Via Laietana is a busy interconnecting thoroughfare that runs northwest from Barcelona’s seaport to Placa Urquinaona. Here, it changes its name to Carrer de Pau Claris and continues straight to Avinguda Diagonal, the city’s widest avenue and its most important commercial gateway. West of Via Laietana is Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a zone of snaky narrow streets and quaint plazas that are a delight to hang around in and cherish. East of Via Laietana is the district of La Ribera, another medieval quarter of typical narrow streets that seem older and more characterful than those within Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Although La Ribera is only a subsequent extension of the Gothic Quarter, it is undoubtedly more graceful and refined, its palatial cluster of period buildings standing as evidence to its affluent and opulent past.
Lively with bars and colourful with souvenir shops, noisy with visitors and treasure-filled with arty oddities are the labyrinthine streets of El Born, an utterly compact area that sits right in the centre of La Ribera. Its main street is Carrer de Montcada, a pedestrianized passageway long enough to contain a dozen or so Gothic palaces, all characterized by huge arched doorways and inner shady courtyards. Squeezed in between the archways or partly holed up in a palace courtyard are specialized shops of all sorts. Needless to say, souvenir shops abound but not all offer good-value items of quality, although most of what’s for sale is somehow or other associated with the cultural aspect of the area. This feeling of culture in El Born is so intense that it is easy to grab from the shop displays a worthless portrait or a bone-china figurine for which you pay good money, assuming you are buying a work of art.
The significance of the term culture is wide-ranging and far-reaching but restricting the meaning of the term to artistic refinement and traditional heritage of distinction, I can claim with certainty after visiting the place that El Born is a cultural legacy of stone and art few other places in the world can match. Graceful to walk along and magical to explore, Carrer de Montcada embraces the largest and richest portion of this resourceful bequest. Not only is this lovely walkway a showplace of some of the best secular medieval stonework structures in Europe but it contains as well enough art galleries and museums as to make visiting all a task of utter exhaustion, particularly if your time here is limited to just a single day. So, it is worth choosing carefully which places are most appealing to your tastes and then restrict yourself to visiting these only. After all, it is better to revel in the displays of one or two museums that really interest you rather than getting in and out from one place to another seeing everything but relishing nothing.
Regardless of time restriction, regardless of your interests, Carrer de Montcada accommodates one particular art museum that should however on no account be missed out, even if your interest in art does not go beyond recognizing the difference between a classicist and an impressionist painting. Dedicated to one of the world’s greatest creators of art and revolutionary art techniques, this extraordinary exhibition space contains an amazing display of artworks, conveniently placed in a chronological order so as to follow the life and artistic development of their skilful composer.
No Spanish painter was more creative, innovative and versatile than Pablo Picasso and this museum is rightly and deservedly dedicated to him. The range of exhibits that date back to Picasso’s young age is by far more comprehensive than exhibits from his later works, giving the false impression that Picasso belongs to the traditional school of realist painters. But as one ventures into the artist’s later-day exhibits, one becomes aware of Picasso’s real artistic talent and his amazing ability to experiment with styles, techniques and colour. His ‘Blue Period’ compositions, well represented in the museum constitute a journey into the poorest and most pitiful states of human degradation (poverty, loneliness, melancholy and despair). This he achieved through the use of dark shades of blue and blue-green, warmed occasionally by other dark and sombre colours. Picasso’s ‘Rose Period’ creations, maybe insufficiently and sparsely represented in the museum are more lively and colourful, demonstrating the artist’s excellent skill in the use of vivid colours to symbolize cheerfulness, light-heartedness and joy. The artist’s years of maturity were dedicated to cubism, an odd style of art which he pioneered with Georges Braque. The number of cubist Picasso paintings and ceramic pieces in the museum is considerable and is possibly enough to render the evolution of Picasso’s most notable style understandable, if not appraisable as well. In this regard, the ‘Las Meninas’ set of exhibits is outstanding both with regards to its wonderful polychrome design and the line technique used.
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Picasso’s experimentation with colour and style may not be your cup of tea, preferring instead more traditional or conservative art. Even if you fall within this category, you can still ignore the exhibits (oh, what a disgrace!) and concentrate solely on the building which is unquestionably a monumental attraction in its own right. It is true that the palatial cluster of centuries-old buildings in which the museum is housed is more appropriate for an orthodox rather than an avant-garde genre of art but… who can criticise, once aware of the fact that this was chosen by dear old Pablo himself during his lifetime?
The whole museum complex consists of five interconnected palaces, three of which (architecturally the most interesting and unquestionably the best preserved) house permanent exhibits. The other two, added to the museum during the last decade are used for temporary exhibitions that are not necessarily associated with Picasso. The palaces are delightful to wander around, the distinctive Gothic features of each being perhaps the most notable and eye-catching attraction. The central courtyard that dominates the interior of each palace is a magical haunt, an intimate place surrounded with rows of pointed arches, slender fluted pillars, flamboyant window decorations and Gothic sculptures that are as beautiful (though stylistically so different) as the Picasso collections. The open-air staircase that leads from the courtyard to the first floor is as characterful as the coffered medieval ceilings or the exquisite arched galleries inside. Make it a point to go around each of the palaces one by one so as not to lose on the distinctive characteristics each building incorporates.
Across the street from the Picasso Museum are two grand buildings that deserve more than a passing glance. Their lovely courtyards accommodate intimate cafeterias where one can linger in an atmosphere of tranquillity and homeliness. One of these buildings known as Palau Nadal houses the Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Precolombi, a unique exhibition centre that contains one of the world’s greatest collections of primitive art. Most of the exhibits consist of prehistoric artefacts excavated from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas. Large collections dating back to early civilisations in Europe and the East Indies are also on display. Amidst piles of ancient ceramics and ornamental knickknacks, one finds lots of religious paintings and sculptures. Of particular beauty are the gold necklaces from Peru and the set of jade figurines from the Olmec Mexican civilization.
Further southeast on Carrer de Montcada is a graceful baroque palazzo where music spectacles (live opera, flamenco concerts and guitar singing) are held for visitors whose ear for music is as good as their eye for architectural charm. Known as the Palau de Dalmases, it is undeniably a unique place (albeit downright expensive) where one can enjoy music in an atmosphere of utter romanticism surrounded with hundreds of flickering candles, historical paintings, old tapestries and classical sculptures. Equally atmospheric and equally expensive is the culture-conscious bar in the courtyard where more classy music and flamenco dancing prolong unceasingly into the wee hours of the morning.
Further southeast and within earshot of the extreme end of Carrer de Montcada rises the Eglesia de Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona’s finest Gothic place of worship. Not as superfluously decorated as the city’s Cathedral, it is nonetheless more Gothic in the sense that its Gothic structural features are more distinctly visible and clearly defined. Its external architecture, except the Placa de Santa Maria façade is almost entirely hidden amidst the narrow streets of La Ribera and consequently hard to explore. But once inside, one is surprised to find a three-aisled space, simple in design but great on refinement and architectural aesthetics. The tall slender pilasters that support the roof vaulting are a wonder of harmony and proportion. How can such a small number of pilasters take in the weight of the enormous roof?