BARCELONA—When you finally know nothing in this fabled Mediterranean seaport city of five million, that is when you know everything.
Welcome to Barcelona.
Our guide through the vagaries and paradoxes of the world’s smallest big city— and the biggest small city—is José A. Peral Mondaza, intellect, historian, linguist, and all-round charmer.
José, fortyish, handsome in a bookish and bespectacled early Peter O’Toole sort of way (the non-blond O’Toole), is married to a Montreal teacher and therefore has spent time in Canada. He steers us through the medieval streets of Barri Gòtic, the gentrified pleasures of el Born (the new old city, where we have rented an apartment), the wide boulevards of the Eixample, the quiet neighborhoods of Gràcia. At the same time, he also eloquently articulates how the tangle of history, politics, and religion still complicates life here.
The politics are present in the Catalan flags draped from seemingly every balcony. You soon learn that you are not in the Spain you imagined before arriving here, but in Catalonia, the semi-autonomous state within Spain that many Catalans believe is not nearly autonomous enough.
This is a region that very much wants to be on its own, that feels betrayed by history, by the dictator Franco (who banned the Catalan language, one of many oppressors who tried to do that), and by the current Castilian-dominated Spanish government, that, according to many here, continues to go out of its way to alienate Catalans.
The long-running ill-will is exacerbated by a Nov. 25 state election, which almost certainly will lead to an independence referendum, and an economic crisis roiling the country leaving twenty-five per cent of the work force unemployed—an astonishing sixty-five per cent of young people are said to be without work.
José isn’t sure how everyone keeps going. He is as amazed as anyone that even at this non-tourist time of the year, the restaurants and cafes continue to fill with patrons tasting delicious tapas, and the throngs at noontime crowding La Rambla, the historic pedestrian mall, are as thick as ever. He believes disaster is coming, but there is no sign of it in the windows of the smart shops on the Passeig de Gràcia, the wide thoroughfare that reminds you so much of Paris. You can barely squeeze into Apple’s vast store for the crowds anxious to check out the new iPad mini.
At seven thirty, just before Cal Pep throws open its doors, the line of hopeful diners snakes across the square waiting to get into this popular tapas restaurant. Inside, a long counter seats twenty patrons at a time. The rest of us line up behind them against the wall, waiting for the next available stool. After an hour, we finally are ushered to a small table in a rear room. The tapas is great but not beyond anything available elsewhere in Barcelona without the wait.
To be sure, the situation is slightly less dire here where the Catalans have a reputation for industriousness—the rest of the country views them as the Germans of Spain. Catalonia’s outsider status is such that it is considered too far south to be north, too far north to be south. The locals grumble that the region annually sends sixteen billion Euros to the government in Madrid but doesn’t get nearly as much back.
Religion is everywhere, reminding the visitor of the grip God used to have on this country. It is most obviously represented here by the Sagrada Família, Holy Family, the magnificent cathedral that is to Barcelona what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
Even if you have seen photographs, nothing prepares for you for the electric jolt provided by the first sight of Sagrada Família’s incredible edifice. It is not only Barcelona’s but possibly the world’s, most dramatic and original testament to God, created by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, who devoted forty-three years to the cathedral (even now, it is not finished).
A deeply conservative and religious Catholic (he attended mass every day), Gaudi’s God was always present between the lines of his whimsical creations that appear to have tumbled out of a slightly cockeyed fairy tale—dreams in stone, the art critic Robert Hughes once called them.
Thus, with the aid of the insightful José, it is possible to get a deeper, more spiritual view of Gaudi’s Casa Batlló, the block of apartments dominating a corner of the Passeig de Gràcia. The bone-like columns supporting the lower stories are Gaudi’s assertion that life is fragile and comes to an end. All that keeps us going is the pleasure represented by the balconies in the shape of carnival masks.
But pleasure, Gaudi’s façade tells us, is not enough. (“Man is free to do evil,” he once said. “But he pays the price of his sins”). Pleasure leaves you finally alone as represented by a single upper window, and haunted by monsters—the scaled, undulating roof in the shape of a dragon. Finally, there is only God who can redeem the lost, lonely soul, therefore the cross rising triumphantly from the rooftop.
The architect’s employers, unable to see the God in Gaudi, were furious when they saw what his genius had wrought—begging the question of what they were doing while construction was underway. Up the street a few blocks, Senora Milà was equally unhappy when she saw what Gaudi had produced after he was hired to design an apartment complex. It was supposed to be called Casa Milà. Instead, the locals derisively nick-named it La Pedrera, the stone quarry. “I ordered a palace,” groaned Senora Milà. “Instead, I got a prison.”
Even in these extravagant times, modern architecture seldom allows for Gaudi’s delightful excesses. Standing on the sidewalk before Casa Batlló, it is difficult to imagine how such a deeply conservative man could ever have created these fantastical works of unbridled imagination—works, incidentally, that remain fascinating but unsettling (even Gaudi’s architecture school teachers were uncertain whether they had graduated a genius or a madman).
So the crowds gather daily to gawk and to wonder. Meanwhile, not far to the north, amid the descending evening calm of the Gràcia quarter, José finishes his day with us, worrying that the Madrid government might one day act as intelligently where Catalonia is concerned as the government in Canada has acted with Quebec. “If that ever happened, the separatist movement here would fall apart,” he says. His wife, he says, used to be a Quebec sovereignist; no more. However, she is very much in favor of Catalan independence.
But then such are the contractions rampant in this fascinating old city. I realize after a few days here that while I understand nothing, I still don’t know much of anything, which means that although I can be a happy visitor here, I can never be a Catalan.
Welcome to Barcelona.
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