Barcelona, Spain: Sex and drunks and rock'n'roll

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Barcelona, Spain: Sex and drunks and rock'n'roll

Warning: this article contains sexually graphic and amusing content.

There was no suitable excuse to be standing outside Barcelona’s Museu de l’Erotica. It was a dreary mid-morning and the sky had a hangover. So did I.

The previous evening, which stretched close to dawn, I had stumbled on the district known as El Raval.

It’s curious what you find when looking for a laundromat in an unfamiliar city.

El Raval, as I learned later, is an insalubrious place. When I mentioned where I had been to the middle-aged manager of my modest hotel there was much furrowing of brow and shaking of unshaven jowls.

As it happened it was largely his fault I had ended up there. Because of his truculence about the inefficiencies of his small laundry he had jabbed a chubby, nicotine-stained finger on a map and dismissively indicated I could find a place to do my washing, somewhere over the far side of the central boulevard La Rambla.

In the late afternoon I set off -- inconveniently forgetting my bag of soiled clothing -- and by evening was having tapas and coffee in bar near Placa de la Gardunya. Afterwards I continued further on, unwittingly ending up in a rundown district described in a guide book I read later as the area containing “one of the city’s most dispiriting slums, the seedy red-light zone and drug abusers’ haunt of the Barri Xines.”

Perhaps if I had learned this previously I would have heeded its warning: “Take care in this area“.

But what you don’t know … 

El Raval is where cultures collide, it has a thick bohemian feel and the late-night bars jolt to the sounds of electronica and Algerian music, British indie rock’n’roll, Spanish dub and music from West Africa.

I loved it, stayed too long, ate with new-found stranger-friends at the respectable hour of midnight then negotiated the alleyways back to my distant hotel on instinct and the indifference to directions and dangers which alcohol allows.

I was woken a few hours later by the shushing-hiss and voices from the shower room next to my claustrophobic quarters. The world was up -- or at least my small, dark and crowded corner of it -- so I might as well be too.

And so it was on an unglamorous morning I stood outside a narrow door on the busy Las Rambla where a tattooed young man with a wooden hand took my 7.50 euro and gestured me up the clean stairwell to a palace of earthly delights.

I have never previously been to a gallery of erotic art. And if there was an excuse for climbing these stairs we should blame the great artists.

After a couple of days poking around the nearby Museu Picasso and making the debilitating hike to Fundacio Joan Miro on Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city, to see elaborate art-squiggles with titles such as Naked Woman by a Window it was time to see real representational stuff where “naked” meant all kit off, real proper starkers.

Maybe it was also “to hell with culture, let’s get down’n’dirty”.

Either way the Museu de l’Erotica offered a marathon of sexual voyeurism.

With new age music and video surveillance cameras in the half a dozen rooms, this gallery of the most private of our activities was an equally intimate revelation of the erotic arts.

Sure there were pieces -- mostly contemporary -- where you could argue the line between the erotic and the pornographic had been crossed. But otherwise the museum has a collection of lovely Japanese scrolls, delicate and interlocking Chinese porcelain figures, and deftly realised images from the Karma Sutra.

There was also a maharaja being royally serviced but still managing to keep a finger -- and toes -- in other pies. And The Pleasure Chair with manacles and a large wooden penis placed for maximum effect.

Some observations? Japanese artists have seen too many men with genital-specific elephantitis, and Indian artists in the course of rendering sexual gymnastics don’t seem too fussed where they locate certain parts of the anatomy.

Of course anyone who takes their sex and eroticism seriously knows this is all hilarious.

The deliciously amusing works by the 19th century Belgian satirist Martin van Maele captures some wonderful absurdities: a lover playing his erect penis like a lute while the object of his affections hangs her buttocks out of the window above; and an obsequious courtier who bows and doffs his cap to reveal himself a literal dickhead.

A man commits suicide by hanging himself with his penis thrown across the roof beam and around his neck. An auto-erotic suicide Michael Hutchence would have admired.

There are delicate line drawings by the late 19th century artist Franz von Bayros, phallic objects as small as snails and as big as a body builder’s thigh, ferocious metal chastity belts for men and women, telephones which allow you to hear erotic suggestions, cleverly evocative photomontages, and fine 19th century watercolours.

There are vaginal monologues, dialogues and full-blown choral groups.

There are erotic -- actually just naughty -- cigarette cards from the 20s, stills from silent films in the 30s, and a ride-on toy of the kind you see outside shops with a sign which says parents should supervise their children. It is a naked woman on her back with her legs apart.

Some art is for sale, but it is of the panel van variety. Unlike the Picasso and Miro museums there were no postcards, shot glasses, table cloths, fridge magnets or writing pads for sale in the gallery shop. That is a shame. I kinda liked the idea of the busy maharajah on a tea towel.

The Museu de l‘Erotica -- founded in 99 and in most of the major gallery guides of Barcelona -- was alternately intriguing, edifying, compelling and repulsive. But it was never less than interesting, a word which of course suspends judgement.

When confronted with the cultural inclusiveness of this collection it makes you wonder if this is the only universal art humankind has. From Melanesia to Madrid, from ancient Greeks potters to downtown Manhattan photographers, erotic art has been a constant.

Inevitably, when we owe our very existence to sex, we have portrayed it in its many manifestations and in all its humorous, loving and erotic intent.

The day I was in this discreet and professionally-curated gallery I was untroubled by porno-pilgrims until two swaggering, slightly boozed-up English wideboys bellowed their way in -- and were immediately reduced to dumbfounded silenced by a piece of auto-erotic equipment designed to terrify as much as turn you on. It looked bloody painful.

My sole regret while walking down the stairs was I did not know the Catalan for, “Very interesting. I’m glad I came”.

The mischief in me wanted to watch the one-hand man leap to his surveillance footage.

This is a chapter from the travel book Postcards From Elsewhere


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Angela - Mar 18, 2009

Well, it turned into a good time though. I too stumbled into El Raval after visiting something terribly worthy with lots of madonna statues from churches and some reasonably fascinating domestic stuff - possibly all collected by an obsessive - there were so many duplicates of each item!
Unfortunately, being female and taken aback that such a weird, scary and shoddy district could exist in the centre of the city I felt it was wise to get out of the area as quickly as possible - my husband was interested in going there but luckily we ran out of time!

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