If you’re boning up on your Spanish for a visit to the capital of Catalunya, you may be wasting your time. The people of Barcelona, are proudly, happily and defiantly Catalan.
Barcelona is a city my soul could comfortably settle into, for a lot of reasons.
It’s Spain’s second largest city with a population of not quite 2 million people, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming in the manner of, say, New York or Tokyo or Mexico City. You feel at home in your first five minutes.
Broad boulevards link clusters of neighborhoods of tree-lined streets with storefront shops, cafes, bars. It’s also right on the Mediterranean, with a modernized, people-friendly shoreline and marina. When you’ve lived all your life on or near water as I have, that’s automatic bonus points.
It’s also one of the biggest cruise ports in Europe, with luxurious cruise ships and basic-but-comfortable sea ferries plying both sides of the Med as far east as Greece, Israel and Turkey.
A diverse, cosmopolitan, highly educated population. Young, energetic and sexy. An extensive network of subways, buses and taxis that makes it ridiculously easy to get around. Great food from all over the region and beyond. Nightlife that will drink and dance you under the table, and then drag you back out for more.
One of the world’s great soccer teams, FC Barcelona, plays here in their globally famous stadium, Camp Nou. More on the rivalry part later.
If you’ve got an eye for architecture, Barcelona may wear you out. Centuries’ worth of history is represented in the grim stones of the Barre Gotic. Modern Barcelona may be best represented by the Torre Agbar, a massive, multi-hued, bullet-shaped high-rise overlooking the city shoreline, with an unrivaled 360-degree view of the city and the Med.
But don’t start getting ideas. It’s strictly an office tower. No condos. What a shame.
In truth, though, Barcelona is all but a shrine to Antoni Gaudí. He left seven of his buildings standing in or near this city, and every one of them is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If that’s not a record for a single individual architect, he’s got to be a member of a very small graduating class.
His grand master work, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is Gaudí’s signature in stone on the skyline of Barcelona.
Gaudí had a way of blending nature, religion and architecture like no one else. No photo or video can truly convey the size, scale or grandeur of this place.
You’ll have to endure non-stop mobs and you’ll have to pay to get in, but it’s worth it, if only for the people-watching, because people from everywhere come to see this church.
So Barcelona’s got just about everything you could ask for in a European destination. But it’s also got something extra: Attitude.
CATALAN FIRST, SPANISH SECOND
This city officially is a part of Spain. Just try not to say that out loud to anybody while you’re here. Most Barcelona residents are Catalan first and Spanish second. A very distant second. They live, breathe and speak Catalan. But you’re in Spain and you speak Spanish, so you’re good, right?
Maybe not. Folks here prefer to speak Catalan. They also speak Spanish; they’re just very good at politely pretending that they don’t.
They will gladly communicate with you in English, or French, or Arabic, or Mandarin, maybe even Martian. Almost anything, it seems, except Spanish. Some bitter history explains why. There have been several attempts over the ages to grind Catalan culture into the dust.
The worst was probably after the Spanish Civil War. Catalunya had held out the longest against the fascist general Francisco Franco. When he finally won, he all but made being Catalan illegal, even to the point of banning the christening of babies with Catalan names. For 40 years, anyone who openly “repped” their Catalan heritage risked arrest, imprisonment and much, much worse.
The locals had to take their traditions underground to maintain them, but maintain them they did. Franco eventually died. The Catalan way of life did not.
And here in Barcelona, they’ve been flaunting it ever since, a kind “in your face” to the rest of Spain.
That ongoing antagonism between Spain and Catalunya gets played out every year when two of the world’s best soccer teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, face off in an ongoing series known simply as El Clásico.
This rivalry has so many moving parts that the sporting side of it almost takes a backseat. It’s regional. It’s political. It’s cultural. Spanish nationalism versus Catalan pride. This is not a game. This is a war based on a round ball and a couple of nets. Prisoners will not be taken.
But for sheer, passionate spectacle, a matchup between these two at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium is hard to top.
Spain has an almost endless number of fun, beautiful, historic destinations, but if you’re a first-timer to España, I’d recommend Barcelona.
Even if you feel you’re only marginally in Spain.
IF YOU GO
Barcelona is well served from North America by air. Once in Europe, you can easily reach the city by air, road, rail or cruise ship.
From the US, you can fly directly into Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN), or fly into Paris and then spin a lovely 6-hour ride via high-speed train through French and Spanish countryside down to Barcelona. You could do it as an “open-jaw” trip, flying into Paris and out of Barcelona, or vice versa.
Lodging ranges from airbnb-cheap to 5-star luxury. Don’t expect bargains during Barcelona’s hot, humid and tourist-packed summers.
Between the extensive subway and bus system and the plentiful black-and-yellow taxis that often seem to be waiting on every street corner, you’ll have little trouble getting around. Also, a lot of people ride bikes here, many taking advantage of the city’s Bicing program, which lets residents borrow a red-and-white bicycle. Return it in 30 minutes or less and it’s free.
Locals will warn you about pickpockets. Heed the warnings, particularly in summer, when dense packs of tourists make easy targets for the light-fingered set. You’ll see a lot of locals and veteran visitors walking around with small messenger bags slung over their shoulders, kept closed and in front of them. A good example to follow.
One of the world’s major Christian pilgrimage sites, Montserrat, is an easy, spectacular ride away by light rail.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.