We spent a full day driving across high desert in northern Spain, passing through Navarre and Aragon. Names ringing with history, but the present day reality looked to an outsider very dusty and neglected. I know we missed some small bits of that history that would have been interesting to see (an archaeological site for a Roman town, an old market from the 16th century) but the heat sapped the energy to make a case for seeking them out. The descent into Catalunya gave us pretty views of forest and the Mediterranean Coast, as well as plenty of modern traffic as we neared Barcelona. We were instantly smitten by this city of extravagant architecture, the most famous of which is by Antonio Gaudi and his Modernismo (Spanish Art Nouveau) compatriots, but there is much that is earlier and equally impressive. The Music Palace, a real Modernismo masterpiece overflowing with mosaics and woozy gorgeousness, was a treat, enhanced by a romantic Classical guitar concert in the unbelievably lush music salon. We relished the visit to Gaudi’s Casa Mila, (also known as La Pedrera because when it was built it was said to resemble a stone quarry), and to the Park Guell with colorful mosaic terraces. The droopy, concrete façade of the Casa Mila doesn’t give much hint to the arrangement of the interior, so a recreated 1920’s apartment, complete with freshly pressed linens and a perfect Art Nouveau (Modernismo) tea set, was a light and airy surprise. The Casa Mila roof shows off most acutely the curves and whimsy of the building and the Modernismo style in general – it convincingly anticipates Frank Gehry’s swoopy design for the Guggenheim by nearly 100 years. The chimneys look like organ pipes with faces capped by helmets – the sculptor who is continuing the work on Gaudi’s masterpiece, the unfinished Sagrada Familia Temple, used them as the models for heads of Roman soldiers in his Crucifixion scene.
The Sagrada Familia is an absolute knockout, impossible to understand or appreciate just from pictures. None of us were prepared for the ‘unfinishedness’ of it – we might as well have been in a Gothic Cathedral in the 14th century for the sense of work past, work in progress, and work yet to come. We followed a path around what will someday be one of the multiple naves, shuffling past giant molds for columns, peering up at ceiling details, and sighting stained glass windows through great walls of scaffolding. The building is a riot of symbolism, like a Gothic Cathedral, with every column, every stone, every window and detail integrating a complex spiritual vision. On the West Façade contemporary sculptor Josep Subirachs's Passion scenes (including the chimney helmets) complement Gaudi’s original overwhelming, organic East Facade with the subject of Christian Virtues – his work is controversial because the style is much more modern, but it’s consistent with the spirit of exploration that Gaudi embodied in his life and work. (for images http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/)I wish I could live long enough to come back and see it complete, but it’s anybody’s guess if it ever will be – it relies completely on private donations. If it is, it will be beyond anything anyone has ever seen or imagined - the final towers are meant to be 400 feet tall! Another art highlight of Barcelona was the Picasso Museum – Picasso’s ‘quotes’ of Velasquez’s Las Meninas are especially interesting. Picasso may have been a powerhouse of new and unique ideas, but his Spanish heritage pops up in his work in many subtle and not so subtle ways.