The sights, sounds and smells of Barcelona create a rich, multi-faceted tapestry. Cigarette and cigar smoke mix with the smoke of incense, wood fires and sometimes cannabis. The aromas of vanilla, coffee and tapas beckon you into one of the numerous cafes, patisseries and tapas bars.
In the Barrio Gòtico (Gothic quarter), church bells play counterpoint to smooth jazz in an ancient square. Teenagers sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” in front of Esglesia de Santa Maria del Pi, a Romanesque church circa 1300s dedicated to the Blessed Lady of the Pine Tree. In a narrow, shop-lined alley, a guitarist picks out the notes of American classic rock songs. A didgeridoo keeps the beat along a sidewalk in Placa de Catalunya.
With a population of nearly 1,621,000, Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain. It’s one of the cultural centers of Europe and is the capital of the region known as Catalonia. Add in the hundreds of thousands of tourists who vacation in the city every year, and it becomes the second most visited city in Europe, Paris being the first.
During my stay between Christmas and New Years Eve, the streets of Barcelona were packed with tourists from Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, France, Italy, the United States, Great Britain, and other parts of Spain. Spaniards are night owls, so the streets were nearly impossible to navigate at night with huge crowds out shopping, dining and clubbing. Night clubs open at midnight and rock until dawn or later.
The city has very little violent crime, so it’s reasonably safe. I walked around by myself even at night and never felt afraid. However, there are many pickpockets and Gypsies begging for money, so be prepared and protect your wallets.
If you’ve never been to Barcelona, a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter in the old city is the best introduction. Here, you’ll discover remnants of architecture and art from the region’s earliest inhabitants and begin to understand the struggles this city and region have endured.
Travel Bound offers an excellent free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter, which begins at the Travel Bar on Carrer de la Boqueria 27. Our guide Iosef (one of several guides who conduct these tours) was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining, as well as eccentric. He’s a musician and scholar from Ireland who has lived in Barcelona many years and has a fiery passion for the people of Catalonia and their history. He’ll light a fire in you as he sheds light on the beauty and wonders of this area. I highly recommend this tour. Although it is “free,” please be sure to tip your guide well, as this is a terrific value.
While on the tour, a couple of men came into our group to beg for money. It’s interesting how this makes people feel uncomfortable and guilty. They feel obligated to give money, and several in our group did. The average unemployment rate in Spain is currently around 27 percent and somewhat lower in Catalonia, so certainly people are suffering. But giving money to people on the street perpetuates the problem and solves nothing.
Contemporary and historic art in the form of paintings, sculptures and architecture is everywhere you look. One lesson I learned from this walking tour is that it pays to look up (except watch out for the low posts that bar traffic from entering pedestrian areas!), as much of the city’s richest art is above street level. Sculptures and ornamentation both new and old adorn every building.
Here, local artists’ work is displayed in a marketplace in front of Esglesia de Santa Maria del Pi.
Barcelona has a long and storied artistic history and over the centuries was home to many of the icons of art, such as Picasso, Miro and Dali. Antoni Gaudi was one of the most notable architects in Barcelona. There are tours available to view numerous examples of his work, La Sagrada Familia being the highlight.
The city’s patron saint, Sant Jordi (Saint George) the dragon slayer, is depicted on numerous buildings, sculptures and fountains in Barcelona. Ironically, the dragon is the symbol of Barcelona. Dragon sculptures and icons can be found everywhere. It’s a real contradiction given Jordi’s penchant for slaying dragons.
Barcelona is a city of contradictions, the most striking of which is the vast treasure trove of art that rose out of the city’s long history of oppression. Art comes from the depth of human struggle. Perhaps that is why Barcelona has such a rich artistic history.
In 218 BC, the area on the Iberian peninsula that is now Barcelona was occupied by Carthaginian troops and their leader Hamilcar Barca (father of the great military commander Hannibal). Barcelona is thought to have gotten its name from this leader, though no one is certain.
Over their more than 4000 year history, Catalonians have endured much suffering and oppression under numerous dictators. During the Carthaginean Wars in 19 BC, Caesar Augustus and his Roman army conquered this region. Barcelona became a community for retired Roman soldiers, those lucky enough to have survived the wars.
Around 250 AD, Germanic tribes known as Visigoths invaded the settlement. Today’s Catalans are descended from the Laietans, the German and French Gothic people who conquered the Roman city. The Catalan language is derived from a blend of Old German and French.
In the 8th century, Barcelona was taken by the Moors then conquered by Charlemagne. Over the centuries, the French repeatedly occupied Barcelona. When Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, Catalonia fell under Aragonian rule. These rulers were responsible for the Spanish Inquisition that drove Jews and Muslims out of Barcelona and put many others to death.
When Francisco Franco ignited a civil war in Spain in 1936, he took control of the Spanish army and overthrew the Spanish government. Then he invaded and conquered Catalonia. This led to the abolition of Catalan autonomy.
The Catalonians suffered greatly under Franco oppression. Castilian Spaniards inhabit Madrid and are called Castellanos. The people of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia are Catalans not Spaniards. They have their own language and customs. Franco’s dictatorship forced the Catalans to become Spaniards in every way. They had to speak Spanish, adopt Spanish customs and shun Catalonian language and traditions or suffer the consequences. People caught speaking Catalan or observing Catalan cultural practices were put to death. During this time, Pablo Picasso became exiled in Paris and vowed never to return to his beloved Barcelona while Franco was alive. Ironically, Franco died in 1975, two years after Picasso’s death, so the great artist was never able to return to his childhood home.
Since Franco’s regime, Catalonia has remained under Spanish rule, but they won their autonomy shortly after the dictator’s death and began to restore their language and customs. Even to this day, though, Catalans are not truly autonomous, as they are still under Spanish rule.
Barcelona has always been a stronghold of separatism. There is currently an active separatist movement underway to become the autonomous country of Catalonia. Everywhere in Barcelona and other regional cities, you can see Catalonian flags hung on balconies to express support of this movement. Proponents hope to have a referendum up for vote in November of 2014, but there is some question as to its legal viability under the Spanish constitution.
Until the early 1990s, Barcelona was an industrial city and not very people-friendly. Urban regeneration began when Barcelona was selected to host the 1992 Summer Olympics. The city made major improvements in the port area to welcome guests from around the world to the Olympic Games.
This sculpture by world-renowned American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was created specifically for the Olympics and pays tribute to native son Antoni Gaudi. Made of concrete and ceramics employing Gaudi’s technique of creating a mosaic design with brightly colored broken tiles, the sculpture is visible along the waterfront on Passeig de Colom.
Barcelona has continued to make improvements and has become one of the most tourist-friendly cities in Europe. Relatively speaking, it’s not overly expensive to visit. If you get away from the touristy areas, tapas and a glass of wine is inexpensive and delicious. And by the way, the water is potable in Barcelona. It’s safe to drink right from the tap. The mass transit system, including buses and metro, is excellent. For a reasonable price, tourists can take one of two hop-on-hop-off bus lines to see the many highlights of the city. There are lots of cabs all over which you can hail in the street or go to one of the many cab stops. If you stay in the port area or old city, you can walk everywhere.
Barcelona is a city so rich in art, culture and history, it’s impossible to see it all in one visit. To truly get to know this city and its people, you must return many times and each time, see it with new eyes.