I must confess to having known very little about Dali beyond the melting clocks.
My one significant encounter was going to an exhibition of his works on a date with a lad I fancied. I have cringe-inducing memories of using the word ‘trippy’ on the date, but not much beyond that.
Certainly, I had no idea that Dali’s life and work had been so shaped by a woman – the love of his life, his wife, his muse – or that he had, at some point, combined their signatures into one: Gala Salvador Dali.
A new exhibition in Barcelona has brought this enigmatic woman into the spotlight. Titled A Room Of One’s Own In Pubol, it draws together a collection of his works and her possessions.
Walking through the curated rooms at the , the romantic in me was smiling.
There are hair bows, an ornate hand mirror, a vast collection of books, a necklace of enamel flowers. There’s the Dali and Schiaparelli-designed hat in the shape of a shoe, alongside a picture of Gala – all angular Slavic features and impossibly arched eyebrows – wearing it. There’s a work entitled Couple With Their Head Full Of Clouds, and a 1936 photograph by Cecil Beaton of the couple with it.
Several jerky black and white projections added to my new insights.
With his iconic waxed moustache and genius-has-struck expression (which reminded me of the professor in Back To The Future), Dali came across as somewhat grandiose – but playfully so.
And the way he talked about Gala – as the woman he wanted to marry again – gave me all the heart eyes. Her face appeared in his work over and over and over again. Who has never fantasised about being so adored?
It’s a different muse that I was introduced to later that evening at Bar Marsella – absinthe.
Located just around the corner from Rambla del Raval, this atmospheric bar is the oldest in Barcelona, and a favourite haunt of Dali when in the city.
The absinthe, lined up against the speckled mirror behind the bar, is unique to this joint. Created for over 100 years at a distillery nearby, it was paler in colour and not as strong as the absinthe you might find elsewhere – which, explained the bartender with a wicked gleam, made it far more drinkable and therefore, probably, far more dangerous.
I can’t say that I was struck by any extraordinary visions or inspirations that night but I did make it to Barcelona Sants the next morning in time to catch the high-speed train to Figueres.
Tickets can be and cost €21 one way, getting you to Figueres-Vilafant in under an hour. From the station it’s a short, €1,70 bus ride into the centre, where Dali Theatre And Museum – the site of the artist’s tomb – is located. .
From the outside, the museum looked every bit as bizarre in its surroundings as photos have led me to expect: a jumble of egg shapes were perched above its pink walls, which were studded with what looked to me like the coiled turds of a farm animal, but which I find out later were life-sized casts of loaves of bread, a daily staple with which the artist had a fascination.
The inside was extraordinary. The floor plan advised against taking the suggested route through the many rooms and levels too seriously, so I didn’t. Instead, I allowed myself to drift from space to space.
At almost every turn, I could feel my eyes widen, confronted with works on a huge scale and in every conceivable medium.
The vast main gallery was topped by a geometric-paned glass dome, through which light flooded through; beyond this was a lushly planted garden in which a statue of a goddess stood on a Cadillac.
Several times, I heard children crying, which was hardly surprising given the blank-faced, dismembered dolls, the inverted chairs placed on torso-less mannequins and the clusters of corn cobs from which ghastly faces stared back.
I was taken with a series of pen and ink drawings that reminded me of tarot cards, while upstairs, a curved blue gallery documented a seeming obsession with creating human-like shapes from rock forms, blossoming with lichen.
The much-copied red lip Mae West sofa was there; I ascended a small staircase under the belly of a camel to get the full impact of a face, framed by hair, with monstrous nostrils atop those red lips.
Gala was frequently recognisable, but I was taken aback by how diverse and prolific Dali was and unsure what to make of him – an irreverent genius with a great sense of fun, or a man with serious issues?
Perhaps the house he shared with Gala in the seaside town of Port Lligat would yield some clues.
It’s about a 10 minute walk from the museum to the bus station, from which a bus to Cadaques departs every hour or so. Tickets are €5.50 and the journey takes about an hour.
If, like me, you’ve had a sensational paella and a beer before setting off, you may immediately nod off on the bus. But it’s worth setting your inner alarm to wake you up about 45 minutes into the journey, at Roses, where the roads become more winding and interesting. They’re lined by vineyards, and scrubby hills to which white houses cling, and that part to tease with glimpses of wide blue sea.
Cadaques was sleepy and sun-kissed and looked well worth a wander in its own right – but I was on my Dali mission and not about to be distracted by a pretty white dress floating in a shop door (OK I was distracted for a minute).
As you walk along the seafront, turn left just before Casa Nun Restaurant to follow a mostly pedestrianised 15 minute route to Port Lligat. Flip flops aren’t your best bet for this one; it’s largely uneven and, in some sections, steep.
Like the museum, – understandably here, as the house is a warren of small rooms, and even bags have to be left in a cloakroom.
A polar bear, draped with necklaces, was rearing up to greet me as I entered. A present from Henry James, he was just one example of taxidermy in a house that’s (pardon the pun) stuffed with it.
Yet there’s simplicity here, too – the mirror angled by the bedroom window so that Dali could watch the sun rise without leaving his bed; the piles of yellow flowers, called Eternal, that Gala festooned from the ceilings and arranged along the tops of wardrobes; the olive groves from which gorgeous views of the bay are to be had; the simple white of the walls – both interior and exterior – against which the rest of the colours pop.
In the studio, there’s also the incomplete work that Dali was working on when he died.
He went, the guide told me, to the castle at Pubol – the third point on the triangle – and never returned.
‘When was that?’ I asked.
‘1992,’ she said.
‘Also 1992,’ came the reverential reply.
In all of the oddness of Dali that I’ve imbibed in the previous 24 hours, this turned out to be, perhaps, the oddest thing of all.
This was definitely not a clumsy mistake – the guide was misty-eyed-insistent that their deaths, within months of each other, were their final romantic statement.
Subsequent research, however, revealed that Gala, who was older than Dali, died a good seven years before him – and, despite the impressive longevity of their union and the even more dazzling body of work they produced, they appear to have had a relationship as bizarre and as twisted as a Dali painting, complete with open infidelities, orgies and, towards the end, beatings and drugging.
I didn’t make it to on this trip, as it’s best reached by car if time is short.
Its castle, a gift from Dali to Gala, from which many of the objects at the new exhibition have been extracted and which, in itself, may appear to be have been the ultimate love-token, is another paradox: once completed, it was a condition of Gala’s that Dali could only visit with her written invitation – and she made good use of her privacy there by entertaining a number of men.
Time, like a Dali clock, had melted away on this visit, and by the time I made it back to Figueres, I had missed the fast train back to Barcelona.
Instead, I took the regional train (€12) from the station just by the terminal, to which the bus from Cadaques had returned.
A couple on my carriage spent the journey plucking one another’s eyebrows, playing loud music, snogging loudly, giving each other resounding horsebites and shouting.
It took over 2 hours to get back to the city, and although the scenery was gorgeous, I had more than enough time to ponder the fact that love was a many splendoured, if not always completely splendid, thing.
Other things to do in Barcelona:
While you’re in Barcelona, wander out of the Gothic Quarter and down towards the seafront to take a stroll towards the Olympic Port, where Hotel Arts is located.
The cocktail list at , which takes its name from the latitude on which Barcelona lies, is inspired by other destinations on the same latitude. The menu has been designed to look like vintage airline baggage labels or airline tickets.
The Smoking Razz, named after Taoxian in China, contains gin, egg white, Lapsang Souchong, lime and fresh raspberries, and would be an absolute winner even if its presentation, in a pipe-shaped glass, wasn’t so enticing.
The small plates bar menu was also thoroughly enjoyable, with offerings like shucked oysters and Oscietra caviar, but the standout plate was Iberian ham, bread, tomato and fat, clear globules of what looked like some kind of roe but was actually olive oil caviar – unctuous morsels of heaven.
Where to stay in Catalonia and how to get there:
I stayed at the 4-star . Located right by the lively square of the same name, it’s perfectly and centrally positioned for getting around to all of Barcelona’s main attractions.
Easily distinguished from the outside by its metallic, cylindrical form, the quirky factor continues inside with a riot of pink and black decor, dotted with mannequins and statement lighting.
Rooms are compact and well designed, and there are nice touches, like cava on arrival, a scent menu for your room and mint foot massage gel as part of the turn down service.
The B-Lounge restaurant on the ground floor serves up a variety of great food. But the real highlight? The 360-degree rooftop terrace, complete with bar and pool.
flies to Barcelona nine times a day, with prices starting from £88 return.
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