Barcelona Abundance: Two Architectural Landmarks Now Opening To Public

One of the joys of wandering around Barcelona – and there are many – is rounding a corner and being confronted with a remarkable bit of architecture. It could be coming across the ruins of a 1st century Roman temple built by Caesar Augustus (to himself, natch) standing in a courtyard, or an intact Baroque church hidden behind a nondescript façade down a dark alley. Yet for many, the real pleasure of discovery lies in coming across one of the flamboyant creations of “Modernisme”, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. Now, two highly important examples of this movement are being opened to the public for the first time.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of “Modernista” homes and apartment buildings sprang up all over Barcelona, as the citizens of a booming Catalan economy began to capitalize on their wealth. Take a look at the structures that line the famous “Block of Discord” on the Passeig de Gràcia, then as now Barcelona’s most prestigious street, and you’ll see bizarre architectural confections by three of the most famous and prolific exponents of the period – Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch – competing with one another for public attention and admiration. Homes by these and other architects working in this highly unusual style can be found throughout the city, and first-time visitors often marvel at the fact that many of these fantastic structures, which are often so unique as to escape any single architectural categorization, are still being lived in.

One of these is the Casa Terrades, built by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1905. It is more popularly known as the “Casa de les Punxes” (The House of Spikes), because of the many turrets and pointy finials that mark its roofline. It is essentially a fairy tale castle from the Middle Ages, reimagined as an early 20th century luxury apartment building. One source of inspiration for the structure is believed to be the buildings which appear in the background of the 15th century altarpiece by Lluís Dalmau, “The Virgin of the Barcelona City Councilors”, now in the National Museum of Catalan Art. The highly visible exterior decoration is covered in references to St. George, Catalonia’s patron saint, who has been a favorite subject in Catalan art and architecture for centuries.

Ever since it was built, the Casa de les Punxes has remained a tantalizing mystery to both Barcelona’s citizens and visitors. The three sisters who owned and occupied it kept the best apartments for themselves, and lived off the rents which they received from the commercial tenants in the rest of the building. The rest of the apartments were sold to buyers whom the sisters found socially acceptable, a process functioning somewhat like an early version of a condo board application review, I suppose.

Yet while the commercial offices located within the building could be visited by members of the public if they had business to conduct, there were limits to what one could see. The upper floors and the roof were strictly off-limits, and the merely curious were not permitted inside. Given its prime location on a prominent intersection of the Avenguda Diagonal, one of the city’s main boulevards and a major retail area, everyone could see the building, but few had actually been inside it.

Now, after several years of renovation by its new corporate owners, part of the Casa de les Punxes has been opened to public tours for the first time. While there are still commercial and residential tenants occupying parts of the building, it is now possible to tour many parts of it, including the many-towered roof looking down over the city. Even if you have been to Barcelona before, this new stopping point on the architectural itinerary looks to be very much worth your time, next time you find yourself in the city. I myself plan to visit it next month, not only from architectural curiosity but also for personal reasons, since one of my great-great-grandfathers and his family lived here.

Another major Modernista structure which is currently being prepared for public tours is the Casa Vicens, the first residence built by the most famous of all Catalan architects, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet. Completed in 1888, the Casa Vicens was the young architect’s first major contract, and proved to be something of a shock at the time. In its extraordinary interior and exterior decoration, it was like nothing that the city had seen before. From this point, architecture in Barcelona became an all-out war for the next two decades, as each architect competed to see who was going to win the battle for the most innovative, over-the-top architecture – brought about, of course, by courting clients with deep pockets.

The Casa Vicens was originally built as a getaway for a well-to-do Barcelona stockbroker, in what was then the semi-rural suburb of Gràcia. Before the coming of the automobile, it was the custom for the Barcelona bourgeoisie to have apartments downtown, which they lived in during the week, and villas in the suburbs just outside the city, which they used on the weekends or for holidays like Christmas and Easter. They wanted something that felt like they were in the countryside, but which could be easily reached by a short coach or tram journey. Similar practices still exist today around the world, such as the weekly exodus of New Yorkers to The Hamptons on Friday afternoons.

While I have wandered around the outside of the Casa Vicens before, marveling at its extraordinary combination of Victorian decorated tiles and Moorish ornamental brickwork, I have never been inside. Until two years ago, when it was purchased by the cultural foundation of a bank, it was still being lived in by the descendants of the man who purchased it from the original owners back in 1899. Now, these descendants are helping art history experts in their efforts to restore and renovate the house for public tours, which are slated to begin next year.

The Casa Vicens is famous among the cognoscenti for its elaborately decorated rooms in bright colors and accompanying, sinuous furniture inspired by nature. I am particularly looking forward to seeing the dining room of the house, which features carved and painted beams bursting with fruit and flowers, while images of all kinds of birds fly about on the walls. It is a space of which any Gonzaga or Medici would be proud.

I will have to wait to report back to you, gentle reader, on the Casa Vicens, but stay turned to my Instagram account for shots from inside the Casa de les Punxes in late December.

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

One of the pleasures of eating is knowing when to eat, as I recalled often when in Spain. By this I do not mean the time of day as such, although I doubt I could eat a lasagna for breakfast. Instead I refer to those occasions when certain foods have traditionally been available. Today, thanks to innovations such as refrigeration and transportation infrastructure, we can enjoy foods all year-round that were once considered rare treats for our ancestors. Yet there seems to me to be a greater good, beyond that of healthier ingredients or supporting local businesses, in enjoying what we eat at the time and place in which we are meant to eat it.

There is a beautiful scene in the BBC mini-series “Cranford” in which Miss Smith presents her hostesses, the spinster Jenkyns sisters, with a crate of Spanish oranges as a thank-you gift. While familiar with the fruit, its comparative rarity in early Victorian England made it such a prized commodity that, for small-town residents like the Jenkyns, hot-climate produce was viewed almost as a luxury item, reserved for the Christmas stocking or special occasions. In the film, the dour Deborah Jenkyns commands the ladies to retire to their respective rooms, in order to consume their oranges in restrained silence. The camera subsequently shows us Deborah’s younger sister, Mathilda, sucking out the juice from the fruit with childish glee. However it is Miss Deborah, a tower of almost Calvinist propriety, who ends up savoring the first slice of her orange with the kind of sensual pleasure that only a gourmand can truly recognize and appreciate.

The specialness of a food or a dish is meant to be part of the reason one consumes it, no matter how good it may taste when eaten outside of its usual context. Canelones, the rolled pasta tubes stuffed with meat and baked in a béchamel sauce, are available in Catalonia any time of year. The fancier canelones de festa major, on the other hand, were traditionally served on December 26th, St. Stephen’s Feast Day (a public holiday in Barcelona), using the leftover meat from the Christmas soup the day before, along with special ingredients such as a fine brandy or shavings of black truffles. Eventually the custom of making these slightly more special canelones spread to other feast days on the Church calendar, such as the Feast of St. Joseph. On my last night in Barcelona then, dining at the venerable 180-year-old Set Portes restaurant, I ordered canelones de festa major as one of the courses, rather than the regular canelones that were also on the menu, because it was the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a feast day which Barcelona still celebrates with great pomp and many ancient customs.

On two occasions I went outside the rules a bit by having a xató – a Catalan salad typical of the beach town of Sitges, made with escarole, tuna, anchovies, and a sauce that is roughly a variant of romesco, among other things – even though technically the season for this dish had ended the month before I arrived. The salad is cool, crisp, briny, savory, and sweet, resulting in a veritable explosion of flavors. Despite my being slightly out of season, that at the Mare Nostrum restaurant in Sitges was probably among the best I have ever eaten, while the second time I ate the salad it was fine, but nowhere near comparable.

When I arrived in Madrid, other seasonal and off-season choices awaited me. It was the beginning of cherry season, and on a scorching hot day I thoroughly enjoyed an extraordinary chilled gazpacho at the Madrid country club a few miles outside the city, where cherries were used as the base for the soup instead of the tomatoes most of my readers are probably familiar with from the Andalusian-style gazpacho. The sweet and sour soup glowed like a rich, dark ruby, albeit only for the few short moments that it glittered in my dish before I consumed all of it with gusto.  

Although the season for white asparagus had ended a few weeks before, I nevertheless still managed to savor the last of some gigantic white asparagus spears having the diameter of a bratwurst at the Cerveceria Santa Ana, a famous old brewery just across the square from one of Madrid’s most prestigious theatres. On the other hand, I had also arrived a little too late for artichoke season. Few people love an artichoke more than the Castilians; there is even a rather grand 18th century fountain in Madrid’s Retiro Park dedicated to it. It did not surprise me then, that the fried artichoke I ordered as a starter for lunch one day at a rather UHB restaurant in the north end of the city was okay, but nothing special.  

All in all my food experiences were such that, the seasonal choices were always a hit, while the off-season choices were a mixed bag. This reinforces the often-repeated concept in travel writing that eating in a traditional, seasonal fashion lends greatly to the experience of travel. By sticking to what should be eaten when he finds himself where he is, the traveler can adapt to, and hopefully better understand, the rhythms of life in the place in which he finds himself.

By the same token, whether you are a frequent flier or an armchair tourist, the foods you choose even at home have a deeper meaning than the mere consumption of calories. Without giving much thought to it, we have created a society in which foods that were once viewed as special, have lost much or all of their significance. Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong about the fact that we can go to the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables out of season. Nor is there any real reason why we could not cook a Thanksgiving-style turkey in April, if we really wanted to.

Yet as these sorts of things are so often of a piece in our society, I do wonder whether making all kinds of foods and dishes available all year round is a reflection of the way in which we have come to avoid the seasonality of life, including our own. The natural world, in which we ourselves must be included, has an inescapable structure and pattern to it, from birth to growth, maturity to death. When something created is no longer considered to be something special, we risk not only becoming ungrateful for the bounty of Creation itself, but of imagining that we ourselves exist outside of it.

One hallmark of a true appreciation of the life we have been given can be found in those fleeting moments of pleasure that we all find in eating good food enjoyed in its proper season. By trying to live more in the place and time in which we find ourselves, we have a better chance of savoring a hint of the goodness of what Creation was originally intended to be, and what we believe it will be again one day. Until that day let us feast as best we may, but always in due season.


Travel Tip: Schedule Your Leisure

In a little over 90 days, I’m going on vacation. I know, that’s hardly news worthy of a blog post, let alone a mention. Yet in my case, heading back over to Barcelona and Madrid in late May/early June is something more than just travel, as regular readers know. And as I prepare for my trip, there are a couple of things I’ve learned about how to think about travel, that may be of some help to you in the future.

I’ve not had a vacation of more than a couple of days since 2011, so this two-week vacation is something I’m really looking forward to. Oh sure, I’ve been to weddings, conferences, and gone home for holidays. I’ve even had a couple of four-day weekends out of town visiting some good friends. However in terms of an actual vacation, i.e. packing a suitcase, traveling to somewhere far away, staying in an hotel, and not having anything specific that one *must* do for a week or two…it’s been quite awhile.

Traveling for two weeks by yourself can get rather lonely. I’m fortunate that I’ve plenty of family to visit, but it’s not really the same thing as traveling with others. In fact, it can be quite easy to get depressed at the start of your vacation, if you’re not careful.

If you’re not sure what I mean, let me explain by directing you to this blog post by travel guru Samantha Brown. In it, she describes something which I sometimes feel, as well, but didn’t realize that others suffered from. Because for some of us, at least, there’s a kind of melancholy that hits, as soon as you reach your hotel room, which is particularly potent if you’re traveling on your own.

“There’s a strange feeling I always get,” she writes, “when I arrive at my hotel room for the first time: ‘well now what?’ It’s this mild fleeting depression that marks that I’m no longer anticipating my travel, but am here.” 

After all the weeks of planning and packing, making sure you get to the airport on time, fighting your way through security, cramming yourself into a flying tin can, then doing the whole process in reverse – hopefully without losing your luggage – you arrive! You check in to your hotel, you’re taken to your room, and everything appears to be clean and in working order. The bellhop leaves, you sit down on the end of the bed, and now you don’t know what to do with yourself. This trip you’ve been planning has just started, and already you’re at a loss.

The trick, as I’ve found over the years, is this: you need to schedule things. Samantha Brown suggests getting outside and going for a walk to familiarize yourself with the neighborhood around your hotel, and of course that’s a good idea. In fact, you should be doing that on Google Maps Streetview long before you leave for your trip. However the real antidote to either first or last day vacation blues is having a schedule, so that you alternate periods of activity with periods of loafing about.

When I travel, I create an agenda for myself to follow, with rest times worked into it. After all, there are works of art to look at (and possibly acquire); photographs to share on social media; articles and blog posts to research and write; day trips to take to both familiar and unfamiliar places. These things should be interspersed with periods of indolence: sitting in a café or on the beach, watching people or looking at beautiful buildings, strolling through gardens or just wandering around aimlessly.

The worst thing you can do, it seems to me, is to go on vacation with no set plan about what you’re going to do while you’re there. It’s a bit like being cooped up in the house during a blizzard, like we recently went through here in DC. The first day is pretty exciting, watching the snow come down and checking media to see the city come to a grinding halt. Yet by Day 4 of being inside the house with nothing specific to do, it gets pretty old. Or at least, it does for me.

Whether you’re going to the shore, or to a foreign shore, have a loose plan for what you’re doing on your vacation. As an adult, you know that you need some degree of order and structure in your life, intermixed with leisure, if you’re going to get the most out of your job; the same applies to how you ought to travel. So besides enjoying the down time, when you enjoy doing nothing at all, make an advance reservation for Friday night at that restaurant you read about in Saveur, or put on the calendar that on Thursday you’re going to tour an historic site or museum.

And as part of that planning, make sure that, as soon as you get to your destination, you know exactly what you’re going to do as soon as your bags are put away. Me? I’m heading straight to the Caffe di Francesco on the Passeig de Gracia. I’ll send you an Instagram.