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My friends will know that I have called Barcelona, "the best of all possible cities." The references with various degrees of irony to Leibniz, Voltaire, and my friend Michael Stopa are deliberate. Barcelona is not the best of all imaginable cities, but given the constraints of the universe, the only possible cities are those which exist, and of these, Barcelona is probably the best.
First, some of my few negatives. As mentioned before, the "alternative" culture here is pretty isolated from access to the mainstream though not as much so as in Madrid). I think what's happened is that as Barcelona's middle class has gotten steadily more prosperous, more of a gap is developing than there was before, and more of a simply consumer culture. There's not a sense of DIY here other than among poor people. Barcelona has put a lot of money into museums, public spaces, the arts, but has lately shortchanged public housing, etc. I ran into some AIDS activists and, according to them, Spain has the worst AIDS problems in Western Europe, but their approach to the problem seems to consist mainly of waiting for some other country to develop a cure. People are generally good on their overt stands on the issues (e.g. other than the stray fascist, it's hard to find overt racism) but not so good on positive action.
That said, I still have plenty of outright positive to add. I don't think I've given any physical description of this city, so this seems as good a time as any.
At the heart of Barcelona is the old city and at the heart of the old city is the Ramblas, a kilometer-long tree-shaded avenue with a wide pedestiran walkway down the middle. There are little shops on the walkway and each block has its specialty: caged birds in one block, flowers in another, etc. Just off the Ramblas is the Boqueria, a public market for food, and the Plaça Reial, a lovely arcaded 19th century plaza which has seen some hard times (drugs, etc.) but is back to being a very nice place these days. And along the whole way are cafes with seating on the pedestrian walkway, where the waiters hustle across 2 lanes of traffic with your food. As recently as the 80s one could say the Ramblas was what the Champs Elysee ought to be and isn't, but now it's gotten a little tourist-heavy, and the locals seem to have gone elsewhere. The Cafe Zurich and the Cafe de la Opera remain lively, and a lot may revive when the Liceu (the opera house, being rebuilt after a fire) reopens in a few years.
[Addendum 2002: The Liceu is open (I saw a great production of Janacek's Makropulos Affair there in 1999, sung in Czech with Catalan supertitles which I mostly understood), and the Ramblas is somewhat revived, but there are just too damned many statue-mimes, etc. It's a bit more specifically a tourist place than it was in the 80s, but it is certainly better than in '96.]
One end of the Ramblas is the Plaça de Catalunya, a block of green, the other end is the Columbus monument at the harbor. Off to either side is the old city, a web of small streets, lovely plazas, and 7 centuries of buildings, including the cathedral and Sta. Maria del Mar, an elegant gothic church nearly everyone actually prefers to the cathedral. Many of the old palaces are now museums, not necessarily related in any way to their history as palaces. For example, the Picasso museum is in an old palace. This is a fine way to get the money to restore a building.
For years (till the mid-19th century) Spain would not allow Barcelona to grow beyond very restricted limits. There was a massive star-shaped fort called the Ciutadella (its location is now a big park) and there were fields surrounding the city so the governmment could easily lay siege at any time. Past those fields were suburbs: Barceloneta with the beach and the harbor, Gràcia (where I'm staying), fashionable Pedralbes, etc. Finally in the 19th century they were allowed to fill in the space in between with the gridded Eixample (extension) where most of the great Modernista buildings are (Gaudí and all that), sort of reminiscent of the 19th century parts of Paris, but with more architectural variety. And even more bars and restaurants.
By the way, like New Yorkers, Barcelonans do not have north, south, east, and west. They have montaña (mountain), mar (sea), izquierda (left facing the mountains) and derecha (right facing the mountains). These terms are used especially with reference to the Eixample. No one knows which way is west.
The neighborhoods of the old city are quite distinct from one another. All share the basically medieval street plan, modified only by a few wide streets which have been forced through (at the cost of how many buildings, one wonders). Only the Barri Gotic is still dominated by medieval buildings, although some fine palaces remain in Sta. Maria del Mar, the one part of the old city which remains, for the most part, a Catalan neighborhood. Carrer Montcada in Sta. Maria del Mar has old palaces which have been turned into museums (Picasso, textiles, you name it) and also some trendy bars, etc, more of which are found as you head towards the water and towards Ciutadella Park (that is, away from the center).
In contrast, Barri St. Pere, just to the north of Sta. Maria del Mar, is mostly a forgotten backwater, increasingly populated by Moslem immigrants, and except for a few buildings around its fringes (the Palace of Catalan music, one of the great modernista buildings, is in one corner) it offers almost nothing except a cheap place for poor people to live in the middle of Barcelona. Not to be sniffed at, that, but of little touristic interest.
At the other corner ("a la izquierda" and "al mar") the Barri Xines (known in Castillian as "Barrio Chino", but the name has nothing to do with the Chinese, and as I understand it, probably derives from the saint we know as St. Gines.) is a bit gritty, plenty of immigrants there, too, and a goodly amount of prostitution, but it's a very lively part of the city, some fine gothic buildings, plenty of restaurants and bars, etc. It still retains some of its nasty reputation as a red light district, but lots of people go there all the time, especially during the daylight hours, and not to look for trouble. A few years ago it was still pretty scary. When Ellen Krengel and I were here in the mid-eighties ('84, I think), we got about 2 blocks in and turned around to leave by easy mutual agreement. Now it's a place you could happily spend the day. Unless you're Jean Genet, who would be bitterly disappointed by the changes. (Musical accompaniment here: Brecht & Weill's "Bilbao Song" . Again, wrong city, right feeling, though in this case I guess I have to identify with the wimp the song is addressed to.)
South of the old city is a waterfront promenade, a modern harbor for pleasure boats with a bridge leading to a pretty standard (but architecturally decent) shopping mall in the center, then Barceloneta, one of the least suburban "suburbs" in the world. Weird street grid: very narrow blocks, only one building wide, sort of like having the street/alley system but with no distinction between streets and alleys, both equally wide or, if you prefer, equally narrow. Possibly more picturesque to look at than pleasant to live in, I won't be surprised if it changes a bit over the next few decades (so catch it while you can).
Barceloneta still has a lot of seafood restaurants, though as I understand it, not much of a fishing fleet anymore. It does have the first of a long string of Mediterranean beaches leading east, stretching past the boringly postmodern Olympic Village and Poble Nou, the latter a reasonably interesting working class neighborhood.
But enough of this. I'm starting to sound like a travel guide, and there are plenty of books available.
The thing about Barcelona is not just that you can enter most of the old palaces because they use them as public buildings. It's not just that -- like in many old European cities -- you walk down a dark, narrow street and you round the corner into the full sunlight of the plaza. It's that when you hit the plaza you are likely to see something like...
... a thirty-foot high fully articulated copper and aluminum marionette of a woman, held aloft by a construction crane and operated by 10 puppeteers.
I spent most of the day Wednesday May 15 (Wednesday is the cheap day for many museums here) in the Museum of the History of the City of Barcelona, an interesting stew of Catalan nationalism and Roman ruins. Then I went to the nearby Palau del Lloctiment to sketch some gargoyles in the courtyard. I came out, walked into the plaza in front of the cathedral, and there she was in all her metallic glory, ten people, mostly but not exclusively women, working frantically to give her remarkably natural movements as she strode above the plaza. Elaborate rigging with a crane and pulleys, feet operated by direct manipulation, damn impressive. Very beautiful, too. Dazzling, in every sense of the word.
Oh yes, I love this city...
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First posted: August 1996
Last modified: April 5, 2002
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