El Puerto (SOS)

I couldn’t blog about Barcelona without mentioning the port; sea trade brought prosperity to many European cities and here the port has been central to city life for two millennia.  Origin stories suggest that the city was either founded by Hercules, or by Hamilcar, the father of the famous Carthaginian military leader Hannibal.  In either event it was the Romans who began to fully develop the area to take advantage of the natural harbour here.

Nowadays the place is bustling with visitors, but to me it seems to lack a clear identity.  Is it a marina, a ferry terminal, a shopping mall or a historical monument?  The answer is that it is all of these in part, but what does that make the whole?

Most of the commercial activity (it is one of Europe’s largest container ports) takes place conveniently out of sight of most visitors, with the ferry terminal dominating the western end of the vista that greets you as you arrive at the end of La Rambla – the main street of the old town.

Here you will also find the Mirador de Colón, the monument to Christopher Columbus.  Here the explorer returned to his Spanish sponsors to report the discovery of America, further reminder of past nautical glories.  Best not mention that Columbus was Italian, or that his statue, intended to point in the direction of the Americas, actually points to Genoa, city of his birth._PW_0168

Around the fringes you will find the converted warehouses that house museums and restaurants, but then on a peninsula jutting into the docks is the commercial heart; an IMAX cinema, the largest aquarium in Europe, and the Mare Magnum shopping centre, which because of it’s tourist destination status is the only mall open on Sundays.

There’s some amazing art too, though I found myself less enthralled by Frank Gehry and Roy Lichtenstein than Spanish artist Andreu Alfaro.  His piece Onades (Waves) dominates the entrance to the ferry buildings and consists of great loops of polished steel.  At first I assumed they were an interpretation of the Olympic rings with a hint of Mickey Mouse ears, but as the work was installed well after that event any comment on the commercialisation of sporting ideals would be misinterpretation on my part._PW_0278_79_80

Standing guard over all of this are the towers of the cable car that ascends to Montjuic and the Olympic Park.  Inconveniently the central tower is no longer an access point, so you must start further along the coast if you want to take that ride.  It’s well worth it though for the panoramic views of the city that it provides.



State of Independence (SOS 2)

I’ve posted previously about the Cuban flag and it’s role in the independence movement of that nation, and I can see the logic of a country separated by thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean from its European rulers seeking more autonomy, whether that be Cuba from Spain or the US from Britain.

I mention this because on my first morning in Barcelona, while making my way towards Gaudi’s confection of a cathedral, I noticed a number of flags hanging from windows that were similar to the Cuban emblem.  The same white star in a triangle against a striped background, though the individual components were coloured differently.  So similar was it that I assumed that I was walking through a neighbourhood populated by immigrants from some other former colony.

I was wrong of course and the flag was so ubiquitous I soon realised that this was the Estelada, the flag of the Catalan independence movement, though the Cuban flag and experience were inspirational._PW_9639

To me though the world seems bent on division.

In my lifetime I’ve seen both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia fragment into smaller nations and although we’ve just seen Scotland vote narrowly to remain in the UK, the issue has only gone away temporarily.  There are those in Wales who would also pursue their own route and then there’s Cornwall.  The UK as a whole is about to reconsider its membership of the European Union.  I hear lots of objections to having laws made in Brussels imposed upon us, but really why does it matter where the law is made so long as its appropriate?

This trend concerns me.  This focus on difference seems to be at the heart of so many of the conflicts in the world; Muslim against Christian, Sunni versus Shia, Protestant and Catholic.

Perhaps I’m inherently conservative.  In my tattered history of relationships I’ve tended to be the one who wanted to hang on and give things another go, though it seems that others find me harder to persevere with!  My point is that we’re capable of more when we work together than when we’re working in opposite directions.  It’s the basis of teamwork.  Of course when things go wrong it’s easier to blame others than to acknowledge our own role and think about what we’ll do differently next time.

In my day job I often discuss Sir Alex Ferguson when teaching about leadership, and there are two things relevant to his success that have parallels here.  The first is his history of working with assistant managers who had very different personalities to his own, which in many respects compensated for his personal shortcomings in some areas.  The second is that he wasn’t initially successful, but that Manchester United gave him time to deliver – it was four seasons before the team won anything under his leadership but his potential was recognised and valued.  He’s the most successful manager in the history of English football but he achieved it by recognising the power of working with others who are different to you, and by virtue of tolerance.


Catalonia isn’t the only region of Spain seeking self-rule, nor are Spain and the UK the only European countries facing this challenge, in fact Greece, Portugal and Sweden seem to be in a minority of unified nations.  The European Union was originally seen as a deterrent against another world war, yet we seem more intent on building new walls.  Tolerance?  Working with others?_PW_1845

Finally after walking for miles I spotted a Spanish flag.

It was flying over a government building.

The final irony was that even that building represented a regional division.


Sketches of Spain (SOS 1)

Technically Spain is too broad a descriptor, but Miles Davis’ classic album is worth stealing a title from, and appropriately so because of the way he blended jazz with European classical influences (a reworking of Concierto de Aranjuez, or orange juice as my friend Michael calls it, is the standout track) and world music.  As you’ll see over the course of the posts here, Barcelona is a city with many influences, from its origins during the Roman Empire, through wealth and grandeur earned through its position as a major port of the Mediterranean, to a modern city with an outstanding reputation for sport, especially F1, the Olympics and a football team that plays in the world’s largest soccer stadium.

Of greater appeal to me are the cultural aspects of art and architecture, where Picasso and Gaudí are names familiar to most.

As one of the largest cities in Europe it is stylish and cosmopolitan.  Who knows what will surface on these posts over the coming months?  Not even I as I’ve not even begun the task of assessing the thousands of images I collected, so let’s step into the city together.  Careful as you go though – you may find some of Gaudí’s work beneath your feet…_PW_9736-Edit


España (Habana 18)

Cuba’s independence from Spain came after years of bloody conflict; though the extent of that bloodshed is a matter of debate.  Tales of atrocities reported in American newspapers of the time may well have been exaggerated or completely fabricated with the intention of drawing the US into the conflict on the side of those who sought to throw off Spanish control.

Whilst that might be seen as a natural echo of America’s own fight for independence from a distant ruler, the motivation was probably less idealistic.  Many saw Cuba becoming part of the US as a key strategic element in gaining control of the Gulf of Mexico and for a brief period after independence the Stars and Stripes flew over Havana.

Of course all of that happened in the 19th Century so it’s hardly relevant today.  Is it?

Well despite the 1959 revolution the US still has a strategic foothold on Cuba.  Originally agreed under the terms of a lease signed in the years immediately after independence, and then strongly objected to Castro as an illegal occupation, the US maintains a naval base on Cuba, in much the same way as the UK maintains Gibraltar on mainland Spain.  That base is Guantanamo Bay.

And over a century since the Spanish were defeated, what role do they have in modern Cuba?  There is still evidence of cultural influence, though to be fair an impressive statue of Cervantes may well be a pre-independence relic.  The same is true of architecture, a historic influence.  Food?  Difficult to say, Cuba’s poverty has limited the development of any strong food culture; if you can’t guarantee the supply of any ingredients you tend to work with whatever’s available rather than pursuing any particular style.

You do still see Spanish flags dotted about in Havana and there is one Spanish artefact that is highly prized.  A passport.  Most Cubans don’t have freedom of movement, but with dual nationality you can travel.

Which is why the place with the most orderly queues I saw in Havana wasn’t the national telephone provider with a limited supply of sim cards that everyone wants.  Nor was it the ice cream retailer Coppelia, which allows tourists to jump the line but employs security guards to manage the flow of locals.

It was the Spanish Embassy.