The Art Enclaves of Northern Spain

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We were heading to Spain—to the regions where its forebearers in art had once hailed from:  Dali, Picasso, Miro, Valezquez, and of course, the abstract and rococo architect, Antonio Gaudi.  Wanting more than a look at artistic history, we were looking for a hit of Spain’s contemporary legacy, for the enclaves that reverberate—even now—with the bold spirit of something inspired from the country’s imaginative past.

As we ran to board our re-routed San Francisco-to-Dusseldorf-to-Barcelona Air Berlin flight, my husband shouted, “I want to find out what a contemporary artist’s life feels like in Northern Spain.”  These days, there’s an ulterior motive in our traveling.  We’re searching the globe (quite literally) for the city, town or village that’s going to jump-start our artist-hearts and make us want to live there, at least part of the year, preferably in some affordable, stone structure that inspires us to create.

We chose three Spanish art towns:  Barcelona, the playground of the architect Antonio Gaudi, whose buildings look like a cross between drip paintings and melting structures, and whose monuments celebrate everything from bold color to building blocks.  Then Deia, the tiny, all-stone, art town on the rocky coast of the island of Mallorca with impeccable painterly views; and on the mainland coast, the white-washed, medieval, beachside town of Cadaques near the French border, home for many years to Salvador and Gala Dali.

In Barcelona, we landed in the groovy, mid-priced, Hotel Banys Orientals—a perfect mid-town Barcelona locale on a walk-street with excellent service.  The Hotel has one of the best local restaurants, Senyor Parellada, which reminded us of a smaller (and much more affordable) version of the past-decade, ultra-culture, swank San Francisco restaurant, Stars.  Food is amazing and well-presented, and the light, clean Spanish bottle of wine we bought for dinner cost just $7 US.  Our clean-lined, third-floor room had floor to ceiling Spanish doors which looked out over the walk-street and even had an angled view of the cathedral.

The action in Barcelona (pronounced Barth-e-lo-na by the Catalan locales, with a soft “th”) is cobbled into two broad neighborhoods called “The Born” and “The Gotic.”  What’s stunning about certain cities with neighborhoods constructed in stone is that somehow, old and new seem to dovetail easily and effortlessly, a kind of aesthetic grace that’s bound up in the very material of the walls themselves.  Authentic artist shops peppered the flat-stoned, walled streets and alleys just as prolifically as shops catering to tourists, and the Cathedral square—just two blocks from our hotel—was a truly vital plaza with musicians, flea markets, artists, food vendors and more, set just a stone’s throw from modern, upscale clothing stores.  From the square, we could wander any which way and find painters’ studios, wood carvers, custom shoe makers, silversmiths, designers, dressmakers, and hidden cafes.

Never much on the guided-tour trail, we swung out (on the advice of friends) and took the Devour Barcelona tour.  At 100 Euros a person it’s not cheap, but it was worth every dime.  We met Esther, our guide, at Arc de Triomf, and she took us on a full night’s eating and drinking escapade, trekking through the Gotic and the Born neighborhoods and ingesting Spain’s best-loved tapas, main dishes, desserts and aperitifs—with a history lesson to boot.  Vermut—an herb-spiced wine made with white grapes and dark herbs and aged in a 100-year old barrel—could be got for a mere $4 a bottle at Maestrazgo, the famous bottega in the Born, along with sheep’s cheese and local prosciutto sliced fresh at the table from a smoked hind leg of pig presented in all its glory.  Bar la Pla, the back-alley, modern-twist-on-tapas cafe where we ended our evening, served up a tender herbed pork, thin slices of beef steak soaked in wine, and left a bottle of Ratafia—a spicy aperitif—on the table for us for all to enjoy.

It’s possible in Barcelona to see the main sites in a few days—the Picasso Museum, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral, his Parc Guell, which overlooks the whole city (get tickets for all of the above online before you go), and the Gaudi buildings Casa Milo and Casa Battlo, architecture which you can view from the street.  (All of these are main attractions, so plan ahead.)  But the real art-fun began to happen when we got into the neighborhoods and began to interact with the local creatives—including the restaurateurs.

If food is art, then artists beyond the traditional abound in Barcelona.  One of our best and favorite meals was lunch in the Gracia neighborhood at La Trini—9.50 Euros for a full meal of a starter, a main entrée, coffee and dessert, each exquisitely prepared: spaghetti Carbonara and a delicate steamed cod for appetizers, and spiced braised rabbit and pork cheek in red wine as entrees.  For dessert we drank Vermut, inhaled an orange-coconut tart (an amazing marzipan consistency), and gazed up at the giant Dali photographs on the walls.  Fabulous.

Dinner at Cafè Jaime Beriestain, also in the Gracia neighborhood, is a spectacular experience in both food and designer-chic.  The place has overstuffed booths covered in bold stripes, with contrasting pillows, exquisite light fixtures, huge contemporary art, and each piece of lighting, houseware, cutlery, and glassware can be purchased next door in the design shop.  It’s a special-treat restaurant, with food that’s delicious and as beautifully crafted as the interior of the place (try the scallops with grilled artichokes), and though it’s not cheap by Barcelona standards, it is compared to American fine dining, and it’s worth every Euro.

In the hot mid-afternoons of warm days, it’s lovely to walk through the cool, stone pathways of The Gotic neighborhood, shop the tiny artist galleries, and then head to Placa San Felipe Neri, a plaza with a chic hotel of the same name (and a nice place to have a meal or a cocktail.)  It’s the site of a small church bombed during the Spanish Civil War where Gaudi used to come and sit on the stones dressed as a street person.  There are artists’ ghosts here everywhere, even in the humblest of buildings.

Tapas, the old-school “slow food” movement of small-plate eating, originated in southern Spain, yet Barcelona and the whole region have embraced its popularity.  One story is, there was a southern king who got dust in his drink and covered it with a piece of ham—hence, the beginning of tapas.  Or, so legend goes, in Madrid, another king found that his workers had wine but were too poor to eat, so he passed a law that wine must be served with small amounts of food.  Either legend is a lovely guidepost to what Spaniards enjoy engaging in:  late night, small-plate eating with plenty of local wine.

La Plata was a favorite tapas bar—a stand-up affair on the edge of the Gotic, near the waterfront, and the oldest in the city.  (The locals say to do your homework, avoid the touristy places—usually on busy city corners—and find the neighborhood spots.)  Pepe, the owner of La Plata, likes to say the restaurant supports five families with four tapas.  Traditional tapas are eaten by smearing a fresh tomato paste and olive oil on bread, then placing sausage, cheese or smoked fish on top and popping it in your mouth.  Parron, a strong, clear high-alcohol wine, is served to guests in a glass beaker with a particularly long spout, and it is tradition to throw your head back and pour it from a dramatic height into your mouth.  (Many photos were snapped as we poured the delectable liquid down our throats.)

Art-as-architecture is everywhere in this city, but most it is most vivid at the Palau de Musica—a rococo designed auditorium that has enough eye-catching gilt, sculpture and beauty to explore that you may miss the show.  (The restaurant is spectacular too.)  We saw a famed Flamenco talent, Raphael Amargo, who knocked our hearts awake with the vocal rhapsody of his basso voce, and his chorus’s sensual Flamenco heel-stomping.

Barcelona oozes with art, no matter where you look.  We found a cave of an ancient synagogue with Judaica artistry from centuries ago, in the Carrer Marlet, in the old quarter of Barcelona; we stood by as songstresses crooned along the stone pathways curving around the Hotel Colon and the Gothic Cathedral.  To hear the contemporary voices of singers and guitarists echo through the high, stone archways of the Gotic, and outside the hidden artists’ ateliers throughout walk-streets of The Born, was like being called to another time beyond history, yet tied to it by a chord of Catalan and modern choral chant.

In the artists’ galleries we found art that we could buy—simply-priced small prints, wood carvings, and paintings—a legacy of artists’ roots coming after Picasso, Dali, and Miro’s time, but with the same gritty feel of the beginnings of something new and progressive.   We loved Art 01 for contemporary art (www.art01barcelona.com , Dario Sigismondo for paintings (http://www.dariosigismondo.net), Rekup and Company for highly designed wooden lamps and more (www.rekupandco.com), and Tienda de Guapo (phone: 930-319-84-95) where my husband found a gorgeous leather satchel for $60 US.  We hung out at a small artist’s café and bar called The Story, a hip library-themed café deep in a corner of the Born. (https://www.facebook.com/pg/StoryCafe2016/about/?tab=overview).

After a quick plane-hop to the island of Mallorca, we got a car and headed up the rocky west coast to the art town of Deia.  Given this town’s tiny size and no-Americans profile, we mistakenly thought it would be largely undiscovered, but Europeans know better.  Deia has been a Brit and German destination for years, but even with lots of travelers, the town is a true delight.

The scenery is so instantly gorgeous that I thought I was looking at a postcard with each turn—the town’s picturesqueness rivals any beautiful views I’ve seen in the world.  The entire hamlet is constructed in peach-colored stone and sits at the base of precipitous peaks overlooking flat cliffs which drop into the bright blue sea.  Stone streets, tiny cafes, street art, and even a fresh-water spring come alive in the center of the place.  The tiny local market is a revelation in Spanish and French charcuterie and pastries.

On our first day, we spied contemporary abstract painter Montse Palomo’s work (neodreams@yahoo.com) pitched on easels leading up a steep stone path to plaza in front of her apartment.  We had ten days on Deia—a good, long time—and spent several of them with the artist.  Her whimsical fish paintings completely charmed us and we went home with three.

Deia was the home of the author and poet Robert Graves, and the historical site of his and his wife Beryl’s house and gardens, called Canallun, which is open to the public and still feels lived in.  To walk through the still-tended vegetable garden and see the azure sea below its walls is to feel what it must have been like to create an art colony; to live outside of time and at peace with your work.

Deia’s website (www.deia.info) lists more than a dozen local artists who have called the island home, including ceramicist Joanna Khune, abstract painter Arturo Rhodes, and Cecilie and George Sheridan.  On weekends, artists come to the town from the city of Palma and set up camp on streets to sell their work—jewelry-makers, sculptors, ceramicists and painters—heading for the boisterous, open air music scene of La Fonda café at night.  Art is everywhere in the town, and at the high-end Belmond La Residencia Hotel, the walls are covered with local artists’ work.

There are a handful of incredibly lovely places to stay, including the high-end Es Moli; the Costa D’or just outside of town with a must-do hiking path down to the rocky shore ( you can have lunch there); the moderately priced s’Hotel d’es Puig, with a rooftop pool; and the affordable Hostal Miramar with incredible views and wood-framed, French-door authenticity.

Deia’s most exquisite spot, for our money, is the Sa Pedrissa Hotel, an old fieldstone home with shutters, perched on the side of a hill and facing a crevasse in the mountainside that offers a shimmering view of the sea.  (Think: Enchanted April.)  Dinner here is as lovely as a romantic dream, with white tablecloths on a stone patio and the sun setting on the wide pool terraced just above the ocean.  (The restaurant specializes in roast pig.)

Xelini, an upscale casual place with the look of a stone wine cellar, and our favorite eatery in town, specialized in tumbet—an eggplant, tomato and potato strata that melted in our mouths.

We bought tickets ($10 a piece) for the Ensemble Tramuntana, a 16-piece classical orchestra which superbly played Boccherini, Mozart and Haydn on a warm evening in the hilltop cathedral.  At intermission, all of the guests were poured glasses of Cava, and we sat on the stone wall chatting with the musicians.

On a couple of daytrips we headed up the coast to Soller (pronounced SOY-er), the site of a proper beach and a smaller version of Barcelona hip-dom.  Great cafes, terrific shopping, and plenty of artwork abound here—including a terrific exhibition of Miro’s and Picasso’s ceramics at the local train station.

Back on the mainland, our last art enclave was the tiny medieval town of Cadaques, near the French border.  The town is set upon stone-covered hills, with narrow, winding streets running throughout along a broad bay filled with sailboats.  ‘Picturesque’ hardly gives this hamlet enough credit:  its setting on the water, with small rocky beaches lining the promenade of whitewashed cafes and shops, begs to be painted.  And painters paint it every day.  In each alcove easels are set up, with artists behind them, lovingly looking out upon the landscape.

Though the view lends itself to figurative landscape, there are tons of abstract and contemporary artists filling its streets.  There is an instant sensation of an artists’ colony here, a feeling of looseness and free-form existence which would allow one to just hang a shingle and open a gallery, post a sign and call it your studio.  We felt an immediate sense of community without the burdensomeness of having to be crowned “discovered,” or “important,” by the art brokers of acceptability.  Artists just begin, and do what they do here.  So said the artists we talked to.

At El Carro Galeria d’Art, the lovely little gallery of artists Maria Sola and Tony Azorin, we bought vibrant abstract collages painted on board, entirely affordable and evocative in color-blocks of Rothko-like vibrancy.  At Atelier, the studio of three women artists (one of whom painted with beautiful, Basquiat-type vibrancy), each had a story of how she had arrived in Cadaques—not quite the ‘dropping-out’ tale we’d expect as Americans, but instead, a true search into the roots of the artists who hung out here before them:  Picasso, Miro, Dali, Bunuel, Magritte.

Gallardo, a bigger, bright gallery filled with Mercedes Gallardo’s vivid work, was also a delight.

Dali’s crazily situated house is here—the place he lived with his paramour and then wife, Gala, for many years—and it’s worth a visit, just to see the couple’s red velvet bedroom looking out over the sea, and the surreal, white, stone egg balancing on the outer architecture.   A video in an outside building gives the viewer a slice of his life and art work, along with some of the wackier, and quite surreal, things the artist once said out loud, such as, “Jesus is cheese.”  His studio is on view, including the famous easel which retracts into the floorboards.

Though there were swankier places to stay, we loved the Hotel Tarongeta—a remodeled and clean-lined beach hotel for about $100 a night.  Service was friendly, and the place is walking distance from everything in town.  Mornings, we headed right to the French bakery and local hang, Es Fornet, for lighter-than-air croissants and dark black coffee.

In the food-as-art category, Cadaques excels.  Tons of restaurants line the waterfront, and more are cobbled into the backstreets, including everything from one-plate prix fixe dinners, to crepes-on-the-street, to white tablecloth service.  Of the ones worth revisiting, Es Balconet, with its saffron paella and fresh fish brought to the table (a lobster jumped out at us), Casa Nun, with a gorgeous setting just above the sea shore, and Café Cadaques, a quaint Italian place with delicate, homemade pasta, were among the best.

We stopped, upon our return south to the airport, in the very hip, canal city of Girona—a stone-structured town in the spirit of Barcelona—and ate perfectly spiced rice-and-seafood dishes for lunch at Arroz y Peiz, priced at just $11 US.

With our suitcases stuffed with objects d’art, and our eyes and hearts filled with the hues, textures and light of northeastern Spain’s creative spirit, we knew we had gotten what we came for:  the artist’s soul is alive and well here, and we will be back.