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Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2000

Cooking and creativity in Barcelona


BARCELONA -- In 1926, when Antonio Gaud i Cornet was killed in a streetcar accident, Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, the cathedral he'd labored over for 30 years, was far from finished. Nearly 75 years later, the audacious structure has neither pews nor altar. Instead of the faithful attending services, tourists dodge construction crews and stone-cutting equipment in the dusty, crane-studded shell.

If you've never been to Barcelona, Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Cathedral is the first place you should go. Probably the world's most spectacular work-in-progress, the cathedral owes its artistry to a man who was not only a brilliant architect but a sculptor, painter and potter.

Gaud was the prime exponent of the Catalan Modernism style which, inspired by Art Nouveau, came out of the 1888 Barcelona World's Fair. In 1891, nine years after work began on a neo-Gothic cathedral for the city, Gaud was called in. He began a three-decade obsession to create a 20th-century house of worship with a spell-binding vertical dimension. The completed structure was to include 18 towers, symbolizing the 12 apostles, the four evangelists, the Virgin and Christ. Figures of animals, plants and even clouds were also incorporated into the design. Since Gaud's death, controversy has raged over whether Sagrada Familia should be completed at all, but work has continued.

Examples of Gaud's touch are evident throughout Barcelona. Some of his most notable buildings are Casa Mila with its wavy facade of stone and iron balconies, and Casa Batllo, faced with brilliantly colored tiles. Gaud's own house can be found on the grounds of the Park Guell, which has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Architectural showpieces like the Gaud buildings are in fact almost commonplace in the cosmopolitan capital of Catalonia. Like 16 other autonomous provinces in Spain, Catalonia has its own president, executive council and a Parliament (called the Generalitat) that's located near Barcelona's Museum of Modern Art. Although Catalan is the official language, Spanish is widely spoken, as is English in the tourist areas.

Barcelona's 1.5 million inhabitants are known for their pride (some say arrogance), industrious nature and inventive spirit. They are also passionate about business, food, style and art. Barcelona-born Joan Miro, for one, is remembered by the Joan Miro Foundation on Montjuix Mountain while many of Pablo Picasso's early works are on display in the Picasso Museum at number 93 C. Montcada. Works by Antonio Tapies, Catalonia's most prominent living painter, are housed at the Antonio Tapies Foundation in a striking modernist building.

For more specialized tastes, there's Barcelona's Museum of Erotica on the Rambla, the famous pedestrian thoroughfare that leads to the port. Its 800-piece collection ranges from ancient to contemporary erotic art, with postcards, pinups and even chastity belts.

The Perfume Museum brings together some 5,000 perfume bottles from different cultures and civilizations, including Arabic and Oriental flasks, Punic glass and Greek ceramics.

A lengthier excursion will take you to the Salvador Dali Museum, about an hour and a half from the city in the town of Figueres. The most-visited museum in Spain after Madrid's Prado, its collection is in the old municipal theater.

You can see Barcelona's style showcased in the elegant shop windows along the broad Paseo de Gracia, Barcelona's answer to the Champs Elysee. It's there in the ultra-modern Museum of Contemporary Art at Placa Angels, built in 1995, the Olympic Village on the restored Barcelona waterfront and in the people themselves, like the street performers and dense crowds that populate the Rambla.

The Rambla actually has seven different sections dating from various periods in Barcelona's history. Walking its length is one of the best ways to get a feel for the city.

Start from the Rambla de Caneletes and stroll south. Near the section known as the Rambla de les Flors, you'll find the fabled La Boquera covered market. Spain's covered markets, traditional favorites of shoppers, have lost customers during the 1990s as the growth of suburban shopping malls has cut into their businesses. There's still no place like them for glimpsing the extraordinary range of Spanish food products, though.

Built in 1836, La Boquera's design -- a large, covered pavilion divided into bays and supported by iron columns and arches -- is a classic of 19th-century cast-iron architecture. Inside, along the crowded aisles, you'll find stalls overflowing with meats, poultry, fish and seafood, artichokes, mushrooms, olive oil, saffron and thousands of other foodstuffs.

The best time to visit the market is in the early morning when everything is at its freshest. You can smell the coffee brewing at the Bar Pinocho (which also has great tapas offerings) and at the Blai's stall, where members of the family, who have been operating out of La Boqueria for more than 80 years, are busy serving up cold cuts. At a stall called Carincera Orte, the beef on offer comes from bulls that have fallen victim to Barcelona's matadors.

Tourists who arrive in Barcelona today, whether they're disembarking from the cruise ships in the seaport (one of the largest in the Mediterranean) or landing at the bright, renovated international airport, are witnessing the result of a massive beautification project than began in 1986, six years before the city hosted the 1992 Olympics.

The Catalan government enlisted the financial help of dozens of companies in the overall face-lift. A wine producer paid for restoring the venerable El Molino theater; a department store chain got involved in sprucing up Barcelona's Arch of Triumph and a manufacturer of lubricants saw to cleaning and restoring the city's fountains.

Despite its modernity, Barcelona is a very old town. It was founded in the 2nd century B.C. and garrisoned by Roman legions. There are numerous remnants of the Roman period to be seen, such as the twin semicircular towers of the Roman walls at Placa Nova. In the old Gothic quarter, the dazzling cathedral dates from the 12th century, and there are many restored medieval structures like the Placa del Rey, which contains the Palace of the Counts of Barcelona.

At the base of the Rambla is the Placa del Portal de la Pau, with its Christopher Columbus monument and the Gothic Drassanes, now the Maritime Museum. The building goes back to the 14th century, when Catalan seamen built a commercial empire that spanned the Mediterranean and challenged Venice.

Nearby is the walking route called Moll de la Fusta, which has dozens of bars and restaurants. In the restored warehouses called the Sea Palace, the Museum of the History of Catalonia offers an interactive trip through Catalonia's past. From here, walk on to the Olympic Port and Olympic Village in Barceloneta.

Like the rest of Catalonia, Barcelona has a rich culinary tradition. There are excellent restaurants and literally hundreds of tapas bars, the latter being especially crowded on weekend evenings when strollers are out in force.

Casa Tejada, near the Eduard Marquina Gardens, serves Catalonian tapas specialties such as queixada de bacaloa (cod salad). Amaya, near the Columbus statue at the end of the Ramblas, specializes in Basque dishes (stuffed peppers, beans with onions and small squid).

On the street called Merce (parallel to Paseo de Colon), you'll find dozens of places. Try the peppers and artichokes or Canary Island ham at La Jarra or the red sausage called christorra that's grilled and served on bread at Bodega Las Campanas.

Although it's not in the center of the city, another place I'd recommend is La Pineda, (93) 662-3012, situated in a pine grove off the highway leading out of Barcelona at Km. 15,5 Autovia Castelldefels Gava.

Tables are set out of doors under the trees; the menu features dishes like butifarra negra (a black and white pork sausage) and the small local white fish called boquernes. Finish up with cheeses like the acidic goat cheese called garratxa. It's one of a number of artisan products that came on the market 25 years ago in Catalonia when doctors, lawyers and academics, tired of the grind, decided to chuck their jobs in favor of cheese-making.

The cab fare out from town is definitely worth it.

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