See, hear, smell, taste, touch: Barcelona is a destination to play to all your senses. But since we're a classical music website, let’s start with the city’s three big music venues: two of them historic, one of them brand new. And where better to start than a place where music, art and architecture meet and which exemplifies the Barcelona mind set: the Palau de la Música, with its spectacular decor.
With the bulk of royal and aristocratic patronage focused further south, the Barcelona bourgeoisie went for some self-help, founding a choir – the Orfeó Català – for the improvement of the citizens.
The biggest and newest music complex is L’Auditori, which boasts three concert halls plus a theatre built for music/drama crossover. The Sala Pau Casals is the city’s biggest venue for large orchestral concerts: elegantly finished in light wood, it seats 2,200. It’s home to the OBC (Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya) and also hosts major visiting orchestras. The smaller halls – the Sala Oriol Martorell and the Sala Alicia de Larrocha – host a substantial chamber music season which features top international performers as well as local talent. In contrast to the UK and US scene, the chamber music concerts sell out, and the audience is predominantly young, partly due, perhaps, to the attitude of the Conservatori, which strongly promotes teachers and pupils playing together and listening to each other perform.
The Auditori complex also has its own music school, ESMUC, next door to the Museu de la Música, which displays an extensive collection of musical instruments through the ages. As you might expect, in Spain, the guitar collection is particularly fine, but there instruments of many types from all continents, as well as such historical oddities as a giraffe piano and a “claviorgue”, a portable instrument which permits the simultaneous playing of organ and harpsichord keyboards. A surprising number of their instruments are playable; they are in particular demand for historically informed performances and recordings.
Another typical example of Barcelona's can-do attitude is its main opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu: rather than being funded by royalty, this was originally founded by Barcelona's music conservatory for its students and funded by local business people as a private venture, which it remained until it became public in the aftermath of the 1994 fire which gutted the building. The theatre was rebuilt with modern technology but the original styling. At 2,294 seats, it is the biggest traditional horseshoe-shaped opera house in Europe, with five tiers of seating above the stalls. The Liceu is on the circuit of the top European houses, with the 2016-7 season featuring productions by Patrice Chereau, Laurent Pelly, Kasper Holten and others of similar renown, not to mention Barcelona-born Àlex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus fame).
The Palau de la Música, L’Auditori and the Liceu are members of Barcelona Obertura, an initiative in which cultural institutions in the city collaborate to promote clusters of events (one such initiative formed the trip which spawned this article, with concerts by Leonidas Kavakos and Gergiev and the Mariinsky as well as Piotr Beczała in Werther). It’s an inventive way of promoting the city’s culture, making it easy for visitors from abroad to plan a trip that will take in some of the best the city has to offer.
Daytime tours of the Liceu can include a visit to one of the building's hidden treasures: a set of paintings by modernist Ramon Casas, one of Catalonia's great painters, depicting a fascinating series of women in ways that were shocking for his time: one woman drives a car, another awaits her lover unchaperoned in a café, with a glass of wine. In fact, these do not belong to the opera house: they are found in the rotunda of the Cercle del Liceu, the private club founded in 1847 by the theatre's original patrons and still running today. The Cercle was famously Wagner-mad, putting on the first Parsifal outside Bayreuth the moment the copyright expired (11pm Spanish time on 31st December 1913 – Spain and Germany were in different time zones then); one of the hallways is adorned by a fine quartet of stained glass panels depicting the Ring Cycle.
Casas doesn't have anything like the international fame that he deserves. The Barcelona-born artist who does command international attention is Joan Miró. A visit to the city isn't complete without a trip to the Fundació Joan Miró, located high on the hill of Montjuic, with breathtaking views of the city.
What makes a visit to the Fundació Joan Miró so compelling is that you gain a complete understanding of the way Miró's work progressed, from his early days of “detaillism” followed by the growing abstraction in his work in his quest to make artistic sense of the violence around him. Recurrent Miró motifs like constellations, ladders and birds are used to depict people's struggles to break free; his 1968 triptych Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse I, II, III provides space for meditation, a gigantic wool tapestry (over seven metres high, made with Josep Royo) symbolises Mother Earth. Even those most chary of conceptual art are likely to be won over by the obvious spirituality of the man.
Pablo Picasso was not born in Barcelona, but lived in the city for a substantial part of his early life. A visit to the Museu Picasso is a fascinating way to understand his development as an artist: it's not home to a large array of his later, famous works, but it gives you a superbly vivid view of his learning process as he investigated a dozen styles before deciding which elements to make his own. It's particularly awe-inspiring to see the prodigious talent already on display in his early teens, with superb draftsmanship and a distinctive personal style.
The work of architect Antoni Gaudí, public and private, pervades Barcelona. There are many examples of his private buildings, but we focused on one particular apartment building: the Casa Batlló, set in Barcelona's "Golden Quadrant", where the modernist movement exploded, fuelled by the money of the rich families of Barcelona at the start of the 20th century. The building brims with Gaudi's craftsmanship and engineering innovation, all within the context of his desire to bring nature into his designs: ventilation slats are inspired by fish gills, internal arches might be a the backbone of some giant reptile, the roof tiles could be fish or dragon scales, plant motifs abound. Gaudi was a perfectionist, an artist in forms from stained glass, to metal work, mosaic and many more as well as an engineer in ventilation details as much as structures: the Casa Batlló shows off his work in many disciplines.
Gaudí's magnum opus is a very public one: the neo-Gothic Sagrada Familia Basilica. It's unfinished – as Gaudí knew it would be even when he joined the project in 1883, a year after it commenced. Currently, completion is planned to be just in time for his centenary in 2026; it's a tall order, with 18 spires still to be completed, but the entrance money from four million visitors each year should provide the requisite funding.
The building is extraordinary, both inside and out. The opposing outside faces represent the Nativity and the Passion, opposing each other in style as much as in location: the Nativity façade brings tidings of comfort and joy, full of soft curves, while the Passion façade is angular, brutal, terrifying. Giant towers, using Gaudí's favoured catenary arch, will eventually represent each of Jesus, Mary, the four Evangelists and twelve Disciples. Inside, the stained glass on the Nativity side is of cool blues and greens, filtering the morning sun; the glass on the Passion side is red and orange, enhanced further once the sun starts to set. Organ pipes will be sited on all four sides, while a high gallery will surround worshippers with an 800-strong choir (21st-century safety rules have required a reduction from the original plan of 1,500.)
Gaudí's obsessive attention to detail is everywhere, from the bunches of fruit on the rooftops to the stone nativity donkey, modelled on a live animal: it took Gaudí weeks to identify a suitably ancient and frail specimen.
Barcelona also has no shortage of original Gothic architecture. The main Cathedral of the Holy Cross is in a highly decorated style, but my personal favourite is the early gothic Santa Maria del Mar, which has characteristic Gothic high vaulting but is devoid of the elaborate decoration, making for a peaceful, welcoming interior. Even more of an oasis of calm is the tiny romanesque monastery of Sant Pau del Camp, in the Raval district close to the Conservatori, a wonderful place for quiet meditation.
After all that sightseeing, you'll be hungry – but not for long: Barcelona is a city that's serious about its food. Ferran Adrià, the Catalan gastronomic genius who revolutionised high end cookery, closed his restaurant elBulli in 2011, but a generation of chefs that he trained now populate Barcelona's top restaurants. At the other end of the economic scale, tapas bars provide superior quality for a couple of Euros an item: try out the “Pintxas” – all manner of foods stuck into a slice of crusty bread with a giant toothpick: the bill is computed by your waiter counting toothpicks at the end of your meal. Sea food is often superb, and the Spanish are the only nation who (arguably) obsess over cured ham even more than the Italians. Be sure to catch the overwhelming smells and tastes in La Boqueria market, a stone's throw away from the Liceu, and get some Spanish delicacies to pack in your luggage for the way home.
The article and David’s trip were sponsored by Barcelona Obertura (barcelonaobertura.com).