By Rick Steves
Barcelona bristles with history, art, and culture. To deepen your knowledge of the city’s past and present, check out some of these books and films.
Dense and detailed, Robert Hughes’ Barcelona is an opinionated journey through the city’s tumultuous history, with a focus on art and architecture. Barcelona: The Great Enchantress, a more condensed version of his earlier book, is Hughes’ love song to his favorite city.
Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past (Fernandez-Armesto) gives a historical and artistic perspective on Barcelona’s culture while detailing the tensions between the city and the rest of Spain. Another rich history of Barcelona is Homage to Barcelona (Toibin), which includes the author’s anecdotes from his time there since the 1970s.
George Orwell traveled to Barcelona where he traded his press pass for a uniform, fought against Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 (and was nearly killed), and then wrote a gripping account of his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. The political climate during the Civil War is chronicled in The Battle for Spain (Beevor).
Spain has undergone incredible changes since the death of Franco in 1975 and the end of his nearly four-decade dictatorship. The New Spaniards (Hooper) is a survey of all aspects of modern Spain, including its politics, economy, demographics, education, religion, and popular culture.
James Michener traveled to Spain for several decades, and his tribute, Iberia, describes how Spain’s dark history created a contradictory and passionately beautiful land.
Travelers’ Tales: Spain (McCauley) offers dozens of essays about Spain and its people from numerous authors.
Penelope Casas has written many popular books on the food of Spain, including tapas, paella, and regional cooking. Her Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide blends references to history, culture, and food with travel information.
Carmen Laforet’s Nada details the experiences of an orphaned university student in the 1940s who discovers the haunting reality of post-Civil War Barcelona.
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a tale of idealism and harsh reality, is set against the complexity of the Spanish Civil War. That ugly period of Spanish history is also the subject of The Carpenter’s Pencil (Rivas), an unsentimental tale of an imprisoned revolutionary haunted by his past.
Set in the early 20th century, Josep M. de Sagarra’s Vida Privada (Private Life) exposes dark events and scandal among Barcelona’s bourgeoisie.
Themes of power, greed, and money permeate The City of Marvels (Mendoza), about a young man who rises from poverty in Barcelona.
The best-selling thriller, The Shadow of the Wind (Zafón), takes place in 1950s Barcelona; sequels include The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven.
Cathedral of the Sea (Falcones) tells the story of a humble medieval bastaixo who toils to build the Church of Santa Maria del Mar in El Born and gradually climbs the social ladder of medieval Barcelona.
In The Mystery of Picasso (1956), Picasso is filmed painting from behind a transparent canvas, allowing a unique look at his creative process.
L’auberge Espagnole (2002) tells the story of the loves and lives of European students sharing an apartment in Barcelona.
In Barcelona (1994), two Americans in Spain try to navigate the Spanish singles scene and the ensuing culture clash.
Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) stars Javier Bardem as a macho Spanish artist romancing two American women, when suddenly his stormy ex-wife (Penélope Cruz, in an Oscar-winning role) re-enters his life.
Pedro Almodóvar’s piquant films about relationships in the post-Franco era have garnered piles of international awards. Spanish actors Bardem, Cruz, and Antonio Banderas have starred in his films. Almodóvar’s best-known films include Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Volver (2006), and Broken Embraces (2009).
Salvador (2006) uses Barcelona as a backdrop for its story about the life of Salvador Puig Antich, an anarchist and bank robber executed by Franco in the 1970s.
Manuale d’Amore (2007), a love story starring Monica Bellucci, illuminates the cities of Barcelona and Rome as several couples come together across four episodes.