Energy – like water rushing downstream with pace is the best way to sum up the feeling of this Catalonian masterpiece. Einstein said that “the distinction between past, present, and future time is a stubborn distortion.” In Barcelona, time is a blissful blur that you might miss even as it washes over you.
Barcelona’s topography reveals the layered experience that tourists from around the world come to enjoy, especially young Europeans: the serene beaches haphazardly zoned for different modes of expression (topless, family, gay, fiesta), the central city replete with tapas bars, cafés, and narrow serpentine street ways, and the mountains that overlook Barcelona near Parc Guell – Gaudi’s colorful mosaic.
The Catalans make this city one of the friendliest, most hospitable tourist hubs in the world. Catalans are like Northern Italians in appearance and in some mannerisms. They are audible, emotional, and engaging with a good sense of humor. However, they have infinitely more self-awareness and better manners than their Italian cousins. Wherever you are in the city they eagerly help you find your way, eat good food, or find the best places to party. (Just remember that most do not speak English fluently) The Sangria, Tapas plates with Jamón or Bravas, and the Siesta adjusted day that pushes everything into the late-night hours charms visitors with Barcelona’s engrossing lifestyle.
I explained to several Catalans the American way of life. In two words – we work. Americans – like our Protestant forbears – work and work, and work. To what end and for what purpose they asked me. I could not easily answer that question. To Catalans and many Europeans, life is more about beauty than industriousness. To Americans, things are constructed for utilitarian purposes. To Europeans and especially Catalans, something may be created solely for the unique, if not sporadic vision of its author.
Few architectural gems embody this theme better than the Sagrada Familia – the Sacred Family. Thousands of tourists flock to see this immense Cathedral every summer. Like many truly ineffable works of art, the Sagrada Familia is incomplete and won’t be for decades. Antoni Gaudi’s architecture is like bringing Salvador Dali’s (also a Catalan) bizarre abstractions to physical form. It is awesome, overpowering, and mystifying. The inside is even more intriguing than the outside. A trip to Gaudi’s house and Park Guell mentioned above is worth seeing to appreciate the artistic grandeur of this enigmatic Catalan.
Like most European cities, historic sites are never far away. The Arc de Triomf – a tribute to the Olympic Games, statue of Columbus (who we now suspect was a Spaniard not an Italian), Mont Juic (the gardens and Castle), and Placa Espanya are all worth seeing. The National Museum of Catalan Art features Roman Frescoes rich with color and simple in religious messaging. Art lovers will like the Renaissance section, headlined by El Greco masterworks.
History takes a back seat in the evening. You can easily race through the city on the metro, which is punctual, inexpensive, usually crowded, and always entertaining. As you approach the beach be prepared for an onslaught of pubescent jovenes (youths) eager to dance the night away in one of the stylish night clubs on the beach. Then cruise away to La Rambla where most of the tourists in the city linger. Here you will find amazing places to eat, stores to shop, and street entertainers to enjoy.
Catalans are passionate about their city and enjoy the intense rivalry with Madrid and the rest of Spain. Catalonia remains fiercely independent in mind and spirit as recent political developments suggest. I told a cab driver that I was wavering between living in Madrid or Barcelona and he chided me with a smile for even considering Madrid. As a side note, “Barcelona breeze” is used without losing the sense of irony that the word Madrid is Arabic for “place of winds.”
It is easy to love Barcelona for its multifaceted character and lifestyle. For Americans – it is like wrapping Boston (history), San Diego (beach), and San Francisco (style and cuisine) into one spectacular city. As if knowing and appreciating the good fortune of inheriting such a place from their ancestors, the Catalans are often singing the night away in large throngs on the beach or small groups in hidden hangouts around the city. The Spaniards say Vaya con Dios, “Go with God”. In Barcelona, it is easy to imagine doing so.