Enchanting Barcelona

- John L. Silva () - September 26, 2004 - 12:00am
Barcelona was my summer destination this year. A unique exposition, the Forum Barcelona 2004, has been ongoing for the past months. The city’s continued efforts to preserve their architectural heritage has been a tourist draw. And, for Filipinists, the city in the late 19th century was home to Filipino students, some of them later to become our national heroes.

Despite the title, the Forum Barcelona is an expo of sorts, a $4 billion extravaganza, ongoing until the end of September. But, true to its radical past, the host city has taken the expo/world’s fair theme to a much higher plane. A former run-down port site at the edge of Barcelona has been transformed into a vast United Nations playground.

The Forum is a global cultural-intellectual—interactive site with themes like sustainable development, diversity and the quest for peace. Multimedia exhibits pay homage to the world’s 5,000 languages and throughout the site, displays show low-technology inventions that have helped under-developed countries. Daily forums with speakers from all over the world cover subjects from eco-tourism to the benefits of Esperanto. There are grand exhibitions like the Chinese terra-cotta warriors of Xian as well as provocative and inspiring temporary exhibitions on peace from participating museums.

It seems a natural for Barcelona to raise the expo/world’s fair concept to a livelier, more urgent world-bonding get-together. The city hosted a Universal Exposition in 1888, a world’s fair in 1929, and the 1992 Olympics. At each event Barcelona benefited with new urban development, parks, modern infrastructure, extensive public transport systems and, of course, more tourist dollars.

I was traveling light so I hopped on an airport bus to take me to my hotel, two blocks from the heart of the city. My heart began to race when the bus stopped at Plaza Espanya where the grand buildings of the 1929 World’s Fair still stand, gleaming like new and, at a distance on the heights of Montjuic, looms the awesome National Museum of Barcelona.

My hotel, the Apsis Atrium, is exactly what I wished for when I reserved it online: an old refurbished building with hip, minimalist interiors. My seventh floor view included rooftops, Montjuic and that delightful Mediterranean sunlight.

I didn’t waste time in my room and, with satchel and camera, set off to the first pilgrimage site one must see when in Barcelona.

Oh, Gaudi! Oh, Gaudi," I repeat his name as I gaze again in wonder over the unusual houses he built on the main commercial boulevard, the Passeig de Gracia. It’s stupefying to see the undulating, whimsical curves on the buildings, with bulbous wrought iron grills, defiant colors and sensual mosaic patterns. Ensconced on a principal street surrounded with more staid bourgeois buildings, the uniqueness of Gaudi’s architecture and its universal acclaim today is a testament to Barcelona’s air of artistic freedom. I am premature in my accolades because in the following days, the city’s architectural diversity will overwhelm me.

One becomes appreciative of old buildings in mid-life. I’ve seen Makati go through several generations of buildings on just one site. I’ve returned to places around the world which are no longer recognizable, the postcard setting gone. So, when familiar buildings or houses of my youth still stand, resisting change, they become kin to me in the happiness that we have survived. The building proudly displays itself once more and I am the youth again gushing over its beauty.

On the grounds of the former 1929 Barcelona International Exposition is the sleek, low slung Mies van der Rohe Pavilion. If Gaudi was the iconoclast for turn-of-the-century architecture, Mies van der Rohe was the equivalent a generation later.

The pavilion is a thin, long rectangular building made of onyx and marble, with walls of glass, a pool on one side and a smaller pool on the other with a sculpture of a maiden entitled "Morning". It is totally unadorned and its minimalist look must have been a breathtaking contrast to the mostly classical buildings built for the Exposition. Inside are a set of van der Rohe designed tubular steel chairs with leather cushions made specifically for the pavilion and now famously known as the Barcelona chair. Unfortunately, Mies van der Rohe later became a Nazi sympathizer but his architectural influence would be his saving legacy, found in many "International" style buildings after World War II in the United States, Europe, Japan and even in the Philippines.

Barcelona has the distinction of recycling old buildings into cultural centers. The four-storey Museum of the History of Catalonia was once a 19th century building full of old general stores catering to the nearby Port of Barcelona. The Biblioteca Catalunya was a former hospital dating back to the 12th century. The Picasso Museum is five medieval palaces joined together by walkways. And the superb Maritime Museum is housed in a 13th century shipyard.

Since Barcelona cares for its heritage structures and doesn’t change street signs at a whim, it isn’t difficult to find the places where our heroes stayed and walked the streets. For many of them, like Graciano Lopez Jaena, Marcelo H. del Pilar and Jose Rizal, Barcelona was the first Spanish city they saw after landing in the French port of Marseilles in the latter half of the 19th century. Most of them lived in the bohemian and gritty neighborhoods of El Raval and Barrio Chino and today, many landmarks of interest to Philippine historians are found here.

First, there is Hotel España at Carrer de Sant Pau just several hundred meters away from the Ramblas. There is a brass plaque at the entrance proudly stating how Rizal was their guest on his first arrival in Barcelona in 1882. In his letter to his family, however, Rizal was not too pleased with the accommodations, having been spoiled earlier by more elegant accommodations in Marseilles. I can understand Rizal’s critique over a century later. I coincidentally stayed at the same hotel years back. The room was not clean (probably the very one Rizal stayed in too), and so I checked out the very next day.

But the hotel retains some aesthetic charm. The dining room at the rear has all its walls gaily painted with sea nymphs and fishes. And a Filipino waiter will tell you where exactly Rizal sat for breakfast.

Then there’s No. 3 Calle Sitges, the first apartment Rizal stayed in on his first visit in 1882.

In a letter to his family, Rizal’s initial impressions of Barcelona were a slight letdown after having been entranced with Naples and Marseilles. But he thought Barcelona women prettier and after having met fellow Filipinos–particularly Thomas Cabangis who would be his roommate on Calle Sitges–Rizal began to discover "… in this city, gems and riches; pretty and elegant houses of varied architecture, Arabic and Greco-Roman…I regard it with pleasure."

It may have been at this address too that Rizal wrote his first essay in Spanish entitled "El Amor Patrio." Having arrived in a Spain that, a half century earlier, revolted and ended monastic rule, Rizal dedicated this loving article to his country "…where slumbers all of a past, and all of a future can be glimpsed."

If you walk due north, parallel to the Ramblas, you’ll reach the University of Barcelona where Tomas Cabangis was studying medicine. Today, inside the university walls are enchanting courtyards and walkways, the very same ones Rizal walked in. Rizal though, following his brother Paciano’s advise, would decide after three months in Barcelona to move to and study in Madrid.

Going back to the Ramblas on the western side very near the Placa de Catalunya is the Ateneo Barcelones, an old progressive institution which in the 19th century held forums sympathetic to the Republican cause. It was there in 1889 that Graciano Lopez Jaena gave his speech on "The Philippines at the Universal Exposition of Barcelona." Lopez Jaena’s acerbic political essays were to the left of both Jose Rizal and Marcelo Del Pilar. If Rizal made satire of the friars, Lopez Jaena minced no words in his utter revulsion for them. By the time Rizal arrived in Barcelona, Lopez Jaena who had come several years earlier, was drawn to anarchism and socialist writings and was well published in several of Barcelona’s progressive newspapers.

Lopez Jaena’s speech at the Ateneo Barcelones on February 25, 1889 was a lengthy, well-applauded discourse on the beauty of and the abundant resources of his native land. Unfortunately, he added, the Philippine commercial articles and works of art that were on display at the Barcelona Exposition were of inferior quality, which gave exposition visitors a negative image of his country. He blamed the friars for having sent shoddy exhibition material to make the country look backward and the natives lazy. He accused the friars of lying and misrepresenting the country and being parasites. Amidst enthusiastic and prolonged applause, Lopez Jaena ended his speech with a call to fellow Catalans to increase their trade with the Philippines, bring prosperity and free the country from the "…oppressive monasticism dominating her people."

I was reading his speech from a borrowed book in the quiet library of the Ateneo overlooking a peaceful garden. I felt for the first time how this Catalan city and province with its own feisty history of independence from the Madrid Government would foster and encourage the same feelings among Filipino radicals like Lopez Jaena.

The most stirring place to visit for Philippine history buffs is the lofty Castell de Montjuic, the one-time castle and fortress lodged on a high hill with dramatic views of the sea and the city. Until the death of the fascist dictator Generalissimo Franco in 1975, the castle had been hated for centuries for having been a prison for dissidents, particularly Catalan nationalists. Our own JoseRizal had the sad distinction of having been imprisoned there as well.

After four years of exile in Dapitan, Zamboanga, Rizal’s request to be a medical doctor for the Spanish Army in Cuba was approved. On September 3, 1896, he boarded a boat for the trip to Spain and, eventually, Havana. Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, his safe passage was rescinded. He was accused of being part of the Katipunan Revolution, which was then just several weeks old and spreading in the Philippines. On October 3rd, his ship reached Barcelona and at three o’clock in the morning of the 6th, he was roused from his sleep, ordered ashore and, with two suitcases, forced to walk up the steep mountainside to the Castell and locked up in a cell.

Today, to get up to the castle, you board a modern funicular, built for the 1992 Olympics which takes you up to an intermediate stop halfway up Montjuic. From there you either take a cable car or a bus to the very top where the Castell sits.

The Castell is now a museum of military history with no sign of dingy dungeons and torture racks. Instead, military armor, swords, cannons, uniforms and rooms of toy soldiers in formation are exhibited with great care, reminding visitors of the many wars Spain has been through and the armaments of war it had developed.

An occasional window with thick bars affording a view of the city below or the Mediterranean give a somber glimpse of what Rizal may have seen. Barcelona was his first Spanish sojourn 14 years earlier, with happy memories of being enthralled by its dynamism and intellectual ferment. Now he was in its most hated prison, viewing the city under more horrible circumstances. In 24 hours, he was handcuffed and placed on a Manila bound ship carrying, incidentally, Spanish troop re-enforcements to fight the Katipuneros.

Barcelona has its share of renowned artist-activists. Pablo Picasso spent his formative years there, later earning for the city the Picasso Museum. Its current temporary exhibition, in conjunction with the Forum’s theme of peace, is a timeline, through photographs and his paintings, of Picasso’s efforts to promote peace.

Picasso’s revulsion to war is first seen in his dramatic black and white painting called Guernica, a tribute to a town that had been aerial bombed in 1937 by Nazi bombers during the Spanish Civil War. By 1944 he joined the French Communist Party and right after the war, participated in many peace conferences, using doves in his drawings and lithographs as an emblem of world peace.

At the Miro Foundation, the modern art museum of Barcelona native Joan Miro, there is a Forum related exhibition entitled "The Beauty of Failure/The Failure of Beauty". Its installations are quite pointed and a searing critique of American foreign policy. Oversized Big Mac fries drenched in blood and ketchup vie with large photographs of tortured prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. A wall-sized photograph of a naked woman reporter being sodomized by an American soldier is entitled "Imbedded," a term used by the US Pentagon to describe reporters allowed to travel with the soldiers in the invasion of Iraq. This modern museum on Montjuic lives up to the memory of Miro who, like Picasso, was a leftist radical and an ardent anti-fascist.

At the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (cccb), an epic of an exhibition entitled "At War" may well be the definitive 21st century account of the origins, the socialization, and the persistent ritual of war that prevails in the world today. Children’s war toys, propaganda paintings, flags, and many other seemingly innocuous items are re-examined for their inherent contribution to a war culture.

To underscore how wars have a disproportionate effect on civilians, the first exhibition room has, on one empty wall, a line in typewriter font reading:

The Philippines (1899 — 1902)

Military Casualties - 25,000.

Civilian Casualties - 250,000.

Del Pilar and Lopez Jaena would die in Barcelona in 1896. Rizal would be executed by the Spanish later that year in Manila, barely two months after being imprisoned at Montjuic Castle. When they were alive, they wrote copiously and in varying degrees about the need to secure political freedom and autonomy for their countrymen. They did not see the full unfolding of their efforts when, two years later, a war of independence was fought, at significant loss of lives, by their countrymen against the Spanish and the American government.

Barcelona at night is even more beautiful than I first remembered seeing it. The buildings are lit and the main promenade, the Rambla, is thronged with people, young, old, and lovers in embrace. Their gestures are animated, their zest for life unhindered. At the upper end of the Rambla is Ciudad Condal, a famous tapas bar and now run by Filipinos. They’re at the front line, serving tapas with incredible efficiency.

Filipinos work in all the major restaurants and are admired and loved by the locals. Even as they run around serving everyone, each of my countrymen comes up to me to just say hi, and for a few precious seconds, ask how things are back home and how they would like to go back one day. Then they’d find an extra plate of bread for me or else declare a tapas order on the house. A wink and a smile and they’re off with another order to fill.

I walk the Rambla later, terribly full, with a smile of pride in my face. This same boulevard was where our heroes walked, conceiving another damming article for publication, or another La Solidaridad meeting to attend.

As my departing plane banks to the left, I see Barcelona one last time, with its avenues and historic sites familiar to me, as if the tourist map I’ve looked at for the past few days has been zoomed back. The Montjuic summit, now a small green mound with its castle, the spacious Ramblas, the Placa D’Espanya, the Gran Via where my hotel was, even Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia Cathedral–all are parting visual delights.

I promise myself to return again, not just for the cultural sights I’ve encountered, but for the other sites and events, yet unvisited and researched, where earlier Filipinos gathered, wrote essays, and spoke forthrightly. This enchanting, enlightened city transformed these Filipino students into national heroes. Out of simple gratitude, I will return to Barcelona.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with