A Travellerspoint blog

August 2011

Snapshots of Barcelona

Details from Casa Amatller and Casa Batlló

Barcelona has a shared biking system called Bicing.

A modern building along Passeig de Gràcia with metallic curves

During the summer, the city empties and its wide avenues are ideal for motorbikes.

An unusual building with Moorish-style windows

Warning on the road that 1 out of 3 people killed in accidents are pedestrians

An old pharmacy building along the Rambla

A human statue in the Rambla

A quiet place to have a meal and chat

A fountain with a tiled mural showing the old walls of Barcelona

Colourful buildings lining the Rambla

People eating in La Boqueria market

A wide selection of olives at a stand in La Boqueria

Tourists admiring a cake through the shop window

A caricature artist at work

Small boy chasing pigeons in the Plaça Reial

A pavement restaurant in the Rambla

A tourist bus doing the rounds

A wide avenue, lined with palm trees

A katamaran comes in to the port

The Rambla de Mar, the wooden bridge crossing over to the Maremagnum Centre

Walking across the Rambla de Mar

One of the many seagulls in the port

Looking across to the Maremagnum Centre from the Moll de Fusta

Old wooden schooner moored up

Barri Gòtic

Stone walls in the Old Town of Barcelona

Door grafitti in the Barri Gòtic

Colourful shop sign

Neo-gothic bridge spanning the gap

Group of girls looking at their snapshots of Barcelona

Hand-painted fans in a shop

Tourists having a rest by the Cathedral

Posted by margaretm 06:17 Archived in Spain Comments (0)


On foot around the city

My feet had no idea how many kilometers they were going to walk that day in Barcelona which was just as well, since they might have started protesting much earlier. We drove to the centre and emerged from the underground car park in the elegant Passeig de Gràcia near two of Gaudi's masterpieces. First stop was La Pedrera, Gaudí's building which wraps itself around the street corner with curvaceous, ondulating shapes, as cushiony and malleable as if the stone was really putty moulded into billowing curves. Sharp angles and straight lines are conspicuously absent here. All I could see were wave after wave of balconies with tangles of wrought-iron seaweed for railings, chimneys twisting like soft ice-cream, pliable doors, coiling staircases,...even the queue was curling round the building. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to wait in line for a look inside, a visit guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

Tourists on the roof of La Pedrera

The curvaceous forms of La Pedrera

Graceful lamp posts in Passeig de Gràcia

Artistic patterns on the pavements in Passeig de Gràcia

Next I strolled past the red brick building of the Fundació Tàpies with its nest-like topping of wire which makes me think of a nutty professor with frizzy hair... another unusual-looking place, promoting modern and contemporary art. A little further down the wide boulevard, where even the paving stones and lamp-posts are works of art, I came across Casa Batlló, with scores of sightseers craning their necks and pointing their cameras upwards. I wondered where Gaudi got his inspiration this time... scaly dragons' backs, skulls, bones, ocean waves? The imagination runs wild with the colourful blues and greens of the roof tiles, the trencadis mosaic on the façade, the skull-shaped balconies like birds' nests suspended on sheer cliffs, windows as if made from the bones of the dragon's victims. He was an amazing architect, who broke with every tradition in the book as far as normal building shapes were concerned. I could see the awe-struck tourists inside, looking out of the large ossified windows, their audio-guide wires glued to their ears. I wished I had time to explore inside and go up on the roof but the queue was too long for me today. My feet were keen to get going.

Building of the Fundació Tàpies, a modern art centre

The Casa Batlló is located in Passeig de Grácia

Skull-like balconies and bone-inspired windows

View of the roof of the Casa Batlló

Then on to the Plaça Catalunya, where small kids waded knee-deep through the thousands of pigeons there, racing around and making them take flight and land again. From here, I looked down the Rambla which bubbled and boiled effervescently with people. Tourists mistakenly believing they were in the Spain of toros and bullfighting, flamenco and castañuelas, and Indian souvenir shop owners happy to sell them this idea. Some were even wearing Mexican hats. I wanted to tell them that this was Catalonia, where bullfighting was banned, where they have their own language, Catalan, and their own flag, and where the local dance, the sardana, had nothing to do with energetic guitar playing and flouncy pokadotted red and white dresses. But I knew it would be to no avail. This is what they had come to see.

Children and pigeons in Plaça Catalunya

Looking down the tree-lined Rambla

Street off La Rambla

Branching off to the right, I wandered around the narrow streets to the MACBA museum, white and lonely. Heading back to the Rambla, I pushed my way into the crowded market, commonly known as La Boqueria, which must be one of the most mouthwatering places in the world. Fruit, vegetables, sweets, nuts, fish, condiments, jamones and other cured sausages were painstakingly arranged in kaleidoscopic piles of gourmet nutrition. It was going to be difficult to escape from there without packing my bag full of vitamins. I succumbed to a plastic cup full of multi-coloured fruit pieces which looked like a vivid cubist still-life painting, and polished it off in seconds. My feet needed some sustenance to keep going.

Colourful fruit stall in La Boqueria market

Selling jamon

Stall in the market

On the other side of the Rambla was the Plaça Reial, a beautiful colonial-style square sprouting palm trees, surrounded on all four sides by arcades packed with restaurant tables and sunshades. I was pleased to see it had been spruced up since I last went there. Holidaymakers from the four corners of the earth were sitting in the sunshine, tucking into appetizing tapas and huge dishes of saffrony paella streaked with red peppers, and sipping refreshing sangria. The harmonic strains of a guitar and accordion drifted across the square while in front of me, a slightly built man, in pinstripe trousers, a shiny green shirt and reddish waistcoat entertained some of the eaters with the clackety-clack of castañuelas and stamping feet which drew enthusiastic clapping from them. We could have been in Sevilla, not Barcelona, but the tourists were thoroughly enjoying the Spanish culture. A plaque on the wall stated that the Plaça Reial was twinned with Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City. Interesting.

Palm trees and arcades in the Plaça Reial

Entertainer in Plaça Reial

Wrought-iron gates of Palau Güell, by Gaudí

I switched back to the other side of the Rambla and came across another of Gaudí's works of art, the Palau Güell with its fine arched wrought-iron doors which look like they took years to painstakingly knit, and its individually decorated chimneys. At the bottom end of the Rambla, where it meets the Port of Barcelona, my feet began to do some serious protesting but I urged them on. Christopher Columbus, Cristóbal Colón, soared above us on top of his tall monument, pointing enigmatically. Some say he's pointing at America, others at Mallorca. And depending on your source, he may be Italian, Spanish, Catalan or even Portuguese. One thing's for sure... he discovered America in 1492 and he returned after his first trip to the Americas to the Port of Barcelona. Here the city opened up to the sky and the sea. My feet breathed sighs of relief when I sat down for a rest on some stone steps leading down to the water. An enormous hydrofoil jet, with razor-sharp bows to slice through the water, was moored in one corner. A tall-masted katamaran made its way to where we were sitting, followed by a cloud of seagulls, and waves of people were surging across the wooden extension of the Rambla which spanned the water to the Maremagnum Centre. Two cable cars crossed paths, greeting each other on their way to and from Montjuic Mountain. Meanwhile, the sun beat down mercilessly.

Port of Barcelona

Christopher Columbus pointing

Maremagnum Centre, a shopping and leisure complex

Sailing boats in the Port

After a brief visit to the Maremagnum Centre, my weary feet shuffled back across the wooden Rambla de Mar and along the Moll de la Fusta, past a thicket of sailing boats with tinkling masts, moored in the Port Vell. Wooden schooners, sailing boats, yachts and other vessels rubbed shoulders and conversed with one another. From here I turned up towards the Barri Gòtic , the old town of Barcelona, and found myself in a rabbit-warren of narrow cobbled streets lined by tall old buildings whose balconies almost touched each other on either side and blocked out the sun, plunging me into a murky penumbra. This area is home to the Cathedral, remains of the Roman walls, a neo-Gothic bridge inspired by Venice's Bridge of Sighs, towers, squares and plenty of doors decorated with grafitti.

Buildings in the Barri Gótic

Narrow streets in the old town of Barcelona

Old walls of Barcelona

Barcelona Cathedral

Door covered with grafitti

I could no longer feel my feet. Five hours of non-stop walking and a zillion footsteps had anaesthetised them into a state of detached numbness. The blood had collected in pools around my ankles which were beginning to feel like lead weights and my back was moaning. It was time to head back to the car after a long day's exploring. I made my way up the Passeig de Gràcia again, in search of the car park. Barcelona had surprised me. The excellent weather, the lack of traffic, the amazing buildings, the sea air, and a thousand small barcelona touches had made this a day well worth the discomfort of two sore feet. And with so much still to see of Barcelona, I've decided to return next year. When my feet have recovered.

Posted by margaretm 06:47 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

A magical town

Cadaqués, Mediterranean essence

View of Cadaqués from the other side of the bay

If Cadaqués were in Mexico, it would be designated a Pueblo Mágico, a Magical Town. A Pueblo Mágico is one which offers visitors a "magical" experience because of its natural beauty, cultural heritage or historical importance. Cadaqués isn't in Mexico but, all the same, it has a magical Mediterranean feel to it. Its dazzling white houses and church sit bunched up on the rugged rocks in a small sheltered bay, dipping their toes in the Mediterranean Sea, along the Northern Costa Brava coast. It's not the sort of place you stumble on. It's almost literally at the end of the road, a place you choose to go to, since there's nothing on the way once you pass Roses and there's only a sparse collection of houses a few kilometers beyond it called Port Lligat. The road then peters out at the end of the wild windswept Cap de Creus headland at Spain's most easterly point, lit by a lonely lighthouse.

But Cadaqués is well worth the effort taken to get there. Its narrow, rocky streets pinched between whitewashed walls twist and turn playfully. The church of Santa Maria, hovering over the village, has been portrayed in uncountable paintings yet remains modest and unpretentious. The blue of the sea echoes the immensity of the hemisphere above. And its exquisite light and cultural ambiente have seduced a long list of famous painters, writers and intellectuals. Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Federico García Lorca, Josep Pla... all have succumbed to its magic. It's not hard to see why.

The church of Santa Maria towers over the village

The streets are built on the rocks

Looking up at the church

Rocky steps up the street

View across the bay

Arches cover the road as it hugs the coast

Small shops inside the village

Looking down from the church over the bay

A quiet backstreet

The tree-lined Rambla is down by the sea

White-washed casino building

House with red shutters

Boats on the stony beach

A couple sitting on the seafront contemplating the view

Inviting café

Casa Serinyana, or the Blue House, built in 1910

Detail of one of the windows

Blue and white, the colours of Cadaqués

You can have something to eat or drink in El Bar Marítim, right on the main beach

Cadaqués has inspired painters throughout the ages and has many art galleries

Evening light at Cadaqués

An unusual bookshop

The small hamlet of Port Lligat and its bay, a few kilometers from Cadaqués

The windswept Cap de Creus headland

The lighthouse at Cap de Creus

Posted by margaretm 04:51 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An immense invisible castle

Castell de Sant Ferran, Figueres

Sant Ferran Castle

A newcomer to Figueres, I was wandering around the streets one crisp, blustery day when I noticed a sign, not too far from the Dali Museum, pointing the way to a castillo up on the hill. There's a saying that "An Englishman's home is his castle" and I'm convinced that British people have something in their genes which makes most of them appreciate castles, especially Medieval ones, probably since our history and collective memory is plagued with invasions and seiges. We have this kind of romantic idea lurking in the back of our minds of Ivanhoes and Robin Hoods and Scottish clans which goes hand in hand with toothy ramparts, imposing towers and creaky drawbridges. So when I saw the sign Castillo de San Fernando (Spanish) or Castell de Sant Ferran (Catalan), I have to admit that I had visions of a typical English castle and was eager to visit it.

Aerial view of Sant Ferran Castle

I strode enthusiastically along the long slope leading up the hill which overlooked the town, anxious to see this site. At the top, there was no sign of a castle, at least I couldn't see anything except two white sentry boxes and a road disappearing round a corner between two grassy slopes. The soldiers on duty made it clear that no visits were allowed so my curiosity was left wholly intact. To the right, a path climbed up the bank so I followed it. That's when I began to see what it was all about. It wasn't so much a castle, but an immense low-lying fortification crouching down on the top of the hill, wishing to remain unseen. On the other side of the bank I looked down into a moat, not filled with water but grassy green, trapped between stone walls and other defence structures, some sprouting a dishevelled hairdo of grass. If these stones could talk, what would they tell me? I wondered. My curiosity got the better of me and I continued along the path which made its way around the outer perimeter wall, in a spiky star-like pattern. To my delight, this turned out to be a blowy, 3 km walk around the entire fortress, with views over the town and the nearby countryside. I was in good company. Athletic young sportsmen overtook me running lightfooted, older ladies in pink tracksuits ambled along unhurriedly, girlfriends chattered intensely two or three abreast, youngsters were sitting on the grass wired up, grandparents were picking flowers. To them, the castillo was a place to get exercise, breathe in the fresh air, chat with friends. That was my first encounter with this immense hidden monument.

Sentry boxes and entrance

Wide grassy moat

Doing the rounds of the castle became a regular activity when a month later I changed my address. The only redeeming feature of my "new" flat was that it was close to the castle and a short walk took me up to the perimeter path so I could go for some early morning exercise and greet the immense sky above. Apart from that, the furniture was riddled with woodworm, the unsavoury wallpaper produced bouts of nausea and the close co-existence with scores of other neighbours meant all their conversations, music, TV programmes and garlicky cooking shared my flat with me. I stripped the wallpaper off but the other uninvited guests stayed put until Josep and I got married and we promptly moved to another part of Figueres. From the balcony of our 8th floor flat we had views of the dome of the Dali Museum, just metres away and, to my delight, the castle.

I learnt about the history of the Castell de Sant Ferran in a rather unexpected way, through my work with the historian, Señor Juan Manuel Alfaro. He would give me texts of the main historical sites in Catalonia and the Rousillon area of France (once Northern Catalonia) and I would translate them into English. The next step was to record them for his audio-guides or machines which, when you inserted a 100 peseta coin (in the days before the Euro), would give you a splurge on the history of the site in the language you had chosen. At first, we did the recordings down in a makeshift studio in his basement until he moved to some premises down the road. There he built a small soundproofed recording studio inside complete with microphones, red lights and other switches. The rest of the space was taken up by a muddle of an office, chaotic stacks of of historical documents, posters, old audio-guide machines and devices, books, maps and who-knows-what-else, and two cars. The challenge was to make the text recording exactly the same length within a second or two, in all the different languages, no easy task. I usually emerged from the recording studio "cave" blinking my eyes, sucking in oxygen wildly and clearing my throat which felt as if it had been scoured with an abrasive brush.

The text I recorded for the castle shed plenty of light on the castle's architecture and history. Built in the 18th Century to dissuade the French troops from advancing any further into the country, it was the finest and most technologically-advanced fortification of its time...the crème de la crème of European fortresses. No expense was spared. Weapons and warring techniques had evolved so a Medieval castle would have been unsuitable. Instead, a modern castle was required. The Castell had a complex range of defence structures which cropped up in the text as hornworks, bastions, counter-scarps, ravelins, curtain walls... , as well as moats, housing quarters and stables, making it not only the largest monument in Catalonia but the largest 18th Century fortress in Europe, if not in the world. You'd think the tourists would be flocking to visit it.

The enormous parade ground

Cavalry stables

Defence structures

Largest monument in Catalonia

A glance at Sant Ferran Castle in numbers should make your mind boggle at its immense size. And yet despite its gigantic dimensions, it remains largely invisible until you come up close.
- It covers 32.5 acres
- The outer perimeter is 3.2 km long
- There are 5 kms of moats
- 9 million litres of water can be stored in the deposits under the parade ground
- Housing for 6000 men
- Stables for 500 horses

Water deposits under the Parade Ground

Ground plan

As for its history, the first stone was laid in 1753, with a further 13 years needed to finish the work and it was named after the King of Spain, Fernando VI (Ferran in Catalan). Despite the enormous efforts made in its construction, it rather embarrasingly fell to the French troops almost immediately after it first entered active service, earning itself the nickname of La Belle Inutile or the Useless Beauty. It was later occupied by Napoleon's troops, taken back by the Spanish army for one year and fell to the French troops again. General Álvarez de Castro, who heroically defended the city of Girona during the third seige, died here mysteriously after being imprisoned by Napoleon's troops. Only the castle knows whether it was due to ill health or poisoning. Its rather colourful past also includes it being used as a military prison from 1965 up to 1991. A whole series of people were imprisoned here, ranging from comandants who called for elections and democracy, Jehovah's Witnesses, conscientious objectors (refusing to do military service and whose action led to compulsory military service being abolished in the 1990s) and even Antonio Tejero, the Guardia Civil who burst into the Spanish Parliament brandishing a gun on 23rd February 1981 in a failed coup d'état. He was the last prisoner there and was moved out in 1991, plunging the fortification into an identity crisis until, in 1997, the castle was opened to the public for guided tours and a wide variety of cultural events.

Horse show held in the Parade Ground and using the cavalry stables - Mostra del Cavall de Raça

Nowadays, this inconspicuous castle is better known for peaceful, public events rather than conflicts. Digging down deep into my memory files, I remember going there for a summer night concert in the ruins of the church, taking the kids to see the Three Kings arrive there on January 5th, attending the medal presentation ceremony of Marc's basketball team, a visit to a Horse Show (Mostra del Cavall de Raça), and I also recall watching several films being shot on site, including the film El Perfume with local people acting as extras.

Yet, it has to be said that, in spite of this mosaic of activities, this enormous historic castle still remains relatively unknown to the great majority of visitors who prefer to spend hours queueing to get into the Dali Museum, just 800 m away.

Guided tours including riding around the moats in Landrovers

Exploring the underground water deposits in a small dinghy

(Some of the photos were taken from the InternetI)

Posted by margaretm 06:38 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The man who gave the submarine to the world

Narcís Monturiol

What connection does Figueres have with the submarine?

The first "real" submarine

Salvador Dalí may be a household name around the world but Figueres was also the birthplace of another important person who most people have never even heard of. I certainly knew nothing of him until I arrived in the town.

My first teaching job in Figueres was at Casa Anglesa, a tiny language school in Calle Monturiol (Monturiol Street) where the children and teenagers seemed to have a serious allergy to the seats judging by their non-stop bouncing up and down. In between my classes, when I had time to kill, I would wander down to the large café on the Rambla and sip my cortado while preparing my next lesson. That's when I discovered a fairly uninspiring white monument at the end of the Rambla, dedicated to Narcís Monturiol. He also had a secondary school named after him so I supposed he must have been famous or at least done something worth naming a street, a school and a monument after. I did a bit of investigation and discovered a surprising fact.

Narcís Monturiol

Narcís Monturiol, born in Figueres in 1819, was a poly-faceted Catalan intellectual, artist and engineer who is perhaps best remembered (or maybe not, since few people seem to have heard of him) for being the inventor of the first "real" submarine. At first sight, he seemed an unlikely candidate for producing such an incredible piece of technology since he trained as a lawyer in his early days. When he was around 37, during a stay in Cadaqués, a fishing village clinging to the rugged Costa Brava, he saw a man drown while harvesting coral. This sparked off an idea to build a boat which could navigate underwater and help make this dangerous activity a bit safer. The resulting underwater boat was made of wood, operated by manpower and called Ictineo, a combination of boat and fish in Greek.

Ictineo I

Unfortunately, the Ictineo was smashed by a freighter in port so he built a bigger, improved version, the Ictineo II which was a two-walled submarine with a steam-driven engine. It could dive down to 30 metres and stay underwater for up to 8 hours. Other contemporaries of his were also trying to design submarines for military purposes but most of them went down to a watery grave. Narcis' invention was much more sophisticated and didn't sink like the other ones. Despite his obvious success, the Navy were not interested in it and with little external backing, Monturiol fell into debt. His submarine was the only thing he had when the debt collectors turned up, so it was dismantled and sold for scrap. Sadly, it never went into production and never saved any lives since it wasn't commercially viable. On the other hand, maybe its demise saved the Costa Brava from the widespread destruction of its coral reefs.

Ictineo II

Close-up of a porthole

Sectional view

Several years later, while visiting Barcelona with my parents, we came across a wooden fish-shaped submarine on show in the Port Vell. It was a replica of the Ictineo II, the second submarine designed by Monturiol which had been built in 1993 for the filming of Monturiol, el señor del mar, a biography of this genius and his invention. In fact, it is in Barcelona that due credit is given to him, with information and interactive displays in the Museu de Historia de Catalunya and the Museu Marítimo but it seems that most of the world has no idea who he was. Ask someone who invented the submarine and you are sure to draw a blank look. Well, it was Narcís Monturiol and the interesting thing is that it was inspired, not for military or war purposes, but for a more altruistic reason. Saving the lives of coral harvesters.

The Ictineo II in Barcelona's Old Port in 1996

Sculpture by Josep Subirachs in Barcelona, in honor of Narcís Monturiol

Ever since then, I've wondered why there is no replica or scale model of this submarine in Figueres and why Monturiol hasn't been given a more prominent place in his town of birth for his amazing invention. His monument is an understatement, a tall white column featuring three scantily-dressed bodies and his profile with the inscription "Narcís Monturiol, 1819-1885". No reference to being the inventor of the submarine, at least to enlighten visitors. I'm sure many a town would be proud to have been the birthplace of such a man.

Monument to Narcis Monturiol in the Rambla (Figueres)

(P.S. Most of the photos were taken from the Internet)

Posted by margaretm 11:54 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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