~ Wallace Stevens
Barcelona—once dismissed as a grimy, dull city—is now mentioned in the same breath as Paris, London and Rome as a must-see destination for anyone seeking to experience Europe at its best. What happened?
The city sports gorgeous architecture, both in the charming tangle of medieval streets and in turn-of-the-19th-Century masterpieces by Antonin Gaudi and other geniuses of the Modernisme movement. The Mediterranean Sea splashes right at its doorstep, creating a vibrant downtown waterfront where you can stroll past a harbor full of tall-mast sailboats and broad beaches crowded with stunningly well-toned sunbathers. Barcelona is ringed with mountains, laced with Parisian-style boulevards and dotted with lively nightspots.
But what struck me as its greatest asset on a recent visit was the exuberant public life sweeping you up each time you step out for a walk. Even with great cathedrals, museums, cafes and the delicious Sant Josep Market, hiking the streets of Barcelona remains the highlight of my trip. And, with a great metro and wonderful urban promenades, it is a consummate walking city; I never set foot in a car the whole time I was there.
In addition to enjoying a sensuously engaging urban landscape, you are treated to top-flight entertainment—with no cover charge unless you want to drop a half-euro coin into their baskets.
Particularly intriguing are the human sculptures that stare down from their pedestals on La Rambla, the pedestrian street at the heart of the old city. Just when you almost believe they really are statues, they suddenly break into a dance or a shriek or a song.
Accomplished performers— tango dancers, gypsy jazz bands, tai chi masters, dulcimer pluckers and much more—grab your attention all over town. The best spots to see them are also the best spots for a stroll—in the winding pedestrian lanes in the medieval quarters of Barri Gotic, La Ribera and Raval as well as other pedestrian streets featuring wide Rambla-like walkways in the middle of an avenue with slender traffic lanes on either side. These include:
But of all the public performances I happened upon, the most heartwarming were circles of people dancing the traditional Catalan sardana in front of the cathedral and other Barri Gotic squares. The beaming smiles I noticed, particularly on the faces of older dancers, is explained by the fact that the sardana was illegal during the Franco dictatorship—one of his many efforts to quash any signs of Catalan culture.
In fact, the joyous embrace of public life in Barcelona, where even walking down the sidewalk in the company of others feels like a celebration, can be traced back to Franco’s 40-year reign, when any public gathering outside of religious rituals was forbidden. In the spirit of liberation following the end of the Franco dictatorship, local people created new squares, pedesetrian streets and public spaces all across the city and suburbs to heal the scars of political and civic repression. Some of them fit so well with the urban fabric of the old city that visitors often assume they are centuries old.
People coming together in a congenial public space for any reason is one of the most basic expressions of the commons—which Franco and other totalitarians understood was necessary to repress. A vibrant public life is not only a source of pleasure but an essential element of democracy.
One note of caution: A few pockets of Barcelona’s center city may display a bit too much streetlife for many people’s taste. Tourists are warned not to carry their passports, credit cards or much cash in certain areas close to the waterfront on account of the city’s deft pickpockets (although the waterfront promendade is perfectly safe).
I followed that advice and encountered no trouble, although I was shooed away from a Catalan version of a shell game on La Rambla after trying to take a photo. It did not escape my notice that the man urging me to leave was the same one who, posing as passer-by, had just won a jackpot.
Travel writer Jay Walljasper, a former travel editor at Better Homes & Gardens and Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, chronicles urban life and possibilities around the world. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com