A city in its own league, Barcelona grasps an identity wholly separate from the rest of Spain and it has done so for generations. Our time spent in this city opened my eyes to the disjointed fabric of Spanish society which I had not fully comprehended in the past. The various geographic identities in Spain run deeper than cultural differences and give rise to both challenges and opportunities for the nation. The unique identity of Barcelona manifests itself across a spectrum of mediums – architecture, food, language, economics, and worldview, to name a few. It is this identity that has given rise to some of the greatest and most unique expressions of humanity Europe has to offer.
Barcelona holds a population of about 1.6mm within the city limits and a total of 4.7mm in the greater metropolitan area. As the second largest city in Spain, it wields a great deal of power and influence. The city was founded in the Middle Ages and is now known as one of the worlds leading tourist, economic, trade, and cultural centers. It is the 4th most economically powerful city in Europe with a GDP of 177 billion and is one of Europe’s busiest seaports- a source for massive international business and trade. Barcelona carries the highest employment rate in all of Spain, which has seen heavy economic hardships in the last decade. The rest of Spain has been suffering as Barcelona has begun to flourish which has stoked the rivalry and tensions between it and Madrid – Spain’s main sphere of political power and influence. In many ways it is the commerce capital of Spain while Madrid is the political capital, as New York is to Washington, D.C.. Principally different however, is the Catalonian identity which is wholly independent from that of the rest of the country.
Mandy, John, and I arrived in Barcelona for ten days of rest and relaxation after quite a bit of moving around. It was great to stay in one place for a while and get a better feel for where we were. We stayed in an Airbnb very close to Gaudi’s Parc Guell - in an old and crumbling apartment occupied by many elderly people who tirelessly climbed home from the surrounding hilly streets. John, as an architect, took particular interest in Gaudi and some of the prominent architects of the city. We toured Gaudi’s masterpieces including Parc Guell, the Sagrada Familia, and some of his apartments in the city as well as other major architectural masterpieces such as Montaner’s Palau de la Musica Catalana. The architecture in this city is comparable to no other and the avant-garde style of Gaudi makes a quick impression on its audience. Gaudi’s use of organic shapes and off the wall details, creates the impression of structures from an alien world while at the same time creating a sense of harmony with the natural world. The Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Montaner, reveals that Gaudi was one of a school of architects with a similar style and mindset. This style was reflective of the boom the area felt in the late 18th century and represents the hopefulness and progressive attitudes of the industrial revolution. It was fascinating for me to observe John interact with the architectural spaces and I learned a lot from what he noticed and reacted to.
We spent our nights eating at Mala Hierba, a nearby restaurant which served up an amazing and everchanging menu or strolling Las Ramblas – Barcelona’s main tourist district which holds an almost never-ending array of restaurants and shops. We also happened to cross paths with some old friends from college, Reilly and Daniel, for an amazing dinner.
At the end of each day, we retired to our apartment and at 10pm sharp, the entire city would erupt with the sounds of locals leaning out their windows and furiously banging pots and pans with spoons. This would last about ten minutes or so as a sign of solidarity with the then climaxing Catalonian independence movement. Catalonia can be described as an autonomous area of northeast Spain with France and Andorra bordering it to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the east and Aragon and Valencia to the south and west. Most of the regions power and money is centered in Barcelona. The regions official language is Catalonian, holding elements of Spanish and French. The area has a lot of cultural and historical influences from France but is fiercely independent. The region has maintained an independent identity from Spain and has had a trajectory independent from the rest of the country. This independence streak was credited for a major economic and architectural renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the boom that is occurring in the area today. This independence streak most recently came to a head in late 2017 with a referendum revealing majority support for full separation from Spain. This referendum was met with fierce Spanish resistance and the media covered tense and raucous protests in the streets of Barcelona. Our experience of this tense time was limited to the nightly pot panging and abundance of Catalonian flags and “Si” posters in apartment windows. We did not see the protests, but we did feel the intensity in the air. The independence movement was ultimately squelched, but the period of tension was a window into a longstanding conflict.
My impression of Barcelona is impossible to separate from the Catalonian independence movement. This unique identity with dashes of France and Spain have created amazing architectural masterpieces, a separate language, and a culture that combines an appreciation for the good things in life with an industriousness reflective of the mercantile history that brought the city to prominence. It is both beach town and metropolis, culinary district and nightlife mecca, living museum and evolving city. This separate identity has taken great aspects of Spain and leveraged them in a unique way, drawing people from all over to admire its beauty and revel in its uniqueness. It is its independent attitude that has led to great works of art and innovation for generations. I feel its position of being both Spanish and Catalonian will continue to play to its advantage in years to come. As our world evolves, Barcelona will evolve in lockstep. Its independence streak encourages original thought and risk taking beyond the slower paced traditional mindset that exists elsewhere in the country. // Jeff