Many may not even realize—I, one of limited knowledge, can only begin to understand—the layers of Barcelona’s complicated history within the region of Catalonia. Seeing their pride and their frustration in action only gave me a glimpse.
What I do know—people want to be heard. Acknowledged. Respected. Our issues are universal.
A common desire among us all, people throughout the world, is to know that we matter. We all want to feel secure. We all want certain freedoms. And we want to protect what matters to us.
I had no idea what we were about to encounter.
Our train arrived an hour late into Barcelona. As my family stepped onto the platform, people were jamming themselves into a commuter train across the tracks. The air felt chaotic and rushed compared to the sunny, relaxed atmosphere from which we had just come during our stay in València.
On second thought, that morning València Nord was more hectic than we had previously experienced thus far in Spain. Just the night before we were enjoying the end of a successful week of soccer at dinner with our son’s team. We had become used to our relaxed mornings with cafes con leche, unhurried strolls surrounded in beauty, and uncrowded Metro rides.
Jarred into an alternate reality, I had been waiting with my husband and two teenage boys in the station for our delayed train when its arrival finally popped up onto the monitor after an hour. We had sat watching a line steadily grow for a later train.
Confused by more than a language barrier when told to wait in that line, now extending out the doors, apparently we were all to go through a single platform gate to catch either train bound for Barcelona.
Thankfully, as the attendant had assured me, neither train rushed to leave. After all, this is the relaxed Spanish way. We still felt a sense of relief to eventually settle into our four facing seats, ready for the journey.
That morning was also contrasted by the light rain beginning to fall, the first in Spain since we arrived ten days before. Water droplets obscured our window view. Still, the three-and-a-half-hour journey along the cobalt Mediterranean was pleasant.
Glimpses of aqua inlets and golden palm-lined beaches raced by as our rail darted through tunnels along the rugged, coastal landscape. Our apartment host in Barcelona tried to call, I figured to confirm our arrival time; but without WiFi access on the train, I decided his messages could wait just a bit longer.
Pulling into Barcelona-Sants, we found ourselves in a much busier station filled with armed police and even more commotion outside in the drizzle. I wasn’t sure whether to feel safer or threatened by the heightened security. We called the apartment host.
Apparently that morning nine Catalan leaders, who had initiated an independence referendum to secede from Spain two years before, had just been sentenced for up to thirteen years in prison. Irate citizens of Barcelona were forming protests, barricading streets. The airport was shut down. We were lucky to have gotten in by train. But what had we walked into?
Hailing a cab was impossible and the required wait line for taxis was ridiculously long. We were warned the metro would be a zoo. Regardless, this would be our best bet for getting to the apartment.
We rolled our suitcases to the metro entrance, thankful we travel carryon-only. As we descended the tunnel into stagnant air, the temperature rose several degrees. We joined people sandwiched in line to purchase metro passes, as others slithered through with a courteous, “Permiso.”
To make matters worse, once it was finally our turn, it took several attempts before the ticket machine finally excepted our third card. Once we made our way into the subway tunnel, the train approached, already filled to the brim. Let down when only two people exited, people shifted to let us carve out a cavity next to the pole. Lodged within the carriage, we straddled our luggage.
Just as the doors were about to close, a woman jumped in, squeezing herself between the closed doors and the mass of our closest compadres. For the next few minutes, she yelled Catalan expletives at everyone to give her space while her face was pressed against the glass of the door. Ha! As if anyone had even a millimeter to spare. A guy on the opposite side of the car kindly told her where to go. Thankfully she departed at the next stop.
Agitation was certainly in the air.
Three stops—and several exchanges in position to make way for people exiting, then entering—later, we found relief as we made our way back up to street level at Diagonal. Clearly the motorcycles and Vespas zipping around were the preferred modes of transport today.
The rain got heavier as dusk fell. Finding our apartment, we hovered under the shallow canopied doorstep while the manager navigated the streets to meet us. Ironically he had moved here from Argentina seven years prior to escape political strife.
We were happy to finally settle into the spacious, updated two-bedroom. Our balconies overlooked other 19th-century buildings along the tree-lined street between two ramblas (main boulevards) in the Eixample quarter. This pleasant view would be home for the week.
Heading out to explore, we happened upon a great little bistro-style restaurant, noting the standard ten-percent up-charge for outdoor seating. Since this is also where smokers reside, we were content to sit inside.
On the walk back, we noticed a growing crowd congregating at the end of our street at Passeig de Gràcia. People draped in Catalan flags seemed to await others, AirPods in ears, checking their watches. One lone guy shifted positions with a bag at his side. The uncertain atmosphere sent us back to the apartment.
Late into the evening, we heard the chanting crowd at the corner. This marked only the beginning of growing nightly demonstrations.
Our first morning we went out to explore the city, which appeared to be business-as-usual. People on the streets moved about their day, heading to work, to school, to the market, to the beach. We went about each of our days too, mostly on foot; although Barcelona’s widespread metro system did prove useful, and actually quite user-friendly, contrary to our first experience.
Our mission: to discover the diversity of Barcelona’s distinct barrios, districts—their array of unique sights, views, and flavors.
Our first stop: La Sagrada Família, still under construction after 100 years, and now one of the city’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites designed by architect, Antoni Gaudí. A colorful rainbow of the morning’s first rays of sun streamed into the cathedral’s immense volume through enormous stained glass between a forest of soaring columns. We felt dwarfed beneath its coffered ceiling, reminiscent of an ornate wedding cake.
Back outside in the adjacent park of Plaça de Gaudí, the cathedral’s Catalan modernisme spires, unique to Barcelona, reflected off the pond near a group of older men playing a game that a man told me was bitlles (pronounced “bityes”). This traditional Catalan game, similar to bowling, is played with pins, not balls, thrown at a group of six pins to knock them down.
Along with bitlles, the Catalan identity is expressed in modernisme, the early 20th-century movement, exemplified in the architectural works of Gaudí. This expressive style, seen throughout Barcelona, was found at two more Gaudí World Heritage Sites within a few blocks of our Eixample apartment, Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera, the stone quarry) and Casa Batlló.
Concluding our Gaudí quest, one dark, early morning we climbed seemingly endless, steep stairs to the whimsically bizarre Park Güell to overlook the city and sea at sunrise—and because entry is free before opening. The colorful mosaics create a vibrant spectacle in the sunlight. Unfortunately our timing still wasn’t early enough to avoid the mass of tourists, bodies flung over the sculptures for selfies.
Across the city, walking from the hilly, old quarter of El Poble-sec, we hiked up more steps along cascading fountains at Montjüic to the palatial National Art Museum and Olympic Village with 360-degree views of the city, neighboring hills, and the Mediterranean. The village site was developed for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Games when Spain beat Poland 3-2 in the football (soccer) final.
The pride of fútbol was felt throughout the city as the boys shopped for Barça gear, but nowhere better than at Camp Nou where that ‘92 Olympic final was played. At this stadium, inspiration filled us all as we were greeted by a statue of iconic great, Johan Cruyff, and the current faces (literally) of FC Barcelona—Alba, Busquets, Messi, Piqué, Roberto—displayed on its outer wall.
We continued our shopping and eating pleasures in the old village neighborhood of Gràcia, down the central promenades of Passeig de Gràcia and La Rambla into the old center of Ciutat Vella, and inside the grand marketplace of La Boqueria. Street vendors bounced between districts on the metro with their gathered tarp-rucksacks filled with trinkets. We saw the same guy at three different spots throughout the city.
We meandered through narrow, winding Gothic-quarter-streets in Ciutat Vella: first the section of El Gòtic, past the Barcelona Cathedral, and into El Born section of the old city, stopping along the way for tapas of anchovies, chorizo, and patatas bravas with sangria, cider, or vermouth (vermùt).
Our super-friendly, but odorous, waiter in an 18th-century pub seemed slightly breathless and preoccupied, finally abandoning us to stand outside in some sort of prolonged exchange with an awaiting man. I guess that was our cue to go.
Refueled, we crossed an eerily empty grand boulevard toward the sea, past the luxurious yacht-filled port, through La Barceloneta quarter, crossing its golden beach to the pebbly shore of the cool, aquamarine Mediterranean to dip our feet.
Evening drew closer. It was time to head back toward our apartment. Groups of mostly young people marched the streets chanting their message.
We arrived for dinner at opening time since restaurants open later than we’re used to, thus the need for tapas in the afternoon. Spanish don’t typically eat until around 9:00 pm, or 21h00 (get used to the 24-hour clock too). Nervous air swelled as night fell, urging us to retreat to the view of activity from our balconies.
The intensity of the demonstrations had grown on our second night. A helicopter hovered, police lights flashed. We closed the shutters in an attempt to drown out shouting chants and booms below so we could all get some sleep.
Each night what began as peaceful demonstrations, convivial and almost party like, escalated with some groups. Discontent with the peaceful approach, some protesters created havoc. This incited a vicious cycle between them and police, forcefully working to combat their tactics.
Diplomacy didn’t appear to have helped the now imprisoned pacifist leaders, so some felt the need for more aggressive actions.
Our understanding is that Catalonia, with a high unemployment rate—over 16%, and 41% for young or under-skilled people—wants increased autonomy to promote more self-reliance as an individual culture within Spain. When the Spanish government refused further allowances to the already autonomous community, a group of Catalan leaders declared independence.
Authorities now responded with a heavy fist to their opposition. Like trying to discipline my teenage son for insubordination, the punitive method feels outdated, whereas a constructive approach nurtures a more longterm relationship. It’s more difficult to take my emotions out of the equation, but the result is more effective.
Each morning street cleaners were out in force removing the debris and glass. A deep burn mark scarred the pavement below our balcony—a reminder of a loud bang outside our rooms on the second night.
We learned of incidents where rioters created barricades with large bonfires to keep police at bay, then threw glass bottles at the law enforcement who stormed through with riot vans, injuring several protesters. Pacifist supporters struggled to stop the display of protesters; while trying to put out the fires, they argued that chaos was counter-productive, that it sent the wrong message.
Although we never saw any of the riots firsthand, our impressionable teenage boys still received firsthand lessons on social issues, giving us all the opportunity to discuss our perceptions.
At no time did we feel personally threatened. We always felt welcome. We were not the enemy. This was clearly an issue between Catalan people and Spanish authorities.
Our responses varied. It is important to stand up for what’s right. But what is effective? What is appropriate? How do leaders and government lead effectively—through force or diplomacy?
The heartfelt approach of the majority underscored the injustices they feel have been served. They aim to promote integrity and moral justice.
Other’s obviously impassioned, but destructive, behavior created a power struggle with authorities. The spectacles didn’t feel sensible, and did seem counterproductive; at the same time, their fueled frustration and aggravation felt understandable.
The response of police, whose job was to maintain order, was equally fearful and feared. Their dangerous job created a no-win position.
Harsh, punitive force only seems to invoke an equally strong negative response. Although I’m not Spanish, nor Catalonian, we are all part of a greater global community. We all share common challenges and social issues. When any of our global family is in pain, we all feel it—whether or not we acknowledge it is a separate matter.
Our world is dynamic and complex. We are growing evermore interdependent. We must work to communicate, to cooperate, and to compromise.
The preservation of all heritage and culture is also important.
Certain allowances must be honored to nurture free, cooperative, self-promoting societies. How great would life be if each of us set aside our need to be right in favor of respectful dialogue and open listening?
For now, I can only hope that emotions can be set aside to come to a reasonable solution in Catalonia. Spain is a wonderful country with so many unique and interesting places and subcultures needing to be equally celebrated and supported. Catalan culture is just one example that needs protected and preserved.
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