Barcelona: More than meets the eye
Alfredo Lanz’s Homenage a la Natación (left) and Miquel Barceló’s gravity-defying Gran Elefant Dret (right). (Matt Munro)
Garish, gregarious Barcelona doesn’t guard its secrets jealously, but the Catalan capital does seem to get a kick from hiding the best of them in plain sight. We sample the city’s lesser-known delights.
The Gaudí-free guide to architecture
The amazing fin-de-siècle structures that define Barcelona are testament to an exhilaratingly peculiar phase of its cultural history, when sober, wing-collared captains of industry happily commissioned buildings inspired by melted wax and skeletons. Beyond the well-chronicled contributions of Antoni Gaudí, a host of less fêted but just as adventurous architects helped shape Barcelona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Take Josep Puig i Cadafalch, the versatile genius with a name like a Welshman talking with his mouth full. A host of madly turretclustered townhouses pay tribute to his belief that a Catalan's home was his castle. And not just his home: Puig i Cadafalch's Casaramona textile plant - now the CaixaForum museum of contemporary art - looks more like some extravagant fortified palace. Walk out onto the rooftop 'modernist terrace' and you'll discover that the whole flamboyant edifice is built from nothing more than house bricks.
Then there's Lluís Domènech i Montaner, whose sprawling Hospital de Sant Pau lies just up the road from Gaudí's La Sagrada Família, and is no less monumentally eccentric. Part Gothic cathedral, part Teutonic fortress, part sultan's palace, its roofline is a riot of spires, beehive water towers and gaudily tiled domes, and its flanks are decorated with heraldic symbols and heroic-scale frescoes of the hospital's benefactors. Since June 2009, the ambulances have pulled up in front of a new hospital that's been tacked on the back, and the majestic old buildings are slowly being transformed into a museum and cultural centre.
As befits a city that hates to go with the flow, Barcelona's take on modernism was the ebullient antithesis of the rigidly functional interpretation that defined it elsewhere. An offshoot of art nouveau, Catalan modernisme was kick-started by the reawakening of the region's art and language during the late 19th century, following 200 years of suppression by their Spanish overlords. Perhaps the movement's most glorious, unshackled expression is Montaner's Palau de la Música Catalana, a glittering confection of polychromatic glass and ceramic flora that could be Europe's most exuberant building.
'Every time I come in here, it's like I forget there is a town outside,' says Mariona Soler, who shows tour groups around the concert hall's auditorium, overseen by a celestial, kaleidoscopic skylight of such disconcerting beauty, it once caused opera singer Montserrat Caballé to forget her lines. 'With the flowers on the walls and the sun above, it's like waking up in the summer countryside.'
- CaixaForum is open Monday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm, and on Saturdays until 10pm (free; de Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, 6-8; Metro: Espanya; obrasocial.lacaixa.es).
- Hospital de Sant Pau offers 90-minute tours in English at 10am, 11am, 12am and 1pm, daily (£9; Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167-171; Metro: Hospital de Sant Pau; santpau.es).
- Palau de la Música Catalana has tours hourly in English from 10am to 3pm (£11; Palau de la Música, 4-6; Metro: Urquinaona; palaumusica.cat).
See Barcelona and die
A ride by funicular and cable car up to Montjuïc Castle lays a famously vibrant city out at your feet, and a brisk walk along the hilltop behind delivers its eerie antithesis. Filling a whole flank of mountain, the Cementiri del Sud-Oest is a bona fide necropolis - a perpendicular city of death hewn into the living rock, so vast it has its own bus route. Imposing Cementiri del Sud-Oest covers 56 hectares and is home to a number of deceased writers and artists, including the surrealist Joan Miró barcelona 46 April 2011 Since 1883 Barcelona's bereaved have come here to inter their great and good, along with their bad and ugly: poets, artists and anarcho-syndicalists; industrialists in pocket cathedrals created by Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch; gypsy gangsters beneath life-sized marble depictions of their open-shirted Elvis prime. The tombs once looked out at a silent sea, but today there's a great clanking container port in between, a surreal counterpoint to the whispering relatives come to pay their respects.