Visions of Barcelona

With two major Picasso anniversaries this year, head to Barcelona to celebrate


The copper-hued scales of El Peix — Frank Gehry’s spectacular 52-metre-long golden fish sculpture — are blinking in the late-afternoon sun next to a palm-fringed retro pool, reminiscent of a painting by Edward Hopper. Fittingly for an art-focused weekend in Barcelona, I’ve booked into the Hotel Arts opposite.

The five-star towering designer block looms over the Port Olimpic, an area that was reimagined in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics, while inside, the hotel showcases emerging Spanish artists in rolling exhibitions curated by the WeCollect gallery.

From my suite on the 27th floor, the views are impressive, looking uptown to Gaudi’s cathedral La Sagrada Familia. This is a fabulous arty start.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death as well as the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, and there are many exhibitions and events to honour Spain’s best-loved artist as part of Picasso Celebration 1973-2023, funded by the Spanish government.

Taking place in cities where Picasso’s legacy is felt the most, locations range from Malaga to Madrid along with Barcelona, his favourite Spanish city. Picasso called the capital of Catalonia home from the age of 15: he studied at the Llotja de Mar art school, and returned to paint here throughout his life.

Just behind Hotel Arts, the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona — the city’s Design Museum — will celebrate the artist’s life with the intriguingly named “How is it possible that they did this before me?” Picasso and Spanish Ceramics, running from June to September.

And whether you’re visiting in an anniversary year or not, no visitor to Barcelona should ever miss a visit to the Picasso Museum, housed in five grand 14th-century mansions in El Born, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods where the slender medieval alleyways are a delight to explore. The museum’s collection includes more than 3,500 artworks, many of which — from his early creative years to his Blue Period — were painted here.

Picasso’s technical genius and natural talent were evident from a young age, seen in the realist style portrait of his mother Maria in Portrait de la mere de l’artiste painted in 1896.

From his Blue Period, the inky blue-hued roofscapes of the city in Terrats de Barcelona are a highlight. Special exhibitions here to mark the anniversary include Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Picasso’s Art Dealer and Publisher, running to 19 March, and Miró-Picasso, hosted by both the Picasso Museum and Joan Miró Foundation, which opens on 19 October and runs to February 2024.

At Hotel Arts, I also manage to peek inside their new penthouse Arts Suite. Yours for a staggering 9,000 euros a night, it’s more loft apartment than suite with eye-popping art works also curated by WeCollect.

After a moment to drink in both the art and the spectacular sea and city scene, my feet return firmly to the ground and I head to the newly-opened Moco, which, in contrast, is bringing art to the masses.

The goal of this privately -owned museum is to inspire, empower and open minds, and I’m open to having mine expanded as I walk through the door of the grand 16th-century residence, soon deciding that “new masters”, such as Damien Hirst’s The Immaculate Heart — Sacred; Banksy’s Forgive us our Trespassing; and Kaws’s giant Mickey Mouse-inspired Final Days, pack an impressive ironic punch in a medieval setting, once reserved for the elite.

From here it’s just a short stroll to the Barric Gotic, a web of narrow lanes that deliver you to many an attractive fountain-burbling plaza, and its tiny ancient El Call, as the Jewish Quarter is known.

Here, the 14th-century house of Jewish weaver Jucef Bonhiac is dedicated to the history of Barcelona’s Jewish history, with a smattering of artefacts excavated from the site.
Just around the corner, you’ll find what is believed to be the remains of the medieval synagogue, Sinagoga Mayor, whose second small chamber, located through the vaulted ruins with Roman-era walls and 15th-century wells, is used for worship again.

Below the ground floor of Café Caelum lies an underground chamber with the ruins of a medieval Jewish bathhouse, atmospherically bathed in candlelight — stay for a coffee in the café and try their delicious marzipan too.

Or for something more substantial, Maccabi is an institution on Barcelona’s dining scene, and has been described as an oasis for the kosher traveller; think vegetable paellas, shaksuka, and salmon skewers. Housed in a 17th-century bakery, it’s located on La Rambla, Spain’s most famous boulevard. Both iconic and immensely touristy, locals joke that if you sit on La Rambla long enough, the whole world will pass you by, so try to bag a window seat.

While Picasso’s anniversary is a highlight this year, no art-themed weekend in Barcelona would be complete without including the architectural wonders of Anton Gaudi, who, once he’d graduated in 1878, set up his office in the street of Calle del Call, in the old Jewish Quarter.

There’s Casa Batlló, with its eerie skeletal balconies and whitewashed whale-boned chambers, La Pedrera, a combination of office and apartment block with futuristic chimneys on its extraordinary rooftop, and, of course, the work-in-progress La Sagrada Familia Cathedral.

I whizz by lift to view the Nativity Tower, one of two that can now be explored. When Gaudi was asked why he spent so much care on the decoration of the towers, he answered: “Because the angels will see them.” No eco-friendly angel could fail to be impressed by his innovative mosaic made with broken pottery and glass.

Gaudi’s first commission, Casa Vicens, opened to the public in 2017 after a complete restoration.

Built between 1883 and 1885 as a summer home for the Vicens family, there’s a sense that the young architect was throwing every ounce of creativity he had at this project. In a palm-filled garden, I gaze at the lavish façade of decorative floral tiles, turrets and Moorish pillars, before stepping into a decadent interior of frescoed rooms.

Gaudi’s goal was to bring nature inside and I find ceiling tiles of sky blue and forest green, stucco reeds and rushes clinging to the walls, and a trompe-I’oeil (a “trick of the eye” device painters used to add depth and a sense of realism), alive with flying birds.

Back on the Picasso trail, I join one of the Turisme de Barcelona walking tours that takes in many of the places where Picasso left his mark, including the Architects’ Association of Catalonia, home to his only piece of public art: a series of screen-printed drawings on the sand-cast friezes of the façade.

The story goes that Picasso was in a café in Paris when he heard that Joan Miró had been asked to create the frieze and was so angry that he grabbed a napkin and quickly scribbled down a drawing to beat Miró’s.

“Having overheard this conversation, the waiter picked the napkin up and sent it to the Architects’ Association, and Picasso got the job,” Henri, our guide, tells us — being quick to add that Picasso and Miró were, in fact, great friends, and that this is nothing more than urban legend.

We end our tour at one of Picasso’s favourite hangouts, Café Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats) where the painter used to trade artistic and political ideologies and drink wine with Catalan artist Ramon Casas i Carbó, and, as a young artist, designed the cover for the menu.

The place hasn’t changed much from how it looked in the early 20th century, complete with antique chandeliers, geometric brickwork, painting-filled walls (often how artists paid their bar bills), and colourful patterned floor tiles.

This, of all places, is perhaps the easiest place to conjure up a vision of charismatic Señor Picasso, where I can almost spy him sitting at a table, in his trademark blue- and-white-striped Breton.

Getting There

Airlines including British Airways, Iberia, easyJet and Vueling fly direct from many UK airports. Return fares with Vueling start from £63.25.

Deluxe Guest Rooms at Hotel Arts cost from around £345 plus VAT.

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