It is a mistake, when traveling, to insist only on beauty. In time, panoramas, stirring monuments, and perfect specimens of early baroque can be as monotonous as asbestos suburbs. Visitors to the United States must realize this when they combine Disneyland and Monticello, Levittown and the Grand Canyon. But Europe is still full of those desperate souls who read a guidebook as though it were the Holy Scripture and trudge piously from Cathedral A to Belvedere B.
Barcelona simply cannot be visited in this spirit. It contains as rich a mixture of heirlooms and tasteless atrocities, of misguided civic monuments and sublime treasures as a city could possibly endure. The moment a tourist leaves the airport his senses are assailed both pleasantly and unpleasantly. Decomposing warehouses blot out tiny Romanesque chapels in the hills beyond. A polyester factory spreads its noisome presence over the aromatic meadows, and the tinkle of a distant fun fair is lost in the strident anarchy of traffic.
An excellent antidote to these first confusing impressions, and the daze of jet flights, is to find a high, quiet vantage point from which to consider the city. The most accessible is Montjuich, a hill of gardens, fountains, and museums, rising to the south. Here one can lean from a sunny balustrade and grasp the simple, almost organic shape of Barcelona. First there is the port, then the Barrio Gotico, a covey of medieval alleys and palaces nestling beneath the cathedral. Beyond, the sleek modern thoroughfares begin: the Avenida del Generalíssimo Franco, the Avenida de José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and the Paralelo (Calle del Marques del Duero), once the Broadway of Barcelona, now the edge of a seedy but simmering Andalusian quarter. If, like most human beings, however, you cannot live on views alone, go to the Torre San Sebastiano. This is an abandoned cable-car tower, now used as a restaurant, where the lobsters and prawns compete favorably with the scenery.
Just as important as knowing where to stand aloof and gaze down on a city is knowing how and where to plunge into it. In many places this depends on the day, the hour, the weather. In Barcelona, at almost any moment, day or night, life is channeled into one stream, the Ramblas. The name of this wide, seething avenue, reaching from the main square, the Plaza de Cataluña, right down to the waterfront, is thought to come from an Arab word meaning “the bed of a torrent.” Until the early eighteenth century, it was a ravine of sand and boulders, marking the western boundary of the city. A hundred years later, the walls having been demolished, the torrent became human. Shops, houses, theaters, and markets replaced the austere facades of the convents which had lined the Ramblas until then. Anything urgent in the way of business or intrigue gravitated there — banks, cafés, clubs, bookstalls, flower and even bird markets — until the Ramblas became the main artery of Barcelona, in the most exact and physical sense. About one hundred years ago, plane trees were planted along the wide central promenade (cars are confined in single-lane streams to the left and right). These trees are now gigantic and lend a dappled, goldfish-bowl effect to the life beneath them.
Old Barcelona hands maintain that the glory of the Ramblas is in decline, a statement part truth, part nostalgia. Considering the political atmosphere, one would hardly expect to find intellectuals arguing freely in the cafés, and the more prosperous citizens no doubt prefer to shop and stroll along the fashionable Paseo de Gracia or the streamlined Diagonal. But for a new visitor, this is quibbling. One can still see more of the taste, the temperament, the low life, and the love life of Barcelona in an afternoon along the Ramblas than anywhere else in the city.
Even within the bustle of the Ramblas, there is one spot where life burns still more intensely. Just off the Rambla de las Flores (there are actually four Ramblas, one leading into another) is the market of San José. Under the roof of this leviathan establishment, voices and motion are concentrated into one allconsuming roar. There is barely room to move between the marble counters without grazing the tentacle of an octopus or a necklace of garlic. The produce, usually young and tiny, is displayed with heartbreaking artistry; baby octopuses, which when raw are the shape and color of a baroque pearl, are arranged in outlandish rosettes; eggplants, peppers, oranges, black olives, and pimentos are heaped into gaudy pyramids. The martyrdom of the saints, so gory in Spanish altarpieces, seems less fantastic as one wanders by eels biting their own tails, beneath splayed carcasses of lamb, rabbit, and veal, or by whole litters of nude, helpless-looking stickling pigs. If all this should lead to thoughts of lunch rather than purgatory, there is a fine restaurant right in the market itself, the Hostal de la Gloria.
Before I plunge further into the joys and horrors of Barcelona, a word about hotels. Should the idea of staying at the Ritz, without overlooking the rent, be attractive, Barcelona is the place to do it. A single room there is about $5; the most lavish suite about $12. It is a hotel in great taste, all oyster-white, maroon, and brass, with Persian rugs and a garden shaded by a single eighty-foot wisteria vine. For a quieter spot, closer to the Gothic city, there is the Hotel Colón. Here one should ask specifically for a balcony overlooking the cathedral. At night the stained glass is lit from within, and at breakfast one can look down on a small green park full of Roman columns and statues. Two other possibilities are the Avenida Palace, big and shiny, or the Manila, right on the Ramblas.
There is no question of seeing Barcelona without visiting the creations of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí, the architect laureate of Catalonia, was revered perhaps as much for his fanatic personality as for his artistry. One learns first about his diet of honey and raisins and his Pied Piper influence on students, and then about his architectural innovations. When reading the florid official literature, one should keep in mind that now and then a discriminating traveler has found his work hideous.
The two most-visited Gaudí buildings are the Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia, an unfinished, uninhibited cathedral in which stone explodes into botanical fantasies or overflows like molten wax, and 92 Paseo de Gracia. This second creation, known as La Pedrera (literally, “the quarry,” but more precisely, “the stone heap”), is an apartment building in the center of the city. Its facade billows in and out like sound waves. Entering what a sensitive visitor referred to as the “hairy front door” is like penetrating into the cavernous entrails of an elephant.
But the best place to grasp the wild abandon of Gaudí’s imagination, to see it in all its bizarre glory, is the Parque Güell. If a ship sank on a jagged atoll somewhere in the Pacific, spewing out a cargo of dishes, tiles, and glass, and through the years the fragments were gradually embedded into the coral, the effect might rival this extraordinary park. As conceived by Gaudí and his rich benefactor, Eusebio Güell, it was to be a complete garden city. The main gate was built, with lumpy mosaic towers bearing the Güell monogram. A titanic cluster of Neo-Doric columns — eighty-six of them, mostly on a slant — was to be the marketplace, but now echoes with games of hide-and-seek. The terrace above, with curving ceramic benches, was intended as the main square; now it lends itself perfectly to bocce tournaments. A corkscrew road, over asymmetrical bridges, leads to the still-wild slopes beyond. In all this Gaudí mixed the natural stone of the site, cement, and fragments of ceramic tile. Now and then he threw in a whole plate, a few crystal glasses, or a porcelain doll.
As a setting for children’s games, lovers, and holiday festivities, the fantasy and color of all this comes into its own. Had it ever become a small city, as Gaudí had intended, with shops under the toppling columns, ceramic tile baths in mosaic houses under polychromatic towers, the idyll might have turned into a nightmare.
Whether you leave the Parque Güell aesthetically satisfied, bemused, or thoroughly repelled, you will be tired and hungry. It is a fine prelude to a savory Catalan lunch. Two large and típico restaurants are the Siete Puertas, a barn of a place near the port, for suckling pig and paella, and los Caracoles (“the snails”), a labyrinth of small rooms, known for its namesake and spitted chicken. The Canario de la Garriga and Orotava are small and inviting. At the first — in what city other than Barcelona can you find an unspoiled. inexpensive little relais directly facing the Ritz? — the chicken Xanfaina, simmered in a sauce of pimento, onion, tomato, and parsley, is especially pungent. Orotava, a bit more recherché, offers pulpitos (baby octopus again) sautéed like minute flowers, followed by tournedos flambé, not particularly Catalan, but unusually delicious. An elegant surprise is Glaciar, behind palms and arcades in the Plaza Real. There is a turn-of-the-century quality to its oversize flat cutlery, bananacolored tablecloths, potted palms, and chandeliers. On a hot day, the trout stuffed with ham, an easy white wine called Perelada, and a Spanish version of crême brulée combine all too pleasantly.
If the Ramblas are the heart and Gaudí the extravagant soul of Barcelona, the city has more than its share of solid flesh. It could not be the most prosperous city in Spain without the thick rim of industry and the bland, symmetrical residential section known as the Ensanche (“Widening”). But considering that four and a half centuries have passed since the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when it was the capital, Barcelona’s burden of public buildings seems excessive.
International exhibitions have left their usual wake of white elephants in Barcelona. A pseudo-Moorish arch of triumph and a turreted castle in the manner of Viollet le Duc are among the unfortunate remains of the Universal Exhibition of 1888. On the hill of Montjuich, another such exhibition, in 1929, gave birth to no less than fifteen palaces, a stadium, several commercial pavilions, and an educational but necessarily stillborn reproduction of every style of Spanish village architecture, the Pueblo Español. Some of these buildings now house museum collections; some are opened once a year for fairs and exhibits; others, to use the gentle euphemism of the guidebooks, are “disaffected.”A sad cement mastodon in one of the parks, lumbering and hideous, epitomizes the archaic ostentation that has blossomed here.
The pride and glory of Barcelona is the great collection of Catalan frescoes on Montjuich. A lover of the Romanesque might easily decide to skip everything else in the city. In 1919, by a miraculous Italian technique, these frescoes were removed from small ruined churches all over the Pyrennees, and brought first to the Arsenal and then here. Doomed to deteriorate rapidly in damp, inaccessible mountain villages or even more quickly in a revolution, these murals from the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries are installed in rooms which reproduce the height and shape of their original setting. A walk beneath the startling, visionary eyes of the apostles, with elongated fingers poised in eternal blessing, has an overwhelming emotional effect. Simple recumbent tomb figures lie in the center of many of the halls, their salvation assured by the beauty above them. Here and there the stark fragments of a crucifix, or the caldrons and forked-tail demons of a primitive altarpiece lend a darker note.
It is a rare museum whose contents fit into a living whole. Like the other sights of Barcelona, these remarkable chapels are remembered from within, by their mood, their overall effect, above all, by one’s own feelings, never as isolated colorslides. In Barcelona the past either is doomed to rapid extinction, under the lethal hand of bad taste, revolution, or neglect, or else remains alive and admired, a force among the others that boil in this intense and troubled city.