The Boqueria market

When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!

The Boqueria market

The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.

Miro mar

To go to Barcelona is to jump into a sea of Miro. Not only because Joan Miro i Ferra was born in Barcelona, but also because you run into works by Miro in various places in the city. There is a mosaic on the famous walking street of La Rambla in the open area called Pla de l’Os which was originally made by Miro in 1976. Thirty years of being walked on caused enough wear and tear for the city to commission a restoration in 2006. Until 1760 Pla de l’Os was the location of the Boqueria gate, a trophy of war. Before that a gate named after Santa Eulalia, the patron saint of Barcelona, stood at the same place. Even now, the mosaic marks the place at which you can turn into the Boqueria market.

Another piece of public art by Miro is in the Parc de Joan Miro near Place d’Espanya. The piece called Woman and Bird (Dona i Ocell) is supposed to stand in a pool of reflecting water. When we walked up to it, there was construction activity around it (see the adjoining photo), and we only saw the sculpture without the pool. As you can see, this Dona does not lack admirers even in deshabille. The third piece of public art by Miro is a ceramic mural in Terminal B of the airport. I guess I’ll see it if I fly in to Barcelona some time.

These public sculptures are just waves lapping on the beach. The real sea of Miro is the collection in Fundacao Joan Miro on Avinguda Miramar. The delightfully functional building is a typical design by Barcelona-born architect Josep Lluis Sert, who counted Miro as one of his friends. The wonderfully curated museum led us through the evolution of Miro’s idiosyncratic style, full of symbols for stars, ladders, birds, and women binding together large areas of colourful paint. A very impressive piece is the large sculpture which you can see in the photo above and below.

I was mesmerized by the odd tapestry shown in the featured photo. During his developing years in Paris, Miro made the famous statement that he meant to assassinate painting with his new style. As a ticket-buying member of the bourgeoisie, whose society he meant to destroy with his paintings, I figured that this museum is a monument to his glorious failure. We sat in the well-lit cafe inside the museum and mulled over what we had seen. It was then that we began to appreciate how successful he was even as he failed, by re-making sensibilities so that you appreciate a tapestry like this.

A Magic Square

I wandered through the Sagrada Familia in a daze until I came to the western facade and its Magic Square (see the grid of numbers in the featured photo). The facade is called the Passion Facade because it depicts the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ: the events are called the Passion of Christ in Christian dogma.

Work on this facade began in 1954, after Gaudi’s death, but followed his plans. The sculptures were made by Josep Maria Subirachs starting in 1984. I thought that the sculptures looked unlike the rest of the church, and found later that there is indeed a bit of controversy related to the look of the facade. When Subirachs took the commission, he insisted that he should be allowed artistic freedom, and not be forced to follow Gaudi’s designs slavishly. So, I wonder whether the magic square behind the sculpture of the Kiss of Judas is Subirachs’ or Gaudi’s.

A magic square is a square filled with numbers such that each row, each column, and the two diagonals all sum to the same number. In this square the sum is 33, which is the age that Christ was supposed to be during the events portrayed in this facade.

A magic square may (or may not) have other characteristics. One that people often insist on is that the numbers used be consecutive, starting from 1, and that no number be used more than once. This convention is clearly violated by the Passion Square, since 12 and 16 are missing and 10 and 14 are repeated.

This magic square has other magical properties. The square can be divided into four 2×2 squares, by a horizontal and a vertical line bisecting each side (the upper-left square has the numbers 1, 14, 11, and 7). The sum of the four numbers in each of these squares is also 33.

The 2×2 square at the center contains the numbers 7, 6, 10, and 10. These also add up to 33. If you take the two numbers above this central square and the two below it, then they also sum to 33. The two numbers to the left of the central square and the two below it also give the same sum.

There is an easier way to think of these two disjoint blocks of numbers. Imagine a large floor tiled with copies of the Passion Square. I’ve tried to show this in the image here: the thin black line marks each copy of the magic square. Mark out on the floor all copies of the central square with the numbers 7, 6, 10, and 10 (I’ve coloured them red in the image on the left). Then you will see that the two numbers above and below the central square also become a 2×2 square, repeated on the tiling (I’ve left them white). Similarly, the disjoint set of 2 pairs of numbers, two to the left and two to the right of the central square also become a single 2×2 square (also white).

When you think in terms of the tiling, then you discover that the corner squares become a single 2×2 square on the tile (the blocks of blue tiles). And, of course, the numbers on the corners of the Passion Square also sum to 33!

The diagonals join blue and red squares. The four numbers along the forward diagonal sum up to 33, as do the backward diagonals. On the tiled floor you discover other diagonals. Of these, only the diagonals removed from the circled ones by two spaces are associated with the same arithmetic magic, ie, they sum to 33. So there is a set of magic diagonals in the coloured squares, and another in the white squares. This is easier to see if you bleach the colours, as I’ve done in the image below. In the resulting chessboard pattern, there is a set of diagonals on coloured squares, and another in the white squares. Both kinds of diagonals are magic. Interestingly, magic squares of this kind are called pandiagonal squares, or, more interestingly, diabolical magic squares.

Finally, the first two numbers in the second row and the first two in the third row also sum to 33, as do the last two numbers in these rows. Shifting down by one row, the first two numbers in the second and fourth rows also add up to 33, as do the last two in these rows. If you try the same thing column-wise, the magic goes away.

Of course I could not have been the first person to discover these marvellous tilings hidden in plain sight. A quick search led me to a paper by two mathematicians from the University of Las Palmas, Jose Pacheco and Isabel Fernandez, who examined these symmetries some time ago. They also refer back to the first (paywalled) description of this square in the mathematical literature in 2001 by Pieter Maritz of the University of Stellenbosch. The symmetries of magic squares was first discussed in the early 20th century.

The beautiful hidden symmetries of the Passion Square open up through the tiling into a beautiful doubled lattice. This can be represented in many ways, and I show one in the image above. This harks back to the Mudejar style of the Spanish churches of the middle ages. Is this Subirachs’ hidden contribution to the Sagrada Familia?

I left feeling quite satisfied with the discovery of this mystery.

Modern comfort

After spending a morning with Gaudi’s idiosyncratic architecture in the church of Sagrada Familia and then in the apartment building called the Casa Mila or La Pedreda, The Family and I went off to a nearby restaurant for one of Barcelona’s famous three course lunches. Gaudi’s architecture is mesmerizing, and both of us were a little stunned by the decorativeness of his style. During lunch The Family asked who the other famous architects in Barcelona are. Now Barcelona has works by so many brilliant architects, that I fumbled for an answer. When I blurted out "Mies van der Rohe", it was my subconscious speaking.

My first acquaintance with the work of one of the makers of modernist architecture was through photos of the Barcelona chair, which (I later found) were designed to go with his German Pavilion in the Barcelona World Fair of 1929. One of the iconic structures designed by him was this pavilion. I was under the impression that it was dismantled within a year of being set up, but was surprised to find, just a few months ago, that it had been reconstructed.

So we found the simplest connection through the subway to take us there, finished our coffee, and set off into the hot afternoon. The clean lines of the pavilion are a refreshing sight after a morning of Gaudy excess. There is a small fee for entry, which we gladly paid, as we walked past the glass curtain "into" the structure. The interesting thing about this pavilion is that there is really no inside and no outside. The walls do not partition the structure; rather they offer a continuous path through the structure. Immediately behind the glass curtain is this wall of red-gold onyx (photo above).

When you go round this wall another curtain of glass appears (photo above), and you must decide whether to pass in front of it, or behind. The slab of the roof floats lightly above this, providing welcome shade. There were a very small number of people taking photos, very considerately moving out of the field of view of each others’ cameras. On the far side of the view above was the rectangular pool which is called the large basin.

Behind me was the small basin (photo above) with a statue called Alba by George Kolbe. The U-shaped wall behind it is made with green marble, and creates the main enclosed space in the pavilion. Interestingly, there is no roof above it, so that in another dimension it is open.

I found one place from which you could see all the different kinds of material used in this structure (photo above). This was the wall where a few of the Barcelona chairs had been placed (featured photo). The Family sat down on one of the chairs and declared that it was indeed comfortable. Was it the most comfortable chair ever designed, as advertisements used to claim once? She was not sure, but she said she could sleep in it. I’d always thought of the Barcelona chair as black, but it turns out that the first edition, which was placed here in 1929, was white.

We sat there together and contemplated the vision which has now conquered the world. If the Barcelona Pavilion seems to be so ordinary, it is because every modern atrium looks faintly like this: the mixture of exotic polished stone and steel and glass curtains, soaring above you. Even the little pool with Kolbe’s architecture has been copied and transmuted. This is why Casa Mila stands out as extraordinary: it is not the way the world is. I’m happy that the world followed Mies van der Rohe’s vision and not Gaudi’s.

Rushing through Sagrada Familia church

All those who have some interest in Barcelona probably know two names for sure: Lionel Messi and Antoni Gaudi. Messi plays for Barcelona Football Club and Gaudi designed the church of Sagrada Familia. Barcelona FC cannot be seen in action every day, but the Sagrada Familia is open on all days. You need to get a ticket, and then come in the exact 15 minutes that your ticket says you have to enter. After that it is a mad rush through this church. Can you help it?

Puzzle mania

In Spain we tried to stray off the beaten path whenever we could. This meant that we would often get lost and tired. The hot sun would force us into a small and forgotten bar now and then. These places are either wonderful or terribly dispiriting. The featured photo shows two barflies nursing their drinks in the middle of a hot afternoon. It would seem we had wandered into a bar of lost souls.

Not exactly. Outside the bar were a couple of retirees engrossed in books of puzzles. On the metro we had seen a couple of other people equally deeply into puzzles, and wondered what they could be. They did not look like Sudoku or crosswords. At the cafe we discovered what they could be. The sachets of sugar we got with our coffee had these two puzzles on them. Presumably the old people we saw were trying to solve bigger versions of these puzzles.

I shoulder-surfed one of them as we left. He was solving an intricate word puzzle which was not a crossword. Maybe we could try to buy one of these books and try our hands at them.

A Tapas Experience

Our first evening in Barcelona was spent in a lovely bar in the Eixample district. I understand that the notion of tapas started with bars serving little eats to customers so that they would stay on for a second drink. Unfortunately, these little eats are no longer free, or even cheap.

We sat outside the friendly neighbourhood bar. After the heat of the day, The Family wanted a Sangria. I decided to have a glass of Rioja. The little dishes kept coming: anchovies, local ham, a couple of tostadas, grilled chilis, a wonderful blue cheese. We stayed on for another glass of wine. People from the neighbourhood dropped into the bar in ones and twos. A small birthday party was in progress in a neighbouring table.

As we munched a fresh and light tostada, The Family said "It’s all so fresh and light." The toast, for example, had tomatoes, greens and smoked salmon with olive oil. Later the waiter got us a simple thing he wanted us to taste. "Totally local", he said. It was bit of toast soaked in fragrant olive oil and some grated tomato on top. Light and simple.

It was a lovely relaxed evening, exactly what tapas is designed to create.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.