There is much to explore in this city, the second largest in Spain, situated on a narrow coastal plain between the Sierra de Collserola and the Mediterranean Sea. The Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) is Barcelona's medieval core. Around it are the city blocks of the Eixample - the 19th Century expansion. Ringing that are modern residential and industrial sections.
Barcelona is the capital of the Spanish region known as the Catalan Nation and as such is home to historic state institutions such as the Geralitat, the Catalan government. While you can speak Spanish in this region, Catalan is the language of choice. Once the primary mode of communication for conducting business throughout the Mediterranean, Catalan is more similar to French than to Spanish. Indeed, the city is geographically closer to France (105 miles) than to Madrid (426 miles), Spain's capital city.
The city has ancient roots. Carthaginians are credited with its founding. The name Barcelona, in fact, is believed to be a derivation of Barca, the name of a family that was once powerful in the region. Barcelona's influence grew, first as a Roman seaport, then as a Visigothic capital. The Arabs took over in the 8th Century, but Charlemagne soon became the victor and made it part of the region called the Spanish March. Over the centuries, Barcelonan counts expanded the region to include parts of France. Therein lies the root of the similarity between the Catalan and French languages.
The Catalan separatist activity that in large part led to the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939 was centered in Barcelona. The infamous fascist General Franco had seized power and headed up this war against democracy. He cruelly did his best to quash the separatist movement. After "La Libertad" - Franco's death and a return to democracy - separatist fever cooled when the region was granted autonomy comparable to that of an American state. The Catalan people were no longer subject to censorship and Catalan was restored as the official language.
Today, the greater Barcelona metropolitan area is home to 3.5 million people. It is Spain's major seaport and manufacturing center. Major products include electronics, cars and trucks, locomotives, and airplanes. Barcelonans pride themselves on their city's numerous squares and parks and its excellent public transportation system. Because Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics, the city also has top-notch facilities for several sports.
Arts and Culture
More than anything else, though, Barcelona is a center of culture. The majority of Spain's publishing houses are located here. The city boasts more than 60 art galleries and a plethora of museums and monuments. Modernisme is the Catalan version of the international art movement that is also called art nouveau. Barcelona is a mecca for those who appreciate this style. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, many renowned architects erected buildings that incorporated modern materials like steel and glass with the country's traditional Gothic and Moorish influences.
Genius of Gaudí
Best-known among these architects was Antoni Gaudí, once considered radical and revered as a creative genius. He left impressive examples of his work in parks, mansions and apartments, a seminary, and Temple de la Sagrada Familia. The towers on the latter have come to symbolize Barcelona's artistic vitality.
The temple is generally credited as Gaudí's masterpiece - though it has had its detractors. Author George Orwell, for example, stated that it was one of the ugliest buildings he had ever seen. The devoutly religious Gaudí's plans included the building of three main facades with four towers each - the 12 towers to represent the Apostles. A dome above all was to include four larger-still towers. Gaudí was able to finish only one facade before he was tragically run over and killed by a tram. This facade, however, will give you a hint of what a startling and beautiful finished product this might have been...and may still be. The canopies above the three doors to the existing facade were carved to resemble stalactites. Look closely, however, and you will see that groups of sculpted figures render scenes of the Nativity. Enthusiasm to complete the temple sprung up in the 1950s and work has continued sporadically over the years. That, too, has created controversy. Some Barcelonans believe the temple should have been left as it was at the time of Gaudí's death. They also believe that attempting to recreate Gaudí's vision with modern materials violates that vision. Nevertheless, the temple is expected to be completed in 20 years.
Another don't-miss Gaudí creation is La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila. With a curving limestone facade that undulates around an intersection, the bulding has soft-edge rectangular openings for windows and cavelike balconies. At the time it was unveiled in 1910, many Barcelonans reviled the bulding, and hence nicknamed it La Pedrera, which translates as "the stone quarry" or "rockpile." They also termed the building's eerie chimneys espantabruxes, or "with-scarers." In these much more tolerant architectural times, you'll be impressed that the building's exterior has no straight lines.
For more Gaudí, visit Parc Guell. Like the Temple de la Sagrada Familia, this project wasn't completed because of Gaudí's untimely death. His vision here was to create not just a park but a housing complex that was new and unique to urban planning of the time. One of the two somewhat circular houses on the property is the Casa-Museu Gaudí, once owned by the architect himself. Here you'll find some of his plans, models, and other examples of his work.
Museums and Monuments
Hungry for more museums? Head for the Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona's main park. Once the site of a fortress during Felipe V's reign, some of the original buildings remain. The park was improved for the 1888 Universal Exposition. The Museu D'Arte Modern is housed in a former palace. From this building, you'll have a terrific view of the busy Placa de Espana, which contains a monument to Cervantes. The author is looking down on two of his best-known characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Parc del la Ciutadella is also home to the Museu de Zoolgia, the Museu de Geologia, a zoo, and an aquarium.
Another monument you'll want to see in Barcelona is the Monument A Colom - a statue of Christopher Columbus. The statue rests on top of a column that stretches 171 feet. Take the elevator to the observation deck for a look-see at the port area, where a replica of the Santa Maria is often docked.
The Columbus monument is at the base of the lively Rambla - Barcelona's most famous promenade and considered to be the heart of the city. The wide, tree-lined Rambla is approximately a mile long and is teeming with people at all hours - sailors on leave, tourists, locals. Shops selling all nature of goods dot the avenue and you can enjoy tapas and other Spanish delights al fresco at one of the numerous cafes.
Do take a detour off the Rambla to visit the nearby Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. Especially impressive in the Quarter is Barcelona's Catedral. Though many architectural styles were employed over the centuries it was built, the Catedral is best known as the premier showcase of the Catalan Gothic style. Stroll through one or all of its 29 chapels that are filled with faded treasures of bygone eras. On the weekends, outside the church, you can watch locals perform the sardana, an elegant traditional Catalan dance that symbolizes unity.
About a mile up from the Rambla is Avinguda Diagonal, which literally cuts through the city diagonally. Here you'll find most of Barcelona's high-end stores.
If you're still in the mood for shopping, eating, partying, or sightseeing, visit Poble Espanyol, or "the Spanish Village," which was created the 1929 Exposition. It's kind of a mini-Spain, displaying Spain's varying architectural styles and bustling with workshops, studios, boutiques, restaurants, and discos. Nightlife here rocks!
As they say in Catalan, fins aviat ("see you soon!") in Barcelona.
Story by Jacqueline Shannon
Photography by Bob Thompson