Most people, on hearing
the word 'Barcelona',
immediately think of the city
and not the province, the city
now being one of the most
fashionable in Europe, with its
colourful buildings by Gaudí and other Modernist architects
blossoming like well-watered
shrubs amidst the staid grey of
and with the winding streets of its Old City; and with the
ramrod straight ones of its Eixample district that was placed,
hat-like, just north of the Old City after permission was given in the late 19th century for the latter's stifling walls to be demolished; with the steep streets of Poble Sec that cling to the mountain of Montjuïc, interrupted by small squares
with fountains and cafés and small, family-run shops; with the seaside district of the Barceloneta, with its host of fish
restaurants and its tiny flats built in the 18th century for the
people ousted from Barcelona's centre by the Borbonic troops.
Barcelona, with its stadiums and theatres, its countless eateries, serving not only Catalan dishes but ones from all over Spain and just about every other country in the world: a relatively recent development, given that as late as the 1980s, a foreign restaurant was almost as rare as a tourist on an industrial estate. Barcelona, where you can go mountain-hiking and sea- bathing on the same day, where countless cultural activities take place every day: concerts, poetry readings, art shows, book presentations... Barcelona, with its public parks that house miniature trains, palaces, mazes, upside down pillars, zoos and parliament buildings, depending on whether you visit the Oreneta, the Pedralbes, the Laberint d'Horta, the Güell or the Ciutadella, respectively (and there are plenty more). Barcelona is a cornucopia of a city, forever flowing, and the whole place – when taken in from the heights of one of its two mountains at night – looks and feels like one huge, highly desirable glittering prize. Or at least it did when I gazed down on it not long after my arrival.
Packed closely around the outskirts of Barcelona proper, like so much protective cladding, are a series of towns which – together with the Catalan capital itself – make up what is called the Metropolitan Area. Towns such as Sant Adrià de Besòs, Santa Coloma, Badalona, L'Hospitalet de Llobregat (Catalonia's second largest city) and Cornellà de Llobregat (Catalonia's most densely populated one) are separated from Barcelona by only a street or two, yet function as independent metropolises, with their own town halls, shopping malls, cultural centres, varied selections of bars and restaurants, and so on. Most of them were built up in the 'Sixties and 'Seventies to house some one and a half million people coming from southern and north- western Spain, to seek (and usually find) work in Catalonia. Other, smaller, towns in the Metropolitan Area are known as 'dormitory cities', which is a polite way of saying they're dull. I recall a Saturday night in one of them – Sant Feliu de Llobregat – in which the most exciting thing my friends and I found to do was eat, badly, in a Chinese restaurant.
The province of Barcelona is easily reachable from the city. If you head up to the tip of the province for example, you come to Berga, a town built on a mountainside, with an annual pagan-based festival called the Patum, recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage; also there is the writer Jordi Cussà, who taps out his unique novels about drug addiction and epic history from a glass bubble that gives onto a cliff; and it's also famous for a tendency amongst many of its inhabitants to use profanities by way of a friendly greeting ('Morning, you bastard!'). Moving south-east from Berga, you eventually hit Vic, which has one of the most impressive main squares – in terms of both size and the attractiveness of the buildings on its edges – in Catalonia. Vic was one of the centres of the Catalan literary renaissance of the 19th century and remains culturally active, what with a major international music festival, a slew of cultural associations and bookshops, and the physical presence of many poets, musicians and writers both in the town itself and the plain the surrounds it ('la Plana de Vic'). It's also famous - like Tremp in the province of Lleida - for its charcuterie, on abundant sale in several shops in the old centre.
The province of Barcelona is also home to two towns that kick-started the first industrial revolution in southern Europe: Terrassa and Sabadell, the latter dubbed the 'Manchester of Catalonia' by its own inhabitants in the latter half of the 19th century, a term later also used to describe Terrassa, both of them transformed back then from rural towns into textile- churning 'factory cities' on the English model. The remnants of their industrial heyday – tall, thin chimneys and the odd warehouse – have been carefully preserved and Terrassa has an entire museum dedicated to the prosperity (and working-class suffering) of those times.
There are plenty of other interesting towns in Barcelona province (Manresa, Igualada, Granollers...) and of course there is the stand-alone mountain range of Montserrat, with its clustered, bulbous rocks, its Black Virgin and its night-time UFO spotters at weekends. But it's more fun – perhaps – to go 176 down to the sea, starting with the village of Sitges, which, with just under 30,000 inhabitants, punches well above its weight in cultural terms, with a major International Film Festival specialising in science fiction and fantasy, and an equally international carnival. Not only that, but it also has the Cau Ferrat museum, the Modernist former home of artist, novelist and morphine addict Santiago Rusiñol, where he used to get roaring drunk with artist friends, including the teenage Picasso.
East of Barcelona is the Costa del Maresme – literally, the ‘Swamp Coast’ – which has nothing marshy about it, being a succession of beaches ranging from Badalona to Blanes, with Mataró, the capital of the Maresme canton, planted in the middle. The area is so built-up that along that entire stretch there is barely a single break between the seafront houses, each village merging seamlessly into the next. Yet these contiguous coastal villages vary greatly; Caldes d'Estrac, for example, has a preponderance of late 19th century and early 20th century buildings; next to Caldes d’Estrac is Arenys de Mar, with its daily fish auction and its cheap fish restaurants adjoining the fish market; next to Arenys is Canet with its endless promenade and its yearly mega concert of Catalan rock; and on and on, until you reach the end of Costa del Maresme and the southern tip of the Costa Brava, in the province of Girona, which is where we will end this lightning tour of Catalonia.