The Grand Road

It had rained the previous night, and the temperature had turned bearable just as my trip to Spain was coming to an end. Around mid-day I walked down Gran Via, a street full of shops, movie halls, theatres, bars and restaurants, and even one casino.

Construction of this road started in 1910, following 40 years of planning and dithering. In these 40 years musicals and satires were written about it, and the name Gran Via was originlly given to it as a joke. In the 19 years that passed before it was completed, 14 other streets were destroyed along with buildings around them in order to construct this showcase of urban planning.

I started my walk from the Plaza de España, near the end of the street. Brick facades just off the Gran Via drew my attention. The style was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but the use of brick and tiles in decorating the facade makes them look very attractive even now. The buildings on the main avenue are in a mixture of styles, as you can see from the photos below.

Particularly notable for its chequered history is the Edifico Telefonica, which played a role in the defence of Madrid during the civil war, and therefore had the distinction of being the most frequently shelled building of that time. Ernest Hemingway was one of the war correspondents who covered the news from his haunt in the bar at Museo Chicotle next to this building. Perhaps he gave the name "Howitzer Alley" to this road at that time.

Unfortunately, it is hard to find a detailed list (in English) of buildings along this route, or their architectural history. But if you are willing to try to puzzle out the Spanish, then there is an excellent guide which you can find here.

The Bañuelo

We walked along the little stream called the Darro on a narrow road. This was the lowest part of the Albaycin in Granada. A tourist bus went by and we had to flatten ourselves against a wall to let it go. I saw an opening next to me and a sign for the old bath-house or Hammam that we were looking for. This is called El Bañuelo, which simply means the bath. We walked in, and just after a little reception found an open space with a little square pool full of water.

Granada : arches inside the hamam

We walked past this into the main baths. This 11th century CE bath would have been lost if it had not become part of a private house. Originally the baths were attached to a mosque called the Mosque of the Walnut Tree. Hammams played almost as important a social role in Al Andalus as mosques. Both were places where people could gather and socialize. Women, who were generally supposed to be inside houses, could go to both these places. A mosque would have separate rooms for the segregation of genders, but in a Hammam this would be done by having different timings for men and women.

Granada: Hamam with skylights

The different rooms were for hot and cold water. The openings which you see in the ceiling were meant to allow light in, and steam out. At the back was a room whose roof had fallen in. Apparently this contained the boilers. The tiles on the floor are original, but the plaster-work has not survived the centuries. When I started taking photos, I found that the light was beautiful. I can imagine the wonderful play of light on the rising steam in a working Hammam.

Archives of the Indies

Although every Indian now seems to know about the bull run of Pamplona, the football clubs of Madrid and Barcelona, and Bunyol’s festival of La Tomatina, until a few years ago a random person in a Mumbai train would not be able to say anything definite about Spain. The historical connection between India and Spain being so meagre, it is odd to come across a beautiful Renaissance building in Seville called the General Archives of the Indies. It took me a moment to realize that the Indies in question lie across the Atlantic.

We never entered to gawp at the eight kilometers of shelves which hold 80 million pages dating from the 16th century CE to the end of the Spanish empire in the 19th century CE. I doubt that access is permitted to this treasure trove of recent history. However, some of the documents of general interest are on display.

The Family drew my attention away from the cathedral to this building right outside. Apparently it was first built as a market hall for Seville, to draw merchants out from the cathedral, where they had conducted their business till then. King Philip II of Spain got his favourite architect, Juan de Herreira, to design this building. The clean uncluttered lines look beautifully modern.

The horse carriage that you see in this photo will be visible on any day I guess, standing in that particular patch of shadow. This spot is one of the "stations" where tourists can hire a carriage. Why is Seville full of these antiquated and expensive things? They seem to have something to do with the April Fair in this region.

The doors of her face

One of the famous churches of Barcelona stands in a very constricted space within the Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter), or old town. This is Santa Maria del Mar. Standing in front of it, only the name tells you how close you are to the harbour. I was captivated by the door of the church, and the two commemorative figures on it (featured photo). The story is that when the church was built in the 14th century CE, all the guilds of the area, la Ribera, lent a hand. The figures acknowledge their help in porting the stones of the church. The last stone was laid in 1383 CE.

When you look closely at the figures and how they are dressed, you realize how different it is from modern European clothes. The closest in style that we can see today are probably the kilts and stockings of traditional Scottish dress.

Barcelona: rose window of Santa Maria del Mar

The year long seismic events of 1427 CE culminating in a destructive event called the Candelmas earthquake of 1428 CE destroyed, among other things, the rose window. The one which can be seen now was finished in 1430 CE. As far as I know, this medieval church was not touched by the refurbishments which swept through this area and remade it into the romantic-medieval tourist centre that it is today.

The oldest parts of Barcelona

We had a quick look at the the most ancient part of Barcelona near the Metro stop called Jaume 1. On one side is the busy Via Laietana, on the other, the remains of the old Roman wall. Barcelona existed before the Romans built the fortified town of Barcino around 15 BCE, during the time of the Emperor Augustus. These walls are not visible at street level now. What one sees is the Roman wall from the 4th century CE and later additions.

Barcelona: part of the Roman wallWe walked along via Laetana until we came to the Placa de Ramon Berenguer el Gran (featured photo). The Roman wall has been used here to prop up the medieval Chapel of Santa Agata. The arches and windows that you see here belong to the chapel, which dates from the early 14th century CE.

We walked along the impressive walls looking at the mixture of old stone replaced by later brick filling. Doors had been cut into the wall at some time, and one of these was impressively decorated in the modern street style (photo here). We walked along until we came to the remnant of what must have been an aqueduct supplying water to the walled town.

A longer walk would also have been interesting. It is also possible to visit the extensive archaeological discoveries under the Barri Gotic. We saw the entrance near the cathedral, but, regretfully, had too little time to do this.

In the rest of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona it is hard to tell true history from fanciful reconstruction. The Roman wall anchors you to real history: the founding of Barcino, possibly by the Laietani, the arrival of the Romans a century or two later, and the eventual fall to Visigoths in the 5th century CE.

Goatic Barcelona

We walked from Plaza Espanya up to the Magic Fountain of Montjuic on a sweltering hot afternoon to find that the beast was having a siesta. We discovered later that the true colours of the fountain are seen only after dark. This was built in 1929 for the Barcelona World Fair, damaged during the Spanish Civil War, partially restored in 1955, and reassembled for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Nearby stands the resurrected Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. As we walked up to it, we found this incredibly eye-catching object by the road side. It was promptly dubbed the Barcelona Goatic.

After the deluge

While walking from Madrid’s Atocha station to Plaza Mayor, we came to an interesting sculpture in a small plaza. A look at my phone told me that the triangular space was called the Anton Martin Square. Public sculptures in Mumbai are all polished stone and bronze, so the relatively new medium of oxidized iron catches my eyes. The attitudes of the figures seemed to suggest either resistance or a resolve to work together, like in a team huddle in the middle of a match. We crossed the road and walked up to the pedestal. A plaque was installed there. As I puzzled out the Spanish, I got a lesson in recent Spanish history.

On January 24, 1977, in an office of labour lawyers located at number 55 on this Calle Atocha, four lawyers and one trade unionist were murdered, and four more lawyers were injured. All were members of the PCE [Spanish Communist Party] and CCOO [Worker’s Commission].

This sculpture reproduces the painting of Juan Genoves called The Embrace, a symbol of the restoration of freedom.

It was inaugurated by the Madrid City Council on June 10, 2003, as a tribute to those who died in that violence. It is an homage to those who died for freedom in Spain.

On January 24, 2007, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of this sad event, this explanatory plaque is installed, for the knowledge of the people of Madrid and of those who visit us.

— Plaque on the Monument in Anton Martin Square

The plaque told us the bare facts of the assassination of lawyers working for a labour union in the years immediately after the death of the dictator Franco. My notion that there was a quick and peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1975 turned out to be mistaken. Perhaps it was quick and relatively bloodless compared to the reverse transition in the 1930s, which is remembered in many works of art, including Picasso’s Guernica. But for people who lived through the 1970s, it must have been chaotic.

After we walked to Plaza Mayor I googled the Atocha atrocity and found the story in a small article in Wikipedia. Remnants of Franco’s parties, allegedly aided by an Italian neo-fascist party and perhaps the remnants of a secret anti-communist cell inside NATO, rounded up labour lawyers, lined them up against a wall here, and shot them. Four survived. The resulting public revulsion led to a legalization of the communist party, and informed the liberal new Spanish constitution.

Attorneys Of Atocha

We found flowers tucked into the monument (see the featured photo). The Family asked me to find out why. As I searched, I found that Spain celebrates the constitution of the new decentralized state on June 8 and 9. This was two days before we chanced on this sculpture. The drying flowers are testimony to the fact that the events commemorated in this square are considered to be a part of history of the constitution.

In the daily life of people, the monument provides a little island where you can park a scooter. This reminded me of a saying attributed to Mulla Nasiruddin, "A book may be used as a pillow".

Alien aesthetics

By many professional measures Gaudi was an unsuccessful architect. His best-loved works are the few public projects he undertook. His designs for houses had few takers. Why did his modernism not have a market? In the decades when he was designing modernist projects which failed, elsewhere in Europe Art Nouveau and Jugendstil were spawning commercial success. We went to one of Gaudi’s few successful building projects to find out what it was like inside. This is Casa Mila, located just off Barcelona’s famous shopping avenue of Passeig de Gracia.

Casa Mila: atrium

The atrium was full of light. The floor was covered in trencadis mosaic, the iron gates were in typical Art Nouveau style, and the bottom of a staircase was covered with a mural in delicate pastel colours (which is not original). One architectural innovation which can be seen here are the pillars. They largely carry the load of the six storeys high building. In 1906, when the construction began, it was supposed to be a radical innovation, allowing interior walls to be free of load.

Casa Mila: interior passage

As a result of being built around an atrium, the interiors of flats are full of light. The doors and windows are made with the flowing curved lines which reflect the aesthetics built into the walls. It is said that Gaudi paid as much attention to the handles on doors as in the architectural design.

Casa Mila: bedroom

The furniture was also specially designed. The flat which is on show has reproductions of the furniture that was made for the original flats. These are typical Art Nouveau pieces. I wouldn’t mind some in my flat. As you can see from the photo above, there is no lack of light in the rooms. The main problem that customers faced was the lack of straight lines in the walls. As a result every piece of furniture had to be specially made for the building. When you see the kitchen or the bathrooms you are immediately struck by this realization.

Casa Mila: bedroom ceiling

I looked up at the ceiling and was amazed at the detail there. I’m not sure that I can sleep in such ornate rooms, but the aesthetics of that time could have been different. Apparently owners began to change the furniture and colours inside the flats as soon as they could. By the time the house was declared an UNESCO heritage structure, internal and external changes were so many that it was hard to restore the original colours. As a result, I’m not sure whether this ceiling, for one, now looks as Gaudi wanted it to look.

Casa Mila: facade

The facade of the building is very distinctive. The rough and unfinished look gives it the local nickname, La Pedrera, meaning the quarry. The intricate iron-work grilles on the balconies are remarkable. But the most remarkable part of the building is probably the roof, with its fantastically shaped chimneys and flues. The alien in the featured photo is one of these.

Driving the Prado

Prado is a blank in my camera. With its ban on photography, one of the world’s greatest museums of European art is that enigmatic. The Museo del Prado was the first stop in our visit to Spain, and the five hours we spent there was barely sufficient to get an overview of their collection of Spanish art.

If the Mona Lisa is the most visited painting in the Louvre, Las Meninas by Velazquez (below) is the single most visited painting in the Prado. I was with the majority. When The Family picked up a floor plan, I looked for the quickest route to Las Meninas. The huge painting dominates the gallery it is in, and has an enormous crowd which moves around it. The audio guide at the Prado is very informative, and a large number of people here were using it. One interesting fact, not mentioned by the guide, but visible in the statue of Velazquez outside the Prado (featured photo), is that Velazquez used special long-handled brushes for such large paintings. This made it possible for him to gauge the effect the painting would have for a viewer standing at a distance. Another wonderful painting by Velazquez in the Prado is The Fable of Arachne, perhaps one of his last paintings.

The Prado holds the Royal Collection of Spain. Although this is the nucleus, much has been added over the years. The original building, designed by Juan de Villanueva, has long been insufficient. New wings and galleries were added over the years, three independent buildings now hold gallery space for the Prado, and new space is currently being added. A day or two is not enough to see it all. It is best to buy a ticket on-line fairly far in advance. You are given a 15 minute slot for entry, but you can use the ticket for the full day, and even leave and come back in the same day. The cafeteria is very good and you do not need to leave if you don’t want to. We had a quick lunch in the museum’s cafeteria after taking in the extensive collection of paintings by Goya.

The paintings on display change, some come out of the holdings on to the walls, others circulate around the world. There is a limit to how much art you can absorb in a day. The Prado is immense, and one needs to visit it several times in order to take in all that it has.

Trencadis in the Park

Breaking up ceramic tiles into pieces and using them in a mosaic is called trencadis. You can see this in many parts of Barcelona, but my favourite collection of trencadis is Gaudi’s work inside the Park Guell. All the photos here come from this place. Gaudi assembled the pieces from discarded tiles and broken pottery. You can see that Gaudi’s style of architecture with its dearth of straight lines was unable to use the usual rectangular tiles, and so was forced in this interesting direction.

Park Guell: Trencadis covered spire

We’d reached Barcelona late in the morning, and decided to go off to Park Guell after lunch. Not a great decision on a burning hot day, since there is a bit of a climb from the nearest metro station. For the last four years one needs tickets to get into this municipal park! Unless you have thought ahead to buying them, you could be in for a surprise. On this hot afternoon tickets were sold out five hours in advance. The ticket allows you in to all the parts of the park which have Gaudi’s work, including his wonderful tiles.

Parc Guell: Tencadis on the main terrace

Apart from the buildings at the entrance, and his famous lizard-dragon (vandalized in 2007 and restored quickly after), the main trencadis work is on the main terrace. You can see this in the photo above. One of the interesting things about this style is that the component tiles are used only as tesserae in a mosaic, Parc Guell: detail of trencadisand the original design on the tiles has nothing to do with the pattern that emerges. A closer look at the details (see photo alongside) will tell you how that happens. Work of this kind requires an artist. That’s one of the reasons that the modernist art movements of the early twentieth century never took over the world. The machines of the time could not build this. It also turned out that the buildings which Gaudi designed were not a big draw for the paying public: now you can see about three of them in Barcelona, and one was the house where he himself lived.