Barcelona and Catalonia through Picasso, Dalí, and Gaudí

As you can see from all of these travel blog posts, a lot of our time abroad is spent outside of Madrid. I actually only have two weekends left in the city with no trips at all! This past weekend had us visiting the autonomous community of Cataluña, where we saw the region’s capital Barcelona and two cities in its northeastern province, Figueres and Cadaqués. I had already visited Barcelona with my family twice before, including right before I came to Madrid, but only for a day or two each time. I got to see a few different things on this trip I hadn’t seen before, and this visit had more of a focus on the main artists of the region, Picasso, Dalí, and Gaudí, plus it’s always a different experience when you visit a city with a different group of people.

Estelada flag representing Catalan independentists that we saw waving a lot; it's distinct from the flag of Catalonia.

Estelada flag representing Catalan independentists that we saw waving a lot; it’s distinct from the flag of Catalonia.

Catalonia actually has a very distinct culture from the rest of Spain and Madrid, with its people showing a lot of regional pride and gaining a great deal of autonomy after Franco’s oppressive rule ended in 1975. During the dictatorship, any aspects of non-mainstream Spanish culture such as languages, dances, and traditions were forbidden, and one of the regions hit particularly hard by these restrictions was Catalonia. With the introduction of democracy, however, they have gained a lot of autonomy and have recovered by becoming one of the richest areas in Spain. They maintain a strong sense of local pride, speaking a different language, Catalan, that is only spoken in two other autonomous communities (Valencia and the Balearic Islands), and constantly talking about seceding from Spain. We have actually heard a lot of heated political discussion about the Catalan independence movement while here, because the Catalan government announced a referendum on secession to be held in 2014, something that is against the Spanish Constitution and that the Spanish Government refuses to allow. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops given the many issues at stake, especially considering that Catalonia would have to leave the European Union, including the eurozone and single market, if it secedes from Spain, something that would really hurt the economically-strong region.

Aerial view of the city - Panorama

Aerial view of the city – Panorama

After leaving Madrid really in the morning on Friday, our first stop was Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, second largest city in Spain, one of the most important ports in all of the Mediterranean with a huge amount of tourism, and of course the setting of The Cheetah Girls 2, which naturally became the soundtrack for the weekend. The city is located between the sea and the Tibidabo Mountain, giving it beautiful beaches, some of the best in the world, but it has also restricting how the city grew over time. Our first order of business was bus tour to see the main sights that we wouldn’t have a chance to visit in depth during the weekend. Among the things we saw from our bus were: the Plaça d’Espanya, another beautiful plaza like the one in Sevilla built for the 1929 World Fair; the Montjuïc, where we saw an aerial view of the city, the Palau Nacional, the 1992 Olympic Stadium, and the Joan Miró art museum; and a former plaza de toros that was converted into a shopping mall after bullfighting was banned in Catalonia.

(As an aside: It’s hard to consider the Catalans better than the rest of Spain because of their ban on bullfighting — the traditions they still have are worse: they harass and pull the bulls through the streets in correbous instead of just letting them run freely in the more traditional encierro and instead of having a fight that the bull can possibly win, they light the bulls horns on fire in toro embolado and dodge it until it burns itself.)

One of the most popular items in La Boqueria market is the large variety of fresh squeezed juices.

One of the most popular items in La Boqueria market is the large variety of fresh squeezed juices.

The bus let us off in the Plaça de Catalunya, the main square in Barcelona, and we walked down Las Ramblas, a large pedestrian street that is a popular tourist destination full of flower shops, performers, and places to eat. Of course we stopped by the famous La Boqueria, a huge public market with tons of fresh fruit, fish, and meat to cook at home, as well as prepared food to eat right in the market. Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to drink from the Font de Canaletes, but I’m sure we’ll be back to Barcelona someday regardless. 😉 We followed La Rambla all the way down passed the Columbus Monument until the beach, where we were able to eat lunch and relax beside the harbor.

Though we were pretty tired from soaking up the rays on the beach nearby, we still had one more stop before we could call it a day and head to the hotel: the Museu Picasso in the middle of the Barri Gòtic. The museum has the most works by Pablo Picasso of any other museum in the world and is devoted to showing his evolution as a painter over time. It is very ironic that one of the most important contemporary artists has a museum in the middle of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona with buildings dating back to the Middle Ages and is actually housed in five medieval palaces, showing visitors an intriguing juxtaposition.

Most people only know Picasso as the founder of Cubism, but it turns out he had been a master painter since he was a child. Because his father was an art teacher, he learned from a young age how to paint and paint well. We saw some of his earlier works and it’s truly amazing to see how great an artist he was when he was only an adolescent in his early teens. I know we all fall victim at some point to thinking he was a bad artist and turned to cubism and weird shapes only because he couldn’t paint, but that’s not at all true: he turned to cubism because he already mastered every other movement at such a young age that he needed a challenge. Something we learned was that a lot of the paintings looks so weird not because he thinks things actually look like that but because he included a fourth dimension in his paintings: time and movement. The reason eyes are in weird positions is because the heads are turning and the subjects are moving. We can totally appreciate Picasso more now that we’ve seen where he’s come from, why he did the things he did, and that he had so many distinct styles that he tried throughout his life.

You can really spend hours and hours in any museum, but we were all tired so Paco let us see some of the highlights, including The First Communion, which Picasso did when he was only around 14 years old, and Science and Charity, which has an interesting use of perspective in which the bed moves and changes shape as you walk. (As you know from our visit to the Prado, we really like these kinds of paintings.) After we left the museum, we headed to straight to our hotel for some much needed rest before dinner. Our hotel was actually very close to Camp Nou, the largest stadium in Europe and home to FC Barcelona. We reconvened for dinner that night at a restaurant inside the Maremagnum, a big shopping mall in the water at the end of Las Ramblas. After eating some seafood paella, we checked out a cool bar, the Dow Jones, whose prices are determined by supply and demand. It was a very cool concept, though it was a little expensive and got crazy crowded, so we turned in at a pretty reasonable hour.

We had an early wake-up call on Saturday at 7:00 in the morning, but we had a long journey ahead of us: it’s about an hour and a half’s drive north to Figueres, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí and the home of the theater and museum devoted to him. Known all around the world for his surrealist works, Dalí was definitely a very interesting character. Surrealist works do not always have a point on their own; they use strange combinations of unexpected things to provoke thought and evoke things from the subconscious. It was very interesting to walk around a museum with nothing but surrealist works, including traditional paintings, an upside-down bathroom, sculptures made out of spoons, a taxi that rains on the inside, and paintings you could only see when reflected in a bottles. We even had a chance to see Dalí’s crypt, as he’s buried on the bottom floor of the museum. It was definitely an interesting experience, though I’m still not really a fan of surrealism.

Panoramic view of the water and city -- so blue

Panoramic view of the water and city of Cadaqués — so blue

From Figueres we took a scenic drive through the mountains towards the beach town of Cadaqués. We saw many grape vines along the way, beautiful views of the water, and terraces to grow crops on the mountains. It was interesting to see how the regions of Catalonia become more and more Catalan, rather than Spanish, as you move further up north and get closer to the border with France. Although we took a walking tour around Cadaqués, the main point of our stop was for lunch and to enjoy the beaches that it and Catalonia are famous for. We had a great meal of cava, the famous Catalan sparkling wine, and tapas, including one of our favorites, patatas bravas, which are little cut potatoes served with mayonnaise and “spicy” tomato sauce. Despite getting a little color on us from so much sun, we all definitely had a good time on our little excursion outside of Barcelona.

That night, we had dinner at a restaurant in the Plaça Reial, right in the Barrio Gótico and off of Las Ramblas. Though we had another early day tomorrow, we decided to go out and explore the bars in the Gothic Quarter. We walked around that area for a while before deciding to go to L’Ovella Negra, a bar off of Las Ramblas that one of our friends studying abroad in Barcelona told us about. It was a really interesting place that looked like an old tavern, but was actually pretty built up and touristy. We ended up sharing a huge 5L cubo, or bucket, of sangria that they placed on our table for us to serve ourselves. It was definitely a cool place that we’d like to go back to again next time, along with some of the clubs along the beach that we heard are pretty cool as well. 🙂

Ceiling. You can see how the tops of the columns resemble trees.

Ceiling. You can see how the tops of the columns resemble trees.

While Friday was devoted to Picasso and Saturday was devoted to Dalí, Sunday’s sights were all about Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalan Modernism well-known for his neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau-style architecture scattered all across the city of Barcelona. Our first stop was the centerpiece of his collection: the Sagrada Família. Now one of the most well-known symbols of Barcelona, the Sagrada Familía is a large Catholic church still under construction, despite Gaudí starting it in 1882, 132 years ago, and working on until his death in 1926. Part of the reason for such slow process is that the cathedral is paid for entirely by donations, both through private gifts and visitor ticket sales, with no official government or church sponsorship.

Stained glass installation is a work in progress.

Stained glass installation is a work in progress.

I had just visited the church with my family in January, but every visit is breathtaking; because of the interesting combination of modernism, art nouveau, and neo-Gothic styles, the basilica is unlike any other building in the world. Natural elements and nonlinear structures make up huge parts of the design, giving the church a very different feeling from any of the others we have seen. Right now they’re slowly putting in stained glass windows, which are beautiful on their own, but it’s even cooler to see that only around half of the windows have them. The architects have currently scheduled the Sagrada Família’s construction for 2026, so we’ll have to have a reunion then (when we’re 33, ahh!) to see what it’ll look like when it’s finally complete. It will definitely be a very different sight, considering there are only 8 towers now and the plans have 18 in the end, 12 for the apostles, 4 for the evangelists, 1 for Mary, and 1 for Jesus. The final tower, dedicated to Jesus, will also be almost double the height of the existing towers, giving the church a very different look. Like Paco said though, when we finally come back to see the Sagrada Família finished, we’ll be able to say that we helped finance the construction of it. 🙂

After our quick tour of the Sagrada Família, we headed outside the main center of Barcelona to see Park Güell, a large garden and park originally designed by Gaudí as a housing site, though in the end no one wanted to live there. Park Güell has many examples of Gaudí’s characteristic style, including a large reliance on nature and an avoidance of straight lines, even in support columns and the benches. The benches themselves, for example, are in the shape of a sea serpent, rather than more traditional straight lines. Paco also told us that these benches were modeled after real people, making them very comfortable. Most of the materials he used were also recycled ceramics from other architectural creations, supporting nature even more. Because the park was designed to be a living community, the sand on the floor is actually used to filter rain water, which then gets stored in the support columns holding the structure up. It’s crazy that Gaudí thought about and designed such things at the beginning of the 20th century and we’re still grappling with them today.

Group of young people dancing sardana. They were really good and were probably a semi-professional group as part of a club.

Group of young people dancing sardana. They were really good and were probably a semi-professional group as part of a club.

Though we could have hung out in the park for forever, we finished up and went on our last walking tour of the trip, seeing a few more examples of Gaudí’s architecture along one of the main shopping and business streets, the Passeig de Gràcia, and Las Ramblas, such as Casa Milà and Casa Batlló. Because it was Sunday, we were also lucky enough to see a bunch of people dancing sardana outside of the Barcelona Cathedral. Sardana is the traditional Catalan dance that, like all examples of “minority cultures,” was forbidden during the Franco era and was danced in front of the cathedral after services as a form of protest and way to protect their culture. Despite Franco’s death and the return of democracy to Spain, the tradition continues today, as either a form of regional pride or way to support separatist movements, and it was very cool to see so many people, young and old, performing the dance in a big circle with a lot of jumps and kicks, wearing the traditional espardenya shoes, and putting all their belongings in the middle.

Our busy weekend trip ended with some free time for lunch, where we saw a protest supporting Ukraine, and some lounging in the Plaça de Catalunya until we headed back to the airport for our flight to Madrid.

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About Casey Brown

Student at American University in Washington, DC, studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. News addict. Traveler. Linguaphile. Volunteer. Techie. Movie lover. Networker. Learner. Casey.
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