February 2003- Barcelona Museums.
 
Our life in Barcelona has settled into some routines:

We take Spanish (whoops, Castilian) lessons through the city's Adult Education program, 5 hours a week for just 7 euros (about $7.60) -- quite the bargain! The classes meet in the evenings, and since we're in different classes, one or both of us are in school for an hour or 2 each weekday evening. We've finally got to the point where we can hold some everyday conversations in Spanish, so we try to do that as much as possible. But for both of us, speaking is a one - word - at - a - time proposition.

Every other weekend, we're racing on a 25' Beneteau that reminds us a lot of our old J/24. Our skipper is Irish and his fiancée is Dutch-American but is not sailing because she's pregnant. Rob does jib and spinnaker trim, the two Dutch crew members handle backstays and pit, and the Frenchman does foredeck. (Last weekend he couldn't race because he was going to Paris to get married, so Andi did foredeck.) English is the language on board, but sometimes Spanish or Dutch creeps in, and other times we have to explain or point at something that is missing from a crew member's English-sailing vocabulary. We've also done some boat work with them and enjoy the post-race socializing.

Many of the cruisers here seem surprisingly insulated from Barcelona life, and Andi has taken on a little crusade to get them "into" this fascinating place. She reads in the weekly 'Guia del Ocio' (Guide to Leisure) about special events in Barcelona, translates the descriptions from Spanish into English, and announces them to the cruisers on the daily VHF radio net. There are also social events within the marina: a Thursday morning coffee get-together, BYO barbecues on most Sunday afternoons, and occasional "special events," such as a trivia quiz at Miguel's, our local watering hole. In between these routine activities, we've been doing some work on the boat, with which we will not bore you; suffice it to say that the "to-do" list never seems to get much under 100 items, no matter how hard we work.

With all this going on, it's surprising that we've found the time to visit some of the many museums in the city. Different museums have free admissions on various days of the week or month, so we've been timing our visits to these. As with the strange opening hours typical of Spain, these free days are unpredictable. Some are the first Saturday of the month, or the first Sunday, or the first Thursday. Others are for special fiesta days, and some (we suspect) are random.

Whatever else they do or don't do, the Spanish do know how to do museums. Here are some that we've particularly enjoyed:

The Museu National de Art de Catalunya (MNAC) is housed in the Palau National, a huge and grand edifice built for the 1929 international Exposition on the side of Montjuic, one of Barcelona's hills. The incredible building is matched by its remarkable art displays. Apparently in the early 20th century, some Catalan art historians realized that numerous small churches and chapels in the mountainous areas of Catalonia near Andorra were abandoned and/or in really bad disrepair. These churches and chapels had frescos dating from the 11th to 13th centuries. Somehow the historians managed to remove the frescoes and bring them to MNAC, where they constructed columns, arches and apses in the exact size and shape of the original buildings, then mounted the fresco fragments in place. Each chapel includes a small scale model of the original, a photograph of how it looks now (i.e., falling down), and a map of Catalonia showing its location, along with a scholarly explanation of the significance of the work. There are over 15 of these little chapels. It's way cool.

The Museu Frederic Marès is the private library, studio and art collection of an eccentric and apparently really rich sculptor. It's housed in a lovely old building that was once part of the royal palace (see below). The courtyard, with fountain and orange trees, dates from the 13th century and the entryway still bears the 16th century royal coat of arms. Marès had wide interests in collecting, and when he hit on something to collect, he got lots of them. There are room after room of medieval wooden Catalan crucifixes and "Mother of God" carvings (about which, more later). More curious though, was his interest in "everyday life" objects from the early 20th century (he lived from 1893-1991). His "Sentimental Museum" contains rooms full of hair combs, fans, keys, playing cards, eyeglasses, shoe buckles, etc. Quite weird. But what we really enjoyed was a temporary display explaining the restoration of a 16th century Flemish multi-paneled painting (polytych), featuring religious scenes/themes painted in oils on wood. The partially restored painting is accompanied by a very scholarly explanation of the techniques used to determine its origins, the paints used, the original colors, and the way to restore it without further damaging it. One reason we (or at least Rob) liked it was that one of the analytic methods mentioned was a mathematical process called Fourier transforms. (We realize that Fourier transforms will be a mystery to most of you, and in fact their precise use in this context was a mystery to Rob, but it was neat to see anyway.)

Between the two museums above, we've now seen over a hundred "Mother of God" statues (and paintings). The statues are generally smaller than full-size, and depict the Virgin Mary seated with a little male figure, obviously representing Christ, on her lap inside the crook of her left arm. She frequently holds a fruit in her hand -- an apple or pomegranate -- and he faces the viewer and holds his hand up in blessing, with two fingers raised. He sometimes but not always has an orb or book in his other hand. Of course, there are variations (sometimes he holds the fruit and she holds the orb), but the striking thing about these sculptures is that the Christ figure is almost always too mature to be a baby. Sometimes he appears as a boy of some 8-10 years, sometimes as a little grown man. In a very few of the Mother of God sculptures, Mary has her left breast exposed and is proffering it to this little man. In all but one of these, he stares steadfastly at the viewer, spurning the offered breast; but Andi claims to have noticed one in which he has her nipple in his mouth. Rob must have missed that one -- it's easy to sort of glaze over when confronted with dozens of almost identical figures in the same room. We assume the discordant age/maturity of the Christ figure has something to do with the Trinity, but beyond that, it's anybody's guess.

The Museum of the History of the City is the former palace of the Catalan-Aragon monarchs, who lived in it from the 10th to 15th centuries. You enter up the same stairs that Columbus took when he returned from his voyage of discovery, into the throne room where Ferdinand and Isabella received him. This impressive room had been totally hidden under (behind?) a Baroque chapel when the palace was converted to a convent in the 18th century, and was rediscovered intact in the 20th century. But the best part of the museum is entirely underground: an entire section of the Roman town of Barcino. You walk through and over (on see-through floors) the original pathways, shops (the vats in the dyer's still show blue dye, and some of the wine merchants terra-cotta casks are intact), walls, and drainage systems. It's the largest underground excavation of any ancient city in Europe, and very well displayed and explained.

Finally (for this report at least) is the Maritime Museum. Again, the building is as much an attraction as its contents. It is the Royal Shipyards of Barcelona, which began building ships for the Catalan-Aragon empire in the 13th century. The Shipyards are considered the world's greatest standing example of civil (non-religious) Gothic architecture, and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally right on the waterfront with slipways, but now about a block inland, the building consists of a series of huge arched bays where over 20 ships (galleys) could be constructed simultaneously. To illustrate this, the museum features a life-size reconstruction of a 16th century galley -- some 80 meters (200') long. It's an awesome sight. The commentary says that the oarsmen (over 300) were chained to their seats, where they ate, slept, and defecated in addition to rowing, and contemporary accounts say that galleys could be smelled for miles before they were seen. Definitely believable. The Museum also has both models and examples of many watercraft (especially Mediterranean) and historical maps, including those used by Magellan and Vespucci. As fond as we are of our own maritime Museum in Newport News, we were awed by this place.

And those museums barely get us out of the Middle Ages! We have yet to explore the Modernista buildings, the Miro, or the many other weird little other museums (Chocolate, Shoes, Funeral Coaches, Sewer, Perfume, Bulls), but we're working on 'em!.