on the Ramblas

[a very old place]



"In this labyrinth, one was apt to lose track of time and place alike, given the Spanish hours and a floating population of polyglot houseguests, but most mornings I would manage to lurch out into the white-gold coastal light like a disoriented bat and head for the city, there to study -- if that was the mot juste -- the works of Gaudi and his circle, to riffle through the boxes of prints and cards and old photos in the dark narrow bookshops in the Barri Gotic, and then, at three in the afternoon, to have lunch."

Robert Hughes - Barcelona

FIRST OF ALL, I MIGHT NEVER HAVE GONE IF IT WEREN'T FOR KATHLEEN. On that first night, almost a year ago, she told me she was going to Barcelona in the summer and -- taking an enormous risk, considering that we'd only just met -- asked me if I'd like to go. 

Of course I said yes.

by the harbourI had a short list of cities I wanted to visit.  Barcelona ranked high, alongside Istanbul, Tangier, Paris, New Orleans and Venice.  Still, I couldn't imagine what might finally have gotten me there -- just as I still can't imagine what, besides a job, or incredible wealth, might get me to any of the other cities on my list.  Before I write anything else, I just have to say that meeting K. and going to Barcelona were inextricably intertwined.  It was, as they always say, fate.

I arrived a week after Kathleen had gotten there, and made my way off the overnight flight wired with exhaustion, having only gotten a half-hour's sleep, at best, on a bench at Heathrow's duty-free mall.  I was met by John, an old friend of K.'s, who had married a Catalan woman and settled in Barcelona, where he taught at the University.  On the train into the city, he pointed out, in a sort of cross between a lecture and a tour-guide's spiel, the features of each neighbourhood through which we passed, and identified the names of the various trees. 

"There is a street called the Ramblas, with old houses and churches on each side and a broad and a broad promenade in the middle dividing the two narrow lines of traffic.  This promenade is full of seats and trees and kiosks for selling newspapers and cigarettes and picture-postcards; at all hours of the day it is full of soldiers and townspeople, saluting and gossiping, but its chief beauty is the flower stalls, which colour and perfume the whole length of the street."

Evelyn Waugh - Labels: A Mediterranean Journal

an urban palm treeThe palm trees, he said, were not originally native to Barcelona, but were transplanted here from the south and flourished, becoming a dominant part of the urban landscape.  Outside the city, they were almost non-existent.  It was all I could do to take even the smallest part of everything in, through bleary, red-rimmed eyes. 

We emerged from the train at the Placa da Catalunya, at the top of the Ramblas, the tree-shaded boulevard that runs through the Barri Gotic (Old Town).  Kathleen was still teaching her class -- she was invited to Barcelona by John, who had gotten her a two-week gig teaching editing to graduate students -- and would meet me later, in our room at the Hotel Jardi.  John walked me briskly across the Ramblas, teeming with people and (I was happy to see) dotted with magazine kiosks, and into the Barri Gotic, past bars and cafes full in the early afternoon, through a square and past a beautiful, looming medieval church. 

...like something from Piranesi
The Hotel Jardi was just past the church, facing another square full of groups of cafe tables.  From our little balcony we could look down on the tourists and locals at the tables, and the various euro-hippies and buskers who made the square their hang-out most of the day and late into the night.  It was just after John left when I heard the first of various, halting renditions of "Greensleeves", played on the recorder, that would serenade us in our room. 

Perhaps I unpacked -- I don't remember.  I changed into pyjamas and lay down, falling immediately into an deep, yet enervated slumber.

"One walked past the open kitchen, with its haze of smoke from the roaring grills and crackle of sea things dumped with a flourish in tubs of boiling oil, and past the gargantuan display of ingredients -- the round trays of cigalas, each stiffly arched on the ice; the mounds of red shrimp; the arrays of dentex, sea bass, squid, miniscule sand dabs, sardines, and toad-headed anglerfish; the tanks of live rock lobsters (Palinurus vulgaris, named for Aeneas's drowned helmsman).  One sat as near the doors to the sea as possible.  One struggled with the Catalan menu."

Robert Hughes - Barcelona

...thin, curving ancient streetsWhen K. woke me up, having returned from the University, the trip truly began.  John arrived a few hours later and took us for dinner at a local bar.  Winding through the skinny, meandering streets of the Old Town in the dark, I despaired of ever finding my way around.  In a city built on a street plan originated by the Romans and modified by medieval peasants, there are no right angles.

In the rest of Spain they call it tapas, but in Barcelona they call it "bar food".  Little plates of fried potato and cod balls, sausages, and seafood that seem to be daily subsistence food for almost everyone.  In Barcelona, they eat four, sometimes five times a day, and while I originally thought this would leave me bloated, we both lost weight by the time we came home.  There just appears to be something sensible -- a sort of primitive macrobiotics aided by the nature of the local ingredients -- that makes Mediterranean cuisine inherently healthier.  I have no other way of explaining it.

The food, make no mistake, was fantastic, and hardly expensive.  The best meal of the trip was one of the most expensive of my life, at an exclusive restaurant patronized by rich artists and businesspeople, and worth every penny.  The second best cost barely twenty dollars for three people, at a little bar on a dusty square in a working-class neighbourhood.  I judge every place I visit by its food.  Barcelona, by these standards, is among the greatest cities I have ever seen.

My main memory of the trip is walking.  We took the subway a few times, and a couple of cabs at night, but mostly we walked.  At the end of the first week, we both had blisters. 

...worn stone staircase. LIKE ANY DECENT CITY, BARCELONA IS IMMENSELY WALKABLE.  The majority of the architecture dates from a period known as "modernisme", which is hardly the spare, geometric aesthetic it implies elsewhere, but a sumptuous, heavily ornamented and highly eccentric school that flourished in Barcelona at the turn of the last century.  As few buildings are more than five stories tall, and each building jammed up against the next, it's more than the eye can take to absorb even a fraction of the brickwork, tiling, sculptural ornaments, ironwork or stained glass.  It was a relief to come across a spare, modern building, or a stand of medieval facades.
"But, indeed, in one's first brush with Gaudi's genius, it is not so much propriety that is outraged as one's sense of probability...The roof...was coloured peacock blue and built in undulations, like a rough sea petrified; the chimneys...were twisted and bent in all directions like very gnarled fruit-trees.  The eaves overhung in irregular, amorphous waves, in places attenuated into stalactites of coloured porcelain; the effect was that of a clumsily iced cake...my impression of this first experience, though deep, is somewhat indistinct.  I went all round it with a camera trying to find an aspect I could photograph, but the trees and the sun combined to frustrate me."

Evelyn Waugh - Labels

the fountainThe most famous architect of the style -- the architect for which the city is famous -- is Gaudi.  I saw almost every building Gaudi built in the city, but I left with no memory of the cityscape dominated by Gaudi.  There is so much more to see, and in such concentration, that Gaudi is merely one, albeit notable, facet of the town's effusive, decadent architecture.  Even now, I am more likely to remember Santa Maria del Pi, the church on our square, or a fountain I came acros while wandering the waterfront one morning, or the polychrome tile frescoes on the fronts of stores, than Gaudi's masterpieces, like the Sagrada Familia, or the Casa Mila.

We spent two weeks together in the city, and barely saw more than the downtown.  We never set foot on Montjuic or Tibidabo, the hillside parks that dominate the town, or explored the Eixample, the huge grid of streets north of the Barri Gotic, beyond a few shopping avenues.  We barely saw a fraction of the museums, and never set foot in a theatre or a concert hall.  There was still so much to see.

...the cathedral
"And it was for this reason perhaps, that, alone of all the cities of Spain, I found Barcelona hateful; and even now I cannot think of it without a sort of distress. It is a city of the North, full of reslessness, an unnatural energy, haunted by the desire for gain, absolutely modern in its expression, that has made of one of the oldest cities in Spain a sort of Manchester, almost without smoke it is true, but full of mean streets and the immense tyranny of machinery,that for the most psrt Spain has escaped so fortunately."

Edward Hutton -The Cities of Spain (1906)

I WAS IMPRESSED -- almost contantly amazed, actually -- at the age of the city; the constant presence of the past, the evidence of so much history, and the blithe way that everyone lived within its monuments. It was astounding to examine the old city walls, and identify stones that had been quarried by the Romans, piled on top of stones from churches built in the Dark Ages, and torn down for building materials by the city's medieval rulers. Truncated images of knights and priests, carved into the stone, would sit sideways, the head and shoulders on one stone, the legs a few yard away, facing another direction. 

There are older places, I know -- I've just never been to them.

Walking back from the waterfront, we came across a small park, featuring a graveyard of small, domed Roman sarcophagi, discovered when the foundation of a new building was excavated.  We walked through the city hall, where a meeting chamber of the medieval town council leads through a baroque hallway to an office decorated with Art Deco murals.  Everything seemed vaguely chronological and consecutive, from the white-tiled stalls selling fresh fish and produce in the iron-vaulted market, to the rubble cascading from the walls of a church, where years of illegally-built stores and flats, once clinging like barnacles to the church, had been pulled away, showing in cross-section the evidence of centuries of commercial life. 

I envied everyone I saw the experience of living in a place where I could choose between a drink in a bustling, immaculately preserved Deco bar, like a New Yorker cartoon rendered three-dimensional, and a drink in a tiny, cave-like bar with walls like tanned skin, famous for its absinthe orgies.  I was giddy, from morning to night, with the evidence of lives lived, for two thousand years, on the same spot.

Our friends, John and Rosa, talk about Rome the way we talk about Barcelona. It's all relative, I guess.

I WANT TO GO BACK, if only to make my way past the thin pane of glass that kept me so rigorously a spectator, a tourist, never fully a part of the life of the city.  I want to know if I could live there or, more realistically, find myself walking down one of the narrow streets, familiar enough with all the detail and frozen narrative, without feeling excluded -- like a tourist.   I want to see if I could make my own life part of the story any truly great city traces in the wear on its pavement, in the signs long since pulled down from walls, in the neglected courtyards, or in the gap where a building has collapsed under the weight of its own history.DAMNED TOURISTS
Of course, I know there's nothing I can do to stop you from ripping off my pictures and putting them on your own sites, but have some respect, would you?  Put a link back to this page -- it's the human thing to do.
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