General Population: 1,750,000. Spain's second-largest city and major port. Also, the capital of the region of Catalonia. Catalonians still speak their own dialect of Spanish: actually a distinct language. You'll notice that Catalan is used on much public advertising, billboards, etc. Barcelonans are fiercely independent, and take pride in their language, unique customs, history, etc. They consider themselves to have their own separate "country" within Spain, and there is currently a movement for greater autonomy, to which the Spanish government is increasingly sympathetic.
A metropolitan "look": Unlike Madrid, a relative newcomer (hardly existed before 16th century), Barcelona looks like an old and established city. The buildings are taller and grander, and the boulevards wider and straighter. Barcelona looks more like a "capital" than Madrid does.
Origins Barcelona is one of Spain's oldest cities, thanks to its port. The first settlers were the Phoenicians, landing by sea. Then came the Carthaginians, also by sea. They gave the city its name: Hamilcar Barca, after a Carthaginian general who occupied Mt. Taber in 230 B.C. Mt. Taber (actually, only a knoll) is now the location of Barcelona's Gothic cathedral. The city was known as Barcino, after Barca. Then came the Romans, who established a colonial district in this part of Spain, called Layetania. The people were called Layetanians: and it remains an old name for people of Catalonia. The city's port was enlarged by the Romans, who used the city as a major trading center of Spain.
Visigoths: These were the western "Goths" who migrated into Spain from northern Europe; relatively cultivated, absorbed Roman culture. Visigothic leader, Ataulf, made Barcelona his capital (415). At this time, Catalonia was called Gothalania, from "Goths," and this is probably the origin of "Catalonia."
Moors: Occupied Barcelona (713), as they did most of Spain at one time or another. Barcelona was passed back and forth between Christian kings and Moors several times, finally becoming part of the Kingdom of Aragon (capital: Saragossa).
Growth of Trade and Political Independence The city, being a valuable port, was fought over by various Spanish kings and nobles. Through this struggle, people came to value independence — a tradition that continues today.
The "Usatges": Usatges was a series of "privileges" or laws granted to Barcelona and Aragon by Ramon Berenguer I (1018-1025). This inaugurated the tradition of "civil rights" on which Barcelonans continued to insist.
Consulat del Mar: The other famous set of laws was Consulat del Mar: the earliest code of maritime laws in Europe. They governed the relations among vessels on the high seas, replacing the free-for-all approach which was universal up to that time. This code promulgated 1259 in Barcelona by the Consejo del Ciento (Council of the 100), founded by King Jaime I. Many other Mediterranean countries adopted the code.
Trade and prosperity made Barcelona the largest city on the Iberian peninsula by 1470. Barcelona was huge by medieval standards, but the whole city fit into what is now merely the Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gotico).
Catholic Monarchs The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united the kings of Castile and Aragon, forming the basis of modern Spain. Barcelona was incorporated into the new kingdom (1474). The city's independence ended for good. In Barcelona, Queen Isabella received Columbus after his return from the New World (June 1493); the model of Columbus' Santa Maria is docked in the harbor — a popular place for visitors. But the Catholic Monarchs put their energies into developing Seville as a center of trade with the New World, and this was a blow to Barcelona.
Modern Unrest During the 17th century, the city was involved with struggles against the French-sponsored Spanish king. Rebellions, reprisals, and further rebellions. A period of external calm came in the 19th century (but with a smoldering desire for independence from Spain). The city's old walls were pulled down, and a competition was held for plans of the new city. Architect Cerda won the prize, and is largely responsible for the city's classical, metropolitan look: checkerboard pattern of streets, broad boulevards, and handsome squares. In 1888, a Universal Exposition was held, for which Citadel Park was laid out. The city grew, and many former villages on the outskirts were incorporated into the city. Another exhibition: the International Exhibition of 1929: Montjuich Park was built. Exhibitions and trade fairs continue as a civic tradition.
Heritage of anarchism: Underneath the growing prosperity is the age-old anarchism, distrust of the central government. Any rebellion elsewhere in Spain could almost always count on Catalonian support. Anticlericalism is a major force. The Anarchist party has always been strong. On April 14, 1931: the Catalan Republic was declared; they wanted complete independence from Spain. This didn't last long. The Spanish Civil War brought savage street fighting. The city became headquarters for the Republican forces. Nationalists under General Franco took the city in January, 1939. The unrest continued throughout the Franco regime, but was put down firmly. With a newly elected government, semi-autonomy was to be granted to Catalonia, and civic peace seems a prospect.
Barcelona Today Many old customs survive and flourish, thanks to the nationalistic spirit. Traditional festivals are a big local event; e.g. S. Antonio Abad (January 17), when household pets are blessed at the churches; St. George's Day (April 23); and the all-night Christmas Market, held in Mercado de San Jose (December 21-24). Trade and prosperity are as strong as ever; the population is growing, with new suburbs added on the outskirts; building of apartments (to relieve crowding); major investment in parks, recreation centers, and hospitals. Efforts are being made toward improved mass transit. There is generally an optimistic spirit.
Climate: Mild all year around, with only minor variations between seasons. The rainfall is fairly even, though autumn is the wettest. In the summer, cooling breezes from the sea relieve the heat, but the presence of water adds to the humidity. Barcelonans escape from the summer heat by going to the nearby coastal resorts, e.g. Sitges, or pocket beaches along the Costa Brava (north). In the summer, French vacationers come by the thousands to Costa Brava, followed by English tourists flying in on charters.
Features of the City
Two amusement parks: Europeans love their amusement parks, the Spanish especially so. Barcelona has two, both located on natural hills. The most popular: Montjuich Hill. The name probably comes from the "mount of the Jews," referring to the original Jewish quarter. On top is the amusement park, as well as the military museum. The other, larger amusement park: Tibidabo, is on a hill overlooking Barcelona with a fabulous view at night.
Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gotico): the spookiest part of the city, full of hulking Gothic structures. This is the heart of the Old Town, the original settlement. The cathedral is the baptistry where the first Indians from the New World, brought back by Columbus, were baptized.
Pueblo Espanol: A Spanish "village" built for the International Exhibition of 1929 with houses in different styles from all parts of Spain. The idea is to give the visitor a "tour" of Spain in a few hours. Popular crafts are being practiced, Williamsburg-style.
Citadel Park: Named for the citadel built by Philip V (1716) to solidify his rule over the rebellious Catalonians. The park was laid out in 1868 after the citadel was torn down. The city's zoo is located in this park.
Sagrada Familia: a church, not the city cathedral. Designed by Antonio Gaudi, the city's most famous architect. Gaudi's designs create a playful, child-like look, suggesting fantasy, a dreamworld of melting shapes. The Sagrada Familia Church was started in 1882, and was only partially completed. This church is the weirdest structure you've ever seen, with marshmallow shapes, strange spider-web lacework in stone, odd treetrunk-like "buttresses," and fantasy images everywhere. In the crypt below is a complete model for the finished building, to help you interpret the unfinished structure above. Parque Guell, Barcelona's "Disneyland," also designed by Gaudi: undulating shapes, little "houses" out of Grimm's fairytales, grottoes, etc.
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