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Early Days: Iberians, Greeks & Romans (5th century B.C.-4th century A.D.)

Long before any conquerors arrived, the plains surrounding the spot where Barcelona now stands were populated by peaceful, agrarian people known as the Laetani, while other parts of Catalonia were settled by the Iberians. The Greeks were the region's first real immigrants, setting up a sizeable trading colony on the northern coast at Empúries, whose remains can still be seen today. Empúries was also the entry point for the Romans, who were at war with North African power Carthage for dominance over the western Mediterranean. Their base on the Peninsula was down the coast at New Carthage (Cartagena), a city rich in silver and bronze mines that the Romans saw as prime booty. In response to an attack on Rome by Hannibal, the Romans set about subjugating the Peninsula using Tarraco (Tarragona) as a base. Barcino (Barcelona) at that time had no harbor and served merely as a port of call between Tarraco and Narbonne in France. But a growing town quickly mushroomed out from Mons Taber, the highest point of today's city, where the cathedral now stands. You can still see traces of Roman civilization in Barcelona today, though they're eclipsed by smaller Tarragona's surprising wealth of monuments.

Down Among the Romans -- A big surprise for many visitors to Barcelona is the remarkably intact layout of Julia Faventia Agusta Pia Barcino (or Barcino for short), the old Roman city lying directly under the Museu d'Història de la Ciutat de Barcelona (City History Museum) in the heart of the Barri Gòtic. Descend a few steps and all around you are the foundations of its villas, temples, and squares, clearly marked and evocative enough for you to imagine life as it was then. This spot puts you within reach of three worlds: Beside you are the Roman remains, on the surface is medieval architecture, and contemporary hotels, office blocks, and stores are nearby.

Visigoths & Moors

When Rome was crushed by the Barbarians in the 5th century, the Visigoths pounced on this northeastern corner of Spain, taking a broad swath stretching from the eastern Pyrénées to Barcelona. The chaotic rule of the Visigoth kings, who imposed their sophisticated set of laws on existing Roman ones, lasted about 300 years. They were prolific church builders, and Visigothic fragments still survive in Barcelona and, again more vividly, in Tarragona's cathedral.

In A.D. 711, Moorish warriors led by Tarik crossed over into Spain and conquered the country. Three years later, they controlled most of it, except for a few mountain regions around Asturias. Their occupation of Barcelona was short-lived, though, which explains why the city has virtually no vestiges of Moorish architecture compared to al-Andalús (Andalucia), where their culture flourished.

Christian Count Wilfred (The Hairy) Takes Over

Up in the Pyrénées, Catalonia's heartland, the Moors clashed head-on with the Franks led by Charlemagne, who drove them back south. In 801, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, took Barcelona and set up a buffer state, marking the territorial boundaries (known as the Marcha Hispánica) of what was to become medieval Catalonia and endowing the local language with elements of his own (Provençal). Local counts were awarded various territories. Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy; 878-97) acquired several regions, including Barcelona, and managed to unite the area through a bloody battle that history has earmarked as the birth of Catalonia. Mortally wounded in a battle against the Moors, the Frankish emperor dipped Wilfred the Hairy's fingers in his own blood and traced them down his shield, creating the Quatre Barres, the future flag of Catalonia. There followed a 500-year-long dynasty of Catalan count-kings with the power to forge a nation.

Was Count Wilfred Actually Hairy? -- Almost every man had a substantial beard in the 9th century, so what made Wilfred so different? The answer is that he's said to have had hair on a part of his body that no other mortal was known to have. There are no hard facts to support this, but it's tacitly assumed that Wilfred sported hair on the soles of his feet. Hair was said to be a sign of virility and Wilfred was clearly macho, as his actions in unifying the area around Barcelona prove.

The Golden Age & Decline

Catalonia entered the 11th century as a series of counties operating under the feudal system. It was growing stronger politically, and artistic and artisan disciplines were beginning to flourish. Under Ramón Berenguer III (1096-1131) and his son, the region annexed the southern Tarragonese territories and neighboring Aragón as well. Then came Jaume I (1213-76), whose powerful navy conquered Sicily and the Balearic Islands and established Catalonia as the principal maritime power in the Mediterranean. Under his long reign, the second city walls (more extensive than the old Roman ones) and the massive drassanes (shipyards) were built, and a code of sea trade and local parliament were established. Merchants grew rich and contributed toward the building of Gothic edifices such as the church of Santa María del Mar and its surrounding mansions, the Saló del Tinell at the Royal Palace, and the Saló del Cent. Catalan literature and language flourished alongside the city's continuing prosperity.

In 1479, however, this was interrupted by the most far-reaching of all royal unions, that of Fernando II of Catalonia-Aragón to Isabel of Castile. Spain was united, but Catalonia lost its autonomy in the shift. The pious "Catholic Kings" roughly expelled all the Muslims and Jews from Spain, including those living in Barcelona's tiny El Call quarter. And even though Columbus was received in Barcelona upon his return from the discovery of America, Catalans were not allowed to trade with the New World. In the early 17th century, under the rule of Felipe IV (1605-55), anti-centralist feeling was further agitated by Spain's Thirty Years' War with France, Catalonia's neighbor, with which Catalonia soon allied. The most emotive of all uprisings, the so-called Guerra dels Segadors (Harvesters' War) was squashed by Spanish troops, and as a final blow, in 1650 Felipe ceded Catalan lands north of the Pyrénées to France.

In 1700, a Bourbon prince, Philip V (1683-1746), became king, and the remainder of Catalonia fell under French influence. An Austrian Hapsburg archduke then challenged Philip V's right to the throne, precipitating the War of the Spanish Succession. Catalonia gambled on the archduke's victory by supporting him, and lost. Philip V, after taking the city on September 11, 1714 (still celebrated as the Diada, the Catalan national day), punished the province by outlawing the Catalan language, closing all universities, and building a citadel (on the site of the Ciutadella Park) to keep an eye on the rowdy population.

In 1808, during the Peninsula War, came a 5-year French occupation that covered the whole of Spain, after which the Spanish king Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne. Two decades later the first glimmerings of a Catalan renaissance appeared when the poet Carles Aribau published his highly romantic work Oda a la Patria. Between 1854 and 1859 the old city walls were demolished and Ildefonso Cerdá's plans for today's wide-laned Eixample were given the go-ahead. The new city was on its way, and no amount of civil unrest -- strikes and anarchic demos prevailed during this politically unsettled period -- could stop it.

The Renaixença & Modernism

Backed by a hardworking populace, Barcelona was the first Spanish city to embrace the Industrial Revolution. Textiles, with raw materials being brought in from the New World, became big business, and the city gained a reputation as the "Manchester of the South." This new-found wealth led to the 19th-century Renaixença (Renaissance), a heady time of artistic and economic growth that returned Barcelona to its medieval heights of great prosperity.

Catalonia rejoiced in this resurgence in a variety of ways. It revived the Jocs Florals, a poetry competition celebrating the Catalan language, demolished the city walls, built L'Eixample (Catalan for "extension," or "new city"), and launched the landmark moderniste movement, in which Antoni Gaudí and his architectural contemporaries held sway. The Universal Exhibition of 1888, a showcase for the glories of the new, cashed-up Catalonia, drew over two million visitors. The Lliga de Catalunya, the province's first pro-independence political party, was founded.

Anarchist and communist groups were convening underground and acting out above ground; in 1893 a guerrilla extremist threw bombs into the audience at the Gran Teatre de Liceu, to the horror of the rest of Europe, creating widespread panic and disarray. As in most periods of rapid growth, the gap between rich and poor was becoming increasingly evident, and a subculture grew, planting the seeds of the city's reputation for excess, seediness, and political action.

In 1876, Spain became a constitutional monarchy. But labor unrest, disputes with the Catholic church, and war in Morocco combined to create further political chaos throughout the country. The political polarization of Barcelona and Madrid erupted in 1909. Furious that the national government had lost the colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rica (and therefore valuable trade) and was conscripting Catalans for an unwanted war in Morocco, rabble-rousers set fire to dozens of religious institutions in the city. Known as the Setmana Tràgica (Tragic Week), this period of rioting caused the deaths of over 100 people and injured many more. All suspected culprits, even some who had not been in Barcelona at the time, were executed.

Parc de la Ciutadella: From Prison to Playground -- Few corners of the city are as serene and relaxing as Parc de la Ciutadella. Lakes, fountains, shrubs, flowers, palms, and quaint statues greet people as they wander its winding paths. Yet for the best part of 2 centuries, these were the grounds of the citadel that housed Barcelona's political prisoners, many of whom met a bad end in there. In 1888, the prison was run by the notorious military commander General Prim, when the city fathers took the decision to demolish it and hold the city's first Universal Exhibition in the grounds. These were accordingly turned into the spacious park you see today -- a happy change from the horrors of the past.

The 20th Century: Republican Strife & Civil War

On April 14, 1931, a revolution occurred, the second Spanish Republic was proclaimed, and King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941) and his family were forced to flee the country. Initially, the liberal constitutionalists took control, but they were swiftly pushed aside by the socialists and anarchists. They adopted a constitution separating church and state, secularizing education, and containing several other radical provisions, including autonomous rule for Catalonia. In 1931, Francesc Macià (1859-1933) declared himself president of the Catalan republic.

But the extreme nature of these reforms fostered the growth of the conservative Falange party (Falange española, or "Spanish Phalanx"), modeled after Italy's and Germany's fascist parties. By the time of the 1936 elections, the country was split politically, with Catalonia firmly to the left. In Barcelona, attacks on bourgeois symbols (and people) and the occupation of public buildings by collectives were common. On July 18, 1936, the Spanish army, supported by Mussolini and Hitler, tried to seize power, igniting the Spanish Civil War. General Francisco Franco flew from Morocco to Spain in a tiny Dragon Rapide aircraft and led the Nationalist (rightist) forces in fighting that instantly ravaged the country. By October 1, Franco was clearly in charge of the leadership of nationalist Spain, abolishing popular suffrage and regional autonomy -- in effect, establishing totalitarian rule. Over the next 3 years, Barcelona and the Catalan coast were bombed by German and Italian fighter planes, untold numbers of citizens were executed, and thousands fled across the Pyrénées into France. Then Franco's forces marched into Barcelona under the banner "Spain is here." The Catalan language and culture were once again forced underground, and Francesc Macià was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Spurred on by even worse conditions in the south around Andalucia, where hunger and poverty were an everyday threat, millions of immigrants arrived in Barcelona in mid-century. The 1960s saw another economic boom, this time led by tourism, which grew into an important industry on the Costa Brava and Costa Daurada. Communists formed militant trade unions, and the working class was embittered by decades of repression.

Before his death in November 1975, General Franco selected as his successor Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón, son of the pretender to the Spanish throne. The electorate eagerly approved a new constitution and the king was crowned. This fledgling democracy guaranteed human and civil rights, as well as free enterprise, and ended the status of the Catholic church as the church of Spain. It also granted limited autonomy to several regions, including Catalonia and the Basque provinces. In 1980 the conservative Convergènica i Unio party, with Jordi Pujol (b. 1930) at the helm, was voted in, initiating a series of negotiations for greater self-rule that still continue today.

In 1981, a group of right-wing military officers seized the Cortés (parliament) in Madrid and called upon King Juan Carlos to establish a Francoist state. The king refused and the conspirators were arrested. The fledgling democracy had overcome its first test, and Catalonia's morale and optimism were boosted even further when the Socialists won the national elections a year later. Catalanista liberals, such as the Gauche Divine (Divine Left) party, dominated the city's counterculture for the rest of the decade, as engineers and town planners at the Socialist-led city hall prepared Barcelona for the 1992 Olympic Games and its new, modern era. In 1998 Catalan became the official language of education and the judiciary, with quotas imposed on the media, who had to present a proportion of news in Catalan. The following year more than 43,000 adults enrolled for free Catalan language courses supplied by the Generalitat (Catalan Regional Government).

The 21st Century

In 2003, after 20 years as head of the Generalitat, the conservative Jordi Pujol lost to Socialist Pasqual Maragall, who had served as mayor of Barcelona during the Olympic years. In coalition with the left-wing ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, or Republican Left of Catalan) party, whose aim is total independence for Catalonia, Maragall has been accused of placing emotive issues of a nationalist nature before policymaking. But the fact remains that Catalonia contributes more to the central government's tax coffers than any other region -- and receives less in paybacks. The following year, in 2004, the Spanish Socialist government in Madrid, led by the pragmatic José Luis Zapatero, gave the official seal of approval for Catalan to be a written and spoken language within the European Union, and in 2006 helped pass a new estatut (statute) granting the province more autonomy.

The region's eventual goal, however, is to have a totally self-governing Catalonia. In July 2010, the city staged its biggest demonstration yet in favor of declaring the province a fully fledged nation, independent of Spain. At least a million Catalans participated, flooding La Rambla, Plaça de Catalunya, and the Passeig de Gràcia.

And that same month saw the local parliament pass an historic bill banning all bullfights in the city and province from 2012 onwards. More and more, it seems, the Catalans are turning their back on the erstwhile dictatorial motherland and all things "Spanish.".

Nationalistic and provincial priorities apart, Barcelona -- like many other European cities -- is facing another quite different social issue. Today, immigrants make up 5% of the city's total population of just over four million, rocketing to 50% in some inner-Barcelona pockets. The government now recognizes the need to provide education for immigrants, emphasize religious and cultural tolerance, regulate the foreign workforce, and implement the immersion of Catalan language and culture, despite cries from the right that Catalan culture and language will be lost if Catalonia absorbs any more foreigners. Immigrants are essential, however, for the region's primary industry. South Americans and North Africans are now employed in the vast acres of vineyards, olive groves, and other agrarian pursuits that surround the city. Secondary industry sectors include chemical, car, and textile manufacturing, with a massive Internet and technology sector. Tourism employs a huge number of temporary workers during the summer, but unemployment currently hovers, as in the rest of the country, at around 5%.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.