The clock was melting, and so was my heart

Let's get surreal, says Stephanie Debere, as she thrills to some of Catalonia's most spectacular art collections
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The Independent Travel

I'm in Barcelona's Art Moderne concert hall, listening to Lali and Dominic. They are not musicians - though they are a fine double act. Lali is a Catalan guide with a superb knowledge of local art; Dominic is an urbane curator with the Tate Modern.

I'm in Barcelona's Art Moderne concert hall, listening to Lali and Dominic. They are not musicians - though they are a fine double act. Lali is a Catalan guide with a superb knowledge of local art; Dominic is an urbane curator with the Tate Modern.

Lali is explaining the riot of mosaics, stained glass, and statuary. Dominic then observes that this is simply heavy decor on a conventional building. The two have joined forces thanks to a new collaboration between the Magic Travel Group (an Iberia and Italy specialist) and the Tate, resulting in a series of European city-breaks and week-long tours to regions of outstanding artistic heritage. Catalonia, with Gaudi Picasso, Dali and Miro as flag-bearers, is certainly one.

Our tour has been developed with Tate curators, who will accompany certain departures (for which clients pay a small supplement). I am not a fan of organised tours, but the promise of our own expert made this one seem worth trying.

Based in Barcelona, we explore the region on foot and by small coach. The city is open to its artists and inseparable from their work - from the Gothic cathedral to the modern Chamber of Architects, adorned with Picasso murals.

Lali defines the regional character as a blend of seny (inspiration or passion) with rauxa (practicality). At Gaudi's seductive creations (several with Unesco World Heritage status), she explains the multi-layered symbolism but also points out the astonishingly complex hanging models of string and sandbags with which he calculated the forces his constructions needed to bear. Nowadays, Nasa software is being used to complete the Sagrada Familia, in accordance with Gaudi's detailed instructions.

Museums are Dominic's speciality. At three institutions - one dedicated to Picasso, one to Dali and one to Miro - he places what we are seeing in context with introductory talks before we separate to view the collections. Dominic pitches the talks well, engaging those with previous knowledge without losing or patronising anyone else. This is no mean feat, as we are a group of 11, disparate in age (thirties to seventies) and artistic knowledge. Some know Barcelona, others (including me) had never been before. But we have a desire to learn in common.

And learn we do. The Picasso Museum's collection is not representative of his oeuvre as a whole, we discover, but is notable for many formative teenage works: small academic-style paintings on cigar-box lids and some larger canvases, remarkable for their adolescent virtuosity and for being unrecognisable as Picasso. "He was determined to master academic painting before rejecting it," Dominic explained. "His is the story of modern art in one man's career: the dismantling of tradition."

Typically, we are out from 9am till 6pm. I am concerned that I will be lectured- out by mid-week, saturated with information. Instead, I fall into bed anticipating tomorrow's fix. The programme is varied enough to avoid boredom. The information is easily digested, there is much debate, and we are free to disappear if we feel overloaded. The few moments where this does feel like a school trip come when we are ushered back to the coach too soon. The inevitable downside of any tour is lack of control over time.

We pay a rushed visit to Dali's extraordinary theatre-museum in his hometown of Figueres. With its huge glass dome, giant rooftop eggs and statues, and red walls studded with loaves, the whole building is a Surrealist wonder. After the Prado, it is Spain's second-most visited museum, and you could linger for hours. But we have just 90 minutes - barely enough time to gawp at the structure, let alone do justice to rooms of paintings and exquisite jewellery.

Yet overall, the tour is well paced and offers many advantages: entry tickets are included, allowing us to bypass often lengthy queues. The expert input is invaluable. You are given a free Tate kitbag and one-year gallery membership with booking. And unless you have a car and know the region or are a super-human map-reader, you will never cover as much ground in a week as we do - from the mountain-top medieval monastery of Montserrat (a great regional symbol and home to a terrific art collection) to Dali's house at Port Lligat. Then there is Sitges, the seaside town where the Catalan "School of Light" developed and a young Picasso hung out.

As the week unfolds, strands of knowledge come together. When we see Mies van der Rohe's clean-cut Modernist pavilion built for the Barcelona World Fair in 1929, it emerges as a clear reaction to the fussiness of Gaudian art nouveau. It is also the inspiration for the bright, open Miro Foundation, which showcases the symbolism Miro developed to explore the unconscious mind. The Spanish Pavilion from the 1929 Fair shows how radical Van de Rohe's work was. A neo-classical pile, it now contains Barcelona's Catalan Art Museum, one of the world's foremost collections of Romanesque and Gothic art. Its sensational frescos were rescued from small country churches that were falling prey to American collectors almost a century ago.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

"Catalonia, Inspired by Tate" is available through Magic Travel (0870 546 2442; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk). Tours depart from April through July 2005. Prices start from £775, per person, based on two sharing including return flights from London or Manchester, transportation, seven nights' b&b at the 4-star Hotel Gran Havana, guided visits and entrance fees. Tours accompanied by a Tate curator or art expert depart on 9 April and 28 May and cost £825 per person, on the same basis as above.

More information

The Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info).

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