Once dismissed as a grimy, dull town, this Mediterranean city is now mentioned in the same breath as Paris, London, and Rome as a must-see destination for anyone seeking to experience Europe at its best. What happened?
The city sports gorgeous architecture, both in the charming tangle of medieval streets and in turn-of-the-19th-century masterpieces by Antonin Gaudi and other geniuses of the Modernisme movement. The Mediterranean Sea splashes right at its doorstep, creating a vibrant downtown waterfront where you can stroll past a harbor full of tall-mast sailboats and broad beaches crowded with well-toned sunbathers. Barcelona is ringed with mountains, laced with Parisian-style boulevards and dotted with lively nightspots. And there’s no doubt — the 1992 Summer Olympics and an outpouring of civic inventiveness has boosted its international reputation by leagues in the last two decades.
But what struck me as its greatest asset on a recent visit was the exuberant public life that sweeps everyone up in the festivities. Even with great cathedrals, museums, cafes, and the delicious Sant Josep Market, walking the streets of Barcelona remains the highlight of my trip. In addition to enjoying a sublime urban landscape, you are treated to top-flight entertainment — with no cover charge unless you want to drop a half-euro coin into their baskets.
Particularly intriguing are the human sculptures that stare down from their pedestals on La Rambla, the pedestrian street that is the heart of the old city. Just when you almost believe they really are statues, they suddenly break into a dance or a shriek or a song.
Other pedestrian promenades around the city — both winding medieval lanes closed to cars, and wide walkways in the middle of an avenue with slender traffic lanes on either side — also showcase talented tango dancers, gypsy jazz bands, tai chi masters, dulcimer pluckers and much more.
But the most heartwarming of the public performances were circles of people dancing the traditional Catalan sardana in front of the cathedral and other squares. The beaming smiles I noticed, particularly on the faces of older dancers, is explained by the fact that the sardana was illegal during the Franco dictatorship — one of his many efforts to quash any signs of Catalan culture.
In fact, the joyous embrace of public life in Barcelona, where even walking down the sidewalk in the company of others feels like a celebration, can be traced back to Franco’s 40-year reign, when any public gathering outside of religious rituals was forbidden. In the spirit of liberation following the end of the Franco dictatorship, local people created new squares and public spaces all across the city and suburbs to heal the scars of political and civic repression. Some of them fit so well with the urban fabric of the old city that visitors often assume they are centuries old.
People coming together in a congenial public space for any reason is one of the most basic expressions of the commons — which Franco and other totalitarians understood was necessary to repress. A vibrant public life is not only a source of pleasure but an essential element of democracy.
One note of caution: A few pockets of Barcelona’s center city may display a bit too much streetlife for many people’s taste. Tourists are warned not to carry their passports or much cash in certain areas close to the waterfront on account of the city’s deft pickpockets (some of the world’s most skilled), and to avoid backstreets in the rundown Barrio Chino district unless they seek the company of prostitutes.
I followed that advice and encountered no trouble, with the exception of being ushered away from the Catalan version of a shell game on La Rambla after trying to take a photo. It did not escape my notice that the man angrily shooshing me down the street was the same one who, posing as passer-by, had just won a jackpot.
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