The Adventures of DoBell and Pyama

My Photo
Location: Minneapolis, MN

Dempsey is a Golden Retriever puppy who is in training to become a Helping Paws service dog for an individual with a physical disability. He lives with his parents Doreen and Paul, and Bailey the cat. None has ever trained a puppy before. These are their adventures. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the blog author. The contents of this blog have not been reviewed or approved by Helping Paws, Inc.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A pilgrimage to Montserrat

On our last day in Barcelona, we took a day trip to Montserrat, a major pilgrimage site a few miles north of the city.

Our first view of Montserrat (“serrated mountain”) from the train was spectacular. The mountain is dotted with huge boulders, which looked from a distance like giant shards of ice, glinting in the early morning sun. It reminded me of the planet Krypton.

The extraterrestrial imagery is appropriate, because in the 8th century, Montserrat was the site of a UFO sighting. That’s right. One night, two shepherd boys saw a bright white light, accompanied by beautiful music, descend from the heavens and land on the mountain. When the authorities went to investigate the next day, they found, not Superman, but a small black Madonna. When they tried moving the statue, they found it impossible, and so a small shrine was built around it, and pilgrims from all over Spain came to visit.

In subsequent years, the authorities were able to move the statue – it’s now in the cathedral at Montserrat – and evidence has emerged indicating that the statue dates from the 12th century, not the 8th, though I suppose having something from the future appear in the past only makes it more of a miracle.

Even today, the black Madonna is an object of veneration. There’s an aerial tramway (the steepest in Europe) and a funicular to the top of the mountain, where there’s a gift shop, cafeteria, hotel, convenience store, museum, and ample tour bus parking. There’s also the monastery and cathedral.

Inside the cathedral, we saw the famous Catholic boys choir perform – barely. It was packed, and we had to stand near the exit, way in the back. There was also a long line to see the black Madonna up close. (Since it was freezing cold outside, we passed.)

But despite the crowds and the incessant clanging of filthy lucre, Montserrat remains beautiful. The inside of the cathedral has beautiful, ornate iron chandeliers. Near the monastery, there's an altar in a small cave filled with multicolored votive candles. The path to the original shrine is lined with sculptures, including one by Gaudi. And there were funiculars to other parts of the mountain, with hiking trails, abandoned hermitages, and breathtaking vistas. Since it was so cold, Doreen and I really enjoyed riding the funiculars. They’re insanely steep, and from the glass-roofed cars, we were able to enjoy some spectacular scenery.

As beautiful as Montserrat is, it also struck me as a bit sad. I took a quick hike to one of the abandoned hermitages, and it was totally trashed: graffiti on the walls, crumbling staircases, piles of trash and broken appliances in the rooms. And in the shrine where the Madonna first appeared, pilgrims have left a bunch of offerings. Whether they’re an expression of thanks or grief isn’t clear. I saw cracked motorcycle helmets, a seriously twisted wheel from a Renault, a wedding dress, and a communion dress dated 1 Abr 1990 – 15 Jul 2004. I was hoping there might be a guest book or something, but I didn’t see any, so the offerings remain a mystery. I hope they were happy endings.

Monday, December 05, 2005

An exciting new sight?

Because we were using an older guidebook, we missed one of the most striking new sights in Barcelona. We spotted the Torre Agbar from the top of Montjuic, and I remember thinking it looked a lot like Norman Foster's Swiss Re building in London, albeit more, um, "Freudian."

As it turns out, there is only one Norman Foster structure in Barcelona: the dull Torre de Communicació de Collserola, which, unfortunately, you can see from everywhere. No, the Torre Agbar was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, probably best known for the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Apparently, what's more impressive about this building is not its shape (or even its size), but the skin -- there's multicolored glass, and at night, there are over 4,000 blue, pink and red lights on the façade. It's supposed to be rather pretty, though sadly we didn't see it. Nouvel has said that the Torre Agbar was influenced by Gaudi and Montserrat. A British critic says this building improves on the Swiss Re tower.

I'm not sure. I think the Swiss Re building is more elegant and soaring. But seeing the Torre Agbar only from the top of mountain isn't fair. Next time we're in Barcelona, we'll check it out more carefully. And of course we need to go to London, too.

More on Montserrat shortly. Feeling very lazy today.

The Torre Agbar, far away in the distance, from Montjuic. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 02, 2005

A cute little model of Montserrat. It could use a model train, however. Posted by Picasa

View from the cable car to the top of Montserrat. Posted by Picasa

View of the monastery. Posted by Picasa

View of the courtyard. Posted by Picasa

Cathedral interior.  Posted by Picasa

A little hermitage, I think.  Posted by Picasa

View of monastery below. Posted by Picasa

The cave of the black virgin. Posted by Picasa

An altar built into the side of the mountain. Posted by Picasa

Barcelona recap

Doreen and I are back from Barcelona now. It was a great trip, albeit a bit cold. I really liked Barcelona. It seemed very different from the other parts of Spain I’ve visited, more like Paris on the Mediterranean. Rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of what we did – which would consist primarily of running for trains and getting lost in the narrow streets – we’ll just give you the highlights of what we saw.

La Rambla
Our first full day in Barcelona began with a stroll up the famous La Rambla. It seems to be the Catalan equivalent of the Champs Elysees, though a little more bustling. If you were to measure in actual damage to your wallet – euros per square foot – I guess the Champs Elysees is a little pricier, though you could easily go wild shopping La Rambla. The three wise guys in the Lladro nativity set would set you back €4,200, frankincense and myrrh sold separately.

Much cheaper on La Rambla are the stalls that sell flowers and small pets. At least, I think they’re supposed to be small pets, if this is anything like the flower and bird market in Paris near Notre Dame. Why you would have a pet turkey or a pet chicken, however, is beyond me.

La Boqueria
Near the flower stalls is La Boqueria, an open-air market that sells all sorts of meats and produce, including (dead) chickens and turkeys. This was also the only place in Barcelona where we saw the jamón iberico, the hanging pig legs that seem ubiquitous elsewhere in Spain.

Sitges is a little beach resort outside Barcelona. It’s supposed to be a famous gay beach, packed in the summertime. When we arrived – just in time for the afternoon siesta, as we always seemed to do – the town was dead. We had lunch al fresco, just a few feet from the water.

We did not see any homosexuals, though I think we saw some heterosexuals. Near one of the beaches, a couple of municipal sanitation workers were taking a siesta under a palm tree. Shortly afterwards, a group of teenage girls started wading, chest-high, in the water. Their squeals of laughter woke up the napping municipal sanitation workers, who spent the rest of their siesta watching the girls frolicking in their wet t-shirts.

Casa Battlo
This house, designed by Gaudi, is on the mansana de discordia, or “block of discord.” The block got its name from the game of one-upmanship wealthy Barcelonans played in the late 1800s. Each new building was more opulent and ornate than the last, and probably the gaudiest is this house by Gaudi. At night especially, Casa Battlo looks scary (see photo below), because the façade is an allegory of St. Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia.

St. Jordi is better known as St. George, slayer of an evil-doing dragon – hence the bone-shaped columns and the skull-like balconies, which represent the dragon’s victims. Personally, the balconies reminded me of the Sleestak from the campy Kroftt series “Land of the Lost.”

The other interesting thing about St. Jordi, which we didn’t get to experience, is St. Jordi’s Day. Celebrated on April 23, St. Jordi’s Day is a day when men buy their sweethearts red roses, and women buy their sweethearts… books. Apparently this is because the book lobby in Barcelona is more powerful than the greeting card lobby.

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia (the sacred family) is a massive cathedral that is supposed to be Gaudi’s masterpiece – when it’s completed. Construction began in 1882, and is projected to be finished around 2030. I suppose this is relatively quick. Notre Dame in Paris, for example, took over 200 years to complete, which is why it was started in the Romanesque style and finished in the Gothic style.

At any rate, there are no such worries for La Sagrada Familia, which seems to be hewing quite closely to Gaudi’s vision. (An exception is the southern façade, whose crisp art deco style is the exact opposite of Gaudi’s florid designs.) It was impressive to see all the cranes and scaffolding and to actually witness a great cathedral under construction. It’s either a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a lifetime experience.

Also interesting was Gaudi’s “hanging model” of the cathedral. Modern architects really heavily on computers – Frank Gehry has said that his designs would be impossible without computers – but Gaudi began designing La Sagrada Familia long before computers were invented.

Because it was difficult to calculate numerically the stresses various weights would put on the structure, Gaudi created a small scale model, with strings and sacks of weights. Imagine a string hanging between two points. The shape the string forms is called a catenary. By varying the weight on the string, you can change the shape of the catenary. Gaudi’s insight was that an inverted catenary is an arch. By varying the weights on the strings, Gaudi could model the shape of the arch needed to support a certain weight. There’s a picture of the hanging model below. If you look at it upside down (and use your imagination) you can see La Sagrada Familia.

Palau de la Música Catalan
The Palau de Musica Catalan has a spectacular stained glass skylight, so I decided that this would be the one building that we toured inside, instead of Gaudi’s Perdera. This was a mistake.

The tour cost €8, and 20 minutes of the 50-minute tour was devoted to a cheesy “audio-visual” presentation full of vapid artsy-fartsy pronouncements and a skimpy, uninformative history of fin de siècle Barcelona. A better deal for next time, I think, would be to see a concert here.

Picasso Museum
I admit it: I’m not a Picasso fan. I know this is like saying you don’t like the Beatles, but that’s how it is. But since Picasso grew up in Barcelona, and the Picasso Museum is supposed to be a “must-see” sight, I decided to give it a chance. Since the museum is housed in a string of grand old mansions, I thought the architecture might at least be interesting.

It wasn’t. Unlike the Picasso Museum in Paris, the interiors were redone so much that none of the character of the buildings remained. It looked like a gallery space in any old museum.

I didn’t find the art that interesting, either. Young Pablo was clearly talented, but much of the work on display looks like good art-student work: copies of old masters, experimentations with new styles, nude studies. It was interesting, at least, to see that nude models haven’t changed much over the years: flabby, balding, middle-aged men. Apparently it has always cost too much to hire a real babe to pose nude for art students.

Also amusing was a painting Picasso made on his first trip to Paris, when he was 19. It’s a portrait of a dour ballerina, and it looks like a cross between a Renoir (the brushwork), a Degas (the subject), and a Kahlo (the model). It sure wasn’t pretty.

Casa de les Punxes
One of the benefits of having an unlimited ride ticket is that you can hop on a bus and ride through the city willy-nilly when your feet are tired. Doreen and I did this and discovered Casa de les Punxes (see picture below), a building by Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. We thought it looked like a cross between Gothic and modernisme, though one commentator said it looks like a Loire Valley chateau. Another said it has Nordic influences, though we didn’t see anything that looked like Ikea. Maybe on the inside.

Barcelona has many beautiful plazas where you can sit on a bench and watch the world go by. The biggest plaza we saw was Plaça Catalunya, near the top of La Rambla. The most notable feature in this plaza is the huge population of pigeons. You can easily imagine yourself in a scene from The Birds. Or, if you’re less morbid, you can hold out a piece of bread and have a bunch of birds land on you. Our friend Rohit did this on his trip to Barcelona, but since we didn’t pack many extra clothes, we decided not to.

Another interesting plaza is Plaça de Jaume, where a bunch of government buildings are clustered. The most interesting thing we found about this plaza was the surfeit of cops. For blocks leading up to the plaza, there were cops everywhere, and in the plaza itself, there were the regular policeman with guns, as well as some other policemen with black berets and even bigger guns. I don’t know if it’s always like this; maybe it was just extra security for the EU summit.

Finally, there was Plaça Reial, which looks like what you’d imagine a Spanish plaza would look like, complete with palm trees. Probably the most notable thing here were the streetlights, designed by a young Gaudi. (See photo below.)

Montserrat, La Sardana, Basque Pinxhos….
To be continued tomorrow.