October 29, 2015: Sharing the Block of Discord with Gaudi’s Casa Battlo and Cadafalch’s Casa Amatller is Lluis Domenech i Montaner’s contribution to the visual feast, Casa Lleo Morera. My guidebook lamented the fact that the interior wasn’t accessible, but it was wrong. Just as with the Casa Amatller, I was able to buy a ticket for a guided tour the morning I wanted to visit, and was shown round by a well-informed guide with just a handful of other visitors. In fact, it was this guide who told me I could visit Casa Amatller and that it was fully furnished.
Originally constructed in 1864, the building was redesigned for the Morera family in the early 1900s. Morera means mulberry tree, and mulberry trees can be found in the decorations, as can references to contemporary inventions such as the camera and the telephone. Again, this is not my preferred style of Art Nouveau, but I thoroughly enjoyed my tour.


Looking towards the courtyard


Looking towards the house from the courtyard

October 30, 2015: Walking two busy blocks east from my peaceful apartment on Carrer des Balmes brought me to the “Block of Discord” on Passeig de Gracia, so called because of the three very different buildings that share it. All three date from the Modernisme period, but the designs of Gaudi, Montaner and Cadafalch are strikingly individual. All three of the buildings contain multiple apartments, which are still in use, but the “owner’s apartments”, on the first (US second) floor, the piano nobile, are open for visits. All day, with audio guides, in the case of Casa Battlo, just for a few visits, with a live guide, for the other two.

Casa Battlo is probably the most popular Gaudi sight after Sagrada Familia, and attracts continuous crowds outside and inside. But, just as the Leonardo da Vinci painting in Burgos cathedral is neglected, the crowds ignore the other two houses on the block. That meant that I could buy a (noticeably cheaper) ticket on the day I visited without having to queue, and I was shown round the main apartment in company with just a few other Modernisme fans.

Casa Amatller was originally built in 1875, but was refurbished by Puig i Cadafalch in 1898 for the Amatller family. The inspiration was mainly Gothic, although the stepped gable recalls the canal houses in Amsterdam. Anton Amatller was a chocolatier, and the shop on the ground floor still sells chocolate. He did not survive to enjoy the apartment for very long, dying in 1910, but his daughter continued to live there for many years (dying in 1960), establishing an art institute and an archive of her father’s collections. While most of the apartment is unchanged, she had her bedroom redesigned in Art Deco style. The apartment has only recently been opened for visits, after a fourteen year restoration, and is fully furnished.

This was not Art Nouveau as I think of Art Nouveau, but it was certainly worth seeing.



The Spanish and Catalan flags fly over the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona

October 26-31, 2015: For centuries, Barcelona was confined behind its medieval walls. When Madrid finally gave permission for them to go, in 1854, the city tore down the walls and expanded to the north. Starting from scratch, the area now known as L’Eixample was laid out with wide boulevards and plenty of light and air, forming a marked contrast with the cramped and winding streets of the old city. That was the result of planning, but the presence of three star architects of the Modernisme school (Catalan Art Nouveau) was pure serendipity. These days it is Gaudi who gets all the publicity, but Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluis Domenech i Montaner were designing beautiful and interesting buildings too.


Domenech i Montaner’s Casa Lleo Morera

Still, aside from mentioning two Gaudi houses – Casa Battlo and Casa Mila – and his Sagrada Familia, the guidebooks give the Eixample little respect. It’s the Ramblas, the long pedestrian avenue linking Placa de Catalunya with the port, and the Barri Gotic, the old city center, that get all the ink. Therefore, when I visited Barcelona in 2004, I stayed just off the Ramblas, and I did not, aside from the Gaudi buildings, find Barcelona very attractive. I was particularly disappointed with the Ramblas and wrote that the avenue was “mostly an opportunity for one group of tourists to sip over-priced drinks while watching another group parading past.”

But after visiting the Gaudi houses I ate lunch at Pastelerias Mauri in the Eixample, and noticed that the area seemed much more attractive. So, when I discovered that Icelandair didn’t fly out of Madrid at the end of October, and that flying home from Barcelona instead of Madrid offered better routes, I decided that I would revisit Barcelona but that this time I would stay in the Eixample. When I couldn’t find a hotel at a reasonable (to me) rate, I booked an AirBnB apartment on the Carrer des Balmes, two blocks from the Casa Battlo. I was delighted, both with the Eixample and the apartment. My opinion of Barcelona completely changed, for the better. I was also confirmed in my decision to only rent apartments from single women and couples – not only was this apartment well equipped and squeaky clean, there were plenty of towels, and the towels and sheets were pristine white. It had a sun-trap terrace with lounging chairs, too.


The cathedral in the Barri Gotic

I did revisit the Ramblas, and the Barri Gotic. I liked the Ramblas even less this time, with tour groups marching along behind their leaders, and the market so clogged with people I didn’t venture inside. I made it all the way to the port, and regretted it when I got a close look at the Columbus monument. A glorification of colonialism, I particularly disliked the Native American, complete with feathered headdress, kneeling worshipfully at the feet of a missionary and gazing adoringly upwards. I did not take photos.

I preferred the old town, where I followed a walking tour from my guidebook. I thought about visiting the cathedral, but first it was closed, and then there was a line to get in, and after Burgos, Leon and Salamanca I didn’t feel too bad about missing it. Especially when I had bought a ticket for Sagrada Familia. Instead I visited the Casa de l’Ardiaca, the former Archdeacon’s residence that now houses the city’s archives. After admiring the charming Modernisme mail slot by Montaner on the outside, I very much enjoyed an exhibition of the work of Apelles Mestres, a multi-faceted artist I had never heard of.

I also spent time over on Montjuic, admiring the views from both the bottom and the top of the hill (although it was too hazy to really see Sagrada Familia) and visiting the Catalan Art Museum. Besides appreciating the art and the building, I ate lunch in the restaurant, with an excellent view over the city. But the Ramblas, the Barri Gotic and Montjuic were all secondary to my main interest, Modernisme. I had bought tickets ahead of time for three Gaudi sights: Sagrada Familia (timed entry), Casa Battlo (enter any time), and Casa Mila (preferential entry any time), as well as Domenech i Montaner’s Palace of Catalan Music, and I was also able to visit three more buildings and a museum of Modernisme. In the end, I was very glad the Icelandair flight hadn’t been available.


View from Montjuic (it’s steeper than it looks)


Saint Gregory the Pope, by Pedro Berruguete c. 1495


Colombia, Quimbaya civilization

October 23-26, 2015: Mostly good, as it happens, and I already mentioned the
bad, the National Museum of Anthropology, in my last post. Although I was not revisiting the Prado or the Reina Sofia, I still had plenty of museums to chose from, although many of them closed early on Sunday. I started out Saturday morning taking the metro out of the center to Ciudad Universitaria, where I was interested to see that the streets weren’t cleaned the way they were around Puerta del Sol.
The Costume Museum – the Museo del Traje – was a bit of a trek from the station, but well worth it. Although devoted to Spanish dress through the ages, there was no shortage of English description, the displays were well designed, and I had the place pretty much to myself. Aside from the dress of the elite, which was influenced by French fashions under Bourbon rule in the 1700s, I was interested to learn about the dress of the majos and majas, the Madrid working class.

Majo cap

 My second stop, back towards the station, was rather less successful. The young man at the Museum of the Americas seemed pleased to inform me that the cafeteria was closed, and handed me a map with a curt announcement that it was in Spanish because we were in Spain. I had been in Spain at the smaller Museum of Costume, but they had managed an English map. And I had though the the Americas included a fair number of English speakers. However, it turned out that it wasn’t really a Museum of the Americas, more a Museum of Peru. North America was represented by a few displays from British Colombia and a half-hearted nod to the plains Indians. Plenty of ceramics, but very little gold was on display, aside from a few small, somewhat damaged pieces, and the larger artifacts came from Colombia. Of course, the conquistadores had only been interested in gold pieces for the metal, not the artistry.


Peru, Chimu culture

 After lunch I was firmly back in Spain, at the Museum of Archaeology, although I also encountered Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, and, of course, the Moors. This was a more foreigner-friendly museum, with English as well as Spanish descriptions, which I certainly needed for the earlier periods. The Roman section included some excellent mosaics, and the Moorish some elaborate ceilings. 


The Lady of Elche

 Sunday involved less travel, featuring the Museum of Decorative Arts, and the Thyssen, where I also ate lunch. The Museum of Decorative Arts was small, but quite good. I was amused to recognize a number of the artifacts in the temporary exhibition of bakelite on the ground floor. Upper floors contained plenty of heavily decorated furniture, and painted leather wall hangings.

The Thyssen, of course, would be a first tier museum if it were not in the same city as the Prado and the Reina  Sofia, and was full of excellent art. Although by this time In the trip I had had my fill of medieval religious painting, there were still a few pieces I liked, and I was glad to see some El Grecos and a Rembrandt self portrait. I went through the modern section rather fast, which gave me time to visit the Retiro Park and to wander through a few areas south of my hotel before dinner and packing.

Jan van Eyck, Diptych of the Annunciation

Second Time Madrid


Puerta del Sol, day time

October 23-26, 2015: My first visit to Madrid, I toured the Royal Palace, the Prado, and Reina Sofia, enjoyed a flamenco performance, and tried to stay cool in the Botanical Gardens before boarding a night train to Ronda. Ever since, I’ve used Madrid as an example of a city that others love and I don’t. I usually contrast it with Lisbon, a city I loved at first sight. But there are plenty of cities I don’t love at first sight, but nonetheless enjoy. It occurred to me that after a decade of putting Madrid down, perhaps I should give it a second look. Maybe I’d like it better in cooler weather. I wouldn’t revisit the sights I had already seen, but Madrid had plenty of museums. Just in case, I allocated only three nights.

Back when I was planning a trip to South America I spent some time trying to learn a little Spanish using a BBC video course (yes, I know the accent is different). I didn’t learn much Spanish, but I did like the look of the Puerta del Sol and the Madrid metro, and I booked a room at the Hotel Europa, practically on the Puerta del Sol, instead of the Hotel Plaza Mayor where I stayed in 2004. I can only conclude that the BBC shot the video very early in the morning, because the square turned out to be tourist central, and both it and the street outside the hotel were mobbed, as was the metro. My hotel room, small and worn, did have a little balcony overlooking a slice of the square, and I did enjoy watching the crowds, but I had no interest in joining them.


Puerta del Sol, night time


Street outside my hotel

 My first afternoon was not a success. After I got off the train from Salamanca I decided I would be better off taking the Cercanias commuter train to Puerta del Sol as the queues for the ticket machines for the metro were much longer. Ticket in hand, I had to wait for the platform for my train to show up on the monitor, and then had only two minutes to get there. The train itself was packed to overflowing. After I checked in and set off for the first museum on my list, I found the metro to be just as overcrowded. And the Anthropology Museum was a total waste of time. True, wandering past a row of second-hand book stalls in the direction of the Botanical Gardens, I did happen on the Caixa Forum, which was probably the most interesting building I saw in Madrid, but much of the exhibition space was closed.

The museum scene did improve over the next two days (I’ll do a separate post for them). I did enjoy the Retiro Park, with its lake, its Crystal Palace and its Velasquez Palace decorated with colorful tiles. I did eat quite well, although one of the best meals was at a South American restaurant. But I did not change my opinion of Madrid. 

Possibly I would have liked Madrid better if I had been staying somewhere quieter. Although that would not, it turned out, have been Plaza Mayor, which I visited one evening, only to find it full of tourist-trap cafes. One or two other squares, recommended in my guide books, seemed to be in rather seedy areas. A walk down Gran Via, which one book claimed had interesting early 20th century buildings, also disappointed. I had my camera out, but the only building that seemed worth a shot was a Best Western hotel with a mural of a Spanish shawl.

I had originally intended to finish my trip in Madrid, flying home on Icelandair with a stopover in Reykjavik, but when I got around to trying to book the flights, I discovered that Icelandair only offered that route in the summer. Flights from Madrid to the US at the end of October were, for some reason, ridiculously expensive, and trying frequent miles didn’t turn up any routings I liked. I found better options out of Barcelona, and decided it was time to see how Sagrada Familia was coming along. I hadn’t been over enthused about Barcelona either in 2004, but Gaudi was a definite draw.


Quirky Salamanca

October 20-23, 2015: Salamanca has no shortage of magnificent, beautifully decorated, and historic buildings. But it has a lighter side, and I’m not referring to the 30,000 university students in residence. I’m thinking of the grotesques populating the capitals of the columns in the nunnery’s cloister, the car museum, and the Art Nouveau and Art Deco museum. In fact, it was the Art Nouveau museum that tipped the scales in favor of a visit to the city. Unfortunately, photographs weren’t allowed inside the museum, so I can only post pictures of the outside. The most notable external feature, the stained glass gallery running the full length of the south side, was beautiful on an autumn day, but it must turn that part of the building, which includes the cafe, into a furnace in the summer. There was more stained glass in the ceiling of the central hall, which probably also heated up under summer sun. The rooms round the hall, on both floors, contained a good collection of typical Art Nouveau glass and furniture, but also collections that seemed totally unrelated – a big room full of dolls, for instance. While no doubt a remarkable collection in its own right, and from the correct period, it was not what I expected. On the other hand, I was particularly pleased by a number of small chryselephantine sculptures from the Art Deco school. The elegant women, toes pointed, arms stretched just so, seemed poised to dance right off their plinths. 
Cars, to me, are mostly a way of getting from A to B. Back when I drove Mazda sports coupes, I would have added “as fast as possible”, but since an accident in 2007 (thanks to an aged driver making a left turn when he should have waited) and a switch to a hybrid sedan, I have slowed down. So I was less interested in the technical details of the vehicles on display in the Automobile Museum, than in their historical resonances. Looking at the touring cars from the early years of the twentieth century, I could almost see the passengers, muffled up against the dust of the open (and probably unsealed) road. Luggage space was minimal in the early years, because, of course, you weren’t going very far. Or very fast, despite the message of the winged or feline hood ornaments. And then there were the American cars from the fifties and sixties, all hood and teeth. Today’s streamlined cars look rather boring in comparison, although no doubt much more efficient.

I nearly skipped the nunnery, formally the Convento de Los Duenos, which would have been a mistake. The convent, like many of the Spanish religious buildings I saw on this trip, had a two story cloister. But the decorations on the capitals of the columns were something else entirely. When I describe them as grotesque, I am using the word both in the technical sense, “decorative painting or sculpture with fantastic interweaving of human and animal forms”, and in the popular sense of distorted, bizarre and disturbing. I had thought a cloister was intended for peaceful meditation, but there was nothing peaceful about these carvings. They seemed to be intended, instead, to frighten. Could it be that the medieval church, with its fanatically distorted views of women, felt that the nuns, vowed to a religious life or not, needed to be constantly reminded of the terrors of hell.


Stately Salamanca

October 20-23, 2015: When I told the woman running my hotel in Bayonne, in 2004, that I was going to Leon she was insistent that I should go to Salamanca instead. I didn’t take her advice, as it would have required a significant detour, and I enjoyed Leon a lot more than she thought I would. But I didn’t forget her reaction. Salamanca was still a significant detour from the straightforward Leon to Madrid route, but I went anyway. Although the stop off in Burgos had been reasonably interesting – the cathedral was definitely worth seeing – I could have done without the bus ride from Burgos to Salamanca. The bus station was just down the street from my hotel, and the bus was direct. But the ride reminded me of all the reasons I prefer trains.
The woman in Bayonne was half right. She was wrong about Leon, which I liked very much, but she was absolutely right about Salamanca, which I loved. It was also where I cemented my love affair with Iberica ham. I was staying in the (very nice) Salamanca Suite Studios and I spent part of my first afternoon buying supplies, as I had a surprisingly hard time finding muesli, orange juice and Nespresso capsules. Although I ate dinner one night at Bistro Zazu, right next door, I took advantage of my kitchenette to eat in the other nights – it was just too cold to wander around checking out restaurants, or even to sit outside with a cup of coffee on the main square. At least it was too cold for someone not traveling with winter clothes. The very helpful lady running my hotel sent me to a nearby shop that sold nothing but Iberica ham, and it was so good I just wished I could take some home with me.

The hotel was just round the corner from the Plaza Mayor, on a quieter, tree lined plaza with a central fountain and several cafes. I had a small balcony overlooking the plaza and enjoyed watching the action, which in the early evening included a few kids playing soccer – girls as well as boys. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is justly famous, but I didn’t get the full effect, as I arrived to find a gang of workmen filling the whole square with stalls for a book fair. The square definitely falls into the magnificent category – vey big, very symmetrical, and surrounded by matching buildings. Unlike Pamplona, there were no public benches, if you wanted to admire the square while sitting down, you had to pay one of the cafes for the privilege. And just as I prefer my Art Nouveau eclectic, I prefer my squares a bit less regimented (think Krakow). The effect at night, however, when the lights came on, was almost magical.

After the square, the cathedrals were next on my sightseeing list. Yes, cathedrals, plural. The “new” cathedral (begun in the 16th century) is built onto the “old” cathedral (begun in the 12th century). Nice that they didn’t tear down the old cathedral to build the new, as I much preferred it. Fortunately the tour groups seemed to prefer the new one, and there was certainly no shortage of groups. I had to wait to visit the old university building until they had all gone to lunch. I was particularly surprised to see groups from a Viking cruise ship, as I was well inland, but a little research showed that they had been bused over from the Duoro river in Portugal. Since you’re not allowed actually into the library in the university I thought the most interesting sight was the original benches in one of the lecture rooms – backless and about six inches wide. I doubt anyone fell asleep on those. The university was founded in 1134, and remains an important part of the city.

The city itself, built on a hill overlooking the river Tormes, was founded before the Roman period. During the imperial era it was on a main Roman road, and the Roman bridge still exists and is in use for foot traffic. Looking across the river from the far bank, the cathedral dominates the city, but there is no shortage of other religious buildings. The Soto staircase in the Dominican Convento de San Estaban, one of the earliest to be cantilevered out from the wall, was interesting for the technique (although the carving was better on the university’s staircase), and I spent a long time examining the capitals in the cloister of the Convento de Los Duenos (but that’s for the next post).


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