Monthly Archives: April 2012

Ley lines of Barcelona – the church of Sant Pau del Camp

It’s fair to say that the church of Sant Pau del Camp (Saint Paul of the Countryside) ranks pretty far down most visitors’ ‘to see in Barcelona’ lists, if it features at all. Sitting smack-bang in the middle of the long-beleagured Raval district, it struggles to hold its own in guide books that swoon over the beauty of Santa María del Mar and go weak at the knees over Gaudí’s magnum opus.

Which is a shame, because this little church, the oldest one in Barcelona, is something special.

View of a tower from the cloister

The partially destroyed bell tower

I first discovered it one Sunday last year, arriving just as they were locking up. Despite the fact he was headed home for his Sunday lunch, Jordi greeted me with a huge smile and insisted on giving me a full guided tour that included him singing in Gregorian chant to illustrate the nave’s amazing acoustics. (I’ve since found out that Jordi is a former monk of the mountain-top monastery of Montserrat, which runs a prestigious school for choirboys.)

Emerging out into the rambunctiousness of the Raval and the harsh July sunlight, I kept trying to figure out why I felt so fascinated with the place. Sure, it’s a compelling mix of history, politics, religion and architecture – but aren’t loads of buildings in Barcelona?

Jordi remarks that some visitors come with divining rods, convinced there are mystical undercurrents at work, and points out that the building’s orientation to the east, land of sun and paradise lost, is slightly off-kilter. Were the monks into feng shui, he grins?

‘Ora y labora’ – pray and work

Although the official story is that the church was set up in the 10th century, according to Jordi the site had been the favoured spot of a monastic community since way back in the fourth. What is definite is that the Catalan count Guifré II set up a Benedictine order here at the end of the 9th century.

If you know your Catalan history, you’ll recognise this name. This Guifré is the son of Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy to you and me), who’s something of a legend in these parts. He’s credited with being the founding father of Catalonia and the four-striped Catalan flag is said to have come about when a fellow fighter dipped his fingers in the dying Guifré’s blood. Look out for the tombstone of Guifré junior just off the cloister, dated AD 911.

The hand of God

The inexplicably horizontal hand of God

Meanwhile, in the dusky garden to the side of the church you can just make out the remnants of stone foundations that were part of the original Benedictine monastery, destroyed by Muslim armies first in 985 and later again in 1114. (We also found a human bone under the palm trees, but we won’t dwell on that part.)

Into the 12th century, monastic life gets into the swing of things again, and Jordi tells me that there would have typically been around five to eight monks living and working within the convent. The narrow slit windows inside the main chapel, in trusty Romanesque style, barely let in any of the Barcelona sunlight, and Jordi says that in the Middle Ages these would have been made of translucent alabaster. Enough to illuminate the chapel slightly, but without admitting piercing solar rays that might have disturbed the monks at prayer.

Solar rays or not, I find myself getting easily distracted imagining the little community who lived in secret behind the thick stone walls. Seven times a day they came together to pray inside the church. I imagine the place must have been even more of a haven in those times than it is today, surrounded by the original fields and orchards that lend it its name. Nowadays, a cypress, olive and palm tree are the only sentinels left to stand guard around it.

A poem in stone

The cloister's columns

But even more captivating than picturing the lives of the monastery’s former inhabitants is the small, intimate cloister inside. The lobed arches support carved motifs that read like a who’s who from the worlds of nature and mythology – a Templar labyrinth of symbols that seem to taunt you with their ability to sit just beyond your understanding.

Adam and Eve clutch their throats, choking on an apple pip as a particularly bulbous serpent sniggers up a tree. Two toads gorge themselves on a woman’s breasts. A daisy, a wheel, a griffin and a school of sirens all take their place in the pantheon.

And it seems I’m not the only one to have been fascinated. A young man once stood here, recounts Jordi, transfixed by the Lombardian arches and sketching the shadows beyond. His name – Jordi pauses for effect – was Pablo Ruiz Picasso.

As we make our way back outside I ask after the rabbit I seem to remember seeing in the church’s little kitchen garden last year. Jordi leads me round the side, past the grave of a lady who spent her whole life tending the place and whose love of sweeping is immortalised in the broom still propped up faithfully next to her tombstone. Since I was last here the rabbit has apparently been joined by a chicken and four wayward puppies, who emerge as one giant tangle of tails and whose apparent mission in life is to torment chickens and rabbits.

It’s an exuberant expression of life in a place that’s ancient, stark and still, and I leave feeling like I’m stepping over some serious past-life ley lines.


Filed under History

The city and I

If you know me, you’ll know it’s not often I quote All Saints. But if I was to say:

“Sometimes I feel like my only friend
is the city
I live in – the city
of cities
lonely as I am, together we cry we cry we cry
at least I have his love,
the city, he loves me…”

would you be humming in unison, or thinking for the love of god someone give that girl some Prozac?

Long-standing convention has it that cities, like ships, are dames. Quaint as I find the notion that English affords the feminine gender to two inanimate objects out of half a million, I have to disagree. (A cidade in Portuguese, la ville in French, la cuidad in Spanish, la ciutat in Catalan, la città in Italian – yep, you’re all wrong.) The city, at least in the case of Barcelona, is most definitely a dude.

I know this because we’ve been in a relationship now for almost a year. True, we jumped the gun somewhat, and moved in together very quickly. I didn’t know his friends, couldn’t speak his language and had serious doubts about the carnivorous shopping habits of his mother. And don’t even get me started on domestic hygiene issues. In many ways, it’s been the typical first year of any relationship.

Interior of the Sagrada Familia

Every good side...

Sant Jordi inside the Sagrada Familia

has its dark opponent.

The first flush

Ah, those truly halcyon days. We met at all hours, frantic frenetic, neither of us wanting to hang up first. I tripped about the Gótico, camera in one hand, mobile phone in the other, cooing merrily at his medieval architecture, beckoning backstreets and unusually deep sense of history. He was unchartered new terrain. I told myself his dark, brooding nature was an attractive idiosyncrasy and I’d have no qualms taming him out of it.

He cooked clams in Romesco sauce and I swooned. Of course, that could have been the Cava.

The 6-month mark

We hold hands less these days. In fact, public displays of affection are limited more and more to being sardined up against each other on the metro and the odd grope from a resident sleaze. Of which there are many. He loves me, he loves me not. He’s stopped wearing aftershave. I sense he’s a little colder. There are days I think he’s just plain rude. I engage my elbows and learn to raise my voice to make myself heard.

Christmas is fun but slightly subdued. I accept his gift of a shitting log with a smile that’s more grim than amused. Still, the dancing is good.

Our first major fight is over a tube of toothpaste in a supermarket. His harpies surround me, cackling in Catalan, disputing who came first in which queue. There are days I am ready to pack it all in.

Flowers left at the shrine of El Santet

I never promised you a rose garden

Our 1-year anniversary

Am I settling? This is what I find I keep asking myself, usually around four in the morning. If I bail, will I ever find anyone else? What about the sea and the sand and the and and and?

I don’t delude myself for a minute. No hoary hand-in-hand on the pier for us – some bling young thing will have caught his eye a long, long time beforehand.

In the meantime I learn compromise. ‘Compromiso’ is also ‘commitment’. In one week’s time we’ll mark Sant Jordi with roses and books instead of rings. There are serious long-term trust issues, but the geography of his body is solace.


Filed under Society

Guest post at Homage to BCN – my take on perfection…

Just a quick note to say that Rob over at Homage to BCN very kindly invited me to write a post for his series ‘BCN days’, where people describe their perfect days and share their favourite sights, haunts and experiences of the city. Me being me, I had trouble with the whole ‘perfection’ concept, but tried to come as close as I could to defining what it might be.

View my post at Homage to BCN

PS What would your version of a perfect BCN day be? Oh, to rule the city just for a day…bye bye motorbikes…



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Filed under Society