Capital of Catalonia, 2,000-year-old Barcelona commanded a vast Mediterranean empire when Madrid was still a dusty Moorish outpost on the Spanish steppe. Relegated to second-city status only after Madrid became the seat of the royal court in 1561, Barcelona has long rivaled and often surpassed Madrid’s economic and political might. One of Europe’s most visually stunning cities, Barcelona balances the medieval intimacy of its Gothic Quarter with the grace and distinction of the wide boulevards in the Moderniste Eixample—just as the Mediterranean Gothic elegance of the church of Santa Maria del Mar provides a perfect counterpoint to Gaudí’s riotous Sagrada Família. Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion seems even more minimalist after a look at the Art Nouveau Palau de la Música Catalana, while such exciting contemporary creations as Bofill’s neoclassical Parthenon-under-glass Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, Frank Gehry’s waterfront goldfish, Norman Foster’s Torre de Collserola, and Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar all add spice to Barcelona’s visual soup. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s fashion industry is pulling even with those of Paris and Milan, and FC (Futbol Club) is Barcelona’s perennial contender for European Championships and the world’s most glamorous soccer club.
Barcelona has long had a frenetically active cultural life. It was the home of architect Antoni Gaudí, whose buildings are the most startling statements of Modernisme. Other leading Moderniste architects of the city include Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and the painters Joan Miró,
and Antoni Tàpies
are also strongly identified with Catalonia. Pablo Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona, and one of the city’s treasures is a museum devoted to his works. Barcelona’s opera house, the Liceu, is the finest in Spain, and the city claims such native Catalan musicians as cellist Pablo (Pau, in Catalan) Casals,
opera singers Montserrat Caballé and José (Josep) Carreras, and early music viola da gamba master Jordi Savall.
In 133 BC the Roman Empire annexed Barcino; Visigoths roared down from the north in the 5th century; the Moors invaded in the 8th; and in the 9th Franks under Charlemagne captured Catalonia and made it their buffer zone at the edge of the Moors’ Iberian empire. By 988, the autonomous Catalonian counties had gained independence from the Franks, but in 1137 Catalonia was, through marriage, united with the House of Aragón. Another marriage, that of Ferdinand II of Aragón and Isabella of Castile (and queen of León) in 1474, brought Aragón and Catalonia into a united Spain. As the economic capital of Aragón’s Mediterranean empire, Barcelona grew powerful between the 12th and 14th centuries and began to falter only when maritime emphasis shifted to the Atlantic after 1492. Despite Madrid’s power as seat of Spain’s Royal Court, Catalonia enjoyed autonomous rights and privileges until 1714, when, in reprisal for having backed the Austrian Hapsburg pretender to the Spanish throne, all institutions and expressions of Catalan identity were suppressed by Felipe V of the French Bourbon dynasty. Not until the mid-19th century would Barcelona’s industrial growth bring about a renaissance of nationalism and a cultural flowering that recalled Catalonia’s former opulence.
Catalan nationalism continued to strengthen in the 20th century. After the abdication of Alfonso XIII and the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, Catalonia enjoyed renewed autonomy and cultural freedom. Once again backing a losing cause, Barcelona was a Republican stronghold and hotbed of anti-fascist sentiment during the 1936-39 civil war, with the result that Catalan language and identity were suppressed under the 1939-75 Francisco Franco regime by such means as book burning, the renaming of streets and towns, and the banning of the Catalan language in schools and the media. This repression had little lasting effect; Catalans jealously guard their language and culture and generally think of themselves as Catalans first, Spaniards second.
Catalonian home rule was granted after Franco’s death in 1975, and Catalonia’s governing body, the ancient Generalitat, was reinstated in 1980. Catalan is now Barcelona’s co-official language, along with Castilian Spanish, and is eagerly promoted through free classes funded by the Generalitat. Street names are signposted in Catalan, and newspapers, radio stations, and a TV channel publish and broadcast in Catalan. The culmination of this rebirth, the definitive confirmation of Catalan power, independence, business acumen, and creativity on the world stage, was the organization of the Olympic Games of 1992. Using, in large part, funding from Madrid, Catalonia not only announced its existence to the world at large, but constructed ring roads and freeways, renovated stadiums and pools, created new harborside promenades, and moved an entire set of train tracks to make way for the Olympic Village. In the 21st century, innovative structures, such as Jean Nouvel’s gherkin-like Torre Agbar and the Ricardo Bofill Vela (Sail) Hotel (still under construction), demonstrate Barcelona’s insatiable appetite for novelty and progress.
Barceloneta and Port Olimpic
Barceloneta, once the open sea, silted in and was a salt marsh until 1753, when French military engineer Prosper de Verboom designed a housing project for families who had lost their homes in La Ribera. Port Olímpic, along the sport marina northeast of the Hotel Arts, is mainly taken up with tourist-filled terrace restaurants and high-decibel discos—it’s probably best avoided if this isn’t your taste. The Ciutadella, once the fortress that kept watch over Barcelona, is now a leafy park with the city zoo, the Catalan parliament, and pools and waterfalls presently threatened by the most serious water shortages in Barcelona’s two-thousand-year history.
Ciutat Vella (Old City)
The Gothic Quarter winds through the church and Plaça of the church of Santa Maria del Pi, the Roman Barcelona around the cathedral, Plaçà del Rei, past the city’s administrative centers at Plaça Sant Jaume with the Jewish Quarter tucked in beside it, and through the Sant Just neighborhood northeast of Plaça Sant Jaume. Across Via Laietana is the Barri de la Ribera, or Ribera-Born, once the waterfront district around the basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. Ribera-Born includes the Picasso Museum and Carrer Montcada, Barcelona’s most aristocratic street in the 14th and 15th centuries. Much of the Barri de la Ribera was torn down in 1714 by the victorious Spanish and French army of Felipe V to create a glacis, an open no-man’s land outside the walls of the occupying stronghold, La Ciutadella fortress.
On the eastern edge of this area, Barcelona’s old textile neighborhood, around the church of Sant Pere, includes the flagship of the city’s Moderniste architecture: the Palau de la Música Catalana, and the Mercat de Santa Caterina, a produce market with several dining options.
North of Plaça de Catalunya is the checkerboard known as the Eixample. With the dismantling of the city walls in 1860, Barcelona embarked upon an expansion scheme fueled by the return of rich colonials, the influx of provincial aristocrats who had sold their country estates after the debilitating second Carlist War (1847-49), and by the city’s growing industrial power. The street grid was the work of urban planner Ildefons Cerdà; much of the building here was done at the height of Modernisme. The Eixample’s principal thoroughfares are Rambla de Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia, where the city’s most elegant shops vie for space among its best Art Nouveau buildings.