Travel
Més que un city

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 26

Travel
Més que un city

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 26

Paul Richardson is captivated by the capital of Catalonia, a work of art in its own right

That Barcelona is now an artistic hub is beyond dispute. Many, if not most, of the seven million visitors who come to Barcelona each year are drawn by its modernista architecture and names like Picasso and Miró. When I first came here as a student in the late 1980s, few had heard of Gaudí, and Barcelona itself felt like a provincial city, scruffy and unkempt, but full of energy (and also dirt cheap). It was an artwork in itself, framed between the mountains and the Mediterranean.

In any case, I had my cultural bucket-list to attend to. I dutifully ate a cheap lunch at Els Quatre Gats, the famous bar where Picasso drank absinthe (and had his first show). I strolled around the Park Güell, the whimsical pleasure-ground created by Antoni Gaudí, along with half-a-dozen other intrepid tourists. Also on my agenda was The Picasso Museum where I admired the artist's precocious masterpieces; and where I also had my first close encounter with Romanesque art at the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC) in its domed palace at the top of Montjuïc hill.

Everyone has heard of Gaudí now, and his fantastical buildings are still worth visiting if you can bear the enormous queues. The Picasso Museum is also busier than ever, but it is unmissable for anyone interested in 20th century art. Picasso spent only five years in Barcelona, but they were formative ones, and the museum contains the world's largest collection of his juvenilia, including Science and Charity of 1897 – as well as the sublime Harlequin, 1917.

As for the MNAC, this is the closest Barcelona gets to an art museum with the same relation to its host city as, say, the Prado has to Madrid. Certainly, the pompous siting of the domed and turreted palace on a hill overlooking the city leaves you in no doubt as to its aspirations. The museum is supposed to possess around a quarter of a million artworks, though quality is mixed. There are good things by Rubens, Tiepolo, Zurbarán, Goya's Cupid and Psyche, not to mention a large number of loaned items from the monstrous collection amassed by Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza. Naturally strong on Catalan art, the MNAC has works by Dalí, Tàpies, and Gaudí, and the Catalan Gothic section shows the strength of the local tradition between the 13th and 15th centuries. One area in which the MNAC can't be beaten is in the quantity and richness of its Romanesque painting and sculpture. The wonderful Christ Pantocrator mural from the 13th century Pyrenean church of Sant Climent de Taüll, displayed on a vaulted ceiling in the position it would have occupied in the original building, ignited in me a fascination with the period which I have never lost.

The Montjuïc hill harbors another of Barcelona's major artistic 'sights' – namely the Joan Miró Foundation. Miró was Catalan by birth, so it's only right that the city should have such an impressive haul of his work. The building itself is a good reason to visit – it's a masterpiece in the clean-as-a-whistle Rationalist style designed by the Catalan architect, Josep Lluis Sert, and flooded with light on its hilltop setting overlooking the sea. The Antoni Tàpies Foundation is a different kind of collection, created in 1984 by the artist himself to promote contemporary art, including his own. The 'cloud' of meshed metal floating over the façade of the building on Calle Aragó has become one of the city center's most distinctive sights. It is actually a work by Tàpies himself entitled Nuvol ï cadira (Cloud and Chair). The basement gallery houses his own impressive private collection by Goya, Zurbaran, Picasso, Miró, Duchamp, Arp, Klee, Ernst, Kooning, Kandinsky and more.

When I first pitched up in Barcelona, the Raval district west of the Ramblas was still a no-go area and byword for sleaze. Then the Museum of Contemporary Art was built in 1995 on an area cleared of tenements. The American architect Richard Meier's dazzling glass-and-white-concrete façade is like an ocean liner sailing through the dinginess of the area. The museum's permanent collection concentrates on the second half of the 20th century, particular strengths being 1950s abstraction, pop art, and art from South America and Eastern Europe.

Whenever I return to Barcelona, I never fail to be surprised by how its cultural vitality outstrips that of any other city in Spain. The challenging new Can Framis, a converted factory in the light-industrial Poblenou district – trendiest of all Barcelona's new neighborhoods and a favorite for artists' studios – is home to a collection of modern Catalan art. A recent surprise is the new European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM). Housed in the deliberately shabby-chic surroundings of a distressed Baroque palace, it champions the cause of contemporary figurative art, with special emphasis on photorealism and hyper-realism. Not to everyone's taste, perhaps, but it's good to see that Barcelona covers all bases.

Where to stay
Barcelona is very well supplied with good hotels, particularly at the upper end, with several dozen five-star places making a virtue of design and architectural values, including the new Alma Barcelona and the outstanding Ohla Hotel (book the jaw-dropping Dome Suite). The spectacular W (below, top), unmistakable with its Ricardo Bofill-designed 'sail' directly on Barceloneta beach, is a great place to stay. (Watch out for the projected branch of the Hermitage museum, said to be sited nearby.) Not forgetting the much-loved Hotel Arts, a glamorous classic from 1992 in its iconic seaside tower block, which has kept its edge as part of the Ritz-Carlton group.

Where to eat
Where to begin? Barcelona is proud of its reputation as a gastro-capital, and though it's not impossible to eat badly here, you have to try quite hard. The Catalan tradition is the culinary basis of most really good Barcelona restaurants. My personal top five includes L'Angle and Abac (both run by the telegenic Jordi Cruz), Nandu Jubany's Petit Comitè, Paco Pérez's Enoteca at the Hotel Arts, and Ca l'Isidre, an unfailing delight for market-led Catalan cuisine in an agreeably fashion-free dining room. Albert Adrià serves brilliantly post modern tapas at Bar Ticket and (below, bottom) the Peruvian-Japanese Pakta.

Paul Richardson is a Spanish-based travel and food writer and author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.

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