Saturday, August 11, 2007

From the seaside to the hillside - Part 2 (Plaza Cataluña)


Once at Plaza Urquinaona, the center of Barcelona, Plaza Cataluña, is only a block away. And it is from here that the trip from the seaside to the hillside continues.
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Plaza Cataluña (or Plaça Catalunya in Catalan; Catalonia Square in English) covers 50,000 square meters (162,500 square feet) and dates from the end of the 19th century, when the medieval wall surrounding the old city was torn down. Since then it has been the site of everything from a circus at the turn of the century, to gun battles during the Spanish civil war, to political gatherings during the democratic transition, to crowds of tourists in recent years. Along with people from all over the world, it is usually packed with pigeons, sight seeing buses, city buses and taxis. There are also plenty of motor scooters and bicycles parked all around the square. During Barcelona's many fiestas there are often live musical performances held in the plaza, with the square jam packed with revelers. Unfortunately, purse snatchers and pick pockets are often around also.
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People walk through or sit on one of the many benches in and around the square or even lie down on the grass under the fountain and sunbathe! There are only about four sidewalk cafes / restaurants (e.g., Cafe Zurich, Cafe Catalunya, Hard Rock Cafe's terrace and Farggi Ice Cream) and none of them would I recommend for much besides the people watching.
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However, I understand that before the civil war Plaza Cataluña was quite a hotbed of theater and cafe life. No theaters have survived and the only cafe that remains from those days is the Cafe Zurich. It is still a popular meeting spot, but don't go there hoping to glimpse a bit of history, as it has been completely rebuilt to suit the El Triangle shopping center that was built around it.
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For a great aerial view of the plaza, go to the restaurant at the top of El Corte Inglés department store. Food and drinks are not too pricey and if you manage to get a window seat the views are unequaled.
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There is a large ceramic star embedded in the center of the square, which is supposed to mark the center of Barcelona. There is also a large water fountain, some neo-classical sculptures and the ugly, indeed almost scary-looking, monument to former regional president Francesc Macia. (The top of this sculpture looks like it might topple over onto the bust of Macia at any moment. The creator of this modern monstrosity is Subirachs.)
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Sitting in the reflecting pool behind the monument is a statue with an interesting history. It is “La Diosa” (La Deessa in Catalan, The Goddess in English), which was sculpted by Josep Clara (1878-1958) between 1908 and 1910. It depicts a nude woman bathing herself. In the early 20th century it was deemed obscene by the then dictator Primo de Rivera and therefore was removed during his rule. (I'm sure he must be spinning in his grave at how much Spain has changed -- now real women and men bathe nude at beaches!)
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In the plaza there is also an attractive little statue by Pablo Gargallo (1881-1934) -- El Pastor de La Flauta (Shepherd with Flute). This is actually a reproduction of the original, which stood here from 1927 to 1986. The original is now in the Pablo Gargallo museum in Zaragoza to protect it from environmental damage.
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Another statue overlooks the square from on high, this one from the face of the building at number 21. (The Hard Rock Cafe is in the same building.) I do not know the history of this statue, but like to think of him as the legendary medieval knight Roland. (Rolando in Spanish, Rotllà in Catalan.) Roland's legend, so significant throughout Europe that most cities have a statue of him, is given a unique twist in Cataluña, where he is often portrayed as a giant in local fiestas.
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Some of the more notable architecture includes the Banco Español de Credito from 1941, the Telefonica building, from 1928, and the Banco de España building from 1948. Walk along the Northeastern side of this building and you can look up to find a guardian angel looking down on you. Sculpted by Madrid artist Angel Ferrant y Vazquez (1890-1961), it commemorates the legend that an angel appeared to Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) as he stood near this spot outside one of the ancient city gates and reassured him that Barcelona would always be protected by God.
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While you're there, you must stop in next door at one of the best -- and best priced -- ice cream parlors / sweet shops in town, Planelles - Donat. Aside from incredibly delicious ice cream, shakes, chilled drinks and hot drinks, this gourmet shop, which has been in business since the end of the 19th century, also makes and sells its own brand of two very popular Spanish treats -- horchata and turrón. Horchata is a creamy cold drink made from tiger nuts. Turrón is a chunky candy bar filled with nougat and nuts.
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Back at Plaza Cataluña, two of the most prominent edifices are modern buildings -- the El Triangle shopping center and the large El Corte Inglés department store. El Triangle houses various stores, including the large FNAC book/music/electronics store and the aforementioned Zurich Cafe. El Corte Inglés is similar to Macy's, except that like other European department stores, it has a supermarket in the basement. Since it bought out the Spanish division of Marks and Spencer, El Corte Inglés is just about the only department store chain in Spain.
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Protruding from the stark Southeastern side of El Corte Inglés is the ornate remnant of a window from the building that once stood there. The intricate facade depicts several women playing musical instruments, including a drum, an accordion and a flute. I suppose it was just to pretty to demolish along with the rest of the building and, so, it hangs there, "en memoriam."
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To me, the most captivating structure on the square is the one I have not been able to discover much about: the Catalana Occidental Insurance building on the corner of Paseo de Gracia and Ronda San Pedro. This castle like structure dates from the end of the 19th century and today houses offices and apartments. I have learned that it was financed by banker and politician Manuel Girona Agrafel (1818-1905) and was originally called "La Sud America." (If anyone knows anything about the history of this building, please leave a comment.)
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Several important commercial streets converge on Plaza Cataluña: Rambla Cataluña, Las Ramblas, Paseo de Gracia, Puerta del Angel, Ronda San Pedro, Ronda Universidad and Calle Pelayo. (In Catalan, these are all: Rambla Catalunya, Las Ramblas, Passeig de Gracia, Portal de l'Angel, Ronda Sant Pere, Ronda Universitat and Carrer Pelai.) All of these streets make the area a shopper's paradise.
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In addition, there is a lot of life under the plaza, including the main City of Barcelona Tourist Information Center, two metro lines (the Green and Red lines), a Spanish rail (Renfe) station, a Catalan rail (Ferrocarril) station and a few little cafes, shops and newsstands accompanying them.
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To get to our hillside destination, we will head under Plaza Catalunya to take the Ferrocarril. More to come in Part 3.

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