Those lyrics reverberated throughout the globe when world renowned Spanish operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury, the leader of the rock band Queen, belted out “Amigos Para Siempre” at the opening of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
Barcelona (population 1,620,943), the second largest city in Spain after Madrid, is the capital of Catalonia. The vibrant city caters to everyone’s needs. Culture buffs seek out the Romanesque and Gothic monuments. Skiers head to the Pyrenees, a hiker’s delight in summer. Sitges in the south is a swinging coastal town attracting international jet-setters and young weekenders. Connoisseurs can sample the Penedés wine and cava in Villafranca. And last but not the least the rugged Costa Brava where once the paparazzi were in hot pursuit of tinsel town demi-gods like Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner. Under the blue Catalan skies, on the white sand, and in the thick of all the partying, Truman Capote penned his best selling novel In Cold Blood.
It is obvious from the pre-Roman coins found in the area that the Celtic–Iberian Laietan tribe had settled in Barcelona eons ago. The annals of history also refer to a city founded by Carthaginian leader Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal in 230 B.C.
When the Romans came (they first made their presence felt on the peninsula in 15 B.C.) Caesar Augustus granted the city the title of Colonia Julia Agusta Faventia Pia Barcino – Barcino for short. The famed barrio gótico figuring in the tourist literature today was once the hub of the Roman settlement.
Latin poet Decimius Magnus Ausonius wrote at length about dainty dishes from the agricultural produce cultivated in the fertile plains to the oysters gathered on the coast!
Other invaders – the Franks, the Visigoths, the Moors – did not give Catalonia a miss. There’s history aplenty here that, in many ways, has enriched Barcelona in particular and Catalonia in general,
Modernisme català stemmed from the pride of a nation in search of an identity and led to the creation of Catalan Renaixeca (Renaissance). Painters and playwrights dipped their pens and brushes into the glorious past drawing inspiration from art relating mainly to Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance forms.
Initially Modernisme was deemed to be outlandish and pretentious by many critics. However, the 1888 Universal Exhibition of Barcelona paved the way for Catalan Modernism to make its mark through Lluis Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923), a noted Catalan architect, who was commissioned to carry out a number of projects.
Antoni Gaudi (1852 – 1926) was one of the foremost artists of this arte nouveau.
Millions of tourists are drawn to this staggering unfinished ecclesial edifice envisioned by Joseph María Bocabella i Verdageur, an affluent publisher and the founder of La Asociacion Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of the Devotees of St.
Joseph). In 1872 after a visit to the Vatican Bocabella took a trip to nearby Loreto, a hill town in Marche. The pious man was struck by the natural beauty and architecture of this quaint town. On returning home he decided to erect a Gothic-style church for which he commissioned architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. However, after building a crypt Del Villar quitted, having fallen out with Joan Martorell, another eminent architect of the day. Del Villar recommended 31 year old Antoni Gaudi to take his place.
Gaudi, who had initiated his career creating lampposts for Barcelona, would devote the rest of his life to constructing the colossal Basilica which has now made him globally famous. Not only did he oversee the different stages of this intricate work of art but also raised funds and used his own money to finance it.
Gaudi, like English poet and painter William Blake, had visions of heaven and envisaged a church of the 20th century consisting of ecclesial symbols: the birth, the death and the resurrection of Christ with stained glass and mosaics. The spires in the church are Gaudi´s homage to the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family).
The Sagrada Familia, along with his other works, has gained World Heritage status.
Gaudi had moved into Casa Güell (see below) with the only surviving members of his family: his father and young niece, Rosa. He had always been a man of exquisite taste where attire and food were concerned. Nevertheless, when the immediate family members passed on he began to dress poorly and eat frugally. Eventually his home became the mammoth structure where he worked ceaselessly designing, creating and supervising the gigantic Basilica.
When Gaudi was knocked down by a tram and taken to be a vagabond he was rushed to the hospital where by chance a priest from the Basilica recognized him. The next day a massive crowd turned up for his funeral. And yet few really know the man. He deserves a biography with the caliber of Lust for Life and The Agony and the Ecstasy, both written by American bestselling writer Irving Stone about Vincent Van Gogh and Michelangelo.
A visit to this psychedelic park featured in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a must for visitors who want to get to know Gaudi and the extremes he went to in order to create a masterpiece.
Parc Güell, lying four kilometers from the Plaça de Catalunya, is a wonderland where Puff the Magic Dragon might have frolicked to his heart’s delight. It would also have been the perfect playground for the late Michael Jackson.
Count Eusebi Gúell i Bacigualupi (1846 – 1918) was an entrepreneur who had made a fortune from the industrial revolution in Catalonia in the late 19th century. He had visualized a housing complex on a rocky hill for the moneyed class. But after two houses were built the count opted to put them up for sale. Finding no buyer he approached Gaudi who purchased one of the houses with his savings.
Flights of fantasy overtook Gaudi and he came up with a fairyland to delight kids and adults alike. A salamander can be seen at the main entrance of the aborted housing project. The palm trees, caves, mansions etc. replete with hues and views are feasts for the eye. Today they keep digital cameras clicking! This fairy-tale park conjures up images of “Starry, Starry Night” rendered beautifully by the Don McLean.
For more on the Modernisme català ask at the tourism office. And be sure to check out (or check in if you have extra cash to burn!) the five star Hotel Casa Fuster, a World Heritage site.
The Palau de la Música Catalana is not to be missed either.
Parc de la Ciudatela – Built for the 1888 Universal Exposition, Spain’s first international exposition, this huge park is perfect for those who wish to take a break after so much sight-seeing. The cascade (partly designed by young Gaudi) is a piece of art by itself with lush vegetation, rugged rocks and the thunderous sound of water. Boaters can paddle on the silvery lake.
Montjuï – Enjoy the splendid views of the city from atop the low lying mountain. Have a full day visiting art galleries and other attractions like the Fundación Joan Miró up there. A chair lift helps you to get around easily.
Las Ramblas – If after taking in so many sights during the day you’re still up to it, a stroll on this boulevard will reward your eyes with kaleidoscopic views of the night that never seems to end here. Lined with trees the promenade is filled with sidewalk cafes, flowers stalls, birds in cages, kiosks, talented street artists, human statues, huskers. . .
An imposing Christopher Columbus statue majestically rises against the sky at the end of the Ramblas. The Italian explorer reported to the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, in Barcelona since they had financed his first voyage to the Americas.
Mercat de La Boquería – Wander into the La Boquería Market not only for the local flavor but also to mingle with the throng. It is an exotic
world of sounds and smells where the varied goods, the fresh fruit especially (get healthy!), make you feel you have stepped into Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra and the smiling vendors make you stay on a little longer.
Among others we sampled the authentic yummy Indian samosas, the delicious empanadas from the Asian sub-continent.
BOOK DAY, he Feste that Sets Catalonia Apart
In 1923 a book vendor in Barcelona realized that William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes (Don Quixote) died on the same date, 23rd April, 1616. The enterprising vendor came up with the idea of marrying the book with the rose on that day: a young man presents a rose to his lady love and she gives him a book, requiting his love.
There you have it, the origin of the Catalan tradition of giving book for a rose on Book Day, the 23rd of April. It’s that simple and easy!
On Book Day
Temporary stalls are set up in Las Rambles. The boulevard is decked with beautiful roses of all imaginable variety and miles of books. Lovers, young and old alike, exchange books, roses and kisses. Avid readers and tourists go book browsing. Autograph seekers go in determined search of bestselling authors. Sweet-toothed visitors feast on the typical St. Jordi cake.
BARÇA AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Spain is big on soccer and Catalonia´s Barça is the pride and joy of the region. The soccer club ranks fourth after Manchester United and Arsenal, and the second richest soccer team in the world after Real Madrid. Incidentally, Barça’s centre back Gerard Piqué has been grabbing prensa rosa headlines since his romantic involvement with Colombian pop star Shakira. They became the parents of bouncy Milan Piqué i Mebarak early this year.
As in the time of Orson Welles, Barcelona is an irresistible magnet for today’s celebrities: Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Leonardo DiCaprio . . .
More information: www.act.cat or www.catalunya.com
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