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Unassailable proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Barcelona over the centuries has been buffeted by invading forces, fleeced by trade restrictions and strangled by autocratic central governments – and every time has bounced back prouder and more audacious.
After the ‘grey years’, the interminable period between the end of the civil war and Franco’s dying breath, there was a huge zest for change, to move on to a new era. It stoked the desire to transform the city itself, while the bid for the 1992 Olympics and then the Games themselves provided extra incentive, not to mention cash. The finest architects and urban planners were persuaded to take part in this vision.
The axis upon which the project spun was the idea to ‘turn Barcelona around’ to face the sea, creating whole swathes of beach from what was virtual wasteland. Ugly high-rises flung up during the Franco regime were pulled down, derelict blocks razed to provide open spaces and parkland, and world-class artists and sculptors – Roy Lichtenstein, James Turrell, Claes Oldenburg and Rebecca Horn among them – commissioned to brighten up street corners.
Along with the creation of the new Barcelona in bricks and mortar went the promotion of Barcelona’s concept, a seductive cocktail of architecture, imagination, tradition, style, nightlife and primary colours. Helped, in large part, by the legacy of Gaudí and his Modernista contemporaries, which provided the city with a unique foundation both architecturally and in spirit, this was perhaps the most spectacular, and certainly the most deliberate, of Barcelona’s reinventions. It succeeded in large part because this image of creativity and vivacity – what writer Rose Macaulay described as its ‘tempestuous, surging, irrepressible life and brio’ – simply fitted well with an idea of the city already held by many of its citizens. Thrown into the mix were the core values of nationalist pride and a delight in traditional ways, from dancing the sardana in front of the cathedral, to wheeling out papier-mâché giants and fire-breathing pantomime dragons at the first hint of a celebration.
Barcelona’s love of eccentricity had already brought about a wealth of quirky museums (such as those devoted to shoes, perfume, sewers, funeral carriages and mechanical toys), to which more were added. Its handsome but grimy façades were buffed up, its streets renamed and its churches restored. The glittering, buoyant result make the drab decades seem nothing but a collective bad dream.
Emirates flies to Barcelona via London from about Dhs8,275 return (including taxes).
Where to stay
The Market Hotel (+34 933 251 205; www.markethotel.com.es)
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