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Sunday, August 28, 2011, in Barcelona, Spain

Hi all. I hope you’re indoors and safe from the storm. It’s sunny and calm here in Barcelona. Last week, we’d been here for a few days.

Even Barcelona is quiet on Sunday. We made plans for the day that didn’t require shops to be open. We thought that this would be a good day to go to Gaudi’s masterpiece (unfinished then and still in scaffolding) Sagrada Familia basilica. We were right, and wrong. We were right in that it was a great day to visit the only place open in town on a Sunday. Everyone else in Catalonia apparently agreed with us, so we were quite wrong to visit that place during the highest tourist week in Barcelona’s calendar. The line swept around the block. People told me to expect to wait for forty-five minutes. This is one advantage of visiting a place long after everyone else goes home. We went back into town and took advantage of the free Sunday afternoon admission at the famous Picasso museum. Free is fine. But this line was an hour long.

The museum itself is a fine synopsis of Picasso’s work. The work begins when he’s only a teenager, and you can see immediately that this is one talented artist. Then the display moves through his life, including a series he did in 1957 called Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor). This is a response to a painting of the same name by Diego Velazquez. Picasso, inspired by this complex and dark work, made 58 paintings from elements in the Velazquez work, a young girl, a man brooding in the background. The Picasso versions are what you think of when you think of Picasso – a childlike sketch with blunt lines, eyes of odd shapes that don’t match, the same elements in the painting as the Renaissance masterpiece, but the slapdash modern look.

All I could think of was the room of paintings from his fourteenth year, a portrait of his father, landscapes that looked like photographs. And I wondered what I’d think if my child had appeared to be the return of Rembrandt, but grew into an adult who drew like Walt Disney? And the world revered him.

A month is enough time that you can spend whole days without getting anything accomplished, or you can spend hours trying to complete the most mundane of tasks. For us, one of those tasks was to get a better antenna connection on the television. The amplified masthead antenna is great at picking up channels from miles away when we’re anchored in the middle of nowhere. In cities, it simply chokes on the excess signal. In consultation with the antenna manufacturer and lurking around Internet forums, we decided to test a variety of solutions. The most fun was the conversation in my pidgin Spanish in the hardware department to get the right kind of screw-on antenna connection. Since the word for a male electrical connection is “macho”, the sentences often seemed like disparate combinations of “Necessito uno macho male for connection, and I need a screw”, or “no, that is a female to female.” I hoped nobody else was listening. After many permutations of antennas and attenuators, we were no better off than we’d begun in Barcelona.

We gave up on our search for an electrical adapter of our own for our shore power. After no marine store, electrical shop, or hardware store had a fitting to convert the dock’s 63 amps to our 32, we finally begged our marina to send us to its own supplier. A metro ride later into a residential neighborhood, we found the electrical warehouse that no tourist has probably ever visited and they didn’t have the adapter for us. For the record, they didn’t carry the fuse we needed, either. It’s nice to have a month, because you don’t have to fret if you’ve wasted a half a day on a wild goose chase.

Our next day was devoted to a more desired goose chase, a walk through L’Eixample, “the extension”, the neighborhood that was built up a century ago by Gaudi and others in the Moderniste school of architecture.

The first stop was the Palau de la Musica Catalana, It wasn’t easy to find, which was a great surprise when we realized how large it is, for one thing, and how stunning it is, for another. It takes a little time to take modernist architecture in stride. The buildings are elaborately decorated, with statues, and mosaic, and carved surfaces, and curves. Many of them have a sort of sand-castle decadence to them. This building was like that. There were two lines indoors at the box office. One was to buy a tour of the building in the next two days. The other was to go to a performance on its schedule. The walking tour we were following suggested that we come back and see the inside as an audience, but Art didn’t need any prompting. We bought tickets for a guitar concert during the weekend.

Art thought that the walk could have been more interesting than it turned out to be; he liked the beginning and the end, but could have done without the middle stroll through the neighborhood. He allowed, though, that walks like this one do force you to wander through neighborhoods you might overlook. I like any walk that wears me out, even if the points of interest are somewhat contrived. My biggest gripe was that the buildings singled out were often just a few doors down from some fabulous place that isn’t even mentioned. We stood across the street from the Cases Tomas Roger and looked at the sgraffito being highlighted from our guide. But the building that was shading us was flanked by two grand concrete columns in the shape of tree trunks, complete with leaves at the capitals and roots at the base. I would have liked to know who wanted to have that house.

Another highlight, even for Art, was the Casa Terrado, or “Casa de los Punxes (House of Spikes)”, a place with an array of turrets that terminate in sharp points. The house takes up about a whole city block, and there are separate entrances for the family’s three daughters. I was a teenager once, and though it would have been fun to have that much money, I think I would miss being able to stomp away from my parents and slam the door to my bedroom. Apparently some ceramic panels with patriotic motifs earned the house the disdain of one politician, who called it “a crime against the nation.” Now it’s a stop on the double-decker tourist bus.

Like a fireworks show, a good walking tour should end on something really explosive. The walk took us by the Casa Mila, now called La Pedrera (the stone quarry), a fabulous work by Gaudi. In some ways, it looks a little bit like the neighborhood should be Bedrock (with Flintstones hanging over the wrought-iron balconies.) It’s just an apartment building, but it’s grand and wild all at once. Our final stop on the walk was a block with three glorious moderniste buildings. The first is Gaudi’s Casa Battlo, whose balconies look a little like the top half of skulls and the small columns on the windows look a bit like femurs (it’s sometimes called the “house of bones.”) The house next door, not to be outdone, is a Puig I Cadalfach classic with a stepped pediment and fantasies in sculpture. The corner building on the same block was designed by another movement leader, Domenech I Muntaner, whose Casa Lleo Morera is wedding-cake fluff and modernist ornamental excess.

The next night, we saw that there was another street festival advertised for a different neighborhood, so we hopped onto the metro to check it out. This one had a decorated street or two (many more were advertised, and maybe we weren’t in the right spot), but this party was quite subdued. Granted, we’d timed our arrival too late for the children’s activities at six and the street concerts at eleven. But there was no mob at the subway, no crowds on the street, and no sense that the neighborhood was overcome with festivity. We did manage to follow a parade led by a flame-spitting dragon through about a mile of the neighborhood. Those around the dragon were dressed in medieval garb. Some looked like court jesters, others like chess pieces. They carried sticks of fire, and sometimes I felt as though I was inside a mob chasing down someone to tar and feather.

We stopped in the middle of the main street, where the costumed attendees lined up and a passionate speech drew cheers from the crowd. Then another group of people in costume came over. Now, because of all the fire and the sparklers, lots of participants were in protective gear. Small children (who, yes, were holding sticks on fire) were dressed from head to toe and wore cute little fire helmets. This new gang that arrived was in sweatpants and sweatshirts, and wore kerchiefs around their faces. With the sweatshirt hoods on their heads, and with the flames, and the chanting and cheering, we hoped that we were still in a party and hadn’t accidentally become involved in a political uprising. These guys all looked like the Unabomber.

You don’t have to go to a concert to hear music, and for that matter, pretty good music. On our way to a professional concert on Saturday, we passed a street band that was worth the stop. You wouldn’t think that there would be a bass cello in a ragtag reggae group, but there it was. They even had a bit of choreography that reminded me of the Motown groups of long ago. They’d turn to an angle in one direction in unison, tap a little move, and then turn on the opposite diagonal. It’s very, very common to find street performers; summer in Barcelona is like walking through a stage to the next stage only the distance of the sound away. It’s even common to find good street performers. They always have a hat turned upside down for donations, a guitar case filled with CDs (we fell for that once, in Barcelona in fact, and the CD always sounds much worse once you’re indoors). And there’s always an inebriated middle-aged woman who has just apparently realized that she dances as well as she did at Woodstock, and joins the band as a go-go accessory. We decided to continue on to the proper concert at a proper venue.

The venue was the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a hundred-year-old Modernist building designed by one of the premier architects of the era. We’d seen the outside of the building on our walking tour earlier in the week, and eschewed the guided daytime tour in favor of a real concert in the real concert hall. For the concert season, this is the hall for locals, but during the summer, it’s filled with bug-eyed tourists who rarely have the opportunity to listen to a concert in a room that is nearly bigger than the music. The performance itself is targeted toward tourists but is definitely local, and a bit watered down from its original state. It’s the equivalent of seeing the Boston Pops play John Philip Sousa marches. In Spain, in this case, it was classical guitar.

The auditorium is festooned and gilded and groomed everywhere you look. There’s leaded glass around the sides on every level of the seating. The rest of the walls are decorated in mosaic paintings. There are busts of someone – composers, performers – peering out from the sides of the stage, and a plaster life-sized horse coming out of the wall doesn’t overpower the rest of the carving. Behind the performers on the stage are sculptures of the top third of people; the bottom two-thirds, including their colorful costumes, are done in mosaic. This makes it appear that ghostly observers are watching the performance from better seats than we had, with diffidence. That’s understandable; in a hundred years, they’ve seen it all.

The performers were called Barcelona 4Guitars (please note that the name of the group is in English), and they put on a great show for us in this fabulous room. It isn’t easy to get your attention when the room is always calling out to you. The program comprised mostly classical music, and they managed to make the guitars sound like harps, or even an orchestra. I’d listen to familiar symphonic music and think that it had been written for guitar in the first place. They combined talent and fun for a great evening out.

We’re here for another few weeks. Stay dry and safe where you are. We’re thinking about you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)