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March 10, 2014

Breathless In Barcelona

Text by Aparna Pednekar

With just one afternoon to mow down the Catalan capital’s fashionable urban landscape, Aparna Pednekar swings from Gaudi’s kaleidoscopic legacy to atmospheric cafes, luxe boutiques and iconic ateliers, and comes away catching her breath

The sun streams onto upturned faces, and slithers down bodies in bright, happy, sweaty rivulets. It’s noon and a battalion of tourists and locals have trooped up – thank heavens for the elevators – to Park Güell, atop El Carmell Hill. The atmosphere befits a public park, even if it’s created by one of the world’s most eccentric artists and commissioned by his patron, Eusebi Guell. We jostle by the huge cross to get a panoramic view of the city and the bay. We knock each other out to pose with El Drac, Gaudi’s giant mosaic salamander. We gawk at the ceiling mosaics in the Hypostyle Room. Then, we run back to gaze over at the Sagrada Familia, debating – loudly – the ability of the administration to complete the iconic basilica by 2026. In the manner of people who rarely know what they’re talking about, there’s widespread discussion on whether the central 558-foot tower dedicated to Jesus Christ is architecturally feasible. It’s an extravagant vision, one that could only befit ‘Gods Own Architect’, Antoni Gaudi. This sets the tone for Gaudi story time; tales of his religious zeal, reclusive temperament, secretly foul temper and death in abject poverty.

COLOUR ME CRAZY

spain02After dipping a toe into Gaudi’s Barcelona, it’s only fair that one splashes around a bit, even if time’s at a premium. I’m in Barcelona just for a day and half; the half of which I’ve already spent tapas bar hopping. That went off smoothly, thanks to Nicole Voogt, a Dutch art historian who runs Arty Barcelona, which organises bike tours and customised workshops in the city. After tipping me off on the best ham bocadillos in town last evening, she’s now meeting me again for a personalised mosaic workshop. We walk through the scenic Gràcia district, deep in the famous Spanish post-lunch siesta, until we reach Livia Garreta’s mosaic studio. A prolific artist, Garetta’s warm and chatty. Within the limited hour at our disposal, she guides me into channelling my inner Gaudi. Sitting in the midst of bottles filled with glass beads, stacks of ceramic tiles and a huge mosaic pillar she’s painstakingly renovating, we cut tiles into little pieces and glue them to create a mirror frame I can carry home with me. There are no rules; no finicky aesthetic compulsions. This is so appropriate. The man we’re paying a little tribute too, had polarising reactions to his work – George Orwell once called the Sagrada Familia one of the most hideous buildings he’d ever seen! Garetta’s kind in her appraisal of my blue-gold-orange finished product, but I can sense it’s an acquired taste.

SARTORIAL SECRETS

Gaudi channeling done, I now have an hour and a few minutes to breeze through Barcelona’s chic spain03fashion and retail scene. Unlike Madrid, Barcelona, I’ve heard, is more artsy and quirky than red-carpet gloss. I’ve narrowed down my geographical boundary to Passeig de Gràcia, which hosts Burberry, Prada and Gucci, along with independent labels and atmospheric cafes. Instead of lumbering through aimlessly, I’ve called on the generous assistance of Lisa Richardson. A fashion designer and personal shopper, this Wales girl worked and lived in Florence and found her way to Barcelona to set up Antiques and Boutiques. She and her business partner Niki offer personalised tours of Barcelona’s sartorial and artistic secrets.

I meet Lisa at the foyer of the historic Casa Fuster Hotel. In a shirt dress and high boots, she’s chic with a distinctly hippie vibe. Recalling her recent trip to Jaipur for a friend’s wedding, she walks me to Carrer de la Riera de Sant Miquel. Our first stop is Menchén Tomàs, a successful label by designers Olga R. Menchén and Francesc Grau Tomàs at their atelier-boutique. The boutique is thick in the midst of a photo-shoot, but we stop to check out racks of pristine white autumn wear – trenches and ruffled dresses — with flashes of tangerine and emerald green.

Next up is Lydia Delgado’s stylish atelier in Calle Minerva. A former ballerina, the designer has shown at the local Gaudi Fashion Show, as well as Madrid Fashion Week.

A friendly assistant takes me through her prêt-à-porter range and some standout accessories (dibs on the beaded bib necklaces!)

GAMINE GAME ON

Our third fashion stop reflects Lisa’s personal love for vintage, as well as the Barcelona vibe I’ve most spain04enjoyed. If you didn’t know it existed, you’d walk past Magnolia Antik, without a second glance! Almost hidden in a basement, it’s a veritable treasure trove of vintage clothes, hats, gloves, jewellery, shoes and the daintiest ceramics. There are one-off pieces from YSL and Chanel, as well as great catches from lesser known pedigree. Chatting with the owner Tatiana – more tales of India; her adopted daughter is Tamilian and the family’s planning a winter vacation to the Himalayas – I’m lulled into a dreamy head-space; a Catalonian tea party in full swing, featuring realms of Victorian lace, androgynous striped trousers and a Gaudi salamander in tortoiseshell spectacles and beret.

We dodge a few construction sites and basements to another of the city’s artsy spaces. Galeria Miquel Alzueta is in the midst of prepping for a new show, with massive canvases covered in brown paper stacked against pristine white walls. But we catch a glimpse of Barcelona bon artist Bruno Olle, who now works between here and Berlin. His ‘Yellow Trash’ series – a photo essay on the form and content of waste — is striking, with adults and children frolicking in a sea of bright yellow trash bags.

BIG AND BOLD

We’re wonderfully on schedule – having zipped through the aforementioned spaces in under 45 spain05minutes — yet I feel full to the brim, like I’ve spent days snooping around the city’s most stylish neighbourhood. Back on the main street, Lisa has a hard time pulling me out of Vinçon. Step into this design store and I promise you’ll never want to step out again. Once a family house and studio for the Art Nouveau poet-artist Santiago Rusiñol, it is located right next to Gaudi’s beastly apartment block, Casa Mila. Vinçon is a cavernous store in a plush new avatar, bathed in sunshine and stocked with quirky toys and ultra-modern gadgets. Right from the inspiring kitchen department to the Moderniste fireplace, the yawning patio at the back to its customised shopping bags, Vinçon is retail addiction.

One only wishes they had an adorable little café on that massive patio; a longing that is promptly fulfilled by Santa Eulalia. A Barcelonian institution for 169 years, it’s the sort of discreetly luxurious space where you’re most unlikely to be arm wrestling for that Balengiaga tote with bargain-hunting socialites. Shelves and racks lined with Isabel Marant, Céline, Marc Jacobs, Thakoon, Tom Ford and more, this is your first stop in the city for a premium brand fix. Lisa takes me up to their best kept secret, a Gentlemen’s Department that can tog your man out in the most exquisite bespoke suit. And their much-needed delicatessen café is a sight for sore eyes. You can partake of a cupcake or settle down with a of cannelloni or noodles broth.

spain06The last of Lisa’s lavish Barcelona retail triumvirate, is the Loewe Gallery. A gorgeously curated space, it treads the fine line between a museum, gallery and store, showcasing one of Spain’s most prestigious brands. The modern and creative display showcases the various stages of making a handbag, including the brand’s signature Amazona. Upstairs, there’s a gallery, which is currently hosting The Kennedys – a photo-essay on unseen, private moments from the family’s life by their official photographer and close friend, Mark Shaw. The most hypnotic — literally — sight, however, is Daniel Wurtzel’s Dancing Scarf installation. A silk scarf with flamenco-inspired prints stretches, curves, flies free-spiritedly inside four glass walls, aided by subtle shadow-light and artificial wind formations.

Hours after I’ve bid Lisa goodbye and flown out of Barcelona, that dancing scarf (admittedly competing in my fantasies with Gaudi’s salamander as a character from Alice in Wonderland) floats wistfully in my memories. If four odd hours in stylish Barcelona can do this, sign me up already for the full deal.

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