Unlike Basque, Catalan is connected to other European languages. To me it sounded like French and Spanish combined, with some Italian thrown in. I speak a little of each of those languages and pity the poor shopkeepers who had to listen to my complete salad speech. If I didn’t know what it was in Spanish, my mouth via my brain popped in the French or Italian word, which made perfect sense to me, but perhaps not the locals. In the tourist areas, it was easier to speak the common language of English. And were there tourists. The number of visitors to Barcelona per year is approximately the same as the population of Canada; 35 million. There are a lot of things which draw the tourists, the chief one being the extraordinary Modernisme, or Art Nouveau, architectural style developed here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Antoni Gaudi and his teachers, contemporaries and students. Buildings which put the art in architecture. Buildings which are as interesting on the inside as the outside. 

Casa Vicens
San Pau hospital

We went on an excellent Gaudi walking tour and saw his well-known houses and the Sagrada Familia Church from the outside. Inside we could see audio-guide wearing tourists packed in liked sardines and inching their way around. I don’t do sardine-tours, so we went to the less-crowded sites. Casa Vicens was Gaudi’s first private house commission, a gorgeous concoction inside and out of nature motifs on plaster, decorative tiles, delicate Arab-style wooden screens, and Japanese folding doors to save space between rooms. The San Pau Hospital was built for the poor and worked entirely on donations, but the architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, believed in the power of light and beauty to heal, and the wards are fabulously decorated with flowers and bright pinks and blues. One of the best Gaudi sites was just behind our Airbnb on the hill, Parc Guell. There aren’t many green spaces in Barcelona, so it was a relief to walk there and have a panoramic view of the city and the port. The side facing the city and the Gaudi buildings was packed, but the side facing the mountains was quiet and leafy, dotted with the odd dog-walker or gardener sleeping off lunch under a tree.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church needs a lot of time inside and out, and is a must-see. There was no avoiding the crowds. We spent several hours looking at the two finished exterior facades, one depicting the nativity, the other the Passion of Christ. The church is still being built, 140 years after they started building, so we watched the construction too. It is an extraordinary thing. Inside, the massive, tall columns are like trees, and the stain glass windows filter the light like the tree canopy filtering the sun in a forest.

Santa Familia exterior
Santa Familia windows

I hadn’t realized that Picasso lived in Barcelona when he was a teenager. He donated much of his early work to the Picasso Museum, a good record of how his art developed. The surrealist painter Salvador Dali was from Catalan too, and we saw an exhibition about his work. What an entertaining weirdo he was. Talking about eccentrics – the sight of our stay was the portly second-hand book store owner who was standing in front of his shop at three o’clock in the afternoon, shaving with an electric shaver while talking to a friend. When you think about it, that is quite a feat.

Fortunately, we had a quiet apartment facing away from the road, in a pleasant area called Gracia, which was full of lively squares, tapas bars and art workshops. I say fortunately, because the traffic in Barcelona is horrific and scary. Crossing the road to go to the bakery in the morning meant running the gauntlet of rows of motorbikes revving their engines at the red light, taking off like a buffalo stampede on green, plus contending with scooters, skateboards, inline skaters, bikes and Segways roaring down the sidewalks. Barcelona is a very ‘young’ city. The inhabitants get about in the cheapest way possible. The journey to the Catalan bakery was worth it, though. When you think about it, what can go wrong with your day if you start it off by popping into a little shop where the aroma of fresh-baked bread reaches you from the ovens and bite into a chocolate pastry on your way to work? And if, despite this delightful start, your day goes wrong, wouldn’t it righted when you stop in to the same bakery on the way home at seven pm and pick up a couple of crusty baguettes in crisp brown bags, warm and slightly squishy as you tuck them under your arm? “Anything else?” the shop assistant says. How could there be anything else? You’ve just sold me heaven.

Around the corner from our building we found a local covered market and bought some ready-made Catalan dishes. These are heavy and salty and oily. Broad beans with ham, beef stew, and calamari stuffed with meat in garlic sauce. Our fellow shoppers were gossiping middle-aged ladies who thrilled me by expertly flicking open their Spanish fans to cool themselves as they waited to be served. Gossip, gossip, click, click. Gossip, click. The St Josep La Boqueria covered market near the centre is chic and famous for seafood. When we visited, a South Korean team was filming a foodie show. After glancing at his prompt cards, the host bit into a huge bit of squid, laid down his knife and fork, took his glasses off, and cupped his face in his hands. Obviously, he was having a religious experience for the audience at home. Anthony Bordain this was not.

St Josep Market

We got into the Mediterranean Sea for a swim from the Barcelona beach on Hispanic Day, a national holiday. It was warm, but the beach was not very clean. As you can imagine, most Spaniards celebrating Hispanic Day in the main square, wrapped in yellow and red Spanish flags, were against Catalan independence. The don’t-care majority were on the beach. Behind us a group of deeply tanned 60-something ladies, topless, but never-going-to-make-Playboy — their ‘tops’ in fact were never going to make it past the centre fold — were raucously drinking cava and laying into the Spanish government and tourists (as far as I could make out – they were speaking Catalan). One of them was an excellent mimic, and she did a tip-toeing Asian, an American with an atrocious Spanish accent, and a keen and brisk Scandinavian which her friends found side-splittingly funny. As a tourist, I felt guilty and uneasy, but I can see the need to laugh at what can be an irritant. “Your holiday, our everyday” a poster in the underground declares, trying to get visitors to respect the residents’ normal life. The oddest tourists we saw were a giggly Chinese couple who seemed to be getting married in the rain in front of the Cathedral in the Old City. The bride’s bouquet was stuffed into the photographer’s backpack. An Irish busker asked the couple if they had a special song request and then replaced the lyrics of the song they chose with very lewd wedding-night words. The couple grinned happily through the whole song (see photo). I spent an inordinate amount of brain power trying to work out if they could understand the new lyrics, but I still don’t know. What do you think?   

Barcelona wedding

A local train took us away from the city rush, inland and up the mountain of Monserrat and the Benedictine monastery there. The cable car took us through clouds to emerge into blue skies and sunshine. A good hike with a magnificent view was in order, and we set off on the Santa Cova route the ‘Path of the Rosary’, which winds around the mountain and ends in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary built right into the rock. It was quiet, and only brilliant birdsong accompanied us for most of the trail, past 19th century statues and monuments commemorating various events in the life of Jesus. Generally I prefer straight up nature. I think it speaks better than a man-made structure. However, I did like the powerful scene at the tomb of Jesus, built right into the mountain, where the women are punched in the middle with grief over the empty tomb, and the angel is casually sitting cross-legged on a rock, going: “It’s OK folks, no worries, he’s not dead.” 

Monserrat Mountain
Monserrat statue

Inside the Benedictine Basilica, we found plaques acknowledging donations for candle holders and fixtures from groups such as The Antique Automobile Club of Monserrat, and The Barcelona Football Club (obviously hedging their bets). An entire room was set aside to house objects brought to the Virgin Mary, presumably in thanks or to ask for help. Learner driver licence plates, cut off plaster casts, motorcycle helmets, baby clothes, photos and first communion cards. A famous ‘Black Madonna’ statue stands in a silver shrine behind the altar. The statue is black because of centuries of candle smoke. Only the orb she is holding in her hand is available to touch, and this is now brown, as the many hands have worn off the smoke stain. Pretty modern, I thought. A ‘white’ statue turns black, then gradually brown. As hundreds of tourists and pilgrims milled around the area, I wondered how the silent Benedictine order was finding all of this. Then I learned that they still run a printing press, and in Franco’s days sheltered Catalan writers facing persecution. Subversive. Not so ‘silent’ after all. Maybe all the visitors thrill them.

Pledges Basilica
Black Madonna

Time to visit another Spanish city, this one at the heart of the country geographically and politically. We were off again by high-speed train to Madrid.