Where Fools Fear to Tread – A Snapshot of Barcelona

IMG_6495In August, Una and I went to Barcelona. It was the first time for both of us in that city, or Catalonia (CatalanCatalunya), the region of which it is the capital. Home to roughly 4.8 million, the Barcelona Metropolitan Area is also the sixth (after Brexit it will be the fifth) largest urban area in the European Union and the largest in Catalonia.

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The primary language of Catalonia is Catalan. Prior to this year, I always thought of Catalan as a dialect of Castilian Spanish. It is not. It is merely, like Spanish, one of nearly three dozen Romance languages. Furthermore, unlike Spanish, it is not classified as an Ibero-Romance language but rather an Occitano-Romance one, more closely related to Occitan or Gascon — both spoken in France — than to Spanish.

Catalan is the official language of Andorra and an official language of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. I’m not sure why I thought Catalan was a dialect of Spanish. Perhaps that notion is promoted by the Spanish for socio-political reasons. It wouldn’t be the first instance of this that I’m aware of. When visiting Japan, for example, I learned that the Ryukyuan languages are classified as Japonic, despite their mutual unintelligibility, to strengthen Japan’s claims over those islands, which Japan conquered in 1609.

According to a 2013 survey undertaken by the government of Catalonia, 53% of Barcelonians can write Catalan, 72.3% can speak it, 79% can read it, and 95% of Barcelonians can understand it. Before visiting Barcelona, I began learning Catalan on Duolingo. It came to me fairly easily which isn’t too surprising as I speak French and Spanish moderately well.

It certainly isn’t necessary to speak Catalan in order to get around Barcelona — but it certainly doesn’t hurt and seems to me the polite thing to do. Most in the service industry began conversations in Spanish while many in the hospitality industry spoke English. Only a couple of interactions were exclusively conducted in Catalan. Most signage is in Catalan, Spanish, and English. My guess is that an exceedingly small minority of visitors to Catalonia bothers to learn the language but it is probably appreciated. When I did speak Catalan, however, the responses usually followed a moment of apparent surprise and an apparently appreciative smile.

Barcelona is quite diverse. According to a 2013 survey, 18.5% of Barcelonians were born in Spain (but outside Catalonia). 22.5% of Barcelona’s residents were born somewhere else altogether. Foreign residents, in descending order, include Italians, Pakistanis, Chinese, French, Moroccans, Bolivians, Filipinos, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, and Colombians. On the streets, I noted the speaking of British and American English, Russian, Korean, Mandarin, French, Italian, Tagalog, and Japanese.

Barcelona has an average density of 15,926 inhabitants per square kilometer — a density between those of Koreatown and Westlake — Los Angeles’s two most densely-populated neighborhoods. Its densest neighborhoods, such as La Eixample and the ones around La Sagrada Familia, are even denser. I was struck, however, by the fact that aside from tourist-stuffed La Rambla, Barcelona rarely felt to me at all cramped or crowded.


Since 1987, Barcelona has formally been divided into ten administrative districts: Ciutat VellaLes CortsEixampleGràciaHorta-Guinardó, Nou BarrisSant AndreuSant MartíSants-Montjuïc, and Sarrià-Sant Gervasi. Most are based on former towns annexed by Barcelona in the 18th and 19th centuries and retain their distinct characters. Each is composed of smaller neighborhoods, some of the most famous of which are Barri Gòtic.

Much of the city has a similar look and feel to Mexico City and Paris. The streets are lined with 19th Century buildings of four to six stories. The city is crisscrossed by a grid of smaller streets intersected by grand, diagonal boulevards like Diagonal Avenue, La RamblaMeridiana Avenue, Glòries, and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes.


I doubt that I’m yet ready to read anything more difficult than a children’s story in Catalan but in the future, I’d like to read some Catalan literature in the original language. For the time being, I’ll keep my eyes open for Catalan literature in translation.

There are a few older literary fragments of Catalan literature, but the Homilies d’Organyà, written in the 12th century, are the oldest substantial work in the language. The period from the 14th through the 15th century is often characterized as the Golden Age of Catalan literature. La Renaixença, a 19th Century renaissance of Catalan literature was exemplified by writers including Àngel GuimeràJacint Verdaguer, Joan Maragall, and Narcís Oller. The 20th century produced the avant-garde Noucentisme movement, which included in its ranks Carles RibaEugeni d’Ors, J.V. FoixJoan Salvat-Papasseit, and Josep Carner. Subsequent 20th Century authors include Agustí BartraGabriel Ferrater, Joan BrossaJoan Oliver Sallarès, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Josep Pla, Manuel de PedroloMercè Rodoreda, Miquel Martí i PolPere Calders, and Salvador EspriuContemporary writers include Ana María Matute, Jaime Gil de Biedma, Juan Goytisolo, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.


The oldest indication of human presence in what’s now Catalonia comes in the form of a mandible discovered in the town of Banyoles. Some 70,000 – 200,000 years ago, that bone was situated inside the jaw of some pre-Neanderthal human resident of the area. There ruins of tombs and dwellings from around the beginning of the Neolithic era (c. 5000 BCE) that make up most of the oldest known human-made structures in the area.

The Bronze Age arrived around 1800 BCE. By the Iron AgeIberian tribes of the area such as the IlergetesIndigetes, and Lacetani began settling in cities and towns. At roughly the same time, the ancient Greeks established trading centers nearby along the Gulf of Roses.

The Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula began in Catalonia in 220 BCE and was completed in 19 BCE. The Romans named what’s now Spain, “Hispania.” There is no solid evidence regarding the foundation of the city of Barcelona although one legend credits Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal). Another legend credits none other than Hercules (son of Jupiter). What is certain, however, is that under the Romans, Barcelona was operated as a military camp known to them as Colonia Faventia Julia Augusta Pia Barcino (or Colonia Julia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino). Vestiges of the Roman era are still evident in parts of the Barri Gòtic. In a plaza, we stumbled across an excavation of Roman tombs. The Basilica La Seu (believed to have been founded in 343), incorporates Roman walls into its construction. The streets, too, were laid out by the Romans.

After the fall of Rome in 476 CE, Hispania was conquered by the Visigoths and incorporated into the Visigothic Kingdom. In 718, Barcelona was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate and made part of Al-Andalus. In 760, the Frankish Empire conquered Roussillon (historically part of Catalonia). Barcelona was conquered again in 801, this time by Charlemagne‘s son Louis. Louis made Barcelona the seat of the Carolingian Marca Hispanica. The Marca Hispanica was ruled by the Count of Barcelona. On 6 July 986, Barcelona was sacked by the army of Almanzor.

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The medieval Portal Santa Madrona

In 1137, Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon were united by marriage under the Crown of Aragon. The Taula de canvi, likely Europe’s oldest public bank, was founded in 1401. The University of Barcelona was founded in 1450. However, around the same time, Barcelona’s political and economic power began to fade for at least two reasons. One, the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469 made Madrid the political center of Iberia. Two, the conquest and colonization of the Americas comparatively reduced the relative economic importance of the Mediterranean trade.

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Monument a Colom (1888)

A Catalonian separatist revolt known as the Reaper’s War (1640–1652) took place during the Franco-Spanish War. The Republic of Catalonia was declared in 1641 which soon after became part of a realm of the Monarchy of France. A great plague halved Barcelona’s population between 1640-1654 and in 1652, Spain re-conquered Catalonia. Finally, in 1659, under the Treaty of the Pyrenees, Catalonia was divided between France and Spain. France took the Catalonian province of Rousillon. Spain took the provinces of BarcelonaGironaLleida, and Tarragona.

In the 19th Century, Catalonia industrialized, experienced a cultural renaissance, and saw the rise of another separatist movement. In 1914, the four Spanish provinces of Catalonia formed the Commonwealth of Catalonia. The independence of Catalonia was declared during the Second Spanish Republic (1931–1939). During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Barcelona and Catalonia were aligned with the anti-Fascist Republicans. As Republican power waned, control passed to the Anarchists, Communists, and finally the victorious Fascists. Barcelona fell to the Fascists on 26 January 1939 which spurred a mass exodus of Barcelonians to the French border. Fascist dictator Francisco Franco abolished Catalonian institutions, banned the use of Catalan, and re-established the authority of Spain. In the aftermath of the war, migrants from poorer Spanish regions — especially Andalusia, Galicia, and Murcia — moved to Barcelona leading to its rapid urbanization.

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Spanish Catalonia experienced significant economic growth from the late 1950s through the 1970s. Franco died in 1975, after which Spain underwent a process of democratization. On 11 September 1977, massive, peaceful demonstrations demanding the restoration of Catalonian autonomy took place and less than a month later, it was granted. On 27 October 2017, the Catalonian parliament declared formal independence from Spain. Spain responded by imposing direct rule, imprisoning seven ministers of the former Catalan government, and President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium. As I wandered around Barcelona, I spied many Catalonian flags and yellow ribbons displayed prominently on the walls of many buildings. After I returned to the US, I read the news that the Catalonian separatists had been given harsh prison sentences for the crime of sedition.


Whenever I travel I like to go through my laundry list of associations. The first Catalonian with whom I remember being aware was the artist Joan Miró, born in Barcelona in 1893. I must’ve been about nine or ten when I saw a reproduction of Miró’s Carnaval d’Arlequin (1925) in an art book. Although highly abstract, it reminded me of the kind of thing I might see in a fever dream. I was so compelled to have a reproduction of it for myself that, in that pre-internet age, I traced it as best I could with a pencil and paper. 

There are other famous Catalonian artists, of course, including Antoni Tàpies, Claudi Lorenzale, Josep Maria Sert, Josep Maria SubirachsMarià Fortuny, Ramon Casas, and Santiago Rusiñol. The most famous Catalonian artist, undoubtedly, is Salvador Dalí, but I’m not really a fan. Most of his work seems to me too heavy-handedly symbolic to actually qualify as surrealist. There is little suggestion of the psychic automatism which produced the pure surrealism of Luis Buñuel or Miró.

Naturally, I wanted to visit the Joan Miró Foundation. It’s located in the Sants-Montjuïc district, though, not especially near any areas of Barcelona that I walked around and when I finally thought I’d head over, it was a Monday — the one day of the week that it’s closed. I’ll see it another time. Besides, visiting museums is best when it’s not rushed. Unless they’re quite small, I usually avoid them altogether when I’m only in a particular locale for a short visit. If I’m ever in Barcelona for more than I week, on the other hand, I would consider visiting the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, National Art Museum of Catalonia, the Museu Picasso de Barcelona, the Teatre-Museu Dalí, or Fundació Antoni Tàpies.


Although I was a Miró fan at an early age, I didn’t know anything about him. I even assumed that “Joan” was a woman for many years. I certainly didn’t know that he was Catalonian and probably had no knowledge of either that country or the city of Barcelona. The first time I remember being aware of Barcelona was in the lead-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics, which Barcelona hosted.

If memory serves correctly, my sister was then living in Bilbao (in the Basque Country) and sent me a T-shirt adorned with Cobi, that Olympics’ mascot, as a souvenir or present. I was then living with my father and stepmother. A deeply unpleasant woman Cobi T-shirt(and crypto-franquista), she decided that I could not be allowed to wear a 1992 Barcelona Olympics T-shirt. I will never know why. Cobi was sometimes depicted without obvious clothing but on my T-shirt, he was fully attired in a soccer uniform. Perhaps the quasi-Cubist depiction of Cobi with both eyes on one side of his head unnerved her. Whatever her reasons — as was so often the case — they were never explained. Any time I dared to question anything, no matter how logical, her face would turn bright red and she’d scream “Don’t talk back to me.” When I ran away, not long after, I left that T-shirt behind and were I to somehow get it now, I’m afraid I’m far too old to wear it (or any T-shirt) in public.

Not that an adult wearing a T-shirt in Barcelona would likely raise any eyebrows. Contrary to what I read before visiting, the average Barcelonian male did not strike me as particularly concerned with dress. There seemed to be no shirt more popular than a LeBron James basketball jersey and it was usually accompanied with shorts. Not that I’m one of those travelers who cares at all about blending in with the locals. I’m not a spy, after all, I’m a tourist. I’m also a fairly reasonable adult and thus my focus is primarily on balancing comfort and appropriateness with clothing that maintains a degree of dignity. In other words, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a jersey or a baseball cap.

I’d also read that Barcelonian woman to dress conservatively. At least one writer attributed this sartorial conservatism to Barcelona’s being a Catholic city. A quick check reveals that, as a matter of fact, only 9.9% of Barcelonians identify as being practicing Catholics and that the women were not dressed conservatively at all should not, therefore, have come as a surprise. Décolletage-revealing summer dresses seemed to be especially popular and underbutt-exposing shorts were not uncommon. Whether an affectation or not, most Barcelonian women projected a sense of casual beauty. A slash of eyeliner and tousled hair were all that was obvious. I noticed only one woman painted in the dramatic contouring favored by clowns, drag queens, and Instagram influencersI also saw no athleisure wear. Nor did I see anyone but selfie-taking tourists contorting their faces into grotesque anatine puckers. Also conspicuous was the lack of tattoos — or at least the sort of conspicuous tattooing favored by Top 40 pop stars, professional athletes, and Swedes.


My knowledge of Catalonian film is decidedly limited. In 2001, I got a job at Amoeba Music Hollywood, working in the movie department. Rarely would a Catalan film would make its way onto the shelves. They were seemingly all directed by Ventura Pons. Before it morphed into Latino Cinema, the section in which they were filed was known as Cine en Español, because none of us knew any better.

At Amoeba, we were allowed to check out DVDs only when they were used (and therefore unsealed). I never did take home and Pons films, I assume, because we only ever saw new copies of them — or perhaps they didn’t have had English subtitles. I did buy a DVD set and filmed in Barcelona, though, the 1994 film, Barcelona, directed by the great Whit Stillman. I also saw, and mostly enjoyed, J. A. Bayona‘s Spanish-language horror film, El Orfanato (2007) at a dollar theater in Pasadena.

Catalonia’s film history is a relatively short and small one, in large part due to Franco’s decades-long suppression of Catalonian culture. In 1932, the Generalitat of Catalonia set up a film committee to encourage Catalan cinema but Franco centralized the film industry in Madrid to discourage regional identity. Additionally, public use of Catalan was prohibited, although Spanish language films were sometimes made in Catalonia. In the 1960s, the filmmakers of the Escuela de Barcelona (i.e. Gonzalo Suárez, Jaime Camino, and Vicente Aranda) began making films that were at odds with the Social Realism promoted (if not enjoyed — no one enjoys Social Realism) by the Francoists. The Sitges Film Festival was inaugurated in 1968. Spain began to democratize in the 1970s and the Institut de Cinema Català was founded in 1975. A group of directors including Albert Serra, Bigas Luna, Jaime Rosales, Josep Maria Forn, and Marc Recha emerged. The first new Catalan language documentaries were Francesc Bellmunt‘s, Canet rock and La nova cançò, and Antoni Ribas‘s La ciutat cremada (all 1976). Documentarians Joaquim Jordà i Català and José Luis Guerín also garnered some international attention. The Museu del Cinema – Col.lecció opened in 1998. The Acadèmia del Cinema Català was founded in 2008.

Notable Catalan films include:

  • Fata Morgana (dir. Vicente Aranda, 1965)
  • Tras el cristal (dir. Agustí Villaronga, 1986)
  • La Teta y la luna (dir. Bigas Luna, 1994)
  • El passatger clandestí (dir. Agustí Villaronga, 1995)
  • Amic/Amat (dir. Ventura Pons, 1999)
  • El mar (dir. Agusti Villaronga, 2000)
  • Aro Tolbukhin — En la mente del asesino (dir. Isaac Pierre Racine, Agustí Villaronga, and Lydia Zimmermann; 2002)
  • Balseros (dir. Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech, 2002)
  • Pa negre (dir. Agustí Villaronga, 2010)
  • Els Nens Salvatges (dir. Patricia Ferreira, 2012)
  • Història de la meva mort (dir. Albert Serra, 2013)
  • Estiu 1993 (dir. Carla Simón, 2017)

I watched no films in Barcelona and very little television. What little television I did see revealed a predictably unhealthy mix of game shows, sports, news, and reality television. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that were also an unusual number of dark and silly American police procedurals (inevitably dubbed). I’m not sure what to make of their apparent popularity.


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I am slightly more familiar with the music of Catalonia. Around 2006, I first started listening to Vietnamese New Wave, which is what Vietnamese American fans refer to Eurodisco as. If this seems odd, consider Northern Soul, which is American soul made anywhere in the country (often the South) and beloved by a Northern English subculture. Anyway, much of that Eurodisco emanated from Sabadell, a suburb of Barcelona. Exemplars of the “Sabadell Sound” include Alan Cook, Azul y Negro, Biceps, Charly Danone, David LymeDaydream, D.J. Ventura, Mr. Backer, Green Ice, Iván, Jules Tropicana, Squash GangTainaTokio, and Vicio Latino. Sabadell is not too far outside Barcelona and yet, despite my love of ’80s Eurodisco, I decided there was probably little point to an hour-long pilgrimage by bus.

In the past few years, I’ve delved a bit into Barcelonian psychedelic rock and prog. My entry point was the music of Sisa, or Jaume Sisa — who now apparently prefers to be addressed as “Galactic.” In 1970, he was a founding member of Música Dispersa, which released their self-titled and only album that year. Sisa released his eponymous debut in 1975, which includes his best-known song, “Qualsevol nit pot sortir el sol.” The 1960s were also the era of Catalan rumba and Nova Cançó — the latter of which also produced a lot of music to which I’m just beginning to enjoy listening.

Of course, Catalonia’s music heritage begins well before the 1960s. The earliest written references to Catalonian music is a reference to troubadours wandering the country during the Middle Ages. The Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a manuscript collection of devotional texts and songs, was published around 1399. In the Renaissance, polyphony flourished, and composers included  Joan BrudieuJoan Pau Pujol, the two Mateu Fletxas (“the Elder” and “the Younger”) Pere Albert Vila, Joan Cererols emerged during the Baroque era. Composers like Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz began writing operas in the 18th Century. The Barcelona opera house, Gran Teatre del Liceu, opened in 1847. Early local opera composers include Carles Baguer, Domènec Terradellas, and Ramon CarlesA choral society, the Orfeó Català, was founded in 1891. Romantic composers include Felip PedrellFernando Sor, and Josep Anselm Clavé. The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra was inaugurated in 1944. 20th Century composers and performers include Enric Granados, Francisco Tárrega, Frederic MompouIsaac AlbénizMiquel Llobet, and Pau Casals

Folk dances, known as sardanes, emerged in Catalonia’s northern regions and by the 19th Century had developed into several forms. The music for sardanes is performed by an eleven-piece band known as a cobla. Folk instruments include the flabiol, guitarra de canyatamboritenora, and tible. Other popular folk dances and musics include the ball de bastons, ball de gitanes, ball de panderetes, contrapàsespunyolets, the galops, the goigs, the havaneres, the jota, and the moixiganga.

Examples of all sorts of Catalonian music are included on the following playlist.


It’s possible that Barcelona is a city where architecture is the top draw — specifically the Modernisme of Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí’s professional career lasted only about 43 years, though, so naturally, despite his brilliance, there are a huge number of significant buildings in Barcelona with which he had nothing to do — buildings from various centuries in a variety of architectural styles.

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A narrow, car-free street in Barri Gòtic

Many of the oldest buildings are in the Ciutat Vella‘s (“old city’s) Barri Gòtic, a neighborhood that retains a medieval character. Some of the city’s key gothic structures include the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, the Monastery of Pedralbes, the Royal Shipyard Santa Maria del Mar, and Santa Maria del Pi.

Elsewhere there are buildings of various styles and purposes worth noting, including Aquarium Barcelona, the Arc de Triomf, Can Framis Museum, Castell dels Tres Dragons, Colón building, the Expiatory Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Fabra Observatory, Hotel Arts and Torre Mapfre, the Illa de la DiscòrdiaMagic Fountain of MontjuïcLa MonumentalPalau Reial Major, Palauet d’Albéniz, the old Customs building at Port VellSagrat CorSant Pau del CampSanta Maria del Mar, Santa Maria del Pi, Torre Agbar, Torre de Collserola, the Venetian Towers in Plaça d’Espanya, and the W Barcelona (Hotel Vela).

The fact remains, however, that Modernism — the local variant of Art Nouveau — is what Barcelona is most associated with, a style which flourished from roughly 1885-1950 and which is exemplified by Gaudí. Gaudí, his collaborators, and his successors at Sagrada Família were by no means the only local architect working in Catalonia’s Modernisme school, though, and other notable practitioners include Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The latter designed several key buildings in Barcelona, including Hospital de Sant Pau and Palau de la Música CatalanaGaudí’s creations, though, decidedly comprise the bulk the city’s most recognized cultural icons, including Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Casa VicensPalau GüellPark Güell, and the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família.

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Casa Milà

BASILICA DE LA SAGRADA FAMILIA 

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The Basílica de la Sagrada Família is perhaps the most famous unfinished cathedral (or technically, minor basilica) in the world. Although likely Gaudí’s most famous work, it cannot truly be described as his creation. That’s because when construction of the basilica began in 1882, it was under architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. Villar, however, resigned the following year and Gaudí devoted the rest of his life to the project. When he died in 1926, however, the church was between 15 and 25 percent complete.

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Although it unmistakably reflects the vision of Gaudí — Gaudí is even buried in the crypt beneath — it is truly a group effort. Anarchists destroyed models and documents during the Civil War and since 1940, construction of the church has been overseen by a handful of architects, including Francesc QuintanaIsidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari, and Francesc Cardoner. The church’s striking illumination was designed by Carles Buïgas.

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It is a startlingly unique structure and there is little wonder that it attracts a constant throng of tourists, many of whom, I couldn’t help but feel, were there not to appreciate the building but in order to check off some sort of virtual, cultural bucket list. There were loads of young Chinese women striking mildly provocative poses for photos. Elsewhere, I overheard an American girl explain to her friend that she had fretted that morning over whether or not to wear the scarf before ultimately deciding to wear it, reassuring herself “fuck it!” Her friend approvingly added, “Own it, bitch!” I almost had to remind myself that I was in a house of worship and not some obnoxious nightclub.

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A vegetarian pizza and photo of Alan and Iwashi awaited at the hotel

Our primary reason for being in Barcelona was for Belle & Sebastian’s Boaty Weekender cruise — although I was committed to spending as much time in Barcelona before and after as possible. When the cruise concluded, we returned to Barcelona and stayed at the Monument Hotel. Their service, it must be said, was fantastic. Upon arrival, I discovered a vegetarian pizza and a photo of Alan and Iwashi. I was awoken from a nap by someone with a free bottle of cava.

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After getting settled, we wandered over to Casa Batlló. It is another one of Barcelona’s architectural treasures associated with Gaudí — and yet, like Sagrada Família, another one for which he wasn’t the original architect.

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Whilst working on Sagrada Família, it seems, Gaudí took on the job of redesigning a pre-existing home in 1904 with the assistance of Domènec Sugrañes i Gras, Joan Rubió, and Josep Canaleta.

 


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    As with many of Gaudí’s structures (and Art Nouveau architecture, in general), it has a pronounced biomorphic character, which inspired its colloquial name, Casa dels ossos (House of Bones). The block of Passeig de Gràcia on which it is located is known for its variety of highly-stylized Modernist homes and is even nicknamed Mansana de la Discòrdia (Block of Discord).

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    Catalonia, like just about anywhere, has a culinary tradition that stretches back into prehistory. As with nearly all cuisines, it draws both from local ingredients and cooking techniques — as well as from the techniques and ingredients of other cultural traditions. The oldest known written recipes date back to the 15th Century. Like most Mediterranean culinary traditions, Catalonian cuisine makes abundant use of bread, olive oil, vegetables, and the flesh of various marine animals. There’s also quite a lot of ham.

    One of the most widely available regional specialties is pa amb tomàquet — literally “bread with tomato.” The bread is usually toasted and the tomato is mixed with olive oil and sal. It’s a simple but delicious dish and it was part of the first meal with had at a cafe called El Jardí de can Toda. We also ate patatas braves, amanida caprese, and perhaps a few other tapas — maybe some olives? I drank an Estrella Damm for me and an Aperol Spritz for Una… along with most of the women in the courtyard. In fact, the only women seemingly not drinking them were a group of Muslims and I overheard one inquire of the waiter as to whether they contained alcohol.

    Barcelonians also eat a lot of ham, it seems. In fact, before I visited, two acquaintances encouraged me to abandon 30 years of vegetarianism just once so that I might know the enjoyment that comes from eating Barcalonian ham. In my teens, I lived and worked for a while on a hog farm and nothing that I saw, heard, nor smelled there makes me want to eat a pig again — even though I’m no less unaffected by the smell of bacon than anyone else. My compromise was that I ate a bag of Sabor a Jamón Lay’s potato chips, which are vegan.

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    The closest I came to eating ham ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Estrella Damm, which I had with my first dinar, is a popular lager brewed in Barcelona since 1876. The brewery was established by August Küntzmann Damm and is the oldest brewery on the Iberian Peninsula. I thought it was decent — and sometimes you just feel like a macrobrewed lager. I’m typically more of a wine person, though, and Catalonian vineyards of EmpordàMontsant, Penedès, and Priorat, in particular, are known for their carignans, grenaches, rosés, and of course, cava, the famed sparkling wine.

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    We also visited Bar Marsella, Barcelona’s oldest bar (in business since 1820). There’s nothing like a nice, quiet bar after a long day of walking. Tourists occasionally stood in the doorway and took photos but invariably left without having a drink — no doubt on their way to the next stop on their checklist. I, on the other hand, had a couple of absinthes (the bar’s house drink) and watched the blades of the ceiling fans blur as I sank into the furniture.


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    Like seemingly all tourists in Barcelona, we visited Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria — usually shortened to “La Boqueria.” It’s a large public market located on La Rambla. “Boc” is Catalan for “goat,” but while there was a tremendous amount of animal flesh being sold, there was also a staggering amount of juice, which I later read was something vendors had taken to selling because juice is, for whatever reason, currently the favored fuel of the flocks of tourists, which are hard to ignore. The Barcalonian’s even have a word for overtourism, “parctematització.” Whilst at La Boqueria, we stopped at a stand. Una ordered a Spanish omelet. I ordered a coffee, and because it was very hot outside, poured it over ice. Apparently iced coffees are rare in Europe, even amongst tourists, except as dessert drinks (e.g. frappé or German Eiskaffee — coffee with ice cream). A man seated at the bar asked the waitress why I had poured coffee on ice. She merely said that I was American to which he nodded in understanding.


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    As with anywhere, there are plenty of vegetarians in Barcelona and naturally, there are numerous restaurants catering to them, vegans, and omnivores merely willing to eschew meat from the occasional meal. We dined twice at Flax & Kale, a restaurant run by chef Teresa Carles. I realize that the restaurant’s name sounds almost like a parody of a vegetarian restaurant you might hear mocked in an ad for  Carl’s Jr. To American ears, at least, it sounds about as ridiculous an unappealing, in other words, as “Alfalfa Sprouts & Quinoa” or “Kombucha & Dry Sprouted Bread.” However, it is really good and not at all like the sort of food made by your newly-vegan friend who serves you unseasoned mashed carrots because she has no idea what she’s doing. Perhaps kale doesn’t have the same connotations in Catalonia as it does in American — where it’s sort of like collards or mustard greens for people who for whatever reason don’t eat collards or mustard greens. Anyway, it should be noted that strictly speaking, it’s a pescetarian restaurant; a full 80% of dishes are vegetarian whilst about 20% contain fish (it’s clearly written in Catalan, Spanish, and English).

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    I can’t remember the name of everywhere we ate — nor would I mention all of them. There were several worth noting, though. At La Riera (a vegetarian restaurant), we had our first fideua. I noticed, throughout the city, that hamburgers prepared with ham and fried eggs were referred to as “Americanos” — despite having never seen such a thing anywhere in North America (come to think of it, how often does one see a Caffè Americano in the US?). We made several attempts to get churros y chocolate from Granja Dulcinea, but each time we visited, it was closed, and so, ultimately, we got them from Cafè de l’Òpera. And late one night, after struggling to find any suitably uncrowded tapas places with reasonable vegetarian options, we got a pretty decent pizza. Oh, and the breakfasts at the Hotel SOFIA, where we first stayed, were really something else.


    I’m not a sports guy. Rather, I’m not a sports-watching guy. I prefer to actually play them — which makes me the exact opposite of nearly every sports guy. The biggest exception for me, though, is soccer, which I both played for years in school (and would love to continue to play if more of my friends were game) and which I even occasionally watch played by others. FC Barcelona (founded in 1899) is one of the sport’s most storied teams and one I can always enjoy watching play. We spent our first few days at a hotel next to Camp Nou, the largest stadium in Europe. When we first got to Barcelona, they were busy defeating Arsenal, and there were thus many disappointed (and a few joyous) Brits staying at Hotel SOFIA. We did walk past the stadium after doing laundry at a nearby laundromat but sadly, weren’t able to watch any games either in the stadium or from our hotel window.


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    Subway map in Barcelona
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    Vending machine in a subway station — can we get these, please, Los Angeles Metro?

    Barcelona remains a major transport hub on Europe’s Mediterranean coast. The Port of Barcelona, from which we departed and arrived on our cruise, is Europe’s busiest passenger port. We arrived from and departed to the US from Barcelona-El Prat Airport, which handles over 50 million passengers a year. Both, unfortunately, are responsible for much of the degradation of Barcelona’s air quality although encouraging steps are being made to address the issue.

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    Shops in a train station — a novel concept if you’re only used to American mass transit
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    Commuter train

    Barcelona is served by Europe’s fairly extensive network of high-speed rail, the Spanish portion of which is operated as Alta Velocidad Española. Barcelona itself is served by a fantastic mass transit network. The network of aerial cable cars, buses, commuter rail, funiculars, a gondola, subways, trains, and trams is quite extensive and fully integrated into a single coordinated fare system. The headways for buses and trains are remarkable for such a populous city. The average headway is apparently just two minutes. The only time we had to wait for more than four minutes was for commuter rail, which you expect to have longer wait times — although even our longest wait for a commuter train was about 15 minutes or so.

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    One of the most densely-populated neighborhoods in Barcelona

    Barcelona is a relatively compact city, just 101.89 square kilometers. For Angelenos, that’s about exactly the size of the Greater Eastside (Northeast Los Angeles and the Eastside). It is eminently walkable. Many of the city’s streets were dominated by pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooters (both motor and electric). Cars, with the exception of taxis and delivery vehicles, were nearly absent from many streets. This came as something of a surprise, because Barcelona, until recently, had a reputation of being car-choked. On any block, it seemed, half of the curb was reserved for bicycle or scooter parking and no more than half to private automobiles. There is a bicycle share but, interestingly, most of the e-scooters that I saw were not obviously branded as part of a scooter-share and thus, I assume, privately owned vehicles.

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    Using Barcelona’s first class bus network
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    A well-maintained, tree-lined street with scooter parking, a taxi, service vehicles, and bicycle lanes

    Shortly after I returned to the US, an episode of The War on Carsfocused on Barcelona’s new “superilles” — nine-square block chunks of the city in which streets are effectively reclaimed from automobiles and re-prioritized for people. The de-prioritization of the automobile is what any reasonable city-dweller wants and should demand. I saw not one buckled sidewalk anywhere in my travels around the city. At the crosswalks, there are no beg buttons which pedestrians anxiously pound away at, hoping they’ll be granted permission by a mechanized crosswalk sign.

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    Mid-day traffic done right. Taxis, a bus, a scooter, and shady sidewalks
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    Huge sidewalks and sycamores leads to people walking

    Many streets are lined with both modest, 19th-century midrise apartment buildings and rows of sycamore trees (not palms) — both of which provide shade. Barcelona seems to take its urban forestry much more seriously than does a far wealthier city like Los Angeles. In Barcelona, I saw only four tree squares that didn’t contain within them living trees. They almost always looked as if they were being prepped for re-planting. The soil, invariably, had recently been turned. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, tree squares are often home to the stump of a dead bottle brush or golden rain tree — neither of which are native, unlike the sycamore. Usually, if the stump has been peed on by a small dog, there are a few yellowing weeds too. On my block of Los Angeles, there were seven life-less tree squares (until I guerrilla gardened them).

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    The rare, lifeless tree square

    It’s also worth noting that I’ve heard that Los Angeles doesn’t plant more sycamores because they drop big, beautiful leaves onto the ground in autumn. Those leaves then provide bedding and nesting material for native animals, overwintering protection for insects, and decompose providing nutrients that improve soil biology… but they look untidy on fallow grass lawns (which have no place in Southern California). And so, in Los Angeles, an army of fossil fuel-burning, exhaust-spewing, and dust and allergen-churning leaf blowers are employed to redirect them to a landfill. I couldn’t help but notice and appreciate their apparently complete absence from Barcelona.

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    People prioritized over automobiles — what a concept!

    Barcelona contains sixty municipal parks, twelve of which are historic, five of which are thematic (botanical), forty-five of which are urban, and six of which are forest. They range from vest-pocket parks to large recreation areas. Of Barcelona’s parks, Montjuïc is the largest, with 203 hectares located on the mountain of the same name. It is followed by Parc de la Ciutadella, the Barcelona ZooGuinardó ParkParc GüellOreneta Castle ParkDiagonal Mar ParkNou Barris Central ParkCan Dragó Sports Park,Poblenou Park, and Labyrinth Park.

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    We visited Parc Güell, a public park made up of gardens and buildings designed by Gaudí. It is located in the hills (specifically, one formerly known as Muntanya Pelada) of the La Salut neighborhood of the Gràcia district and affords one of the best views of the city. Gaudí was commissioned by a wealthy count, Eusebi Güell i Bacigalup to refurbish his mansion, known as Can Muntaner de Dalt (or alternately, Casa Larrard). Gaudí began work in 1900 and built two structures before abandoning the project in 1914. Güell died in 1918 and in 1923, the Güell family donated the land to the city. In 1926 — the year of Gaudí’s death — it opened to the public as a park.

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    Of apparently equal importance are Barcelona’s many plaças, or public squares. We have “squares” in Los Angeles too — although most are, at best, merely squares in shape only — mere intersections through which automobiles race and no public life takes place. Motorists, in fact, are unlikely to notice these “squares” unless impeded by a crossing pedestrian or red light. If they look up from their phones long enough, they might catch sight of a small beige sign designating the intersection a “square.” In Catalonia, on the other hand, they are free of cars; they are decorated with monumental sculptures, they are planted with trees, they host celebrations and protests, and thus Catalonians enjoy spending time in them. Some of the most popular include Plaça Catalunya, Plaça d’Espanya, Plaça de les Gloriès Catalanes, Plaça de la Universitat, Plaça del Rei Rambo, Plaça Reial, Plaça Sant Jaume, and Plaça Verdaguer.

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    At various times, Barcelona reminded me of other cities that I’ve visited. Racing through the outskirts in a shuttle, it looked, felt, and smelled a bit like Manila, albeit obviously much wealthier and less horrendously mismanaged. The wrought-iron balconies and serious dedication to relaxation reminded me of New Orleans. The longer I spent, the more Barcelonians reminded me of Montrealers. If Cirque du Soleil originated in Europe rather than Canada, it surely would’ve done so in Barcelona. Of course, Barcelona is its own place, too — and one I’d very much like to return to in the future in order to explore and experience it more thoroughly and deeply.

    I would encourage other visitors to do the same, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of Barcelona. There are efforts to reduce tourism because of the perception that Barcelona is shrouded in port and airport pollution caused by cruise ships and airplanes filled with tourists and that there’s little benefit. Apparently, the average tourist spends only 58 pounds in Barcelona. That seems almost impossibly low (having spent more than ten times that) but I suppose many tourists do little more than grab a T-shirt and grab a bite at an American fast-food chain before boarding their plane or ship on their way to check the next box on their mass-produced bucket lists. I hope, if you visit Barcelona, you’ll go a bit deeper, si us plau.

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    Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
    Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in TheLos Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
    Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
    Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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2 thoughts on “Where Fools Fear to Tread – A Snapshot of Barcelona

  1. A fascinating read. I wonder how many types of palm are native to Spain? Perhaps only one, like in the Los Angeles area, where I understand only one is a native tree. At least sycamores give shade — I’ve seen pictures of palms in LA with with a few fronds way, way up on the top, which do nothing as far as I can tell. Seems Barcelona is unlikely to move up from sixth place, as Brexit is equally unlikely to happen — even with The Donald’s intervention. Thanks for this interesting blog.

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    1. Thank you! I’m not sure how many palms are native to Spain. The short, Chamaerops humilis is native to the western Mediterranean. Of course, there’s the Phoenix canariensis — the Canary Islands palm — but then even though the Canary Islands are governed by Spain, they’re not really Spain, are they? The Washingtonia robusta, on the other hand, is native to California but not the Los Angeles Basin. Its natural habitat is the desert, not the chaparral. You can see them growing at oases out in the Sonoran Desert, where they’re presumably much more useful to the ecosystem than they are when planted in rows along streets.

      And you really don’t think Brexit is going to happen? I guess we’ll see soon enough!

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