Barcelona’s Beauty, Traditions and Hospitality Persist Amid Constitutional Crisis

Part 1 in a series:

Culture is resilient, shaped gently even when handled roughly by politics, religion or brute force. Tourists need to respect the constitutional crisis that currently embroils Catalonia and Spain. But the world-class cultural delights of Barcelona persevere unfettered. We felt very welcome.

Barcelona was our first and last of seven stops on a whirlwind three-week tour of Spain this fall. And from the mountaintop Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey to the deepest excavations of the 2000-year-old Roman ruins beneath the Gothic Quarter, overt political emotions surfaced only once.

20170922 - montserrat-IMG_2930Day 1 began in a haze of jet lag with a train ride to the Benedictine abbey atop Montserrat. A Twitter follower suggested the day trip. It was a great idea but poorly executed on our part as we overslept, missed the early train and then stumbled off one stop too early – we needed the cog train stop, not the gondola stop, to reach the monestary. Argh.

Result? We missed the 1 p.m. “not to be missed” performance of the Escolania boys choir in the chapel, settling instead for unmemorable cheese sandwiches at the cafeteria and rushed audio tours of the chapel, grounds and art museum. The setting was spectacular. The museum contained work by El GrecoDali and Picasso.  And we did see the famed Virgin of Montserrat, one of Europe’s “Black Madonnas.” So the trip was not a total loss.

Back in Barcelona and finally beginning to awaken, we spent the evening at Parc de la Ciutadella and the Gothic Quarter for a taste of La Mercè, an annual city festival dating to 1871. The beloved event includes food, music, light shows, parades, fireworks and fantastical ceremonies featuring giant papier machè figures.

We decided to skip the ceremony involving papier machè dragons, demons and monsters spewing fireworks on attendees, who are advised to wear fire-proof clothing. Instead we attended the less incendiary annual dance of the gegants held on Placa Sant Jaume between the city and Catalonia government buildings. The ceremony features 12-foot effigies of royalty and nobles who bow, dance and strut to the music of a traditional band. Lots of kids were on hand. Minimal fireworks. No fire suit necessary.

20170923 - barcelona-IMG_2778It was all very fun and quaint until tradition took a pause and an impassioned speaker took the stage. We don’t speak Catalan — and based on the reaction of some waiters, our Spanish is appalling — so we really don’t know what was said. But the crowd responded with a roar. The band played. A determined chant broke out. Fists beat time with the chant and flags unfurled. The Geek and MontaraManDan exchanged a glance, eyebrows raised. And then it was over. Everyone behaved, but unfamiliar with the complexities and the territory, we stayed only briefly for the festival’s second act of the evening – artistic projections on the square’s rectangular government buildings — before withdrawing to the calm of a nearby cafe. No harm. No foul. Interesting.

We did better on Day 2. Much better. Fueled by café Americano and tomato toast, we walked the catwalks at the Museu d’Historia de Barcelona to view extensive underground excavations dating back nearly 2,000 years to the Roman city of Barcino, where the ruins of one era become the foundation stones of the next.

Back at Placa Sant Jaume, we witnessed amateur castellers forming 50-foot human towers with helmeted children scampering up backs, limbs and heads to the top. (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

And we toured the first of too many magnificent cathedrals, the gothic Barcelona Cathedral. All great stuff.

But the surprise of the day came as we powered up our phones while leaving the cathedral and found a text from the maître d’ at, according to Condé Nast Traveler, “one of the 80 hottest restaurants in the world.” He could seat us in 45 minutes. The same Twitter follower who recommended the trip to Montserrat had recommended Cinc Sentits (Five Senses), which was co-founded by his wife. We had put in a reservation request only the night before and never expected they’d actually have a table. Anyway, Google maps said that we could get there in 30 minutes, so we hoofed it out of the Gothic Quarter, nose to phone.

We chose the four-course lunch with full wine and alcohol pairings. Long story short, it was amazing. And the locally sourced Catalan cuisine was paired with no fewer than seven different libations. Chef Jordi Artal even came out to say “hi.” We stumbled out of the restaurant with all five senses sated and more than a little tipsy. (Note to foodies: We’ll share the long Cinc Sentits story in another post in this series. Promise.)

This Barcelona tale could have ended here, as far as MontaraManDan was concerned. But The Geek, always the overachiever, insisted on a trip across town to Montjuïc Castle, a 380-year-old fortress high on a hill above the present-day Mediterranean port. M-Man finally agreed it would be poetic to slack coastside on the Mediterranean, even if only briefly. Exhausted, we took a cab to the top, arriving late enough to be awarded free admission. Great view. The fort was a bit stark. Unable to find a taxi at the top of the hill, we stumbled to the bottom before finally finding a sympathetic cabby to deposit us on the doorstep of our hotel. We were beat.

The next day we headed for Madrid.

But wait … we know what you art, architecture and Barcelona aficionados are thinking: “What about Gaudí? Architect Antoni Gaudi. The father of Catalan Modern Architecture, that rounded, melty early 20th century-style dripping with ceramics and wrought iron. What about Park Güel? Casa Batllo? Casa Mila? What about La Sagrada Familia? You went to Barcelona and didn’t stop at La Sagrada Familia?!? Gaa!!!”

Don’t worry. We saw them all. But similar to our Cinc Sentits reservation, we waited far too long to secure reservations and had to defer Gaudi’s Barcelona until our return trip to the city, before our flight home. More on Gaudi’s cathedral masterpiece in a later post. We promise.

Slacking indeed.

This is the first of a multi-part series of our travels to seven Spanish cities across three weeks in the fall of 2017.

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7 thoughts on “Barcelona’s Beauty, Traditions and Hospitality Persist Amid Constitutional Crisis

  1. I am here for a month and have seen only the Picasso Museum, as my sore back prevented my morning visit to the Sagrada FAmilia, but in the afternoon, as my back improved, I heard loudspeaks and chants and finally went out and joined a huge crowd waving flags, showing joy, and celebrating the vote for independence.

    I would not avoid such gatherings as they show the true spirit of the people, the desire for independence which has made Barcelona a uniquely beautiful city, proud of its past and equally proud of its modernist treasures.

    The police were standing in groups of one or two behind metal gates, arms folded, no doubt wondering what they would do if the central government forced them to crack down on their neighbors. Could they? They seemed very unhappy being placed in this situation.

    The crowd itself cheered every Si vote for indpendence (there were 70) and booed the 10 No votes. The mood was friendly, peaceful, and joyous. I would not trade experiencing this moment of history for all the artifacts of days gone by, for Barcelona, while it treasures its past, even more looks forward to a future liberated, as avant guard liberated its architecture and artistic world, from the oppression of the rigid Spanish state, to continue its history as one of the most open and progressive cities in history. I loved the crowd, the emotion, the joy of people living democracy.

    I would not fear such experiences, as a tourist (I hate to tour so I rent an apartment for month to live in the culture) so as much as fear missing them, since the frozen artifacts of the past can speak of a world gone by but only the living, breathing citizens can create a world that is in the making, a moment of history that is alive and not ossified in a museum or a spectacle for superficial tourists.

    Tonight, as I listen to the crowds in the tiny lanes near the Arc de
    Triompf, I hear an excitement and joy that I have not heard on previous nights.

    My back is still sore, I hesitate to go out this evening, but I can feel the energy and spirit of the people and it is, to me, an experience and memory that will enrich my life the rest of my days.

    1. Thanks so much for the update as the situation is obviously fluid. We agree that as tourists we felt very welcome. He we found the public protest we stumbled across to be peaceful. No one was out to destroy anything or hurt anyone. So sorry your back is hurting. I hope you’ll be well enough to catch up on some sights. Feel better!

    1. We highly recommend the city history museum atop the Roman ruins in the Gothic District. Really well done and no crowd at all. We will be blogging more on Spain in the coming month. We also visited Madrid, Seville, Granada, Toledo and Valencia, in addition to returning to Barcelona. If you are traveling to any of those places and want specific recommendations of things we enjoyed, send us an email a coastsideslacking@gmail.com . Our trip was not nearly as immersive as yours but we got a taste of a lot of cities. Have fun.

  2. Dear Dale,

    Your statement “I would not trade experiencing this moment of history for all the artifacts of days gone by, for Barcelona, while it treasures its past, even more looks forward to a future liberated, as avant guard liberated its architecture and artistic world, from the oppression of the rigid Spanish state, to continue its history as one of the most open and progressive cities in history.” is a blatant falsehood, a propagandistic lie that you have been told or you have read or watched in the local catalan media, or even worse, in the CNN, which surprisingly has taken on the same position as the Russian Television (RT) on this subject. Calling Spain a “rigid oppressor” state is also an offense to people like me that we come from that country and know that country a hundred million times much better than what you will ever do. Spain is not an oppressor of anyone. The state of democracy prevailing there is as good as in any other european country like Germany, France, UK or Italy. Spain has one of the highest life standards of the entire world, with a protective public system that includes pensions, social security, free medical attention, progressive immigration policies (definitely much more progressive than USA), decentralization of all powers and diversion of most of those powers to individual regional states such as the one that is the subject of that article, which already has an administrative autonomy similar to a separate country with their own police, their own parliament, their own co-official language, their own educational system, and many other perks that come with a Constitution that was voted by all spaniards in a referendum in 1978 after Franco passed away and which represented a new dawn for democracy in Spain after so many dark decades of constriction.

    The catalan government has violated the Constitution by imposing by force a referendum and a declaration of independence to all Catalonians (including the 5+ million that never went to illegally vote in a referendum, whose results were inaccurate and most likely inflated, and were not accepted by any official power in Europe). A partial referendum of secession by a region of Spain is nowhere allowed in the law (the same way it is not allowed in any Constitution in the world of any western country) unless there is a general political consensus in the national parliament to change the Constitution and which the secessionists have not been capable to achieve. The catalan government has spent public tax-payer funds to violate the law, to advertise their illegal political agenda, and to manipulate their regional TV (TV3). They have also coerced the regional police to violate the law to the extent that the highest ranked police officer has been called to court (and finally and fortunately was fired yesterday). They have blocked the national police and judges in investigations about fraudulent use of funds and state assets that they are using in the pursuit of their independence agenda. They using public schools to campaign for independence, using children in primary schools to feed the cause by making them to paint separatist flags as homeworks and sending them to protest and insult the police in the raids. It is absolutely amazing how the false propaganda made by a few bunch of wealthy catalonians, who are the ones responsible for this madness, has grown so deep into the plain population and into tourists like you. This is a case that will be studied in history books as one of the clearest proofs that one can manipulate hundreds of thousands of people by repeating lies once and again. Fortunately, the rest of Spain has awaken, and this will not be allowed.

    A great article has been published today in the national spanish press about a situation that President Andrew Jackson faced in a more than 150 years ago with the State of South Carolina, which, despite all the contextual differences, has roots that are reminiscent of the ones we are discussing here. Back then, President Jackson wrote in his “Nullification Proclamation” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jack01.asp):
    “To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation
    because it would be a solecism to contend that any part of a nation might dissolve its connection with the other parts, to their injury or ruin, without committing any offense. Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error, or to deceive those who are willing to assert a right, but would pause before they made a revolution, or incur the penalties consequent upon a failure.”

    Dear Montana Man Dan, Congratulations for your pictures. Barcelona is indeed a beautiful city and the Barceloneses are awesome people.

    Hope this makes it in your website as the “Fifth” of those thoughts you are collecting here.

    1. Hello A Spanish Citizen and welcome to our site. I am Dawn, the other half of the CoastsideSlacking team and the photographer. Thank you for your kind words. Thank you also for expressing the alternate side of the debate. As tourists with limited Spanish & Catalan speaking skills, we did not have the benefit of hearing the local perspectives while we were there. We rely on english language journalism as we avidly follow the stories. We had such a positive experience traveling all over Spain and meeting the fantastic people there. We can only hope that a peaceful solution can be found without going through the kind of bitter conflict we experienced in the USA, whose scars still pain us here.

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