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Barcelona, Leading a Stateless Nation

By Rick Steves
Sardana dancers, Barcelona, Spain
Proudly doing the Sardana, Catalan people hold hands and dance in a huge circle on the square. (photo: Rick Steves)

Barcelona, Spain's second city, is also the capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya, a.k.a. Catalonia. After decades of repression under Franco's fascism, Catalunya's creative and independent spirit are thriving. Like me, many visitors find this to be Spain's most cosmopolitan and vibrant corner.

In Barcelona, a local told me that Catalunya is "Spain's Quebec." This corner of Iberia much more than a "region" of Spain (as Franco called it) — its residents consider it a nation, with its own distinct language, history, and flag.

Barcelona has a rich history: Roman colony, a dark age Visigothic capital, and a 14th-century maritime power. And beyond its great sights, be sure to appreciate the city's elegant sense of style and Mediterranean knack for good living.

The city's main square, Plaça de Catalunya, is the center of the world for 7 million Catalan people. The square is decorated with statues honoring important Catalans. Catalunya has its own distinct language, history, and flag — which locals fly proudly…next to Spain's on government buildings…and all alone from their apartments.

Catalunya has often been at odds with the central Spanish government in Madrid. Back in the 1930s this area was one of the last pockets of resistance against the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When Franco finally took power he punished the region with four decades of repression. During that time, locals were prohibited from flying their flag. To show their national spirit, they flew the flag of the Barcelona soccer team instead.

(Traveling here I've noticed how the Catalan people have sense of solidarity with other stateless nations, for example, their general affinity for Basque and Galician cuisine over other Spanish cuisines outside Catalunya.) Even Barcelona's ATM machines are in solidarity with the European family of "Stateless Nations." They offer the correct choice of languages: Along with Angles, Frances, and Castellano (Spanish), you'll always find Gallec, Euskera, and Catalan. Even though there's likely not one ATM user a year who would speak only Gallec (from Galicia in northwest Spain) or Euskera (from the Basque Country), they give them the linguistic respect they would hope for in a foreign land.

Each Sunday Barcelonans gather in front of their cathedral to celebrate their community by dancing the traditional sardana. Traditional instruments — which evoke the struggle these people have waged through the centuries to keep their culture alive — sound sweet (I think only) to Catalan ears.

The Catalan language is irrevocably tied to the history and spirit of the Catalan people. Since the end of the Franco era in the mid-1970s, the language has enjoyed a huge resurgence. It's the language of the local schools and these days children here speak Catalan first, and Spanish second.

A recent affluence has elevated the city. There's barely a hint of danger in the once-questionable Barri Gòtic neighborhood. I remember the city's main boulevard, the Ramblas, when it was rich at the top and very rough at the port. Lurid prostitutes would line the street where it finally hit the harbor.

Today the Ramblas is rich at the top and rich at the port and the only thing left of the prostitutes are holes ground by anxious high heels into the stone thresholds of brothel doorways that once faced the boulevard.

The toughest thing surviving on the Ramblas are the roving gangs of thugs who run the high-energy, extremely twitchy shell games. With spotters uphill and downhill, and a full team of shills, nervous men scoot their dodgy peas. It's amazing there are enough fools on the streets to keep them in business.

While souvenir shops and crowds of tourists have diluted the Ramblas' former elegance, it still offers an entertaining place to see the carnival of Barcelona life. But pay attention. Wherever people stop to gawk, pickpockets are at work. I think you're as likely to be pickpocketed in Barcelona — especially here on the Ramblas — as about anywhere else in Europe. If you stop for any commotion or spectacle, put your hands in your pockets before someone else does.

My highlight with this Barcelona visit was less exciting — pimientos de Padrón (or in Catalan: pebrots de Padró)…lightly fried peppers salted and served piping hot. They're a kind of Russian roulette for the taste buds, as the eager eater knows that every once in a while you hit a super spicy pepper.