Barcelona, The City of Counts
Barcelona, nicknamed the City of Counts (‘Ciutat Comtal‘ in Spanish), is the capital of Catalonia (an autonomous community of Spain) and the second largest city in Spain, after Madrid the capital. This moniker came about as sort of a commemoration to the Counts of Barcelona who took control of the city at the beginning of the 9th century. The Counts became increasingly independent and expanded their territory eventually to control the whole of Catalonia.
Speak of this city located on the North-Eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula facing the Mediterranean Sea, and several images come to mind: the Port of Barcelona, La Rambla and Camp Nou. After a short and uneventful transit at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we landed at Barcelona El Prat Airport on a cloudy, balmy day. Almost immediately, our tour of the City of Counts commenced once we cleared the customs.
Our first stop – Barcelona Olympic Stadium (or Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, as renamed in 2001). The stadium was originally built in 1927, and renovated in 1989 in preparation to be the main stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Today, the stadium continues to play host to some of the most important sporting events Barcelona sees. It also hosted numerous concerts held by several famous artists including Bon Jovi, Madonna, Rolling Stones and Shakira, just to name a few.
By a stroke of luck, we found the stadium to be relatively deserted. Perhaps it being mid-day had something to do with this seemingly odd phenomenon at otherwise a rather important landmark of the city. We saw a very riveting sculpture of a man seated atop a horse in the stadium but didn’t know the significance of it. Interesting piece it was, nevertheless.
One important cultural aspect of Catalonian Barcelona is the Sardana Dance symbolising unity and pride. Circles of people join their raised hands and slowly dance round and round with small, precise steps. The circles become bigger as more people join in the dance, and eventually when the circle becomes too big, it may break into several smaller circles. Usually, all are welcomed to join but it is good to observe how to do the dance properly prior to jumping in because a wrong move could really upset the rhythm of the whole circle.
Given the significance of the Sardana Dance, little wonder that we came across a delightful monument depicting the unity dance on Montjuïc, a broad shallow hill with a relatively flat top overlooking the harbour, to the southwest of the city centre. The monument, known as La Sardana de Montjuïc, was completed by Josep Cañas and officially commissioned at Montjuïc Park in 1966.
The monument was not the only reason why we found ourselves on Montjuïc. There, we were also greeted with a scenic panoramic view of Barcelona. Montjuïc Park seems like a must-visit for all tourists to the city because while we were there, tour buses were constantly offloading more and more tourists at the park. Apart from the view (which must look better on a clear day), the park came complete with a small cafe and mobile vendors selling keychain souvenirs. It only took us several minutes to fulfill our responsibilities (with the requisite souvenirs) to our family and friends.
After a late lunch, we were brought around on a city tour where we saw numerous notable landmarks, in particular houses designed by Antoni Gaudí. Right from the start, Gaudí the architect thought very differently from his contemporaries. He loved nature and his designs were greatly influenced by different forms of nature. La Pedrera (or Casa Milà) with its bold forms of the undulating stone facade is a fine example.
La Sagrada Familia is probably the singular most famous landmark ever to be associated with Gaudí. The large Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona commenced construction in 1882, and till today, is still incomplete. The construction progressed so slowly largely due to the fact that funds were coming in solely via private donations, not to mention the interruption of the Spanish Civil War. It is largely anticipated that the church will finally be completed by 2026, on the centennial of Gaudí’s death. Whether it can be completed on time remains much to be seen. If it does, we really should revisit Barcelona that same year, some 20 years after our first visit.
There are 3 grand facades to the church building – the Nativity facade to the east, the Passion facade to the west, and the Glory facade to the south. The Nativity facade was the first to be completed and directly bore most of Gaudí’s influence. At the time of our visit, only the Nativity facade was truly complete; both the Passion and Glory facades were still undergoing construction, especially the latter. Without a wide-angle lens, there was just no way one could take in the whole facade of the cathedral, which stood at an astounding height if including the spires.
Our last stop for the day prior to dinner was a visit to La Rambla (‘Las Ramblas‘ in Spanish), a street in Central Barcelona lined with kiosks, stalls selling flowers and animals, buskers, street performers, cafes and restaurants. The promenade is therefore, a place to see and to be seen, for locals and tourists alike. However in recent years, more tourists than locals like to linger along the streets, and that has somewhat changed the character of the streets and the nature of businesses plying along the promenade considerably. Tourist crowd during the high season has also attracted many pickpockets to easy prey in the form of inattentive tourists.
Walking down La Rambla was quite an experience in itself. The street performers lining along two sides of the street were most impressive, and totally devoted to their trade. We’ve seen street performers prior to this visit, but never with such amount of vivacity and dedication. From the sheer ingenious to the downright absurd, we’ve seen it all. In fact we think we’ve seen the best here in La Rambla, Barcelona.
As we walked on, we came by this enthralling bazaar of sorts and decided to explore further. It turned out to be a wet market selling groceries and sweets. The surfeit of colours were so vibrant we felt like purchasing some of them, especially the fruits! Unfortunately time was not on our side. We left the bazaar after briskly walking through it and made our way back to the coach.
That evening, we were brought to a restaurant called Marina Moncho’s by the marina to have probably the most delicious seafood paella we’d ever eaten in our whole lives. It was our first time with paella and what a fine example it was. Never got to taste seafood paella that comes anywhere close since.