Europe

Travel to Relax – Barcelona and Catalunya

Barcelona and CatalunyaBon da, I’m Rick Steves back with more of
the best of Europe. This time we’re in the land of Picasso, Gaud,
Salvador Dal, and caf con leche…It’s Barcelona! Juan: Barcelona! Barcelona is Spain’s second city, and the
capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya.
With Franco’s fascism now long gone, Catalunya’s independent and creative spirit is on a roll.
Many visitors find this to be Spain’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan corner. We’ll have some fun on the Ramblas, experience
Picasso’s ever-changing art, sample the city’s tapas and then go on a tour of Modernista
architecture culminating in Gaud’s unfinished masterpiece. All this before venturing to
the sky-high monastery of Montserrat, and finishing on the Costa Brava with the always
provocative Salvador Dal.

Spain fills most of the Iberian Peninsula.
The northeast corner is Catalunya. We’ll explore its leading city, Barcelona, before side-tripping
to Montserrat, Figueres, and Cadaqus. Barcelona has a rich history: Roman colony,
Dark Age Visigothic capital, and 14th-century maritime power. And beyond all its great sights
be sure to appreciate its elegant sense of style and its Mediterranean knack for good
living.

The city’s main square, Plaa Catalunya,
is the center of the world for 7 million Catalan people. It’s a lively people scene throughout
the day. The square is decorated with statues honoring important Catalans. Catalunya has
its own distinct language, history, and flag, which locals fly proudly – next to Spain’s
flags on government buildings…And all alone from their apartments.

Catalunya has often been at odds with the
central Spanish government in Madrid. During the 1930s this area was one of the last pockets
of resistance against the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When he finally took power
he punished the region with four decades of repression. During this period, the people
were forbidden to fly the Catalunyan flag.

Instead to show their national spirit, they
flew this – the flag of the Barcelona soccer team. Catalans consider themselves not part of a
“region” – that’s what Spain calls them – but a “nation without a state.” Kids: Viva Catalunya! The Catalan language is irrevocably tied to
the spirit and history of the Catalan people. Sure, everyone speaks Spanish, but these kids
speak Catalan first. Barcelona’s ever-popular strolling boulevard
is the Ramblas.

While souvenir shops and crowds of tourists have diluted its former elegance,
it still offers an entertaining introduction to the city. The Ramblas bird market is a hit with kids.
Traditionally, children bring their parents here to buy pets. Apartment-dwellers find
birds, fish, and bunnies easier to handle than dogs and cats. La Boqueria, just steps off the busy boulevard,
is Barcelona’s lively fish and produce market.

Locals shop in the morning for the best and
freshest selection. They say if you can’t find it at the Boqueria…It’s not worth eating. Where ever I travel, I enjoy the cafs and
little eateries in the markets. Here at the Pinotxo Bar, even while he and his family
are busy feeding shoppers, flamboyant Juan is happy to flash his trademark smile.

Back on the Ramblas, the carnival of Barcelona
life continues. A variety of street entertainers vie creatively for your attention…And your
coins. The bottom of the Ramblas is marked by the
Columbus Monument. It was here in Barcelona that the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen
Isabel welcomed Columbus home after his first trip to America.

It’s ironic that Barcelona would honor the
man whose discoveries opened up new trade routes that actually shifted the focus of
European trade away from here on the Mediterranean and out to the Atlantic…And in doing so,
actually contributed to the downfall of this city as a great trading power. But thriving Barcelona has clearly recovered.
Just beyond the Columbus Monument, a modern wave-like extension of the boulevard, called
the Rambla del Mar, stretches into the harbor. It leads to a popular mall of shops and eateries. A generation ago, Barcelona’s waterfront was
an industrial wasteland.

With impetus provided by the 1992 Olympics, it’s been completely
transformed. The former Olympic village – which now houses locals rather than athletes – is
marked by Frank Gehry’s eye-catching fish. The man-made beaches – a series of crescents
that stretch for miles – are a huge hit. Each comes with lively cafs and bars and all
are laced together by inviting promenades – much appreciated by strollers, joggers,
and bikers.

Surprisingly nearby is Barcelona’s gritty
old center – the Gothic Quarter. It’s a tangled-yet-inviting grab-bag of charming squares, rowdy schoolyards,
rich cultural treasures, and other surprises. Street musicians take advantage of the stony
acoustics. And the old town is truly old.

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Two bold towers
date back to the Roman era. These were part of the old Roman wall that protected the city
in ancient times. The big stones at the base were laid in the fourth century. And tucked
away in a courtyard – embedded in a non-descript office building – is a bit of the temple which
once crowned Roman Barcelona, still standing tall.

And nearby, filling five grand old mansions,
is a highlight for many visiting Barcelona: the Picasso Museum. Since Pablo Picasso spent his formative teenage
years here in Barcelona, this is the best collection of his early art anywhere. By seeing
his youthful, realistic art, it’s easier to appreciate his artistic genius and his later,
abstract art. The museum lets you trace the evolution of
Picasso’s work right back his school-boy days.

Pablo’s earliest art is realistic and serious.
Even as a 14-year-old, his portraits of grizzled peasants show impressive technique and psychological
insight. He painted his first teacher – who happened to be his father. In this portrait
of his mother, Picasso works on the expression in her cameo-like face. At art-school he captured the human anatomy
brilliantly.

During these years Pablo learned the rules he would later so expertly break.
His self-portraits show the self-awareness of a blossoming intellect…A kid who, I imagine,
was a handfull in junior high school. As a 15-year-old, Pablo dutifully entered
art-school competitions. This was his debut work – the First Communion. While a religious
subject, it’s more an excuse to paint his family.

Notice his sister’s exquisitely painted
veil. In Science and Charity, Picasso, still just
a teenager, conveys real feeling. The doctor, Pablo’s father again, represents science.
The nun represents charity and religion. Judging by her hopeless face and the lifeless hand,
it seems Pablo wants to show that death is inevitable.

In his early 20s Picasso went to turn-of-the-century
Paris – a city filled with light and life and love. He went bohemian – made friends
with prostitutes, poets, and other artists. He dabbled in different styles and was inspired
by the leading artists of the age. He painted Impressionist landscapes like Monet, posters
like Toulouse-Lautrec, still-lifes like Czanne, and garishly colored Fauvist works like Henri
Matisse.

But later, the suicide of his best friend
and his own poverty lead Picasso to his Blue Period. He produced lots of blue paintings…Which
matched his mood. By this point Picasso has developed a distinct
style of his own – painting not what he sees but what he feels. Despair, a touching portrait
of a mother and child, captures the period well.

Eventually emerging from his blues, Picasso
enjoyed a long, innovative, and prolific career as a mature artist freed from boring realism
and the constraints of convention. All his life, Picasso said, “Paintings are
like windows open to the world.” These canvases, painted when the artist was in his 80s, show
the joys of the sun-splashed French Riviera. To the end, Picasso continued exploring and
loving life through his art. As a child, he was taught to paint as an adult.

And as an
old man, he declared he had learned to paint like a child. Barcelona boasts an enticing variety of tapas
bars. Some are colorful holes-in-walls giving a glimpse of the crusty Barcelona from before
its recent prosperity took hold. Each seems to have a specialty.

Here, it’s little plates
of delicious sardines and glasses of rustic wine straight from the keg – really cheap
yet rich with memories. Some are from a different region of Spain
– like this Basque bar serving delightful little open-face sandwiches. Hungry diners
grab a stool…Make a friend over a caa – that’s a glass of local draft beer – and
happy succumb to the temptation as fresh platters are paraded out of the kitchen. In these places,
just let the toothpicks pile up.

When it’s time to pay, simply count your toothpicks. And, most popular these days, are the modern
and trendy tapas bars. Eaters cobble together a tasty meal of little plates. The key here:
variety.

The 19th century was a boom time for Barcelona.
By 1850, the city was busting out of its medieval walls. A new town – called the Eixample (or
“expansion”) – was planned to follow a grid-like layout. Wide sidewalks, graceful shade trees,
chic shops, and plenty of Art Nouveau frills make the carefully planned Eixample district
a refreshing break from the dense Old City. Building corners were snipped off to create
light and spacious eight-sided squares at every intersection.

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The vision of the Eixample was to have everything
equally accessible to everyone. Each district of about 20 square blocks would have its own
market, hospital, schools, parks, and daycare. While the original vision was an egalitarian
one where each zone was equal, the Eixample became an architectural showcase for its wealthy
residents. While adhering to height and width limitations, they built as they pleased – often
in the trendy style of the day: Modernisme.

Modernisme is the Catalan version of Art Nouveau,
which flourished across Europe in the late 19th century. Barcelona was the capital of
Modernisme and, especially here in the Eixample, it shimmers with its characteristic colorful,
leafy, flowing, and blooming shapes. Several of Barcelona’s top mansions line the
boulevard Passeig de Grcia. Because the structures look as though they are trying
to outdo each other in creative twists, locals nicknamed this stretch the “Block of Discord.” Barcelona is an architectural scrapbook of
the galloping gables and organic curves of the most famous Modernista architect…Hometown
boy Antoni Gaud.

His Casa Mil is Barcelona’s quintessential building from this era. Casa Mil is open to the public. It shows
how the organic sensitivities of Modernista architecture flowed into the domestic world.
This apartment would have been rented by a wealthy businessman. It shows how the affluence
of the industrial age was enjoyed on a personal level – at least by the upper class.

Now an
apartment could be a small palace. Gaud’s most famous work is his unfinished
Church of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Famlia. He worked on it for over 40 years, until his
death in 1926. Work continues on the church, which is not expected to be completed for
another 50 years.

The Nativity Facade, the only part of the
church essentially finished in Gaud’s lifetime, shows the architect’s original vision. Mixing
Christian symbolism, images from nature, and the organic flair of Modernisme, it’s an impressive
example of Gaud’s unmistakable style. The more modern Passion facade has a different,
yet complementary, style. In the soaring nave, Gaud’s columns blossom with life.

Gaud
was a devout Catholic. Part of his religious vision was a love for nature. He said, “Nothing
is invented; for it’s written in nature first.” His little windows let light filter in like
the canopy of a rain forest, creating space for an intimate connection with ***. Stepping into this monumental construction
zone, visitors see the slow-and-steady progress…And what their steep admission fee is funding.

Like the construction of great churches through
the ages, this project takes many lifetimes. Gaud knew he’d never see it finished, as
do the architects working on it today. Yet they all contribute, pushing steadily toward
completion. Someday a central 550-foot tower of Jesus
will rise above all this.

It’ll dwarf everything we see today. The vision: to shine like a
spiritual lighthouse visible even from out at sea. If there’s one building on earth I’d
like to see, it’s the Sagrada Famlia…Finished. For a more playful dose of Gaud’s architectural
genius, we’re heading out to his colorful Park Gell.

While today the grand stairway and its welcoming
lizard are overwhelmed by fun-seekers, Gaud intended this 30-acre garden to be a 60-residence
housing project – a kind of gated community. Fanciful viaducts compliment the natural landscape.
Gaud actually lived in this mansion. As a high-end housing development, the project
flopped. But a century later, as a park, it’s a huge success.

As you wander, imagine that the community
succeeded, and you were one of its lucky residents. Here at the “Hall of 100 Columns” – the intended
produce market – you’d enjoy the fanciful columns and decor while you did a little shopping.
Heading home, you’d stroll down the playful arcade – like a surfer’s perfect tube, it’s
another nature-inspired Gaud fantasy. And, on such a beautiful day, you’d sit a spell
on Gaud’s ergonomic benches to enjoy a grand view of this grand city. An hour inland from Barcelona takes us to
a mountain stronghold which many consider the heart of Catalunya.

A tlphrique
zooms visitors up to the dramatically situated monastery of Montserrat. Montserrat means
“serrated mountain” – and you see why as you approach. Hymns explain how the mountain was
carved by little angels with golden saws. Geologists blame nature at work.

With its dramatic mountaintop monastery and
spiritual connection with the Catalan people and their struggles, Montserrat is a rewarding
day trip from Barcelona. It’s been Catalunya’s most important pilgrimage site for a thousand
years. The monastery was destroyed by Napoleon. Then,
in the 1850s, the monks returned as part of Catalunya’s (and Europe’s) renewed Romantic
appreciation of things religious, medieval, and nationalistic.

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They rebuilt the place
and Montserrat became, once again, the spiritual and cultural heart of the Catalan people. A handful of Benedictine monks carry on the
monastery’s spiritual tradition. Since 1025, the slogan “ora et labora” (“prayer and work”)
pretty much sums up life for a monk up here. The Benedictines welcome visitors – both pilgrims
and tourists – in hopes that they’ll experience the spiritual power of Montserrat.

Montserrat’s top attraction is La Moreneta,
a small wood statue of the Black Virgin, discovered here in the 12th century. Legend says she
was carved by St. Luke but carbon dating says she’s only 800 years old. Pilgrims circulate
down a long and ornate passage leading alongside the church for their few moments alone with
the virgin.

Pilgrims touch the virgin’s orb to seek Mary’s blessing. For a radically different slice of Catalunya,
we’re heading north up the Costa Brava. The town of Figueres has the Salvador Dal Museum
– the essential Dal sight. Ever the entertainer and promoter, Dal personally designed, decorated,
and painted it to showcase his life’s work.

He was buried right here in the floor of this
room in 1989, and the museum serves as a mausoleum to the artist’s creative spirit. When Salvador Dal was asked, “Are you on
drugs?” He replied, “I am the drug…Take me.” Dal produced some of the most thought-provoking
and trailblazing art of the 20th century. His surrealistic imagery continues to disturb
and intrigue to this day. The best-known of the Surrealists, Dal created
photorealistic images set in bizarre dreamscapes.

His life changed forever in 1929, when he
met an older, Russian woman named Gala. She became his wife, muse, model, manager, and
emotional compass. An audience of golden statues looks down on
the museum. Above Dal’s personal 1941 Cadillac hangs the boat enjoyed by Dal and his soulmate,
Gala.

When she died he was devastated. Below the boat drip blue tears. Squint at the big digital Abraham Lincoln…And
he comes into focus. Look closer and you see Abe’s facial cheeks are Gala’s other cheeks.

The Homage to Mae West room is a tribute to
the sultry seductress. Dal loved her attitude. She was to conventional morality what he was
to conventional art. Facial features are furniture, arranged so
that from the intended vantage point everything comes together – Mae West.

The ceiling of the lounge is a highlight.
It shows Gala and Dal as they reach for the heavens. Dal’s drawers are wide open
and empty, indicating he gave everything to his art. Dal enjoyed his most creative years nearby
in the fishing village of Cadaqus, which has long been a haven for intellectuals and
artists alike. Its craggy coastline, sun-drenched colors, and laid-back lifestyle inspired artists
from Matisse and Duchamp, to Picasso.

For today’s tourists, mellow Cadaqus offers
a peaceful beach-town escape near Barcelona. In the 1920s Salvador Dal and Gala moved
in, bringing international fame to this sleepy Catalan port. Casa Dal shows how a home can reflect the
creative spirit of an artistic genius and his muse. His studio was equipped with an
innovative easel.

It cranked up and down to allow the artist to paint while seated, as
he did eight hours a day. The bohemian-yet-divine living room comes complete with a mirror to
reflect the sunrise onto their bed each morning. Like Dal’s art, his home defies convention.
And like the artist himself, it’s playful and provocative. Dal’s place is the most enjoyable artist’s
home I’ve toured anywhere in Europe.

And it’s just one more example of the quirky and creative
spirit of Catalunya – a spirit that gives Barcelona and this corner of Spain a distinct
charm. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.

Adu. Credits: This time we’re in the land of Picasso, Gaud,
Salvador Dal, and coffee con leche, Barcelona. Juan: Barcelona! …Salvador Dal and coffee con leche, Barcelona! Juan: [Thumbs up] The vision of the Eixample was to have everything
equally acceptable [horn honk] to everyone..

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