A Catalonian Paris

Every European city boasts its own special artistry and charm. Spain’s Barcelona gives testimony to the traditional culture that was 16th-century Catalonia.

November 1 1987 by Loyd Grossman


As the International Olympics Committee narrowed its choices for the site of the 1992 games, smart money was backing Paris or Barcelona. When Barcelona won, it was no surprise to people in-the-know. This city-so glowingly described by Cervantes as a “place of faithful friendship, unique in setting and beauty” has emerged as one of the most exciting places in Europe. The 1992 Olympics will set the seal on a process that has made Barcelona-as many would claim-the European city par excellence of the late 20th century. Fame, power and prosperity are no strangers to this city-merely long, absent friends.

For centuries after its foundation by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s father), Barcelona was one of the dominant ports of the Mediterranean. After becoming capital of the barbarian Visigoths in the fifth century, Barcelona dominated the surrounding region of Catalonia, which rose to riches and influence throughout the Middle Ages. Although Ferdinand and Isabella received Columbus in the Palau Reial Major in Barcelona on his return from the New World, the age of discovery signaled the decline of Barcelona and Catalonia, as trade routes shifted to the Atlantic.

Barcelona slumbered until the mid-19th century when industrialization kicked off a boom which saw the city expand by fivefold in 50 years. The post-Franco years have been boomtime too, with the newly revived Spanish monarchy allowing a resurgence of Catalonian culture. Catalonia, it must be remembered, has its own language, arts, cooking and traditions. Barcelona, once again, is very much the capital of Catalonia.

Spanish entry into the Common Market has caused a commercial renaissance in Barcelona and the city is a thriving center of manufacturing, banking, trade fairs, publishing and the newly emergent, Spanish fashion industry. To an extent, it has the flavor of London in the swinging ’60s-a city bursting with exuberant creativity which is proving a magnet to European youth.

There is a profound history and culture that underlies this contemporary buzz. On the drive in from the airport, greater Barcelona looks generic, southern-European urban -dust, palm trees, apartment blocks, signs plugging Michelin, Zanussi and other ubiquitous Euro-products. Then, suddenly (El Prat de Llobregat airport is less than nine miles from the city), you’re in a townscape of broad tree-lined avenues, grand stone buildings and elaborate wrought-iron balconies. Further toward the center of Barcelona, this turn-of-the-century city melts into the romantic mystery of the medieval quarter and the steamy exoticism of the port. Like all great cities, Barcelona offers manifold pleasures and surprising juxtapositions.

The best introduction to Barcelona is probably a stroll up the Ramblas-the long, meandering set of streets built over the stream that runs just outside the medieval city walls. Starting from the port and walking north, you’ll pass through a zone of seedy sailor’s bars, prostitutes, street performers and peddlars, into a colorful whirlwind of sidewalk cafes and markets selling pets and flowers whereyou can buy an orchid, a toucan or a monkey. You’ll pass the Liceu Theatre-one of the largest (3,500 seats) opera houses in Europe-and the arcaded 19th-century Saint Joseph’s market, with its stallfulls of olives, nuts and cheeses. Finally, you’ll end up in the Placa de Catalunyaa vast, urban square bordered by banks and department stores. For some visitors, the Ramblas are the soul of Barcelona; I prefer the narrow streets and irregular squares of the Barri Gotio-the medieval core centered around the great, gloomy cathedral. The Placa Nova and the Placa de la Seu in front of the cathedral are often throbbing with activity-concerts at fiesta time and traders selling local ceramics. The inside of the cathedral is grave and majestic. There is a splendid choir where many of the crowned heads of Europe gathered for the meeting of the chapter of the Knights of the Golden Fleece in 1514 (their coats of arms are painted on the choir stalls) and, masterpieces of Catalonian religious art like the crucifix, which Don Juan de Austria carried on his flagship when Moslem sea power was decisively broken at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. The 14th-century cathedral cloister is planted with palm trees and inhabited by a flock of white geese. Even the most aimless wander from the cathedral will take you past tiny shops selling antiques, pottery, or marbled paper; intriguing bars; dozing restaurants and museums both essential (City History Museum), and eccentric (Federico Mares Museum). Of course, everywhere there is thrilling Gothic architecture.

Indeed, Barcelona is very much a city for the lover of architecture. The art-nouveau architect, Antoni Gaudi (18521926), is perhaps Barcelona’s most famous, celebrated for his boldly progressive vision. You may like or hate Gaudi’s buildings, but they are among the finest imaginative works of art of the 20th century. No visitor to Barcelona should miss the unfinished church of the Sagrada Familia or the Casa Mila or Casa Batllo houses. The city of Gaudi was one of the cradles of modern art, home to Miro and the young Picasso, both of whom inspired museums here -the Fundacio Miro and the Picasso Museum. Close to the Miro Museum in Montjuic Park, is the Museum of Art of Catalonia, a rambling and magnificent collection of medieval frescos, paintings, sculpture and artifacts.

If it all sounds fearfully highbrow, remember that the heart of this enthralling city is in its streets and squares and in the hundreds of little bars where you can sit with an icy cold, dry sherry and a plate of olives and watch the millennia of Barcelona life swirl around you.


DINING

Barcelona is well endowed with excellent restaurants. Set in the back garden of a 19th-century villa, Azulete (Via Augusta 281, tel: 203-5943) has been patronized by King Juan Carlos and features stylish modern cuisine inspired by traditional Catalan cooking. Correct waiters in black waistcoats serve up splendidly presented codfish puffs, marinated chicken salad, anglerfish with pesto or bacalau (dried salt cod)-one of the staple foods of Barcelona and utterly delicious with white beans.

Cakes, pastries and ice creams are superb. The Barcelonian, by the way, has a notably sweet tooth and they produce some of the best baked goods in Spain. The oddly named Via Veneto (Ganduxer 10, tel: 200-7244) has glamorously reinvented traditional dishes, too. You might begin there with mussels cooked with spinach and a very light cheese sauce or ethereal vermicelli with fish. There is meltingly tender roast boneless pigeon with a port sauce and excellent, thinly sliced raw beef.

The interesting list of regional wines is reasonably priced. For more old-fashioned eating in rustic (i.e. slightly kitsch) surroundings, you might try La Cuineta (Paravis 4, tel: 315-0111) just behind the cathedral, with a wide range of Catalan fish dishes, steaks, pates and cakes. The water-front quarter of Barcelona is crammed with fish cafe-glorified shacks on the beach-mostly of a fairly high standard, with great displays of fresh Mediterranean fish and shellfish lying on beds of ice. You could have splendid grilled prawns or bream or hake or a more complicated dish like paella or zarzuela (the characteristic fish stew of Barcelona).Most bars in town offer arange of snacks or tapas, like stuffed mussels, little potato croquettes or artichoke hearts with anchovies, perfect

with sherry or the excellent Spanish beer. There are also a number of snack bars selling cakes, horchata (a popular beverage made from the chufa root, boiled, mixed with sugar and served icy cold) and granizado, a sweet, icy and refreshing concoction halfway between a drink and a sorbet: Mealtimes are late: Lunch is usually served after one o’clock and dinner after 10:00 P.M. 

SHOPPING 

All the top European fashion designers are represented in Barcelona. Local products you might like to look for include pottery, woodcarvings and leather goods. There is a profusion of boutiques selling shoes and handbags: Leather quality-is sometimes excellent, but workmanship may be shoddy.

ACCOMMODATIONS 

There are nine top-class I hotels in Barcelona. My favorite among them is the Ritz: old-fashioned (but with six channels of TV), courtly, glamorous and neatly poised between old and new Barcelona.

The Ritz

Gran Via de les Corts

Catalans 668

Tel: 318-5200 

Three fine choices: 

The Princesa Sofia

Placa del Papa Pio XII

Tel: 330-7111 

The Grand Hotel Sarria

Avinguda de Sarria 50

Tel: 239-1109 

The Avenida Palace

Gran Via 605

Tel: 301-9600