Photo by Bartek Molga
Cafe del Centre
Drink it in
In the late 1800s, the winds of design change swept the Art Nouveau style through many countries. The ‘New Art’, as it was named in France, was a break from past styles of the industrial revolution and placed a new emphasis on handcrafted work. This movement drew inspiration from nature: leaves, grasses, flowers, insects, vegetables and trees. Organic forms swirled on clocks, columns, lintels, lighting, balconies and benches. Here, the Catalan Art Nouveau movement, Modernisme, was centred in Barcelona and blew along the coast into adjoining areas, following patterns of economic growth.
For people who have been unable to finagle invites into any of the glorious but closed-to-the-public Modernista buildings in Barcelona, numerous Modernista bars are located throughout the city, and for the price of a drink they can be inspected at leisure.
The luxurious Café Vienés, in the five-star Hotel Casa Fuster, is a good place to start on the Modernista trail. The whole building was designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner as a home for the Mariano Fuster i Fuster family; it was completed in 1911 and the family lived there until the early Twenties. It was his last work, and Domènech i Montaner was conservative with his embellishments compared to one of his other masterpieces, the Palau de la Música Catalana. Design elements for Hotel Casa Fuster are bold, yet with straighter lines.
Upon entering the café, the glowing gold-leaf ceiling hovers over arches supported by large marble columns topped with floral capitals. Cocktails, teas and coffee can be enjoyed on curved, red velvet sofas. Breakfast, tapas and light fare is served throughout the day. Jazz is hot on Thursday nights and Woody Allen has dropped in to play. The Hotel Casa Fuster has been named in the Art Nouveau European Route, organised by an association that protects and promotes Art Nouveau heritage.
For a different atmosphere, head to the London Bar. The high energy level there may be traceable to the circus performers and actors who used to practise in the back room. It has been a favourite haunt for artists since it opened in 1910, and on a busy night it can seem like they never left; a trapeze still hangs near the front door. However, only the front room of the bar is in the Modernista style. The unusual cream-coloured paint, combined with gold, undulates with carved designs on the woodwork. Behind the bar are large mirrors surrounded with whirling leaves, flowers and vegetables. Flowers are sculpted into the original marble bar. During Franco’s reign, no signs in Catalan were allowed; instead information could only be displayed in Castilian. The bar owners of that time covered their sign, rather than get rid of it, and the original signage survived. No food here, but the good news is that the cocktails are strong.
Café del Centre
Away from the crowds in the Eixample, the Giménez family has owned the Café del Centre since 1873. It has been the site for numerous advertising shoots and for filming television programmes. Jordi Bel, the great-grandson of the original owner, manages the bar at night, while his sister Olga serves the morning customers. Jordi Bel’s favourite part of his work is the appreciation shown by his customers. “I like the fact that the people think my bar is beautiful. The location and bar are different.”
Initially a casino, the bar still has the original octagonal marble tables with a slot for poker chips. When gambling was banned by Franco in 1939, the family converted the casino into a bodega and wine bar. This basic neighbourhood hangout has its original porcelain hanging lamps with cloth cords and counter weights for adjusting the height over the card players. The black-and-white marble floor, with its scuffs and stains, speaks of the thousands who have gathered here. Dark, wooden Modernista benches, with hand-carved flowers, line a wall topped by photographs of old Barcelona. Hearty Catalan fare is prepared with love of tradition by Ines Giménez, the granddaughter of the founder. Eight kinds of torrades (toasted bread with different toppings) are offered, the grilled vegetable version being a favourite.
Why would a bar be called El Paraigua (The Umbrella)? When Galles, an umbrella and fan shop located on Carrer dels Arcs from circa 1900, was due to be demolished after 60 years or so of existence, a theatre set designer, Josep Espada, had the vision to save the Modernista elements of the store and repurpose them. The interior design elements were carefully disassembled and adapted by the Yague brothers, two craftsmen who were also guitar makers; with their knowledge of wood working, they skilfully helped create El Paraigua. The beautiful wooden shelves that now hold liquor bottles were once display racks in the windows of the umbrella store; the ornate ceiling panels of the bar were originally on the walls. Bevelled mirrors line the walls and have hand-carved wooden frames featuring interwoven flowers and leaves. Sitting on the bar is a large, brass cash register dated 1898, which was shipped to Barcelona from the manufacturer, the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio.
Monica Enero and Jessie Jaen are the owners today, the two young women having bought the bar two years ago, and both have an appreciation of Modernista architecture and fine food. Enero, with a degree in hotel management from the University of Barcelona, and Jaen, a lawyer, combined their skills to make a balanced team. They created a casual, elegant atmosphere in the downstairs of El Paraigua, which is the remains of a convent built in 1650. Vaulted ceilings set the mood for a low-lit bar offering music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Bossa nova, blues and jazz entertain customers who sit on plush sofas and chairs. Lighting is gentle, a romantic place for a date. Rain or shine, El Paraigua surrounds customers with history. “We specialise in cocktails, good wine and cavas, and customers have a choice of over 40 tapas,” said Enero.
Hotel Casa Fuster’s Café Vienés; Passeig de Gràcia 132;
tel. 93 255 3000; open daily, 7.30-2am; www.casafuster.com
Café del Centre; Girona 69, tel. 93 488 1101; closed on weekends; open weekdays, 8.30am-11.30pm.
London Bar; Nou de la Rambla 34; tel. 93 318 5261;
Tues, Wed, Thur, 7.30pm-4.30am; Fri–Sat, 7.30pm-6am.
El Paraigua; Pas de l’Ensenyanca 2; tel. 93 317 1479; open Mon–Fri, 9-2am; Sat, 6pm–3am; www.elparaigua.com
Other places to enjoy a drink in Modernista surroundings:
Els Quatre Gats: designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1896. Picasso had his first Barcelona show here. Bar and restaurant. Great Modernista details, but somewhat touristy. Montsio 3; tel. 93 302 4140; café open daily, 8am-2am. www.4gats.com
Bar Muy Buenas: originally a dairy bar. Etched glass with beamed ceiling. Light food, wine, coffee. Beautiful woodwork inside and out. Carme 63; tel. 93 442 5053
Molly’s Fair City: Barça’s games are big here, watched by excitable crowds. Multicultural clientele. Beautiful carved wooden mouldings. Ferran 7; tel. 93 342 4026; 7pm-3am
Casa Almirall: Dimly lit and cosy. Drinks only. Rich woodwork with painted garlands on the walls. Joaquim Costa 33; tel. 93 412 1219; Mon–Thurs, 5pm-3am; Fri and Sat, 7pm-3am.
Modernism or Modernisme?
What a difference a letter can make; just by adding one to an existing word can create a new word with a completely different meaning from the original one—think reign and resign.
Similarly, Modernisme is not the same as Modernism. The Catalan words Modernisme and Modernista refer to the nature-inspired architectural and artistic style referred to in this article, which lasted around 30 years from the late 19th-century; other words to describe this movement include Art Nouveau in France, Floreale in Italy and Jugendstyl in Germany. In contrast, the English word Modernism describes the creative style that flourished after World War One and many proponents of which were motivated by a reaction against the Art Nouveau period. People like Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright were leading lights in this movement.
First published June 2009.