Friday, April 5, 2013

10 Things About Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, which is the name of the ancient city on the Mediterranean and the province it is located in, is a pretty popular tourist destination, so chances are you have visited already or have read/heard a bit about it. However, whether you know the area or not, I hope after reading this you will have discovered at least one thing that you did not know before.

1. Barcelona is over 2,000 years old. The original inhabitants were tribes of the Laietani, one of the early Iberian people. They called the town Barkeno. Coins and other artifacts of theirs have been found in the area. It is possible to see a remnant of what the original settlement may have looked like at the Pueblo Iberico archeological park in the suburb of Santa Coloma. One of Barcelona's major thoroughfares, Via Laietana, is named in honor of these ancient people.

2. Barcelona became the Roman town of Barcino around 19BC. Another major Barcelona street, Via Augusta, is built over the part of the ancient Roman road that stretched across the Iberian Peninsula from Cadiz, on the Atlantic Coast, to La Jonquera, on the border of modern-day France. Parts of the Roman wall that surrounded Barcino are still standing in the Gothic Quarter and many ruins can be seen in and around the Gothic Quarter, especially at the incredible Barcelona City History Museum.

3. Like any ancient city, Barcelona has its share of dark history. For example, the 'autos de fe' of the Spanish Inquisition. Although not marked on any tourist maps, many of Barcelona's popular tourist sites were once places where people were burned at the stake, garroted, shot and hung. Public executions were held in Spain until the end of the 19th century, and were on one level spectacles of horrific entertainment for the masses. According to Catalan historian Joan de Deu Domenech, the last public execution in Barcelona, by garrote, was held on June 15, 1897, at number 15 Egipcíaque Street – a site that today is a center for humanities research and education.

4. Barcelona is famous for its architecture, from the ancient to the modern, but probably most significantly for Catalan Modernisme, that unique twist on Art Nouveau design. The most significant architects of this style were Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and, of course, Antoni Gaudí. One of my favorite spots in the city is the 'block of discord' at Paseo de Gracia 35-45, where the dramatically clashing styles of these three greats are on display in buildings that stand practically side by side: Casa Lleó Morera, Casa Amatller and Casa Battló. Of course, the most famous modernist work is not yet finished – the Sagrada Familia temple was started in 1882 and is not projected to be finished until around 2026. This is considered one of Gaudí's masterpieces, although it was originally begun by another architect, Francisco del Villar, who worked on it until 1891.

5. September 11th is a public holiday in Catalonia, but it has nothing to do with the tragedy of 2001 and everything to do with the tragedy of 1714, which saw the defeat of Barcelona in one of the final battles of the War of the Spanish Succession. Catalonia had unfortunately sided with the loser, the Habsburg Archduke Charles. As punishment the victorious King Philip V revoked the autonomy, institutions, privileges and rights of what until then had been the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon. Autonomy was not fully restored until after the death of the Dictator Franco. In 1980, the reestablished Autonomous Government of Catalonia proclaimed September 11th as La Diada, the Catalan national holiday. Other local holidays include Second Easter, La Merce, Saint John's Night, and Saint George's Day.

6. The Seville Fair, aka the April Fair (Feria de Abril), in Andalusia is one of the most popular festivals in Spain. Many people do not know that the second largest April Fair in the country is held in Barcelona. This Andalusian tradition came to Barcelona with the massive immigration from Southern Spain that began in the 1940s and peaked in the 1960s. Barcelona's April Fair was started by a group of these immigrants and their descendants in 1971. Like it's southern neighbor, it focuses on Andalusian culture, food and music, e.g., pienetas, mantillas, shawls, riding jackets, castanets, Jerez sherry, manzanilla wine, tapas, gazpacho, ham, churros, cantaores, bailaoras, flamenco, sevillianas, rumbas, boleros and more!

7. Barcelona's Collserola Park is 'the largest metropolitan park in the world: 8 times larger than the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and 22 times larger than Central Park in New York.' I love taking the funicular up Mount Tibidabo to one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Barcelona, Vallvidrera, and walking down into the park. The views of the city and the Mediterranean are incredible!

8. Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city, made up of native Catalans, people who moved here from other parts of Spain, lots of Europeans (mainly Italian, French and British), and immigrants from all over the world – particularly Latin America, the Philippines, Morocco, China and Pakistan. The result of all this is that it is common to hear multiple languages as you wander around the streets – Catalan, Spanish, Urdu, French, English, Arabic, Italian, Mandarin,etc. In addition, immigrant communities have brought their cuisine with them. In fact, three of my favorite restaurants in Barcelona are the Philippine Fil-Manila, the Chinese Pato Pekin and the Senegalese Daru Salaam. I also love Casa Mexicana, an excellent Mexican restaurant owned by an immigrant (but not Mexican) couple – a Danish man and a Peruvian woman. (The cooks are Mexican, however.)

9. Barcelona has terrific public transport, including an integrated system of commuter trains, subways (called the "Metro"), trams, and buses. There is also a public bicycle sharing program for residents, called Bicing. Bicycle rental companies catering to tourists are easily found. Some even arrange bike tours of the city.

10. If you want to travel around the region of Catalonia, or further afield, there are lots of options, including a great railway system. Day trips up or down the coast (e.g., Girona to the north, Tarragona to the south) or into the interior of Catalonia (the Catalan Pyrenees) are fascinating. Even Madrid is only about two hours away on the high speed AVE train.

Well, that's a little about the place I am lucky enough to live in. If you have not seen it yet, I hope some day you get the chance to.

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