Robert Elms lived in Barcelona in the 1980s as it emerged from Franco’s long shadow. Here, in a love letter to the Catalan capital in the wake of Europe’s latest terrorist atrocity, he tells the story of a unique city.
For me Barcelona is the greatest European city of them all. It isn’t the greatest Spanish city, because it doesn’t want to be. Madrid is the undeniable capital of that unique country, a truly Iberian metropolis of bulls and duende, a dark, garrulous and fervently nocturnal town at the very centre and very heart of the nation. Sevilla is Spain’s most ravishing beauty, a high stepping show-girl of a city, with elegant southern manners and elaborate Mudejar architecture. Cordoba and Granada are richly redolent with history, Moorish and mystical. But Barcelona is something else, a city apart, separate from its neighbours, talking in a different tongue and dancing to a different drum, marked out by not really being Spanish at all, but enthusiastically, quintessentially, European. Paris and Prague are arguably prettier and grander than the Catalan capital, but Paris is now so relentlessly bourgeois, so exclusively French, as to be parochial, while Prague is out on a Mittel-European limb, somewhat lost somewhere in its 19th century heyday. Berlin is currently rocking but still in recovery from all its traumas, Rome is ancient and captivating but largely irrelevant, London sadly has been forced to opt out, while Brussels is fit only for bureaucrats. But Barcelona, wedged wonderfully between the mountains and the sea, blessed by climate and geography, its hinterland straddling two great nations, with a language which combines both and a history which bows down to neither, is cultured, cosmopolitan and confident, a thriving intellectual and artistic centre which rightly believes it is at the epicentre of European life. It is so profoundly and proudly European precisely because it turns its back on Spain. Aerial image of Sargrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo: AirPano.com/Cover Images
When I first went to live in this tumultuous Mediterranean town in the mid-1980s it was still raucously emerging from its shell, or rather its shroud. Because Barcelona had been such a staunch anti-Fascist bastion during, and even after the civil war, the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco decided to punish this rebellious, querulous, Catalan town by cutting it off and closing it down. Madrid was his chosen city and Real Madrid his football team, so their bitter rivals in every sense were frozen out and forsaken. Starved of investment, robbed of influence, denied their cultural heritage and forbidden from speaking their own ancient language even in private. Barcelona was dead to the Caudillo, and he pulled a cover over its coffin for nearly 40 years. But because of that it emerged from the dictatorship defiant and remarkably unspoilt, a perfectly intact art nouveau masterpiece with a fascinating medieval core. At that stage it was also pretty much undiscovered, a fabled lost city. So they hosted the Olympics, threw a party and invited everyone. And they’re still arriving. The extraordinary popularity of Barcelona as a 21st century tourist mecca has certainly been both a blessing and a curse. There have been many complaints from locals of late about the fact that their town has been taken away from them, swamped by visitors eager to carve the Barca notch on their traveller’s bedpost. The whole world wants to see the Gaudi; Parc Guell, Casa Batllo, La Sagrada Familia, visit the Camp Nou, get lost in the Gothic Quarter and get ripped off on the Ramblas. Yet when I first arrived at La Rambla more than 30 years ago you could wander that charismatic if shabby thoroughfare at your leisure with no crowds to be seen, take a cervesa or a glass of cava for a few pesetas in a modernista bar which hadn’t been packed since the anarchist militias drank there during the civil war and take your pick of the wonderfully cheap, elegantly unreconstructed hotels that lined those labyrinthine back streets. Aerial view of Las Ramblas. Photo: Cover Images
If any deranged fanatics had driven a vehicle with murderous intent down La Rambla back then, they would have struggled to find a victim. But today of course it is one of the most famous, crowded and internationally popular streets in the world, a magnet for those wishing to experience that unique Barcelona atmosphere. Which is precisely why it became a target for the Jihadist cowards out to murder as many nationalities and gather as much global notoriety as possible. They injured more than 100 people from more than 30 different countries amid the flower stalls and street cafes, including 14 tragically murdered as I write. But they certainly won’t kill Barcelona’s indomitable spirit. To understand the spirit and indeed the soul of this intriguing city, you have to grasp a little of its history. It acts and feels like a capital, because in the minds of many of its people it is one, the head of a proud and distinct nation which stretches deep into France and whose influence once wrapped right around the Mediterranean and beyond. It was originally a Roman settlement, which in Medieval times rivalled Genoa and Venice in fame, reach and grandeur, creating the elaborate Barri Gotic, with its palaces, churches and Cathedral, which so many visitors are attracted to now. All this, while the current Spanish capital was little more than a dusty pueblo. Madrid today is still profoundly Spanish; mono-cultural, monolingual, insular, landlocked in the middle of the peninsular, keeper of that darkly conservative Castilian flame, and fascinating because of it. Barca, by contrast, was always outward-looking, a global port town, trading internationally and culturally closer to Paris than its southern neighbours. Indeed, back not so long ago, when Spanish roads and trains were terrible, it was quicker to get from Barcelona to Paris than it was to the distant Spanish capital. Casa Batllo by architect Antoni Gaudi. Photo: Marc Soler
So they always had a distinctly European attitude, focused beyond the Pyrenees, interested in the new and innovative, the exciting and avant-garde. And they had the money to invest in fabulous design, art and architecture. Rather like Edinburgh, another great Northern city – the de facto capital of a would-be independent nation – Barcelona is built on financial acumen. The Catalans, like the Scots have a reputation for being good (maybe even a touch frugal) with money and so the banking and financial sector, indeed a vast percentage of Spain’s business interests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were based in Barcelona. The Catalans are also, by comparison with their more laid back and languorous country folk, hard working and serious. So a wealthy, sophisticated, cosmopolitan Catalan mercantile class emerged, eager to display their affluence and modernity by commissioning the most radical architects and designers to make mansions, apartment blocks, churches and parks. They created Eixample, or the extension, the fabulous modernista new-town ranging beyond the old city walls. This is a rationally ordered grid of wide, elegant boulevards, like Passeig de Gracia and Avinguda Diagonal, lined with elaborate monuments, not just by the mighty Antoni Gaudi, but such illustrious Catalan architects as Domenech, Puig and Sagnier. They also encouraged young artists, including Picasso (studying there from the deep south), Miro, Dali and later the marvellous Antoni Tapies, to be as creative, free-thinking and far-reaching as possible, an incredible artistic legacy which still thrives today. When Spain finally became a democracy again after 1975, one of the first acts of the elected Barcelonan authorities was to commission a series of striking public artworks from the luminary likes of Lichtenstein, Botero and the then surviving Joan Miro. Barcelona was back. All of this is a product of what the locals call ‘seny’. It’s a unique word meaning something like wisdom, common sense or level-headedness, a kind of canny Catalan nous. It provides the serious, successful air of modern, business-like Barcelona, making it an efficient, affluent, well functioning town. Seny is one very distinct half of the Catalan character, but it is thankfully counterbalanced by another Catalan word ‘rauxa’. Think of this perhaps as ‘rush’, or maybe ‘rage’, a wild abandoned, almost narcotic rush to the head, a febrile delight in letting go and going wild. These two words perfectly capture the Catalan split personality, a bi-polar swing between sensible seny and outrageous rauxa. It is a deeply attractive combination of characteristics, efficient yet exuberant. Francisco Franco (1892-1975). Photo: World History Archive
It was rauxa, which made Barca the world centre of anarchism, known as ‘the rose of fire’, the most staunch and wildly heroic defenders of the Republic. It was seny, which meant that even the anarchists famously made sure the trains ran on time when they controlled the town. When I first lived there, you could still regularly see groups of old anarchist warriors, wearing their black and red colours, remembering the Durutti Column and the anti-authoritarian struggle. They would meet at Placa Catalunya, exactly where the terrorist outrage just occurred, to swap stories of their amazing wartime exploits. It’s also rauxa which makes Barcelona such a party town. (Don’t forget Ibiza is a Catalan island). All Spain had a fiesta when Franco finally died, but the party in Barcelona was more than a decade of sublime decadence, celebrating freedom by enjoying music, drugs, nightlife, sex and sexuality of all kinds, all night, every night with wild abandon. Yet when they hosted the Olympics, they did so with consummate acumen and efficiency, a model for the modern games, an exercise in seny for all the world to see. Barcelona FC, perhaps their most famous ambassadors, are also a combination of the two, a remarkably tight ship of a team, yet run as a people’s co-operative, democracy in action. As they say in their motto Barca is ‘Mes Que un club’, more than a club, the very embodiment of the Catalan people, their history and their city. And when their club beat the hated Real Madrid, it is a victory for Catalunya over Espana and the entire town goes positively bonkers. The opening ceremony at Montjuic Stadium as Barcelona hosts the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Photo: Michel Gangne/AFP/Getty Images
Some of that old anarchist rauxa was revealed recently when there were reports of minor attacks on tourist targets, throwing eggs, puncturing tyres, spraying graffiti, by small groups of angry locals. Locals have genuine concerns about the way their city has been taken over and changed by tourism, pushing people out of the centre of town, their homes replaced by Airbnb cash cows, their beaches at Barceloneta overcrowded beyond tolerance throughout the summer, their prices hiked, their culture sold. The problems facing this great city are far from unique, Venice and Dubrovnik have seen similar concerns as they suffer a seasonal tsunami of tourism. And now Barcelona also has to face up to the fact that it is a target for evil terrorists as well as eager tourists. But it will. This beautiful, elegant town is big enough and old enough and above all resilient enough to bounce back from the shock of this terrible attack and the attrition of too many visitors, both of which are essentially a sign of its extraordinary success. Barcelona has a cultural spine, which survived everything fascism could throw at it, a Catalan character, which makes it such an intriguing, enchanting place. Go out of season, get out of the tourist traps, away from the living statues and the rip-off prices and walk up to gracious Gracia, where the well-heeled locals live, or onto Montjuic, scene of those Olympic glories and look back down upon this fantastic town arrayed before you, take in its history and its glory and enjoy the fact that you are in perhaps the greatest European city of them all. Robert Elms is a writer and broadcaster