La Rambla is a 1.3km-long, partly-pedestrianized avenue at the heart of Barcelona that is famous for its many "living statues". It connects Plaça de Catalunya in the city center with the Christopher Columbus monument on the seafront at Port Vell.
Barcelona – Long Read

Sunny city constantly reinventing itself

Photo by Kike del Olmo

Barcelona – Long Read Sunny city constantly reinventing itself

Hello Barcelona, the only city to have won a RIBA award for its architecture, which varies from the splendor of its ancient churches, through the art nouveau masterpieces of Gaudí; to the hyper-modern Torre Agbar. This sunny Mediterranean city is constantly re-inventing itself in the face of urban expansion, civil war, industrial decline, recession and now, tourist boom.

Sue Bryant
Sue Bryant Travel Writer

Barcelona weekends have a particular rhythm. Browsing Santa Caterina market for jamón, ripe peaches and cheese, followed by the first coffee of the day. Searching for a watercolor at the weekly art fair on Plaça de Pi. Listening to buskers on the waterfront. Long, late wine- and garlic-fuelled lunches in street cafes and even longer, later evenings that evolve as the mood takes you. Last night, I ended up in a basement jazz club where a jam night – the musicians more memorable for their enthusiasm than talent – was held together by a girl singer with a raspy, smoky voice and a sackload of attitude.

So it is with some surprise that I find myself playing tourist on a sunny Sunday morning to show a visiting friend the sights that first drew me to this city more than 20 years ago. It is with even more surprise that I quickly realize how much has changed. The Basilica of the Sagrada Família is swarming with tourists, a line shuffling round Europe’s most extraordinary church until it meets itself, like a snake consuming its own tail. A thousand selfies are being snapped, visitors grinning into their iPhones, Gaudí’s soaring spires and the yellow cranes of this perpetual construction site as a backdrop.

Disappointed at my bad planning but still keen to pay homage to Barcelona’s most famous son, we move on to Park Güell, where there are more Gaudí buildings and breathtaking vistas across the city. Although this imaginative, early 20th century housing development in the swish Gracia district was never completed, the hilltop park is today a Unesco World Heritage Site, thanks to the magic touch of the great architect.

It is swamped by a tsunami of people

When I came here 20 years ago, I lounged on the Wave Bench, an exquisite stone parapet encrusted with millions of mosaics, undulating like a serpent around a raised platform overlooking the entire city. I drank coffee and read the Sunday papers in the sunshine. Today, it is a different story. The park is seething with tour groups, pouring off coaches in a relentless stream. Gaudí’s mosaic dragon statue, one of the great icons of Barcelona, is completely consumed, with people clambering on its back, mashing their faces up against its reptilian smile, flinging their arms around it for more pictures. The Wave Bench itself is not even visible. It is swamped by a tsunami of people.

Dismayed, I gaze through the crowd, out across the city, the dead straight, leafy boulevards of the 19th century Eixample district forming a perfect criss-cross pattern, the jumble of the Gothic Quarter throwing a blob of chaos into the order, the Mediterranean glinting blue beyond. And I wonder, what has happened? Has Barcelona become a victim of its own success?

“We’re strangers in our own town,” complains a local tour guide who cannot be named as they are not supposed to discuss politics. “There are just too many tourists. The government just wants money. What you see here is the most aggressive form of tourism.”

Perhaps. But maybe what I am also seeing is just another phase of Barcelona’s constant reinvention of itself; something it has done for centuries in the face of urban expansion, civil war, industrial decline, recession and now, tourist boom. Just over two decades ago, this was an industrial port town with little tourist industry. It sprawled sullenly along the Catalan coastline with its back to the sea, the waterfront occupied by the dockyards. Grim railway sidings separated the city from the Mediterranean. Factories poured their waste into the water.

What changed everything was the 1992 Olympic Games

Today, Barcelona is one of Europe’s most successful cities in terms of tourism: a center for the arts, for sport, for gastronomy. What changed everything this time round, it is widely acknowledged, was the 1992 Olympic Games. This was the pivotal event that stopped Barcelona looking inwardly, towards the mountains, and turned it around to embrace the water and the future. Architect Richard Rogers wrote in Britain’s Guardian newspaper of the transformation: “Barcelona has become the most confident city in the western world in terms of urban regeneration… It was ultimately successful because it used the Games as a catalyst for improving the life of the city and of the nation.”

This sentiment of a new vision is conveyed in a six-meter tall bronze, El Cul (“The Bottom”) of some curvy legs and a pair of buttocks in a small park near the Olympic Marina. The figure could face either way – the mountains, or the sea. The statue is supposed to signify this new choice and opportunity brought by the Games, although its sculptor, Eduardo Úrculo, more prosaically said he was pleased “Barcelona was the first Western city to have a monument dedicated to the bottom”.

Ask any local what their favorite Barcelona building is and there is a strong chance they will say the Palau de Musica Catalana, a Catalan music hall in La Ribera, the old city, built by Lluis Domènech i Muntaner between 1905 and 1908. Described variously as a ‘magical music box’ or a ‘Gothic fairytale’, the auditorium is the only one in Europe to be illuminated entirely by daylight, a vast and intricate skylight resembling the sun at its center and graceful stained glass windows around the organ pipes filtering colored rays. The stage surround is jampacked with imagery, framed by winged horses, Valkyries, palm trees, flowers, fruits and busts of Beethoven and Anselm Clavé, a choral director who was instrumental in keeping Catalan folk songs alive.

The Palau today offers Catalan music and dance, folk and choral music (it was built for a local choir, the Orfeó Català) and performing in it is considered as prestigious as in the much posher Liceu opera house because of its pure Catalan roots. Discount tickets are often available on the day of a performance but at the very least, sneak a peak into the gorgeous vestibule, a fantasy of marble staircases, gold glass balustrades and ornate columns.

Everybody wanted a piece of Barcelona

Whichever way you see it, those iconic images from 1992 of high divers poised on the top board at the Olympic pool on Montjuïc hill, the whole of the city stretched out below them, imbued the city with both glamour and passion. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of Barcelona. Buildings were cleaned up. Cruise ships began to arrive in the port. Futuristic new galleries opened. Visitors flocked to La Rambla, the famous boulevard that extends from the city center to the waterfront, for promenading and people-watching. The factories that once polluted the sea had long since moved further north to make way for swish hotels, the Port Olímpic and urban beaches of artificial sand, their EU blue flags fluttering in the breeze.

Change has been rapid. “When I arrived 13 years ago, Barcelona was still riding high on the crest of the Olympic wave,” says British expat Tony Anagor, who loved the city so much he stayed, married a local and set up a business, Lifestyle DMC, organizing activities and events for the friends who came to visit again and again. “The city constantly reinvents itself. Every year, you’ll find something new. Every barrio has its own little party or festival, things you just stumble across, things you never knew about before,” he says.

Of course, Spain’s financial woes cannot be ignored and, away from the tourist centers, there are glimpses of despair; a businessman begging in a suit; teenagers with empty eyes, skateboarding listlessly in bleak housing estates. “Whereas the US and the UK have moved on to an extent from the last financial crisis, people here still use the word ‘crisis’,” says Anagor. “A lot of people lost their jobs but what it meant was that they took the opportunity to branch out. The city is full of one-man-bands now, doing their own creative things.”

But are the locals really strangers in their own town? “Owning” the city is important to Barcelonins. People here do not entertain at home (many of them have no yards, for a start); they meet for tapas, for drinks, for dinner, for the beach. It is completely normal not to know exactly where your closest friends live, just in which district. Residents certainly feel they have been driven away from La Rambla. “Now, we only come here on April 23, to celebrate St George’s Day,” says one [St George is the patron saint of Catalunya]. “Other than that, we wouldn’t be seen dead here, especially in summer.”

Aplace of trading since the medieval period

It is a sad truth that La Rambla is no longer a place for local color. The boulevard used to be informally divided into sections, lined variously with flower stalls, booths selling exotic caged birds and pets, bookstalls and entertainers. It has been a place of trading since the medieval period, when market stalls sprung up outside the city walls, in a location where they did not have to pay tax. But these areas have now merged into one long stream of tourist tat, identikit restaurants offering set-piece tapas from laminated plastic menus with pictures of the food. Glorious buildings line the boulevard: the Liceu opera house, the Boqueria food market, wonderful old palaces with intricate art deco designs on their facades. But the locals have moved on, favoring the waterfront and Barceloneta over a shuffling mass of tourists, go-go bars and bad art.

Keen to reconnect with local life, I head for the beach, which, it being a sunny Sunday afternoon, is just as packed. But there is a different energy here. Every conceivable form of transport is whizzing up and down the promenade in the cycle lanes. Bicycles, rollerblades, skateboards, electric scooters, Segways – it is a constant stream of traffic. Whole family groups,

grandma in a wheelchair, baby in a buggy, kids scampering around, parade along the promenade, each group escorted by an improbable dog, from the tiniest rat-like handbag dogs to slavering Dobermans and a pair of matched boy-girl bull terriers in pink and blue dog outfits. Image is all-important in Barcelona and dog choice is just one form of individuality.

Barceloneta, the old fishermen’s quarter, is another tale of reinvention. It was built in the 18th century when the fishermen’s houses in what is now Parc de la Ciutadella were destroyed to make way for a new citadel. The fishermen were relocated to this mean little spit of land jutting out into the sea. Planned on a grid system in a similar, but much humbler style of the later, 19th century Eixample, this suburb still echoes its earlier poverty, the dark streets festooned with washing hanging from grimy balconies. Desperate pot plants on each veranda struggle to reach the light in alleys so narrow that the sun never hits the cobblestones. Patriotic Catalan flags add flashes of red and yellow to the gloom.

The sweet scent of marijuana wafting through the air

But while Barceloneta was once a place tourists feared to tread, it has changed. Not exactly gentrified, as the houses are just too cramped, but edgy now, and hip. Hole-in-the-wall bars promise organic tapas, while some tantalizingly offer absinthe shots. On this Sunday afternoon, music thumps out of one bar, drinkers spilling cheerfully onto the street, the sweet scent of marijuana wafting through the warm afternoon air. Thanks to the Olympics, an enticing stretch of yellow, sandy urban beach now serves as Barceloneta’s waterfront. The residents are now a stone’s throw from beach volleyball pitches, lounge bars on the sand, outdoor gyms and miles of promenade.

The irony is, of course, that having already been displaced 250 years ago, the fishing community has once more been partly uprooted as the front line of old houses had to be removed to create the promenade and the beach in 1992. A curious installation by artist Rebecca Horn, L’Estel Ferit (The Wounded Shooting Star), sits on the sand as a defiant memorial; four rusting cubes piled higgledy piggledy on top of one another, light shining through their grimy windows, a memory of the wonky buildings and old xiringuitos (beach shacks) of the original Barceloneta. An even more poignant twist is that the artificial sand sparkles with color. It is not actually pure sand but the crushed-up fishermen’s houses, ground down to create the beach, imbued with the karma of generations of fishing families.

I take a pedicab back to the center. “I love this area,” says Dino, the Romanian driver. “It’s close to the beach, the Parc Ciutadella, the bars. Not like La Rambla; it’s crazy there, especially at night.” We pass Roy Lichtenstein’s El Cap de Barcelona (Barcelona Head) statue, installed for the Olympics, perched in the middle of a roundabout on the waterfront. Like everything here, the statue is layered with meaning. It is not just a fine example of Lichtenstein’s pop art but a tribute to the great artists of the city; the bright reds, blues and yellows of Miró, the angular lines of Picasso, the tile-work of Gaudí.

The curve of the legendary dragon’s back

This trio helped shape Barcelona’s artistic scene. Miró and Picasso are remembered in two of the city’s most successful galleries and have left their legacy on the streets, too. On La Rambla, I walk over a giant Miró pavement mosaic while the exterior of the College of Architects in the Gothic quarter is adorned by a huge frieze of a sketch drawn by Picasso. But it is Gaudí who left arguably the biggest mark in his outrageous wavy buildings, dotted around the Eixample.

In the 19th century, when the city was expanded in a grid system of wide, elegant boulevards, wealthy patrons gave up-and-coming architects a free rein to design statement houses, resulting in a mish-mash of styles; a merging of nature, art and Catalan symbolism. Gaudí’s Casa Batlló on Passeig de Gracia attracts the biggest crowds. A tribute to St George, its shimmering, blue-tiled roof is the curve of the legendary dragon’s back, the windows its eyes and the bone-like balcony railings the carcasses of its victims.

The Sagrada Família is the city’s crowning glory. I do eventually peep inside and it is like staring up at the canopy of some giant mythical forest, the columns resembling slender, bleached-out trees, rainbow colors streaming through the stained glass windows. “It’s the single most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” says an American visitor. “I have erased every other church from my memory now I’ve seen this.”

How much more impressed would she be if she knew the gargantuan structure is still only half the size the architect intended? Gaudí was run over by a streetcar fairly soon after construction had begun and never saw his dream of a people’s cathedral realized. His supporters have tirelessly raised funds with a completion date of some time around 2026 now scheduled. “It’s good business for Barcelona for the Sagrada Familia to be a never-ending project,” says Marc, who runs city cycling tours. “We have a typical phrase here, that if something seems as though it will never be finished, it’s a ‘Sagrada Família’ project.”

Sugar-dusted doughnuts to be dunked in hot chocolate

Unfinished business is nothing new for Barcelona; La Seu, the Gothic cathedral, took 600 years to complete. It is dedicated to Santa Eularia, a 13-year old shepherdess who was murdered in the fourth century by the Romans for her Christian beliefs, put through 13 unspeakably horrible tortures, culminating in decapitation. Today, 13 pure white geese, symbolizing her age, her virginity and the number of tortures, inhabit the leafy cloister, honking furiously at camera-toting tourists. “The reality is, the geese have always been used as watchdogs as they’re so aggressive and violent,” says Oliver, the cathedral guide.

The square in front of the cathedral, a focal point of the city, is a hubbub of activity. Stalls are being constructed for a forthcoming festival of Catalan food. Beggars circulate, hoping to inspire the devout into giving. The haunting strains of a busking harpist echo among the hammering of the workmen. A human statue poses for the milling tourists, dressed as a silver angel but looking like a drag queen in a net curtain.

We move deep into the Gothic quarter. Away from the stalls selling fake Barca football shirts and plastic Gaudí dragon key rings, the shops take on a more authentic feel. We wander down Carrer Petritxol, a dark little street lined with several ancient granjas, or dairy shops. Fresh churros, long strings of sugar-dusted doughnuts to be dunked in hot chocolate as thick as custard, are piled high in the windows. “This is where our grandparents used to bring us on Sundays,” says Oliver. “Everybody my age has happy memories of this street.”

But the tiny shops are often surviving on outdated rental agreements and once their contracts run out, the rent rockets. Stores shut down and churros make way for Dunkin’ Donuts. Barcelona, like many other cities around the world, is becoming homogenized, just at a time when Catalan identity and independence are more in the minds of locals than ever. “Spain has four original languages by constitution,” says Oliver [Castillian, Basque, Catalan and Galician]. “In every part of Spain you find different languages, different customs, different food, different people. And yet everybody thinks we kill bulls, dance Flamenco, eat paella and drink Sangria.”

Walls are still pockmarked where a bomb exploded in 1938

Parts of Barcelona are very much a reminder of the Catalan struggle. Outside the church of Santa Maria del Mar, a rust-coloured metal sculpture looms over a tiled square, an eternal flame burning at its pinnacle, recalling the resistance from the Wars of Succession, in which 5,000 Catalan soldiers died. In the quiet little square of Plaça St Felipe Neri, the walls are still pockmarked where a bomb exploded in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, killing 42 people, mostly children, who were sheltering in the church.

Just 12 years before, Gaudí was killed on his way to worship here. The square outside is beautiful, but there remains an aura of melancholy, not least in the Museu de Calcat on one side, a dusty and very closed-looking building housing the city’s shoe museum. Despite the fact that one of the exhibits is a shoe belonging to Columbus himself, it is Barcelona’s least successful museum, 60th on the list. The most popular is the football museum at Camp Nou, home of Barcelona FC.

So what of the future for this ever-changing city? Although most of Barcelona’s stories take place at street level, new symbols continue to mold the city’s skyline. The curved glass tower of the W Hotel, dominating the waterfront by the cruise port, is shaped like a vast, billowing sail. Although designed by a local architect, Ricardo Bofill, it is reminiscent of Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, the self-styled, seven-star hotel that epitomizes excess; like the W, a concept that seems strangely out of place in this city of working class roots.

A more fitting symbol is the new Torre Agbar, towering over the [email protected] district, an area north of the center hoping to reinvent itself as Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley. The pinecone-shaped skyscraper is supposed to resemble a geyser, drenched in colored light after sunset, and at the same time, the wind-smoothed rocks of the nearby mountains of Montserrat, embracing nature in an open nod to Gaudí. I gaze up at the shimmering glass. The tower “has many names, not all of them polite,” says Marc, but I love it; its symbolic connection between the past and whatever the future may bring.

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