By Steve Bergsman
Barcelona has always embraced creative strangers who wandered into this coastal city and stayed for a time — or until they died. The most obvious example is the architect Antoni Gaudi, who was born in the Spanish village Reus, which, like Barcelona, sits in the province of Catalonia. Gaudi's greatest works are in Barcelona, including the La Sagrada Familia church, which is the most-visited tourist attraction in Spain.
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga and spent just a couple of years in Barcelona before migrating to France. Yet the Picasso Museum is set in Barcelona in the same way as native son, artist Joan Miro, is celebrated with the Joan Miro Museum. Some writers also wandered into the city and used it as a backdrop for some of their best works, the most unusual being French author and playwright Jean Genet.
I'm partial to Genet because when I was in high school a friend who worked at the local art movie-house snuck me in to see the movie "The Balcony," which was originally a Genet play. I understood nothing, but decades later I still haven't forgotten the experience.
Barcelona recognized Genet by naming a pocket park (placa) in the Raval section of the city after him. It was an appropriate gesture because Genet's autobiographical novel, "The Thief's Journal," takes place in Raval when it was a notorious slum and home to prostitutes, drug addicts and thieves. Genet and I crossed paths another time because decades before Barcelona became Barcelona, I visited the city, crashing with three other travelers in Raval, where we found a very cheap pensione. It didn't meet quite the level degeneracy of Genet's abodes, but it was still a hovel.
Today, the Raval and the nearby Gothic sections of the city are some of the best walking streets. The old buildings have been enhanced with shops and eateries too numerous to mention. My wife and I rambled down the Ramblas on a sunny but wintry Saturday, and crowds of locals were out celebrating a break in the weather. We wandered into the Mercat de la Boqueria, a covered market, and snacked on calamari and chips, fresh fruit drinks and nuts, all from the local stalls. Turn to the right and you are in the Raval, to the left and you are in Gothic and your day is complete.
Not far from here is the Museo Picasso, which I first visited when it was just a decade old, so I was anxious to return and see what time had done to the place. Here are some things I learned.
The museum is located on a side street so it's not easy to find even if you're walking around with a GPS. I was there on a cold, rainy day in the off-season and the ticket line stretched down the street. Next time I'll buy my tickets in advance. The Picasso masterpieces I had envisioned, such as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," are all found in the great museums of the world. The Museo Picasso focuses on his early years, when he was becoming the great master of 20th-century art.
In addition to the paintings and prints are sketchbooks, letters, scribbles, books and myriad other items showcasing Picasso's artistic growth beginning as a young man at the end of the 19th century. Art aficionados who would rather see a painter's mature works would do well to include the Joan Miro Museum, which is less crowded and might be more satisfying in terms of a painter's oeuvre.
Picasso only spent about two years in Barcelona, but for Gaudi the city was his life and his canvas. My first attempt to get near Gaudi was to visit the Palau Guell, a Gothic Revival mansion he designed for his patron, Eusebi Guell. To my surprise, the mansion was closed with no reason given. According to a tour book, during the Franco years the police took over the building and tortured prisoners in the basement. That's probably not what the deeply religious Gaudi had in mind.
I turned my next day into a Gaudi immersion: I visited the towering, Disneyesque La Sagrada Familia church; the Gaudi-designed fantasia called Park Guell; and his nearby house, now the Casa-Museu Gaudi. I ended up at Gaudi's first architectural commission, the Casa Vicens.
Gaudi, Picasso and Miro were phantasmagorical, but the gritty Genet represents the vagabond in all of us who loved Barcelona when it was not so refined.
WHEN YOU GO
I stayed at the Four Points Sheraton near to the Glories metro stop — very convenient: www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/bcnfp-four-points-barcelona-diagonal
Book the attractions you want to see here in advance to avoid spending hours in lines.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudi, is said to be the most-visited spot in all of Spain. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.