Custom and package tours in France, Spain and Portugal--art, architecture, heritage, culture, gardens, castles, wine, cuisine--plus river and canal cruise vacations


Barajas Airport, Madrid, Spain




Performing Arts Center, Valencia, Spain




City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia, Spain




Park Guell, Barcelona, Spain




Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain













A travel article by Pierre Mainguené, Circa Tours

Creative designs in modern architecture are far from rare, but you might think that to see the best ones, you have to travel long distances. For example: the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris, the Pearl of the Orient across the river from the Bund in Shanghai, or the new cathedral in Los Angeles. Well, there is a place where a significant number of these structures can be found all within one country: Spain.

Map of Spain

And this is not just my own personal opinion. It is also that of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, one of the most respected museums in the world. In early 2006, to highlight the fact that Spain is THE hotbed of modern architecture right now, MOMA organized an exhibition called "On-Site" specifically dedicated to current new structures already built or under construction in that country. The exhibition featured some of the most famous contemporary architects, many of them from Spain, and several Pritzker Prize laureates.

So, in the spring of 2006, all this buzz prompted me to go see for myself.

Besides visiting great architectural projects from Madrid to Bilbao to Barcelona and Valencia, I also took the opportunity to deepen my appreciation of modern art produced by Spanish painters. Some of the names are easily recognizable: Juan Miró, Salvador Dalí and the master himself, Pablo Picasso.


Since when has flying into an airport been an exciting experience (especially in the last few years)? Since the spring of 2006, at Barajas Airport in Madrid. Why? They have a brand new terminal fashioned by the latest architectural techniques... and it's huge! After you "de-plane" and start dragging your luggage into the terminal, your first impression is brightness, cheerfulness and especially color. (The size strikes you later.) The whole interior, from top to bottom, is based on a simple color scheme. Depending on where you are in the building, you may be in a yellow, green, red or blue zone. And, as you walk along, one color imperceptibly fades into another and then another. It is quite pleasant to look at. It is also peaceful and restful for all the harried travelers finally getting to their destination after long overnight flights from faraway places.

Then, very quickly, you start noticing something different about the engineering and the architectural style. Unlike traditional buildings of this sort, nothing is plumb, level or square (except the floors). Nothing is circular or even angular. The bamboo-clad ceiling waves in even and graceful curves high above your head and heavy supporting columns take off in oblique directions, just like tree trunks and branches rise to meet the forest canopy. Airports are not known for being refuges for contemplation and meditation - their mission is to move people quickly and efficiently. This one is different, however. Close your eyes and turn on the Gregorian chant... You might think you are in the nave of a Gothic cathedral.

Should you rearrange your European itinerary to see this architectural wonder? It depends on your level of interest in innovative modern building design. But, if you are traveling by train or driving through Madrid, be sure to take a quick detour to Barajas. It is well worth the visit. For the record... While the new terminal was being built, it was the largest construction site in Europe. It is designed to handle 70 million passengers annually.

The new airport is wonderful, but Madrid has a lot more to offer, of course: the Prado Museum, the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor; day trips to Segovia, Toledo, Aranjuez, etc. And, if you're interested in modern art, a visit to the Reina Sofía, one of the best museums of modern art in the world, is de rigueur. It is located a stone's throw from the great Prado Museum and across the street from the Atocha Train Station. The building itself boasts several modern architectural features, with its two outside glass towers housing the elevators and the new addition designed by world-renowned architect Jean Nouvel.

But the main purpose for the visit is the art on the inside. The Reina Sofía houses a large display of works by various contemporary artists plus a very fine collection of the three giants of modern art: one room is dedicated to Salvador Dalí, two rooms to Joan Miró and three to Pablo Picasso, including Guernica, the famous Spanish Civil War painting. This painting is large (over 25 feet long by 11 feet high) and occupies one room all by itself. At any given time there are dozens of people scrutinizing, analyzing and admiring it. Afficionados of modern art shouldn't miss this experience. The collection is a veritable treasure trove.

Basque Country

North of Madrid on the Bay of Biscay, straddling the Nervion River, lies Bilbao. This industrial urban center of around a million people has traditionally been one of the main economic engines of Spain: steel mills, shipbuilding yards, large banks, etc. Bilbao is located in Vizcaya, one of the seven Basque regions whose people are known for their industriousness and spirit of adventure. Case in point: the Guggenheim Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum.

The interest of this museum lies in it contents, of course, but even more so in the architectural style of the building itself. Designed by Pritzker-Prize laureate Frank Gehry, it opened in 1997. (Gehry also designed the new Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in the same style.) This architectural style is difficult to describe. A good analogy might be something like the layers of an onion or the petals of a rose (or wood shavings, perhaps) spread apart and then twisted in various directions. Except that the surface of the building is not onion skin or silky rose petals, but titanium sheets combined with limestone and glass. The overall look is also reminiscent of the hull of a ship floating on the waters of the Nervion River.

Such inventiveness in architectural design had never been seen prior to the Guggenheim, and for this type of construction to be possible, the draftsmen needed the assistance of computer software programs. Whichever way they did it, the result is simply amazing. One wonders how the whole structure manages to hold together and not collapse in a pile of mangled construction materials.

Let's continue our journey south and take Frank Gehry with us. (You'll see what I mean in a minute.) Destination: Laguardia, located in another Basque region called Alava, about an hour's drive or so. This region, along with its neighbor La Rioja, on the other bank of the Ebro River, produces world-class wines and is especially famous for its robust reds.

Situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, Alava offers an easy rolling landscape, mild climate and vineyards everywhere. It is an ideal place for wineries to multiply, spread, consolidate and, in the process, amass large quantities of money for their owners. As these fortunes grow, new brands need to be created and fresh images must be marketed. One way some wineries achieve this is by using avant-garde architecture for the construction of their buildings - which brings me back to Frank.

In the little town of Elciego, the headquarters of the Marques de Riscal winery was in the last stages of construction at the time of my visit. Frank did the design for them. This time, he "pushed the envelope" (so to speak) of the Guggenheim style. He made the Guggenheim convoluted shapes flow even more freely as if a storm were blowing on the outer surfaces and making them flap like flags in the wind. The result is absolutely astonishing.

And... think about this! The sole purpose for the edifice is to be a temple to Bacchus, the god of wine. We have come a long way since the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, haven't we?

A few miles away, just outside Laguardia, another famous architect by the name of Santiago Calatrava recently created the Isios winery. (He also designed the new Olympic stadium in Athens, Greece, and the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences/Performing Arts Center, in Valencia, Spain - more on this later.) Although not as much "out-on-the-edge" as the Marques de Riscal winery, its soaring, wavy roof set against the backdrop of the blue sky and the green mountain range is a sight to see.


After crossing the ancient kingdoms of Navarra and Aragon, I reached Catalonia on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. Like the Basques, the Catalans have their own culture and language, and like the Basques, they are an extremely creative and enterprising people.

The most stunning manifestation of their resourcefulness, as it relates to art and architecture, is the "Modernista" movement, which was in full swing at the turn of the 20th century. (This movement was the Catalan version of the French "Art Nouveau" movement that was in vogue at about the same time.) Some of the most notable features of the modernist style of architecture include elaborate patterns of brick and limestone decorated with intricate ironwork, colorful ceramics and glowing stained glass. And, to make things more interesting, flat, straight and angular forms are replaced by soft, artistic and curvilinear shapes. A chimney pot, for example, is no longer a square or cylindrical smoke stack. Instead, it can take on the appearance of a dragon or the helmeted head of a futuristic creature peering over the city roofs.

Many architects participated in this flurry of unbridled creativity: Josep Puig i Cadafalch (Codorniu winery in Sant Sadurni d'Anoia), Lluis Doménech i Montaner (Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau and Palau de la Música in Barcelona) and the great Antoni Gaudí, just to name a few. Gaudí was the most prolific of the group, and Barcelona abounds with examples of his work: private residences (Casa Milá and Casa Batlló), public parks (Park Güell) and churches (La Sagrada Familia and the Crypt at Colonia Güell in Santa Coloma de Cervelló).

One could say that La Sagrada Familia is to Barcelona what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. This unfinished cathedral, which harmoniously blends Gothic, neo-classical, naturalistic and futuristic styles (and maybe a few more I haven't heard of) is breathtaking. But, what impresses me the most about Gaudí's work is his engineering genius. Similar to the Barajas airport terminal, where the columns rise in oblique directions to meet the roof, so do the pillars of La Sagrada Familia and the Crypt at Colonia Güell. But there is an enormous difference here in Barcelona. The Barajas engineers used computers to do their load calculations. Gaudí couldn't do that a hundred years ago. All he had to work with were bricks, mortar, pencil and paper and... his monumental mind.

Catalonia is paradise for modern art lovers. We've all heard these famous names: Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Both Miró and Dalí are native sons of Catalonia and Picasso spent some of his early years there. (He had his first exhibition in Barcelona in 1900.)

You can enjoy Miró's work at the Foundation Joan Miró in Parc de Montjuïc. The permanent collection displays paintings, sculptures and a few tapestries by the artist, including the "Solar Bird" and the model for "The Sun, the Moon and a Star," a 40-foot sculpture on public display in Chicago.

You can find Dalí's work in Barcelona, but to really immerse yourself in his art and life you need to take a day trip to the city where he was born, Figueres, and the tiny fishing village he used as his refuge, Port Lligat. Figueres has his museum (actually called a "theater-museum"), of course, with a plethora of his surrealist creations: drawings, paintings, object compositions and even fine jewelry.

In Port Lligat, the cluster of fishermen's houses he linked together into a small living and working compound brings you into his extravagant world. His bedroom may not be as ornate as the Sun King's but he tried, in his own way. Around his fanciful lap pool you can still hear the sounds of wild and decadent parties just a few decades ago. Spending a day with Dalí makes your head spin. It's almost inebriating.

Back to Barcelona with the grand master, Picasso. Málaga (his birthplace), New York, Paris and Antibes may have fine displays of his work, but Barcelona has some of his early works that illustrate his enormous talent as a "traditional" artist and his transition into the "modern" Picasso we all know. The museum also has an entire room dedicated to his studies of "las Meninas" by Velázquez. You can linger on or sit down and meditate to give yourself time to absorb it all... So much art in one single room... So much creative inspiration!


There is more. Not to be overlooked, a little farther south on the Mediterranean coast, in Valencia, is Santiago Calatrava's "City of Arts and Sciences." This ultra-modern complex includes a museum, a planetarium, a promenade and a recently finished performing arts center, plus the Oceanografic, a futuristic marine park created by another Spanish architect, Felix Candela - all within easy walking distance from one another.

The museum's outer structure is reminiscent of a giant whale or some prehistoric mastodon's skeleton resting on its side. Next to it, sitting in the middle of a man-made pond, is the planetarium with its glass dome glowing in the sun and mirroring in the perfectly still turquoise water. On the other side of the bridge, you can hardly miss the voluminous shape of the performing arts center.

Words are hard to come by for an accurate description of this building. At first, depending on your vantage point, it looks like a gargantuan egg performing a balancing act on its side. Then, as you walk around and stand back a few paces, images of a warrior's helmet come to mind - Etruscan perhaps. Some people have even commented that it looks like the head of some kind of insect. Well, I will leave these various images to your own imagination. But, one thing is for certain. This building is absolutely spectacular. And, with all these "out-of-this-world" creations all gathered in one place, you might wonder whether you were on a science fiction movie set or just arrived on some distant intergalactic planet. Pinch yourself!

As you can see, there is no shortage of world-class modern art and architecture in Spain. And the places I visited on this itinerary are only the tip of the iceberg. The MOMA "On-Site" exhibition I mentioned above lists over fifty projects and locations, from Galicia to Cartagena to Tenerife, and the projects currently on the boards promise to continue this avant-garde trend for years to come: a museum in Cantabria, a park in Alicante, country homes in Girona, etc. Discovering the fruits of such a vast amount of talent is simply exhilarating. For an unforgettable overview of the best in modern art and architecture in the world, Spain is the place to go.

Circa Tours is a division of Circa Terras, Inc.
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