the shops of Poble Espanyol so we stopped for a drink in the park and then made our way back to the metro.
The route took us past a cascading waterfall and four ionic columns originally erected in 1919 to be a symbol of the Catalan Nation and its aspiration for self-governance and independence (the columns represent the stripes of the Catalan flag). The originals were demolished in 1928 under the orders of Madrid but were rebuilt in 2010. I understand the symbolism of the columns but to be honest I found them to be a little inconsistent with the area and a bit jarring on the eye.
Not so the adjacent Magic Fountain which was providing a fountain display where the water was dancing and leaping into the air with a cycle of changing routines. The fountain was commissioned to replace the four columns in time for the National Exhibition. It is a great spectacle but the best time to see it is at night time when the fountains are accompanied by a light show and music.
We weren’t staying close enough to return later (mid-June and not getting dark until quite late) so instead we returned to the same restaurant as the previous evening and instead of the fountain took night time pictures of the Sagrada Familia as an alternative.
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Some pictures of tiles down in the Barcelona Metro. I imagine a lot of people miss these as they rush through to make connections whilst being on the look-out for pickpockets!
After a day of modernist architect Antoni Gaudi and another one in the medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter of old Barcelona the plan today was to leave the city and take a train from Barcelona and travel thirty miles west to visit the Monastery of Montserrat.
So, with rigor mortis fingers clutching our wallets and our valuables we descended deep down into the metro tunnels and began our journey.
It took about an hour to arrive at our destination and then another thirty minutes on the funicular railway to reach the top of Catalonia’s Sacred Mountain. This is a place of pilgrimage where apparently every Catalan visits at least once in their life to watch the sunrise over the Serrated Mountain (Montserrat).
I have to start with another rather unlikely religious yarn.
The history of Montserrat began in the year 880 when a small group of shepherd children (these stories generally include young children – Knock in Ireland, Fatima in Portugal and even Joan of Arc) saw a bright light descending from the sky in the mountains and heard angels singing and instead of being shit-scared the music filled their hearts with a radiant joy.
The children ran home to frantically report the experience to their parents. They were sceptical but were persuaded to go to the place where the children had experienced the visions to collaborate the story and lo and behold they experienced the visitation as well. Next to come along was a local Priest who, surprise, surprise witnessed the same.
The visions occurred in and around a cave which was explored by the religious elders of the community where miraculously they found an image of the Virgin Mary. This is the Black Madonna, considered to be one of the most celebrated images in Spain, which is believed to perform numerous miracles and attracts millions of visitors every year from all over the world. People queue a long time to visit the Black Madonna, about three hours on the day that we were there, and when they get to the front of the line they get just about five seconds to make a wish before it is all over.
An interesting issue about the Madonna is that she is black and so is the infant Jesus which is just one of those pieces of evidence that some scholars rely upon to support the theory that Jesus wasn’t a sort of blond Nordic type that we all imagine him to have been in the west but rather more like a dark skinned man from the Middle East. Rather like an Arab. If Muslims believed in Jesus and were allowed religious portraits then I am certain he would be black.
Seems to work well both ways I think but that surely is the point, Jesus can be whatever you want him (or her) to be…
Another interesting fact is that in 1493 Christopher Columbus named the Caribbean island of Montserrat after the Virgin of Montserrat.
Not content with the dubious story of the Black Madonna, some also claim that somewhere in a cave in these mountains is the Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ and in previous times Monks used to live in the caves whilst they searched for it in-between prayer sessions.
Many places claim to be the likely site for the Grail (it is good for tourism, after all) but my favourite story is that it is currently in Fort Knox in the USA where tourists can’t go. The legend states that there is a special room somewhere deep inside the vault that stores not just the Holy Grail but also the Ark of the Covenant and the True Cross, complete with the dried blood of Christ. I expect Indiana Jones found them all and handed them over to the US Government for safe keeping!
Safe because the main vault door is twenty-two tons of steel and can withstand a direct hit from a two kiloton nuclear warhead. I don’t believe the story of the Holy Grail but for certain the Depository has housed a copy of the Magna Carta, the Hungarian crown jewels including the Crown of St. Stephen, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and various other historical documents from all over the world.
After visiting the church and the Benedictine Abbey and catching a brief glimpse of the Black Madonna from about one hundred yards away we left the monastery complex and took another funicular ride to the top of the mountain. Well, almost the top because after the train there was a steep climb and we didn’t fancy slogging our way right to the top. It was too hot!
The Monastery of Montserrat is about 4,000 feet high and isn’t even the highest in Catalonia because this is nearby Vall du Nuria which is about 7,500 feet high. By comparison the highest Monastery in the World is the Buddhist Rongbuk Monastery near the base of the north side of Mount Everest at 16,350 feet above sea level.
Building Monasteries as high as possible is rather like building churches as high as possible to try and get closer to God. Rather like the Bible story of the Tower Of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) …
Some people thought it was a good idea to build a tower so high they could get to heaven and prematurely meet God to see what he looked like (was he white, black or woman). God didn’t like that idea so he invented different languages so that no one could understand one another and they couldn’t complete the construction. Maybe this is why God allows natural disasters such as earthquakes to destroy Cathedrals like Christchurch in New Zealand, the Great Fire of London to burn down old St Paul’s or terrible wars and people like Bomber Harris whose job it was to destroy German Cathedrals in World war Two. Just a thought.
I didn’t feel especially close to God I have to say but I did enjoy the views and when we had had quite enough we took the train back down to the Monastery, stopped for a drink and then took the return journey all the way back to Barcelona. It had been a good excursion and I had enjoyed it.