Postcards from Spain

#1 – Barcelona, or “Amigos Para Nunca”
There’s a moment in Keith Richards’ memoir when he describes driving into Spain with Anita Pallenberg: “It was February. And in Spain it was early spring. Going through England and France it was pretty chill, it was winter. We got over the Pyrenees and within half an hour already it was spring …” Ben and I took the train rather than drove, but that’s exactly how it was. Our week in Paris had been wet and cold: we spent a lot of our time fantasising about a doona suit of the future with hot water sloshing around inside. Our train left Austerlitz station at nine: we woke up the next morning just shy of the Spanish border. We passed through a long tunnel and suddenly we were in a different world of good warm sunshine and vineyards and the odd wrecked castle and the blue Mediterranean glittering away to the left. This trip has made me realise how deeply Australian I am in some ways: one of them is the way I respond to sunlight. I was purring like a cat before we even stepped off the train. I was pretty sure I was going to love Barcelona.

The place is pretty magical from a distance. We dumped our bags and made our way to Tibidabo, a mountain standing 512m over Barcelona. You take an old blue tram that trundles its way painfully up the mountain’s lower reaches, then a funicular that runs on steep diagonal rails the rest of the way. At the top there’s an old fairground and a huge church. The Temple de Sagrat Cor is a bit of a curiosity, built in two contrasting colours and styles – it’s not out of place beside the brightly-painted rides. Climbing it, though – which you’re free to do, almost to the feet of the Christ that surmounts it – you command extraordinary views of the city, lapping at the green surrounding hills like liquid trying to escape a bowl. The blue sky was shaded with the brown of smog and the sea burned like mercury. (You share the view with the saints that adorn the façade; they seem to be keeping an eye on everything.)

We moved on to Parc Güell in the late afternoon. Originally intended as a playground for the wealthy, Antoni Gaudí’s playful landscape of mosaics and wayward columns is now thrown open to everyone. The place was crawling with visitors. The crowds suited it: the park’s so busy with detail that it felt like we all had been set loose on an Easter egg hunt, to isolate our own favourite grotto or tiled reptile. Ben and I slowly climbed the hill, planes drawing straight lines of smoke above us, until we once again had a view out over Barcelona. The smog filtered the failing sun and turned the sky nectarine pink – we were a very long way from the drizzle and the close streets of Paris.

And yet, every time we tried to get close to Barcelona we were repelled. It seemed to lack a centre; to exist solely to confiscate the money of the hordes of sun-seeking tourists. It probably didn’t help that were staying on Las Ramblas, a long pedestrian mall lined with touts and street performers and crappy postcard concessions – it’s the most tourist-y part of the city. But even further afield this tone and the odd sense of emptiness persisted – I kept waiting to find the Barcelona where people lived. Everywhere else I’d been, the locals had appreciated my attempts to speak the language; here (and this might have had something to do with the relationship between Spanish and Catalan, the dialect that’s spoken as a second language in Barcelona), people tended to cut me off and address me in English, as if I was wasting their time. When people spoke English to me in Buenos Aires or in Paris it sprung from consideration and curiosity; here, it sprung from impatience. You are a tourist, it said; in Barcelona I felt labelled, condemned to a surface experience, welcome only for the money that I had to spend.

The following day we took a cable car to Montjuïc, another green hill overlooking the city. It’s home to the Fundació Joan Miró, a museum dedicated to the painter and sculptor. Miró started out painting fairly conventional landscapes, but decided in his twenties to “assassinate painting”. The museum charts this progression: you can feel the exultant freedom in his thick black line and big splotches of colour. (He stays just this side of legibility – the line usually describes a human figure, while the colour communicates something of their character.) He shares with Gaudí a sense of exuberance – of constraints thrown off – and the fact that they’re both so associated with Barcelona made me think that there must be more to the place, that I must be missing something.

We walked into the gardens behind the museum – a perfect balance between the geometry of French and the cultivated wildness of English gardens, terraces leading gently downhill with palms and gurgling fountains. I’d heard from a number of friends about petty crime in Barcelona – a couple of them had been mugged on their visits there – and as we sat on one of the terraces eating lunch we got to witness this first hand. From the trees above us we heard a woman scream, “¡Ayuda!”; two men went running in different directions, like animals bolting through the undergrowth. We couldn’t see the woman from where we were and it was impossible to tell if one man was pursuing the other or if the two were working in concert. We stayed put, but a pall had been thrown over the afternoon: it seemed now a place of concealed menace rather than one of blissful privacy. We had planned after lunch to find a sunny bench and read our books, but Ben no longer felt safe doing so and we walked back up to the road.

Of course, the most famous landmark in Barcelona is Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia, and we went to visit it the following day. I had always thought of Gaudí in terms of playfulness; here I learned that he was also profound. There’s a terrific exhibition explaining how he drew inspiration from nature: how architecture should be organic, an extension of the natural world, how he based his shapes and structures on buds and leaves and tree trunks. Applied to a church, this becomes a celebration of God’s plenitude – the building is possibly the most joyous expression of faith I’ve ever seen. Gaudí breaks rules that I wasn’t even aware of – using colour in the façade, the word Sanctus repeated in gold letters on its side, great bright baskets of fruit topping its spires. He replaces gargoyles with lizards and snails; he surrounds the Holy Family with a band of musicians on trumpet and harp. Inside, the columns rise to great round knots and then split, just like tree trunks. The building is still under construction, and all the cranes and sounds of hammering only increase your sense of standing in a living organism. It’s extraordinary.

But despite the good things we saw there, we never grew to love Barcelona. I had intended to spend a week in Madrid and then return for a second stint; now I made plans to visit Seville instead. The people remained curt and unhelpful; my mouth began to taste of smog. On our last morning there, on the way to the railway station, the city issued us a last little fuck you. Pulling up, the taxi driver turned the meter to one side and demanded double our fare. I was too disconcerted to challenge him: I handed over the money and got out stewing. It was the perfect farewell from a place that had never really welcomed us – a last contemptuous little piece of graft. Ben and I heaved a sigh of relief when the train pulled out for Madrid.

#2 – Libra City
Ben and I had been in Madrid barely an hour – we were walking down calle Mayor towards the Plaza de Oriente – when we started remarking, with a sense of relief, how much better we liked it than Barcelona. The mountain air was cool and sharp; the sun was still warm. The streets alternated grandeur – a team of bronze horses looming over the side of a building – with charming wayward narrowness. The people going about their business paid us no particular attention; they were reassuringly ordinary, with none of Barcelona’s predatory instinct for the tourist. It felt like a place where people lived.

It’s also fantastically cheap. We settled in for lunch at a little restaurant in Chueca – the walls covered in patterned tiles, matching pink flowers in the windows – and had a three-course meal for less than 10 euro. Bellies full, we wandered down to the Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge park adjacent to the city. There’s a large pond there with a small flotilla of blue rowboats for hire; I nagged Ben until he agreed to go for a ride. We drifted out, taking turns on the oars, the sound of a busker’s saxophone drifting out over the water. A huge monument to King Alfonso XII stands to one side – statues of lions keeping a lookout over the water – ideally positioned to catch the afternoon sun; the stairs were thronged with people (and some of the park’s population of feral cats). There was more charm in that simple afternoon than in the three days we spent in Barcelona.

I went back later to Buen Retiro, approaching it from another direction, and began to appreciate the grace and intelligence that had gone into its planning – qualities typical of this city. It’s an airy, intellectual sort of place – a Libra, if you wanted to give it a star sign – and its founders’ forethought results in constant small surprises. There are geometric rose gardens and families of geese and hedges forming endless patterned squares beneath the trees. There are man-made waterfalls and palm trees made of rusted iron and a beautiful Crystal Palace standing beside another pond. There are endless details, and part of their beauty is that they are tucked away unheralded. You discover them with surprise and delight.

The Parisians we’d spoken to about our plans in Spain had all preferred Madrid, praising its culture and its intellect – its airiness. Partly this is the slightly theoretical quality of a city that did not become capital by natural right (like London or Paris) but was chosen as such in the sixteenth century for its strategic advantages (it’s right in the centre of Spain; the king who chose it, Felipe II, wanted “a city fulfilling the function of a heart located in the middle of the body”). Partly it’s the relatively small role of religion; there are churches in Madrid, but they don’t dominate the landscape as they do in Barcelona and Seville. And partly it’s the bookshops and theatres and the wonderful galleries – the Prado in particular. It’s a city of the mind.

I’d heard a lot about the Prado, and Ben and I spent most of our second day there. It’s probably the most amazing art experience I’ve ever had (on a trip that’s been full of them). The collection centres on Diego Velasquez and Francisco Goya – along with Picasso, probably the greatest painters in Spanish history. A hundred years separate Velasquez and Goya, yet there are many similarities between them. Both painters to the Spanish court, they turned out royal portraits of extraordinary intimacy (and informality). Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656) relegates the King and Queen to the status of reflections in a mirror; the foreground is given over to their daughter, a strange doll-like adult-in-minature with her huge skirts, and members of the court, a maid offering the princess a drink, a dog and an impassive dwarf. Goya’s Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800) puts the Queen, rather than the King, at the centre of a composition that seems to catch the royal family in that moment of indecision before a photo when you stand about, wondering how to fit everyone into the frame.

They also shared a willingness to describe areas of experience that other painters left alone. There’s a room housing the portraits that Velasquez made of the idiots and dwarves that the royal family, at that time, kept as pets. Velasquez paints most of them front-on, in their exquisitely-made courtier’s clothes, looking out at you with incredible gravity – noticed, for once, not for their oddness or piquancy but as people. In his Black Paintings – made late in his life, after going deaf, losing his wife, and falling out of favour with the new King – Goya goes out on a visionary limb. He painted many of them directly onto the walls of his house, and walking into the room where they’re now hung I felt that I was entering into his state of mind – his alienation, his infirmity, his disdain for the crowd. There are images of evil as powerful as they are mysterious – the black goat who sits with his back to us, the awful, jolly choir of pilgrims, the two people hovering above a landscape. They radiated the same feeling of malevolence that I had from Dostoyevsky’s Devils; they left me quite shaken. It was hard to believe that this was the same artist who only a few years before had been making gorgeously rendered society portraits.

Ben had only two days in Madrid; in the days after he left I re-traced some of our steps, turning up (as in Buen Retiro) small surprises, enlarging on our too-brief experiences (venturing into the Palacio Real, which borders the Plaza Oriente), feeling a sweet strange sense of comfort in knowing that he had seen some of these things too. After three weeks together (with, at the most, a few hours apart) he left a physical impression on me. I could feel him walking beside me; I kept seeing his black tightly-belted jacket and the hair swept over his forehead, kept expecting him to poke me in the ribs. That the streets were the same only made the feeling stronger.

In this bittersweet frame of mind, I returned to the Prado; you can visit for free every day between six and eight. There was a Rubens show on that I hadn’t even noticed the first time round: the gallery was showing its entire collection of the artist’s work, the largest in the world. I thought of Rubens as the guy who looked for any excuse to get a woman’s breasts out – a sort of higher-level Norman Lindsay – and there was a quotient of saucy young maidens and boobs escaping bodices. But there were also beautiful images of co-operation – a small study of a folk dance that reminded me of my favourite painting in the world, Matisse’s Dance, or the three female Graces locked together, their concern all for each other – and a Saturn devouring his child that rivalled Goya’s for ferocity. It turned out there was more to Rubens than I realised – and this realisation was thanks to Madrid. It’s a place that stimulates; a place that surprises.