Barcelona is a city on the Mediterrenean
coast of Spain
, close to the French border. It is the administrative and historical Capital of the semi-autonomous state of Catalunia
. Tradition has it that the Catalan nation was founded by one Wilfred the Hairy
, who also created its flag (four red stripes across a golden field) by drawing the bloodied fingers of one hand across his gold shield as he lay dying in battle. Apparently, this is the oldest national flag
The first urban settlement was founded by the Romans under the name of Borcino. Interestingly, the Barcelona Cathedral, smack bang in the middle of the Old Town, houses a small colony of geese that have been there since time immemorial. Geese having been the bird sacred to the Roman goddess Juno (and ususally housed in or near her temples), this is a fascinating vestige of the Christian tradition of building their temples on the ruins of Pagan ones.
Modern Barcelona is a never ending kaleidoscope of urban beauty. The Barcelonin take a real pride in their architectural heritage, and every person in the tourist industry (and there are many) is likely not only to be able to rattle off the names and location s of some of its better known buildings, but also the name of its architect and to what movement the design belongs - a depth of knowledge I haven't encountered in even the most beautiful of European cities (read Paris), where people are usually content to feel smug about the fact without being interested in the details.
I may at some future time be moved to write a more detailed historical and geographic account of the city. However, having only just come back from there two days ago what lives fresh in my mind is that, despite its rich and varied history and cultural heritage, its proud national independence and linguistic separatism, it's train of architects, artists, anarchists and explorers, Barcelona is first and foremost a city of people.
They're lovely. Honestly, I've never met so many nice people in my life - and they have to deal with tourists all the time! They work hard and play hard, they dress well and eat extremely well. They go to the beach at lunchtime and sit around in kerb-side cafes till late at night with the same amiable energy. You don't have to go looking for Barcelona's night life, it finds you. The old have just as much fun as the young, the children as much as the adults. And the city that surrounds them is planned, designed and excecuted to be lived in with comfort and pleasure.
Which brings me at long last to the one subject that I am most moved to rave about, and that is the profusion of small details of considerate, intelligent and careful urban planning. Others can rattle off the names of Barcelona's famous Modernista edifices and list its excellent restaurants or museums. Me, this is what I was impressed by:
- Catalunia is a bilingual state (Castillian, which we in the west know as Spanish, and Catalan, the native tongue), but the information signs everywhere include full details in English.
- The Metro system displays a plethora of little touches that allow the visitor to navigate it with unparalleled ease: there is an LCD display at most stations counting down the minutes to the next train, the carriages have illuminated route maps that light up as you pass each station (so that you know how far along the line you are, even if you've nodded off and woken up with a start), and the doors have lighted arrows that indicate which side of the carriage you need to disembark on at the next stop (invaluable in rush hour). Plus they're air conditioned.
- A large chunk of Barcelona is built along a straight lined grid. The streets, however, do not meet at dead intersections; at each one, the corners of the buildings facing the intersection are sheered off to create and octagonal space: four of the sides are the road, the other four provide much needed parking spaces.
- There are cycle paths everywhere, with separate cycling traffic lights parallel to the pedestrian ones, so that you don't need to navigate the traffic all the way around busy squares but can ride straight through with the pedestrians.
- Many of the wider streets have not only sidewalks at each end but also a pedestrian mall running down hte middle, with bus stops, newspaper stands and other such small services provided.
- Air conditioning - no one has ever gotten it so right. Not for them the stifling sweat baths of Paris or London, but unlike in New York or Tel Aviv, you don't need an overcoat indoors either. Just perfect.
- This is my absolute favourite, so it is included here even though it's got nothing to do with urban planning, it's just so clever. When you order "coffee with ice" in Barcelona (and perhaps the rest of Spain - who knows) what you get is not the milky oversugared Starbucks slush that we have had to let into our lives, but a dignified - and usually excellent - espresso, accompanied by a glass with a couple of chunky ice cubes. You sweeten your hot coffee if you wish, then swiftly pour it over the ice. Because there is much more ice by volume than espresso, it doesn't melt immediately and water your caffeine shot down. No, what you get is a zesty little coffee, just cold! In heat that often tickles the 40C mark, no mean addition to the euvre of human ingenuity.
If you wish to see some photos of the city, as well as a few panoramic videos accompanied by decent commentary, I would recommend you check out http://www.virtourist.com/europe/barcelona/01.htm. Preferably, just go there. It's great.