In August, Una and I went to Barcelona. It was the first time for both of us in that city, or Catalonia (Catalan: Catalunya), 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.
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 Vella, Les Corts, Eixample, Gràcia, Horta-Guinardó, Nou Barris, Sant Andreu, Sant Martí, Sants-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 Rambla, Meridiana 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 Guimerà, Jacint Verdaguer, Joan Maragall, and Narcís Oller. The 20th century produced the avant-garde Noucentisme movement, which included in its ranks Carles Riba, Eugeni d’Ors, J.V. Foix, Joan Salvat-Papasseit, and Josep Carner. Subsequent 20th Century authors include Agustí Bartra, Gabriel Ferrater, Joan Brossa, Joan Oliver Sallarès, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Josep Pla, Manuel de Pedrolo, Mercè Rodoreda, Miquel Martí i Pol, Pere Calders, and Salvador Espriu. Contemporary 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 Age, Iberian tribes of the area such as the Ilergetes, Indigetes, 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.
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.
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 Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, 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.
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 Subirachs, Marià 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 (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 influencers. I 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.
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 Lyme, Daydream, D.J. Ventura, Mr. Backer, Green Ice, Iván, Jules Tropicana, Squash Gang, Taina, Tokio, 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 Brudieu, Joan 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 Carles. A choral society, the Orfeó Català, was founded in 1891. Romantic composers include Felip Pedrell, Fernando Sor, and Josep Anselm Clavé. The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra was inaugurated in 1944. 20th Century composers and performers include Enric Granados, Francisco Tárrega, Frederic Mompou, Isaac Albéniz, Miquel 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 canya, tambori, tenora, and tible. Other popular folk dances and musics include the ball de bastons, ball de gitanes, ball de panderetes, contrapàs, espunyolets, 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.
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 Discòrdia, Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, La Monumental, Palau Reial Major, Palauet d’Albéniz, the old Customs building at Port Vell, Sagrat Cor, Sant Pau del Camp, Santa 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 Catalana. Gaudí’s creations, though, decidedly comprise the bulk the city’s most recognized cultural icons, including Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Casa Vicens, Palau Güell, Park Güell, and the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família.
BASILICA DE LA SAGRADA FAMILIA
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.
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 Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari, and Francesc Cardoner. The church’s striking illumination was designed by Carles Buïgas.
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.
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.
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.