Monday, May 19, 2003

Iberian Notes was off the air last weekend because Remei and I went to Madrid, mostly to get out of town for a while and with the specific mission of seeing the Vermeer exhibition at the Prado. We had to wait two hours to get in on Saturday morning, but it was worth it. There were some 80 paintings; the theme was 17th-century Dutch paintings of interiors. The exhibition focused on allegories and symbolism, often moralistic in character--these people were Calvinists; on these guys' use of perspective and geometry; on how they often used animals to symbolize loyalty and love; and on Dutch culture of the time and how these guys reflected it.

10 or so of the paintings were by Vermeer himself, who of course was not prolific. The most famous ones there were the Young Man in a Red Hat and The Muse of Painting. Every single one of the paintings on show was memorable, though, and worthy of a place of honor at any museum in the world.

By the time we'd given the exhibit a good look, though, we'd been in line for two hours and in the exhibit for about three, we were museumed out. We've been through the Prado a few times, so we contented ourselves with going to look at the Velázquez rooms again and then bailed out and got lunch.

We got in touch with Jesús Gil from Ibidem and had some tapas and a few beers on Friday night; he's a very nice guy and quite interesting to talk to. We chatted about politics, about Madrid, and about a few experiences that Jesús has had, among many topics. He's well-informed about a lot of things and has a rather unique perspective on some of them.

One of the things that is obligatory in Madrid is to hit the downtown tapas joints and drink Mahou on tap. Mahou is a clean, crisp beer that's delicious fresh from the brewery, which it is in Madrid. Madrileños prefer their beer on tap, so all the kegs were tapped that very day. In Barcelona people generally drink Estrella out of the bottle. Estrella out of the keg sucks. Either a) Barcelona people just like bottled beer better, so kegs stay around for a few days after they tap them, and the quality of the Estrella on tap declines and becomes sucky, or b) Estrella on tap just naturally sucks, so everybody orders bottles. I'm tempted to go with hypothesis B.

Anyway, we went to Casa Labra, the Cervecería Alemana, Viva Madrid, Los Gatos, and Casa Alberto, all of which are pretty well-known places. We especially like Los Gatos on the Calle Jesús, where we go every time we're in Madrid, and there are several other nice places on that same street, right near Calle de las Huertas just across from the Prado. Recommended: the tortilla española at Casa Alberto, the fried bacalao at Casa Labra, and the canapés at Los Gatos. Remei also loaded up on ham at the Museo del Jamón; according to her the ham you get in Madrid tends to be a lot better than the ham in Barcelona, since Madrid ham comes from Extremadura and Salamanca and Barcelona ham comes from Catalonia.

Oh, by the way, the place to stay in Madrid is the Hostal Sud-Americana on the Paseo del Prado. It's clean, hospitable, and cheap, the beds are comfortable, and you just cannot beat the location. Ask for a room with a view over the Paseo del Prado if a nice view is what you want, and ask for an interior room if you prefer quiet. We prefer quiet. Further advice: the place to stay in Barcelona is the Hotel Casa-Jardín on the plaza del Pi. Beautiful place, not too expensive (two stars), and again, you can't beat the location. Also investigate the Hotel de España on the Calle Sant Pau, a modernista place designed by the famous architect Doménech and Montaner. The neighborhood is not great, though.

One more piece of advice: Do not fly Iberia if you can avoid it. You don't want to hear the story of the little battles we had to fight. Just don't fly Iberia. Take my word for it. By the way, the worst screw-up I've ever been through was committed by Aer Lingus, who accidentally checked in my bag without labeling it at Heathrow once. Of course, the bag disappeared and I wound up getting $120 in compensation, which was a good bit less than the clothes inside the bag cost to replace. I also lost my favorite gray "Converse Rubbers" T-shirt.

See, I think Remei and I are pretty good tourists. We go somewhere because we want to see the place, and we've normally got at least one cultural thing we want to do, as well as joining in the life of the city as much as we can--you know, going where they go, eating what they eat, and so on. And, of course, we spend money at the hotel and at restaurants and bars, as well as paying to get into the museums or whatever we want to see, so we're a shot in the arm to the local economy.

Manuel Trallero in today's Vanguardia doesn't agree, though. In his view the only good tourist is a dead one.

Barcelona, colonized

They're here, they've arrived! Here in the City of the Counts what the enlightened call the "tourist season" has begun. This makes my very own liver turn flip-flops. Although, correctly viewed, this invasion of the barbarians of the north doesn't stop during the year, but at this time of the year the swimming season is officially inaguarated, just as if we were a spa town from the 19th century, in an operetta nation. The only intimate pleasure they bring me is seeing them during the deceptive nights of the spring, in short pants and a T-shirt--with various straps showing at the same time, the tackiest thing in the world--shivering with cold because they thought Barcelona was in the tropics, baked by the pitiless sun, ready to inoculate themselves with poison in the form of paella and to leave their credit cards torn to pieces.

(Note: For good paella check out a restaurant guide and go somewhere that says its specialty is seafood and rice dishes and its prices are moderate. There are several such places in Barcelona where you can eat well for thirty bucks or so. This is much better than eating badly in some tourist trap for twenty or twenty-five. Hint: Catch the subway and get out at a station halfway to the end of the line. Tourists probably don't go there. Walk around until you see a place that has tablecloths, and you're pretty sure it's the most attractive in that three-or four-block area. Check the menu and see if you like what's on offer--it might be an octopus place or specialize in roast piglets or something gross like that--and it's less than 25 or 30 bucks. Check to see if anybody's eating there. If you get affirmatives, go in and you'll probably do very well. Hint number two: go to the tourist office and ask the guy there where he eats. This almost always works.)

This is one of the few pleasures left to us natives, the indigenous, who suffer this Biblical plague called tourism with stoicism that is near suckerdom. Some consider tourism to be a sort of abundant and unlimited cornucopia providing all sorts of profits, supposedly for all of humanity but in reality just for a few smart guys. We Barcelonese count for nothing, we're like the wild beasts in the zoo, they gaze at us inhabitants of the metropolis from a distance, the next thing you know they'll start tossing us peanuts, and if things keep going this way they'll put loincloths on us and exhibit us as sideshow attractions. To sum up, the Catalans' greed was already proverbial in Dante's time. We've trashed our seacoast, we're continuing with our mountains, and now we've started on this Barcelona place; let's see how many more hotels we can build or how many more luxury cruise ships dock at our port.

A true motive of pride, almost as much so as taking a walk on the Ramblas, that veritable Fifth Avenue of contagious sleaze, among living statues, Mexican hats, stands selling fake artworks and T-shirts with Raúl's name, merchants in the temple right and left just trying to be stereotypical. Can anyone with a minimum of good taste and common sense walk there with his soul dropping to his feet before such a spectacle of degradation and baseness? Well, from what we've seen, these are the advantages of tourism, contemplating gentlemen (pardon the expression) drinking kilometer-sized mugs of beer, with their bare feet onn the chair in front of them, with their shirts off. But don't worry, because between all of us we'll make the best city in the world. For sure we will.

Now, of course, Trallero is exaggerating. The Rambla, all right, is tourist hell, and the Plaza Real is full of drunk working-class North Europeans trying to get as much drunker as they can as fast as they can, and there is a lot of tourist crap around the Sagrada Familia and the Park Guell, but that's about it in Barcelona. Some of the coast towns are pretty awful, too, especially Lloret and Salou. Sitges and Cadaqués are still pretty decent, though, and Tossa's OK. As a whole, it's really not that bad, certainly not if you compare it with Paris, London, or New York as places totally taken over by tourism. Up here in Gràcia there aren't too many tourists and the ones who make it up here tend to be all right--you don't make it to Gràcia unless you've at least read the guidebook, which shows that you've got some interest in the place and are therefore a pretty decent tourist.

His feelings are shared by a good few Barcelonese, though definitely not the majority. Most folks here really are pretty nice. Those who work at tourist places are capable of treating you with scorn and disdain, though. Whatever you do, DO NOT buy a Mexican sombrero. People around here hate that and will yell at you, "This isn't Mexico!" I can see their point. It's like the people who find out I'm from Kansas City and ask me if I'm a cowboy or the people--normally British--who assume that since I'm a Midwesterner I must be an uncouth Bible-thumper.

Oh, of course, note the conspiracy theory. Can't have an article in la Vanguardia without a conspiracy theory. A few big rich dudes are wrecking Catalonia for their own benefit by filling it full of tourists, against the will and to the detriment of the great majority of Catalans. Wrong, of course. Something like 15% of Catalonia's economy is based on tourism, so if tourists all stayed home, that'd whack the income of the average Catalan by 15%. Trallero doesn't seem to realize that in a country that's more or less a capitalist democracy, as Spain is, long-term trends like the growth in tourism, which the majority of the people seriously disagree with, don't happen.

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