My Favorite International Cities - #15 - Barcelona
First published April 27, 2022 by the Morning News and SCNow and reproduced here with permission.
Barcelona is a great international city, Spain’s second largest, sitting on a plain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the dominant city in the Catalonian region of Spain. The population is about 2 million with about 4.5 million in the Metro Area; astonishingly, 70% were born and raised locally. It is a major port, education center, auto manufacturer, biotech and financial center, but still an important tourist destination with eight important Heritage sites; a staggering 12 million tourists come each year supporting about 150,000 Barcelona jobs – the locals often complain there are too many tourists. But the locals still embody an air of mystery, loving food, night life and politics, the politics often contrarian to their Spanish neighbors.
It probably has been settled off and on over about 7,000 years, but more earnestly since the Greek – Phoenician days as a Mediterranean trading center. Carthage was thought to have a port here, but it came into more permanent status in Roman times, from about 15 BC as a trading port and military center. Like its history, even its name’s origin is shrouded, whether from the ancient indigenous peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, the Greeks, the Carthaginians or the Romans, nobody knows for sure, although its name is ancient. I have been there three times and love its openness, its air of freedom and intrigue- the local’s zest for life - and…it’s walkability.
The Romans made it into a major city by 300 AD, but it then waxed and waned under rival invaders including the Visigoths, the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Moors and the Spanish. For a time, it was replaced in Catalonian influence by Naples. Starting in the mid 1700’s it became a major textile center and about a hundred years later an industrial center, but still built around textiles. Political disputes and its allegiance with the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil war together with the long run of Francoism, diminished it; the Spanish central government even tried to stamp out the Catalonian language. But today it extends beyond local Catalonian reach, having a persisting special relationship with the central Spanish Government in Madrid to fend off threatened secession. Ironically, it was reborn with the Summer Olympics of 1992 when it underwent dramatic and important infrastructure, urban and business renewal. The modern City was born in 1992 and continues to flourish. The seaside Olympic Stadium, an obligatory tourist destination, remains an important symbol of its rebirth and current success.
Even though of Roman origin, Barcelona’s oceanside location, prevents the typical roman circular layout, so pick a location to start your touring: downtown, the Olympics sites, the hillside, Old Town or the coastline, spilling off into neighboring villages. The Gaudi Cathedral (basilica de La Sagrada Familia) is the “must see” site downtown: construction began in 1882 and is scheduled to be completed in 2026, so they say, by the City and the Catholic Church but mostly funded with private donations. Antoni Gaudi’s church is both admired and despised, but the work carried on even after his 1926 death, consecrated by Pope Benedict in 2010; it is supposed to represent the story of Jesus’s life with 18 towers of different height, style and shape – some you can climb. There are 200 other churches in Catholic Barcelona with significant architecture and interiors at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the two Santa Maria locations, the Barcelona Cathedral and the church of St Paul del Camp. Also nearby lies the City Hall, the Casa Batillo, several other Gaudi homes/buildings, the Saint Paul Hospital, the Royal Palace, the Christopher Columbus monument, the Arc de Triomf, the Castle of the Three Dragons and the buildings of the University of Barcelona. Admirable modern architecture includes the Agbar Tower, the two hotels Arts and Vela, the Colon Building, the Citadel Fountain and Plaza and the Magic Fountain.
There are about 100 important museums in Barcelona, including several dedicated to Gaudi. Important art pieces include the Apse of St Climent de Taull, multiple Pablo Picasso pieces with a museum dedicated to him, Caress of a Bird and Woman and Bird by Joan Miro with a museum dedicated to her, Rinzen by Rona Casas, Spanish Wedding by Maria Fortuny and Old Valencian Jackets by Joaquin Sorolla. Save some time for the Royal Art Museum, the Royal Palace, the Design Museum, the Catalan Modernism Museum, the City History Museum, the National Palace and the Spanish Plaza, the Chocolate Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Architectural Museum.
We have friends who used to live in Barcelona, and they were always eager to explore the Mt Tibidabo (really just a hill) amusement park. By foot or incline be sure to explore the park; at hilltop looms the grand gothic Church of the Sacred Heart, and in contrast, the nearby modern communications tower. The vista view of ocean and city is magnificent. Back aground also take time to walk around the Gothic Quarter, mostly closed to auto traffic, for old homes and businesses although most actually built over the last three hundred years; explore the art and antique shops and the family style restaurants. But also, Roman ruins are proximate and several medieval buildings including some of the notable museums listed above. The Jewish Quarter is included within the Gothic Quarter featuring the old Synagogue Major.
The Barcelona beaches are magnificent, seven major ones, akin to Rio. Beautiful water and a mostly sandy beach. Note the typical harbors with some mega yachts and of course the important commercial port. Sunday afternoons the ocean side seafood restaurants are filled with carefree folks enjoying plates heaped with shellfish and calamari/squid all washed down with sparkling white wine or sangria; most folks eating outdoors, depending on the weather.
Like most Spaniards the Barcelonians love their sangria, paella, tomatoes, gazpacho, ham and sausage. More local food favorites include bombas (mashed potato combined in meat balls), tomaquet breads, peppers, sausage dishes, omelets and Manchego cheese with ham. My favorite restaurants include el Rey de la Gamba (several visits), Restaurante Pllar, Casa Amalia, Virtual and the Venue. Most of the plazas are lined with food kiosks and restaurants – the Barcelonians seem to eat all day long, and in fact do eat smaller portions than us and commonly share foods around the table. Barcelona has over 2000 restaurants; some folks joke that they go to Barcelona mainly to eat. But there is also other night life with Flamenco, nightclubs, theatre, films and musical venues.