(The original version, with zillions of photos, is here.)
15 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain
Sagrada Familia – I realize, as we approach this in-progress church, that in my subconscious, this has always been the symbol of Barcelona. Blame the Olympic telecast, I guess. Certainly, on the ground it’s but one of many. But seeing it here, now…well, it’s…um, it’s…uh…
The thing is, see, it’s not done. And it’s not done in some fairly major ways…the central tower, for instance, which will dwarf the already soaring apostolic spires, is nowhere to be seen. What is done is covered with scaffolding, which is no way to assess a monument. And yet…
There are things I definitely like about it. The depressing, almost oppressive Passion Façade, for example, which is soul-destroyingly morose; Mel Gibson at his most tortured would not find much to disagree with in the sculptures and depictions. (The Nativity Façade, while more “beautiful” and possibly more important, is too busy for my taste. And it’s going to need a good cleaning, soonish.) The interior, rich with organic elements, is impressive and almost breathtaking in its suggestion of infinite space, even in its barely-begun state. But then there are the candy-shop pinnacles of the bell towers, which look like someone spilled a dessert on a sacred relic, and the eye-numbing clash of architectural styles, and…
I don’t know. It’s just too hard to assess. Maybe when it’s done, which is a long way off. Will I ever see that day? Couldn’t they just hire Vegas contractors, who’d have this thing up in a month? (It would fit right in, too.) In any case, while I’m conflicted but optimistic, and think I’d probably appreciate its finished form, Theresa has no qualms about stating her unchecked loathing of the structure. “It looks like a dribble castle” is her opening volley…from a certain perspective, she’s not wrong…and things get worse from there.
Tapas Gaudí (Avenguda de Gaudí) – Tired and ravenous after our long attempt to understand the inexplicable, we settle for an indifferent meal at this mini-chain, lacking the energy to search for something better. I’m carrying a list of about 75 recommended restaurants, but not one of them is within twelve blocks of our current position. I order defensively, finding much to like about vivid Ibérico chorizo, pimientos, garlicky olives and oily, peppered shrimp from a series of small plates. Theresa, however, errs in choosing a paella, which is difficult to prepare correctly in the best of circumstances, and isn’t particularly successful here. Thankfully, this will be our last mediocre meal in Spain.
Faustino VII Rioja (Center-North) – From a blasé list of nondescript mass-market beverages (we’d probably be better-served ordering sangria; I want a rosé, but it’s not available by the glass), this is smooth, plain and utterly ordinary. There’s red fruit. That’s it, and that’s all the descriptor this wine deserves: just red fruit. I may fall asleep from utter boredom.
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau – The sunny pedestrian walkway from Sagrada Familia to this working hospital is very pleasant, and there’s reward at the end. The diversions and colors of the modernista architecture are here melded into more traditional forms and structures, which renders a more prosaic result, but one far less jarring to the unprepared eye. If one must convalesce, this would be a good place to do it. That said, it’s a little odd to be snapping pictures while patients hobble around in bathrobes.
Parc Güell – From the hospital, it’s another long walk – one not on any tourist itinerary, and definitely not beautiful (or pleasant, aside from the exercise) in any way – up to this beautiful, sculpted oasis that overlooks that city. Most will enter at the park’s bottom edge, through a network of Gaudí-designed buildings, staircases and artwork, but we come in a side entrance, and thus are surrounded by the much more subtle greens and browns of nature and Gaudí’s enhancements thereof. For us, we soon realize, his style belongs in nature, into which it blends much more naturally than elsewhere, taking the essential forms of the organic and working them in stone and space. I wish we’d come here before seeing Sagrada Familia, because it really helps put that work – indeed, all his work that we’ve thus far seen – in context.
As for the park’s more famous sights – buildings, railings, mosaic lizards and “the world’s longest bench” – they’re nice enough, but absolutely littered with people. Elsewhere in the park, one can actually find some peace. We sit on a bench…normal-sized this time…gazing over the city to the sun-whitened blue of the ocean, while beautiful green birds flutter and chatter overhead, contemplating life, architecture and our next meal.
Casa Vicens – Back down the hill, this time along a well-traveled route full of guidebook-toting tourists, is another (very early) Gaudí-designed structure, and while it would look plenty adventurous in most settings, here in Barcelona it seems almost tentative. Thus, it’s far more pleasing to Theresa’s eye than anything she’s yet seen. And at this point, we – somewhat sadly – resolve to abandon any further visits to modernista sights, freeing us concentrate on the as-yet unexplored Barri Gòtic. But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we’ve got to figure out where we’re going to eat.
La Polpa (c/Enric Granados 69) – It’s the same problem we have in France: where to eat on the nights that the natives stay home? From the States, we’d contacted a few places, finding them either closed or full. Thus, we arrived in Barcelona with one gaping hole in our dining itinerary: Sunday night. But, of course, the real problem isn’t finding any old place to dine – there are plenty of options on most major streets – but rather avoiding the showy, touristy spots that tend to be open on non-traditional nights for this very reason. In other words, the goal is to avoid a Catalan version of The Olive Garden. Thankfully, the quiet streets near our hotel provide a few good options…set up to handle tourists if they’re in the area, but not some three-floor extravaganza on La Rambla drawing the unwary with flashing lights and six-language specials boards…and we peruse a half-dozen menus before deciding on this place, which just a few steps from our hotel.
La Polpa is a reasonably spacious restaurant, built on three mismatched levels in a single high-ceilinged room, but tonight it’s extremely quiet; there’s just one other occupied table in the front (probably non-local) section, and a few people nibbling tapas at the central bar. As we dine, a few more locals (and one elderly English couple, who remain vocally but stereotypically septic throughout their meal) arrive.
The menu’s extensive and a little insane, throwing all manner of strange combinations at each other in the hopes that some will stick. In general, dishes are “healthier” than is the local norm (though not everything conforms to that standard), with a lot of elements that might be identified as Italian, Asian or even Californian sneaking into the mix. I order a mesclun salad with raw salmon, papaya and a lemon granita…it’s a little strange, but it works despite the vagaries of temperature, and the granita eventually becomes a sort of sweet-tart dressing for the remnants of the salad…followed by a much richer dish of monkfish accompanied by seasonally-ubiquitous ceps and drenched in a parmesan cream sauce. It’s heavenly. It’s also ridiculously cheap.
The absurdly low prices carry through to the wine list, which is so full of low numbers that I initially assume everything is being offered by the glass. But no, these are bottles. If only this sort of thing could be done in the States, people would drink a lot more wine. Of course, a list like this requires one to have a deep understanding of values and hidden gems, which is not something I possess for most Spanish appellations. Thus, a stab in the dark:
Dos Victorias “Viñas Elias Mora” 2004 Toro (Castilla & León) – A big, doofus-fruit wine full of blackberry, black cherry and blueberry, with walnut-infused tannin adding some structure. The finish is so short as to be almost absent. In other words, while it’s perfectly pleasant for what it is, and good enough for the price, it won’t survive pointed questioning, or even a stern gaze. Drink, don’t think.
Castilla “Montecristo” Moscatel Dulce (Navarra) – Moroccan spice perfume, peach and mixed citrus candies. Simple but nice.
Alvear 2003 Pedro Ximénez (Montilla-Moriles) – Blended chocolate, coffee and prune with raisin-studded plum pie and an endless, sticky finish. Very spicy, with a little apple-toned acidity emerging somewhere in the sugary din. This is to wine as crude oil is to high-octane gasoline. I do like PX, but a little goes a long, long way.