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Sunday, September 11, 2011, still in Barcelona, Spain

Hi everyone. We’re still in Barcelona, on what could be our last Sunday in town after a month’s long visit. Tomorrow, we have company coming. Here’s what has been going on this week.

I’d like to register a complaint with Spanish television. I must begin with a compliment by stating that Americans who don’t speak Spanish and don’t subscribe to a premium TV service can find lots to watch on free digital TV in Spain. All you need is a standard European digital box and command of the remote control option for the alternate audio. So we can watch Top Gear in the morning and the Simpsons at night. That’s not my complaint (although arguably a person on a sailing adventure isn’t supposed to be participating in such mundane activities.) No, my complaint has to do with planning. At any time, among about two dozen channels, there’s invariably exactly one show whose original language is English, and that’s what we watch. But the guide that pops up isn’t exactly accurate with regard to start times. You might turn on the Divinity channel and discover that the Sex and the City episode you thought was coming on in five minutes is already half over, or turn on Neox and need to sit through something in Spanish that looks as sophisticated as Benny Hill. (In all fairness, any sitcom in which no words are comprehensible probably looks pretty stupid, and that’s also true of about half the sitcoms in which you understand the words as well.) So the problem is that you never really know when your show is on, even as you look at the guide on the TV screen. It’s not so much a TV Guide. It’s TV Guideline.

Our next Sunday was not only a free day in the afternoon for a half dozen of the best museums in town; it was a first-of-the-month Sunday bonus. So we earmarked a day of museum frenzy, starting with the History of Catalonia museum that overlooks our marina.

This sprawling museum traces time from prehistory to the present, and does so with a mixture of actual artifacts, reproductions, and artful illustrations and maps. This day was a museum marathon for us, and we’re neither locals nor new to displays of Mediterranean history, so we made a rather speedy perusal of the place and we were on our way. Our next visit was to the Seu, the plaza behind the main cathedral, where we knew that there would be dancing.

The sardana is Catalonia’s national dance. The event is of planned spontaneity, once a week in a specified square. The guidebooks suggested two or three different venues and times. Our recollection of it from our first visit to Barcelona about ten years ago is that on Saturday, the shoppers toss their bags and belongings into a pile, and everyone joins hands in a circle around it. On Sunday, the event takes place behind the cathedral. Music starts to play (I recall some sort of boom box) and everyone does certain steps in unison with their feet. The steps aren’t complicated; it’s like the hora that everyone does at bar mitzvahs, or the sort of thing you’d see at a Greek gathering (along with cries of “Opa!”) So young and old participate, and on this day, we saw several circles in synchronized motion.

But things have changed in ten years, a little more planning and a little less spontaneity. Maybe they don’t do this every week, but on this week, behind the cathedral, there was a band, not a mix tape. A circle of young people in their late teens off to the side was being instructed with drill-sergeant encouragement by a large woman. It had to be a class, because they were dressed in red tee shirts of the same design. Having uniforms for the sardana is a little too programmed for me. These teens were a little gangly, and would have been better off auditioning for comedy. The step just isn’t that complicated. You shouldn’t need training.

Still, there’s a unity of effort and a sense of tradition, especially when gray-headed citizens gracefully tap and sweep around in the circle. If we’d stayed longer, I wouldn’t have been able to keep myself out of it. But we were on a free-museum mission.

On a whim, we took a tour of the Mares Museum, just around the corner from the dancers. Frederic Mares was a 20th-century sculptor and collector, and the collection on the lower floors is a microcosm of three-dimensional art of Barcelona’s culture. One floor is devoted to Roman art, with busts and statues of glorious carved marble. Another floor contains religious items, mostly depictions of the Jesus birth and his crucifixion. Some of the crucifixion carvings are without the cross itself, making Christ appear to be flying off of the wall. Apparently Mares was horrified that art collectors were plundering the small churches of Spain’s small villages, so he set about to do it himself in a more pious manner. The wooden Pietas remind you that medieval artists never understood the proportions of babies’ large heads. But the aisles of endless carvings are stunning in both the artistic effort they represent and in their abundance.

Our last museum of the day was the Güell Palace, a fine mansion in the old part of town, designed in the early career of Antoni Gaudi and opened in 1888. Eusebi Güell was an industrialist who bought a property just off of the Rambla and commissioned Gaudi, a new architect, to design it. The result is frothy, overdone, and innovative, and Güell remained Gaudi’s patron for many years.

The building has had structural issues over the years, and was under renovation for some time. Until recently, only a small portion of it was open. In April, 2011, the entire building was opened to the public, so we got to see it from bottom to top. It’s fabulous. From the wrought-iron designs on the façade and the parabolas over the doors, to the covering of ceilings with carvings of wood and ivory, there’s something to see in every direction. The structures supporting the basement carriage-house are funnel-shaped and stunning. The great room, the focal point of the house, is several stories tall, framed in stone and wood and stained glass, and visible from nearly every other part of the living quarters in the mansion. Gaudi designed the fireplaces and some of the original furniture. And the roof is a comic- book of chimneys covered in brightly-colored mosaics.

We followed another walk from our tourist guidebook, this one beginning at the Palau Güell . This walk took us through the neighborhood to the west of La Rambla, and only about half of the route was through neighborhoods we hadn’t already visited. But it took us by the tiny 9th-century Church of St. Paul of the Countryside, from a time when this urban neighborhood was still the countryside, and we strolled through a section of town dominated by kebab houses and filled with Arab immigrants. We saw the medieval hospital Antic Hospital de Santa Cruz, which closed decades ago. Gaudi was one of its last patients, arriving to the hospital unknown after being hit by a tram. He was at the height of his career, but because he was dressed like a beggar, he was unrecognized. Nobody came to his aid for some time, and he was in the hospital for a day before anyone realized who he was. And there he died. If this doesn’t lend credibility to the statement that you should always wear nice underwear, because you never know, then I don’t know what does.

Our watermaker mechanics finally returned from vacation and set up an appointment to change a pump that was leaking. This would be our third city of watermaker repair, after Vigo in Spain and Lagos in Portugal, and maybe the third time would be the charm, as the saying goes. By this time, the watermaker had sort of healed itself; Art hadn’t seen a leak for a while. But he knew it was there somewhere, and the new pump had been sent to Barcelona, and this month-long visit was our chance to fix it and be aboard at the same time for weeks.

They installed the new pump, and tightened it hard to avoid a leak. One of the parts was plastic, and the connection broke inside the pump. Now we had a gigantic leak where the pump should be. There’s the right part and the wrong part for fixing the pump, and the wrong part would fix it within a day. The right part would require shipping and a week’s time. The verdict was that the wrong part would be put in on the next day and the right part given to us a week later.

They came back the next day to install the wrong part temporarily, and it turned out that this was the only time that the watermaker mechanics had overachieved. Not only was this the wrong part, but it was so wrong that it wouldn’t work, even temporarily. So they left us for the shop and a better wrong part, all in all three visits in the day. They left at 6:00 PM, and by 6:15, the unit was put together again, and leaking. Still another day was donated to the cause of fixing a small leak in the watermaker and not achieving success.

The next day, they returned with new resolve, and left us with some new parts and the old leak. The week had gone by with little success on the watermaker front. The right part would arrive in a week. Art wasn’t optimistic that this would ever be behind us.

We had more success in covering everything that there is to see in Barcelona. Our last sightseeing objective on our own was to visit the Park Güell . This was one of Gaudi’s last works for his old patron, and it wasn’t finished during his lifetime. It had started out as a Güell’s dream for a gated community outside of town. Gaudi managed some roads, two gatehouses that look like there might be a cookie factory run by elves inside, and a long bench of mosaic tiles that was designed to look like a multicolored sea serpent. Upper roads are held up by columns in funnel shapes like those in the basement of the Güell Palace. Even though the season had slowed down, the place was mobbed. People clambered over a giant lizard made of mosaic tile that crowned a terrace overlooking the gates. Cameras clicked in every direction. Where there are tourists, there are immigrants selling junk – fans, jewelry, and souvenirs – beautifully placed on blankets on the ground, and where there are black-market goods, there are police motorcycles, who drive through the narrow roads and create a ballet of vendors who sweep up their blankets into sacks, and who then loiter nonchalantly as if they’re just visiting the park just like everyone else.

Considering that it’s overflowing with attention now, it’s hard to imagine that it’s just a failed real estate venture. The land was originally rocky and arid, and its most attractive feature was its distance from town and factory smoke. It already contained a large country house, and in a show of support Güell moved his family into it. Eventually, there were two more houses, neither designed by Gaudi, and Güell tried his best to sell them to no avail. One had been intended to be the model home. Güell suggested, the way your patron always does, that Gaudi purchase this house, which Gaudi did, with his savings, and moved his family into it. This might explain why Gaudi had no money left for nice clothes when he collided with a tram. This home is now a museum containing some of Gaudi’s original furniture.

This will be a week of visitors, walks through town, and sharing what we’ve learned about the place.

Love, Karen (and Art)