Barcelona is the wide and beautiful window, the proud balcony, from which Spaniards look out over that Mediterranean Sea. It is destined, again and always, to be the axis and crossroads of cultures, the path and the means to admirable joint participations.
– V. Domínguez Isla, 1969.
Madrid lacks a lot of things. But it has people in the streets. The unexpected corner. The variety. The contrast. The constant animation. And its customs. It is worth getting up early – for once – to live one day of the life of Madrid.
– Miguel Mihura
Barcelona or Madrid? The hip, fun-loving, cosmopolitan city by the sea or the history-laden powerhouse of the capital? Catalan modernism or Spanish classicism? Picasso’s rooftops or Velazquez’s kitchens? Gaudi’s flamboyance or Antonio Palacios’ monumental eclecticism? A pan con tomate or bocadillo de calamares?
Like Janis and Ana in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Parallel Mothers, I feel torn between the old and the new. And like Vicky and Cristina in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I can’t quite decide what’s best for me. For a month, I lose myself in the labyrinthine streets, hidden archways, and secret gardens of Barcelona and Madrid, like the detective protagonists in the mystery novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, traveling in a time capsule from the opulent wealth of colonial Spain to the splendour of modernismo, the ghosts of post-Franco, and the explosive collisions of new Spain, trying to find out more…
Follow me, as I take you on my journey through Art Nouveau and some of Europe’s best museos and literary quarters, street art and music festivals, colourful multicultural neighbourhoods and irresistible culinary pleasures, so that you can help me decide!
Barcelona: A City of Dreams
Every city has a beat. Barcelona is LOUD.
– Documentary, Les Calles Hablan/The Streets Speak.
Forget about Auckland, Vancouver, or even Vienna. Hot, hip, and funky, Barcelona might well be the most livable city in the world! Culture and nature, the old and the new, class and fashion, the political and the spiritual, the city has it all. You can be an anarchist, nihilist, independentist, monarchist, nonpartisan, anti-mortgage-ist and pro-European, older new immigrant, self-governmentist and bisexual. Or, nobody like me! Yes, You Can is not only the book title by the current cool mayor, Ada Colau, but embodies the spirit of this extraordinary city. If you find change exciting the way I do, Barcelona is your kind of city! Revolutions happen here, regularly, or at least are imagined and plotted over uncountable rounds of tapas and beers!
There is something about height and memory. I still vividly remember the stupendous view of the sunny and welcoming Mediterranean city from the cable car up Montjuic when I first visited Barcelona during my maiden backpacking trip to Europe as a college student. This time, I begin my two-week stay with a self-guided Art Nouveau walking tour that takes me further back to 1888 at Arc de Triomf, the Gate of the Universal Exposition, leading to the main site, Ciutadella Park. I marvel at the masterpiece by Lluís Domènech i Montanerhe, the Castle of the Three Dragons, the 1000-room hotel built within three months to host the sudden influx of 40,000 visitors for the momentous event that put Barcelona on the world map. Walking along Passeig de Picasso feels like waltzing in time, through the Umbracle, a tropical greenhouse to Antoni Tapies’ 1981 Homage to Picasso and then the Born market, gateway to the Gothic quarter, with a Vienna Secession-like freize here and an Art Nouveau bar/restaurant there dotted throughout the old city…
All roads lead to la Rambla, the Champs Elysees of Barcelona, with a perfect lunch stop at the colourful and vibrant Mercado de Boqueria. My Ruta del modernisme stops with a homage to Gaudi: Palau Guell, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, and the still-building Sagrada Familia. You don’t have to enter all of them; even glances from outside make you feel dizzy. What extravagance! What a visual feast, like completing a crash diploma course on Art Nouveau DIY way!
The rest of the week is more leisurely museum-hopping. If you are an art buff like me, Barcelona is your dream city. You can spend entire days in beautiful Montjuic, site of the 1929 Universal Exposition, meandering through the woods, visiting the National Art Museum of Catalonia, then the Ethnology Museum, taking a nap in a nearby park surrounded by inspiring open-air sculptures and installations before stopping at the awe-inspiring Joan Miro Foundation…
Parallel might be a nice neighbourhood to live in, I make a mental note to myself, where I can walk and meditate in Montjuic every morning and hop on a ferry to escape to the idyllic islas baleares when I feel like recharging myself with the azul waters. But my friend is right, Gracia is even better, like a village in the center. Now, I head downhill to the bustling Raval district with one of the highest concentration of museums per square metre in the world: the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, MACBA; the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, CCCB; the Museum of Ethnology and Cultures of the World; and, next door, the absolute gem, Picasso Museum. Oh, what luck, it’s Barcelona Design Week! An impromptu, long, pleasurable stop at the Design Museum of Barcelona where I admire the funky chairs throughout 20th C and the flashy music album covers of Catalan artist-activist, Jordi Fornas.
Don’t have much to say that wouldn’t look better on a wall.
– Graffiti artist, BiP.
But the most exciting adventure is yet to come: going on a treasure hunt for graffiti art! Before hitting the streets in the industrial neighbourhood of Poblenou and the heart of the Gothic Quarter, I begin my journey by watching Les Calles Hablan and Exit through the Gift Shop. What a discovery, all the who’s who in the underground graffiti scene in Barcelona: Zosen, Btoy, El arte es basura, Miss Van, Ivana Flores, Mina Hamada, El Xupet Negre… I particularly appreciate the feminine/feminist presence; I imagine it ain’t easy to make a mark on these walls! Then my daughter told me, six years back, during her first visit to the city, she sneaked out of orchestral practice with her friend to go get a can of spray and make her own tag! Maybe there’s always a wild side inside all of us…
I never tire of wandering in ciutat vella/the old city to capture changing light and slanting shadows on old lanes and walls before stepping in an old bookstore and meeting up with friends for, oh well, tapas, of course! Feel like going to a concert tonight at Parque de la Creuerta del Coll, they ask. It’s a young crowd, but what the hell… Vamos! It’s June, with Primavera in full swing and free street concerts everyday. Vive Barcelona!
Oh, did I forget to mention the beaches where one can swim pretty much year round, in the city and along the entire coast? Ten points for Barcelona!
Madrid: Labyrinth of Passion
the presence of the squares is felt
gardens and fountains
parks and roundabouts as always in summer
– Mario Benedetti, Madrid in summer.
June is the best time to visit the capital, I am told. Madrilenos dread the summer heat and start fleeing to the mountains and the sea. On top of the world-class museums, music festivals and photo exhibitions are in full swing. The extensive program offering gets my head spinning. I design my walking tours through the museum triangle and literary quarter, palaces and gardens, neighbourhoods old and new, plazas big and small…
I begin with the Prado, feasting on one of the biggest collections of Velazquez, Goya, Rubens, and El Greco, but they have only one Picasso – the iconic Bust of a Woman – so Barcelona is still winning! The following morning, I head south to Matadero, a former slaughterhouse transformed into a cultural complex where the National Ballet of Spain and many art galleries are housed, before making my way back to the Reiner Sofia Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum with their collections of modern art as impressive as MOMA in New York. The real Guernica, by Picasso, is here. One for Madrid!
Madrid is without doubt the capital, with all her wealth. I return again and again to Palacio Cibeles to enjoy free piano concerts and photo exhibitions. Bach, Chopin, and Scriabin are in the hot summer air while the cool American pianist and mathematician, Dan Tepfer, improvises Jazz notes that feed his algorithms, giving the audience a full aural and visual experience. There is a wonderful photo exhibition on the 60s – flower power and all – in the same building where the mail was once sorted and telegraphed sent from the impressive tower, designed to be Madrid’s new centre for the 20th C (special thanks to Marta, the passionate guide, who gave me a free three-hour tour of the historic building and sent me photo prints after! For me, she is a Madrileno incarnate. Another point for the capital!).
After some time, I naturally orientate towards my urban oasis in the old center of 16th and 17th C Madrid, around the Royal Palace and its sprawling gardens where I forget I am in the Spanish capital!
The literary quarter, with loads of historic architecture, cafes, and restaurants, frequented by famous Spanish writers from Cervantes to Lorca, is an absolute gem! Who once writes: Beneath some vast exuberant nude of Rubens, Madrilenos know the pain of loss…
From Km 0 in Puerta del Sol, plazas and squares, gardens and fountains radiate in old Madrid. Centuries of history and drama where everything from bullfights to revolutions unfolded here. What a pleasure to get lost and capture whatever these vibrant streets have to offer…
So diverse Madrid or multicultural Barcelona? Maybe Almodóvar is right; the choice is about Spain of yesteryear and today, and so much more…
Whatever the choice, one thing is for certain: the reputable gastronomic tradition in both metropoles. After six months in Andalucia, I continue my culinary explorations in Barcelona and Madrid. Well, like the old saying goes, a buena hambre, no hay pan duro/wherever there is hunger, there is no hard bread! With all this museum-hopping and walking, I am always ready for more mouth-watering dishes…
That place, that last refuge, is a small annex of the soul, and when the world reverts to its absurd comedy, you can always run there, lock yourself in, and throw away the key.
– Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Labyrinth of the Spirits, 2018.
Perhaps the Kiss Mural by Joan Fontcuberta captures the spirit of both cities well, like a mosaic of thousands of tiny photo tiles – a person, a place, a moment, an event or something – that represent an expression of freedom. The sound of a kiss is not as loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer, she writes. For now, I let all those long extraordinary moments of freedom I experienced in these two awe-inspiring cities echo in that place, that last refuge… a small annex of the soul. And when the world reverts to its absurd comedy, I can always run there, lock myself in, and throw away the key...
Next: El Camino de Santiago!