What can I say about Barcelona? The capital of Catalunya, and by all accounts, a city that is reluctantly part of Spain. Independent since the 10th Century, its fortunes and independence have been taken, returned and tested ever since, right up until Franco’s regime again abolished Catalan institutions and banned the official use of the Catalan language – until its autonomous institutions were again restored in 1975. From seemingly every balcony, the Catalan flag flies defiantly, a silent but powerful protest symbol and a gentle way of saying, we are a very different people and proud of our heritage. A referendum on the political future of Catalan is to be held on November 9th 2014, however this is likely to get ugly as the Spanish Government has vowed this referendum will not take place.
Barcelona however, does have a different feel about it. It certainly did not feel like a Spanish city and could not be more different than Madrid, the capital a few hundred kilometres inland. And here I think is why Barcelona had a different feel – more like a Paris by the water.
Very cosmopolitan and an ideal location on the Meditteranean, it is nestled in a bowl surrounded on three sides by mountains. At 1.6 million residents, it has all the facilities of a much larger city, but still compact enough to be liveable. Its underground system is second to none and I found I never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. The airport buses were spectacular, super frequent and cheap at 5 euros one way.
The wonderful long coast that stretches along Barcelona’s eastern edge from Port Vell and the old fishing suburb of Barceloneta – which is now a trendy playground with a proliferation of beach bars, eateries, bike riders, joggers and roller bladers, enjoying the magnificent mediterranean coast – stretches for kilometres down past the revitalised Olympic Village to the Forum zone to the North. One of the best walks in Barcelona on a balmy meditteranean day, take the time to meander along stopping for coffee, then lunch, then dinner – and maybe have a couple of swims along the way. Make your way back on the fantastic tram that runs along the ‘Boulevard Diagonal’, or on one of the frequent subway trains.
The seafront is just one of the eight or so distinct villages that make up Barcelona. The old city behind Barceloneta – Ciutat Vella – consists of the wonderful El Born and Barri Gotic quarters and the wonderful boulevard La Rambla. The tight laneways existing for centuries are now home to trendy galleries and shops that then open up into wonderful old plaza’s alive with diners and people enjoying the open space. Home to the magnificent Picasso museum and one of the best fresh food markets in the world, ‘Le Boqueria’.
Gaudi’s work is ever present in Barcelona, with countless buildings and museums almost around every corner His Park Guell – a magnificent park he designed and had a house in – is a testament to his skills and is an outdoor museum of his quirky style. Organic vaults, broken tile benches snaking around the perimeter overlooking the city, and his two imposing entry towers are just a few of the highlights. Sadly this once free park, has since October 2013 had a fee imposed on visitors and is just one of the high profile casualties of the recession that has gripped Spain. The ‘Basilica of the Sagrada Familia’, Gaudi’s most famous work and one that is still in construction after starting in 1882, is breathtaking in every respect. The interior church is finished and on a scale that is hard to take in, while the exterior still tends skyward towards its eventual 170 metre height. Nothing prepares for the initial site of this magnificent structure. Gaudi himself spent 40 years of his life devoted to the project, but most of his plans and drawings were deliberately destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. There is a whole wing devoted to painstakingly restoring the architectural models he produced, which were also damaged, to stay true to his vision for the project. The building is not expected to be finished for at least another 20 years.
The hills surrounding Barcelona on the southern and western sides are home to some magnificent attractions.
Tibidabo high up on the Western most outskirts of Barcelona, contains one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. It also has a magnificent church built in 1537 and dominates the skyline. The quaint blue tram ‘Travia bleu’ leaves from Plaza John Kennedy and travels a couple of kilometres up the steep hill depositing you at the base of the ‘Placa Furnicular’ station for the steep rail trip up the side of the mountain to Parc de Collserola, the vast forest that snakes around the mountain along the whole western side of Barcelona. The old style carnival is spectacular for its location and all rides have uninterrupted views back across the city.
Sants-Montjuic is the southern region and includes the Olympic village and the magnificent Castell de Montjuic, its commanding presence right on the Southern boundary of the city centre, was the scene of many pitched battles since 1641. Catalonia’s quest for independence from Spain can be trace back to this period. The Principality of Catalonia challenged Spain’s authority in 1640. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French Army entered Barcelona, and on orders from Napoleon, captured the castle without firing a shot as the troops guarding the castle were ordered not to fight the French. It was a key garrison during the War of the Spanish Succession, between 1705 and 1714. The castle has launched bombs on the city and it has also been used as a prison. On the 15th of October 1940, the president of the Catalan government, Lluís Companys was executed by firing squad in the castle. The castle has also been a military prison right up until 1960. In 1963 after being used as a military base, Franco opened a weapons museum in the castle. In 2007, the castle came under the ownership of Barcelona City Council and is now being restored and used for community purposes and exhibitions. Standing on the wall high up above Barcelona Port, you can watch the cruise ships docking at the waterfront, and has a commanding view of Barcelona downtown.