Tag Archives: Catalan Independence

Travels in Spain, Plaça d’Espanya and Poble Espanyol in Barcelona

Palau Nacional de Catalunya

The train from Montserrat arrived back at Plaça d’Espanya in the middle of the afternoon and this was our chance to take a look at another famous district of Barcelona – Montjuïc, a flat top mountain area which overlooks the port and the city.

The Plaça d’Espanya was included in the plans for the expansion of Barcelona in the mid-nineteenth century and was laid out with wide boulevards and six main roads all converging on the centre of the square where there is a monumental statue surrounded by a Baroque colonnade.  It was completed in 1929 on the occasion of the International Exhibition which was held in this area of the City.

The statue at the centre is designed as an allegory representing all of Spain. Three sides with sculptures that symbolize the three principal rivers of the Iberian Peninsula,  Ebro, Guadalquivir, and Tagus, around the central sculpture, three decorated columns which symbolise  a Spanish/Catalan self-assessment of the qualities of themselves as a Nation – Religion, Heroism and Arts.

Plaça d'Espanya 2

The Plaça d’Espanya is a busy roundabout, on one side is the old bullring, now a shopping centre (because bull fighting is banned in Catalonia) and on the other are two bell-towers known as the Venetian Towers, on account of the fact that design and construction was heavily influenced by St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice.  From there a walk up a gentle gradient towards the imposing structure of the Renaissance style Palau Nacional, built in 1929 as the main exhibition hall and today The National Art Museum of Catalonia.

This is a lovely part of Barcelona that has a national and international ambiance with architecture borrowed and copied from across Europe and with buildings designed to give a representation of all of Spain.  A shame then that large areas of it were destroyed in the calamitous Spanish Civil war of 1936 to 1939.  Fortunately everything is now rebuilt and restored in the original style.

To illustrate this, at the centre of this Spanish showcase, next to the Palau Nacional, is an attraction called Poble Espanyol, built in 1929 and still there now as a tourist attraction.  I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities.  For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.

Poble-Espanyol-2

The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.

An interesting thing about the attraction is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop? So, I have looked it up; apparently the research designers were unable to organise a visit to the Canary Islands for economic reasons and LaRioja didn’t exist as an Autonomous Community of Spain until 1980.

We stayed around the area for a while but it was too late to visit the museum or the shops of Poble Espanyol so we stopped for a drink in the park and then made our way back to the metro.

Magic Fountain Barcelona

The route took us past a cascading waterfall and four ionic columns originally erected in 1919 to be a symbol of the Catalan Nation and its aspiration for self-governance and independence (the columns represent the stripes of the Catalan flag). The originals were demolished in 1928 under the orders of Madrid but were rebuilt in 2010. I understand the symbolism of the columns but to be honest I found them to be a little inconsistent with the area and a bit jarring on the eye.

Not so the adjacent Magic Fountain which was providing a fountain display where the water was dancing and leaping into the air with a cycle of changing routines. The fountain was commissioned to replace the four columns in time for the National Exhibition. It is a great spectacle but the best time to see it is at night time when the fountains are accompanied by a light show and music.

We weren’t staying close enough to return later (mid-June and not getting dark until quite late) so instead we returned to the same restaurant as the previous evening and instead of the fountain took night time pictures of the Sagrada Familia as an alternative.

Montjuic Columns

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

Catalonia, Girona and Final Moments

Girona Catalonia Spain

“A Nation (and its people) is an organised community with its myths, its rituals and its ways of behaving, its common history, imagination and beliefs”  Sami Naïr (Algerian born French political philosopher)

It is said that Girona  consistently wins a Spain country-wide poll of citizens on preferred places to live and  I had a really good feeling about the city and as we sat and sipped cool beer I thought that it might be a place that I could return to.

I used to think that it might be nice to sell up and go and live abroad but as I have got older I have abandoned the idea.  The reason for this is that I wouldn’t want to end up in a British ex-pat condominium and I imagine that living outside of this would bring its own problems.  I am English not Spanish or French and my character, behaviour and whole way of life has been created from an English heritage that, even if I wanted to, I could not lay aside and become something that I am not.  So I am happy with life now, I agree with Sami Naïr and I do not yearn for something different and let’s face it lots of people across the World would be pleased to be able to live in the United Kingdom.

But, now I have another idea.  It always annoys me when I see a poster advertising something that happened last week, before I arrived, or will take place next week, after I have gone home, so I think I could be happy to live for a while, say twelve months, in a different country so that I could enjoy everything that takes place over the course of a year in a Spanish town or city and I would be very happy to place Girona on my short list of potential places.  Later we walked past a famous statue of a lion climbing a pole and there is a story that if you reach up and kiss its arse then one day you will return but there was too much spit and dribble on its butt cheeks for me to take out this particular insurance policy.

After we had finished our drinks we went next to the archaeological gardens and walked a section of the city walls but it was intensely hot on the exposed high level walkway so we didn’t do anything like all of it, maybe about half,  just enough to admire the views over the city and towards the Pyrenees to the north and then returned to the welcome shade of the narrow streets.  They were good walls but in my opinion not as good as Ávila in Castilla y León or Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Girona Coloured Houses Catalonia Spain

We crossed the river again several times and then on the western side we came across the Plaça de la Independència, which, for the time being anyway, has nothing to do with the current separatist movement but celebrates the War of Independence against Napoleon Bonaparte.

Geographically the city is in an exposed and precarious position and over the course of history Girona has endured as many as twenty-five sieges which gives it the distinction of being one of the most besieged cities in all of Europe.

Especially by the French!

It was set upon by the royal armies of France under Charles de Monchy d’Hocquincourt in 1653, under Bernardin Gigault de Bellefonds in 1684, and twice in 1694 under Anne Jules de Noailles. In May 1809, it was besieged by thirty-five thousand French Napoleonic troops and held out obstinately until disease and famine compelled it to capitulate on the 12th December when finally the French conquered the city after seven months of siege.

The afternoon was slipping away now so it seemed sensible to find somewhere to eat before everywhere closed down for the late afternoon siesta so we wandered back to the tourist centre and unusually for Kim selected the first place that we came across.  Unusually because normally Kim always rejects the first place on some wierd theory that the next one will be better!  Anyway, not this time and we were welcomed in, sat down and fussed over and as this was our last meal before going home thought it appropriate to select a final paella and it was a good decision because we enjoyed a good menu del dia and the main course was delicious.

And now our time in Girona was coming to an end so after settling up for our lunch we left the restaurant and walked back the way that we had come, investigating more side streets,  steps and cobbles along the way until we reached the river and took the direct route back to the bus station for the return journey to the airport hotel.

The nicest thing that I can say about the hotel was that it was convenient.  We had chosen it because on the following morning we had a seven o’clock flight back to London Luton so it made sense to stay nearby but we were glad that we had eaten in Girona because the self service restaurant food didn’t look very appetising and all in all we were glad that we were only stopping there for just one night and we were happy to wake early the next morning and make our way to the departure lounge for the early flight home.

It had been a good journey – we enjoyed our time in Catalonia and I was beginning to firm up my ideas about coming back!

Girona Catalonia

Catalonia, A Historic Nationality and a Car Hire Scam

Girona Catalonia Post Card

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.”  –   George Orwell – ‘Homage to Catalonia’

The Ryanair flight was delayed for almost an hour due to a baggage handlers dispute at Barcelona airport so it was already early afternoon when the plane landed and we descended down the steps to the tarmac and into the Province of Girona where we would be spending most of our time on this visit.

It was hot, it was humid, it was bright and I could smell Spain or to be precise I should perhaps say Catalonia or Catalunya as many of the local population would prefer because this is a region of Spain, one of the seventeen Autonomous Communities, that is fiercely nationalist and has growing aspirations of independence from Spain and Madrid.

I had been to Catalonia before but on that occasion without knowing as much as I do now; that within the Spanish Constitution it is defined as a ‘Nationality’ and enjoys significant regional autonomy (as are the Basque Country and Galicia), it has its own distinct language and is culturally very different to the Spain of Castile.  There is no mention here of El Cid or Don Quixote but rather of Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali and in 2012 the Catalan parliament even banned the Spanish sport of bull fighting.

Antoni Gaudi Comillas Cantabria SpainSalvador Dali Surrealist Artist with Sea Shell

A bit of quick history – Catalonia was created by Charlemagne as a buffer state to protect the northern Frankish Empire from the threat of expansion by the Moors of Iberia and like all buffer states that has meant a turbulent history, squeezed between more powerful neighbours, its borders frequently rearranged, dismantled, absorbed and passed back and forth like a serving plate at a banquet depending upon the prevailing balance of power.

In 1492 Catholic Spain was united through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the new power based in Madrid favoured Seville and Cadiz over Catalonia for monopoly of the New World trade routes and sea power gradually declined; later there was conflict with Madrid again during the Thirty Year’s War and then The War of The Spanish Succession when the region seemed to have an unfortunate tendency to back the losing side and then suffer the inevitable consequences when it came to peace and settlement.

The most recent conflict came during and after the Spanish Civil War when Catalonia was one of the last Republican and Socialist areas to fall to the Nationalists of General Franco and then paid the price through years of recriminations, subjugation and suppression of its language and culture as the fascist government in Madrid set out to stamp the authority of Castile on its troublesome region.

Catalonia 2

I was hoping to learn more about this during our travels but before we could begin the journey we had to pick up the hire car.

I had booked with Solmar before and had always been pleased with them but this time there were some complications.  I had booked a small car group C vehicle but there were none available so I was told that we were being upgraded to a group B which on the face of it didn’t seem to be something to complain about but the upgraded vehicle turned out to be a Volkswagen Cabby which is a seven seater van rather than a compact car which was much bigger than we needed.

Even worse was that although it had seven seats it had no boot so there was nowhere to put our bags and coats out of sight of thieves and there was a big sticker in the window telling us not to leave bags and personal items on show – which was impossible.  We were planning to travel around of course which meant that we had an itinerary that involved stopping off now and again on route with our bags so the first thing that had to be done was a complete revision of the planned schedule.

The next thing that annoyed me was that Solmar have now introduced a ‘pick it up full, return it empty’ policy regarding fuel which means that they charge for sixty litres of fuel at an inflated price with about a 25% mark-up on the average pump price and hope that you don’t use it all so that they can then make a dishonest additional profit when charging for sixty litres of overpriced fuel to the next renter.

Actually, this is worse than dishonest – it is bordering on fraud or even theft because if they only have to put in thirty litres they charge for the full tank and in my opinion is bare-faced deception because they are billing for something they haven’t provided or incurred a cost for.  I was immediately determined that I would bring the car back with a tank so empty that I would be driving on fumes!

We weren’t going to use a lot of fuel today however because we were staying only a few kilometres from the airport at the Spa town of Caldes de Malavella just south of Girona and we arrived there quickly and without incident and as we pulled into the car park we were pleased with our choice of hotel, The Balneari Prats, which from the outside looked smart and grand.

At reception we completed the check-in formalities and then were given keys to room 101 and as we approached it down a worn out corridor I began to worry that this could just be a nightmare room.  And I wasn’t wrong because it was old and tired with heavy wooden shutters at the windows with vegetation creeping through which looked horribly like a certain home for dozens of mosquitoes.  I imagine that this could well have been a room that Orwell himself may have stayed in when on leave from fighting with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

There are some things that English people are not good at which include not complaining about a disappointing meal, not getting angry when people push in front at queues and not asking for a change of hotel room when it doesn’t live up to the description in the brochure.  I am exactly like this but I could tell from Kim’s demeanour that on this occasional I would have to act out of national character and ask for alternative accommodation.

Actually the hotel had an old part and a new part and getting changed was absolutely painless and simple and within ten minutes we had a modern room with a balcony for only €10 extra a night.

Balneari Prats Caldes de Malavella Catalonia