Woohoo hoo. I’ve been moved up a class. The thing is, I was a move or two ahead of my fellow student. In my new class, I’m two weeks behind. Better that way. Our teacher forces us to dig about till we find a way to express ourselves. I found myself casting about for a way to describe the plot of Colm Tóibin’s ‘Brooklyn’. However did I – sort of – do it? With some help from a fellow student is how. But I’m shattered, truly shattered.
The way forward is to have a long lazy drink and a bit of lunch in a friendly little bar I’ve found in a rather down-at-heel (for ‘down-at-heel’ read ‘picturesque’) square.
Back to school to do my homework, then maybe a bit of culture. I’m not really capable of giving any museum my best shot at the moment, but it was still good today to mooch round the Baroque sumptuousness of the National Museum of Ceramics and Art, once the palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas, and still recognisable as an aristocratic home.
Home to Carmen’s flat. A chat, TV, a meal. That’s it really. Nights on the town need not apply. Exhausted. But in a good way. And I’m beginning to learn that less is more. Mañana.
Today, it began, this business of speaking Spanish. Except that in fact it began last night.
Back in England, Malcolm and I had decided it was pointless to go and study together. We’d only go talking to one another. In English.
So here I am, in Valencia, the paying guest of a delightful Spanish woman who speaks no English. We exchanged a lot of information last night despite the language barriers. We know all about each other’s families, and I know about the parrot next door too.
And today the classes started. My only fellow student is an 18 year old from Beirut. He has eight months to get it right. I have a fortnight. But we devised quizzes, inviting each other to guess where we were born, enquired tenderly after each other’s health, and confessed how old we are, all in Spanish. Not bad for day one.
After three hours of all that, I cleared my head with a walk. Here’s the National Museum of Ceramics, closed today. I’ll be there before the week’s out.
As far as blogging goes, I’m still in Barcelona: though in reality I’m snuggled in a cosy jumper looking upwards as a grey sky turns greyer.
In Barcelona, we visited the Monasterio de Pedralbes. It’s not actually a monastery, because no monk has ever lived there. It’s a priory, built in 1326 by King James of Aragon for his wife Elisenda de Montcada, who wished to found a community of Poor Clares there. Poor Clares? These are nuns who devote themselves to a life of simplicity and prayer, and in Elisenda’s time were almost always drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy. She herself never became a nun, but she was very real presence in the life of this community.
And what a fine place it is. A graceful three-storied cloister surrounds a peaceful garden. Here is a fountain, topped off with a rather cheeky looking angel. This is where the nuns would wash their hands before dining in silence in the refectory, while devotional works were read to them from a pulpit.
But it’s the kitchen I’d like to show you. In its day, this was a state-of-the-art workroom. Who wouldn’t like to cook at this unusual kitchen range, supervised by Saint Anthony? Look at these fine sinks, dating from about 1520. There are bread ovens, tiled worktops, and it was here that the simple diet of the nuns was prepared: fresh and salted fish, pulses, rice, vegetables and fruit. Meat was reserved for festivities.
This is another of Barcelona’s hardly-discovered treasures. Just a couple of school parties there, and once they’d gone, we had the place almost to ourselves. Put this on your must-visit list too.
It’s a story that goes back to the 15th century, when Barcelona already had six hospitals. In 1401 these merged onto a new site in Raval, to offer improved care to the sick.
By the 19th century, these facilities were too small, too outdated, no longer really fit for purpose. A Catalan Banker, Pau Gil, put up the money to fund a truly enormous and visionary project: a whole community of buildings offering state-of-the-art care to the poor of the city. The plan was for facilities of the highest quality, designed in cutting-edge modernist style by cutting-edge Modernista architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
Modernism? Think of it as Art Nouveau, Catalan style. You’ll recognise it in the works of Antoni Gaudi. Montaner found inspiration from Moorish architecture. Playful looking mosaics and the light-flooded areas are the special feature of his buildings. What we noticed straight away was bold colour, bold decoration: rich-hued tiled roofs: and within, tiles and mosaics in sunny yellow, grass green, sky blue.
Sun, grass, sky. Why not remind the sick inmates of a cheerful world outside the hospital? Why not have light, airy, high-ceilinged rooms, tiled throughout for ease of cleaning, and because they would never become dingy and faded? Why not build underground tunnels, tiled in cream, so that patients could be moved round the site without being exposed to the elements? Why not build a decent well-lit operating theatre, well-stocked libraries for doctors to consult, and set all these buildings among gardens which patients and staff alike could enjoy?
This was a Christian foundation. Nuns provided nursing care until the 1990s, as they had done since the hospital’s earliest years Mosaics in the building told stories from the Christian tradition, such as that of Saint George slaying the dragon. Other carvings and statues relied on ancient legends. This frog nursing a baby frog, for example, is an old symbol of caring love.
Originally, men and women were separated, but later, the hospital was organised by specialism. Now, although research continues here, modern buildings behind continue the work of the hospital.
The foundation stone was laid in 1902, and facilities were developed until about 1930. Large parts of the site were never built at all, from lack of funds. This isn’t surprising. There is nothing of the workhouse about this place. It’s a beautiful, special site, fully deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status, acquired in 1997. It only opened its doors to visitors a few years ago, and it’s not yet truly on the tourist trail, despite being just up the road from then Sagrada Familia which is always surrounded by hordes of tourists. Visit it now, while it’s still an oasis of calm. It’ll be somewhere you’ll remember forever.
I’d intended to go into the story of this place in more detail. But a fellow blogger, Restless Jo, whom I ‘met’ only recently, introduced me to a series of posts by a blogging friend of hers, Jude. Here’s a link to the first one, from which you can reach all the rest. She tells and illustrates the history of this place so well that, quite simply, I don’t have to.
Yesterday, we left Barcelona. As we walked from our hotel to the metro station down a quiet calle, we noticed these accidental collages: walls whose damaged plaster work revealed the original brick beneath; damaged multi-surfaced walls where graffiti had been added; brick walls juxtaposed with stonework, with decorated tile work, or with handsome brick decoration; a nursery school whose facade had been decorated with a festive collage of coloured streamers and children’s drawings.