City of Dreams

By R.A. Propper

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Somewhere around the third century BC, legend has it the father of Hannibal, Hamilcar Barca, founded the city of Barcino named after his family. Another legend says Hercules founded the city 400 years before the building of Rome. Somewhere along the line, the city became Barcelona, now firmly settled into the 21st century as the second largest city in Spain, capital of the semi-autonomous province of Catalonia and its fashion capital.

Many famous artists and architects have lived and worked in Barcelona and their dreams nurtured the life and excitement of the city. Everywhere we went history flourished just a few blocks from where we stood. Roman ruins are exposed under the Plaça del Rei, and the layout of the old historical centre: Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) of Barcelona retains the typical Roman city grid-planning style. Barcelona’s cathedral, also known as the Basilica de La Sue, was founded in 343 and has remnants of Roman walls embedded in its structure. Fought over for centuries by the Visigoths, Moors and Christians, Barcelona’s art and architecture is a living trail of cultures that passed through the city as history unfolded.

Outdoor cafés thrive throughout the city, and some are world famous. Take the café “Four Cats” or Els Quatre Gats. This café opened in 1897 and also operated as a hostel, cabaret, pub and restaurant. Around the turn of the century, Four Cats became one of the centres of Modernisme or, as we know it, art nouveau. The bar had revolving art exhibits including one of the first one-man shows by Pablo Picasso. The bar closed in 1903 because of the owner’s debts. In 1989, a group of restaurateurs reopened it. Today, you can enjoy the café’s creative atmosphere while dining, and imagining Picasso arguing with Dali and Miró about the finer points of painting.

Art nouveau’s influence abounds throughout the city - from store windows to whole buildings - especially in the work of architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí designed many architectural works in Barcelona and became synonymous with the city. His Cathedral of the Sacred Family (Sagrada Familia) was his greatest work. Gaudí died in 1926 with the Cathedral unfinished. Drive by the Cathedral today and see scaffolds, cranes, and workers still finishing Gaudí’s grand dream.

Did you know that the Eiffel Tower was originally to have been built in Barcelona for the 1888 World's Fair of lights and new technology? Time was too short so, voila, it was built in Paris for the next World's Fair. The Fair’s grounds are still there, but turned into a park with the same street lights that illuminated the Fair in 1888 - and they still work!

One of the earliest submarines was built in Barcelona. The Ictineo II was originally constructed in 1862 from the plans of Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol (1819 -1886), and the original Ictineo II navigated the waters of the Port of Barcelona. The Ictineo II was the first vehicle of its time to submerge and navigate below the surface of the water. A full-size replica of the sub can be seen at the harbour.

Christopher Columbus stopped at Barcelona’s harbour after his discovery of the new world, and there is a statue in the city of the great explorer shown pointing his finger in the wrong direction. He is pointing toward India, which he assumed he discovered - America was the other way.

Hotels in Barcelona range from five stars to modest. For example: the Hotel Continental Barcelona on Las Ramblas Avenue is a modest hotel overlooking the broad avenue and costs about $150 dollars a night and includes all meals, with food and espresso available mostly throughout the day. Many other hotels have similar deals. Las Ramblas Avenue, a major thoroughfare, is also the stage for many street performers. Night and day, Las Ramblas is alive with crowds of pedestrians meandering down this long delightful street.

There are many places where both tourists and city dwellers mingle. Families with kids watch puppet shows and eagerly grab balloons given out by performers. Seniors chat with their friends on park benches fitting in with the city’s ambience.

Barcelona’s old city of narrow streets can be difficult to navigate. A ride on a modern day super rickshaw is the best way to tour this part of the city. The bicycle driver - tour guide, can easily pull over for a quick shot of a monument or street scene. It’s no limousine, but at bicycle speeds, the small bumps are hardly noticeable and passengers are at eye level with pedestrians.

Barcelona has the only pre-modernist arch in the world that doesn’t celebrate a military victory; Arc de Triomf built in 1888. Speaking of arches, the architect who designed France’s Arc de Triomphe also designed a townhouse in Barcelona.

If you happen to be travelling along the Carrer de Provença, you might run by the Casa Milà, otherwise known as La Pedrera, an amazing apartment house designed by Antoni Gaudí, built 1906 to 1910. Located at 92 Passeig de Gràcia, it was originally built for the Milar family, a wealthy patron of Gaudí‘s. Much of its interior had been abandoned and allowed to deteriorate, but it has been restored and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Free concerts are held on the roof every day from 7-9 p.m. Programs consist of jazz, classic, piano and other special events.

For an unusual outdoor experience, visit Parc Güell, an extraordinary architectural outdoor environment designed by Gaudí, originally part of an unsuccessful real estate project and named for Count Eusebi Güell. The site was a rocky hill with few trees and little vegetation. Gaudí’s intention was to enhance the beautiful views from the site. Today, it is one of the premiere places to visit and enjoy in Barcelona, taking leisurely walks through the complex seeing Gaudí’s buildings integrated into the wide expanses of open space.

Barcelona is full of attractions. Good public transportation is available and is recommended. Special bus tours are also offered, as well as the metro. Museums are plentiful, including a special one just for Picasso. The El Parc de Collserola is a preserve of Mediterranean forests of pine and oak trees with fields of rockrose, heather and broom.

Montjuïc, a hill overlooking the city, has many fine art galleries. On the north side of the city, the Plaça de Braus was a former bullring that now features various performances and where The Beatles played in 1966. Behind it, lies Parc Joan Miró named after the famous artist. The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya has an extensive collection of Romanesque art. La Font Màgica, the largest fountain in Barcelona, features free musical shows on summer evenings. The Centre d'Estudis d'Art Contemporani is Barcelona's tribute to Joan Miró, the greatest Catalan artist of the 20th century and has the largest single collection of his work.

If we could stay six months in Barcelona, we still couldn’t see and do all that Barcelona has to offer. After all, a city that has its history written in millenniums defies easy understanding. The dream still lives and thrives, and will do so long into the 21st century.



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