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Barcelona & Madrid

Imperial Capitol vs. Mediterranean Seaport

by Johnny Lucas


kids with Gaudi's lizard

They don't have hockey teams that play against each other, but the rivalry between Spain's two pre-eminent cities has a familiar flavour. And there's lots of fraternizing with the other side. Iberia Airlines, Spain's national carrier, shuttles as many as 10,000 business people, bureaucrats, tourists and grandmothers between the two cities every day.

Ferdinand and Isabella would have taken the plane if they could. Queen Isabella is the monarch who ensured her place in history when she pawned some jewels to finance Christopher Columbus' wild dreams in 1492. She did that in Madrid. When Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 he found the king and queen not in their capital, but in Barcelona. He delivered the news of his discoveries in the banquet hall, Saló del Tinell, beside the Plaça del Rei in the Gothic Quarter.

After that, Madrid thrived on the golden bounty of centuries of Spanish plunder from the New World. Rubens and Velásquez shared a studio in Madrid and stocked the Prado Museum with their best works. Madrid became a city of royal squares, museums, fountains and monuments to its own history. The very grand palace of the King of Spain is in the centre of town.

lobby of the Arts Hotel in BarcelonaBarcelona has the passion and cuisine of the Mediterranean city it is, and a 2,000 year old reputation as the hub of trade. Picasso took his first art lesson in a building by the harbour, Miró was born and worked in Barcelona. Another native son, Antonio Gaudi built his whimsical houses in Barcelona that set a new direction in architecture.

The cities even have their own languages. The Castilian Spanish of Madrid is the Imperial language spoken with what sounds like a gentle lisp. This may or may not be in fawning imitation of Philip IV who is portrayed with large flaccid lips and is supposed to have spoken with less than kingly precision. Catalan, the language of the ancient state and modern province of Catalonia of which Barcelona is the capital, is grammatically closer to Provençal French than to Castilian Spanish.

Catalan language and culture were officially suppressed by the Franco Regime after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The war was disastrous for all of Spain but was particularly hard on Catalonia. Ancient churches were razed, homes were destroyed in a scorched earth campaign; the world was shocked by its brutality. A generation of young Spaniards were literally given packed lunches and a kiss by their mothers in the morning and went off to be killed at the front the same day.

But in the years after Franco (he died of old age in 1975), Spain in general and Catalonia in particular have rebounded. Catalan language, and the prosperity of the region are enjoying a renaissance.

Fish sculpture in golden lightThe symbol of Barcelona's resurgence has been the 1992 Olympics. The Olympic Stadium remains, of course, but the real bonus is in the rehabilitation of the old city. A belt of failing factories which had held the old town in its rusty grip was removed before the games, and the seashore of the city was extended and opened. Thanks to a few thousand tonnes of imported sand, Barcelona now has a downtown beach, about half an hour's stroll from its mediaeval quarter. Traditional weekend escapes from the city, such as trips to the nearby beach town of Sitges, are being given a run for their money by the new beach of Barcelona. Sitges Beach

Madrid is cooler than Barcelona, literally and figuratively. The city's temperament has been formed by the influx of citizens from a diverse country, a far flung empire, and the accompanying army of bureaucrats. The clear, cool winter days of the highlands are perfect for working up an appetite for the hearty roasts and stews that characterize the Madrileño cuisine.

A visit to Madrid must include the great monuments to history and culture: The Royal Palace in which every room looks as if it is the main salon, the Prado Museum which houses the world's most extensive collection of works by Goya, Velásquez and El Greco, the Queen Sofia Modern Art Museum, home of Picasso's Guernica, and the Thyssen-Bornemísza Museum which traces the history of art from 13th Italy to modernism.

Sagrada FamiliaA visit to Barcelona will include a trip to Gaudi's soaring, unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Família and a lot of ambling through narrow lanes of the old city and the Gothic Quarter. Perhaps a look in on the marina and beach and the seaside Olympic village. Along the way you'll see the Picasso and Miró Museums, the old cathedral, the square in which Columbus met his monarchs, an ancient Roman cemetery, and many little courtyards and small cafés that fill out the warren of streets and lanes.

Two statues give the characters of their respective cities. Velásquez painted Philip IV on a rearing stallion, his cape blowing back in the wind. Philip loved the painting so well he wanted it in bronze - an almost impossible technical feat for the time. Gallileo was called in to achieve the physics of balancing the bronze tonnage on two little bronze hooves and the stature stands to this day across the street from the huge, ostentatious, somewhat forbidding Royal Palace. It symbolizes the glory of the monarch (he who, perhaps, had such a lisp) and the Spanish Empire.

fish sculpture from aboveOn Barcelona's new seafront stands a huge, new, shiny sculpture of a fish, and a rather anonymous fish. It's by Canadian-born Frank Gehry and it's quite beautiful and sophisticated. The fish changes colour throughout the day as the Mediterranean sun moves over it. The sculpture stands across the plaza from the ultra-sophisticated, and very welcoming Arts Hotel. I have no clue as to what the fish sculpture should symbolize, but it's a pleasure to look at.

Both cities are great in different ways. Perhaps those 10,000 people go between them because they are forever trying to make up their minds.

Couple on bench in Place Riale

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, Travel@JohnnyLucas.com. © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 11, 1997