Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The short hiatus in my regular blog entries was occasioned by a visit by Evan and me to the Iberian Peninsula. The reason for the inverted commas around “Spain” is because our destinations were Barcelona (which of course is in Catalonia) and Bilbao (which of course is in the Basque Country).  You have to be very careful about these things when travelling in “Spain”.

The Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe
You may recall the convivial housewarming party last Thursday. This was followed by an early dash to Heathrow to catch a 7 am flight to Barcelona, and the combined result was two rather out of it travellers. Nevertheless, we intrepidly set out to find our principal goal in Barcelona – the Barcelona Pavilion of Mies van der Rohe. This was built in 1929 for the World’s Fair which was held in Barcelona that year. As it was a temporary building intended only to promote Germany at the exhibition, it was rather promptly dismantled. It wasn’t until 1986 that it was painstakingly rebuilt, on its original site. Famously, the interior fittings were lost forever, disappearing on a train somewhere between “Spain” and Germany. 

"Barcelona Chairs"

When you consider that the interior fittings included the original ‘Mies van der Rohe’ chairs which Mies designed specifically for the Pavilion (you’ll know them when you see them), the extent of the loss becomes clear. The building is known for its indoor/outdoor concepts, the incorporation of reflections of many kinds, and its horizontality.

The Pavilion is a very beautiful, serene, tranquil building, one of the very first true Modern buildings, and it has had an enormous influence on architecture since. Consider that it was exhibited at the height of the flowering of the Catalan modernista movement of which Antoni Gaudí was the most famous exponent (he has been canonised and is up for sainthood – really!), the vision of the Barcelona Pavilion seems even more extraordinary.

'Sagrada Familia' of Gaudi

After viewing the Pavilion, and a fortifying caffeine shot in the park, I convinced a rathe reluctant Evan that we should at least swing by some of Gaudí’s buildings. Personally, I love ‘em. They are so extraordinarily exuberant and organic. I have toured the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Batlo in times past. We inspected both of these – and their very long queues – from the outside. I must say that there has been a lot of progress made on the Sagrada Familia since I went through it five years ago. They have been working on it for about 100 years (with a few war breaks and the unfortunate hiatus when poor Gaudí, who lived on the site more or less as a hermit, was killed by a trolley bus) and the talk now is of finishing it in another 30.

I told you there were flowers...
I kindly allowed Evan to rest while we ate pinxchos (Catalan tapas) for lunch, and we then took a guided tour of El Palau de Musica Cataluña, a wild moderista flowering, and I mean that literally. Ceramic roses and other blooms adorn the interiors, the columns resemble tree trunks entwined with foliage, and every inch of every surface is covered with decoration. What’s more, much of it has subversive political symbolism, as the architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, was a nationalistic Catalan (is there any other kind?) The building was opened in 1909. It was built by a private society called Orfeó Català, a choral society founded in 1891 that was a leading force in Catalan culture. The society still owns the building and it is used for concerts and musical recitals constantly (except of course the one night we were in Barcelona).

Bilbao's Guggenheim
The next day we betook ourselves to another region of “Spain” that insists on inverted commas, the Basque Country, el pais vasco. Here we enjoyed the hospitality of good friends. “What will we do in Bilbao?” Evan asked. “We will spend hours and hours eating excellent food and drinking excellent wine”, I replied, and I was entirely correct. But first – the architecture. Off we went to the Guggenheim, Frank Gehry’s very original building which is one of the three Guggenheim modern art galleries (the others being in New York – think Frank Lloyd Wright – and Venice). The Guggenheim has transformed Bilbao from an industrial port city to a gentrified tourist destination, bringing changes  which are not universally popular with all locals, but which certainly give the small city a great deal of appeal. It stands on the river bank where there used to be docks, its titanium tiles glowing golden, and it incorporates a passing bridge (now painted a vivid red colour). I am a fan of the soaring atrium indoors, and the way in which the interior mirrors the crazy lines of the exterior. There is barely a functional feature in the whole place. As Evan pointed out, it is not as large as you might expect, as it sits on the riverbank respecting the height of nearby 19th century buildings (unlike an enormous silver tower block which is presently under construction nearby).

Chillida sculpture
But enough of architecture – moving on to sculpture, the next day we were taken on a road trip towards San Sebastian, and a visit to Museo Chillida-Leku, a sculpture park exhibiting the work of Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. The site also includes an old (16th century) Basque farmhouse which has been restored as a gallery. The smaller pieces inside - including some exquisite illustrated philosophy texts! – were especially appealing. Chillida is best known for his monumental wrought steel sculptures, many of which dot public spaces throughout the Basque Country, and “Spain”.

And the meals...ah, too long to describe in full, suffice to say the food was light, delicious, sophisticated and required several hours per meals to do it justice. We slipped easily into “Spanish time”, aided by a long sleep-in on Sunday. But Monday was time to journey home, with Evan never actually visiting Spain-without-inverted-commas, unless you count a brief transit through Madrid airport.

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