So much has been written about Antoni Gaudi and his association with Barcelona that it is almost inconceivable to venture to that pearl of the Mediterranean without at least spending some time admiring the sinuous extravagances of the architect's fanciful imagination. But Barcelona is full of unusual shops, bars and restaurants that have been going about their business since before Sr. Gaudi picked up his first pencil.
At number 11 Carrer de la Princesa, a painted be-turbaned head glares out from the curve of a large blue question mark. Below it a glass display case holds playing cards, puzzles, wands and intricate explanations of the illusionist's art. This is El Rey De La Magia, founded in 1881 and the oldest magic shop in Spain.
Shortly before Gaudi began work on the Segrada Familia, Joaquin Portagas became intrigued with the world of illusion. After a trip to South America where he learned some new tricks and techniques, he decided to take a full-time step into the magic world and opened El Rey de la Magia, a brave step at a time when only a few people understood and practiced the illusionist's art. At that time magic was mainly performed on street corners, in markets and bars – it would not become really popular until the 1930's, when it finally entered the theatres and became a major hobby.
In the shop, and the small museum of magic nearby, posters going back to the early years of the last century advertise the famous magicians of the day, a number of them dressed in flowing Chinese robes. The bright costumes were seen as very exotic when they first appeared, and besides – there was plenty of space to hide things!
In 1933 the first magic group in Spain was started in Barcelona, the Asociación Catalana Illusionistas – and met in Quatro Gats, the same café where Picasso, Joan Miró and other artists, writers and poets would meet. Magic was seen by many as part of the arts in those days.
By the time José Maria Martinez took over the shop the magic business had been in decline for a number of years – there was even talk of converting the property into a bar. At that time he and his wife, Rosa Maria Llop, were professional actors but included magic in their specially produced performances, something they still do today.
Magic is now a very popular hobby again, and even though most people quite like the very grand David Copperfield-type illusions, it's still the close-up, more intimate stage performances that people really prefer. And you do not get much more close-up and intimate than the performances held at their tiny theatre, where toddlers to granddads goggle in awe at the 'magical' Sunday shows.
The theatre is part of a museum of historic magic props (where you can see Rosa's grinning head mysteriously suspended in a glass case), but in the workshop below, José Maria works devising new tricks for customers world-wide, although in the world of magic nothing really changes.
Basically magic is defined by a few rules – levitation, changing colour, shape or place, and breaking something apart and putting it together again. Even if you're chopping someone's head off you still have to put it back again or where's the magic? There is not – it's then known as murder!
The most important thing in magic is creating the truth of something that does not exist. That comes down to technique, you need to focus the public's attention where you want it. One of the most difficult illusions to do is levitation because it needs about four minutes to set up, in full public view, and four minutes is a very long time for a magician to stand on stage and do nothing.