Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toíbín

51awdagmeml._sx328_bo1204203200_I’ve been to Barcelona once, when I was a teenager. It was interesting enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I know it particularly well or (to be honest) really loved it. I found parts of it a little sleazy and I’ve been discouraged in going back by the rather aggressive over-tourism debate.  Irish novelist Colm Toíbín lived in Barcelona in the late seventies, and moved back to write this book in the late eighties (then updated it a decade later). Parts of it encourage me to take another look at the city, but others fall flat.

I wasn’t fond of Toíbín’s personal memories (that sounds awful – I’m glad he had a good time!). Living in the city soon after Franco’s death and experiencing the revival of the Catalan language must have been quite an experience, but I didn’t feel I learned much by hearing about his clubbing hotspots and the places he picks as crime hot-spots are quite possible outdated. Some travel writing tends to a sort of generic blend of multiple eras through different visits and revisions of the book. Not so good for a guide book, but very atmospheric. This was very specific to location, time and the experience of the writer, leaving me with the question: why should I care about that specific time and location, and whether a Catalan writer (or longer term resident) would be a more illuminating guide.

For me, the bits that work are generic history – chapters on Gaudis, Dali, Picasso, Pau Casals and so many others that have lived, worked and been inspired by the city and the culture. The rise of Catalan nationalism and the resurgence of the language and culture doesn’t always make for a sympathetic read and Toíbín does feel balanced – showing the repression the city suffered (under Franco, and before) but remaining critical. There’s plenty of references for further reading and plenty of avenues to explore (quite literally for visitors to the city). Toíbín’s writing is good: clear, crisp and nice to read. It’s a decent, but perhaps dated, account of a city that obviously captured the author for a period.

Venice by Jan Morris

41ygbzxrwul-_sx315_bo1204203200_This is a strange book in a temporal sense.  Morris originally wrote in 1960 and returned to revise it in the seventies and eighties.  My (library) edition is from the early nineties.  As Morris describes the people, places and behaviours of Venice, it isn’t clear what is from when.  This gives a feeling of a city that is both timeless and in perpetual decline.  There are plenty of details but many feel quaint and out of date – whether they are or not.  But despite it feeling easy to get lost in them, those details are well written and often entertaining.  Morris, like so many, clearly has a passion for the city (and I can see why).

Really, there’s a theme here about the death of local societies.  Morris describes elderly women who have visited the same green grocers that their family has used for generations.  That wasn’t in evidence when I visited, and (from other readings) it would seem to have died out – but that isn’t unique to Venice.  Perhaps the magical world of Venice just seems to amplify the processes that happen elsewhere.  Specifically to the city itself, my favourite chapter was one two thirds of the way through that discussed proposed futures for the city – kept as a museum of sorts, turned into a hive of craft industry or demolished as a futurist stunt.

She loses me slightly in the last third of the book, which offers a look at the decline of and the sights of the other islands of the lagoon.  Islands like Murano and Burano should be interesting, and there are good anecdotes sprinkled throughout, but I found the whole section a bit of a dreary end to the book.  On the whole though, I like the book.  I’m not entirely sure what it is meant to be: not history, not a guidebook, not exactly a travel journal – but it does conjure up a certain image of the city.

The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.