Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

© Jeremy Ferguson

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A Gaudí display

From over-the-top architecture to understated cool, Barcelona is a feast for the eyes

In the 18th century, Barceloneta was the fishing village that fed all of Barcelona. Today, except for the phalanx of overpriced fish restaurants that announce its marina, it’s low-key, quiet, friendly and close to the city centre. Barceloneta, sitting on the Mediterranean on Spain's north-eastern coast, is where we live this week.

Our one-bedroom apartment faces into a narrow street of pastel-coloured buildings. Across the way, wrought-iron balconies burst into spider webs of Technicolor laundry lines. On the balcony next to ours, a young man, stripped to his shorts, is sipping coffee and sweet-talking his canary.

Come on in: we’re on the second floor, a relief since there is no elevator. And no drab surroundings and mouldy furniture here. Thoroughly modern in a bold red-and-white motif, the apartment shrieks Ikea. There is no dishwasher and the microwave is no substitute for an oven, but the stove has four burners. We can live with it.

There’s unpredictable wireless access, a TV and far more importantly, modern lighting. The bedroom has a double bed with a good mattress and ample storage space. The bathroom has a walk-in shower and a toilet so low to the floor, it feels like a potty.

From here, we set out every day to explore Spain’s second city for the first time. Our mission is the Gaudí trail, the fantastical oeuvre of late-19th-century architect Antoni Gaudí. A taxi driver tells us the name is pronounced “Howdi” and that there’s more to Barcelona than him. We take his word for it. But for a foreigner, Barcelona begins and ends with Gaudí: Hundertwasser has Vienna, Van Gogh Arles and Toulouse-Lautrec Paris, but no artist has ever left his mark on a city the way Gaudí has on Barcelona. Seven of his works are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I know little about art, except that it seems to me that anybody who forks out thousands of dollars for a few stripes or polka dots on a canvas has never read The Emperor’s New Clothes. But I like Gaudí. The man lived unequivocally for his vision, which is categorized as Modernista or Catalán Art Nouveau. He gives the photographer so much to work with.

Architecture in a swirl

We start at the Sagrada Familia (401 Calle Mallorca; tel: 011-34-93-207-3031; sagradafamilia.cat), the cathedral whose runaway steeples, resembling the points of a jester’s hat, have become Barcelona’s singular icon and a symbol of the most popular monument in Spain. Gaudí had taken control of its construction in 1883, as the defining project for his remaining 43 years. It remains a work-in-progress. Financed entirely by donation, it’s expected to be finished by 2026, the centennial of the artist’s death. Or so say the optimists.

Gazing at the Sagrada exterior, peering through the swarm of sky cranes and walls of scaffolding, the journeyer detects Turkey’s surreal Cappadocia, the phallic temple spires of India’s Khajuraho and European Gothic medievalism whirled in the blender of the Gaudí imagination.

Gaudí’s temple soars heavenward, but brings you back to earth with every skyward thrust, fusing sacred and profane with stunning cunning. When the Japanese film director Hiroshi Teshigahara found eroticism throughout Gaudí’s work in his 1985 film Antonio Gaudí, he was on to something.

But the Sagrada interior is finished and it dazzles even the itinerant atheist. It can seem geological, a desert canyon flown from Utah, its pillars a petrified forest. Its nooks come lit like something out of Citizen Kane. Christ on the cross floats in suspension, parasailing into a circus of light and colour, subversively unsorrowful. The voice on the headphones is supposed to help us understand, but the narrative sends us to a corner to snooze.

We take our Gaudí a day at a time. Another day is for Casa Batlló (43 Passeig de Gràcia; tel: 011-34-93-488-0666; www.casabatllo.es), the museum on the Passeig de Gràcia. Gaudí’s 1904 refacing transfixes us: It wavers in the eye. There isn’t a straight line to be seen. It shimmers with pottery shards. The stonework recalls a lava flow, the balconies turned to fanciful birds’ nests. The arched, scaled roof is likened to the back of a dinosaur.

Gaudí also reinvented its chimneys as ornamental phalluses — a field of them. A field of phalluses? This from an artist known as a deeply religious, ultra-conservative lifetime bachelor and probable male virgin? What a pity he and Freud never got together.

Gaudí’s second site on the same avenue is Casa Mila (92 Passeig de Gràcia; tel: 011-34-93-484-5900; www.lapedreraeducacio.org), the apartment block nicknamed La Pedrera (the quarry) and designed in 1906. It shows the same Art Nouveau exuberance as Casa Batlló, the rooftop a horizon as it might have been envisioned by Dalí or the filmmaker Buñuel, and Gaudí’s chimneys even more fun to contemplate.

Stalling around

Between bouts of Gaudí giddiness, we discover the rest of the city. It proves a treat, from the narrow streets of its Gothic Quarter to its enormously cheerful restaurants. Its most important street is the promenade La Rambla, a roll-up of five different avenues running through the labyrinthine Old City from the central Plaça de Catalunya to the waterfront.

The Rambla is the city's people place, where everyone, especially the pickpockets, mingles insouciantly. A gauntlet of costumed street artists complete the cirque atmosphere. Tourists pack its outdoor cafés for litres of beer and exiguous paella, all wizened shrimps, mussels and greasy yellow rice that cost too big a fistful of euros.

But only steps off La Rambla is La Boquería (91 Rambla; tel: 011-34-93-318 -2584; boqueria.info), opened in 1840, one of Spain's greatest markets and a pilgrimage for market junkies, including us. La Boquería sells everything that swims. The eye darts among red tuna and pink swordfish, Dover sole, baby monkfish, a dozen varieties of shrimp, squid and shark, which one unscrupulous fish monger is passing off as swordfish.

Barcelona loves its markets, as do we. Taking advantage of local markets is part of the reason we prefer apartments to hotels. At La Boquería, we shop for jamón Serrano, the cured ham that more than holds its own with Italy's prosciutto, Dover sole and black noodles infused with squid ink. At our snug little apartment, we sizzle the pricey sole in olive oil and butter. It's a fish I discovered in Montreal in 1967 and haven't eaten for years. Here, washed down with a crisp viña blanca, it's as firm-fleshed and flavourful as I remember it.

Moveable feast

We eat out, too. It's much easier to find good food in Barcelona than in Paris. Barcelona doesn’t cook for rich Americans. Barcelona cooks for itself and shares with strangers. Our lunchtime favourite is Cuines de Santa Caterina (Mercado Santa Caterina; tel: 011-34-93-268-9918, www.cuinessantacaterina.com) located in the modern Santa Caterina Market. “Cuines” translate as "kitchen" in Catalan. This loud, happy restaurant has four kitchens serving mix-and-match Mediterranean, Asian, grill and vegetarian cuisines. Specials flash by on a stock market-style board. We bite for bird of the day, especially duck confit with potato puree infused with duck jus and cheese.

In the Old Quarter near the Picasso Museum, we like Lonja de Tapas (5 Placeta Montcada; tel: 011-34-93-315-1447; lonjadetapas.com), a stylish room with open-kitchen showbiz and a slate of 40 tapas. Royalty among them is foie gras straight off the griddle and served with gingerbread. Baby green chillies come deep-fried with a sprinkle of Maldon salt; they’re instantly addictive. At four in the afternoon, the locals are still into lunch.

Five minutes from our digs, La Bombeta (3 Calle Maquinista; tel: 011-34-93-319-9445) is the city’s most beloved tapas restaurant, with a big menu, moderate prices and lineups that mean you must arrive before 8PM. Spicy, salty and juicy, black sausage woos and wins my wife, who has a taste for the stuff courtesy of her Polish and Scottish ancestors.

Cubism and fairy tales

We spend our time walking, gawking and eating. It’s a very fine life. One day is for the Picasso Museum (15-23 Calle Montcada; tel: 011-34-93-319-6310; www.museupicasso.bcn.es), the most popular of the city’s museum. It focusses on the artist’s Barcelona years. His sombre, monomchromatic Blue Period is well-represented. His etchings attacking Spanish Fascism — precursors of his immortal Guernica — Franco and the Church are especially powerful. There is even a little of his famous erotic work: I watch two giggling young women return again and again to an etching of a man orally pleasuring his female partner.

Now back to Gaudí. For last, we save Park Güell (13 Carrer d'Olot; tel; 011-93-317-3974), a 14-hectare park festooned with the artist’s most playful touches: had it been in the US, they would have named it Gaudíland.

The tone of Park Güell is instantly apparent at the gate houses, which have a zonked-out fairy-tale quality. We wouldn’t be surprised to learn they’re made of gingerbread and meringue. The park’s stellar centrepiece is a vast platform supported by 88 stone columns, some popped in from Middle Earth. A park atop the park, it provides panoramic views clear to the Mediterranean.

Gaudí spent the last 20 years of his life here, from 1906 to 1926. His house, Casa-Museo Gaudí (tel: 011-34-93-219-3811; casamuseugaudi.org) is a small museum with big lineups. It tells us almost nothing.

It doesn’t speak of the end he came to: Antoni Gaudí was hit by a streetcar in 1926. A private, humble man who dressed in cheap threads, he went unrecognized until it was too late. Finally, entombed in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, he was literally buried in his work.

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