The Casual Blog

Tag: Barcelona

Seeing a bit of Barcelona and Madrid

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.

My first visit to Barcelona

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Last week I did a quick trip to Barcelona for the FSF-Europe Free Software Workshop, and got a chance to see the city a bit. There was good energy and good attendance at the conference, with some old friends and major thought leaders in free software, and my talk on software patents and the Supreme Court was well received. It was really cheering to be with a large group of really smart, really nice people working to advance the cause of free and open source software.
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We took a tour of the Sagrada Familia, the famous cathedral designed by Anton Gaudi and still a work in progress 122 years after it was started. It’s a strange building, half modern and half gothic, and massive. As with the great gothic cathedrals, it overwhelms the senses – it’s impossible to take it all in at once. Our tour guide took us inside late in the day, as the light was changing quickly, and showed how the windows were designed to manipulate the light. The guide made it clear that the work is both source of controversy and of enormous pride for the Barcelonans. I can’t say I liked it, exactly, but I found it wildly ambitious, bizarre, and intriguing.
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After the conference, starting Saturday morning, I shifted from work mode to super-tourist mode, and spent about 14 hours exploring the city. At first I thought it seemed a bit like a cross between Paris and Florence, but in the end I found it distinctive, just itself. It has grand boulevards with trees and fashionable shops, warrens of narrow medieval streets, and large parks. There are a couple of distinguished gothic cathedrals, some excellent art museums, and a modern (with TVs!) and efficient modern metro. It was easy to figure out how to get a ticket and get going in the right direction, and I never waited more than three minutes for a train.

Barcelona was energized and energizing. It seemed very cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The Catalans have their own language, Catalan, which seemed not too different from Spanish. Like people of other small European language groups, Barcelonans are more likely to need a second or third language. I found that the service people all spoke adequate-to-excellent English. In fact, using advanced Yankee detection radar, they sometimes spoke to me in English before I even opened my mouthand so I didn’t get to use my still-a-work-in-progress Spanish very much.
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Since the Barcelonans are so proud of Gaudi and the school of modernisme (which struck me as a species of art nouvea), I decided to check out another well-known Gaudi building — the Pedrero, an apartment building. Unfortunately the façade was covered up for renovation, but it was worth seeing the roof and a large apartment. The roof had mysterious sculptural objects with undulating surfaces, bulges, and points. I have no idea what they mean, but somehow in the context of city rooftops they work. The apartment was remarkably spacious, and well-furnished and decorated in the period.
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Gaudi was a visionary and a maverick, unwilling to accept existing conventions and aesthetic categories, like our Frank Lloyd Wright. But Gaudi’s aesthetic is odder – whimsical in places, but also suggesting memories of nightmares. It’s amazing that he found funding in the first place, and that he also found lasting fame. The local obsession with Guadi is another sign that Castilians are different in an interesting way.
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After looking at some other modernist buildings, including Casa Battlo, I took a longish walk south which included La Rambla, the famous pedestrians-only boulevard, and through the gothic quarter to the Picasso museum. It doesn’t have the world’s most distinguished Picassos, but for Picasso fans it’s satisfying – particularly some fine works from the blue period. There was also an interesting temporary exhibition on Picasso’s influence on contemporary art.

After more explorations in the old quarter, late in the afternoon I made my way across town to the Juan Miro museum. I came in with the impression that Miro was overrated – an artist who’d taken a few charming ideas, mined them out, and kept on digging. The museum showed that he had more range than I’d realized, and more willingness to experiment, assimilate new ideas, and grow. I particularly liked his found-object sculptures. The temporary exhibit included some interesting conceptual works, including one that showed, side by side, a three-foot-high pile of dirt and a three-foot-high pile of thick paint.

On the flight back on Sunday, I had a good block of reading time, and finally finished The Odyssey, in the Robert Fagles translation. I was sort of looking towards the suitors of Penelope getting their comeuppance, but even so the violence was so extreme it was shocking. Homer’s world was definitely different from ours. Were the suitors really so bad as to deserve butchering? But there were also surprisingly modern descriptions of affection and love. When Penelope finally realized that Odysseus was actually home, after twenty years’ absence, and husband and wife were united, it had the emotional resonance of Shakespeare’s greatest lovers. It made me eager to get home.