Visit: 29th March 2015
This spring Natalie and I have been fortunate enough to have lots of mini-trips coming one after the other. At the end of March we returned to Barcelona for just one night, after I saw an artichoke festival advertised for Sunday 29th March in a western suburb of the city named St Boi. We took a lunchtime flight out of Stansted to Barcelona’s El Prat Airport (much closer in than the distant but charming Girona we had stayed in back in November). We landed at 4pm, giving us just enough time to finish off the Gaudí WHS with a visit to the Casa Mila and Casa Vicens. We never managed to visit the faraway Crypt at Colonia Güell, but I’m calling this one finished with six of the seven subcomponents done. After sampling some French cheese and Spanish pears in our rather inconveniently-located hotel we ate a good meal of tapas at a nearby restaurant. The next morning we were booked on a tour of the first of two subcomponents that make up this World Heritage Site: the Palau de la Música Catalana. The link between this music hall and the other site – a hospital in the northeast of the city – is that they were both designed by the Catalan Modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. His work is often mistaken for that of his more famous Catalan contemporary Antoni Gaudí – and I can understand why – but it is important to remember him as his own man. There are only two ways you can get into the music hall – either buy a ticket to see a concert there or go on a guided tour. We opted for the latter option; at €18 it is cheaper than Gaudí’s Casa Mila and more interesting if you have already visited another of Gaudí’s buildings, such as the Casa Battló. There were only about 20 people on our tour, most of whom you can see in the vertical panorama above. The music hall was built between 1905 and 1908 on a hemmed-in plot of land that used to house a church. Being part of the Art Nouveau movement, the design of the building called for lots of ornamentation, curves, colour and light – properties which endear them to visitors today but which were not always in fashion. The statues of 18 muses, some of which you can see on the stage behind me, were used during the 1920s and 30s as mere coat hooks for musicians as they practiced for performances at more prestigious venues. Nowadays the music hall is very much back in favour, and plays host to over 300 concerts a year. Clearly the best time to visit must be a matinee performance, when you can benefit from the vast amount of natural light that floods into the hall through the side and rear windows and of course the magnificent skylight, nicknamed ‘the Glow worm’. Above you can clearly see the dramatic effect as it dips down into the auditorium, maximising the amount of light that could be garnered in the decidedly second-rate plot of land the architect had to work with. There is one obvious downside of having so much glass in a music hall, and that is the impact on the building’s acoustics. When it was fully occupied, the body mass of the 2,200 people sitting in the auditorium absorbed enough of the sound that resonated off the glass that no problems occurred. The hall is said to be particularly suited to the appreciation of higher-pitched instruments, such as the violin and the flute. However on nights that were not fully booked there would be a noticeably suboptimal acoustic environment. The Palau eventually abrogated this problem in the 1980s when they raised funds to install sound dampening surfaces on the underside of every seat in the house. Now, when a seat is unoccupied it is flipped up and the underside absorbs as much sound as a human body would if the seat were occupied, thus ensuring perfect acoustics at every performance. After an engrossing tour of the music hall we set off on the Metro for the second site of the day – the Hospital de Sant Pau. There is still a very modern working hospital here, which we accidentally went into before being directed round the corner to the Modernist original. The hospital, whose main building is shown in the title photo, has the feel of a small city. It consisted of something like 27 separate buildings, connected by underground service tunnels. It was built between 1902 and 1930 and takes up a large square space in which its own internal grid layout is at a striking 45° angle to the rest of Barcelona’s city streets. You can see plenty of Art Nouveau flourishes in the brightly coloured and ornate tiles, domes and mosaics that Domènech i Montaner used. It really is a pleasant place to be – in fact Natalie as much as said she would deliberately injure herself in order to be treated there, were it still a working hospital. In fact that was until recently quite feasible, since it was only withdrawn from service in 2009 – one year after being inscribed as a World Heritage Site along with the music hall. It was closed for renovation until 2014, making this one of the first opportunities the tourist has had to walk around. If you are wondering how the artichoke festival was, I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. It was so crowded, and the prices so low, that there were far more people than the stalls could handle – meaning massive queues for everything. When we did get some food I wasn’t overawed with the flavours (one egregious example was a cheese-stuffed artichoke on a stick covered in candy floss!). It turns out that I like artichokes best the simplest way you can buy them – floating in a jar of olive oil from a supermarket. Nevertheless, we had a nice little trip and were glad to have been able to finish off the unfinished business with Gaudí as well as seeing a second dimension to Catalan Modernism and thereby completing the WHSs of Barcelona.