It was sometime after midnight that the train I’d taken up from Rome stuttered to a stop in the dark as I tried to sleep sitting up, slowly releasing all its passengers onto a concrete walkway. Guards with machine guns directed us into a tunnel of high fencing lit in pools by spotlights.
The year was 1974. And I didn’t understand any of it.
I felt a hand brush my shoulder and I turned, finding one of the six young men who’d shared my compartment most of the way from Italy, smoking cigarettes nonstop in the closed, airless space while singing and strumming guitars to a staccato language they told me was Catalan. I didn’t know what or why that language even was, though I answered in high school Spanish. They must have forgiven me. Speaking a language that was illegal every day of their lives, they must have been used to that by now.
“Espana,” another of the young men breathed, as though that explained everything, nodding into the tunnel that seemed to disappear in the fog.
We all moved along together, with other passengers before and behind, all of us dragging our belongings till stopped by a guard demanding our passports. The guard spoke Spanish, and there was absolutely nothing the young men could do to stop him. He was speaking the country’s official language.
I was remembering my entry into Spain recently, and especially my first days in Barcelona, as I returned to the Catalan capital for the first time in more than four decades. The dictator named Francisco Franco is long dead now, as are many who in 1974 still held a bitter, visceral memory of the Spanish Civil War that brought him to power – along with his two swaggering sidekicks, the Spanish military and the Spanish Catholic Church. The war itself seems at last buried in Barcelona, the headquarters of the Soviet-supported losing side as it fought against the Nazi-supported winning side – the devil’s own boxing match, viewed by most American eyes. Today, so much of that bloodletting seems ancient history.
Speaking and writing Catalan is no longer illegal and, at least in Barcelona, Spain seems to belong within the very Europe it struggled so long and hard to avoid. Barcelona is a grand and vibrant European city, touched by romance, grace and wonder, reaching more for the larger world on the far side of the Pyrenees in France than the closed, exotic and breathless world that waits ever to its south. Slowly on that long-ago night, I came to realize the trains that roamed all over Europe did not function in Spain, where the train tracks were said to be narrower. We had to pass through Customs and board a Spanish train.
It was a nuisance, but it was also a metaphor. Spanish trains were unlike any others. They rattled more and moved less, just like the culture and the country. This hit home especially when I woke again in the dark hours later, realized all the curtains were drawn and stumbled out of the compartment into the tilting, clicking, clacking passageway. It too had drawn curtains but also a scent delightfully familiar but so unexpected that I couldn’t quite place it. I grabbed hold of the curtain and let it release quickly upward, revealing a wide open window with only miles and miles of orange groves that began inches from my face. The train was barely progressing. I could have picked an orange for breakfast without reaching, except that I was so enchanted I couldn’t move a muscle.
Though Barcelona’s history goes at least back to the Romans – and some say ancient Greek and Phoenician sailors, as it does at a few settlements along the Riviera – anyone visiting this vibrant, high-energy city today is seeing a place living almost entirely in the present. It’s not for nothing that it’s an economic juggernaut attracting young people from whatever remains of the Catalan countryside, from the rest of Spain and from other European countries.
Spain’s absorption into the EU certainly has its issues day to day, but overall economic opportunity has exploded just south of the Pyrenees. Barcelona today is a city of youth, ambition and hope; none of those are things I remember from my visit in 1974. Then it seemed a city of old people, many with serious disabilities that prevented them from holding any job beyond selling Lotto tickets or collecting a few pre-euro pesetas at a public restroom. Without doing the math, it seemed to me that most of these people had been injured during the civil war.
Walk the streets of today’s Barcelona. You will be the oldest person you see for blocks at a time. The civil war is hardly mentioned, since at last it doesn’t matter or even exist to the vast majority of the population.
For most locals, the history that matters is late 20th century and comes in threes. There is the death of Franco and the autonomy finally granted to Catalunya with Barcelona as its capital, a change reflected most publicly in the Catalan names on streets and other regional works. There is, secondly, the growth of immigration into Barcelona from the exotic but poorer regions of Spain’s south, making for additional Moorish influence in a city little touched by Spain’s 700-year Arab occupation. And finally, even if it seems a long time ago, there’s the 1992 Olympics. A global showcase for this region’s identity, the big event let the people of Barcelona work on both the infrastructure and the face they turn to the larger world. Post-Olympic Barcelona comes across as an old city, complete with smatterings of Roman wall, that is also forever fresh, new and young.
This Barcelona is, moving from the outside in, a bit like peeling back an onion. There is the former countryside away from mountains and sea, a not-very-attractive zone filled with industry and poorer housing blocks for people working in factories. Inside that is once-suburban Barcelona (colorfully known in Catalan as Eixample), a series of long-ago villages like Gracia spreading out from the Passeig (or Paseo in Spanish) de Gracia, now very much a part of the city and its youthful, often rakish vibe. Our recent stay was actually in Gracia, where the avenue rolls up from the traditional “Las Ramblas” through every high-end fashion brand known to man and especially womankind. Regular street festivals weave in music, food, drink and bohemian art, making Gracia feel like the heart and soul of Barcelona.
Yet it can’t be.
To reach the city’s true heart, not to mention its historical and touristic center known as Ciutat Vella, you need to follow Passeig de Gracia until it loops around the fountains of Plaza de Catalunya and reemerges as La Rambla (Las Ramblas in Spanish), which I remember fondly even in 1974 as a wide, graceful avenue for cafes, bars, public markets, hotels, theaters and even one famous opera house (the Gran Teatre del Liceu) until you run into a statue of Christopher Columbus gazing out to sea. It’s down here that you can turn through the restaurant-crazed Plaza Real into Barcelona’s oldest and most important area, the Gothic Quarter.
Like the greatest cultural treasures of many another city around the world, the Barri Gotic spent centuries in decrepitude. It wasn’t until the late 1920s, with its International Exhibition doing the urban renewal work of a modern Olympics, that Barcelona sent some of its best and brightest architects into the district with a budget and let them start reviving every Gothic building in sight. This sprucing up (sometimes considered “neo-gothic” and often quite extensive) is also seen now as an expression of Catalan separatist leanings, meant to promote the historical legitimacy of the region over its chewing-gum-chicken-wire attachment to a larger, more generic Spain.
Many of the buildings in the Gothic Quarter date from medieval times, indeed some as far back of the Roman epoch remembered by those pieces of ancient wall. El Call, the Jewish Quarter during the Middle Ages, is also part of this district – aligning nicely with today’s heightened interest in European Jewish travel to cities like Prague and Warsaw. Most of all, the Barri Gotic that spreads out from the spires of the Cathedral of St. Eulalia is a world of tightly woven streets, little more than alleys at times – a universe removed from the broad avenues and spacious squares we think of as being Barcelona. Peppered among family-owned boutiques and small cafes are such significant destinations as the Picasso Museum and the Museu Europeu d’Art Moderne, the latter showcasing gutsy contemporary visual works along with chamber concerts and piano recitals.
Interestingly, the same profound sense of Catalan identity that resurrected the Barri Gotic in the 1920s inspired both the existence and the main practitioners of Barcelona’s only other golden age – the so-called Modernisme of the late 19th and early 20th century. So associated with a single architect, Antoni Gaudi, that the era seems his personal property, Modenisme was a Catalan response to the color-crazed Art Nouveau appearing in other European capitals like Paris, Budapest and especially Vienna. In his lifetime, Gaudi was such a recognized leader of this movement that everything about him (including his refusal to speak any language but Catalan) became litmus tests for those following closely in his footsteps.
Walking the streets of Barcelona today, even after you visit Gaudi’s La Pedrera, Casa Battlo and the basilica he left as his singular legacy, you’d think he designed a building on practically every block – there so many Gaidi Jr.s around, led by Domenech I Montaner and Puig I Cadalfach. For practical reasons, these Modernists avoided the crush of the Gothic Quarter and sprung to new life throughout Eixample (Gracia, Sants, Sant Marti and Sant Andreu), giving us one more great reason to treat Barcelona’s “suburbs” as far more than suburbs. The earmarks of their style, from ornamental door knockers to ceramic plaques to the swirls of tile associated with the Arab World, make us think of Oz or Samarkand or Willy Wonka, or sometimes just the visions of a ‘60s hippie on LSD. Yet in the eyes of creators like Gaudi, nothing could be farther from the truth.
A fervent Catalan and a fervent Catholic, the great architect came of age among not only others in his field but writers, painters, poets and composers exploring what they could learn from nature as it was created by God. What they learned was color, to be sure, but what they took away primarily was curves. Unlike virtually every building since Egyptian and Greek conspired to turn architecture into a math problem, Gaudi and his fellow Modernists sought to liberate their buildings into something more like a forest. In Gaudi’s eyes certainly, this effort was the only respectful way to thank God for the priceless gift of nature.
As sunset nears in today’s Barcelona, you might be doing one of several things in one of several places. You might be racing to a concert in the Barri Gotic, or settling in for “gin tonics” along the Passeig de Gracia, or strolling to an opera or flamenco show along La Rambla as the strings of lights suspended from trees flick on. On our last full day before flying home, we choose to pay a visit to Gaudi’s final and most ambitious work, the Basilica of Sagrada Familia.
“Holy Family” shows off everything that Modernisme and Gaudi were about, its spires seen from miles away evoking everything familiar from Gothic cathedrals – if they’d been exposed to Timothy Leary, Peter Max and the entirety of psychedelic expression. Inside and out, every time you think you’ve fallen like Alice through a looking glass, you’re faced with hyper-respectful Catholicism, complete with an altar for Mass, side chapels full of saints and family crypts, and candles burning on every side. Yet every time you think you’re simply inside a church, Gaudi makes sure you plummet through the looking glass.
Most striking of all these visual touches, however, are the towering construction cranes that crisscross the sky among the spires. Sagrada Familia, you see, isn’t finished yet. It may be in time for the centennial of Gaudi’s death (2026) – but this being Spain, it may not be. Gaudi took quirky satisfaction from this seemingly endless project, knowing that the grand cathedrals of the distant past, like Notre Dame in Paris or Santiago in Compostella, took centuries worth of architects, foreman and laborers to complete. Perhaps Gaudi also loved reminding us that his city, his beloved Barcelona in his proud Catalunya, was always – yesterday, today and tomorrow – a work in progress.