If you read my Norway travelogue, you may recall that my wife Janet is a professor and that this year she’s on sabbatical, which means that she’s been free to accept invitations to give papers at conferences around the world. That’s why we were in Norway, because the conference was in Oslo. I’m the lucky “plus one,” and in October as such I accompanied Janet to Spain. This time the conference was in Barcelona.
In planning the trip we tried to balance the distance factor—we didn’t want to go 8,000 miles for only a few days—with the “haven’t we been vacationing a lot lately” factor and not use the invitation to Barcelona as an excuse for another long vacation. We settled on nine days, which would give us about seven days in Spain after netting out the travel time. We flew over Monday night, Oct. 23, arriving Tuesday afternoon, and returned Wednesday morning, Nov. 1.
October 2017 was exciting in Barcelona. No kidding. A couple of weeks before we arrived the Catalan government had defied the Spanish government and conducted an election on whether to declare independence. Ninety percent of the votes were “Sí,” but only 43% of voters voted.
The no-shows and polls showed a divided populace, but nonetheless, and while we were there, the Catalan parliament voted for independence. This triggered the government in Madrid to invoke Article 155 of their constitution and take over the regional government. The government threatened the Catalan leaders with prosecution for treason, and as we were leaving Spain Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan leader, had fled for Belgium, saying he would not return unless he believed he would get a fair trial.
If the Catalan crisis provided the current events context for our trip, the historical context was provided by George Orwell’s chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which I had begun reading before I’d left Santa Monica and finished in Barcelona. Orwell described a violent and desperate time. Today Barcelona is cosmopolitan, prosperous and peaceful. It’s everyone’s favorite city, inundated by eight million tourists a year. It is rather different from the city Orwell chronicled, but as usual when you read Orwell, every word seemed relevant.
Fortunately, we had two other, very-much-alive, sources for what had been going on in Barcelona. Two friends from Santa Monica, Mike and Lou, had spent most of the previous month there in a long and long overdue vacation. They hadn’t quite gone native, but they had been there during the voting and had been eyewitnesses to the attempts of the national government to stop the vote. We met Mike and Lou for dinner the night we arrived (Tues., Oct. 23). We were staying in a hotel near the university (where Janet’s conference would take place) on the Ronda Sant Antoni. This was near where Mike and Lou were staying, and they chose a great nearby place for dinner: the Moritz brewery. Moritz is a Barcelona brewer that began brewing in a brewery on Ronda Sant Antoni in the mid-19th century. In recent years they hired architect Jean Nouvel to turn the upper floors of the brewery into a bistro, while keeping the brewing going downstairs. We had a great meal of fried fish and draft beer (brewed on the premises).
The next day, Wednesday, would be Janet’s only day of tourism in Barcelona before the conference began on Thursday. We’d made plans to do two things: visit Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia in the morning and the Picasso Museum in the afternoon.
We’d last been in Barcelona in 2016, and missed going inside La Sagrada because we hadn’t known enough to buy a ticket in advance. We’d been there in 2008, and gone up in the towers, but at that time the nave had not been completed and wasn’t open to the public. This time we made sure to get tickets in advance (which is easily done on-line).
La Sagrada is not a cathedral, but it’s cathedral sized. The interior is beautiful, even better conceived (IMO) than the outside. The metaphor inside is of a forest, with “trunks” of trees holding up a ceiling of branches. Colored stone is used to great effect, as are the colored windows. In the center, there are four massive but elegant pillars, one for each of the evangelists, rising above the altar. These pillars, it’s hard to believe, will support the tallest of Gaudí’s 18 towers—the “Jesus” tower that will rise 560 feet. Here are some pictures.
All four sides of the church are now nearly completed. My reaction to them is that I hope the new stone that the architects are using will weather as well as the old stone. Otherwise, the exterior is going to look a lot like a Disneyland version of a church.
After La Sagrada, we made our way to the Picasso Museum by way of the Metro. The museum is in the medieval part of town, the Barri Gòtic, and on the way we stopped in a little bar for a couple of tapas. I don’t have any pictures from the museum, because they don’t allow photographs, but just as everyone loves Barcelona, everyone loves Picasso, and the young Picasso is particularly endearing. The museum has mostly work from when he was young and living in Barcelona and then from when he was old (notably his paintings based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas and ceramics). In both cases, young and old Picasso, you have to say to yourself, “Wow, I would like to have known this guy.”
The next day (Thurs., Oct. 26 if you’re keeping track) I was on my own as Janet had her conference to go to. (One note on that: when Janet and her colleagues arrived at the university for the conference, there was a student demonstration going on about the independence issue; that was as close as either of us came to any demonstrations for or against independence.) I headed straight up to Gaudí’s Park Güell. As with La Sagrada, to enter the “monumental zone” of the park one now needs a ticket, and my ticket was for 10:00. I decided to go earlier so that I could start at the top of the park and work my way down to the monuments. This entails taking the Metro to the Vallcarca stop and then walking up and up many stairway-streets to get to park entrances high above the city. The rewards are great views. Here are two pix: the color is from my iPhone, and the black and white one is from my 35mm camera. In both you can see La Sagrada with its telltale cranes.
One reason I wanted to go to Park Güell this year was since the last time, in 2016, that I’d been in Barcelona I’d digitized negatives from pictures I’d taken from my first trip to Spain, in 1973, and I wanted to see if I could take pictures from the same angles now to compare. Here are some of the 1973 pictures and new ones from my iPhone.
A lot more people now.
From Park Güell I took a long walk, ending up at La Boqueria Market, the famous one off La Rambla. I try not to take too many food photographs, or at least I try not to show them to strangers, but food is an important part of culture, and the lunch I had at a counter in the market, of a whole grilled fish, with a glass of the local Moritz beer, says as much about Barcelona, or as much about Mediterranean culture, as a museum.
While I was in the market, the Catalan parliament was meeting, and TV screens around the market were broadcasting news reports. I saw this screen, and photographed it, because it seemed to show the big news that Puigdemont had decided to defuse the crisis by dissolving parliament and calling new elections. After all, that’s what it says. But that is not what happened. Puigdemont did not call for new elections, and the next day the parliament passed Catalonia’s declaration of independence. Then Madrid invoked Article 155, Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders fled, and the air seemed to escape from the independence balloon. At least for the present….
I then embarked on a bit of historical tourism. As I mentioned above, to prepare myself for this visit to Barcelona I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Whenever I read Orwell it always seems like he’s writing for us today. Reading about his half-year in 1937 spent first fighting fascists in the trenches in Aragon (northwest of Catalonia) and then escaping arrest by a loyalist government doing the bidding of Stalin, was strangely helpful in understanding what was going on today in Catalonia.
In January 1937 Orwell joined a militia organized by the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party. POUM had joined with the Anarchists in a proletarian revolution that had taken place in 1936, after Franco’s fascist coup and revolt, and were now part of the government and resistance against Franco. In the winter of 1937 Orwell served in the (cold and miserable) trenches, in the front opposite the fascist-held town of Huesca (more on Huesca later) until late April, when he got a leave and went to Barcelona. His wife was there, staying in the Hotel Continental on La Rambla. Orwell’s leave was ill-timed: it put him in the middle of the “May Days” of Catalonia, violence that took place in Barcelona in the first week of May 1937 between, on one side, the Spanish Republic and the Catalan government, supported by the Communist Party (allied with the Soviet Union, which was the major source of arms for the government and thus had great influence), and, on the other, the Anarchist labor unions and the anti-Stalinist Left.
This was the civil war within the Civil War that eventually doomed the Spanish Republic. While Orwell found himself on the side of, and was loyal to, the Anarchists and POUM, he recognized that the strategy of the Republic (and Communists) made more sense. Their view was that defeating Franco was the first priority, and revolution could come later. The Anarchists and POUM said revolution had to come at the same time. Unfortunately the motives of the Communists also reflected Stalin’s preoccupation with annihilating the influence of Trotsky—the Kremlin considered the POUM to be Trotskyite—and of course there was never any love lost between Communists and Anarchists. (Meanwhile, today in America’s Trump era the lessons about the Left consuming itself with doctrinal conflicts while the Right wins need to be remembered.)
During the May Days a detachment of guards from the government took over a café on La Rambla called Café Moka that was next to the POUM headquarters in the Hotel Rivoli. In turn Orwell was assigned by the POUM to take a position with a group of militiamen on the roof of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts across La Rambla from Café Moka. Orwell referred to the building by the name of a theater in its ground floor, the Poliorama. The government guards and Orwell and his fellow militiamen warily observed each other—both sides agreed that they would fire only if fired upon, and shared beers. Orwell wrote that he spent the time he was on the roof reading Penguin paperbacks.
That afternoon I couldn’t resist retracing Orwell’s steps. Everything is still there. Here are picture of the Rivoli Hotel and Café Moka, which have been remodeled:
And here’s the Poliorama theater, followed by a shot looking up at the roof where Orwell was positioned to look down on the guards in Café Moka.
Orwell also describes fire coming from an “octagonal” tower, namely the Church of Santa Maria del Pi; here’s a picture of the tower today, as it terminates a vista between two modern buildings:
The May Days conflict ultimately, if temporarily, was resolved, and Orwell returned to the front, where he was wounded seriously. (He was shot in the neck; a doctor told him that if the bullet had been one millimeter to one side, he would have died.) After recuperating in Barcelona he was released from hospital just in time for a much more serious crackdown on the Anarchists and the POUM. When he reached the lobby of the Hotel Continental to rejoin his wife, she immediately told him to vanish, and he went into hiding. For several days and nights Orwell was on the run, until with the help of the British consul he was able to get his papers in order to escape to France.
The Hotel Continental still exists, although, according to desk staff I spoke to there, it is much smaller than it was in the 30s. Here’s a picture of its entrance on La Rambla.
In the hotel lobby, there is a cabinet displaying a copy of Homage to Catalonia opened to a page where Orwell writes about the hotel.
It was wonderful to commune with Orwell, and mind-blowing to try to imagine today what La Rambla was like in such desperate times. A time when La Boqueria was not a huge tourist magnet, but simply a market where Orwell bought a hunk of cheese that kept him going for a few days.
I read that since the 1992 Olympics the number of tourists who visit Barcelona each year has grown from one million to eight million. Surely it’s a good thing that tens of millions of people move around Europe in peace today, but the stresses on cities that absorb the love are real. Here’s a poster I photographed in a neighborhood between La Rambla and the university.
That evening Janet was going out to dinner with colleagues from the conference, and I was on my own. I decided to go back to the Moritz brewery restaurant. On the menu there is a section called “The Great Brewery Classics” with “recipes from all over Europe that have become part of beer-drinking lore and legend.” The first item is “Cockerel a la Moritz with chips, an “FMB specialty” described as “Poussin roasted in a tin of Moritz. Recipe by Montse Guillén and FoodCulturalMuseum.” That sounded interesting, and somehow Catalan, and so I ordered it.
What did I get, but one of my favorites: beer can chicken!
Which made me consider the limits of localism. Catalans celebrate their culture, while in the U.S., Louisianans take credit for beer can chicken. Today aren’t we all globalized?
The next day was Friday, Oct. 27, and I had nothing scheduled except a lunch with the only two Catalans I know, Andreu and Rocio, whom I met through a friend in L.A. I was looking forward to hearing some insights from them about the political situation.
But I wasn’t meeting them until 1:30, and I spent the morning wandering around town. My path took me back to La Rambla and it was on a street just off La Rambla that I lucked into a sight to see that I should have had on my list in the first place, namely the Palau Güell. The Palau is the urban mansion that the young Antoni Gaudí designed for Eusebi Güell, the industrialist and developer who became Gaudí’s great patron. The palace was restored and opened to the public in 2011. Here is a slideshow of a few photographs from a spectacular place.
After the Palau, I rushed over to the restaurant that Andreu and Rocio had chosen, Casa Leonardo. I had told them I wanted to eat Catalan food, and they picked Casa Leonardo not only because it served traditional food, but also because it was a place where, over the decades, writers and artists had hung out. It was in a neighborhood near the port with many Islamic immigrants—many men and women in traditional Islamic clothing, and halal butchers and grocery stores on every block. I have no idea what immigrants in Barcelona think about Catalan nationalism.
Andreu and Rocio did have views about the independence question. Andreu’s family has been Catalan forever. He said he voted for Puigdemont’s party, the conservative pro-independence party. Rocio’s family only moved to Catalonia in 1940, from the Cantabrigia region on the north coast of Spain. She had not voted for a separatist party, but she said she was now ready to leave Spain after Madrid’s reaction to the referendum on independence. However, what I found most interesting was that they both said that “no one” (or, at least not people they knew) had voted for the independence parties with the expectation that they would in fact declare independence. The idea was to strengthen the position of the regional government in negotiating more autonomy. They thought that Puigdemont had overplayed his hand, and they said he had done so because of pressure from the left-wing separatist party. Catalonia was not going to become independent simply because it wanted to. Now it was all a mess.
I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the Catalans who want independence, notwithstanding that I admire them and their history. As a citizen of the U.S., I am steeped in the virtues of a federal system and somewhat constitutionally (in both senses of the word) allergic to nationalism based on ethnicity, or language, or self-defined notions of “culture.” The Mediterranean cultures seem similar to me; although as a blundering American I surely miss the subtleties. I don’t believe the world needs to have more countries.
However, when I got back home I did some reading that put the Catalan case in perspective. I hadn’t seen anything about this in the U.S. press (not that I can claim to have followed the story exhaustively), but from my new reading I learned that in 2006 the Catalans had negotiated broader autonomy with the socialist government then in power in Madrid. But in 2010 the Supreme Court of Spain invalidated much of the deal. Now the conservatives are in power in Madrid, and they don’t want to make a new deal that would give the Catalans more autonomy and pass muster constitutionally. If I were a Catalan, I’d be frustrated, too.
The next morning, Saturday the 28th, Janet and I picked up a rental car and started a drive across northern Spain. We had four more days in Spain, and had made plans to meet friends of ours in Bilbao. This was one of those serendipitous things, where we found out after we’d made our travel plans, but didn’t know what we were going to do with those four days, that these friends would also be in Spain. Not only that, but these friends were Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, two of the best and most knowledgeable urbanists and architects in, dare I say it, the world. I expected not only to have a lot of fun, but also to learn a lot about the cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián, where we’d be spending time with them.
Our route across the foothills of the Pyrenees also allowed for more George Orwell memorializing. In the winter of 1937 Orwell was in a POUM militia unit in the trenches opposite the town of Huesca, which the fascists held. The slogan of the Republic was, “tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca;” Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, ruefully expresses the hope that someday he’ll have coffee in Huesca.
As it happened, our visit to Huesca was something of a modern touristic disaster. In our car we followed Google Maps directions to the town’s cathedral located way up in the medieval center of the town, which turned out to be a monumental mistake, since there is no parking there and naturally we were ascending by way of narrow and twisting medieval streets. We kept going and descended more medieval streets to a level that must have been the 19th century expansion of the town, complete with a long plaza, where we found a place to park (which turned out to be a mistake, because I got a parking ticket for reasons I could not figure out). There we had lunch, and yes, there I had a coffee in Huesca.
From Huesca we drove to Bilbao. There we were going to meet Stefanos for a special experience: attending a soccer game at San Mames, Bilbao’s new, urban-core-adjacent stadium. Stefanos is a fan of FC-Barcelona, known as Barça, perhaps the most beloved fútbol team in the world. (Stefanos gets his devotion to the team “honestly,” as he once lived in Barcelona.) Stefanos was spending a few weeks in Spain on various types of business, and had carefully scheduled his travels so that he could take in a couple of Barça games, including the one in Bilbao. When we joined the Polyzoides-Moule expedition, we naturally went on-line and got tickets ourselves. (Liz, unfortunately, was flying into Bilbao from Italy the next day, and so she missed the game.)
Getting into the hotel in Bilbao was a little adventure. As we arrived, following Google Maps’ directions, we found the entrance to the hotel blocked by a huge bus and a crowd of people surrounding it. The bus said “FCB” on the back: it was the team bus for Barça. The team was staying at the hotel and was about to head to the stadium. We had to circle the block a couple of times before finding out what to do with our car, so that we could check in. After checking in Janet and I took a cab to the stadium, arriving just as the game began. Stefanos was already there. The stadium is directly accessible to the downtown grid of streets, not separated by a parking lot. Here’s a picture showing the scene as we approached.
I recently experimented with walking to Dodger Stadium from Chinatown. That experiment will someday be the subject of another blog, but in the meantime, here’s a picture showing the comparable approach.
The game was tremendous fun. The Bilbao team played tough, but they were (and their fans knew it) ultimately outclassed by Barça, with its world-class players exemplified by Argentinean Lionel Messi. Messi scored a goal about halfway through the game, but nonetheless it was a hard fought 1-0 contest, with Bilbao making many strong attacks on goal, until Barça sealed the victory with a second goal only a minute or so before time ran out. Here’s a picture of the Barça attack just before Messi scored his goal.
After the game, around 11:00, Stefanos, Janet and I wandered into the city on the way back to our hotel. We hadn’t eaten dinner, and late at night is when Spanish restaurants start filling up. We found a wonderful, traditional place, La Cocina de María Antonia, on the main east-west street a block or so from the stadium. The Basque country is considered the heart of gastronomy in Spain, with the best traditional food and the most innovative chefs, and this restaurant was a great start. I immediately liked it because there was a long table where people were eating family style. It was kind of a bistro, very much on the traditional side. I had a sirloin steak (un solomilo) that was among the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.
Next morning, Sunday, Oct. 29, Janet and walked around the hotel’s neighborhood, which was in the center of the 19th century expansion of Bilbao. After some looking (it must be a neighborhood where folks like to sleep late on Sundays) we found a bar open for coffee and pastries. After that we walked across the center of town to meet Stefanos and Liz (who was arriving that morning from Italy where she’d been working on a project there with the American Academy) and some of their Bilbao friends and colleagues for a tapas lunch.
It was kind of coincidence, but one reason we were meeting Stefanos and Liz in Bilbao is that Stefanos is working on a project to study 19th century urban expansion in Spain. What he told us was that in the 19th century, with population increasing because of industrialization, scores of Spanish cities adopted formal plans to expand beyond their medieval centers. (As was the case in Oslo, too.) The most famous of these plans is Cerda’s for Barcelona, but the contrast between narrow medieval streets, which were themselves often (but not in Bilbao) corruptions of Roman urban grids, and the expansive grids of boulevards, avenues and streets emanating from them, is evident in cities all over Spain, including Bilbao.
In Bilbao the division is clear. The old city, the Casco Viejo, is on the right bank of the river and is built around seven closely-spaced narrow streets emanating from the river (Las Siete Callesˆ—on the map they are right under the “Bilboko Donejakue katedrala”). The railroad station is on the other side of the river, and the new city, El Ensanche (literally, the “enlargement”), extends from the tracks and fills in the great bend the river makes. As you can see the streets are straighter (not that the Siete Calles aren’t straight) and the blocks are bigger, and there are grand boulevards emanating from a central oval.
One thing about those 19th century planners, they either loved the convenience of diagonal boulevards for transportation purposes, or for the opportunities for terminated vistas they create, or both (probably). Here’s a picture that shows, for better or for worse, the varieties of architecture that can sprout on a grid in a century or so. Massively terminating the vista is César Pelli’s Iberdrola Tower (completed in 2012 on formerly industrial land between the formal 19th century grid and the river), but the closer buildings at street level (this is at the San José Plaza) are worth looking at, too. Moving around the intersection from right to left, on the right is a traditional pre-modernism bank of buildings, then there’s the church (Iglesia de San José), a circa-1900 pastiche of styles, mostly neo-gothic, and across the street from the church is a mid-century building that hasn’t, to be kind, aged well either in terms of its materials or its style (and which happens to contain offices of the UGT, the socialist labor federation).
The continued vitality of these neighborhoods and districts more than a century after they were laid out and subdivided, regardless of architecture and particularly after the advent of the automobile, shows that it’s easier to adapt a good grid to the car and maintain a good urban environment than it is to design a city to accommodate cars that will be serviceable for any kind of living other than one that is automotive. It’s entropy: once you dissipate human energies over a wider landscape to accommodate cars, those energies cannot be harnessed again to make something more synergistic. “Suburban retrofits” are beyond difficult to pull off. But a good grid can, with some jury-rigging, like this underground parking lot in Bilbao, accommodate automobiles well enough to satisfy modern life, while maintaining the human energy of a city.
We kept walking and met our friends for lunch at a tapas bar, Café Iruña, crowded with families; we mostly stood at the bar eating, although at a certain point Janet and Liz found room to sit.
The bar was adjacent to a delightful little park, Las Jardines de Albia, the kind of one-block urban oasis with a little fountain, benches, and two statues of historical figures.
On the north side of the park is one of the few pre-19th century buildings in the Ensanche, a village church from the 16th century (which itself replaced a 12th century church), La Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir de Abando, that the expanding city swallowed up.
After lunch we were ready for the big event: the Museo Guggenheim, Frank Gehry’s most famous building and the building that launched … the Bilbao Effect.
Of the four of us, only Janet had previously seen the Guggenheim, on a trip she’d made with her mother about 10 years ago. I don’t want to write in detail about what Stefanos and Liz thought about the building, since they might write themselves about it and I’m not likely to do justice to their views if I try to summarize them, but I believe I can safely say that the building knocked all of us out. (Stefanos and Liz can correct me if I’m wrong.)
I’m a frequent user of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which Gehry designed prior to designing the Bilbao Guggenheim, but which was built after it. I love Disney Hall and bask in that love every time I attend a concert there, but the building in Bilbao is even more impressive. It’s an exploded and expanded Disney Hall. Disney is one major space, the auditorium, surrounded by a skin of much smaller spaces. That’s form following function, but it makes for a cramped and dark form. A museum building functions differently. The Bilbao program consists of a collection of large galleries, one after another, surrounding the core atrium. Since the core didn’t have to be sound and (largely) light proof as with the concert hall, the central atrium of the Guggenheim could be open and, let’s say, cathedral-like.
Which makes sense since museums are, when it comes to public and monumental buildings, the cathedrals of our time. Every city has to have one (or more). Compare this picture of the central atrium of Bilbao with my photo above of the nave of La Sagrada Familia. Or compare this picture of windows in the Guggenheim with Gaudí’s windows in the Palau Güell.
If the key to modernist architecture is architects using the new structural tools that were available to create nontraditional forms, the connecting tissue between an “artisanal” modernist like Gaudí and a contemporary architect like Gehry is obvious.
Stefanos, Liz and I spent a lot of time discussing a particular feature of the Bilbao atrium, a sculptural covering Gehry placed over an elevator (and there is another covering a stairway). In my view this is decorative architecture and is evidence of the distinction between what we call contemporary architecture and both high and post modernism.
One of the most impressive great rooms in the Guggenheim is the large space that the museum has given over to a series of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures. I love Serra’s big sculptures, but I dislike it when they are cooped up inside, such as in the Broad pavilion at LACMA. Serra’s monuments demand the outdoors: the center of a large plaza or, even better, I’d like to see one in a field of wheat. But they work in the big and long space in Bilbao, especially from above. (Much was made of the fact that as an old steel town, Bilbao is a suitable location for Serra’s big works.) Here are some pictures.
Variations in scale also work well in the Guggenheim. The transitions between the big spaces were nicely intimate, and the “horde” of visitors seemed to find the place quite comfortable.
We spent a couple of hours inside, touring the building and viewing the collection. The collection is fine, except that it’s more or less the same collection of artists you’ll see in any contemporary art collection in the world. The world is full now of billionaires who want to be the Albert Barnes of their generation, but they don’t have the individualistic perspective that Barnes had. They buy from the same dealers and listen to the same experts, who also tell museums of contemporary art what to exhibit (and, not coincidentally, legitimize the valuations when the collectors on the boards of trustees donate the art and get the tax deductions). Cynically I know that these massive investments in museums to house these works will influence future judgments about was the good art of our era, but nonetheless I expect that future historians of art will be iconoclastic, as historians usually are, and some of this stuff, perhaps a large amount of it, will end up in storage. I ask: who will be the first art historian to demolish the pomposity, excessive self-importance, and implied moral superiority of post-War art that was stripped of content so that it wouldn’t offend corporate collectors?
When we exited the museum, it had begun to drizzle. The building (and Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “Maman”) looked good wet.
Finally here’s a picture showing Stefanos and Liz in a characteristic pose: taking a picture of architecture.
That night we ate at a social club affiliated with the Basque nationalist political party, with entry to it courtesy of a friend of Stefanos and Liz, a massively erudite urbanist and historian. I can’t recount the whole of the conversation, but I remember being impressed that this fellow felt that Spain should host a conference to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the transfer of power in 117 from Trajan to Hadrian, two Roman emperors who were both Iberians. I mean, why wait for the 2,000th anniversary?
The next morning, Monday, Oct. 30, the four of us walked around the old city of Bilbao, on the other side of the river, the zone of the “seven streets.” Those streets are narrow, as this photo shows.
When we were there, a teacher was taking a bunch of kids on a walk. Yes, people still live there.
There were more terminated vistas, but the angles were much different, because of the close quarters.
To get an idea about how valuable space was in the old city before its expansion, look at this picture, which shows how shops were built into the spaces between the buttresses of a medieval church.
Here’s a final picture from our tour of the old city.
Dried and/or salted fish, bacalao, was integral to the history of Europe and, as in Bergen, Norway, that was particularly true with respect to the Basque Country. Basque fisherman were fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and salt harvested from the waters of the Bay of Biscay was crucial to preserving it. Given how depleted cod stocks have become, I was pleased to see that bacalao was still a staple, as the store window shows.
From Bilbao we were headed to San Sebastián up the coast towards France. Our first stop was in the little port town of Bermeo. By now we were in two cars, as Stefanos and Liz had picked up their rental, and when we arrived there we had the usual comical experiences of trying to find (i) parking, and (ii) each other. But ultimately we managed to eat lunch in a restaurant that Stefanos and Liz found on the second floor of a municipal building. It was some kind of club, but open to the public, where the “burghers” of the town and (assuming the burghers are still mostly men, which seemed to be the case) their wives, meet. It was a wonderfully bourgeois experience (people who know me know that I mean no condescension when I use the word bourgeois). The prix fixe menu included two substantial courses, dessert, and wine, and service was decidedly unhurried. My first course was memorable. I ordered soup, thinking that soup would be relatively light, as for nearly a week I’d been eating way too much, but what arrived was a tureen with easily enough soup for three people. It might have been the best bean soup, heavy with bacon and sausage, that I’ve ever had. Janet had a Basque pepper stuffed with mushrooms and she said it was the best thing she’d eaten on the trip so far. The good people of the Basque Country know what’s good.
It was late by the time our long lunch ended, but we had just enough time before dark to stop in Gernika, better known as Guernica, on our way to San Sebastián. We arrived as a festival was ending, and local farmers and other food purveyors were tearing down booths where they’d been selling their goods. We walked around the center of town, nearly all of which has been rebuilt since the bombing in 1937, since the bombing destroyed nearly all of the city center.
One can’t hear the word Guernica without its conjuring up Picasso’s painting. This made me think back to the Bilbao Guggenheim’s collection, and post-War art in general, neutered as it was of political content, made safe for corporations, foundations and plutocrats. Other than perhaps Diego Rivera’s destroyed mural at Rockefeller Center, there’s no painting that better than Guernica marks the dividing line between the days when artists engaged themselves directly in their social, economic and political contexts and a time when museums of modern and contemporary art, their employed curators and the attendant dealers, became the gatekeepers, denaturing art along the way; when expressing political and social ideas in art, or even using art to describe or respond to reality, became passé, and artists primarily expressed their dissidence not with their art, but either by self-destructive alienation or by becoming part of a contrived “counter-culture.”
By the time we left Gernika/Guernica it was dark. We headed directly to San Sebastián along the coast road. San Sebastián is the gastronomic epicenter of Spain; perhaps, if you believe some experts, of the entire western world. This status is predicated on a top-to-bottom food culture, from the pintxos in a local bar to the highest per capita count of Michelin stars in the world. Part of this is because the Basque Country is so well favored when it comes to food itself: it’s a green and fertile land of small farms that also has a great fishing tradition and a history of trade that brought in foods and flavors from around the world.
Another part is cultural: while Basque home cooking by women must by all rights be at the heart of the food culture (I wish I had a way to get some of that!), there is also a longstanding tradition of male cooking clubs (las sociedades gastronómicas) that supported the professionalization of cooking, resulting in a great tradition of (often innovative) restaurants. Food and cooking is everywhere; jumping ahead to the next day, here’s a photo I took of a kids cooking class taking place in front of the big San Sebastián market.
Liz took this culinary tradition into account when she planned the visit to San Sebastián, booking reservations at two of the great restaurants there, for dinner the night we arrived and for lunch the next day.
Dinner (this was Monday night, Oct. 30) was at Rekondo, a restaurant that describes its food as alta cocina vasca, i.e., “haute Basque cuisine.” And that’s what their food was: we walked into the restaurant and passed on our left a grill over a wood fire, an appetizing way to start a meal. I can’t remember what we all ordered, but it was from a menu that celebrated the ingredients themselves.
The next morning we walked around the town. Our hotel was located near where the big beach, one of the beaches that made San Sebastián a famous summer resort for royalty and those who hung out with royalty, meets up with the avenue that marks the dividing line between the medieval town and San Sebastián’s own 19th century expansion. Since I live in Santa Monica, another city on a beach, also famous for tourism, it was fun to consider the similarities and the differences.
Like Santa Monica, San Sebastián has a beautiful beach, with a walkway and park, and hotels, overlooking it, playgrounds and a carousel (theirs in the park, ours on our pier), and a City Hall nearby. Here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s City Hall, as seen behind a playground in the park:
That’s a grand edifice, I’d say, for a little city’s town hall. San Sebastián’s population of about 186,000 is about twice that of Santa Monica, but the situations of the two cities are quite different. San Sebastián is the most important city in its immediate, mostly rural, hinterland, while Santa Monica sits on the edge of, and provides the biggest beach for, a metropolis with a population nearly half that of Spain.
One benefit of traveling with architectural experts like Stefanos and Liz is that they can point out architectural history that would otherwise escape my notice. Just across the ocean promenade from the ornate City Hall is, it turns out, one of the treasures of modernism. It’s the Club Náutico from 1929, designed by José Manuel Aizpurúa, at the dawn of modernism, and a building that, as Stefanos explained to me, encapsulates all the rules that Le Corbusier was establishing for the new architecture.
Turning around to look in the opposite direction, here’s a picture of the beach at San Sebastián with the hotels that face it.
At some point in history someone, probably in that City Hall, had the good idea of declaring a height limit, so that all the hotels would create a uniform (and pleasing) façade facing the beach. The hotels all max out at the same height, which corresponds typically to eight or nine stories. At home in Santa Monica, the height of new hotel buildings proposed along Ocean Avenue, facing Santa Monica’s Palisades Park, has been, for about 10 years, the subject of much controversy. There have been several proposals for towers, at least one as high as 22 stories. As I look at this picture of the wall of hotels lining the beach in San Sebastián I, as a Santa Monican, can’t help but smile—but ruefully. While on one hand the hotels in San Sebastián show that one should not need to exceed nine stories to build a nice hotel, on the other hand the scope of development along the beach there would horrify the opponents of the hotel towers in Santa Monica.
Meanwhile here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s carousel. Aside from its beauty it’s something of a metaphor for urban development in a European town vs. urban development in America: its diameter is much less than the carousel in Santa Monica, meaning it sprawls less, but it’s two stories, meaning it’s more dense.
The medieval district of San Sebastián is small, about 20 tight blocks. If the best food is in Spain is in the Basque Country, and if San Sebastián is the Basque food capital, then these blocks are the absolute ground zero for gastronomy in Spain. That status is based on pintxos, snacks that by the time lunch is starting are piled up in bars throughout the old city. We had a big lunch planned (more on that coming up) and in anticipation of that none of us wanted to fill ourselves up, but we agreed that in any future trip to San Sebastián we would have to schedule a grazing tour of pintxo bars for one meal.
As for that lunch: Liz in her understated manner had simply told Janet and me that she’d made a reservation at a good restaurant for lunch that day. But that morning Janet and I were doubtful. We had a long drive ahead of us, about six hours to Barcelona, from where we’d be flying back to L.A. the next morning. We were thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a big lunch and not get on the road until late afternoon. (You know how those Spanish lunches are.) So when we met Liz and Stefanos for breakfast, we were saying that maybe Liz should drop us from the reservation, and that we get on the road.
Fortunately Liz got back to us and said, something like, “well, you know, the reservation is at one o’clock, and maybe you should come and have a first course. It’s going to be good.” She didn’t overplay it, but that was perfect. We kind of looked at each other and said, “Sure, let’s do it. The drive is going to be mostly in the dark anyway.”
That was a good decision. It turned out that the reservation was at the most famous and historic restaurant in San Sebastián, Arzak, the three-star restaurant of chef Juan Mari Arzak, who runs the restaurant with his daughter Elena. (Elena is the fourth generation Arzak to cook in the restaurant.) I don’t follow the world of celebrity or celebrated chefs much, and so I learned all this later, but Arzak, at 75, is the dean of Spanish chefs and the mentor and/or inspiration for the next generation of them.
I respect chefs who make food into something artistic and experimental, but the food needs to stay real, and the everyday holiness of meals with friends and family should never be sacrificed to pretension. Having declared that (somewhat pretentiously, I know), I loved Arzak. To begin with, the staff genuinely wanted us to enjoy what we were going to eat. The first thing the waiter said to us was that they wanted us to try as many dishes as possible, but that they knew this was lunch and we might not want to each so much, and for that reason nearly every dish on the menu was available in a half-portion. They did this because they hoped that each of us would have an appetizer, a fish course and a meat course. This was so solicitous of the customer’s comfort (and also kind to the credit card).
The other aspect of Arzak that I appreciated was that even though the food was elaborate in its preparation and presentation (Señor Arzak has described his cooking as “evolutionary, investigatory, and avant-garde”), the food was fundamentally Basque, made from the ingredients the region is famous for. We had dishes made from sole, prawns, lobster, squid, monkfish, pigeon and what we had learned (at Rekondo the previously night) was a particular Basque favorite, kokotxas, namely the bit of meat at the bottom of a fish’s head. Many of the flavors were exotic, and the food, particularly the amuse-bouche snacks, was artfully presented, but the food was certainly identifiable as . . . food.
It was a memorable meal, shared with friends, and what with the half-portion policy, when Janet and I hit the road around 3:30 (Señor Arzak himself wishes you well when you depart) we were not incapacitated.
Our six-hour drive to a hotel we had booked near the Barcelona airport was mostly in the dark. For some stretches, when I say dark I mean absolutely dark. Janet took the wheel for the middle stretch, which included the road between Zaragoza and the coast, and there were times when looking to the south from the passenger seat I could not see one light. Spain is a big country with some wide-open and empty spaces.
Our hotel was an “airport hotel,” but in a real neighborhood. After checking in we found a tapas bar nearby where, fittingly, the TV was playing a cooking competition show that looked like the Spanish version of Top Chef. For our last dinner in Spain we ordered anchovies, olives, mussels and a lamb stew. Here’s a photo of our meal halfway through our consumption of it. Different from our meal at Arzak, and also delicious.
The next day we returned to L.A.
Thanks for reading.