Seeing a bit of Barcelona and Madrid

by Rob Tiller

Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batllo

Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo

Last week I went to Barcelona for the legal workshop of the Free Software Foundation Europe. The annual event attracts the leading legal thinkers on free and open source software from across Europe, as well as a good many from the US and Asia. This was my third year at the conference, and it was good to see friends and discuss FOSS issues. Before and after the conference I explored some of Barcelona and Madrid.

On the roof of Gaudi's La Pedrera

On the roof of Gaudi’s La Pedrera

The conference hotel was on Passeig de Gracia, one of Barcelona’s busy, broad, tree-lines avenues, in the area of some of Antoni Gaudi’s strange and compelling buildings. The FSFE group had a guided tour of Casa Batllo, a row house that Gaudi transformed early in the twentieth century with themes of St. George and the dragon and forms of nature. I also visited La Pedrera, his famous apartment house with undulating walls and sculpted chimneys, and La Sagrada Familia, his still unfinished soaring and dripping cathedral. I still can’t say I really love Gaudi, but I respect his refusal to compromise his vision, and I find it cheering that the city embraces it.

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia


On Saturday I went to Madrid to look about. This was ambitious — something like deciding after a visit to D.C. to have a day to see New York City. I got off to a rough start. The cab driver loaded my bag in the back of his hatch back vehicle, and as I stepped forward to hand him my backpack, he forcefully slammed the back gate down and hit my head. I noticed I was dripping blood as he guided me back to the hotel.

The desk clerks looked shocked to see me, and when I got to the bathroom I saw why: I looked like Carrie after the prom went bad. I thought I might need to go to the hospital for some stitches, but decided to try holding a dressing on it to get the bleeding stopped as we went to the airport. This worked, though I got blood on my shirt, and the front of my hair had a distinctive red cast.

Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

My flight went smoothly, and after checking into a hotel near the airport and cleaning up, I took a shuttle into Madrid, arriving at the Puerta de Alcala around noon. The weather was clear and breezy, with temperatures in the mid sixties. I bought a cheap guide with a map and went into power tourist mode.

My first impressions were: Madrid is magnificent! The big public squares have impressive sculptures, fountains, and buildings, including many ornate baroque and classical facades. It seemed energized, like New York, but also stately, like Rome.

My primary objective was to see some of the great art there. I made my way to the Prado via the impressive Plaza de Cibeles. There was a line to get into the museum, but it moved quickly, and although it was crowded at first, the crowds quickly thinned. I’d expected a fusty museum, but it was not that at all. The art was given plenty of space and helpful labeling both in Spanish and English. It did not seem as comprehensive as the Met, but was more digestible.

Inside La Sagrada Familia

Inside La Sagrada Familia

The particular strength of the collection is Spanish art, and I decided to focus on that. There are powerful collections of the iconic masters (El Greco, Valezquez, Goya), but good arguments for less well-known ones. None of these styles were new to me, but I tried to enter into the time and culture of some of the master works. There were some rooms that worked well as time machines, to scenes of battle, religious devotion, or daily life. I also looked at some of the works analytically, considering how the artist used the elements of line, form, texture, and, color to draw attention.

I’d planned to spend an hour or so at the Prado, but ended up staying for almost three. After a quick lunch, I took the short walk to the Reina Sofia museum, which is devoted mostly to twentieth century art. Here again, I found the works well displayed, though there was not much in the way of explanations. I was a bit puzzled by the organization, but there was a lot of great art, including particularly important works by Picasso, Gris, Leger, Braque, and an interesting collection of Surrealism.

In front of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art

In front of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art

There were also some good examples of more recent movements, including conceptualism. So many of these schools, such as Cubism, began as a challenge to conventional thought, but have become assimilated, with their primary perceived purpose now being to serve as status symbols. But it’s still possible to approach them as expressive statements, and confront their challenges — to be affected or even discombobulated by them.

I’d planned to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, and also to visit Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, but it was after 6:00 when I left Reina Sofia — not enough time. I decided to do a walk across the downtown area with looks at the major thoroughfares and public squares. I went up Calle de Atocha to Plaza Mayor, where there were hundreds of people out to see other people. From there I went to Puerta del Sol, with more hundreds of pedestrians, and up Gran Via, which reminded me of the tourist frenzy on New York’s Broadway.

I was relieved to exit that and make my way to the peaceful and elegant garden at Plaza de Oriente. Heading back to the west, I went through little side streets looking for a place for dinner. I was tired of vegetarian tapas, and had trouble finding a good alternative. My Android device battery was almost dead, but I ultimately had enough juice to call on Yelp to help me find an Indian restaurant for dinner. I had some comfort food — vegetable somosas and palak paneer. It was good.