Friday, October 29, 2010

View of Barcelona from Parc Güell & Other Sites

I can hardly believe that it's been over ten years since I lived in Barcelona. Back in 2000, I stayed there for six months while conducting research for my doctorate. I worked mostly in the the Biblioteca de Catalunya and the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. At the time, I shared a rented apartment with a colleague and friend, which was only 10 minutes away from Parc Güell. I used go up there regularly in the mornings to enjoy the view with an espresso and croissant, before I headed to the archive. That was definitely a good grad school experience!  Nothing penitential about it!  Perhaps this was the point in my life when I began to lose interest in traveling back in time to experience life in the cloister...  Looking back, I think that this cleavage had something to do with my being confronted by the imaginative splendour of Antoni Gaudi's architecture, and the raw energy and frantic street-life of Barcelona. This is why I was so glad that Gerry and Tim thought Parc Güell to be a perfect place to begin our exploration of the city, and of the central importance of Gaudi's work within it. The park has many wonderful perches that offer unique viewpoints of the city and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea that lies beyond. 

On our first full day in Barcelona, we met at the Gaudi museum, "La Pedrera", which was just a metro ride away from our apartment downtown, and a close walk for the students from their hostel on the Passeig de Gracia.

Several floors of the Pedrera are actually inaccessible because they contain suites that are privately owned. But the building, on the whole, offers a splendid example of Gaudi's architectural style -- curvy halls, doors, & windows in place of straight lines and right angles.  Although the building doesn't look tall from the outside, the inner spiral staircase leading up to the top floor winds around, and around, and around, and around... quite dizzying!  From the rooftop are Gaudi's famous sculptures that must have been a source of inspiration for the creators of Star Wars ...

From the roof of the Pedrera, we also had a panoramic view of the city, and could see in the distance another of Gaudi's famous works, the "Sagrada Familia":

While the students explored the Sagrada Familia from the inside, Dr. Honigsblum (Gerry) and I sat at a cafe across the road, and discussed the compelling scene of the crucifixion on the back facade of the church (see below). For me, the angular shape of the human figures seemed reminiscent of socialist monuments and sculptures of the early 20th century. Gerry pointed out the unusual depiction of the triumphant, fist-clenched Jesus on the cross.  I think that a few of the students did not appreciate our analysis ... are they "against interpretation" ?  Well, who knows... whatever the case, I would like to read their thoughts about this Gaudi creation (their assignment for Gerry's art history class).  

Later that day, I took Kerstin, Melanie & Lauren, on a tour of the old Gothic quarter (Barri Gotic).  I wanted to show them, in particular, the central market, the cathedral, the Jewish quarter ("Call") -- old synagogue and Intepretative Center -- and the neighbourhood known as "Santa Maria del Mar", which has wonderful artisan shops (Melanie did not want to see anymore kitschy gifts!) as well as one of my favourite gothic churches. Unfortunately, bad memory and a crummy map got me lost on the way to Santa Maria del Mar ...  My map looked something like this:

"Ladies, ladies, please take out your maps and help me find the place!  You will be rewarded!"  And so, they did ... indeed, once they got oriented, they found Santa Maria del Mar within minutes!  To celebrate, I bought them a refreshment ... (don't think Lauren enjoyed this, but the others did):

The quarter of Santa Maria del Mar was mostly settled in the Middle Ages by merchants, who used their money to fund the construction of a beautiful Gothic church. This connection is still apparent:  near the altar, a ship stands prominently in front of a sculpture of Virgin & Child (while the cross is off to the side and rather diminutive in size).  As the centerpiece suggests, the merchants worshiped Mary as their intercessor and protector -- she was viewed especially as the protector of merchant-seamen and sailors (Barcelona was an important port-city at this time and, together with Valencia to the south, the center of an expanding Aragonese Mediterranean "empire"):

That night, we met the rest of the group in the Plaça Reial, had dinner, and then were treated by Tim and Gerry to a Flamenco show at "Tarantos".  It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Barcelona. While Flamenco isn't a typical form of Catalan dance, it is, more generally for us, a powerful expression of what we associate with Spanish culture ... and it IS powerful!  I think Gerry summed up my feelings best when he said, after the show, "now, all is right in the world."  It must take a unique blending of peoples and cultures to create such an art form ... if only I could watch Flamenco dance every night!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"On the Road Again"

I love Willy Nelson, but I sure didn't enjoy this long drive to Barcelona!  Mark, my colleague, drove the whole way there, as well as back, while I navigated.  It was a bit tricky trying to find our rented apartment in the city, which was essentially located in the old medieval area ("Barri Gotic"), right off the "La Rambla" (main drag full of cars and strolling tourists) and near a major tourist spot called "Plaça Reial". Maneuvering the big 7-seat Mazda wagon along very narrow medieval backstreets was no easy feat... but we eventually found a nearby parking spot and later the apartment itself. More thoughts on our 4-day stay in Barcelona to follow soon...

Cluny in the South -- the Abbey of Fontfroide

Drank too much at the fountain??!  (Ed & Tim pictured here)
After our visit to Carcassonne, we went to an old monastery called "Fontfroide" (or "cold spring") which was not too far away.  Like most medieval monasteries, hospices, and hospitals, this was built on the site of a fresh water source. The monks of Frontfroide belonged to the reformed Benedictine ("Cluniac") order, c. 11thc.  The community was very wealthy and owned much of the land in the vicinity. The place is stunningly beautiful, both the natural setting and architecture of the monastic complex. Oh, to be a Cluniac monk in the Middle Ages!  Not!!! Maybe at one time I would have romanticized about doing some time travel and living in a cloister... but not now, not any more. If there is one thing I've learned about myself, it is that I do not like monastic or penitential-style living conditions ... been there, done that ... it's called the grad school experience!  On the other hand, if I had been a Cluniac "choir monk," I would have been served by a number of lesser monks, called "conversos" -- lay brothers who lived on the premises, but were segregated from the choir monks, and did all the hard labour, serving in the refectory, infirmary, doing work outside, etc. 
"Converso" dormitory.


"Carcassonne." (Oct. 6th)  For me, this town has always been connected with persecution, brutal oppression, and the loss of so many lives, all for the cause of faith. In the early thirteenth century, Cathars took refuge behind its great walls, largely in vein, however, because the crusading army from the north lay siege to the city and claimed victory after only a few weeks.  Most students of history, or those interested in medieval or French history, are familiar with this story. Yet, what is also true about Carcassonne is that it continued to be a site of religious dissent in later years, and, consequently, remained a place of persecution.  Following the Albigensian Crusades, and after the town had been incorporated into the Kingdom of France, common lay people, popularly called "Beguins," both men and women who chose to live their lives humbly, in poverty, often practicing charity among the real poor, were likewise suspected in their faith, and many were burned in Carcassonne for the crime of "heretical depravity."  Mass burnings were often held during the Holy Week. The Beguins were followers of a branch of the Franciscan Order known as the "Spirituals", and many observed the "Third Rule of St. Francis". 
Front gates of Carcassonne

When Carcassonne was taken over by the crusading army from the north, the old Romanesque church within its walls was dismantled and rebuilt in the "Gothic" style - an architectural style that originated in the north (see right & below). Certainly, this reconstruction was intended to deliver a message to the people. However, only the apse was reconstructed because the northerners ran out of money! (Such interesting details come from Eric Crema guided tour of the church).  Usually, last wills and testaments  earmark pious legacies for such massive projects; in this way, the project can be sustained over many years. Clearly, in this case, the people did not contribute!
Church at Carcassonne

Friday, October 22, 2010

Celebrating Francis of Assisi and Brazilian Natural Wonders

On the fête de Saint François d'Assise (Oct. 4th), the community of Third Order Franciscan friars at Notre-Dame de la Drèche invited us to attend a special mass, followed by a reception, a tour of their museum, church and bell tower, topped off by a delicious several-course lunch! 

Interior of the church

At reception (left to right): Rebecca, Gabe, Melanie, Kerstin, Debbie
Tim Perkins (Exec Dir of SFU France) a.k.a. Crocodile Dundee!
The museum was very interesting -- a cabinet of curiosities containing exotic creatures collected by Franciscan friars who had gone on mission into Brazil's rain forest in the 19th-20th centuries. Apparently, these exotic animals were presented to the friars as presents.  Imagine trying to bring such specimens back on an airplane these days?
Ed & the wild cats!
An etymologist's nightmare! 
More exotic creatures in the museum

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Wed., September 29th

Our second excursion was to Conques, approx. a 2-hour drive from Ambialet.  It's a beautiful spot located in higher terrain ("Massif Central"), and accessible only through very windy, narrow roads.  Conques is famous for having the relics of a young virgin martyr (Sainte-Foy) who was put to death by the Romans in 4th C. In the early Middle Ages, the monks at Conques apparently got hold of her bones, and used them to establish their church as a major cult center (monks were great story-tellers!)  Conques' historical importance remains its wonderfully preserved church -- a very detailed tympanum depicting the scene of the Last Judgment (see above) -- and its remarkably extensive relic collection -- which only survives thanks to people of Conques, who took pains to hide it during Revolutionary era.    

Prof. Eric Crema instructing students.

Pilgrim's "ambulatory" in the church.

Fête de Saint Michel

Saturday, Sept. 25
Peter and Margaret, a very sweet British couple who live in Ambialet, invited us to a Fête (de Saint Michel) held in a nearby village.  Apparently, these fêtes take place throughout the summer, and might last all night and well into the next day.  This particular fête reminded me a bit of an American-style county fair... held outside in a big open space...  with the main event (in a big tent) being a several-course meal consisting of roasted pork, salad, home-made bread, a local specialty called "aligot" (Lat: aliquot?) -- an elastic mass of cheesy-potatoes fed to medieval pilgrims who were on their way to Santiago de Compostela -- followed by Roquefort, ice cream.  I should add that the bottles of wine just kept coming... and, as were eating, a very lively band played on stage (umpapa-umpapa music).  I really wanted to stay for the dance as I had already lined up a partner (see below), but some of our group got a bit tired... 

My would-be dance partner at the Fête de Saint Michel (Photos courtesy of Melanie Dollar). Apart from French and Occitan, this gentleman also speaks a bit of English, Spanish and German.  I managed to carry on a conversation with him in French (wine helped!) Melanie conversed with him in Spanish.