Barcelona for culture vultures
This Catalan capital is a great place for a convention, opines this writer, because after the meetings there’s a lot to engage a visitor.
THE gathering of a select group of fashion lawyers from around the world that I organise every year was about to begin, this time on a pleasant, sun-washed afternoon in Barcelona, the coastal capital of Catalonia, in eastern Spain.
I was staying at the Hotel El Palace, one of the greatest in all Spain, and we had also rented a function room that, as people came in, was correctly compared to something from the kind of romantic movie in which the earnest but dashing prince courts the reluctant princess under spreading chandeliers. Waiters served a formal tea in the English manner as four attorneys from three continents made brief and effective speeches on the art and craft of fashion law.
Some experiences in life are without peer, and that is what a grand hotel in the style of the El Palace quietly reminds you it can provide. As the 11,000-strong legal convention that drew us all here continued, lawyers kept arriving. During my stay, I took several of them to the hotel’s rooftop, there to have lunch, tapas, drinks, take a dive into the outdoor pool or just take in the view of the city. They all commented how lucky I was to have secured the best venue in town.
Luck in hotel selection during a convention is what happens when you know where to go and book earlier than everyone else. That is especially true in cities such as Barcelona, where the convention centre is far removed from the centre of anything you would leave home and family to see.
The next thing to do if you are in a highly desirable city is to leave time for fun – and to invite others to enjoy it with you. That is how, bearing timed entrance tickets wisely booked online by the El Palace concierge, a veritable delegation of us – this time all Americans and Germans – ended at the Sagrada Familia, the cathe- dral-sized masterpiece of a church still under construction from plans by the architect Antoni Gaudi, the greatest exponent of Modernisme (the Art Nouveau of Catalonia). Ground was broken in 1882, and the building will be finished perhaps by 2026, which marks the centennial of Gaudi’s death at the age of 73, after being struck by a tram.
People who have been there just a few years before say the difference is striking. Inside, at least, it looks about finished.
Traditional church architecture in the Gothic style is referenced in the building, but its columns and spires brush past the commonplace, twisting and rising like trees in a fanciful forest. The sun comes through stained glass of orange, yellow and blue as if filtered through the feathers of an aviary of exotic birds. To see the Sagrada Familia is to see Christianity in a different way, as something closer to an East Asian religion in its strive for harmony with nature and as an invitation for spiritual meditation.
Gaudi is a cultural hero of his native Catalonia, where his major works are to be found, but Picasso moved here as an adolescent, when his father accepted a position teaching art at a local academy. The Museu Picasso, which opened during the master’s lifetime, maintains one of the largest and greatest collections of his works, most notably pieces from the early, formative stages in his career that are under represented in museums elsewhere.
Picasso’s contemporary Joan Miro was born in Barcelona, and many of his works are now housed in a museum that translates as the Miro Foundation, Center of Studies of Contemporary Art. It is housed in a Modernist building on a verdant hilltop overlooking the city. Although, an art critic, I am not as engaged by Miro’s works as I am by those of Picasso, I could not imagine a better setting in which to understand more completely his contribution to Modern Art. In a rather typical fashion, three American women (surely from our convention) stood in front of one painting, each with an audio guide, one pointing and saying, “I think those are breasts,” then taking that back and starting over, in consultation with her colleagues.
Lawyers on sightseeing breaks love cultural experiences as much as anyone else, but there is something about conventions, with their utilitarian conference rooms that, wherever they appear in the world, look entirely the same, to make an attorney want to stray off the mark just a bit. That is how another digression from our duty to the law led several of us to the Museu de la Xocolata de Barcelona, which is to say, the Chocolate Museum. Your ticket is a bar of chocolate that you get to keep after scanning it at the entry gate. As we headed to the permanent collection, which details the history of chocolate making and includes Michelangelo’s Carrara marble Pieta re-imaged in dark Catalonian chocolate, an American voice behind me called out, “I can’t get in. I ate my ticket.”
A city’s life is what happens while business travellers fly like tennis balls back and forth between conference rooms and museums. Central Barcelona is highly accessible, with clean streets and fine old buildings, most of them on the main avenues
Hotel El Palace rooftop at twilight. — Photos: ALAN BEHR/TNS
Round and spiral forms in the overhead lighting of the Noble Floor, Casa Batllo by Antoni Gaudi.
View from the cathedral steps of the cobla (band) and sardana dancers.