I make no pretence at being an urbane city dweller but I know my way around much of the Western world and have seen many samples of the rest. Having grown up when there was still something of a British Empire, there is a residual assumption on my part that the UK, inventor and builder of planes, boats and trains with the best of ’em, still offers world-class transport. I didn’t need to go as far as Mumbai or Beijing to puncture that delusion.
An early vacation this year took me to Spain to meet up with a couple of friends and to the two principal cities of that country. We must remember Spain a hundred years ago was a shadow of the medieval superpower that once had encircled the world with golden galleons long before Britain painted a fifth of the globe a nice patriotic pink.
After losing Cuba and the Phillipines in the Spanish-American war, it was racked by political upheaval, culminating in three years of civil war and four decades of fascist rule. When Franco died in 1975, Spain looked like some third world dictatorship. Even with the great strides it made in the last four decades, during the recession it was still lumped in with other fiscal basket cases in the EU, lately under the derisory term of ‘PIGS’.
You land at BCN—Barcelona’s airport—and instantly forget the cheesy, cramped hodge-podge facilities of Edinburgh or the convoluted illogical spaghetti of connections among Heathrow terminals. As often happens on budget flights, we were delayed—in my case by two hours so the car hire desk was closed. No matter, the city centre bus was easy to find and the neat little hotel tucked behind Plaza Catalunya 200m from its terminus.
Spend time in Barcelona and you come to savour its diversity, all of which is easily accessible by Metro which costs under €10 for a ten-journey ticket. The quaint medieval lanes of the Barri Gotic is only a stroll from the broad Ramblas and ringed by wide boulevards where the bustle of the city flows by. The wide airy spaces of Montjuic overlook the the processional avenue sweeping down from MNAC to the Plaza España and the surrounding busy commercial district around Sants. Shopa and cafes jostle along the tree-lined streets.
If there is a slum or a no-go district anywhere near the centre, I didn’t come across it. What you DO come across are a huge variety of districts, each with their own character. Head up the Ramblas away from the Port Vel through a pricey shopping district and cross the broad and busy Avenida Diagonal and get swept along the life flow that is the Gran de Gracia; here everything gets cosier and you find yourself lost in a maze of narrow one-way streets—some serenely quiet, others full of children playing and lively shops. It’s more fun to walk but it’s on three stops to Fontana on the Metro’s L3.
This is the Gracia district, still with the character of a town, although it was absorbed into the city in the 19th ©. Here are unexpected squares with fountains and cafe tables spilling round the edges where the locals hang out. There are superb fruterias with strawberries the size of hand grenades and xarxuterias with wafer-thin jamòn de serrano and even more serenely delicious jamòn iberico.
Best of all are the local restaurants that don’t bother with Spanish—let alone English—on the menu where you dive into dishes like Pa Amb Tomaquet (bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes and drizzled with oil and salt), Escudella (stew made with meat, beans, potatoes and cabbage that can arrive as three courses) and Crema Catalana (their take on créme brulée that has also spawned delicious filo pastry custard tarts quite the equal of the divine Portuguese pastel de nata).
I had made the mistake of visiting Barcelona three times without ever entering Gaudi’s masterpiece of Sagrada Familia, having been put off by the queues and satisfying myself with the impressiveness of the exterior and crowds admiring it. This trip, I corrected that mistake and was shamed it took me so long. As an admirer of medieval cathedrals with gothic masterpieces in Norwich, Canterbury, Winchester, Notre Dame and even the floating mastery that is Chartres under my belt, I was still unprepared.
To say it is gothic on LSD trivialises it. The incompleteness outside is not reflected inside; it is a poem in three dimensions, suffused with subtle light. Whereas in other cathedrals gothic columns reach up to the roof in ranked arches, this is subtlety itself; each column branches with organic unpredictability of trees and the varied stained glass windows intersperse polychromatic highlights with shade so that the fantastic space within appears almost a living thing.
So, after the best part of a week in Spain’s second city, I climbed aboard an AVE (RENFE’s high-speed train) at Sants station, looking forward to its capital. As with the airport, the station embarrasses British standards for a main terminal. The whole thing has wide roads around it, bus and taxi areas, is served by three Metro lines and its modern passenger floor space (with shops, restaurants and facilities as well as ticket offices) is double the area of Waverley—tracks, platforms and all. Of equal area below this are fourteen through tracks to which access is controlled much as at airports but with much less fuss and walking.
The journey to Madrid is painless—the same distance as London-Edinburgh in half the time as a non-stop. Madrid’s Atocha main station is even bigger than Sants; it would make some airports look cramped. But, again, taxi, Metro and bus were easy to find and I was at my apartment not far from the Plaza Mayor within 30 minutes of arriving.
Perhaps it was because the weather broke and it was a week of spring weather much as you would expect in Scotland at this time of year (chilly, rain showers, a little windy) when I had left balmy 20 deg sunshine behind but Madrid gave the impression that it was chilly and dank even when the weather was good.
Madrid suffers from the problem of having been a major city in medieval times and so the centre is cramped by modern standards. Whereas Edinburgh (and Barcelona) solved this problem by building a brand new centre away from the old one and Paris simply used Napoleonic authority to sweep the old away and build in a more grandiose style, Madrid still has the narrow streets and tall buildings of another era and feels provincial as a result.
There are modern and lively parts to it—the Puerto del Sol is surrounded by fashionable shopping and yet has no cafes and restaurants sprawling along its edge making it more human and enjoyable, as would be the case in Barcelona. And when you penetrate to the supposed heart of the city, the Plaza Mayor, it has a faintly abandoned feel to it as the shops leading up to it are tackier than those in Edinburgh’s already touristy Lawnmarket.
Certainly the weather didn’t make this supposedly main square seem cosy. But, even on a summer’s day, the sheer architectural relentlessness of the surrounding buildings is not conducive to the kind of informal, bustling cafe life I found in Barcelona. The most engaging and lively corner that I found in the city centre was the San Miguel market, which made a good fist of bringing together interesting food and drink stalls with boutiques and cafes to provide a real city-life experience to rival Boston’s Faneuil Hall or Philadelphia’s Reading Market.
Moving out from the city core, it seemed to lose what character it had. The Prado is very accessible but, other than as an imposing building, came as a disappointment. They had chosen to glue an ultra-modern extension on the rear to accommodate shop, cafe and entrance…which rather demolished any feeling of antiquity or veneration for it. And, while the collection is vast and the Spanish school well represented, there are only so many Don this-an-that in lobstershell armour you can take before the eyes glaze.
Despite the wide selection of august paintings, I was most taken by a painter new to me. Joaquin Sorolla, a contemporary with the Impressionists, made astute use of their irreverent approach to light and colour. His monumental works on display carried social and historical themes that, for me, expressed more than all the formal Velasquez portraits.
Moving further out from the city centre brought little more than intensity, such as is common in a hundred faceless cities, viz: much traffic and phalanxes of pedestrians but little by way of soul or colour. Typical was Nuevos Ministerios, a transport nexus to the north, where many government departments are housed. Eight lanes N/S intersect with six lanes and a flyover E/W above a combined RENFE and Metro station beneath. There was scant joy and certainly none of the laid-back squares of the Gracia: everybody was much too busy wanting to be somewhere else.
And that included me.