A Glimpse Of Barcelona
( Originally Published 1919 )
FROM Tarragona to Barcelona is, comparatively speaking, only a step. But owing to the fact that the really good trains at convenient hours run only now and then during the week, we found our-selves condemned as usual to make the journey in a humble mixed train, which required nearly four hours for the run. They were rather delightful hours, however, close along the Mediterranean shore through orchards of lemon and vineyards of luxuriant grape ; and while the scene was pastorally peaceful, it seldom rose to heights of magnificence. Indeed, the one great excitement was afforded by an impromptu race in which our engineer pitted his leisurely train against a tramp steamer just off shore, headed like ourselves for Barcelona. For miles it was nip and tuck between us, but the train finally won and drew up victorious in a station entirely unworthy of so great and prosperous a city.
For Barcelona is really great, both in size and activity. She is at once the Spanish Milan and the Spanish Naples. Her commercial importance both by land and sea is enormous. Her population, including in the total various outlying hamlets that belong by every right to the city itself, numbers well over half a million. Her docks are magnificent. Her trolley lines are comprehensive. Her streets vary from the narrow and squalid to the broad and imposing. Besides her commercial activities, she is also noted for her output of anarchy and seditious spirit. At the moment of our arrival at her gates, the trial of a trio of bomb-makers had just been concluded in her courts, with three death penalties resulting. King Alfonso had just been visiting the city, and had succeeded in escaping with his life, which seemed to be widely regarded as something remark-able ! As a consequence our advent in this paradise of merchants, manufacturers, traders, socialists, anarchists, and eloquent politicians was attended with mingled feelings of apprehension and pleasure.
Of the seamy side of Barcelona, however, we saw nothing. It spread out to us a most imposing water front as we jogged comfortably down to our hotel, the huge docks and warehouses lining the broad and gently curving quay all the way from the station to the lofty statue of Columbus, which marks the harbor end of the famous Rambla, — the city's central boulevard. Looming grandly ahead, like a blue Gibraltar, was the misty bulk of Montjuich. At the statue we turned sharply to the right and proceeded up the Rambla, leaving Columbus be-hind with but a passing glance. It was recalled, however, that the inhabitants of the city had vented their anger at the untoward results of the Spanish-American war by throwing a shower of stones, eggs, and decayed vegetables at the insensate image of the Genoese, as punishment for his having ventured to find so troublesome a new world for Spain !
The hotel was directly on the Rambla, — a very comfortable establishment, with the rates some-what excessive, as they must be in a big city, and reasonably full. Certainly no location could be more central. just across the shady boulevard was the municipal theatre, the playbills of which were loudly announcing a production of " Sherlock Holmes." In the broad flagged walk that ran up the centre of the highway, a vast throng of people wandered to and fro. Street cars went clanging by at frequent intervals. Carts and carriages alternated with automobiles in a constantly varying procession. It was midday, and the air of the place was un-mistakably metropolitan.
The most casual glance at the map revealed the curious division of the city into two well-defined parts. The older, more irregular section lay close to the sea, its streets wandering and narrow save for the great central highway of the Rambla — or rather Ramblas, for the long avenue bears various names as it goes on up-town, like the series of Parisian boulevards. Outside this older part there is a new one recently sprung into being, wherein the streets are laid out in a system of regular squares. Between this and the old section is a cincture of wide avenues forming together a kite-shaped boundary for the older town. There were frequent spaces of vacant land in the newer part, as we subsequently discovered, but the town straggled off into the outer country, as all large cities must, and no perceptible interval was to be seen between Barcelona proper and her suburbs of Sans, Montjuich, Sarriâ, Gracia, and a half-dozen others. Bar. celona had simply spread herself out over such territory as she needed, and where the land was not yet filled in it was at any rate laid out with the view to building. On the whole, with all her reputation for turbulence, Barcelona seemed an enlightened and thoroughly progressive city.
We were living on the Rambla del Centro, which farther up the line changed its name to the Rambla de San José ; and just beyond this, at about a mile from the hotel, lay the great main square of the city — the Plaza de Cataluna. Naturally our most intimate acquaintance came to be with these Ramblas, which not only lay at our doors but must be traversed every time we went out on pleasure or business bent. They were at their best in the early hours of the forenoon under the balmy freshness of the Riviera climate, — never rigorous even in winter, and simply ideal in spring.
It was a very broad street, the Rambla, and through its midst ran, as I have intimated, a very spacious central promenade, paved with broad stone flagging and lined with luxuriant plane trees, now in full leaf. All up and down the promenade of a morning there were booths for the sale of flowers, birds, and other gayly-colored things, presided over by vivacious and picturesquely clad Catalan women. The effect was kaleidoscopic, and while the coloring was often barbaric in its luxuriant brilliance, it was all thoroughly charming. The flowers were displayed in unstudied magnificence, — huge bunches of roses, peonies, camelias, assorted blossoms without number — massed in a perfect riot of color under gay umbrellas which served to eke out the shade. The bird booths were only less gay, with their multitudes of feathered songsters in tiny wooden cages, — birds of wonderful plumage and constant melody. I have never seen such an array of tiny creatures of such wonderfully variant iridescence, so many canaries all trilling at once, so many grave green and yellow parrots. The latter were sometimes in cages and sometimes on open perches. They were of all ages and sizes, from hardened veterans to brisk young things that had not learned to speak or even to look roguishly wise. Needless to say, the whole morning air of the Rambla was heavy with perfume and filled with musical twitterings, while the booth-tenders kept up a running fire of badinage. Everybody was in high good humor, and of that ugly undercurrent of unrest in Barcelona which now and then produces an outbreak of incendiary spirit, there was no sign. Instead all was fair and balmy, and the walk from the Hotel of the Four Nations to Cataluña Square was a constant delight.
Of course the two sides of the wide highway were lined with indoor shops in great abundance, but not all the business was confined to the Rambla by any means. To the left there was a great public market where the booths were only less attractive than those of the Rambla in their own peculiar way — presided over as the others had been by rosycheeked women. On the other side of the boulevard many streets led off by an easy grade to a neigh-boring hill — and one of these, the important Calle de Fernando VII, proved to be one of the finest shopping streets in Spain, apparently the favored resort of aristocratic buyers. Few of these shops were large, and I do not recall that we found in any place such great emporia as those of the centre of Paris. But they were tiny and choice, like so many of those in the French capital ; and to browse our way up-town among them was a pleasure, which usually appealed to the señoras somewhat more strongly than to me. There was another favorite haunt of ours just behind the hotel, — an arcaded square reminiscent of the various old plazas in the interior of Spain, but called in this case the Plaza Real, — where there were many fascinating things to be bought, and, wonderful to relate, even films for cameras, a thing which Spain has not yet learned how to provide save in such frequented places as Barcelona and Madrid. I had been on short commons for a long time with my own cam-eras, and it was only by rare good fortune that I had been able to find three ancient films in Saragossa by dint of an Easter Sunday hunt among the third-story shops in an obscure street. One visiting Spain will do well to provide himself abundantly before leaving home. Even in Barcelona we were not always sure of getting all we wanted, — and I need hardly say that the temptation to make photographs is nowhere stronger than it is in Spain. The name, by the way, for films in Spanish appears to be " pelicolas de Kodak." It was in Barcelona that I ventured once again to have some of my films developed, curiosity being unable longer to forego that pleasure. The work was fairly well done, but I suspect it might be done better. For in one place — I think Granada — I had caught the primitive photographer whom I had trusted with my precious negatives washing them in a horse trough !
It was very evident that Barcelona was not Spanish, but Catalan, and that her streets and shops were very differently managed even from the great ones of Madrid. Even the curious Catalan language — for it is more than a dialect — was to be heard everywhere, and the Catalonian seems to be proud of keeping it distinct. He will not readily admit that he is Spanish, or, as he says, " Castilian." Catalonia has not only retained her language, but she has written a considerable literature in it, discussed problems of science, composed poems ! The mark of her guttural tongue is over everything the moment you emerge from Aragon. The railroad stations began to show us such words as " Puig " and " Prat " the moment we began to climb out of Mora Nueva on our journey down to Tarragona. Everywhere we ran across the disdain felt by Barcelona for Madrid and its indolent people. The hotel proprietor was one of those who had no love for a haughty guest whom he described to me one day as " sitting in there with all the pride of Madrid upon him." Nobody, at any rate, can accuse the Catalan of being lazy, and in the outer country he is far from lacking in picturesqueness, with his curious long cap pulled well over his eyes. In Barcelona, however, the air of everything was thoroughly mid-European, save when mule-drivers hurried by with their pattering steeds, growling at them from under their Catalan headgear.
Barcelona has a cathedral — and a magnificent one. As an example of the Catalan church it is probably without a superior, and especially on the score of its interior gloom. We came to it through a side street leading down from the Calle Fernando, which inducted us before we were fully aware of it into the great cloisters. These were protected from the busy town without by massive walls of a plainness which presaged little of the fine Gothic arcades within ; wherefore the surprise when we entered was the greater. All around the quadrangle were rows of stately chapels, much as around the ordinary cathedral of the faith, while in the open square which the cloister inclosed was a deep garden, — palms, lemon trees, oranges, medlars, giant geraniums, oleanders. The arches, which were filled with Gothic tracery and heavily barred, gave fascinating glimpses into this mass of greenery ; and in a cool corner just under the shadow of the cathedral's mighty bulk there was a fountain playing musically into a pool, the curb of which was covered with ancient mosses. It was here that we found the canons' geese — pure white birds that are maintained as a regular part of the churchly menage and said to be descendants of the birds which even down to comparatively recent times were still used for augury. Possibly they have at some time saved the cathedral treasures by timely quacking ! At any rate, they are there in the cloister, floating whitely in the deep pools of the garden where the fountain cools the air and charms the ear with its melodious trickling.
It was astonishingly dark inside the church, which was far more imposing in its details than the cathedral at Tarragona, as befitted a wealthier chapter, but which, like Tarragona, contrived to impress one with a sense of vast spaces by cunningly arranged windows and a sparse diffusion of light. It was many minutes before we could see anything at all in the twilight, which rivaled that of La Seo. The lamps of different shrines were easily distinguished, and the grand bulk of altar and choir loomed up in the mysterious darkness. Lofty windows heavy with color let in but an indefinite glimmer to light the pavement of the nave. Nevertheless, when we had grown accustomed to the obscurity we fell in love with this old church. What one saw, even darkly, was worth the seeing. There are few finer carved choir stalls than those of Barcelona, with their lofty canopy of wooden tracery and lacework, blackened with age ; and few more interesting marks of antiquity than the traces of escutcheons, faintly seen, which recall the institution here of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Charles the Fifth.
Also there is a deep crypt beneath the high altar, into which descends a flight of steps ; and it is here that the body of Santa Eulalia lies, buried in an alabaster sarcophagus befitting the tutelary saint of the thriving city. I suppose we might by due diligence have obtained access to this sanctified spot, but we were unfortunately turned aside at that moment by the melodious beginnings of a service far down the aisle, in one of the obscure side-chapels, which for the time being had been made to glow with radiance by innumerable candles. Up in a lofty gallery somewhere in the obscurity of the nave a choir of men began a solemn chant accompanied by the sob of subdued viols, and in the nave below a reverent throng of people watched the ministrations of a priest. I gathered from a bystander that this was a memorial service for some person lately dead — and not necessarily very lately, either, for such masses are, of course, common even after the deceased has been a year and more in his grave. I do not recall that I have spoken of it, but one who sees much of Spanish newspapers cannot but be impressed with the number of advertisements of such memorial masses published daily, invariably surrounded by mourning borders of impressive width.
Externally, Barcelona cathedral leaves much to be desired. It is difficult to see, and when seen is far less fine than the simpler edifice at Tarragona. It is said to be still incomplete, although one can hardly regret that fact, since to all seeming it was finished ages ago. Let its outward imperfections be what they may, inwardly at any rate it is soul-satisfying and grand. And I hold in my mind today chiefly the recollection of its wonderfully dark interior, in striking contrast against that glowing memory of the Rambla with its birds and its flowers and its shouting throngs.