Easter crept up on me this year, because I spent the greater part of the week leading up to it doing the day job in Barcelona. I was last there in November, when the weather was very similar to how it is now (How I envy the Spanish their short, mild winters!). Long-time readers may remember that I wrote of an earlier visit, in April 2013, when I was lucky enough to be there during the St George’s Day bookshop celebrations, the inspiration for our own World Book Day.
As it happened, there were more opportunities for down time in November and so last week’s distinct lack of them may be compensated by a selection of 2015 photographs of one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities. They aren’t in any particular order, but reflect visits to Antoni Gaudí’s inspirational work at Casa Batlló,
and Palau Güell
and to the Fundació Joan Miró.
There are some pictures, too, of places I wandered around and the people and animals I saw as I went. There were cats everywhere: scrawny cats crouching in alleyways, suspicious cats craning their necks from the tiled roofs, a family of sleek, well-fed black and white cats living in a courtyard at the university. Dogs were on and off leash, living happy doggy lives; being an English pointer owner, I was delighted to find a rescued black and white pointer playing on Carmel Hill (Park Güell) with her mum.
Anyway, as I’ve said, this is just a selection, which doesn’t really need much explanation, but I hope you didn’t expect too much in the way of classic views – you can find those in the guide books! Here’s a tourist picture to finish with: woman in Park Güell.
My recent short holiday in Barcelona was inspired by a brief visit that I made to the city in October 2011, when I facilitated a two-day international librarians’ advisory group hosted by the University of Barcelona. Not only did this previous occasion help to delay having to grapple with the onset of winter for a few more days (in the last week of October, the temperature in the city was around 24 degrees celsius, just a little higher than it was last week towards the end of April), but it provided me with an opportunity to see the library of an ancient university from the inside, because the advisory group meeting concluded with our being shown some of the library’s most prized possessions.
In the 1830s, this library was given a unique privilege by the then King of Spain. He wanted to loosen the grip of the church on the country; he also saw that most of the nation’s ancient manuscripts, incunabula and early printed texts were being held in convents and monasteries. This meant that not only were they inaccessible to scholars and students unless they were also inmates of these foundations, but also, in many cases, the books were not being adequately curated. Gradually, these priceless texts were being destroyed by insects, vermin, damp and, sometimes, acts of vandalism (in the sense that those who coveted particular illustrations might remove them from the work concerned). He therefore ordered that all of these rare manuscripts and books should be given to the University of Barcelona. I imagine that there were some grim ecclesiastical mutterings at the time and I strongly suspect that not every last text was relinquished. Nevertheless, the king’s dictat has resulted in a treasure trove that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great library collections of the world. For the university, it has been a joyful trouble: the work of preservation and curation goes on to this day. The books are kept in rooms where the temperature is constant and the university has a continuous restoration programme.
Having heard about these wonderful works of art, my husband wanted to see them too, so I contacted Carmen Cambrodi, the acquisitions librarian at the university, and asked her if it would be possible for us to make a short visit during our stay. She very kindly arranged for one of her colleagues to show us some of the collection and we spent an enthralling hour in her company. She was very knowledgeable about all of the books in her care. Appropriately, we made the visit on St George’s Day, when the streets outside were full of books of modern provenance.
The first book she showed us was an illuminated manuscript dating from the fourteenth century. I have included a photograph of it here. As you will see, all the letters are impeccably formed; it is so perfect that it looks typeset. It was written on vellum, which has stood up to the test of time remarkably well. I’d like to know how many hours it took to complete. It is certainly the result of many months’ work. I wonder if the monk who crafted it with such professional care was pleased or sad when his work was done? The illustrations take your breath away.
The second book is an incunable, or a book printed before the year 1501. It is strikingly similar to the manuscript: it demonstrates clearly that the earliest printed books tried to emulate their handwritten forbears in every detail. Interesting are the gaps left for illustrated letters, which were never completed, and the stamps of the religious institution from which the book came. Finally, there was a sixteenth-century example of a botanical encyclopaedia. This book was remarkable, not only for its accurate and beautiful illustrations (the vegetable dyes used to colour them have hardly dimmed with the passage of almost five hundred years), but also because it concludes with portraits of the three men who, respectively, wrote the text, painted the illustrations and cut the engravings for the printing press. Apparently such celebration of the author and other contributors – and especially inclusion of their pictures – was very rare at this date. You can see that these aren’t stereotyped portraits, either, but real likenesses: you feel as if you would be happy to meet these characters in a tavern and listen to them discoursing sagely on the problems of printing and book illustration, or perhaps the political issues of their day. They look as if they could be fun, too.
The librarian, Mrs Neus Verger, told us that the paper that was produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for early printed books was of much better quality than that which followed in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the result that priority for conservation work often has to be given to ‘younger’ books. She made her point by showing us some holes created by insects in some of the pages of the botanical book. The insects had bored through the paper completely, but these small pinprick holes constituted the only damage: the surrounding paper was completely untouched. The insect depredations had caused no further decay.
My husband and I will treasure memories of this visit and hope that one day we shall be allowed to return in order to glimpse again these jewels from bygone ages. I’d like to record here our heartfelt thanks to Carmen Cambrodi and Mrs Neus Verger, a wonderfully erudite but very modest colleague, and to pay tribute more generally to the University of Barcelona, an oasis of calm and of serious learning set in the centre of a bustling and vibrant city.
[Text and photographs © Christina James 2013]
Happily my visit to Barcelona coincided with the celebration of St. George’s Day (on Tuesday 23rd April); ‘Sant Jordi’ is big in this city, which honours him with a much higher profile than we extend to him as our national patron saint. It was, of course, also World Book Day. I’m not sure whether it was owing to Spanish influence that the UK and the USA have chosen this date for their annual bookfest, but I am certain that the people of Catalonia got there first. In Barcelona, it is an ancient tradition to celebrate St George’s role as the patron saint of books. Booksellers bring book stalls out on to the pavements and everyone enters into the spirit of celebrating the book. Sales throughout the day are brisk; almost everyone I saw travelling on the Metro in the evening was carrying a bag of books. There is a carnival atmosphere. St George is remembered by a rose and an ear of corn, symbolising the damsel that he rescued and himself as her rescuer. Traditionally, the Spanish man of honour presented his lady with a rose accompanied by a corn stalk, to which she responded by giving him a book. Christina James, I am proud to say, received her rose (well, three, in fact!) and, for pleasure’s sake, not duty’s, gave her man a book. (For the romantics amongst you – and to the smiles of Catalan onlookers – kisses were exchanged…)
To walk the streets, roses in hand, amid the throng of local people intent on having a good time, was to share in a general joie-de-vivre and to have a precious opportunity to talk to enthusiastic lovers of books. Beautiful displays of roses and red and yellow striped ribbons and flags adorned street corners and pavements everywhere. Music filled the air and the sun shone.
On a more business-like level, I feel that there may be something for us to learn from this. It did strike me at the time that Catalan booksellers are fortunate in being able to place such confidence in the weather; I could imagine a similar event in London or Leeds being suddenly dampened (in every sense of the word) by a sharp shower. And World Book Day is a remarkable achievement, a miracle of co-operation and generosity between all the elements of the book industry and a huge army of volunteers. Nevertheless, no-one was being given anything in Barcelona: roses came at €3 each; books were sold at full price. In a sense, it was all about celebrating the skills of booksellers themselves and the pleasures that they bring… and showing that they are worth paying for. We in the UK should honour our booksellers more and they should learn to expect and accept our homage gracefully and with attitude.
Life can be raw on the mean streets of Barcelona. Down La Rambla, in spite of the police presence, teams of pickpockets roam, taking advantage of the tourists’ distraction to coax valuables out of pockets and purses from handbags. ‘Three-cup-where’s-the-ball?’ hoodwinks naïve player and unwitting audience alike (not all are audience). Along the pavements, with heads and shoulders bent into four-wheeled municipal refuse bins, scavengers of everything from metal to cardboard sift and sort the unwanted detritus of urban life and load it into supermarket trolleys, selling it on later at street corners where, next level up, men with vans pay only low denominations in return. Beggars with appealing canine companions or a pair of crutches play to the emotions of passers-by. Buskers in teams work the subway trains, as does the ‘poet’ with his single learned verse. Tuneless extroverts invade bars and restaurants to serenade diners, prodding shoulders with a nudge and placing an empty bowl on the table. The homeless sleep in parks.
A separate economy is operating beneath the tourist world and it is hard-bitten and single-minded; it has its own hierarchy and its own rules. Though the casual observer may see nothing much of it, careful scrutiny of just a small portion of a street or a tube station unveils the surreptitious transfer of illicit packages, information or cash; eyes that are everywhere and nowhere, looking for gain or Guardia with equal determination. There is a quality in shiftiness that singles out its owner from the rest of the urban swirl and it’s always interesting to use the invisibility of a café vantage point to sift out bad from good. Crowds down the ages have been the haven of criminals, cutpurses and vagabonds, the noise and crush and apparently innocent jostle enabling skilful sleight of hand and surreptitious, instant disappearance.
Too much mistrust springing from too much reading of crime? Not so: watch the hands and eyes and see for yourself. It’s a dog-eat-dog dogfight on the streets.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Barcelona, its lovely Catalan people and its edge. I’m just playing with reality…
As someone who has written at some length about birds – the herons and curlews of Lincolnshire; the pheasants that go in fear of their lives during the winter months in the Pennine village in which I live – I’ve been very interested in the bird life of Barcelona. Most of the birds here are exactly what you would expect to find in a major city with lots of parks which is also a Mediterranean sea-port. I’ve seen gulls and feral pigeons, sparrows and ducks a-plenty; swifts swirling around the buildings: in other words, the same birds that I should encounter in similar habitats in England at appropriate times of year. I have, however, been amazed that the many palm trees of Barcelona are filled, not with the melodious song of the blackbird and song-thrush, but with the raucous cry of the parakeet. These piratical birds swoop screeching down upon the crusts and pizza-ends discarded by tourists and, despite their inferior size, give the pigeons a fairly vicious dusting down if they try to put up a fight. They’re nothing but semi-tropical thugs, really, but I can’t help feeling a sneaking admiration for them, even so. It’s not just that they live by their wits, but also because they do it in such a brazen way. I suppose that in one sense they have no option: gorgeous in luminous lime green, they can hardly make their livelihoods by stealth. There is something entertaining about the fact that they carry their finds up to a safe branch and, clutching the morsel in one foot, nibble delicately at it like over-dressed and picky diners on the terrasses beneath them.
As it has been some time since I posted about a grand sculptural project, I have decided to take advantage of a current opportunity to rectify matters. I’m enjoying a brief respite from the pressures of work and find myself in Barcelona, where today I have visited the remarkable Casa Milà, better known perhaps as La Pedrera, the apartment building designed by Antoni Gaudí and finished in 1910.
For someone who spends a great deal of time reading and thinking about the dark side of life, walking into this magnificent architectural accomplishment is a spirit-lifting contrast like the gladdening of the heart that comes with the warmth of the sun after one of the bleakest winters I have ever known. And Barcelona is blissfully warm, too, its trees already covered in fresh green leaves and its beaches full of sunbathers.
Those of my readers who have toured La Pedrera will, I hope, indulge my hugely enthusiastic response to Gaudí’s work here. All ripples and curves and fanciful challenges to the dismal straight line, the building is, in fact, a temple to the harmony of art and practical purpose. Its roof, a miraculous sculptural garden of delights, turns chimneys, stairways, ventilation ducts and water-management into elegant figures and organic forms, rising and falling above the exquisite catenary arches of the loft beneath. Gaudí designed this latter to be insulation for the apartments from both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. Following the loft galleries around the two internal courtyards (which, lower down, allow natural light to enter the rooms), has the feeling of walking around the caves of some grand champagne house, though windows at intervals permit light and air to enter.
The apartments themselves, one level of which is open as a museum to visitors, are still occupied by private families and various businesses, in keeping with the original intention. I could live here! Original parquet and marble flooring, completely flexible space (the pillar and steel beam structure means that none of the internal walls is load-bearing) and an almost complete absence of four-square normality, together with calm natural lighting, all inspire a sense of peace and joy. I do not exaggerate.
The views from the roof are spectacular panoramas over Barcelona, to the hills and to the sea; those from the windows are down to either the cool interior courtyards or along the bustling streets outside. Balconies, with their hallmark black and scrolled wrought iron balustrades, encourage a desire to watch the world go by below.
I spent some happy hours there today, leaving with a lightened heart and the strong sense of well-being that comes from exposure to something incredibly beautiful and superbly designed. La Pedrera is a marvel.