Today's multitudes of tourists flock to Barcelona for a number of very good reasons: To view the Picassos, Dalís, Tàpies, and Mirós; to marvel at its historic UNESCO-awarded sites (10 in all), and at the moderniste extravaganzas of Antoni Gaudí and the modern eccentricities of Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel; to sample the New Catalan cuisine of Carlos Abellán and Sergi Arola (both disciples of the pioneering foodie guru Ferran Adrià), who are spearheading a culinary revival that's resulted in half a dozen Michelin-rated restaurants; and to spend money in some of Europe's most sophisticated shops and stores, especially in L'Eixample's Passeig de Gràcia -- Barcelona's riposte to Paris's Champs Elysées.
Today thousands of tourists crowd the delightful narrow lanes of the Ciutat Vella (Old City), eager to view its many historic attractions, and pack La Rambla, the most colorful and fascinating avenue in the whole Mediterranean. Local residents, alas, have to wait until winter to see their favorite promenade returned to a more peaceful state.
Some (spoilsport) critics have expressed the concern that the city is currently more interested in its surface image and in packaging itself as a sellable commodity than in dealing with practical matters, such as more judicious city planning. Heavyweight luminaries such as art critic Robert Hughes -- who wrote the definitive in-depth portrait of the city at the time of the 1992 Olympics -- have been particularly disappointed, and many fear that in the quest for media approval, the city will become a virtual theme park for tourists.
Regardless, the Catalan metropolis has certainly experienced many changes for the better -- starting with the fact that today it's even easier to get to and get around the city. By train, visitors can travel from Madrid to Barcelona's main Sants station in just under 3 hours, thanks to a high-speed (300km/h or 190 mph) AVE train service. The lightweight tram, TGV, and Metro services that can get you around the city quickly and efficiently also continue to expand and improve.
Like many forward-thinking cities, Barcelona is becoming more eco-friendly. Following Amsterdam's model, the city has implemented a bike-rental plan which encourages residents and visitors alike to use a bike-sharing system in which red bicicletas (6,000 in all) are available for free from a variety of bus and Metro stations for up to 30 minutes to those who want to make short trips along some of the city's new cycle lanes.
Barcelona is home to some beautiful parks, ranging from the much-loved veteran Parc de la Ciutadella to the sprawling pine-covered Parc de Collserola and the eccentric fairyland Parc Güell. There are expansive grassy areas on Montjuïc, above the port. But there are also newcomers, like Parc Diagonal Mar and Poble Nou's Parc Central, both of which opened in 2008 and which filled in wastelands left by departing industries. However, these parks tend to be more designer-conscious, stylishly laid out and resembling modern works of art rather than places to relax amid soothing greenery.
In the past, a wealth of architectural styles, from medieval Gothic to 19th-century moderniste, made Barcelona famous. Today, ultra-modern, mold-breaking buildings also dominate the skyline, from Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar on the eastern edge of L'Eixample to Norman Foster's "Needle" tower high on the wooded hills near Tibidabo. A typical example of Barcelona's ability to convert the conventional into something exceptional is La Ribera's Santa Caterina food market, where the avant-garde roof, designed by Enric Miralles (who was responsible for the Parc Diagonal Mar, mentioned above), gives truth to writer V. S. Pritchett's saying that Catalans "live artwardly" even when it comes down to workaday matters.
With the increase in tourism, traditional industries such as car and textile production have declined in the city and relocated out of town, where they continue to flourish. High-tech companies have sprung up in areas such as the Llobregat Delta, near the airport. Within the city, old working-class areas are definitely changing, mostly for the better. Neighborhoods like Poble Sec, where girls used to work on assembly lines in calico factories, and Poble Nou, where the old chimneys of the former textile works still stand beside warehouses converted into trendy pads for high-income executives, are exchanging their gritty proletarian look for stylish gentrification. Call it a theme park if you want, but it sure looks better.
Today Barcelona is a multicultural, polyglot city and home to various international communities. There is a large and industrious Chinese community, who ironically flourish around the misnamed Barri Xino (Chinese Quarter), even though immigrant Asians lived there for decades in the past. The name Barri Xino was inspired by a lurid crime book called Sangre en las Atarazanas (Blood in the Dockyards), written by Francisco Madrid in 1926 and set in an imaginary version of Los Angeles' Chinatown. There are also thriving Arab, Eastern European, South American, and African communities, some of whom live in the once-seedy but now up-and-coming Raval quarter.
Despite all these changes, the native Barcelonans remain what they have always been: Practical, businesslike, proletarian, nonconformist, rebellious, artistic, and hedonistic. They embody a complex and contradictory blend of traits that at least partly explain how the city perpetually manages to experiment, adapt, and use its amazing natural energy and creativity to reinvent itself.
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