(continuation of our trip to Barcelona)
While Paris felt serene and elegant, Barcelona is fiery and passionate. The people are lively, the architecture unexpected and amusing, and the food spicy and satiating.
We started the morning with the taxing choice of limiting what we ate at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Their feature of the day was trays (and trays) of delectable mini pastries along with the usual generous assortment of local fruits, cheeses, meats, hot breakfast dishes, fresh squeezed juices, and steaming coffee from a Nescafe machine. We pondered, “Do we skip eating nutritious foods and simply indulge in sweets? Or be disciplined and choose only one or two?”
Difficult decision. In the end, we got a plateful of pastries and split each one so we could sample a variety. While they all looked delicious, some were surprisingly bland, especially the ensaimades, the traditional sweet bread of Mallorca. The pastry is feathery light, but the only sweetener is a dusting of powdered sugar on top. The texture is doughy like over-proofed Wonderbread. I was expecting it to be more like a crispy puff pastry.
Found Ourselves in the Olympic Village
Our bellies full, we took a metro train to the funicular, a small train, which runs on a single track to the top of the steep Montjuic hill. The funicular was built in 1928 for the International Exhibition. In 1992, it was reconstructed for the Summer Olympics held in Barcelona.
The funicular holds 400 passengers with the cars having only a handful of seats. Most passengers stand for the short ride, which is okay if the car is packed with people and you can lean against each other. I felt more comfortable sitting as the train chugged up the track, passing through a tunnel, carved out of the mountain.
Here’s a video of the funicular going downhill.
We wanted to go to Parc de Montjuic, in search of Montjuic Cemetery. Like much of our stay in Barcelona, we didn’t have a particularly good map, and more importantly, the map didn’t provide a good gauge of distance. Unlike Paris, everything in Barcelona was much farther away than expected, and often a steep climb.
After getting off the funicular, we started walking in what we thought was the most logical direction, uphill. Much of the park had been developed for the Olympics so the streets were wide with viewing areas off to the side to observe the city, marina, and sparkling ocean in the distance. In addition, there are sculptures, interesting plantings, and other amenities that complemented the Olympic games.
After winning the nomination for the games, Barcelona heavily invested in infrastructure, including turning an industrial area on the coast into a gorgeous floating promenade, aquarium, and shopping center (which we walked on the first day we arrived in Barcelona, not knowing it was constructed for the Olympics), Olympic Village (which I’ll talk about later), and sports facilities in various neighborhoods across the city.
The Olympics was a turning point for the city. In a video about the transformation, an official commented the games are temporary, but the city is permanent. The sports venues and buildings constructed for the Olympics, therefore, were designed to benefit the city, and afterwards be turned into apartments, community centers, shopping centers, parks, and esplanades.
As we walked — completely lost — we passed by the Piscines Bernat Picronell, a swimming stadium with a 50 m indoor pool, 50 m outdoor pool, and a pool for diving. Three thousand spectators could watch the competition in the outdoor pool. Today, the pool is open to the public, year-round!
We continued walking — uphill — in search of the cemetery. We asked several people for directions, including a clowder of feral cats, but no one seemed to know. And because we didn’t have cell phone reception, we couldn’t refer to Google Maps. Nevertheless, it was pleasant day and an equally pleasant jaunt.
After walking at least an hour, we came to an open area with people flying model airplanes. On the road below them, we spied a large building. As we started walking around it, I realized it was Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys or in English, the Olympic Stadium!
Originally built in 1927 for the 1929 International Exposition, the stadium was listed as a venue for the 1936 Summer Olympics, but the bid was awarded to Berlin. When Barcelona won the bid for the 1992 Summer Olympics, the stadium was updated to hold 54,000 spectators. In 2001, it was renamed after the former president of Catalunya, Lluís Companys.
As we walked around the stadium, I snapped pictures not realizing the stadium was open, and is now considered a community sports facilities. On the field, were 4 to 5 different groups. In the center, a soccer match was taking place. Towards the front, a group of people were exercising, led by an instructor. Athletes were running on the track, and in another area, kids were practicing hurdles and other track-and-field events.
There were a handful of people in the bleachers, cheering. Others were wandering around, talking and enjoying the sunny day.
It was extraordinary because you’d be hard pressed to find a stadium in America, which opens its gates to the community, allowing them to enjoy the facility whenever a sporting, musical or industry event wasn’t booked.
Having walked for hours, we headed to the bathroom, which was unisex. Down one corridor were toilets for women, and down the other were for men. At the front of the two corridors was shared sinks. Very efficient!
Refreshed, we found an attendant who spoke English. He knew the exact directions to the Montjuic Cemetery. Leaving the stadium, we checked out where the Olympic flame had burned, and could see in the distance, other sports facilities, which were part of the 1992 Olympics.
Barcelona Heritage on a Hill
During the 19th century, with the advent of industrialization, Barcelona’s economy rapidly took off. The jump in population lead to an increased demand for burial spaces. Opened on March 17, 1883, Cementiri de Monjuic is the largest cemetery in Barcelona. It was built on the steep slopes of Montjuic hill, necessitating the above-ground crypts be terraced, with the highest, providing a spectacular view of the harbor, container shipping facility, cruise and pleasure ship marinas, and other waterfront activities.
The name Montjuic is thought to originate from “Mountain of the Jews,” referring to the ancient Jewish cemetery where the many notable members of the pre-expulsion Jewish community were buried. Unfortunately, the Jewish cemetery wasn’t preserved and today is a city park.
Monjuic Cemetery currently has over 1 million burials and cremation ashes in 150,000 plots, niches, and mausoleums, including Spanish painter, sculpture, and ceramicist Joan Miro, among other notable Spaniards and Catalonian. Also interned in the cemetery are the people who built Barcelona, educated its children, opened shops and restaurants, grew and sold crops, assembled goods, and most of all, married and raised families.
In the cemetery is a memorial known as Fossar de la Pedrera. It’s a mass grave where over 4,000 dissidents were buried during the Franco regime. The most notable person buried is Lluis Campanys, the former President of Catalunya who was executed in 1940 at the nearby Montjuïc Castle for “military rebellion.”
No doubt, someone who’s lived in Barcelona their entire life could walk by the niches and acknowledge the contributions of some of the people inside. In many niches are husbands and wife, together for eternity. There were often pictures of when they were young, and newly married, next to ones taken in their later years. The contrasts are starling, the sad reality of growing old.
Each niche has a locked glass panel, behind of which is an engraved marble or granite tombstone with remembrances of the person (or people) in front. Most of the tombs contain photographs, religious figurines, and small knick-knacks, candles, and crosses. Some have artificial or dried flowers.
On the outside of the niches are small vases for fresh, dried or silk flowers. Some niches were draped with huge, lavish swaths of silk flowers or intricately folded ribbons. On the ground was large sprays, wreaths and bouquets of beautiful flowers in various stages of vibrancy.
I was emotionally ambiguous, walking down street-after-street of towering niches made from locally quarried rocks. The walkways strewn with flowers, the glass doors of forgotten niches ajar, discolored silk flowers and artifacts in niches that hadn’t been opened in decades, and the sheer volume of the number of people interred. The cemetery is so large there are several bus stops to transport mourners and visitors.
Most of the cemetery is niches – six rows high. Families with more money could purchase small plots on which to build tombs, mausoleums, and statuary. Renown architects, carvers, and stained-glass artists were hired to create magnificent tributes to the deceased.
We only saw a couple tombs because the cemetery is huge, and we were anxious to traverse up the zig-zag pathways to the top, where the view is spectacular, enabling you to see the city from 360-degrees.
After taking in the scenery, we scurried down the hill back to Parc de Monjuic where we found our way to Montjuic Castle. Built in 1640 as a military fortress, and then demolished in 1751 and rebuilt between 1770 and 1799, the castle was used multiple times during wars with Catalonia, and as a prison and torture center. Today it’s a municipal facility and museum.
Near the castle is the Port Vell Aerial Tramway. There was a surprisingly short line, and after waiting 15 minutes or so – and chatting with two newlyweds from Dubai who invited us to visit them – we hustled into a closed cable car, and rode 150 feet above Barcelona, looking down with amazement at the city, the gorgeous marina, filled with cruise ships, sailboats, power vessels, and large yachts in various stages of completion, two huge swimming pools (Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc), which were built for the 1992 Olympics, cargo ships and busy cargo-loading facility, World Trade Center at the tip of a long, wide pier (Moll de Barcelona), and stretches of pristine Mediterranean beaches.
The length of the tramway is less than a mile (1.3 km), and felt like it took at least 15 minutes. There was plenty of time to take pictures, and identify landmarks. Here’s a video.
Walking Along a Mediterranean Beach
We got off the tram at the Torre de Saint Sebastia station, and took an elevator down to the beach. The station is located on a man-made “transversal” floating dock, which wraps around Port Vell (old harbor) where the Barcelona Aquarium, World Trade Center, and Barcelona’s old customs building are located, along with docks for cruise liners and ferries.
Prior to the 1992 Olympics, the area had been run-down with empty warehouses, railroad yards, and factories. It was gentrified, creating areas for commercial ships, a luxury marina, which can accommodate super yachts up to 200 meters (656 feet) in length, and retail and office space on floating docks, which feel more like bodies of land than docks. Every year, 16 million people visit Port Vell.
The low-hanging clouds from the morning had melted into a sunny, slightly breezy day by the time we took our first step on the beach boardwalk. Being a Sunday afternoon, it was crowded with people walking, roller-skating, biking, sitting on benches people-watching, and standing in groups talking. We passed by several people who’d built elaborate structure and animals in the sand. One had smoking emanating from a “burning” castle. In front of most of these works-of-sand, were collection jars.
Further down the boardwalk, we peered down on a dozen or more men, playing dominoes, some chomping on cigars, others sipping cold drinks, and several watching the game play or perhaps waiting to join the next match.
Further down the beach were vendors selling large, ornately patterned, circular throws or maybe table cloths. They were laid-out on the sand, and I regret not learning more about them. They were too large to be shawls, and too lightweight to be bedspreads.
As we walked, we could see in the distance, a large metallic goldfish (Peix d’Or) lolling above the buildings. Designed by Frank Gehry, the sculpture is 52 meters (170 feet) and changes color depending on the time of the day, and location of the sun.
This area is also the location of the Olympic Village where 2,000 apartments were built – many sold before the Olympics opened. Also in this area is a large shopping center, Barcelona Casino, and several towering office buildings and hotels.
We wandered around the area for about an hour then zipped to the Gothic Quarter to look for sustenance. We settled on an Italian restaurant and ordered pizza and puttanesca, followed by cafe au leche. Yum!
Since we had Italian instead of Spanish or Catalonia food, we decided to make amends by having gelato from a street vendor. Rich had coconut, and I had coffee. Gelato is insanely inexpensive in Barcelona, around 3.50 Euros for two large scoops in a homemade waffle cone. Burp!
While still in the Gothic Quarter, we wandered by Placa Sant Jaume, the former center of the Roman City of Barcino. Today, the square is surrounded by two impressive Gothic style buildings, the Casa de la Citate (City Hall) built in 1831, and the Palau de la Generalist built in 1418.
We stopped briefly in the square to watch several street performers doing gymnastics to hip-hop music. In another corner of the square was a man with a bucket of sudsy water and wands to create huge soap bubbles, which several children were chasing.
Vanishing of a Culture
Our next stop was the Jewish Museum in the Barcelona Call (narrow street), the Medieval Jewish Quarter. The museum is housed in the 14th century “House of the Rabbi” and is one of the few buildings in the area with original period features intact.
It’s believed Jews arrived in Barcelona in the ninth century. Relationships between the Christians and Jewish community were initially good with Jews becoming money lenders, merchants, craftsmen, bookbinders and businessmen.
One of the most influential Jews was Moses ben Nahman (Moses son of Nahman). Commonly known as Nachmanides. Born in 1194 in Girona (a city in the northeast of the Autonomous Community of Catalonia, Spain), he became the Rabbi of Girona and later Grand Rabbi of Catalonia. He was also a physician, philosopher and expert on the Talmud, in particular Kabbalah. He wrote kabbalist poetry, and has many prominent students, including David Kimchi, the author of the Hebrew his grammar/lexicon Michlol.
Another noteworthy Catalonian Jewish scholar was Abraham bar Hiyya, born 1070 in Barcelona. He was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. He is best known for his Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, which is a thesis on Islamic algebra and practical geometry, and contains the first complete solution of the quadratic solution equation x2 – ax + b = 0 known in Europe. This work was translated into Latin in 1145, becoming a principle textbook in western European schools.
He wrote many other scientific works including an encyclopedic work on arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, and music, an astronomical work on the formation of the heavens and the earth, thesis on the calculation of the Hebrew calendar, and a controversial work in defense of the theory that the Messiah would appear in the year 5118.
By 1215, measures were put in place to curb Jewish commercial activities in Barcelona, including control of loans, prohibition of holding positions with authority over Christians, limitation on where they could their food, and requirement they wear identification badges.
In 1391, the Jewish quarter was attacked and 300 inhabitants were killed, The Jewish community continue to persevere, influencing the community by becoming stocks, bonds and securities dealers, pawn brokers, tax and rent collectors and landowners.
By 1492, the Christians and Jews of Girona were once again living in peace and harmony. Business dealings had been reestablished. When Ferdinand and Isabel married, they united all of Spain, and chases the Moors from the South.
On March 31, 1492, however, the crown issued the edict expelling the Jews from Spain unless they renounced their religion in favor of Catholicism. As a result, the majority of Jews in Spain (between 200,000 and 250,000) converted to Catholicism, and those remaining (between 40,000 and 100,000) were forced into exile.
Some of the buildings in Barcelona have stones in the walls with Hebrew inscriptions. These stones came from the old Jewish cemetery on Montjuic hills, which were ransacked and destroyed. The cemetery is now grassed-over, and part of Parc de Monjuic.
Train to Train
Instead of flying to Paris from Barcelona, we’d opted to take the train. Rich was concerned we’d have difficulties locating the train station in the morning so we hopped on a metro train and rode to the Barcelona Sants Train Station. In a sense, I’m glad we did because when you’re underground, there are several different “tunnels” you can take to other metro trains or to various staircases that take you above ground.
Barcelona Sants is one of the most utilized transport hubs in Spain with six different train companies using the station. We were going to take the TGV train, which goes up to 201 mph (322 kph).
Because we would be on the train for 6 hours, we decided to stock-up on food. Once we got back to La Rambla we found a grocery store and bought sandwiches, oranges, fruit and green salads, along with bottles of water.
We then bought gelato from a street vendor as we enjoyed the evening, taking a final look at the shops and apartments that lined the street before heading back to our hotel.