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Signs from the distant past

The area around present-day Barcelona was certainly inhabited prior to the arrival of the Romans in Catalonia in 218 BC. By whom, and whether or not there was an urban ­nucleus, is open to debate.

Pre-Roman coins found in the area suggest the Iberian Laietani tribe may have settled here. As far back as 35, 000 BC, the tribe’s Stone Age predecessors had roamed the Pyrenees and begun to descend into the lowlands to the south. In 1991 the remains of 25 corpses were found in Carrer de Sant Pau in El Raval – they had been buried around 4000 BC. It has been speculated that, in those days, much of El Raval was a bay and that the hillock (Mont Tàber) next to Plaça de Sant Jaume may have been home to a Neolithic settlement.

Other evidence hints at a settlement established around 230 BC by the Carthaginian conqueror (and father of Hannibal), Hamilcar Barca. It is tempting to see in his name the roots of the city’s own name. Some archaeologists believe that any pre-Roman town must have been built on the hill of Montjuïc.

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Romans, Visigoths & ­Islam

The heart of the Roman settlement of Barcino (much later Barcelona) lay within what would later become the medieval city – now known as the Barri Gòtic. The temple was raised on Mont Tàber. Remains of city walls, temple pillars and graves all attest to what would eventually become a busy and lively town. Barcino was not a major centre, however. Tarraco (Tarragona) to the southwest and the one-time Greek trading centre of Emporion (Empúries) to the north were more important. The Latin poet Ausonius, however, paints a picture of contented prosperity – Barcino (founded in the reign of Caesar Augustus) lived well off the agricultural produce in its hinterland and from fishing. Oysters, in particular, appeared regularly on the Roman menu in ancient times. Wine, olive oil and garum (a rather tart fish paste and favourite staple of the Romans) were all produced and consumed in abundance.

As the Roman Empire wobbled, Hispania (as the Iberian Peninsula was known to the Romans) felt the effects. It is no coincidence that the bulk of Barcelona’s Roman walls, vestiges of which remain today, went up in the 4th century AD. Marauding Franks had visited a little death and destruction on the city in a prelude to what was to come – several waves of invaders flooded across the country like great Atlantic rollers. By 415 the comparatively Romanised Visigoths had arrived and, under their leader Athaulf (a narrow lane in the Barri Gòtic is named after him), made a temporary capital in Barcino before moving on to Toletum (Toledo) in the 6th century. In the wake of their departure, the town and surrounding territory was left largely lawless. ­As various epidemics struck, local revolts against weak Visigothic rule were frequent.

In 711 the Muslim general Tariq landed an expeditionary force at present-day Gibraltar (Arabic for Tariq’s Mountain). He had no trouble sweeping across the peninsula all the way into France, where he and his army were only brought to a halt in 732 by the Franks at Poitiers.

Barcelona fell under Muslim sway but they seem not to have been overly impressed with their prize. The town is mentioned in Arabic chronicles but it seems the Muslims resigned themselves early on to setting up a defensive line along the Riu Ebro to the south. Louis the Pious, the future Frankish ruler, retook Barcelona from them in 801.

The comtes (counts) installed here as Louis’ lieutenants hailed from local tribes roaming on the periphery of the Frankish empire. Barcelona was a frontier town in what was known as the Frankish or Spanish March – a rough-and-ready buffer zone south of the Pyrenees.

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A hairy beginning

The plains and mountains to the northwest and north of Barcelona were populated by the people who by then could be identified as ‘Catalans’ (although surviving documentary references to the term only date from the 12th century). Catalan, the language of these people, was closely related to the langue d’oc, the post-Latin lingua franca of southern France (of which Provençal is about the only barely surviving reminder).

The March was under nominal Frankish control but the real power lay with local potentates (themselves often of Frankish origin, however) who ranged across the territory. One of these rulers went by the curious name of Guifré el Pelós, or Wilfred the Hairy. This was not a reference to uneven shaving habits: according to legend, old Guifré had hair in parts most people do not (exactly which parts was never specified!). He and his brothers gained control of most of the Catalan counties by 878 and Guifré entered the folk mythology of Catalonia. If Catalonia can be called a nation, then its ‘father’ was the hirsute Guifré.

Guifré and his immediate successors continued, at least in name, to be vassals of the Franks. In reality, his position as ‘Comte de Barcelona’ (Count of Barcelona; even today many refer to Barcelona as the ciutat comtal, or city of counts) was assured in his own right.

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The Comtes de Barcelona

By the late 10th century, the Casal de Barcelona (House of Barcelona) was the senior of several counties (whose leaders were all related by family ties) that would soon be a single, independent principality covering most of modern Catalonia except the south, plus Roussillon (today in France).

This was the only Iberian Christian ‘state’ not to fall under the sway of Sancho III of ­Navarra in the early 11th century. The failure of the Franks to come to Barcelona’s aid when it was plundered by the Muslims under Al-Mansur in 985 led the counts to reject Frankish suzerainty. So a new entity – Catalonia – acquired tacit recognition across Europe.

Count Ramon Berenguer I was able to buy the counties of Carcassonne and Béziers, north of Roussillon, and Barcelona would maintain ambitions in France for two more centuries – at one point it held territory as far east as Provence. Under Ramon Berenguer III (1082–1131), sea trade developed and Catalonia launched its own fleet.

A system of feudal government and law evolved that had little to do with the more centralised and absolutist models that would emerge in subsequent centuries in Castilla, reconquered from the Muslims. A hotchpotch of Roman-Visigothic laws combined with emerging feudal practice found its way into the written bill of rights called the ‘Usatges de Barcelona’ from around 1060.

Justice in those days was a little rough by modern standards: ‘…let them (the rulers) render justice as it seems fit to them: by cutting off hands and feet, putting out eyes, keeping men in prison for a long time and, ultimately, in hanging their bodies if necessary.’ Was there an element of misogyny in the Usatges? ‘In regard to women, let the rulers render justice by cutting off their noses, lips, ears and breasts, and by burning them at the stake if necessary…’

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Marriage of convenience?

In 1137 Ramon Berenguer IV clinched what must have seemed an unbeatable deal. He was betrothed to Petronilla, the one-year-old heiress to the throne of Catalonia’s western neighbour Aragón, thus creating a joint state that set the scene for Catalonia’s golden age.

This state, known as the Corona de Aragón (Crown of Aragon), was ruled by comtes-reis (count-kings, ie counts of Barcelona and kings of Aragón). The title enshrined the continued separateness of the two states, and both retained many of their own laws. The arrangement was to have unexpected consequences as it tied Catalonia to the destiny of the rest of the peninsula in a way that ultimately would not appeal to many Catalans. In the meantime, however, the combined state had the critical mass needed for expansion. Curiously, while the bulk of the following centuries’ conquests and trade would be carried out by the Catalans from Barcelona, the name Catalonia would be largely subsumed into that of Aragón. After all, the counts of Barcelona were from hereon the kings of Aragón. Strictly speaking, there never was a Catalan kingdom.

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Mediterranean empire

Not content to leave all the glory of the Reconquista to the Castilians, Jaume I (r 1213–76) set about his own spectacular missions. At only 21 years of age, he set off in 1229 with fleets from Tarragona, Barcelona, Marseilles and other ports. His objective was Mallorca, which he won. Six years later he had Ibiza and Formentera. Things were going so well that, prodded by the Aragonese, for good measure he took control of Valencia (on the mainland) too. This was no easy task and was only completed in 1248 after 16 years of grinding conquest. Still, it would be hard to begrudge the tireless king his sobriquet of El Conqueridor (The Conqueror). All this activity helped fuel a boom in Barcelona and Jaume raised new walls that increased the size of the enclosed city tenfold.

The empire-building shifted into top gear in the 1280s. Jaume I’s son Pere II (1240–85) took Sicily in 1282. The easternmost part of the Balearics, Menorca, fell to Alfons II in 1287 after prolonged blood-letting. Most of its people were killed or enslaved and the island remained largely deserted throughout its occupation. Malta, Gozo and Athens were also briefly taken. A half-hearted attempt was made on Corsica but the most determined and ultimately fruitless assault began on Sardinia in 1323. The island became the Corona de Aragón’s Vietnam.

In spite of the carnage and the expense of war, this was Barcelona’s golden age. It was the base for what was now a thriving mercantile empire and the western Mediterranean was virtually a Catalan lake.

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The rise of Parliament

The rulers of the Casal de Barcelona and then the comtes-reis of the Corona de Aragón had a habit of regularly making themselves absent from Barcelona. Initially, local city administration was in the hands of a viscount, but in the course of the 12th and 13th centuries local power began to shift.

In 1249 Jaume I authorised the election of a committee of key citizens to advise his officials. The idea developed and, by 1274, the Consell dels Cent Jurats (Council of the Hundred Sworn-In) formed an electoral college from which an executive body of five consellers (councillors) was nominated to run city affairs.

In 1283 the Corts Catalanes met for the first time. This new legislative council for Catalonia (equivalent bodies sat in Aragón and Valencia) was made up of representatives of the nobility, clergy and high-class merchants to form a counterweight to regal power. The Corts Catalanes met at first annually, then every three years, but had a permanent secretariat known as the Diputació del General or Generalitat. Its home was, and remains, the Palau de la Generalitat.

The Corts and Council increased their leverage as trade grew and their respective roles in raising taxes and distributing wealth became more important. As the comtes-reis required money to organise wars and other enterprises, they increasingly relied on impresarios who were best represented through these two oligarchic bodies.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s trading wealth paid for the great Gothic buildings that bejewel the city to this day. La Catedral , the Capella Reial de Santa Àgata and the churches of Santa Maria del Pi and Santa Maria del Mar were all built within the city’s boundaries during the late 13th or early 14th centuries. King Pere III (1336–87) later created the breathtaking Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards) and also extended the city walls yet again, this time to include the El Raval area to the west.

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Decline & Castilian domination

Preserving the empire began to exhaust Catalonia. Sea wars with Genoa, resistance in Sardinia, the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of the gold trade all drained the city’s coffers. Commerce collapsed. The Black Death and famines killed about half of Catalonia’s population in the 14th century. Barcelona’s Jewish population suffered a pogrom in 1391.

After the last of Guifré el Pelós’ dynasty, Martí I, died heirless in 1410, a stacked council elected Fernando (known as Ferran to the Catalans) de Antequera, a Castilian prince of the Trastámara house, to the Aragonese throne. This Compromiso de Caspe (Caspe Agreement) of 1412 was engineered by the Aragonese nobility, which saw it as a chance to reduce Catalan influence.

Another Fernando succeeded to the Aragonese throne in 1479 and his marriage to Isabel, queen of Castilla, united Spain’s two most powerful monarchies. Just as Catalonia had been hitched to Aragón, now the combine was hitched to Castilla.

Catalonia effectively became part of the Castilian state, although it jealously guarded its own institutions and system of law. Rather than attack this problem head on, Fernando and Isabel sidestepped it, introducing the hated Spanish Inquisition to Barcelona in 1487 (a local, milder version of the Inquisition had operated on Catalan territory since 1242, with headquarters in the Palau Episcopal). The local citizenry implored them not to do so as what was left of business life in the city lay largely in the hands of conversos (Jews at least nominally converted to Christianity) who were a particular target of Inquisitorial attention. The pleas were ignored and the conversos packed their bags and shipped out their money. Barcelona was reduced to penury. Fernando and Isabel’s successors, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V (Carlos I of Spain), and his son, Felipe II, tightened Madrid’s grip on Catalonia, although the region long managed to retain a degree of autonomy.

Impoverished and disaffected by ever-growing financial demands from the crown, Catalonia revolted in the 17th century in the Guerra dels Segadors (Reapers’ War; 1640–52) and declared itself to be an independent ‘republic’ under French protection. The countryside and towns were devastated, and Barcelona was finally besieged into submission.

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War of the Spanish succession

By the beginning of the 18th century Spain was on the skids. The last of the Habsburgs, Carlos II, died in 1700 with no successor. France imposed a Bourbon, the absolutist Felipe V, but the Catalans preferred the Austrian candidate, Archduke Carlos, and threw in their lot with England, Holland, some German states, Portugal and the House of Savoy to back Austria. In 1702, the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. Catalans thought they were onto a winner. They were wrong and in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht left Felipe V in charge in Madrid. Abandoned by its allies, Barcelona decided to resist. The siege began in March 1713 and ended on 11 September 1714.

There were no half measures. Felipe V abolished the Generalitat, built a huge fort (the Ciutadella) to watch over Barcelona, and banned writing and teaching in Catalan. What was left of Catalonia’s possessions were farmed out to the great powers.

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A new boom

After the initial shock, Barcelona found the Bourbon rulers to be comparatively light-handed in their treatment of the city. Indeed, its prosperity and productivity was in Spain’s national interest. Throughout the 18th century, the Barcelonins concentrated on what they do best – industry and commerce.

The big break came in 1778, when the ban on trade with the Spanish American colonies was lifted. Since the Conquistadors opened up South America to Spanish trade, Barcelona had been sidelined in a deliberate policy to favour Seville and its satellite ports, deemed as loyal to Madrid. That ban had been formalised after the defeat of 1714. Some enterprising traders had already sent vessels across the Atlantic to deal directly in the Americas – although this was still technically forbidden. Their early ventures were a commercial success and the lifting of the ban stimulated business. In Barcelona itself, growth was modest but sustained. Small-scale manufacturing provided employment and profit. Wages were rising and the city fathers even had a stab at town planning, creating the grid-based workers’ district of La Barceloneta.

Before the industrial revolution, based initially on the cotton trade with America, could really get underway, Barcelona and the rest of Spain had to go through a little more pain. A French revolutionary army was launched Spain’s way (1793–95) with limited success, but when Napoleon turned his attentions to the country in 1808 it was another story. Barcelona and Catalonia suffered along with the rest of the country until the French were expelled in 1814 (Barcelona was the last city in the hands of the French, who left in September).

By the 1830s, Barcelona was beginning to ride on a feel-good factor that would last for most of the century. Wine, cork and iron industries developed. From the mid-1830s onwards, steamships were launched off the slipways. In 1848 Spain’s first railway line was opened between Barcelona and Mataró.

Creeping industrialisation and prosperity for the business class did not work out so well down the line. Working-class families lived in increasingly putrid and cramped conditions. Poor nutrition, bad sanitation and disease were the norm in workers’ districts, and riots, predictably, resulted. As a rule they were put down with little ceremony – the 1842 rising was bombarded into submission from the Montjuïc castle. Some relief came in 1854 with the knocking down of the medieval walls but the pressure remained acute.

In 1869 a plan to expand the city was begun. Ildefons Cerdà designed l’Eixample (the Enlargement) as a grid, broken up with gardens and parks and grafted onto the old town, beginning at Plaça de Catalunya. The plan was revolutionary. Until then it had been illegal to build in the plains between Barcelona and Gràcia, the area being a military zone. As industrialisation got underway this building ban also forced the concentration of factories in Barcelona itself (especially in La Barceloneta) and surrounding towns like Gràcia, Sant Martí, Sants and Sant Andreu (all of which were subsequently swallowed up by the burgeoning city).

L’Eixample became (and to some extent remains) the most sought-after chunk of real estate in Barcelona – but the parks were mostly sacrificed to an insatiable demand for housing and undisguised land speculation. The flourishing bourgeoisie paid for lavish, ostentatious buildings, many of them in the unique, Modernista style.

There seemed to be no stopping this town. In 1888 it hosted a Universal Exhibition. Little more than a year before, work on the exhibition buildings and grounds had not even begun, but they were all completed only 10 days late. Although the exhibition attracted more than two million visitors, it did not generate the international attention some had hoped for.

Still, changing the cityscape had become habitual in modern Barcelona. La Rambla de Catalunya and Avinguda del Paral.lel were both slammed through in 1888. The Monument a Colom and Arc de Triomf, rather odd monuments in some respects (Columbus had little to do with Barcelona and tangible triumphs were in short supply), also were built that year.

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Barcelona reborn

Barcelona was comparatively peaceful for most of the second half of the 19th century but far from politically inert. The relative calm and growing wealth that came with commercial success helped revive interest in all things Catalan.

The Renaixença (Renaissance) reflected the feeling in Barcelona of renewed self-confidence. The mood was both backwards- and forwards-looking. Politicians and academics increasingly studied and demanded the return of former Catalan institutions and legal systems. The Catalan language was readopted by the middle and upper classes and new Catalan literature emerged as well.

In 1892 the Unió Catalanista (Catalanist Union) demanded the re-establishment of the Corts in a document known as the Bases de Manresa. In 1906 the suppression of Catalan newssheets was greeted by the formation of Solidaritat Catalana (Catalan Solidarity, a nationalist movement). Led by Enric Prat de la Riba, it attracted a broad band of Catalans, not all of them nationalists.

Perhaps the most dynamic expression of the Catalan Renaissance occurred in the world of art. Barcelona was the home of Modernisme, Catalan Art Nouveau. While the rest of Spain stagnated, Barcelona was a hotbed of artistic activity, an avant-garde base with close links to Paris. The young Picasso spread his artistic wings here and drank in the artists’ hang-out, Els Quatre Gats , a Modernista tavern that today is a somewhat mediocre eatery.

An unpleasant wake-up call came with Spain’s short, futile war with the US in 1898, in which it lost not only its entire navy, but its last colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines). The blow to Barcelona’s trade was enormous.

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Barcelona’s proletariat was growing fast. The total population grew from 115, 000 in 1800 to over 500, 000 by 1900 and over one million by 1930 – boosted, in the early 19th century, by poor immigrants from rural Catalonia and, later, from other regions of Spain. All this made Barcelona ripe for unrest.

The city became a swirling vortex of anarchists, Republicans, bourgeois regionalists, gangsters, police terrorists and hired pistoleros (gunmen). One anarchist bomb at the Liceu opera house on La Rambla in the 1890s killed 20 people. Anarchists were also blamed for the Setmana Tràgica (Tragic Week) in July 1909 when, following a military call-up for Spanish campaigns in Morocco, rampaging mobs wrecked 70 religious buildings and workers were shot on the street in reprisal.

In the post-WWI slump, unionism took hold. This movement was led by the anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), or National Workers’ Confederation, which embraced 80% of the city’s workers. During a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920, employers hired assassins to eliminate union leaders. The 1920s dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera opposed bourgeois-Catalan nationalism and working-class radicalism, banning the CNT and even closing Barcelona football club, a potent symbol of Catalanism. But he did support the staging of a second world fair in Barcelona, the Montjuïc World Exhibition of 1929.

Rivera’s repression only succeeded in uniting, after his fall in 1930, Catalonia’s radical elements. Within days of the formation of Spain’s Second Republic in 1931, leftist Catalan nationalists of the ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya), led by Francesc Macià and Lluís Companys, proclaimed Catalonia a republic within an imaginary ‘Iberian Federation’. Madrid pressured them into accepting unitary Spanish statehood but, after the leftist Popular Front victory in the February 1936 national elections, Catalonia briefly won genuine autonomy. Companys, its president, carried out land reforms and planned an alternative Barcelona Olympics to the official 1936 games in Nazi Berlin.

But things were racing out of control. The left and the right across Spain were shaping up for a showdown.

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The Civil War

On 17 July 1936, an army uprising in Morocco kick-started the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona’s army garrison attempted to take the city for General Franco but was defeated by anarchists and police loyal to the government.

Franco’s Nationalist forces quickly took hold of most of southern and western Spain; Galicia and Navarra in the north were also his. Most of the east and industrialised north stood with Madrid. Initial rapid advances on Madrid were stifled and the two sides settled in for almost three years of misery.

For nearly a year, Barcelona was run by anarchists and the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM; the Marxist Unification Workers’ Party) Trotskyist militia, with Companys as president only in name. Factory owners and rightists fled the city. Unions took over factories and public services, hotels and mansions became hospitals and schools, everyone wore workers’ clothes (in something of a foretaste of what would later happen in Mao’s China), bars and cafés were collectivised, trams and taxis were painted red and black (the colours of the anarchists) and one-way streets were ignored as they were seen to be part of the old system.

The anarchists were a disparate lot ranging from gentle idealists to hardliners who drew up death lists, held kangaroo courts, shot priests, monks and nuns (over 1200 of whom were killed in Barcelona province during the civil war), and also burnt and wrecked churches – which is why so many of Barcelona’s churches are today oddly plain inside. They in turn were shunted aside by the communists (directed by Stalin from Moscow) after a bloody internecine battle in Barcelona that left 1500 dead in May 1937.

Barcelona became the Republicans’ national capital in autumn 1937. The Republican defeat in the Battle of the Ebro in southern Catalonia in summer 1938 left Barcelona undefended. ­Republican resistance crumbled, partly due to exhaustion, in part due to disunity. In 1938 ­Catalan nationalists started negotiating separately with the Nationalists. Indeed, the last ­resistance put up in Barcelona was by some 2000 soldiers of the Fifth Regiment that had fought so long in Madrid! The city fell on 25 January 1939.

That first year of occupation was a strange hiatus before the full machinery of oppression began to weigh in. Within two weeks of the city’s fall, a dozen cinemas were in operation and the following month Hollywood comedies were being shown between rounds of Nationalist propaganda. The people were even encouraged to dance the sardana, Catalonia’s national dance, in public (the Nationalists thought such folkloric generosity might endear them to the people of Barcelona).

On the other hand, the city presented an exhausted picture. The Metro was running but there were no buses (they had all been used on the front). Virtually all the animals in the city zoo had died of starvation or wounds. There were frequent blackouts, and would be for years.

By 1940, with WWII raging across Europe, Franco had his regime more firmly in place and things turned darker for many. Catalan Francoists led the way in rounding up victims and up to 35, 000 people were shot in purges. At the same time, small bands of resistance fighters continued to harry the Nationalists in the Pyrenees through much of the 1940s. Lluís Companys was arrested in France by the Gestapo in August 1940, handed over to Franco, and shot on 15 October on Montjuïc. He is reputed to have died with the words ‘Visca Catalunya!’ (‘Long live Catalonia!’) on his lips. The executions continued into the 1950s. Barcelonins reacted in different ways. Most accepted the situation and tried to get on with living, while some leapt at opportunities, occupying flats abandoned by ‘Reds’ who had been forced to flee. Speculators and industrialists in bed with Franco began to make money hand over fist while most people barely managed to keep body and soul together.

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From Franco to Pujol

Franco had already abolished the Generalitat in 1938. Companys was succeeded as the head of the Catalan government-in-exile in Mexico by Josep Irla and, in 1954, by the charismatic Josep Tarradellas, who remained its head until after Franco’s demise.

Franco, meanwhile, embarked on a programme of Castilianisation. He banned public use of Catalan and had all town, village and street names rendered in Spanish (Castilian). Book publishing in Catalan was allowed from the mid-1940s, but education, radio, TV and the daily press remained in Spanish.

In Barcelona, the Francoist Josep Maria de Porcioles became mayor in 1957, a post he held until 1973. That same year, he obtained for the city a ‘municipal charter’ that expanded the mayor’s authority and the city’s capacity to raise and spend taxes, manage urban development and, ultimately, widen the city’s metropolitan limits to absorb neighbouring territory. He was responsible for such monstrosities as the concrete municipal buildings on Plaça de Sant Miquel in the Barri Gòtic. His rule marked a grey time for Barcelona. Barely regulated urban expansion was the norm and decades of grime accumulated on the face of the city, hiding the delightful flights of architectural fantasy that today draw so many visitors.

By the 1950s, opposition to Franco had turned to peaceful mass protests and strikes. In 1960, an audience at the city’s Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall sang a banned Catalan anthem in front of Franco. The ringleaders included a young Catholic banker, Jordi Pujol, who would later rise to pre-eminence in the post-Franco era. For his singing effort he wound up in jail for a short time.

Under Franco a flood of 1.5 million immigrants from poorer parts of Spain, chiefly Andalucía, Extremadura and the northwest, poured into Catalonia (750, 000 of them to Barcelona) in the 1950s and ’60s looking for work. Many lived in appalling conditions. While some made the effort to learn Catalan and integrate as fully as possible into local society, the majority came to form Spanish-speaking pockets in the poorer working-class districts of the city and in a ring of satellite towns. Even today, the atmosphere in many of these towns is more Andalucian than Catalan. Catalan nationalists will tell you it was all part of a Francoist plot to undermine the Catalan identity.

Two years after Franco’s death in 1975, Josep Tarradellas was invited to Madrid to hammer out the Catalan part of a regional autonomy policy. Eighteen days later, King Juan Carlos I decreed the re-establishment of the Generalitat and recognised Josep Tarradellas as its president. Twenty years after his stint in Franco’s jails, Pujol was elected Tarradellas’ successor at the head of the rightwing Catalan nationalist Convergència i Unió (CiU) coalition in April 1980. A wily antagonist of the central authorities in Madrid, he waged a quarter-century war of attrition, eking out greater fiscal and policy autonomy and vigorously promoting a re-Catalanisation programme, with uneven success.

Politics aside, the big event in post-Franco Barcelona was the successful 1992 Olympics, planned under the guidance of the Socialist mayor, Pasqual Maragall. The Games spurred a burst of public works and brought new life to areas such as Montjuïc, where the major events were held. The once-shabby waterfront was transformed with promenades, beaches, marinas, restaurants, leisure attractions and new housing.

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A leftward lurch & tunnel vision

Pujol remained in power until 2003, when he stepped aside to make way for his designated successor, party colleague Artur Mas. Things didn’t go according to plan, as Pasqual Maragall pipped Mas at the post and formed an unsteady three-party coalition government in November 2003.

Maragall’s principal achievement was reaching agreement between his Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC), his coalition partners Iniciativa Verds-Esquerra Unida (Green Initiative-United Left) and independence-minded Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), and the opposition CiU on a new autonomy statute (Estatut). Since the demise of Franco, Spain has devolved considerable powers to the regions, which are officially known as comunidades autónomas (autonomous communities). All the Catalan parties (with the exception of the right-wing centralist Partido Popular, or PP) agreed on the need to acquire still greater powers through a new statute. The proposed statute was submitted to the national Spanish parliament for consideration in 2005 and was the subject of tough bargaining.

In early 2006, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s governing Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, of which the PSC is a branch) and CiU struck a deal, behind Maragall’s back, to approve a modified version of the Estatut.

Maragall reluctantly went along with the deal but his ERC allies protested and forced the dissolution of the Catalan parliament and snap elections in autumn 2006. Maragall, accused of weakness in the face of the ERC by the PSOE, was obliged to make way for Madrid’s preferred candidate, José Montilla. In a virtual re-run, Montilla won by such a narrow margin that he was forced to re-establish the weak three-party coalition of his predecessor.

Catalans approved the new Estatut in a referendum in 2006 but within months it was being claimed that Madrid was dragging its feet on implementation. In September 2007 Barcelona and Madrid agreed on a budget package for Catalonia that went some way to calming waters. Meanwhile, the PP launched an appeal in the Constitutional Court to repeal the Estatut, which it claims grants too much autonomy.

The ERC, whose ultimate objective is Catalan independence (a 2007 poll of Catalans suggested 60% wanted a referendum on independence, although only 18% wanted to separate Catalonia from Spain), made spectacular political gains in the 2003 Catalan elections and 2004 national elections.

Jordi Hereu, the PSC candidate who had replaced Joan Clos as mayor in 2006, came out on top in the city’s 2007 elections – just. ERC came off worse than expected and returned to opposition rather than accept a reduced role in a coalition government. This left Hereu running a minority government. Since then, the ERC (which in the March 2008 national elections lost five of its eight seats in Madrid) has played a spoiler role at the municipal and regional level, doing an about-face and voting with other opposition parties to freeze plans for the controversial high-speed rail tunnel across central Barcelona. Given that the tunnel has already been given the go-ahead, these votes amount to little more than grandstanding.

The tunnel (which will run below the street next to two Gaudí monuments, the Sagrada Família and La Pedrera, on its 6km route between Estació Sants and a new transport junction at La Sagrera) has sparked opposition from directly affected neighbours and management of the Sagrada Família. The latter claims vibrations due to tunnelling and train traffic will imperil Barcelona’s number-one cultural sight. The city, regional and national governments rubbish such claims. Experts are divided.

Assurances that everything will be all right, however, ring hollow to many Barcelonins after the years of chaos and suffering caused by construction of the high-speed line from Madrid to Estació Sants. Not only did it arrive six years late (in early 2008), but it caused damage to nearby housing, intolerable living conditions as works proceeded apace 24 hours a day, and the collapse for months in the latter half of 2007 of the underfunded local train network unleashed by the line works (including the caving in of a rail tunnel). This suggests to many that those responsible can hardly guarantee problem-free construction of the planned tunnel. Few who tried to catch a train into central Barcelona from the airport in much of 2006 and 2007 will have failed to notice just how appalling the situation was.

And no-one has forgotten the 2005 implosion of a metro tunnel under construction in the suburb of El Carmel, which destroyed four apartment blocks and left more than 1200 people homeless.

For years, Barcelona and the regional Catalan government have railed against Madrid’s lack of investment in infrastructure in Catalonia, from transport to electricity supply. As if the rail chaos were not enough, part of the city was plunged into darkness for several days in July 2007 in a chain reaction of burn-outs at city sub-stations.

And on a brighter note...

But as any local can tell you, it's not all doom and gloom in Barcelona. The city's beloved football team FC Barcelona are back on top, erasing memories of its troubled 2007-2008 season with a record-breaking triplete in the 2008-2009 season. Not only did Barça win the coveted Spanish League (leaving their eternal rivals Real Madrid in the dust), but they triumphed in the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League, resulting in an explosion of street celebrations and Catalan pride unprecedented even in this patriotic, party-hardy city.

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