Homage to Catalunya: Tarragona

Homage to Catalunya: Tarragona

This is the final installment of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

If you want to catch a glimpse of Catalonia’s Roman heritage, no city is better suited than Tarragona—or, as the Romans called it, Tarraco. The capital of its eponymous province, the city of Tarragona is nevertheless much smaller than Barcelona, with a population of about 130,000. It is easily accessible from that mecca of Catalonia, about an hour away by commuter train, and thus well-suited for day trips. Tarragona is also worth visiting on its own—especially if you’re looking for a place less infested by tourists. Like Barcelona, it is situated on the Mediterranean coast, in a section the Catalans call the Costa Daurada, or “golden coast.”

Tarragona’s beach with the tracks towards Barcelona

Roman remains are scattered throughout the city, especially in the old city center. This part of town is also called the “high part” by the inhabitants, for the obvious reason that it is situated high on a hill overlooking the sea to one side and the land on the other. You can reach this point by ascending the Via de l’Imperi Roma, a fine tiled walkway, sheltered with trees, that goes along the remains of the old Roman wall (which was likely built atop another, older wall, perhaps Phoenician). For a small price the visitor can climb up these walls and walk their length, giving one an excellent view of the city as well as the surrounding valley on the inland side.

Going along this way, the walker curves around back towards the city and the sea. I passed the Archaeology Museum, which unfortunately was closed at the time. Nevertheless, outside the building there are some ruins to explore, notably a staircase that leads up into the shell of the old Praetorium Tower. This tower has been repaired, rebuilt, and repurposed many times throughout its long life: as a castle, a barracks, and finally a prison. According to the informational plaque, it was used for this last function as recently as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when it was filled far beyond capacity with political and military prisoners, many of whom were executed. Nowadays, the tower is a ruined shell; before it, on a tall pillar, stands the statue of a Roman dignitary, who seems to be gazing despairingly at the sea beyond.


Nearby, like a stone scar in the middle of the city, is yet another ruin. Like so many ancient remains, weather and time (not to mention the people who used these old ruins as stone quarries) have taken their toll on this site. All I could discern were doorways and what could have been rows of seats. A plaque informed me that this was a section of the old circus maximus, the stands where crowds cheered as chariots sped by. Further down, closer to the sea, a larger section of the old racing ground has been preserved. Apart from walls, doorways, and seating, there is a tower affixed to the structure—whose purpose I admit I do not know, but which looks to my eyes like a later addition.


But the most impressive ruin in Tarragona is still further towards the water. This is the amphitheater, which sits like a man-made crater in the hill above the beach. Few sights in Catalonia are more picturesque than this one: the tan stone, symmetrical and bare, seeming to float above the sea. Built in the early 2nd century, the amphitheater was approximately the same size as the one in Mérida, big enough for 15,000 spectators. And like all amphitheaters in Rome, what these spectators viewed was gore: fights to the death between slaves. During the reign of Valerian (253 – 260), the Christian bishop Fructuosus was, along with his two deacons, burned alive in this very amphitheater during one of the many waves of persecutions against the Christians.


The Roman remains within Tarragona have been subject to the pressure of an expanding city. Their rocks have been quarried and their structures used as foundations. But outside the city, some ruins have fared rather better. The most famous of these is the so-called Pont del Diable, or Devil’s Bridge. More prosaically, this is Les Ferreres Aqueduct. This was built during the time of Augustus to transport water to the city of Tarraco. Today it sits, peaceful and pristine, in a wooded area about 4 km north of the city.

I could have gotten there easily enough by bus. But I like walking and so I decided to go by foot. Google Maps has a bad habit of routing pedestrians with the most direct route, without considering whether it’s really walkable. So the path took me along the highway N-240 (which links Tarragona and Bilbao), which is indeed quite direct. The problem was that the sidewalk dwindled and eventually disappeared, leaving me wandering in the tight space between the guardrail and the grass. Eventually I decided that this was possibly unsafe and certainly unpleasant, so I turned into Sant Pere i Sant Paul, a suburb of Tarragona. Once I crossed through this sleepy hamlet (and stopped for coffee), I entered some dirt paths that led through a pine forest.

Amid these natural surroundings the aqueduct mysteriously materializes, traversing a wide valley between two hills. It has hardly aged a day. The tan rock bears the same color as the sandy soil underneath, and indeed of much of the stone of this region. It is not as tall or as graceful as the aqueduct of Segovia, which has three levels of arches rather than Ferreres’s two. Nevertheless, one cannot walk across the top of the aqueduct in Segovia, as one can here. There is no ticket booth nor any tourist apparatus of any kind. One simply walks up and across, enjoying the view of the surrounding forest. Admittedly the constant whooshing of the nearby highway traffic does lessen the enchanting sensation of having discovered a forgotten ruin. Even so, the aqueduct is one of the jewels of Tarragona.


This exhausts my knowledge of Tarragona’s famous Roman ruins. But Tarragona has still more to offer.

The most beautiful building in the city is Tarragona’s Cathedral. The building sits ensconced in the historic center, up on the hill, surrounded by attractive narrow streets and old buildings. A flight of stairs leads you up to its façade. This is most notable for its row of saints, apostles, and prophets in robs who flank the main doorway. In the central doorjamb stands the Virgin, holding Christ; and below her is a bas-relief of Adam and Eve. Once inside, I was able to hear the cathedral’s magnificent organ resonating throughout the space, since it was in the process of being tuned. This did not sound exactly beautiful, I admit, but it is a pleasure to hear even a single note on a real church organ.


What first attracted my attention was the main altar. Luckily the visitor can walk right up to it, which is usually not the case. It is a wonderful gothic creation in polychromed alabaster, depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in 18 separate reliefs. Once more, the Virgin and Child stand in the center, while above two golden angels raise their weapons in righteous fury. The cathedral also has a lovely cloister, spacious and filled with green. When I visited a painter had set up an easel in one corner and was at work. From the painter’s spot you could also see the cathedral’s distinctive octagonal tower, which is doubtless why he chose it. I particularly enjoyed the small vents in the walls around above the cloister windows, each one carved into a different pattern.


Attached to the cloister is the Dioecian Museum, which houses several religious paintings and tapestries. I was also surprised to find that one door led into an archaeological excavation. A temple dedicated to the cult of Augustus has been uncovered under the cathedral. Humans like to build their temples over one another, it seems, perhaps for the sake of continuity during a period of dogmatic change. Many churches in Spain have been built over mosques, which themselves had been built over Visigothic churches. And so history flows on.


Once you descend the hill on which the old town sits, you can come to the city’s central road: the Rambla Nova. In the center is a spacious walkway where, when I visited, a Christmas market had been set up. Here you can also see the Monument als castellers, which is a metal statue depicting Catalonia’s famous tradition of making human pyramids. This tradition, by the way, is one of two in Catalonia to be designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The other is the Patum of Berga, a festival celebrated in the city of Berga during Corpus Christi, in which people dress up in giant monster costumes and dance.

At the end of the Nova Rambla is the Balcó del Mediterrani, a lookout point that sits high up above the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Dotting the seascape were the shapes of ships, large shipping frigates at anchor in the harbor. I wonder, do the sailors sleep on board or do they take a little boat to shore? The life of a sailor is a great mystery to me. Someone who assuredly did sleep many nights at sea is Roger de Llúria, a Catalan who was one of the greatest naval commanders of the medieval period, and whose statue stands in the center of the lookout point.

From here there is no direct way to get down to Tarragona’s beach, the Platja del Miracle. But it is worth the walk if you want to see the sun set below the dockyard, turning the skyline red and turning every building and person into a black silhouette. You may even enjoy a swim.


This wraps up my series on Catalonia. Of course with my measly three trips there I have inevitably left out much of the region’s treasures. Even so, I am tremendously impressed with Catalonia. It is a place replete with national and cultural beauty, rich with history, and still striving towards the future.

Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

This is Part Six of a projected seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

The monastery of Montserrat, situated about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, is understandably one of the most popular day trips for visitors to Barcelona. But before I tell you about that monastery, allow me to take a detour to the Poblet Monastery—comparatively little visited, and yet the only monastery in Catalonia (which has three famous Cistercian monasteries aside from Montserrat) to earn the distinction of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.


The UNESCO designation largely rests on Poblet’s status as the royal burial site of the Kings of Aragón. Every king and queen of Aragón since James I (1208 – 1276)—save one—is buried in an alabaster tomb in the monastery’s church. The exception is the last king that Aragón ever had, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516), who married Isabel of Castile and thus merged their kingdoms—incorporating Aragón into Spain as we know it. Ferdinand is buried in Granada, a city that he “reconquered” from the Muslims, along with his wife. (With few exceptions, every monarch since this marriage—henceforth, kings of Spain—has been buried in El Escorial, in Madrid.)

My plan was to take a day trip from Tarragona to visit the Poblet Monastery. But I made a fatal error: I had waited until Saturday, when the buses aren’t running. My only option was to take a commuter train to a nearby town, Espluga de Francoli, and walk about an hour to the monastery. The problem with this plan was that, due to the train schedule, I would have to turn around as soon as I reached the monastery in order to catch the only train back to Tarragona. This was clearly not desirable. But, lacking options, this is what I did.

Luckily, the train ride to Espluga de Francoli was itself worth the trip, skirting around the edge of the Prades Mountains. Even Espluga de Francoli was a charming sight, sitting atop one of the range’s foothills, like so many villages in the area. And though I did not have time to appreciate it, I enjoyed the town’s Moderniste wine cellar, designed by Pere Domènech i Roura. The walk to the monastery quickly drew me through the town, however, and into the surrounding agricultural fields. It was winter and nothing was growing, though the hills in the distance were still green.

The monastery hiding behind a sunbeam

I arrived at the monastery with barely ten minutes to spare. But this was enough to go inside and take a look around. This Cistercian monastery is built somewhat like a fort, and for good reason. Like the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, it was founded when there were still frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus a strong wall surrounds the outside and there is a second layer of defense within. But it turns out that the monastery had more to fear from disenchanted Spaniards than from Muslims, since it was during the Mendizábal confiscations, in 1835, that the monastery was taken from the church’s hands and then destroyed by angry, anti-clerical mobs. In his youth Gaudí wanted to rebuild the monastery and turn it into a sort of religious commune; but this didn’t happen. Instead, the monastery was rebuilt later, starting in 1930, and began to house monks again in 1940. At present there are 29 monks living in the monastery.


But I had no time to dwell on any of this history. Indeed, I barely had time to rush through the church’s Baroque portal, walk down the nave, and peek at the royal tombs beside the main altar (designed by Damià Forment, who also designed the even more impressive altar in Zaragoza’s El Pillar). After that I had to speed away back through the farmland towards Espluga de Francoli, where I caught the train back to Tarragona. Thankfully, my trip to Montserrat went more smoothly.

Poblet’s main altar and, to the left, the royal tombs


As I said above, Montserrat is about 50 km (or 30 miles) from Barcelona. Getting there from the city center is easy. A commuter FGC train departs from the Plaça d’Espanya every hour: the R5 towards Manresa. You can hardly miss it: the ticket machines at the station are constantly swamped, and there are attendants on standby to help tourists buy the correct ticket. This train will, however, only bring you to the base of the mountain. There are two options for going up: a cable car and a rack railway. The second is slightly cheaper and the first has a slightly better view; but in the end it hardly makes a difference in the time or the experience.

Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain,” and the name is well-chosen. As you approach, its form looms up above you like a giant stone saw. The surrounding countryside is a deep pine green, so the greyish brown rocks that appear look as though they are slicing through nature herself. The monastery complex is nestled between these sawtooths, overlooking the surrounding countryside. From up close, however, the sharp edges of Montserrat look swollen and bulbous, even vaguely alive. They could have been designed by Gaudí himself.


Unlike Poblet and other two famous monasteries of Catalonia—Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges—Montserrat is Benedictine, not Cistercian. Its origins are somewhat unclear, and legend has extended them far into the past; but what is certain is that by the 12th century it was taking shape. The monastery grew steadily over the years, with Romanesque and then Gothic additions, until the 19th century, when it was struck by two blows. First, Napoleon’s invading troops burned the monastery in 1811 and 1812; and then it was taken by the government during the 1835 Confiscations of Mendizábal (which affected so many of the Spanish monasteries I have seen). Unlike Poblet Monastery, however, the Monastery of Montserrat was reopened less than a decade later, in 1844.


But this wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 the monastery was closed and confiscated by the Catalan government, the Generalitat. The wave of anti-clerical violence and persecution that took place during the war years resulted in the deaths of over twenty of the monastery’s monks. After the war’s conclusion, however, Montserrat was returned to the church. During Franco’s reign it became (like everything else in Catalonia, it seems) a symbol of Catalan nationalism, serving as a refuge and a place of protest. At present over 70 monks are still living, praying, and fasting within its walls.


Though many buildings make up the Monastery of Montserrat, the most impressive, by far, is the basilica. You cannot see it from the outside, since it is enclosed in a rather plain and unremarkable square building. But once you enter this through the front portal and stand in the enclosed plaza, you can see the basilica’s façade. This actually of quite recent date, having been constructed after the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless its fine sculptural friezes and decoration are perfectly in keeping with the place’s long history, as well as with the mountain itself, since the architect Francesc Folguera used stone quarried on site. The inside of the basilica is absolutely radiant. Numerous lights and candles illuminate the gold that seems to cover every surface. The vaulted ceiling, the walls, the altar—they all emit a regal glow.


In a space above and behind the main altar is the famed Virgin of Montserrat. Sometimes called the “Black Virgin” because of her dark skin, this is a statue of the Virgin and Child enthroned. According to legend it was carved by Saint Luke himself and discovered by some shepherds in the year 890 or so; but in reality it bears the clear marks of a Romanesque work. In any case, kissing this Virgin is supposed to bring blessing and good fortune, and so people line up for hours to do so. The expectant smoocher passes through an elaborately decorated doorway and ascends a staircase, at the top of which the Virgin patiently awaits—as she has done for centuries. For those in search of additional benediction there is a narrow passage in the space between the basilica and the mountain’s rockface, where for a small fee one can light a candle and place it on a metal rack. These candles are housed in colorful glass cups that glow attractively in the shadowy passage.


At this point I felt hungry and began searching for something to eat. Montserrat is well-stocked with restaurants, cafeterias, and vending machines. But they are uniformly overpriced. And since being stuck on a mountain is like being on an airplane—in that there are limited options—vendors can charge whatever they like for quite ordinary food. I bought a sandwich from a machine and scuttled away, unsatisfied. Heed my advice and pack a lunch.

Next I wanted to explore the mountain itself. Montserrat is full of walking paths, ranging from a quick stroll to mountain climbing. There are also funiculars for those who would prefer not to climb up any steep hills. The Funicular de Santa Cova takes one down to an important shrine in situated in a cave; the Funicular de Sant Joan takes one upwards, giving one a panoramic view of the compound. But I had just spent several weeks in city centers, surrounded by grey asphalt, so I wasn’t interested in either of those. I was aching to lose myself in nature; so I chose the longest path, up to the top of San Jeroni, the highest peak in the area.


The beginning stretch was the most difficult, leading up several steep staircases that had been carved into the mountain rock. After the first half-hour, however, the trail levelled out somewhat. Still, the constant pumping of my legs as I rushed ever upwards quickly had me panting. The scanty trees seldom provided any relief from the glaring sun. But the mountain spurred me on like a mystery story, gradually revealing itself in a series of twists and turns, each one bringing more of the whole picture into view. The undulating curves of the mountainside were covered in emerald bushes and spotted with the bulbous grey of rocks, like the scales of an enormous reptile.


Nearly an hour and a half had elapsed before I reached the top. The clouds hung lower and lower as I rose. The vegetation dwindled and finally disappeared, leaving only the swollen, jagged stone of this enchanting place. As often happens, there are many small cairns near the top—piles of stone that serve as miniature monuments to former climbers. Soon the whole surrounding landscape came into view; and the sight was well worth the exertion. The distant horizon faded into the atmospheric blue of faraway. The shadows of small clouds darkened the landscape below, where roads and towns looked like mere patches of dirt. But for the most part the view is a gently rolling sea of green.


So concluded my trip to Barcelona’s iconic mountain monastery. Now I must move on to another of Catalonia’s great cities: Tarragona.

Homage to Catalunya: The Museum of Dalí

Homage to Catalunya: The Museum of Dalí

This is Part Five of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

One of the most visited museums in all of Spain is not in any major city. Indeed, it is not even close to one. This is the Teatre-Museu Dalí (the Dalí Theater and Museum), which can be found in Figueres, a small town—with about 45,000 inhabitants—located in the north of Catalonia, just 24 km (15 miles) from the French border.

The train ride from Barcelona to Figueres lasts about 2 hours. The route passes through another of the jewels of Catalonia: Girona, capital of its eponymous province. Though I only glimpsed the city through the window, its form has stayed with me. The cathedral stands proudly over the city, which is splayed out on the hilly ground surrounding the River Oñar. (Though it doesn’t look especially big, this cathedral apparently has the widest gothic nave in the world.) The city is visibly well-preserved, retaining the chaotic cobblestone of its medieval period. One of the city’s most iconic sights—reproduced in calendars and posters—are the colorful “hanging houses” that surround the River Oñar, reflecting brilliantly in the calmly flowing waters. A visit to this precious city is high on my list for my next trip to Catalonia.

Girona. Image by Infernalfox; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

When I wasn’t gazing out the window of the train, I was busy reading the poetry of Federico García Lorca. This is one of Spain’s greatest poets, who was also a great friend of Dalí, whom he met while the two were living in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid. Indeed it is rumored that the two had a love affair. In any case, though they worked in different mediums, Lorca and Dalí undoubtedly influenced one another, pushing each other into surrealism. Lorca’s poetry is the closest verbal approximationto a Dalí painting, which is what made it so good to read on the way to Figueres. Sadly, their friendship was cut short: Lorca was killed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War—executed by some fascist soldiers. Dalí was deeply saddened by this; but it did not prevent him, later in life, from cozying up with Franco.

Finally the train arrived. Figueres does not present such an immediately striking aspect as Girona. Indeed, if not for the Dalí Museum probably few people would visit this sleepy town. Dalí chose it for his museum because it was here that the painter was born. Nevertheless I was soon charmed by the city. As I walked from the train station towards the museum I passed a park where some sort of school festival was taking place. Dozens of children in matching costumes—as flowers, as cars, as construction workers—waited on the sidelines as groups took turns dancing in the center. The group I saw had a costume of a giant van, worn by two teachers, which they raised into the air. It all seemed appropriately absurd for Dalí’s hometown.


The line for the museum stretched far into the neighboring plaza. Luckily it was a sunny day. I took the time to examine the attractive Church of St. Peter, a fine gothic structure that sits next to the museum. The building of the Dalí Museum itself is visually absorbing. In Dalí’s childhood the building was a theater, where the young Dalí himself once had an exhibition. But this building was mostly burned down during the Spanish Civil War. Its remains were renovated to construct this museum under Dalí’s own supervision and guidance. He furnished the museum with his own personal collection, which is why it has the largest number of original Dalí works of any museum in the world. He also chose to be buried here, under the stage of the original theater. (His body was recently exhumed to check if he was really the father of tarot-card reader Pilar Abel, as she has been claiming for years. Her fortune-telling failed her, it seems, for DNA evidence revealed that he was not the father.)

The rebuilt theater now bears the clear mark of Dalí’s taste. Its red exterior is covered in rows of fleshy knobs. The roof is topped with alternating eggs and golden statues that look like Oscar awards, except that they have their arms upraised. One side of the building is shaped to look like a castle’s turret, while on the other side is a giant glass dome that crowns the old stage. One enters through the original theater façade—topped with the same golden figures; and below them statues of knights with baguettes resting horizontally on their helmets. A scuba diver stands guard above the entrance. Outside in the plaza is a surrealist sculpture: a towering, playing-card figure who grows out of a tree trump, and whose robe contains several other sculptural busts and friezes. The visitor is thus well-prepared for what waits inside.


Soon after entering, one comes to the courtyard. In the center stands the statue of a busty and curvaceous woman, her pose looking like some ancient fertility goddess. She is standing on an old cadillac, inside of which, at the driver’s seat, a dummy sits surrounded by artificial plants. High up above all this, suspended on a pole, is a small sailboat. Meanwhile, more golden statuettes raise their arms in nooks in the courtyard’s surrounding wall.


From there one can walk under the glass dome, onto the old stage. On one wall is a giant mural of a faceless torso standing in front of a landscape, his head cracking like an egg, a tree growing on his chest. On another wall a man with a cubic skull is climbing, suspended above one of Dalí’s famous paintings, concisely named Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20m is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. You might be surprised to learn that this image, when seen from afar, looks like Abraham Lincoln; but from up close one sees a woman looking out at the sea. Dalí achieves this effect by using large squares of color that, from afar, function like pixels. This painting is just one of the many examples of Dalí’s fondness for visual puns and for optical illusions, of which the museum is full.


Paintings and sculptures and other installations are found in the exhibit floors surrounding the courtyard and theater. These are impressive more for their cumulative effect than for their individual merit. The museum has none of Dalí’s masterpieces. But seeing so many works by Dalí—silly surrealist assemblages, Bosch-like doodles, and even a series of portraits of his mustache—gives the visitor a sense of the great artist’s witty and whimsical humor. One friend describes it as like “walking through Dalí’s head,” and this does capture the powerful impression of personality that pervades the space. This personality is irreverent, restless, even impatient, perhaps somewhat immature, certainly self-absorbed, but undeniably brilliant and sharp.

Some works do stand out for comment. One of my favorites is his Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon, an image of a melting mustachioed face, barely held up by several wooden crutches, sitting on a platform next to a strip of bacon. Another is The Specter of Sex-Appeal, a painting that is dominated by the huge form of a grotesque woman—her legs ham bones, her body pillows and blankets and bags, her head dissolving into the rock behind her. This specter, too, is held up with wooden crutches—one of Dalí’s motifs—and is gazed upon wonderingly by a young boy in a sailor’s outfit. Galatea of the Spheres belongs to Dalí’s scientific period, when he became deeply interest in physics and mathematics; thus the image of Galatea (a mythical sea nymph who, like so many women in Dalí’s works, is really his wife Gala) is broken into manifold colored spheres that float in space. Leda Atomica belongs to this same phase, and also takes a mythological subject (Leda, a woman raped by Zeus in the form of a swan) and transforms it into an allegory of atomic physics, with everything floating mysteriously in space without contact.

Top left to bottom left: The Specter of Sex-Appeal; Leda Atomica; Galatea of the Spheres. Right: Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon

Apart from paintings there are many memorable exhibition spaces. The most famous of these is a room full of furniture—a couch, a fireplace and mantel, two pictures hung on the wall—that looks like the face of iconic blond Mae West when seen from a certain angle. There was a long line to walk up the raised platform, and I didn’t want to wait. Instead I moved on to see some of Dalí’s visual experiments, such as his stereoscopic art. These consisted of two similar images, often differing in a small detail like color, separated in a glass enclosure, so that the viewer must look at each image with one eye. The idea, I think, is that the brain would blend the images from each eye together to form a mental composite; but most often I just found these confusing. One room was furnished like an elaborate bedroom. A tapestry on the wall bore the image of Dalí’s most famous painting, the Persistence of Memory. Next to the bed was the skeleton of a chimpanzee, painted gold.

A ceiling fresco in one of the rooms

When I finished explored the main building of the Dalí Museum there was still more to see. In a separate location, though quite nearby, is the collection of jewelry that Dalí designed. He was something of a Renaissance man, you see, or at least that is how he liked to fancy himself. Now, I am not normally very fond of jewelry; indeed I rarely even notice it. But this was easily one of my favorite parts of the museum. The fine draughtsmanship one finds in his paintings is also seen in the exquisitely detailed gold and silver shapes that wrap around the sparkling gems. Dalí’s penchant for bizarre forms also translates well into this medium: a flower with arms for petals, an elephant with long spindly spider legs, a four-legged arthropod whose legs are elongated arms with hands on each end. You don’t normally see this sort of thing at Zales.


I was absolutely famished by the time I left the museum, so I went to a restaurant in town and ordered a classic Catalan dish: butifarra (a type of lean sausage) with white beans. It was delicious. Then I got on the train and read Lorca all the way back to Madrid.

I left the Dalí Museum with mixed feelings. The museum is undeniably impressive. Like the Museu Picasso and the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, the Teatre-Museu Dalí gives the visitor an opportunity to immerse herself in the work of a great artist, noting how his style evolved and how it remained the same, witnessing the mind of a brilliant painter grow and change over the years. Indeed, even more than those two museums, the Dalí Museum in Figueres gives one the sense of really meeting and getting to intimately know the artist, since every inch of the building is reeking of his personality.

Yet getting to know Dalí makes one realize that there are many reasons to dislike the man. Besides his tolerant attitude towards Fascism in life—a political shortcoming that Orwell famously decried him for—Dalí was personally off-putting. His narcism is grating, even from a distance. Now, I am willing to tolerate a certain amount of vanity from brilliant people; but Dalí could be positively (and literally) onanistic. This may or may not have negatively affected his art, but it is undeniably unpleasant. Egotism aside, Dalí was often superficial. He was the pioneer of “shocking” art—gestures, meaningless in themselves, only meant to upset conventional opinion. Oddity for the sake of oddity, vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity, the prototype of so much contemporary pop culture. He was also drawn to cheap wittiness, such as his love for visual puns (of which the Mae West room is an example). It is in the nature of puns, verbal or visual, to be cheap and empty, since they actively erode meaning rather than create it. Thus, much of Dalí’s art produces little more than a snort or a chuckle, and then is quickly forgotten.


All this may be true. But it is also true that Dalí was one of the great artists of the previous century, as even a cursory acquaintance with his work makes clear. His technical ability is undoubtable. More importantly, his visual genius, even if it strayed into shallow waters, was so fertile that he added greatly to our collective imagination. And for every time that Dalí is grating, there is another in which he is undeniably charming. For this reason, the Dalí Museum in Figueres is without doubt one of the best museums in Catalonia, and in all of Spain.

The Dalí Museum is quite a trek from Barcelona, which makes it a somewhat inconvenient day-trip. But there is another beautiful site that is quite a bit closer to Barcelona, which is what makes it such a popular destination: Montserrat.

Homage to Catalunya: The City of Barcelona

Homage to Catalunya: The City of Barcelona

This is Part Two of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

The city of Barcelona is one of the most immediately inviting cities on the planet. Like New York, with its numbered grid of streets, Barcelona is intuitively navigable: you are either travelling towards the eastern coast or away from it, towards the mountains that bound the city’s western edge. Moving around is easy: the city has a clean and efficient metro and train system. Thanks to the Mediterranean, the weather is agreeable: Barcelona has mild winters and warm summers. And, most importantly, Barcelona is stuffed with restaurants and attractions that cater to every taste.

It is no wonder, then, that the place is swarming with tourists. This is a classic case of a city’s strengths becoming its weakness: visited by many times more tourists annually than its 1.7 million inhabitants, the city has—at least in my experience—less local character than many other cities in Spain. Every major street and site is constantly swarming with foreigners, visiting for a week or for a weekend, which can give the city a feeling of artificiality and anonymity. The city’s harbor is partially responsible for this influx: it is the European port most used by cruise liners. But the real culprit are the city’s many treasures, which make it worth visiting despite the crowds and despite the fact that it is the most expensive city in Spain.

Like many cities in Europe, Barcelona is far older than its surrounding country, having been founded by the Romans. But traces of that ancient people are mostly absent from the city. Nowadays the most important division is between the medieval city center and the newer expansions. It was only in the 1850s that the old medieval walls were torn down, which is why there is a sharp contrast between these two sections: the narrow, crooked streets of the old city, and the wide, cuadrangular streets of the new.

The most famous part of this old center is the Barri Gótic, or the Gothic Quarter. Its winding streets, unsuited for automobiles, are now home to one of the most fashionable areas of the city. It is somewhat like Madrid’s Malasaña or even Brooklyn: with trendy restaurants and quirky boutiques. This transformation from dreary old city to tourist haven was far from accidental; the place was heavily refurbished, in a Neo-Gothic style, in preparation for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona.


This is true even of one of the Gothic Quarter’s most famous landmarks: Barcelona Cathedral. The church’s magnificently pointy façade is, in fact, neo-gothic; the original exterior was, judging from pictures, quite unremarkable. Authentic or not, however, the cathedral’s façade is beautiful, resembling St. Patrick’s in New York City (which was built around the same time). Part of the old medieval walls (built on top of the ancient Roman walls) were incorporated into one of the cathedral’s sides, and have thus escaped destruction. The church is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, a young girl who was executed for being a Christian during Roman times. There is a magnificent tomb of the saint, with an exquisitely carved sarcophagus, in the cathedral’s crypt. But my favorite part of the cathedral was its peaceful cloister, which is home to 13 white geese (13 being the age when Eulalia was martyred) who mill about to the gurgling sound of a mossy fountain.


I should note here that this building, not the Sagrada Familia, is the true cathedral of Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is, rather, an “expiatory temple” (by contributing money to its creation you can expiate your sins). A cathedral, by the way, is not a cathedral by virtue of its size or splendor, but because it is the seat of a bishop (the word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word for “chair”), who oversees a diocese (a division of land). Each diocese normally has only one cathedral. This is Barcelona’s.

As attractive as is Barcelona’s cathedral, the city’s loveliest gothic church is undoubtedly Santa Maria del Mar. As its name implies, this church is found near the sea, in the Ribera quarter of the old city center. Its imposing outside, formidably stiff and monumental, gives way to an extraordinarily fluid interior. Unlike most churches of this size, Santa Maria del Mar was built relatively quickly, between 1329 and 1383, which means that historical progress did not create an mixture of styles. The word that comes to mind upon entering the church is, instead, “pure.” The curving lines of the columns and vaulted arches flow into one another, creating a shell-like space, liquid but still. This effect is partially the result of historical accident. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, there was a corresponding outbreak in anticlerical violence. Angry anarchists pilled all the pews and altars and, according to Robert Hughes, lit a fire that burned for 11 days, charing the stone and leaving only the building’s skeleton. The stark simplicity of the empty building allows one to more fully appreciate its noble form.


(A similar fate befell the nearby Santa Maria del Pi, another massive gothic church in the old city center. Anticlericalism seems to have been particularly strong here in Barcelona during the 1930s. On a tour I was once shown photographs of anarchists posing next to the exhumed bodies of saints and firing their rifles at crucifixes.)

The old center of Barcelona gives way to the new section at the Plaça de Catalunya, the true center of the city. This massive plaza is always throbbing with people—mostly tourists—since it stands at the intersection of so many corners of the city. The pigeons also like it, which is why the square’s many neoclassical statues are covered in fine spikes that prevent them from landing.

One of the most eye-catching of these statues, a monument to Francesc Macià, looks like an inverted staircase and is meant to symbolize the difficult road to Catalan independence. Macià was a Catalan separatist, you see, who led the Esquerra Republicana de Cataluyna, a leftist party that favored independence; and when his party gained a majority in the 1931 elections he duly declared Catalonia an independent Republic. This state of affairs lasted for a total of three days, from April 14 to 17, until they settled on partial autonomy within the Spanish Republic. As far as I know, these three days are the only time in modern history that Catalonia has been independent.

The Plaça de Catalunya hasn’t always been such a tranquil tourist haven. On a tour I was once shown bullet marks that remained from infighting between anarchists and communists during the Civil War. It was during this infighting that George Orwell had to go into hiding, after he spent three days posted on a nearby building with a rifle. In the early 1900s, when Barcelona was an industrial center riven by stark inequality, the city was a hotbed of leftist movements among the workers. Anarchism in particular was popular, as Gerald Brenan details in his classic study of the causes of the Spanish Civil War. The idealism of these movements, as well as the machinations which eventually destroyed the anarchists and brought the Stalinists to power, made a deep impression on Orwell, which he describes in his remarkable memoirs of the war. Anyone who wishes to learn more about this can contact Nick Lloyd, who also wrote a book about this chaotic time.

Barcelona_Civilwar(To see another scar from the Civil War, you can visit the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, near the Cathedral. One side of the eponymous church is deeply pockmarked. During Franco’s time this damage was explained as having been caused by executions committed by the Republic side, as bullets missed their targets. This is a classic case of history being falsified by the victors. For the real explanation for the damage are two bombs that fell on this spot, hitting the church, which was being used as a refugee for children. Forty-two died in the blasts, mostly children, and a plaque now commemorates the spot.)

One of the major paths leading away from the plaza is La Rambla. The word “rambla” originates in the Arabic word for “riverbed,” for that it all it was, originally—a dried river that used to flow into the Mediterranean. Now it leads the tourist in the same direction, towards the beach, in a lovely procession lined with trees. Robert Hughes called the street “one of the great, seedy, absorbing theaters of Spain,” but I think it has changed somewhat since he wrote those words. He speaks of bursting flower stalls and vendors selling exotic caged birds. Nowadays, however, the walker is treated to a series of indistinguishable, gaudy restaurants, with their colorful menus displaying “authentic” cuisine and their chairs and awnings crowding the sidewalk.


In other words, tourism has largely eroded whatever distinct character this street once had, leaving it with the nowhere-in-particular quality of so many tourist centers—which, ironically, are travel destinations that all look the same. Another consequence of the huge influx of tourists is that the street is also popular with pickpockets. Indeed, Barcelona in general is one of the great pickpocketing capitals of the world; half of everyone who goes there seems to lose something—though I’ve been lucky so far. If you walk down the Rambla—and any time you are in Barcelona, for that matter—be aware of your belongings. This huge concentration of people also made La Rambla a target of a terrorist attack in 2017, when a man drove a van through the crowd, killing 15 people.

But you cannot let either pickpocket or terrorist dissuade you from walking down this street, at least as far as La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous market. I am no foodie and not usually captivated by markets. But the Boqueria is undeniably impressive, with stall after stall selling a huge variety of foods—all of it vibrant and delicious. Fish, sausage, fruit, vegetables, beans—cured, dried, pickled, freshly picked—you can find everything here. I didn’t even buy anything but I very much enjoyed just walking around.


The end of La Rambla spills into the sea. Here you can find Barcelona’s gigantic monument to Christopher Columbus. There is a joke that Catalonians like to claim everything; and thus many Catalans believe Columbus wasn’t an Italian at all, but a Catalan. (According to this article, he has also been claimed by the Italians, French, and Scottish.) This may partially explain why Barcelona has such a monumental dedication to the explorer. The main tower, on top of which stands the man himself, rises to almost 200 feet (60 m) tall; and its base is bursting with finely carved statues. But now that Columbus is coming to be seen as a subjugator and even as genocidal, perhaps these different places will stop trying to identify themselves with him. (The irony of Columbus, one of the great claimers of history, being himself claimed, reclaimed, and disclaimed after his death, will not be lost on the reader.)

From here you can walk along the seaside towards Barcelona’s finest park (aside from the Park Güell, to be discussed in another post): the Parc de la Ciutadella. The name of the park comes from a huge citadel that used to occupy the spot. This fortress was built after the Spanish forces conquered Barcelona during the War of Spanish Succession, in order to maintain control of the unruly province. Unsurprisingly it became a hated symbol of Spanish dominance, and was eventually destroyed. The park that later emerged was, for a long while, Barcelona’s only stretch of green. But it is not only attractive for its trees and grass. The park’s central fountain is massive and glorious, bursting with the granite and golden forms of horses. The final effect is undeniably impressive, much like the monument to Columbus. This is no coincidence. Both of these works were built for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition (a world’s fair).

800px-Ciutadella_Park_fountain_Bernard Gagnon
Image by Bernard Gagnon; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

A third surviving monument to this exposition stands right next to the park: the Arc de Triomf, a triumphal arch that served as the fair’s entrance. The arch looks somewhat lonely now, with nothing to lead to or from; but the lovely Neo-Mudejar design retains its sense of excitement. As you can see, then, the 1888 exposition and the 1929 exposition (in the Gothic Quarters) have left their mark on the city. So have the 1992 Summer Olympics, which were hosted here. It is a short walk from the Arc de Triomf to the Olympic Port, where you can see Frank Gehry’s wiry sculpture of a fish made for the event, in addition to some of the hotels erected for the influx of spectators and athletes. From here you can walk onto the sands of Barcelona’s beach—always crowded, of course, but with a bona fide Mediterranean sun.



Some years before the 1888 exhibition, an idealistic urban planner (and socialist) named Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer was laying the foundation for the next phase of Barcelona’s expansion. Up until the mid 19th century the city of Barcelona was still constrained by walls: Roman, medieval, and Spanish Bourbon (such as the citadel). Their destruction meant that the city could now expand into the largely uninhabited areas beyond. And it was Cerdà who was given the task of planning this expansion, from which the resultant Eixample gets its name (Catalan for “enlargement”).

Image by Alzheii; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Cerdà was a polymath who had studied urban poverty; appalled by the massive inequality and poor living conditions that plagued the city in his time (and continued to long after his death), he originated a utopian scheme for a city without center or division. If every building and street is identical, in a symmetrical space with no uptown or downtown, then there can be no segregation by class or wealth.

This was the ideology that motivated the Eixample’s grid pattern. Cerdà wanted his new city to be efficient and healthy, and he thought of everything: constraining the heights of buildings to allow sunlight; rounding off the corners of buildings to allow street cars to go by; and dedicating a large portion of the space to patios and parks. But the developers who built up the area were not faithful to this plan: the buildings are taller and there is very little in the way of green space. The final result is not nearly as sunny and open as was Cerdà’s original vision. And far from creating an ideal equality, the Eixample became yet another playground for the rich, with wealthy industrialists paying famous architects to design ostentatious homes. Idealistic plans have little chance against the combined strength of wealth and greed. On the plus side, though, many of these homes are now landmarks.


The most extraordinary of these houses—including two of Gaudí’s greatest works—are found on the Eixample’s iconic avenue: the Passeig de Gracia. Here one does not miss the narrow, twisting streets of the old city. The wide avenue is bathed in sunlight and warmth. The pedestrian enjoys a grand procession as she walks down the avenue, with beautiful building arranged like paintings in a museum. Even the street lights are lovely: ornate wrought iron that lazily hangs over the pavement; and each of these street lights emanates from a ceramic bench, giving the avenue many places to sit, rest, and enjoy the scenery. But it must be admitted that other parts of the Eixample are not so impressive, but recede into an undifferentiated dullness that seems to prefigure the inhumanity of modernist urban planning. This is the general drawback of grid plans: they lack the spontaneity and surprise of cities that have grown more “organically.”

The next point of interest is also to be found in the Eixample: the Plaça d’Espanya. This square itself is not particularly attractive. It was built on the occasion of the 1929 World’s Fair, and suffers from its monumental aspirations—being inhumanly vast. Admittedly, in the center of the plaza is an impressive fountain, full of sculptures; but so many cars swarm around the roundabout (it is the intersection of four major roads) that it cannot be seen from up close. On one side of the square is Las Arenas, a shopping center built in a beautiful old bullring—its neo-mudéjar design quite similar to Las Ventas in Madrid.

(Bullfighting, by the way, was banned by the Catalonian government in 2011, and hasn’t taken place since. This ban was, however, overturned in the Spanish courts—so I am unclear whether it is now legal or not. In any case, bullfighting is so symbolic of Spanish culture that it now arouses disapproval in Catalonia for political as well as ethical reasons.)

On the other side of this square are the two Venetian towers—also built for the World’s Fair—that welcome the pedestrian towards the famed mountain of Montjuïc. Well, Montjuïc is more of a hill than a mountain; and on it stand two of the city’s finest museums: the National Art Museum of Catalonia and the Miró Foundation (to be discussed in a separate post). In front of this first museum is the so-called Magic Fountain: a large fountain that has been programmed to be part of an audiovisual show. Basically, at a certain time at night the water is  lit up with colored lights while it sprays in rhythm to music played over a speaker system. I did not enjoy the show very much, especially since so many people came to see it, but others may like it.


Standing on top of Montjuïc one gets an excellent view of Barcelona, the whole city spread out before you. And in the distance, rising above the city, is Tibidabo, the highest peak of the Collserola range that encloses Barcelona’s western edge. If you squint you may be able to see the pointed form of the Temple Expatriatori del Sagrat Cor, a modernist church designed by Enric Sagnier. Nearby you may also spot the ferris wheel of Tibidabo’s amusement park, the second oldest amusement park in all of Europe, having been opened in 1901. Easier to spot is the Collserola Tower, a huge telecommunications spire that extends almost 1,000 feet into the air.


This does it for my tour of Barcelona. Next I will visit some of the museums, beginning with the National Art Museum right behind me.

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

What's Up with Catalonia?What’s Up with Catalonia? by Liz Castro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do not invite an American to speak about Europe; he will usually display great presumption and a rather ridiculous arrogance.

—Alexis de Toqueville

Perhaps the most politically controversial topic here in Madrid is the Catalonian independence movement. Almost everyone I speak to is vigorously against it, for one reason or another. I’ve heard people say that it is just a bluff for political negotiations; that it is based on calculated lies; that it is illegal and unconstitutional; that the Catalans are just crazy people; and so on. Indeed, it is my understanding that disagreement over the Catalonia Question is one of the major causes of the current political deadlock in Spain.

People talk about it a lot. But even after dozens of conversations, I still felt that I didn’t understand the situation; I was only hearing one side of the story. So for my first trip to Barcelona, I decided to open this book, a collection of essays by several pro-independence authors. It is a quick read: I read half of the book on the flight to Barcelona, and the other half on the flight back to Madrid. And now that I think of it, that is probably the best place to read this book, suspended in midair between the two cities.

It is this stance, an attempt at impartiality, that I am trying to maintain. But this is difficult for me. As one of the essays in this collection explains, many Americans are predisposed against independence movements because it reminds us of our Civil War. Of course, Catalonia is a completely different issue, so my association is illogical and unfair; and besides, my whole country originated in a war for independence. Yet I find it difficult to contemplate the option of secession without feeling queasy. That’s my bias.

This collections offers a variety of arguments for and perspectives on independence. The reasons offered for secession range from economic, to sentimental, to nationalistic, to linguistic, to historical, to political, often in combination. But, to quote Warwick, the result is less than the sum of its parts. The authors have different priorities and their arguments often contradict one another, which creates a sense of incoherence. One author argues that the Catalan language cannot be used as the primary marker of their identity, since a significant portion of the region’s inhabitants don’t speak it fluently; but another author comes out strongly for Catalan. Lots of authors talk about taxation and fiscal spending—all of them quoting the same statistics, which got rather tiresome by the end—but others said that they would want independence even if these financial troubles were cleared up. The tone of the essays ranged from dry analysis to impassioned pleas. It’s a hodgepodge.

One thing seriously lacking from the discussions of taxation and fiscal spending was how the Catalonia situation compared with that of other countries. In a nutshell, the complaint is that the Spanish government takes more money from Catalonia than they spend on it. But it is my understanding that this is a common occurrence when one region of a country is richer than another: money is diverted to where it is needed most. New York and California help to fund other states; and from what I’m told, Berlin is on the receiving end of a lot of financial support. If one of the authors had framed the fiscal situation in an international context, it would be easier to see whether it was fair.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I think this is an extremely valuable collection. Yes, there are much better overviews of the independence movement in Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Hooper’s The New Spaniards; but those are two foreigners trying to summarize a complicated situation. This collection lets the Catalans speak for themselves, leading to a much more nuanced view of the independence movement. It shouldn’t be read in isolation; this is only one half of the debate. But it is an important half.

Personally I can’t decide how I feel about the whole thing. I am hostile to nationalism in general; and it strikes me that both the pro- and anti-independence positions are tinged with nationalism, for Catalonia or for Spain. I can certainly understand why, after Franco’s repressive policies, there is a considerable amount of bad blood built up in Catalonia; and I appreciate that it would make many Catalans very happy to have a country of their own. On the other hand, I think one mark of a country’s greatness is the amount of diversity it can incorporate, so I’d prefer it if the opposing sides could figure out how to live together without stepping on each other’s toes. Secession strikes my American mind as an overly drastic solution to the problem. But at this point I will take heed from Toqueville’s warning and say no more.

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Homage to Catalunya: Introduction & Background

Homage to Catalunya: Introduction & Background

This is Part One of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

Introduction & Background

No region of Spain has been more in the news lately than Catalonia. And this region is also, by chance, the most visited part of the country, mostly thanks to Barcelona. So what sets Catalonia apart from the rest of Spain? In this series of posts I hope to give you some suggestions of an answer.

Catalonia (Cataluña in Spanish, Catalunya in Catalan) is a triangular plot of land that sits at the northeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula. To the north is France, to the south Valencia, to the west Aragón, to the east the shimmering Mediterranean. Divided into four provinces—Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Leida—the region is home to more than 7.5 millions people (about 16% of Spain’s total), most of whom are concentrated around Barcelona, the region’s capital. This storied city is the second biggest in the country, after Madrid, and is in the top ten largest of Europe.

The history of Catalonia is deep and complex. After the fall of Rome it came under the control of the invading Visigoths, and then eventually the invading Moors. After that it was made a sort of Frankish protectorate, serving as a heavily militarized buffer zone between the Carolingian empire and the Moors of the Iberian peninsula. The region became more and more independent until it was essentially autonomous; the hereditary title of Catalonia’s ruler was the “Count of Barcelona.” In 1137 one of these, Ramon Berenguer IV, married the daughter of the King of Aragón, effectively joining the two lands.

Eventually the Kingdom of Aragón came to comprise the whole eastern part of the Peninsula, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Then, in 1469, Isabel of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragón, thus swallowing up Catalonia into yet another large polity—the beginnings of Spain as we know it.

From the very beginning there was some tension in this unification. Catalonia, you see, has always been a mercantile area. Its Mediterranean perch makes it an ideal place for trade by sea. As such, Catalonia has historically been prosperous and liberal—with democratic institutions and limitations on centralized power. (Barcelona’s “Council of 100,” a group of 100 citizens from every rung of society, was one of the first democratic institutions in post-Roman Europe). This tendency has continued to the present day, with Catalonia typically voting for the left; and the region remains one of the wealthiest in the country. Castille (comprising the Western, inland half of the country), on the other hand, has a history of centralized rule and militarism; and many parts of Castille, then and now, are poor and agricultural.

This tension was dealt with, originally, by preserving the liberal institutions of Aragón—not only in Catalonia, but throughout the kingdom. (J.H. Elliot’s book, Imperial Spain, covers this subject and more with admirable clarity.) But Catalonians have a habit of backing the wrong horse when wars break out. This happened in the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), when the death of the last Hapsburg ruler, Charles II, without an heir (he was the feeble product of inbreeding) led to a fight for the Spanish crown. Full of anti-French sentiment due to the French occupation of Barcelona after the Franco-Spanish War (1635 – 1659), the Catalans rallied against the French Bourbon candidate to the throne. Unluckily for them, it was this candidate who eventually won the war and became Philip V.

Philip V was the grandson of Louis XIV of France—that famed “sun king” who brought about so much political centralization north of the Pyrenees. Philip V emulated his grandfather in this centralization, eliminating the Catalan institutions with his Nueva Planta decrees and replacing them with those of Castile. (He emulated his grandfather in another way, building his own version of Versailles in La Granja.) These decrees made Castilian Spanish the official language, thus limiting the use of Catalan. Clearly the new king had little scruples in curtailing the freedom of a people who had opposed his ascension to the throne. The same dynamic played out, three hundred years later, when Franco conquered Catalonia, forbade the use of Catalan, and eliminated the Generalitat (the name for Catalonia’s government).

In spite of this political oppression, Catalonia continued to be an economic powerhouse during Franco’s rule. As a result huge numbers of Spaniards from poorer regions, notably Andalucia and Estremadura, moved to Catalonia. This adds a touch of irony to the recent independence struggles, since many present-day Catalans are “first-generation,” so to speak, being descended from Spaniards.

Since the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, Catalonia has gained much of its previous autonomy. Now the Catalans have their own police force (Mossos d’Esquadra), their own parliament and president (in the aforementioned Generalitat), and control of their own educational system. The Catalan language is presently (along with Castilian, Basque, and Gallego) enshrined as one of the four national languages of Spain. It is the primary language of instruction in Catalan schools—a fact that bothers many Spaniards I’ve spoken to—and a major object of ethnic pride in the region (and thus not to be confused with Castilian Spanish!). This fact notwithstanding, Castilian is widely spoken and almost universally understood in Catalonia.

(It should be noted that Catalan is not only spoken in Catalonia. Many also speak the language in Valencia and in the Balearic Islands; but for political reasons they are officially called different names in these places. Nevertheless it is only in Catalonia where it is the primary language of instruction and where it is exerts such a powerful cultural force.)

Catalan is a Romance language with obvious similarities to its neighboring Romance languages, Castilian and French. But none of these are mutually intelligible. Knowing Spanish, in other words, will not allow you to fluently understand spoken Catalan. Both the pronunciation and the vocabulary of Catalan are strikingly different from Spanish; and consequently many Catalans speak Castilian with a marked accent. To get a taste for this difference, compare the Catalan beginning of the Lord’s Prayer (“Pare nostra, que esteu en el cel; sigui santificat el vostre nom; vingui a nosaltres el vostre Regne…”) with the Spanish version (“Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre, venga a nosotros tu Reino…”). With about ten million speakers—four million of them native, and many of them passionate—and a strong literary tradition, Catalan is in no danger of disappearing.

Languages, by their nature, are relatively closed systems; the difference in grammar and accent between neighboring languages prevent them from freely mixing, though individual words travel easily enough. (Languages are also more easily controlled by official bodies bent on keeping them “pure.”) But nothing prevents cultures from being so mixed. Thus while traveling from Valencia or Aragón into Catalonia there is not any especially noticeable cultural differences. It is not anything like, say, going from Spain to Portugal or to France; which makes me scratch my head when I see Catalonia described in English media as having “its own culture.” In my experience the cultural difference between, say, Madrid and Granada is far more striking than that between Madrid and Barcelona. To give just one example, typical Spanish foods, such as tortilla and paella, have made their way into Catalonia; and typical Catalan foods, such as butifarra, fuet, and toast with tomato, have become staples in Spain.

More generally, in terms of eating habits, dressing habits, and basic lifestyle I fail to see much of a difference between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. But some difference is certainly perceived within Spain and Catalonia. The stereotype in Spain, as far as I can make out, is that Catalans are more hardworking, stingy, and reserved than other Spaniards. I have not spent nearly enough time in Catalonia to give the Catalan side of the story.

More tangibly, Catalonia has several distinctive customs. Their most famous dance is the sardana, a bouncing circular style, accompanied by traditional oboes. More impressive, for me, is the tradition of Castell, which is the art of making giant human pyramids. I have unfortunately never seen it in person, but the pictures make it look incredible. (Click the links for videos.) Also worthy of note is the Catalan tradition on the Diada de Sant Jordi (Saint George’s Day, April 23), in which boys give girls a rose, and girls give boys a book.


I cannot write this post in good conscience without discussing the Catalan independence movement. Nevertheless I hesitate to, considering how divisive this issue is within Spain. Trump’s presidency is scarcely less controversial and absorbs hardly more media attention than the Catalan crisis does here.

Open displays of patriotism in Spain are quite rare, largely because of the nasty odor left by Franco’s nationalist regime. But in the wake of the Catalan referendum of October 1, 2017—which was not authorized by the Spanish government and which eventually led Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to declare independence—Spaniards started putting up flags on balconies and windows all over Madrid. Puigdemont’s declaration also provoked more decisive action from the Spanish government: article 155 of the Spanish constitution was triggered, which dismissed the Catalan government and led to direct rule from Madrid, until new elections were held in December. Puigdemont, meanwhile, fled into exile in Belgium.

But why was Puigdemont led into such precipitate action? Well, the roots of Catalan separatism extend far into the past. As we have seen, there were important institutional and cultural differences between Castile and Aragón; and these persisted long after their unification. We have also seen that the Spanish government has several times abolished Catalonia’s institutions and banned its language. But I do not think any reasonable visitor to Barcelona today would conclude that the Catalans are oppressed; indeed, they have regained their historic autonomy.

One persistent feature in Catalan separatism is a concern with taxes. Catalonia contributes more to the national government in taxes than it receives back in services. Catalans see this as a form of theft, and this is hardly a new complaint. As Gerald Brenan said in his 1943 book on the Spanish Civil War:

“We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live,” the Catalans would say. And they would go on to point out that, although their population was only one-eighth of that of Spain, they paid one-quarter of the State taxes and that only one-tenth of the total budget came back to their province. These were much the same complaints that their ancestors had expressed in 1640.

The Catalans may feel, in other words, that the lazy Spanish are stealing their hard-earned money; while the Spanish think that the Catalans are greedy and selfish. In any case, provided that the taxes contributed by Catalonia are not used for frivolous purposes, but are redistributed to the poorer regions of Spain, this tax deficit seems perfectly normal to me. All over the world rich regions pay more than they receive in services, in order to bolster up the poorer regions. Thus I have trouble seeing why this issue has been so bothersome to the Catalans. Further, I have difficulty believing something as dry as a tax deficit could be the true emotional driving factor in the independence movement.

Perhaps looking for a special cause is misguided, anyhow. For, as Gerald Brenan also pointed out: “The Catalan question is, to begin with, merely one rather special instance of the general problem of Spanish regionalism.” In the 1980s and 90s Spain had another separatism crisis: the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, which killed hundreds of people in their quest to achieve Basque independence. And regionalism is a major feature of Spanish culture more broadly. The English traveler Richard Ford perceived this as far back as the 1840s; and Spain’s leading philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, wrote a book about this very problem in 1922.

Nevertheless, it is true that Catalans have been especially proud of their independence. As evidence of this, Robert Hughes cites the medieval Catalan oath of allegiance to the Spanish crown:

We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are not better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.

It seems clear to me, especially after reading a collection of pro-independence writers, What’s Up with Catalonia?, that many Catalans want independence for its own sake—not for anything to do with taxes. Well, whatever the reason, the percentage of the population in favor of independence has been hovering somewhere around 50% in recent years. The pro-independence coalition which brought Puigdemont to power had a narrow majority; and though control of Parliament was retained after the most recent elections, their percentage of the votes fell to 47.5%.

In a time when Spain is relatively peaceful and Catalonia has a considerable amount of autonomy, why are millions of Catalans in favor of seceding from Spain? Separatism has a long history in Catalonia, but serious efforts for separatism only flare up once in a while. Why this should be so is an extremely complex question, of course; but I am inclined to agree with Joseph Stiglitz in blaming the European debt crisis.

The crisis of 2009 hit Spain hard, with economic contraction and unemployment comparable to the Great Depression; and it took a long time to even begin to recover from the shock. True, the situation has been improving recently, albeit slowly; but I think Tocqueville’s maxim applies here: “the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps towards reform.”  In other words, when things are at their worst, as in a crisis, people are unlikely to try to change the political order; yet when the crisis abates somewhat, the memory of suffering lingers on and the disaffected regain the time and resources to point fingers. The economic suffering of the debt crisis is why, I think, so many Catalans have focused their energy on the tax imbalance.

While the Catalan independence movement can be seen more broadly as but one manifestation of regionalism within Spain, it is also but one manifestation of separatism in Europe. In a continent full of ethnic groups notoriously unable to get along, this is no surprise. The wealthy north of Italy might be the closest case to Catalonia, with the industrious inhabitants of Veneto and Lombardy resenting their support for the poorer south—though Scotland, Northern Ireland, Bavaria, and Flanders are also afflicted by this tendency.

It is difficult for me to envision how this separatism would play out. Should every ethnic group get its own polity? And if so, what qualifies as an ethnic group? These centrifugal forces, if successful, could divide Europe into a checkerboard of nations. Yet if Europe is to be competitive in the coming years, poised between the United States and China, it needs more integration, not less. Only as a continent working together will Europe have the clout to greatly influence world affairs. And I sincerely hope it does, considering how attractive the European way of life has proven.

But enough of these dreary political matters. Let us take a look inside this region, beginning with its capital city.

Review: Saldavor Dali

Review: Saldavor Dali

Salvador Dalí: las obras de su vidaSalvador Dalí: las obras de su vida by Nicolas Palmisano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salvador Dalí is one of the few visual artists of the twentieth century with truly popular appeal. Granted, this probably had as much to do with his moustache and his antics as with his work. But his work is undoubtedly popular. You do not need to be an art history major to appreciate The Great Masturbator, for example; even the title is enough to produce snickers in middle school students. The Dalí Museum in Figueres, Catalonia—which Dalí created himself in an old theater during the last few years of his life—is the second-most visited museum in Spain, after the Prado in Madrid; and this is especially impressive, considering that Figueres is a small town, not very close to Barcelona or any other major city.

This book is one of those omnipresent omnibus collections of artists’ works, cheap enough for tourists to buy on a whim, portable enough for tourists to stuff in their rucksacks. For what it is, it’s done well: full of glossy, high-quality pictures of Dalí’s major works, with some basic biographical information. There’s nothing in this book that you couldn’t find online—the biography on Wikipedia is fuller than the one here—but having a physical copy of an artist’s work, even a cheap one, is undeniably appealing.

As many have noted, the striking thing about Dalí—which is true, although in a different way, of Gaudí—is the combination of radical innovation and extreme conservatism. Dalí was kicked out of his academy; his surrealism was avant-garde; and his lifestyle anything but traditional. Not only that, but he pioneered the role of the zany artist in the 20th century, making media appearances in bizarre getups. And yet, for all this, he was a genuinely religious man, reconciled himself enough with Franco’s reign to move back to Spain, and thought of himself as a Renaissance man in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci.

It is worth noting that many other great artists and thinkers have exhibited this tension in different ways—Joyce, Stravinsky, even Marx—and, indeed, the desire to place oneself firmly within a tradition, while reserving the artistic right to innovate upon that tradition, strikes me as the defining mark of great geniuses. Only lesser artists see innovation and tradition as antithetical.

Dalí’s tension of traditional and experimental is illustrated in his particular brand of surrealism: the use of careful draughtsmanship to realistically render fantastical scenes. The solidity of Dalí’s paintings, achieved using familiar, traditional technique, is why his work has become so popular, I think. Nobody can accuse Dalí of drawing like a child. Unlike many works in contemporary galleries, his paintings are as visually engaging as any special effects-laden movie. Like the works of Hieronymous Bosch—an obvious precursor—Dalí’s paintings are so full of detail and bizarre images that they always entertain, even if their symbolic meaning escapes the viewer.

One thing this book did allow me to see is the remarkable consistency in Dalí’s work over the years. From his beginnings, before he was even comfortable calling himself a surrealist, to well after he was thrown out of the surrealist group and began interesting himself in Catholicism and quantum physics, the same clear aesthetic sensibility pervades his entire oeuvre. This is the reason for the oft-repeated accusation that he was an artistic one-trick pony. While there is some justice in this, as well as in the accusation that his publicity stunts trivialized his work, I think Dalí is easily one of the greatest painters of the last century. His works seldom have a great emotional impact; indeed, sometimes they produce only slightly amused nods. But he was a visual genius: there is no unseeing a work of Dalí, nor mistaking it for another person’s work. And unforgetability is, I think, the ultimate test of any artist.

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Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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Review: Homage to Catalonia

Review: <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>

Homage to CataloniaHomage to Catalonia by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself.

Autobiographies and memoirs are, I think, the best books to read on vacation. Not only are they light, easy, and entertaining, but they’re usually not hard to put down. This is important because, if you’re like me, you may end up spending your whole vacation with your head buried in a book. Most valuable, however, is simply seeing how an excellent writer transforms their experiences into stories. The vague emotions of daily life, the interesting characters we encounter, the sights and sounds and smells of new places—good autobiographies direct our attention to these little details.

In this spirit I picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to read during my trip to Seville. It was an excellent choice. It’s been a while since I’ve read Orwell, and I’d nearly forgotten what a fine writer he is. In fact, perhaps the most conspicuous quality of this book is the caliber of the prose. It is written with such grace, clarity, and ease, that I couldn’t help being constantly impressed and, I admit, extremely envious at times. The writing is direct but never blunt; the tone is personal and natural, but not chummy. The book may have been a bit too readable, actually, since I had a hard time prying myself away to go explore Seville (and a book has to be very good indeed to compete with Seville).

There seems to be a bit of confusion about this book. Specifically, some people seem to come to it expecting to learn about the Spanish Civil War. This is a mistake; Orwell only experienced a sliver of the war, and his understanding of the political situation was limited to the infighting between various leftist groups. The events and conflicts that led up to the war, and the progress of the war itself, are for the most part unexplained. This book is, rather, a deeply personal record of his time in the Spanish militia. We learn more about Orwell’s military routine than about any battles between fascist and government forces. More light is shed on Orwell’s own political opinions than the political situation in Spain.

If you come to the book with this in mind, it will not disappoint. His time in Spain made a deep impression on Orwell; he writes of it in a wistful and nostalgic tone, as if everything that happened occurred in a dreamy, timeless, mist-filled landscape, disconnected from the rest of his life. Characters come and go, soldiers are introduced, arrested, or killed in action; but we do not get acquainted with anyone save Orwell himself. The mood is introspective and pensive, as if it all took place in another life. Even when he is describing his friends’ imprisonment, or his experience getting shot in the neck and hospitalized, he manages to sound dispassionate and serene.

Two chapters, however, do not fit into this characterization. These are Orwell’s analyses of the political situation in Barcelona during this time. In some books, they are published as appendices—which I think is a good choice, actually, since they interrupt the flow of the book quite a bit. Despite the abrupt change in tone and subject-matter, however, they make for valuable reading. The machinations and petty political squabbles that went on during this time are astounding. One would think that having a common enemy in Franco would be enough to unite the various factions on the Left, at least for the duration of the war. Instead, the anti-revolutionary communist party ended up declaring the pro-revolutionary communist party (of which Orwell was a member, entirely by chance) to be a fascist conspiracy, resulting in hundreds of people—people who had spent months fighting at the front—being thrown in secret prisons. Orwell himself narrowly escaped.

Nevertheless, I think that Orwell’s analyses of the general situation in Spain should be taken with copious salt. He understands nearly everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of class-warfare, which I think fails to do justice to the complex political and cultural history of the conflict. Added to this, one gets the impression that Orwell’s command of Spanish was fairly rudimentary, which I think greatly limited his ability to understand the war. To his credit, though, Orwell does warn us about his limitations:

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

But these are minor complaints of a book which I found to be supremely well-written and absolutely fascinating. His accounts of life at the front were possibly the best descriptions of war that I’ve ever read, with the exception of those in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is not because Orwell saw very much fighting; quite the opposite. Rather, he conveys a sense of the crushing boredom and the sense of futility that many soldiers must feel during a long, draw-out war. Also superb was his portrayal of political oppression, the climate of fear and backstabbing that arose during the party conflicts in Barcelona.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is that, despite all of the hardships Orwell endured, and despite the obvious injustices inflicted on both himself and his friends, he does not come across as bitter or resentful. I leave you with his words:

When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.


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