There are cities we warm to immediately – for me, think Chicago. There are cities that grow on us – step forward, Rome – and cities that don’t quite live up to their potential – sorry, Boston. There are cities we like to visit, even though we can’t explain why we keep going back – Washington DC – and cities that we love but wish they were somewhere more accessible – Minneapolis and Melbourne. And then there are cities that leave us ambivalent. Which pretty much sums up my feelings after a weekend in Barcelona.
I’d been there a couple of times some years ago and felt much the same way, but put it down to those being work trips; I obviously wasn’t seeing the best the city had to offer. It shuffled its way up the must-go list after I heard of the installation by the artist, Sean Scully, at the Church of Santa Cecilia at Montserrat.
For those of you who don’t know me, Sean Scully is my favourite living artist and travelling by five forms of transport from the hotel in Barcelona to the Church of Santa Cecilia seemed a perfectly reasonable way to spend a Saturday. For anyone else intending to visit, it’s definitely vaut le voyage, with more than twenty site-specific works, including frescos, stained glass, glasswork and metalwork, as well as paintings on canvas and wood. A tip: don’t be deceived by the recommendations on the Montserrat website that you travel by train; a car is essential to reach Santa Cecilia.
But back to Barcelona. There were aspects I loved. I had high hopes of the Sagrada Familia basilica and they were exceeded. I love ecclesiastical architecture but it was redefined by Gaudi’s crazy, beautiful, harmonious, through-the-Looking-Glass work. Camp Nou didn’t disappoint either, from the choir thundering support to the brilliant footwork of Messi and Neymar. I had exquisite tapas in local bars after the match and for lunch on Sunday – unexpected treats.
And yet… Barcelona lacked pulling-power. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it and the nearest I can come up with is that the city isn’t quite sure what face to put to the world. Yes, there’s broad Catalan identity, there’s both beach and city, there’s old Barcelona and its modern iteration, as well as Modernist buildings.
But I left with no attachment to the place and I didn’t feel that it had lived up to its potential. A bit like FC Barcelona, who won 1-0 – but against bottom-of-La-Liga Granada.
Now, the Sean Scully works at Santa Cecilia: they were a very different matter.