Orienting oneself in Barcelona is fabulously easy; it is a supremely legible city. There are the mountains, and behind me is the sea; the streets follow their regular lines, the districts each different in feeling. The city map is easily carried in the mind.
“That’s the worst of girls,’ said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. ‘They never can carry a map in their heads.’
‘That’s because our heads have something inside them,’ said Lucy.”
– C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
I could prove Edmund quite wrong; my mind maps compulsively. He is wrong, though, on another level, too: everyone carries maps in their minds. It is simply that the form and type and nature of the map varies, sometimes radically, from person to person.
These maps are intricately caught up with how people understand, navigate and remember the places they find. City becomes legend.
Barcelona is a remarkable city for its sense of suspension in time. It wears the present lightly.
It is constantly changing into the present, moving on and through and perhaps it is this willingness which makes it strong. Without clingy historicism, with a belief that the new will be better, in openness to change without desperation, it finds a self-confidence.
Spain is in a state of turmoil. Property bust, unemployment, bankrupt state, damaged labour market, overspent and overstretched and overwhelmed. Yet the city seemed to treat it with as much regard as the clouds overhead: the people gathered in the streets, too, will drift away and back and on in time, and the city will remain.
Conservation, not preservation.
This spills into the buildings: see the delicate interventions in the Museo Picasso, the way concrete is poured smooth against stone and glass doors float in old archways. See the bold Mercat Santa Caterina with its Catalan waved roof, colourburst, swept in among the tight-narrow streets, partnered in dance with the Catedral. See the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, new courts in old building, marble and shade against terracotta.
See Cerda. See the Olympics. See Roman to Gothic, Moors, trading and twisting its way between the mountains and the sea, Ruiz Zafon, Orwell, Gaudi, Mendoza, Dali all turning through time and the buildings respond.
To me, it reads as a city caught between its two worlds, the before and the beyond.
To its north, haughty and historic cultural worlds – of Paris and London, Bath, St. Etienne, Versailles, the Loire – richness bound up in tradition where change is a threat and the new is met with wariness or indifference or dismissal.
To the south, Valencia, the Mediterranean and the Atlas, Algiers, Sahara, Lagos and Niamey. Less developed, less precious, the cities swelling into slums, grasping for the new, modern world while still clinging to routine, to family, to community – enduring, embedded values and habits and rituals.
Barcelona takes a little of each: of the style and fashion and powerful age, of passion and ease, of community and independence, and adds to them its own Catalan spirit, and so emerges the spirit of the city.
‘The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.’
– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust