Barcelona: Introduction

  • © espiegle,

    © espiegle,

Discover Barcelona!

Visitors arriving by plane can get their first overview of Barcelona when the plane is preparing for landing. Up front is the Mediterranean, on the sides, the city is bound by gentle mountain ranges. Striking high-rises and ultramodern towers stand out from the maze of alleyways that make up the Gothic core. Right next to it you can make out the chessboard-like street grid of the Art Nouveau quarter Eixample. There’s no doubt about it: Barcelona, with its 1.5 million inhabitants, is a place of fascinating contrasts. This major design metropolis with its award-winning post-modern buildings boasts the largest historic city centre in Europe after Naples, where you can lose yourself for hours.

Most flats however are compact to tiny – and exorbitantly expensive, as land between the mountains and the sea is becoming scarce while the city has turned into a Mediterranean trend metropolis – following the motto ‘newer, bigger, prettier’. At the same time even zeitgeist-chasing trendsetters feel deeply connected to Catalan tradition and history. In any case, the Catalans know better than maybe any other nation how to integrate contradictions.

Take the Catalan bourgeoisie, which built one of the most magnificent Art Nouveau quarters in the world. Lavishly ornamented buildings, sensual artistic universes – but behind the façades there was always a sober merchant spirit hard at work. This is not to say that the Catalans aren’t creative. On the contrary, the city has never been short of innovative energy. It is constantly on the move and reinventing itself afresh.

All it takes is some great event in order to achieve something pioneering, or a task that was long waiting to be tackled. It was like that for the World Exhibition of 1888, which awakened the city from its Sleeping Beauty slumber and heralded a new departure into an age of blossoming Art Nouveau. For this show, the grounds around the Ciutadella Park were created. In 1929, parts of the city were again completely turned inside out to get ready for the second World Exhibition – this time it was the turn of Montjuïc. 

Relaxing along miles of sandy beach

The Olympic Games of 1992 then gifted Barcelona a completely new city: the depressing heritage of 40 years of dictatorship were swept aside, and the Mediterranean metropolis, renewed all over, started its ascent to become a mecca for architects, urban planners and tourists. Barcelona has opened itself towards the sea: one of the most popular achievements is the miles-long sandy bathing beach. At the weekend in particular Barcelonians stroll, jog, bike or skate along the palm-fringed promenade, treat themselves to paella with a sea view, or relax with a drink in beach bars and clubs. 

North of the Olympic village, the Poble Nou quarter is being turned from a gigantic industrial ruin into Barcelona’s ultimate high-tech quarter: a new cultural and pub scene clusters around imposing company headquarters, innovation centres and production studios, partly in extensive factory lofts. The eye-catcher of this brave new architectural world is the huge phallic skyscraper of Torre Agbar – shimmering in all colours, this was a design by Jean Nouvel for Barcelona’s water company.

So: when the image of the city is in question, no expenses are spared. This also holds true for the revitalisation of the northernmost district on the Mediterranean shore on the estuary of the Besó, around the extended main artery of the Diagonal. Over the past few years one of the most exclusive  quarters in town has been arising here, the Diagonal Mar, with exclusive offices and residential accommodation, as well as tall design hotels. The most recent coup is the idiosyncratic seat of the Spanish telecommunications company, the Edificio Telefónica Diagonal 00 by architect Enric Massip Bosch, which corkscrews into the Mediterranean sky like a diamond. Another eyecatcher is the huge bright-blue triangle opposite, the Forum (Edifici Fòrum). This is one of Europe’s largest congress and exhibition centres, designed by Swiss star architects Herzog & de Meuron.

Catalan was banned under Franco

The Catalan propensity to the grand gesture has its roots in history. In the 19th century, nothing was too ostentatious for the bourgeoisie, whether materially or intellectually wealthy: especially anything that put one over the unloved central power in Madrid. At that time already, the economic powerhouse of Catalonia wanted to overtake politically dominant Castile – at least in art and architecture. This might go some way towards explaining the love of lavish ornamentation displayed by modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. Everything was supposed to be even bigger, even more splendid and beautiful than in the Spanish capital.

Not much has changed since then; only that instead of modernist dragon heads we now have hypermodern design. The thorn of history is still deeply embedded in Catalan skin: since the 16th century, Catalonia, once a medieval global power, has time and again had to accept central Spanish supremacy. This happened most recently under the dictatorship of General Franco: the generalísimo wanted to tidy up the rebellious bastion in the north – and annihilate any sign of its identity, starting with the Catalan language, which was banned. The Franco dictatorship may have ended in 1975, but its consequences still affect the Catalans. Meanwhile, some 75 per cent of the population speak Catalan, though a good half of the locals prefer Spanish in day-to-day life. Even so: perfect català has become the most important skill required for employment. 

Distrust and prejudices of the Catalans towards Madrid – and vice versa of course – can only be overcome gradually. Anyone who has witnessed the impromptu mass congregation and frenetic celebrations on the Rambla after a victory of FC Barcelona over arch rival Real Madrid knows that this is about more than just football. In Catalonia there is still a sense of being the victim of centralising injustice. Not without reason – however, over time, the role of eternal victim has become maybe a bit too comfortable. Whether financial worries or bad planning: it’s always Madrid’s fault.

Add to this the Catalan character: on the one hand marked by a laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle, on the other looking towards Europe. The Catalans have always felt closer to their northern neighbours than to the Iberian Peninsula. As the northernmost metropolis of the south, Barcelona is often called the north’s southernmost city – and that’s true. Which doesn’t mean that some contrasts always just disappear. Sometimes, they even clash quite dramatically, in the Old Town for instance, more and more of which has been entirely redeveloped in recent years.

In the completely renovated Old Town quarter of Raval traces of the demi-monde of whores, fraudsters and gangsters that inspired the French writer Jean Genet to write ’A Thief’s Journal’ are still visible in the legendary Barri Xino, the port and red-light district of Barcelona. A few paces on, the hip cultural and bar scene around the Museum of Contemporary Art and the fancy new boulevard of Rambla del Raval have changed the picture entirely. 

This is not only for the good: overdue modernisation also brought property sharks, speculation, luxury hotels and the chic set into this traditional residential quarter. To the increasing annoyance of the population, which complains that Barcelona is being developed more and more to suit the needs of wealthy trendsetters and tourists, while their quarters lack important infrastructure. They see ever more luxury hotels rising on their doorsteps – for example the 26-storey W Hotel in the shape of a gigantic sail right on Barceloneta beach. 

Now the inhabitants are getting organised in citizens’ movements ‘to save the Old Town’. In Barceloneta they want to stop their legendary fishing village from being turned into the ‘Miami of Europe', where neighbours still greet each other by name in the streets. They don’t want the quarters of Santa Caterina and Sant Pere, where a hip arts and bar scene is growing up, to look like the trendy neighbouring quarter of El Born one day.

There you’ll find a lot of crafts and design, plenty of trendy eateries, and everything is nicely restored. However, residents can no longer find a drugstore or butcher for their shopping, and rent has become far too high for locals. Sant Pere still has narrow alleys with the cast-iron lanterns that look like electric lighting hasn’t been invented yet. And it would be truly sad if in the course of the necessary renovation, the rough charm of medieval walls were to disappear from the quarter – taking many of its inhabitants with them.

However, we’re not there yet. Barcelona might cherish its stylish image, but that doesn’t make the Catalan capital into a uniformly glossy modern city. Many corners of the city still have shops and bars that have survived the design fever. And there are still enough young creative people with plenty of subversive imagination to go against the grain of the emblematic disseny barceloní.

So experience a place of exciting contrasts, always on the move – and always with a surprise up its sleeve. Don’t be sad if you didn’t manage to take it all in. Just tell yourself: ‘next time’. Because those who leave Barcelona usually have a firm idea that they’ll be back.

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