Independence in Barcelona

By David Cogswell

Barcelona was a perfect choice for the grand finale of Trafalgar’s Spanish Wonder tour. Barcelona! The very name brings romantic images and pleasurable sensations to mind. We departed early from Valencia to get a good start on the day. We already had the biggest driving day under our belt, the trip from Seville to Valencia. The trip to Barcelona would only take a few hours. We would get to Barcelona with a good part of the day left to enjoy.

About half way from Valencia to Barcelona we stopped off for a quick break at Peniscola, a small holiday spot on a strip of land with water on both sides. It was about 10 a.m. and the little beach town was barely opening its eyes. The sky was overcast so the beach seemed to be in a hibernation mode. But even at such an off moment, it was easy to see what a paradise it is when the sun comes out. We stopped for about 45 minutes.

The group dispersed from the motorcoach and people made use of the pit stop according to their individual whims. Some took a quick hike to a medieval church on a promontory looking out over the Mediterranean, just above where we parked. It was memorable to some for its appearance in the movie “El Cid”. Others had refreshments at a restaurant that opened early to cater to tour groups passing through in the morning. I took a stroll by whitewashed buildings along the beach road, the Avinguda d’Akra Leuke.. Though hardly anything was open I found one tiny restaurant that was ready to serve me an espresso and a muffin. I could watch the beach through the front door from where I sat. I spent awhile just taking in the charming surroundings. The sun even came out for a little while, giving a hint of the glory of the beach on a sunny day. Peniscola was a place you could fall in love with in a few minutes. But we had to press on to Barcelona. It was a good place to take note of, however, as a charming place for an exotic beach holiday.

We regrouped at the coach and in a couple of hours we made it to Barcelona, a gem upon the surface of the earth, just dripping with rich culture and spirit. One of the most striking impressions of Barcelona is its strong self image as an independent entity in its own right. According to our local guide’s descriptions, later backed up by other sources, Catalunyans seem to submit to being part of Spain with some reluctance, or at best disdain. Historically Catalunya only consented to join the newly formed Spanish kingdom of Fernando and Isabella on the condition that its rights would be respected. Though Spain is a federation of semi-autonomous regions, Barcelona is the one that is economically self-sufficient and really could conceivably get along without a connection to Madrid or any national administration.

The Catalunyans still maintain their own language, Catalan, not just in their homes, but on street signs and public communications. The city still resonates with a pride and dignity that George Orwell must have experienced when he went to Barcelona in 1936 to write articles on the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was so dazzled by the Catalunyans for being the first people to make a stand against the fascists that he joined the militia.

In his book “Homage to Catalonia” Orwell wrote that the anti-fascist spirit in Barcelona was “startling and overwhelming.” When the resistance broke out, Orwell wrote, “It is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently was democracy standing up to Fascism. For years past the so-called democratic countries had been surrendering to Fascism at every step. The Japanese had been allowed to do as they like in Manchuria. Hitler had walked into power and proceeded to massacre political opponents of all shades. Mussolini had bombed the Abyssinians while 53 nations made pious noises ‘off.’ But when Franco tried to overthrow a mildly left-wing government the Spanish people, against all expectation, had risen against him. It seemed -- possibly it was -- the turning of the tide.”

My encounter with Barcelona reminded me that when visiting old cities, it helps to turn what you think you know about it upside down. My school books taught me first of Spain and only later did I learn about Barcelona, as a city in Spain. But like most cities and Europe, it was established as a city long before the national boundaries we recognize today were drawn.

Barcelona’s independent spirit made it especially appropriate for Trafalgar to structure it into the itinerary as mostly free time. We had a quick tour of the city with a local guide when we arrived. She showed us the basic layout of the city and a few particularly compelling sights, like the Sagrada Familia, a temple designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. Begun in 1882 and still unfinished, it’s one of the wildest buildings you will ever see. With towering spires and modern-looking sculptures it’s a strange, almost cartoon-like concoction of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles.

We had two nights in Barcelona and the second day was free until the farewell dinner. It gave everyone a chance to tie up loose ends, do last-minute shopping, packing or organizing, or explore the sights and attractions. For some the Trafalgar Spanish Wonder tour was just a leg in a larger trip. Some booked extra days to stay on in Barcelona. Others went on to other destinations, or joined other tours. One couple just went on to the next of many tours strung back to back. A retired couple based on the Gold Coast in Australia, they travel six months of the year, and divide the remaining time between Australia and Hawaii. These were some happy campers! Don, the man of the couple, was in full party mode nonstop. A Coke-drinker, he was the full-time class clown, the instigator of a good time for all, always spreading cheer and good will. As the members of the group bid each other fond farewells, I wondered how much more cheerful any of us might be if we could travel six months of the year.

-- David Cogswell

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