A Sophisticated European Metropolis
A part of modern Barcelona’s allure is its multiple identities, the second city of Spain, the capital of Catalonia, the economic powerhouse of the peninsula and a sophisticated multicultural European metropolis. Through the vicissitudes of history and the repeated suppression of Catalan, Barcelona has acquired a random bilingualism that largely remains thirty years after Franco’s death, the undoubted resurgence in Catalan tempered by huge immigration from South America and other parts of Spain.
Home to over seven million people, with a huge industrial base and a massive Barcelona-based tourist trade, Catalonia subsidizes the rest of the country with millions of euro each year. Though Catalonian nationalism has no militant equivalent of the Basque Country’s E.T.A., Catalans are, understandably, pressing for ever more autonomy from Madrid, a demand that has received a generally sympathetic hearing from the current socialist government. For the opposition, Aznar’s centralist Partido Popular, this amounts to nothing less than creeping secession and has fuelled their fears that in the fullness of time Barcelona will add yet another personality to it already multiple identity, the capital of an independent European state.
If you should go astray one day on la Rambla, Barcelona’s principal tourist thoroughfare, and land at the feet of a midget sitting on a shiny steel bucket who offers you, for a price, naturally, your hallucinogenic heart’s desire, then you have probably wandered into Raval.
Diplomatically described by one guidebook as “a little rough around the edges”, Raval is home to the bohemian set, all manner of victimless crime and is possibly the most police-patrolled part of the city centre.
In times past the Chinatown of Barcelona, Raval is a sprawling working class barrio separated from more famous neighbourhoods, such as Barri
Gothic, by La Rambla.
In recent years the area has become a glorious ethnic hodgepodge with the Arab population increasingly dominant. Wander in on a Sunday afternoon to check out the unlicensed market and the good-natured game of tag between the marketing miscreants and any one of Barcelona’s three different police forces. Or enjoy the bizarre spectacle of 37 traditionally dressed Arabs playing improvised volleyball amid the sirens and the catcalls.
But hurry while it’s still there! A combination of a central location, cheap property prices and abandoned lots have those pesky developers sniffing round and it may not be long before radical chic Raval becomes as overpriced and over-hyped as its more fashionable guide book neighbours.
A Brief History
Tucked between the Spanish central plain and the south of France, with Andorra for a pillow, Catalonia is the wealthiest and most powerful autonomous region in the Iberian Peninsula.
But it wasn’t always thus for the province and it dominant capital, Barcelona. After declaring itself independent of the Frankish empire in the 11th century, Catalonian monarchs arranged a political marriage with the neighbouring kings of Aragón, and Barcelona became the metropolis for an empire that stretched across the Mediterranean, kicking off what became known as the Catalan golden age. And that’s when it all started to go terribly wrong.
War and Black Death
A serious bout of Black Death decimated the city in the 1300s and the region had barely recovered when the Kings of Aragón had the temerity to switch political horses, cozying up to their other regional neighbour Castilla, leaving Catalonia firmly out in the cold.
Colonial cutthroat Christopher Columbus, blundering into the Americas, delivered the next near fatal blow, drawing trade from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, almost bankrupting Barcelona in the process. Just when they thought things couldn’t get any worse, France pilfered another chunk of Catalonia in the continent wide 30 Years War (1618-48, although the war between France and Spain didn’t end until 1657). Barcelona then proceeded to back the wrong nag in the Spanish War of Succession (1700-1714). The eventual victor, the Bourbon king Felipe, duly took his revenge, abolishing regional autonomy and banning the writing and teaching of Catalan.
Anarchist and Fascist
The province and its capital finally caught a break in the 19th century when a ban was lifted on its trade with the Americas and Greater Barcelona launched one of the earliest industrial revolutions in Europe. Barcelona grew rapidly, was forced to demolish its medieval walls in the 1850s and had doubled in size by the1920s.
This decade saw a resurgence of a phenomenon almost unique to Barcelona in the 20th century, anarchism, in the form of the radical trade union the C.N.T. After a wave of successful strikes, employers hired assassins to eliminate hundreds of union leaders.
Civil war and the Franco dictatorship returned Barcelona to smothering isolation, with Catalan and even the notion of Catalonia ruthlessly repressed.
The death of Franco in1975 and the reestablishment of regional government in the seventies finally reintroduced Barcelona to the world and it quickly set about establishing itself as the cultural and tourist capital of Mediterranean Europe.
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