The Palau de la Musica, Barcelona

Palau de la Musica

The first trip on April's cultural programme took us to one of the top attractions in Barcelona - the Palau de la Musica [ website ].

"Gaudí is probably the most international of the exponents of Moderisme - the Catalan Art Noveau, if you like - but the Palau de la Musica is by its most Catalan architect, Domènech i Montaner...," Montse explained to us as we waited outside for the tour to begin. "... and for me, the Palau de la Musica is the very best of Moderisme."

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was built between 1905 and 1908 as a home for the Orfeó Català, the Catalan Choral Society, as something as an alternative to Barcelona's more aristocratic Liceu opera house. Choral singing was a social activity that was flourishing in turn-of-the-century Barcelona, and something that is still to be found on the Palau's concert programme, though now you will find a remarkably diverse range of events at what is one of the world's premiere concert halls.

Step inside and you step into another world. The Palau is in a side street just off the very busy Via Laeitana but inside you are met by flowers and plants and bees, nature being integrated into the walls and ceiling of the Palau in mosaic work and high relief as well as in stained glass. It's somehow relaxing, it makes you feel, well, sort of more receptive, but is all this just a bit too much, you wonder, staring at it in amazement?

The tour is a guided one - but, if you hate guided tours, don't worry, the tour guide dumps you off in the chamber orchestra practice room, right below the stage, for a 20 minute audio visual first.

If you can't actually make it for a concert while you're here (but it's a must if you possibly can), the audiovisual is well worth it, as it will give you just an inkling of what listening to Beethoven or Bach is like in somewhere like the Palau (or, nowadays, seeing Elvis Costello, or Woody Allen and his band, if that's more your cup of tea).

They then take you upstairs to the main concert hall. It seats 2,000, not that many fewer than the Liceu, but somehow it seems much smaller, much more intimate than its grander sister.

"That's Anselm Clavé, the Catalan composer, overwhelming" - whoops, sorry, my fault, overlooking - "the stage on the left, and Beethoven the angry chap over there on the right," the tour guide told us (wouldn't you be if you had Wagner's Valkyries stampeding over your head... ? Sorry, no picture on that one, not allowed inside the Palau).

"Oh, and the stained glass inverted dome hanging from the ceiling, right there above your head, weighs 1,000 kg, 900 kg of glass and 100kg of lead," he added. Catch it on a sunny day, it truly is a marvel... But just try not to think about it during the concert if you happened to have booked a stall seat underneath it.

Staring up at the ceiling (yes, darling, of course I'm paying attention!), you'll probably be struck by all those roses. They're to do with the legend of St.George, Catalonia's patron saint. The local version of the legend has it that when he slew the dragon, the rose sprang from where the dragon's blood had fallen... Hence, here in Catalonia, to be given to one's beloved on St.George's Day.

As I say, to me, the Palau's decoration is just all a bit too much, but there's certainly no disputing its uniqueness.

And what did our students on the trip make of it? How did it compare with the other sights in Barcelona? A favourite? Angelika Dehmel, who is doing comparative religious studies at university in Marburg (Frankfurt) had liked the Palau - but it wasn't really her favourite. So what was? Well, she's very fond of art and really liked the Miró museum... and the MNAC national art museum. "But your favourite place in Barcelona - it's impossible to make up your mind," said Angelika.

Keri Jenkins, a community project manager working in Cambridge, England, though she originally hails from Boston, was impressed by the natural light (improved since they demolished the building next door), just a little disappointed they hadn't turned on the speakers for a blast of Beethoven's Fifth - or some Wagner. The Palau really is somewhere you have to visit on a concert night. And no, she didn't agree: the Palau is certainly breathtaking, but in no way over the top... Okay, I guess it's just me.

"Any questions?" the tour guide kept asking us. Yeah! Where did he get that very swish Gaudí tie he was wearing? "Step this way, sir, the Palau shop is right next door..."

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