All Ways Spain – Gaudí Barcelona

Cosmopolitan chic and deep-rooted traditions

Barcelona is dif­fer­ent” could be the con­tem­po­rary echo of the famous tourism cam­paign slo­gan of the 1960’s which told the rest of the world that “Spain is dif­fer­ent”. The dis­tinc­tive­ness that Spain was trad­ing on back then is even more keen­ly felt these days in the Cata­lan cap­i­tal in rela­tion to its neigh­bours on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la, espe­cial­ly those in Madrid. Although the cur­rent cam­paign is large­ly polit­i­cal, it is also valid in a cul­tur­al and touris­tic sense. The city is unlike any oth­er in Spain. First­ly, its geo­graph­ic posi­tion makes for a self-iden­ti­ty which is more Euro­pean than Span­ish, Barcelona being far clos­er to the French bor­der than to the near­est Span­ish region­al cap­i­tal, Zaragoza. Its his­to­ry, of a sea-far­ing state with a medieval pow­er-base in the Mediter­ranean and a series of for­eign alliances against Span­ish pre­ten­sions, has also shaped an out­wards-look­ing men­tal­i­ty. And then there is the lan­guage: on the streets of Barcelona you will most­ly hear Cata­lan, a cousin of Castil­ian Span­ish that feels like a cock­tail of Latin, French and Span­ish. Num­ber­ing around 7.5 mil­lion the Cata­lan “nation” is small enough to need to empha­sise its sense of dif­fer­ence, large enough to feel con­fi­dent in so doing.

As a result of these large dif­fer­ences, vis­i­tors to Barcelona and Cat­alo­nia in gen­er­al, find them­selves check­ing their ideas about Spain and Span­ish­ness and not­ing all the myr­i­ad lit­tle dif­fer­ences. One of these is food, where the French influ­ence is notice­able – per­haps only in the Basque Coun­try is food treat­ed with the same rev­er­ence as it is here. There is good rea­son for this, with the prox­im­i­ty of both sea and moun­tain pro­vid­ing ample fresh ingre­di­ents to turn any cui­sine into some­thing spe­cial. Barcelona may boast three times the num­ber of Miche­lin star restau­rants than Madrid and is known for its “rock-star” chefs such as Fer­ran Adrià and Joan Roca, but your aver­age Cata­lan is more con­cerned with learn­ing their mother’s way of mak­ing sofre­git — the onion and grat­ed toma­to sauce that is the essen­tial basis of many Cata­lan dish­es – or dish­es like empe­drat, a sal­ad of toma­to, onion, pep­pers, olives, white beans, and desalt­ed, raw cod, sea­soned with olive oil.

Art is and always has been close to the core of Cata­lan iden­ti­ty. In the c.19 and c.20 alone it pro­vid­ed the world with true genius in the shape of archi­tects Antoni Gaudí (author of Barcelona’s most-vis­it­ed mon­u­ment, the unfin­ished basil­i­ca of La Sagra­da Famil­ia) and Lluís Domènech i Mon­tan­er (whose con­cert hall, Palau de la Músi­ca, is a must-see) and excep­tion­al artists in Joan Miró, Sal­vador Dalí, and “adopt­ed son” Pablo Picas­so, each of whom has a gallery or muse­um ded­i­cat­ed to him in or close to the city.

The chic and avant-garde are always present in Barcelona, whether it be in the design­er bou­tiques of the ele­gant Born dis­trict or the mod­ern archi­tec­ture of Frank Gehry in the Barcelone­ta quar­ter by the Port Olímpic. Yet there is much in the Cata­lan char­ac­ter that is quite con­ser­v­a­tive, less exu­ber­ant than his Span­ish cousins, and deep-root­ed in tra­di­tion. His­to­ry, because it is linked with iden­ti­ty, is per­haps more val­ued in Cat­alo­nia and this means that in the Bar­ri Gòtic you have one of Europe’s best-pre­served medieval quar­ters where Roman walls from c.3 AD can still be seen along with a c.13 cathe­dral, La Seu, full of exquis­ite Goth­ic carv­ings, and cen­turies-old tra­di­tions like the Mer­cè Fes­ti­val still attract huge and pas­sion­ate fol­low­ings with their fire­work-wield­ing dev­ils (car­refocs), human tow­ers (castellers) and papi­er-mâché giants (gegants). And, of course, there is one pas­sion that unites all – that of FC Barcelona – whose slo­gan “Més Que Un Club” is no exag­ger­a­tion – it real­ly is more than just a foot­ball club, reach­ing deep into pop­u­lar cul­ture, local pol­i­tics, nation­al iden­ti­ty and the hearts of mil­lions of fans.