A fellow traveler in Barcelona revealed to me that Barcelona was probably his favorite capital city. I was confused: I know the capital of Spain is Madrid, and I was in Spain, right? Wrong.
Barcelona as a city, although geographically and politically located in Spain, is insistent in its independence from the country. Barcelona is the capital of a now-nonexistent country known as Catalonia, with its own culture and language. Walking through the streets of Barcelona, you will not see a single Spanish flag, and every shop name will be in Catalan. Although almost everyone speaks both Spanish and Catalan, Barcelonans consider themselves to be Catalonian, not Spanish. Catalonia is an area with a long and complicated history, and even today, Catalonians are fighting to be independent from Spain.
This history means that Barcelona is home to a fascinating mix of Spanish and Catalonian culture, language and tensions. In visiting the city, I got to see not only parts of greater European history but also a place of unique artistic traditions.
It’s a culture shock for any American travelling in Europe to be walking down a street and realize that the street stones are older than any of the buildings in our country. The place in Barcelona where this is perhaps most visible is the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. A mixture of winding pedestrian-only paths and narrow streets that a small car can just get through, it’s all too easy to get lost in the Gothic Quarter — which I promptly did. This labyrinth is left over from the Roman occupation of Barcelona and was the old city center, before Barcelona began to expand in the late 17th century. In the course of trying to find my way out I ran into the last remaining old city wall (built by the Romans), along with four or five little squares filled with people enjoying the sunny day on the stones, playing with their pets and small children running around, yelling in Spanish and Catalonian. The idea that people have been carrying on their daily lives in these squares and streets since around the second century is incredible to me, and I had to take a moment to truly appreciate this history.
Within the Gothic Quarter lies the home of Barcelona’s choral tradition, the Palau de la Musica. This art-nouveau concert hall was built in 1905 to celebrate Catalonian choral singing and to honor Catalonian heritage. I was able to score a private tour of the place, which meant that I got to go up in the balcony area and see the sound check get ready for that night’s show while almost eye-level with an incredible stained glass ceiling. The best part was perhaps when the official tour came into the level below and somebody played the huge organ for them. The acoustics and the aesthetic combined to create a picturesque vision of Barcelonan art culture.
The choral tradition is interesting, but the crowning jewel of Barcelonan art culture is, of course, Antoni Gaudi. Even if you haven’t heard his name, you’ve heard of his work. Gaudí was the main architect behind La Sagrada Familia, the church famous for taking more than 100 years to build. It’s still unfinished, but that doesn’t stop it from being perhaps the most breathtaking building I have ever had the good fortune to be inside. Spain and Catalonia are like heaven for Catholic tourists, with the wide variety of historic churches, and La Sagrada Familia is the greatest of them all. The magnificence of the outside is awe-inspiring, but nothing can prepare you for the strange and beautiful inside. Frankly, it’s the most important thing to see in Barcelona.
La Sagrada Familia isn’t Gaudi’s only building in Barcelona, just his most famous and definitely the largest project he undertook during his life. He also has two houses in the main area of Barcelona, which he was commissioned to design by two aristocratic families. The one I got to see was Casa Battlo, the last thing he designed before dedicating the rest of his life to La Sagrada Família. This remarkable house is entirely designed to be reminiscent of the ocean, with curving doorways and columns to remind the viewer of waves and swirling patterns on the ceilings, to create the visual of a whirlpool. The roof literally has a dragon on it, not to mention an incredible view of the city itself. Again, the amount of thought and talent that Gaudi put into this building creates a breathtaking sight.
Of course, I couldn’t spend every waking moment of my time in Barcelona seeing the city. I also had to eat at some point, too. Barcelona follows the same time schedule as Spain with their eating time, something which was a pretty big culture shock. Shops in Barcelona — including Starbucks, to my dismay — open at 7:30 a.m. at the absolute earliest. Add that to the siesta from 3-4 p.m. and most people don’t eat dinner until about 9 p.m. Nightlife doesn’t start picking up until around midnight, so many people stay out until 5 a.m. on the weekends. The food is well worth the wait, though. In addition to the traditional Spanish plate of Iberian ham, Barcelona is known for its seafood, due to the proximity to the Mediterranean. Seafood appetizers, such as the one pictured above, are present on almost every menu. One of the most traditional dishes is the seafood paella, which is rice with random bits of seafood such as lobster, oysters, crab and fish thrown in. It’s hard to say what’s actually in paella, because it changes every day depending on the fresh catches. A word for the wise though: Barnacles do not taste good. I don’t know why that’s a thing.
Barcelona is a culturally fascinating place, with a strange mix of Catalonian nationalism and Spanish culture. The winding streets, the beaches and the beautiful buildings enchant visitors from across the world. The country of Catalan is very much alive in the eyes of its people and the streets of its capital.
Contact Taylor Follett at tfo[email protected].