If you visit Barcelona it’s easy to walk down the Ramblas or lounge around the beaches of Barceloneta and feel surrounded by all things Spanish. Everything’s laid back, with beach bars doing a roaring trade in sangria, buskers belting out flamenco classics, and paella on every menu.
But the reality is much more complex. For all that the streets of Barcelona may be thronged with millions of visitors every year, not far beneath the surface of this international destination is a unique local culture, language and landscape.
Subtly Spanish or completely Catalan?
The tourist industry may continue to do a roaring trade in hand-held fans and badly painted pottery, but you don’t have to wander far from the city’s tourist traps to work out that Barcelona isn’t nearly as Spanish as it seems. In fact, if there’s one rule to getting along with locals it’s to avoid using ‘Spanish’ as an adjective – everything that makes Barcelona famous, from its football team to its architecture, is firmly rooted in its Catalan identity. For many commentators, Catalonia’s recent ban on bullfighting was just another attempt to be different from the rest of Spain – rather than a desire to save some long-suffering bulls.
‘El seny’ and ‘la rauxa’
These two terms mean roughly ‘common sense’ and ‘outburst’, and taken together they sum up the two sides of the Catalan character.
On one hand, hard work, diligence and common sense are celebrated here – a stark contrast to the notorious ‘mañana’ approach of other parts of Spain. On the other, you can see signs of ‘la rauxa’ in Barcelona’s unbeatable reputation as a cultural capital and a city of festivals. Not to mention the locals’ approach to driving.
When it comes to entrepreneurship the Catalans really are in a league of their own, producing over a quarter of Spain’s exports and boasting a GDP per capita closer to Germany’s than southern Europe’s. This wealth has long provoked derision – one popular Spanish joke claims that wire was invented by two Catalans pulling on a coin.
Even if you don’t have an interest in the complex cultural history of the Iberian Peninsula, it’s worth being aware of just how complicated regional differences are in modern-day Spain. With Catalonia’s partly self-governing status of an ‘autonomous community’ public life here is dominated by Catalan nationalism.
It’s not hard to see why. From medieval times to the last century, Catalonia has struggled to maintain its individual identity in the face of oppression. A strong sense of place has been moulded by an often tragic history, particularly during the Spanish Civil War – Barcelonans have the unhappy distinction of being the first civilian population targeted by sustained air raids.
The dark days of the Franco era saw the execution of Lluís Companys, the president of the radical Catalan government of the 1930s, and thousands of others who didn’t fit in with the brutal new regime. However with the end of the Spanish dictatorship in the late 1970s and the transfer of substantial powers back to the Generalitat de Catalunya (the devolved Catalan government) a new period of prosperity and cultural confidence began.
Catalonia – the land behind Barcelona
Geography plays a major part in obscuring the rest of Catalonia, away from the bustling, business-obsessed Barcelona, from urban view. On one side the Collserola Mountains hem in the narrow coastal plain of the city while the Mediterranean sea forms a natural boundary on the other.
But with tree-covered mountain ranges stemming from the Pyrenees, secluded valleys and excellent vineyards, there’s a whole lot more to Catalonia than its capital city and coastal resorts. The historic city of Girona and the spectacular natural wonder of Montserrat alone (Catalonia’s unique ‘jagged mountain’) are essential places to visit if you want to see the other faces of this aspiring nation.
The delicate steps of the Sardana, the Catalan national folkdance, may seem geriatric in comparison to the feistiness of the flamenco, but no amount of jeering from the rest of Spain will stop proud Catalans joining hands and using it to mark special occasions. A more muscular tradition is the building of dizzyingly tall human towers, called ‘castellers’ – the highpoint of many a Catalan festival.
And if there’s one thing that fortifies Catalan identity, it’s language. Despite the best attempts of the Franco regime to stamp it out, Catalan, with its major literary tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, has started to thrive once again. Today it has around six million speakers in Catalonia and neighbouring regions, largely thanks to the local government’s policy of ‘linguistic normalisation’, which has made into an official tongue. If you visit Barcelona you are guaranteed to encounter it all over the city.