Crazy and lovable Barcelona. Nigel Andrews. Financial Times, 26.9.08. Llegiu aquest article o feu-vos-el traduir. És un elogi molt bonic dels catalans. És la demostració que tinc més raó que un sant quan dic que aquí no s’acaba res i que, si volem, a la curta o a la larga guanyarem. Thank you very much Mr Andrews, I believe no one has captured our scent as you have done since our ironic-lovable-witty philosopher Francesc Pujols wrote Concepte General de la Ciència Catalana.
As the plane bucks, shakes and plunges above Barcelona, we who feel we are about to die offer up a silent prayer to Wilfred the Hairy. He alone can be called upon in a life-or-death emergency in this locality. For under his real name of Guifré el Pilós he made Barcelona an independent city-state in AD 878. When the emperor dipped his hand in the slain Wilfred’s blood after a battle and smeared it in four stripes down his gold shield, he created the Catalan flag.
When the plane starts falling towards the big marble quarry to the south of Barcelona, we have time between screams to gain an intimation of the debt owed to this marmoreal mother lode. For Wilfred’s city is now paved in marble, as we shall discover when we land. (Yes, reader, we survived). From the airport itself to the pavements of the big boulevards to the main railway station: marble, marble, marble. True, the station is paved in a leftover marble no one wanted, a sort of sickly yellow, while the airport is floored with a gleaming, roseate pink. But who cares about fine distinctions when he has survived a plane journey and is visiting, for just the second time, a beautiful and lovable city.
Barcelona shouldn’t really exist at all. It has been taken to the brink too often; equally often it has taken itself there. It was almost destroyed by Franco, though those committed to freedom fought like devils, including Britain’s own George Orwell. It hasn’t supported Catalan independence the way it should. Less than half the population voted in the autonomy referendum in 1979. And with no care for taste or decency, it teamed Montserrat Caballé with Freddie Mercury to sing that awful Olympics song, “Bar-cel-ona!” I hear it still in my nightmares.
But the heedlessness of the Barcs is their greatest virtue. They don’t give a damn. They have created a city that is virtually the seven wonders of Europe contained within one jurisdiction and that is enough. They founded modern art, or more especially surrealism. The wackier side of modernism would never have happened without such native or honorary Barcelonans as Gaudí, Miró, Picasso and, up the road, Dalí.
Today, being in Barcelona is like having a spiritual liquor prohibition removed. Your soul is drunk all day. Since the natives have no special understanding of why you love them or their place – an unawareness that is part of the reason you love them – they are effortlessly courteous, generous-hearted and indifferent, a social combination only found here.
A feeling of being off-balance never left me after the plane trip. I was with a friend but we had happily agreed on separate sightseeing. Since he spoke fluent Spanish and knew Barcelona well, he would have ruined my sense of discovery.
The city motto is “Barcelona Es Teva” (Barcelona Belongs to You) and you feel it does. Booked in for two and a half days, I spent one and a half visiting every sight in the city. Before that, I took a train ride up through Catalonia, with the Dalí Museum in Figueres my token destination. It was token because I really just wanted the ride. On a train you get to know people, even “a” people. I fell in love with the Catalans here. Their overheard language is enchanting, especially when delivered as a rushing torrent by a group of girls in the seats opposite me, who talk non-stop in a white-water vocal stream-of-consciousness jagged with gutturals. (The letter X is important and lovely in Catalan. A bank is a caixa. The 19th-century renaixença, the Catalan revivalist movement, was the founding movement of European modernism). I liked the way older women had elegantly dyed their hair and then forgotten about it: it lay in neglected, heedless tumbles. I liked too the way a mentally troubled man, travelling alone, went from passenger to passenger gabbing as if to friends and was treated with unoffended compassion, like a family member doing the rounds. Imagine the same situation in Britain: the frosty reserve, the hiding behind newspapers. One discovery, though, astonished me. On almost every railside wall from Barcelona to Figueres, there are graffiti: raging, embattled, many-coloured graffiti. This must be the longest stretch of artistic vandalism in the world. And I attach no value judgment to the word vandalism, especially in a country once ruled by Vandals. (Did you know that Andalusia is derived from Vandalusia?)
These graffiti are all about Catalonian independence, a cause that for some still lives. The distinctiveness of the landscape might well, I thought as it passed me on the train, energise a nationalistic impulse. The torqued hills; the railside trees like upraised arms with splayed fingers; the ochre-reddish sandstone banks that seem sculpted into figurative shapes and bas-reliefs.
Back in Barcelona I walk my socks off. I start at Las Ramblas and work inland. The wave-designed flagstones that pave the famous street notate its prior existence as a riverbed. It tumbles along, not busily at eight in the morning, but the emptiness lets my imagination hear the gunfire of the civil war, which raged here and in the Plaça de Catalunya at the street’s top. Reaching for an image of Catalan sang-froid in 1937, Orwell remembered “the fashionably-dressed woman I saw strolling down the Ramblas, with a shopping-basket over her arm and leading a white poodle, while the rifles cracked and roared a street or two away. It is conceivable that she was deaf.” No, more likely she was just Catalan.
If you live in a crazy, timeless town, you live above and beyond history. Barcelona is timeless because you can step off the Ramblas straight into the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) and spend three hours in medieval Catalonia. The fantastic cathedral can go almost unnoticed but please don’t overlook the enchanting geese in the cloister garden. Ancient housefronts squeeze you down narrow alleys as if you have wandered into the sets for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. And, aeon within aeon, an entire Roman town is preserved underground in the City Historical Museum.
You soon understand why Barcelona is the home of surrealism. The place is mad but with an artistic sublimity that shapes its ends. All roads lead to the heartland of visionary insanity, which is Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. Still being built, this is now so tall that it seems to be eating into the light-years above its head. I swear I saw pterodactyls flying above its pinnacles. I definitely saw birds fly in and out of its high carved nooks, like gulls from Hebridean cliffs.
If you walk backwards up the Avenida Gaudí in the early evening, you watch the church recede, framed between streetfronts, while the sky darkens. Then suddenly, in a slow-motion coup de foudre, the floodlights come on. By this time you have walked backwards into another modernista miracle at the street-top, the Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul, a blend of art nouveau and Catalan pre-Raphaelitism built by Gaudí’s contemporary Domènech i Montener.
The Gaudí stuff can alone consume a day in Barcelona. I was half-dead when I reached the summit of his Parc Güell, even though I had nourished myself shortly before at the Gaudí-designed Casa Calvet restaurant in the flatlands. (Try the confit de porcelet).
I went on to tackle his Casa Milà apartment building, with its rooftop studded with helmet-chimneys like a fantasia on Alexander Nevsky, and his dragon-backed Casa Batlló. The next morning I finished off with the Miró Foundation and the National Museum of Catalonian Art. These are in Montjuïc, a hilltop park approached by open-air escalators. Miró is Catalonia’s otherworldly genius, a spaced-out artist of zodiacal spaces with a mischievous scatological streak.
Nearby on Montjuïc is a 17th-century castle. A gift from the Spanish government never fully surrendered to Barcelona, it was used to bombard Catalans into submission in 1842. It became a prison, torture centre and execution site. It was promised back to the city in 2004 but the gift came with strings. The Spanish defence minister demanded that the Spanish flag, not the Catalan, fly from the roof. The Barcelona council was furious. The unpleasantness was resolved by the minister’s resignation. Today the castle seems almost a symbol of Catalan triumph.
Almost. For who knows? I suspect Catalonia likes to be this political football, this cultural hot potato. But it also likes, on another day, to have no interest at all in problems of political identity: it just likes to go about the business of living. This is Barcelona. This is Catalonia. This, perhaps, is being human.
Nigel Andrews is the FT’s film critic