After Avilés, Jorge arranged for our bus trip to Bilbao. We took a bus in the morning from Avilés to Olbiedo, where we caught our Bilbao bus. The service on the bus was better than traveling First Class on a US airline. We had fantastic cheerful service, headphones, movies, meals (including wine and beer), snacks and treats, hot towels and unbelievably comfortable seats. Plus, traveling on the ground, we got to see a lot more of Spain.
We arrived in Bilbao in the late afternoon. I had no real desire to see Bilbao’s most famous landmark, the Guggenheim Art Museum designed by Frank Gehry. I have little interest in modern art unless I’m using it to help describe aspects of a character when I’m designing a film (then I’ll use anything appropriate to the story). I met Gehry on a number of occasions when I was working at Walt Disney Imagineering. There are several of his buildings in the L. A. area (he’s based here), so I’ve seen a lot of his work. Most of it I like, although (like most of the people in Seattle) I can’t stand his Experience Museum. I concur with the local description of it as the Giant Purple Turd. So, I passed on seeing both the outside and inside of the Guggenheim.
We did have one of our best meals in Bilbao, however. There are no luggage lockers at the Bilbao train station, so we had to lug our stuff with us through town. The only thing we really had time for was a walk through the beautiful old part of Bilbao which was just a couple of blocks from the station. We had one of our most wonderful dinners at a small restaurant that we happened upon (I’ll get you the name as soon as find the itinerary with my notes on that place).
That night we took a red-eye sleeper train to Barcelona. If you plan to do this, book well in advance; the First Class sleepers sold out long before we reserved our tickets. We got into Barcelona on a Monday morning and immediately took a Metro to the station nearest our hotel, the ideally located Barcino 147. Ferran, the owner, gave us a spectacular room at an extremely reasonable price (which included breakfast and use of the kitchen at any time), giving me a discount because I’m an artist (I love Europe!).
The gregarious Ferran turned out to be an enormously reliable source for All Things Barcelona. His restaurant recommendations were right on the money every single time.
Barcelona is one of my favorite cities in the world: great food, great architecture, great people. It is rightly famed for its collection of architecture by the Catalan genius Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi’s extreme Art Nouveau (or Modernisme, as Art Nouveau is known in Spain) buildings look as if he was able to conjure stone, ceramics and iron to grow into whatever shapes and forms he desired. I had seen many Gaudi buildings on my first trip to Spain in 1970; this was my first real chance to explore them in depth. I was richly rewarded for doing so.
The first Gaudi we visited was just a few blocks from our hotel. Casa Batlló is a wonderment of iridescent color. It’s ceramic roof looks like the back of a storybook dragon. It’s on the “Block of Discontent”, so named because several great Art Nouveau architects tried to outdo each other with buildings on the same block. They are all pretty amazing, but there’s nothing comparable to a great Gaudi.
Not far from Casa Batlló is Casa Milá, also known as La Pedrera. This apartment building looks like a giant frosted cake, the iridescent white frosting of the roof all melting, dripping and sagging. We went inside (there’s a reasonable fee) and perused the interior. We took the elevator up to the roof and wandered through its M. C. Escher-like levels with its whipped cream ceramic mosaic spires. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The floor below the roof has a fascinating, informative museum on Gaudi and his works.
Gaudi’s masterpiece was to be his cathedral of the Holy Family (La Sagrada Família), which he began in 1882, but he died before its completion (he was run over by a tram on his way to the cathedral in 1926). Work continues on the completion of the cathedral (which from a distance looks like a gigantic drip sand castle) to this day. Barcelona took a wrong turn, though, in hiring a crappy Art Deco sculptor to sculpt the figures intended for the back of the cathedral. They are clumsy and awkward; they, quite frankly, look like hell and are completely inconsistent with the rest of the cathedral. The sculptor should be fired and his work should be removed. There are plenty of fine sculptors who would be much more appropriate for the job.
We also visited Gaudi’s Casa Vicens, Casa Calvet and the spectacular park that Gaudi designed, Park Guell (I recommend taking the city bus there; don’t try to hike it). With its mosaic crockery lizards, tilted stone archways, amazing views of Barcelona (the park is high on a hill overlooking the city), and serpentine elevated terrace, I prefer Park Guell to Disneyland.
Two other structures merit note. If you visit Barcelona, you shouldn’t miss the Hospital de la Santa Crue i Sant Pau or the Palau de la Música Catalana. The hospital (a working hospital) is a wonderland of beauty and color, designed to make the patients’ stay there as pleasant as possible. The Music Palace is a riot of tasteful fantastic color and images with gorgeous columns and stunning mosaic murals. Nearby the Music Palace is an atmospheric tapas bar with incredible creative food (boasting “tapas atípicas”) prepared by its Danish owner. Her bar is called El Bitxo (“The Bitch”). She is the bitch herself and is proud of it. We loved her and her food.
Locals consider Ciudad Condal the best tapas bar in Barcelona. We agree. The bread they use in their long sandwiches is unbelievable.
If you walk the length of La Rambla from Plaza Catalunya to the sea harbor you get a real feel for the rich diversity of Barcelona. There is street entertainment, pickpockets, bird markets, an erotic museum, great architecture, sculpture and one of the most amazing markets I’ve ever seen: La Boqueria. I could spend a whole day just inside the market. There are food bars inside the market that cook up the most flavorful dishes from the market’s readily fresh ingredients.
More to come, my friends…