Monday, January 16, 2012

Old Barcelona of Catalunya

Situated on the shore of western Mediterranean Sea at the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, Barcelona is a major cultural center and one of the most beautiful cities of the world.  It is the second largest city of Spain with a population of 1.7 million.  It is the capital of Catalunya, an Autonomous Community of Spain that is consisted of four provinces - Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona.  To understand Barcelona and Catalan people, one needs to go back in time to appreciate its roots and changing geopolitical significance.  

Catalunya has an area of 32,000+ Km2 which is about the size of Maryland state of U.S. and a little smaller than Taiwan.  Remains of ancient Neolithic people from over 4000 years ago have been found in the area.  Being on the Mediterranean Sea, it was colonized by ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago who settled around the Roses area.  

The Iberia Peninsula was never immune from the continuous wars in Europe, despite of being isolated from the rest of the Europe on land by the Pyrenees mountain ranges between France and Spain that peak over 10,000 ft at places.  It was on the side of Phoenician’s Ancient Carthage (located in what is today Tunisia) against the Roman Republic who were vying for the supremacy in the western Mediterranean Sea.  

Although Hannibal (247–183 BC) had led Carthaginians and allies crossed over the Alps with impressive victories in its legendary surprise land attack of Romans in the 17 years long Second Punic War (208-201 BC), Romans eventually prevailed and emerged as the dominant power over Mediterranean Sea and the area became a colony of Roman Empire for the next 400 years.  

After the collapse of Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Visigothic Kingdom, one of the Germanic successor states of the Empire controlled the region till the early 8th century when Muslim Moors of the Umayyad Caliphate conquered Iberia Peninsula at the beginning of the 8th century.  Unlike Andalusia of the southern Spain which was ruled by Moors for the ensuing 800 years, Catalunya regained autonomy after only a brief occupation and became a buffer state under the protection of the Frankish Kingdom of the north.  Indeed Barcelona was the political center of the Count of Barcelona which ruled Catalunya from 9th till 17th century. At its peak, Crown of Aragon which was formed by the dynastic union of Aragon and the County of Barcelona  in 1137 ruled the western Mediterranean Sea with outlying territories in Naples and Sicily and reached as far as Athens in the 13th century.

Barcelona was made into a fort around 15 BC by Romans.  Today one can still see the foundation stone laid by the Romans at the Temple d’August near the Plaça Sant Jaume.  While the old Roman city wall is no longer visible, one can navigate through the narrow stone-slab streets of the old city that evolved, grew and expanded over the next two thousand years through the Middle Ages to become today’s Barcelona.  

To explore and enjoy the city without worrying about transportation, we chose to stay at an inexpensive but nice and modern “minimalist” Hotel Curious in the Ciutat Vella (means Old City in English) district.  It is conveniently located on a street right off La Rambla, a 0.7 miles long street of Barcelona that connects Plaça de Catalunya with the 200 ft tall Monument a Colom next to the port.  La Rambla was built on a dry river bed and now the busiest street of Barcelona.  It has a wide pedestrian mall in the middle that is filled with tourist and locals, café tables/seats, souvenir and flower stands, as well as street performers.  Here is an evening shot of it and an interesting street performer who manages to float in the air indefinitely and none of us could figure out how it was done.

The north end of the street is Plaça de Catalunya which is the major transportation hub of Barcelona and where the old medieval Barcelona meets the expansion since 19th century.  Walking southeast towards to the Mediterranean Sea, one will soon pass by La Boqueria, a large 800 years old traditional market popular with locals and tourists alike. A little further south, near the staircase to the Metro Liceu station, you will see, if you look down, the pavement mosaic by the famed Catalan artist Joan Miró.  If you look up, the building at the left has an unusual façade with decoration of umbrellas as it was initially an umbrella store.  A few steps further, the 165 years old Gran Teatre del Liceu, or simply Liceu, stands at the right which is one of the premier European opera houses where Wagner's Lohengrin was first performed in 1883.  It is still active today presents frequently Italian and German operas and ballets.  Below are some photos of these scenes.


At the southern end of La Rambla near the Sea, there stands the Monument a Colom which was completed in 1888 at the site where Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Americas.  Ironically, it was Columbus’ expedition of Americas in 1492 that marked the beginning of the Spanish Empire and the shift of economic center of Europe away from Mediterranean to Atlantic and thus diminished the economic and political importance of Barcelona/Catalunya. The Catholic Monarchs (bestowed by Pope in 1496) of the dynastic union of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (in 1469) who shaped the colonial and modern Spain had its court in Toledo of Castile.  The court of the Catholic Monarchs was later moved to Madrid in 1561 that became the political center of Spain till this day.

East of La Rambla, a 2-3 hours tour of the maze like Barri Gòtic quarter streets will take you back two thousand years and walk you through the medieval times.  Walking north on Carrer del Bisbe Irurita Catedral from the Plaça Sant Jaume where city hall is located, you see the beautiful Bishop Bridge” that connecting the old residence and office of the bishop which is now the Presidential Palace of Catalunya. Further up the street, tugged away behind the alley on the left, is the tranquil Baroque Plaça de Sant Felip Neri.  It is hard to imagine a little over 70 years ago in the morning on January 30th, 1938, bombs were dropped there and many civilians including children were killed by Franco’s warplanes during the three years Spanish Civil War.  The history has not been forgotten, nor did the stone façade of the church that was permanently scarred and still protesting silently to this date

Turning to east, one comes to the 700 years old grand Gothic Barcelona Cathedral which is dedicated to Eulalia of Barcelona, co-patron saint of Barcelona.  Behind the Cathedral, one can find a gothic cloister where 13 white geese are kept to memorialize the fact that Eulalia was 13 when she was martyred.  Southeast of the Cathedral is the Palau Reial Major that was the royal residence of the counts of Barcelona and Kings of Aragon.  In its complex, there is the 14th century gothic Salo del Tinell room where Queue Isabel and King Fernando received Columbus after his return from America.  It was also where the Spanish Inquisition (of Barcelona) took place.  It was believed that the walls of the room would move if the accused are not truthful !

To get a sense of the Catalan culture and arts that thrived through the medieval days of Europe, one must visit the wonderful National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC).  It is housed in the Palau Nacional on Montjuïc hill, overlooking the Plaça d'Espanya and Font Màgica fountain below. The museum has one of the best collections of Romanesque (10th-13th century) arts in the world.  Of particular importance are its unique collections of murals and sculptures of Romanesque churches and chapels on Pyrenees mountains of Catalunya (see photos below).  They remind me of the murals found at places like Mogao Caves of China which were painted between 5th to 14th century (corresponding to the Middle Ages) but at a much larger scale.

MNAC is organized in galleries by period, from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and finally Modern era.  Strolling through these galleries in chronological order, one gets a distinct impression in few hours of the changing time and society over one thousand years.  In particular, the trend and development towards to humanism is unmistaken.  The subjects of the artists have become increasingly secular and diverse.  The story tellings and expressions have gone from completely religious focus to the other extreme of self-examinations. 

This concludes my highlights of Old Barcelona.  Next stop is the Modern Barcelona.  Talk to you soon!

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