When it comes to the art, architecture and music of the twentieth-century, the region of Catalonia, reaching inland from Spain’s eastern flank, has long been noted for siring unique sons, on whom has evidently been bestowed a kind of genius: artists Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, architect Antoni Gaudí and musician Pablo Casals all hailed from the country. In addition to these individuals’ idiosyncratic personalities, drive and unimpeachable international renown, culturally the region could be said to punch above its weight, relative to the rest of Spain, in the same way as Scotland (whose Parliament building incidentally was designed by Catalan Enric Moralles) does in relation to the UK.
If not ‘something in the water’, maybe it’s the landscape: the Mediterranean-facing Costa Daurada, extending south from the region’s fêted capital, Barcelona, past the historic cities of Tarragona and Reus to the natural reserves of Terres l’Ebre, together with the craggy Terra Alta mountains inland, encompasses an area spanning about 100km that Gaudi, Picasso, Miró and Casals called home. All had formative experiences here at significant stages in their development, and forever acknowledged the influence the area had on their work.
Recognising this commonality, the Catalonian Tourist Board, in collaboration with local development zones, has put together an initiative, Landscape of the Geniuses, that might best be described as a trail to four bases, each honouring the genius they fostered: Reus (Gaudí), Mont-Roig (Miró), Horta de Sant Joan (Picasso) and El Vendrell (Casals). In a signifier of the region’s cultural perspective, gastronomy forms a key component of the initiative, taking the Four Geniuses idea as a starting-point for its own newly-launched gastronomic venture, La Cuina dels Genis – the Cuisine of the Geniuses.
Quite apart from its six UNESCO sites acknowledging its Roman history, the two pillars of art and food form the main of the region’s cultural offer, and experiencing both in tandem makes sense as an integrated cultural adventure, and importantly one that might entice more inquisitive visitors away from the undoubted magnetism of magnificent Barcelona, to take an alternative look at the region, which shares with Scotland a strong sense of national identity and cultural and lingual history.
Joan Miró: ‘All my work is conceived in Mont-roig.’
The Barcelona-born Joan Miró moved the 100km south of Barcelona in 1911 to Mas Miró, near Mont-Roig – a farmhouse and smithy his family purchased after the 18-year old Joan had contracted typhoid. Enjoying a vigorously artisan grounding as son of a silversmith and watchmaker, and grandson of a blacksmith and cabinet-maker, the rural setting of farmhouse and village spawned in the young Joan the ideas of shape and colour that took form in his murals, tapestries, and sculptures.
Spending every summer here for 65 years, he tapped a creative wellspring that rose through his earlier figurative works to his later adoption of an extraordinary abstract and symbolic vernacular of colour and shape, that not only became his trademark, but to a good extent the patented ‘look’ of the region’s branded aesthetic, finding its way into everything from hotel carpets to souvenir keyrings. You can visit the farmhouse Miró painted and walk around his studio, ‘scattered’ with bequeathed studio paraphernalia and prints. His notable tapestry The Lizard With Golden Feathers, derived from the local landscape, can be viewed at the nearby church, and the village can be overlooked from the Sant Ramon chapel, perched perilously atop the precipitous Mare de Déu de la Roca chapel, which was a favourite climb for the observant painter. Miró would insist on taking a carob bean with him as a reminder of the call of home – evidently it did the trick, and a typical illustration of the faithful artist-landscape bond being impressed upon us.
Pablo Picasso: ‘Everything I learned, I learned in Horta.’
Ill from scarlet fever, Picasso travelled in 1899 from Barcelona’s art school to stay with his student friend Manuel Pallares in the latter’s native Horta de San Joan, finding recuperation in Señora Pallares’ chicken stock and the rugged mountainous setting of Els Ports. In 1909, he returned with his Parisian girlfriend and model Fernande Olivier to take up residence in the Hostal del Trompet, the unmarried couple having been refused accommodation by Señora Pallares.
Inspired – the word inevitably crops up repeatedly – by the fragmented interplay of light and colour on landscape and structures, he painted Reservoir at Horta and Factory at Horta de Ebro, among other seminal prototypes of cubism. The influence of the village’s rectilinear topography – small-scale, cubic, piled up detectable. The village’s fascinating Picasso Centre displays reproductions of numerous key Picasso works from this time, conveying the sharded geometry of his excited visual imagination, and recounts the turbulent relationship he and his chic paramour had with th, traditionally-minded villagers who, not having seen anything like them before, were both transfixed and scandalised. In later life from Horta remained an avowed friend to the artist, who it’s fair to say did not apply such an embracing policy in handling his tempestuous family-life.
Antoni Gaudí: ‘Originality means going back to the source’.
Antoni Gaudí was born in Reus in 1852, living for sixteen years in the family home which housed the coppersmith’s workshop which played an essential part in shaping the way he saw space and how to capture it. Having left for Barcelona to study architecture, and re-shape the capital with some of the most extraordinary buildings of the century, he retained a strong connection with Reus, influencing its plentiful early 20th century architectural modernism.
The large historic town honours him with the lavish Gaudí Centre, which does a commendable high-tech job of conveying his unique internal assimilation of art, nature and engineering that kept him devoted to transformative architecture, and you don’t doubt the influence the region’s natural forms had on his ideas – shells, seaweed, honeycomb structures, mountains, twisting trees, mountain-catacombs. There is a recreation of his basement office-den where he lived out his final years literally underneath his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, which is projected to be completed in 2026; this will be the centenary of his death – hit by a tram, so dishevelled-looking from his labours that he was thought to be a vagrant.
Pablo Casals: ‘Fortunately, in all my travels in so many foreign countries, I have never left behind the child from El Vendrell.’
Born the son of a church organist in El Vendrell in 1876, Pablo Casals was exposed to music from a very early age and enjoyed a stellar career as a recording artist, composer, and performing ‘cellist who, through his tours of international auditoria exerted an influence among the elite, becoming a revered humanitarian-ambassador for the unifying spirit of music, and in recognition of his stance for peace, justice and freedom.
Less widely-known latterly in the UK, he remains admired at home for the privations he voluntarily endured during the civil war, which broke his heart, and on the world stage for composing the Hymn of the United Nations at the age of 94. The UN Peace Medal awarded him at its premier performance in 1971 is displayed at the Pau Casals Museum – his classical beachside former family home and ornamental garden, return to which, for a republican, was impossible after the civil war; exhibits include instruments, compositions and, in its theatre, footage of the man playing some quite blissful Bach ‘cello suites, which he recorded in the 1930’s.
The Catalonian Tourist Board invited Artmag to sample their Landscape of the Geniuses tour over three enjoyable days in January, impressing with the combined inspirations of landscape and cuisine.
Gastronomic highlights from the trip included an astonishing immersive-sensory welcome dinner in the Castell de Vila-Seca mansion, near Reus, prepared by eighteen top-flight Catalan restaurants with staggering attention not only to culinary detail, but to building the imaginative link with each of the four artists, in a lavish room-by-room audio-visual experience.
Reus is also the spiritual home of Vermouth, with many bars offering countless varieties: we visited the Vermut Rofes restaurant and distillery, and the Museu del Vermut, nestling in the alleyways of the ancient centre, which offers tastings surrounded by golden-era posters and memorabilia promoting the aromatic and once-again trendy drink, its ingredient formulas ever-closely guarded.
In the high ground of Picasso’s Horta de San Joan we were treated to some gorgeous Les Vinyes del Convent Grenache Rosé on the steps of the Sant Salvador d’Horta monastery, at the foot of Santa Barbara Mountain, next-door to the vineyard; and an educational introduction to the subtle differences in the locale’s rarified olive oils at Identitat, the brand for the family firm that has been making it for generations, in a 13th-century building. Once you know how to taste it, you’re surprised by the apparent differences, and its importance in La Cloxta – a whole loaf of bread stuffed with herring, roast tomatoes and garlic – a traditional staple for local olive-grove workers.
A short ride away, in Baix Penedès, Terra i Taula Collective‘s chef Jordì Guillem gave us a masterclass in local gastronomic speciality Xato – a sauce ground from local nuts, oil, vinegar, garlic, breadcrumbs, pepper and salt and eaten with endive salad, fish and pitta.
With grateful thanks to the Catalonia-Catalan Tourist Board, which has a selection of itineraries prepared with suggested destinations and accommodation. Regular flights serve Barcelona from Glasgow and Edinburgh, with seasonal flights direct to Reus. Thanks in particular Pilar Herrero-Gómez.
Main image: Sculpture Garden, Museum Pau Casals, El Vendrell.
Images David White