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Breathing the air of freedom in Barcelona

  • The Jakarta Post

| Fri, March 22 2013 | 11:13 am
Breathing the air of freedom in Barcelona

Marvel: The Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has been under construction for more than a century. The project is expected to be completed in 2026. JP/Dwi Atmanta

As part of efforts to promote tourism in Barcelona and Spain, Qatar Airways and the Catalan Tourist Board invited a group of journalists based in Jakarta and Bali, including The Jakarta Post’s Dwi Atmanta, to the Spanish city from March 2 to 7. The following is a report from the trip.

“I will have to go tomorrow, but I promise somehow. I’ll come back in time for the love I leave behind, at the heart of Barcelona,” so goes Fariz Rustam Munaf’s 1998 hit, which he composed following his trip to the Catalan capital.

Touring one of Europe’s top 10 tourist destinations, one may understand why Fariz found such inspiration to produce that masterpiece without needing an instrument.

More than a dozen years after the song was released, Indonesians possibly renewed their connection to Barcelona after they saw the national flag hoisted for the first and second time at the Olympic Games, thanks to women’s shuttler Susi Susanti when the world’s biggest sporting event was hosted in the Spanish city.

Today, soccer binds more Indonesians to Barcelona. Millions of people from across Indonesia admire Lionel Messi and his club FC Barcelona, with some even members of the Spanish giant’s official fan club.

But what does it take to visit Barcelona and the rest of the Catalan autonomous region, especially for Indonesians?

Located 11,600 kilometers away from Jakarta — and 19 flight hours — at a cost of at least US$1,330 roundtrip on Qatar Airways, Barcelona has many things to offer to convince an Indonesian tourist that the journey is worth it.

Barcelona, like many other European cities, keeps its old buildings alive in respect for history. Driving 50 kilometers north of Barcelona, the towering Montserrat mountain hides a precious bounty: the 1,000-year-old monastery where the patron of Catalonia, Our Lady of Montserrat, is kept intact. The multi-peaked rocky mountain itself was declared a natural park to protect the massif and its geological character.

Pilgrims have to wait in line to touch the 12th century Romanesque polychrome carving of the Virgin Mary placed inside the Basilica of Montserrat and to take pictures. Exiting the basilica, pilgrims may light candles of various colors.

To add more religious flavor to a Barcelona trip, a sojourn to Basilica Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) in the city is a must. The landmark church, voted the most famous tourist attraction in Barcelona with 3 million visitors annually, is a project that remains unfinished since its groundbreaking on March 19, 1882.

Legendary architectural genius Antoni Gaudi redesigned the place of worship when he took over from Francisco del Villar, who was resigning, in 1883. Many agree that the basilica is a synthesis of Gaudi’s concept of architecture, which envisions harmony between man and nature and between man and the Creator.

Sunset: Boats line the coast of Sitges west of Barcelona, Spain. Courtesy of Sitges Tourism AuthoritySunset: Boats line the coast of Sitges west of Barcelona, Spain. Courtesy of Sitges Tourism Authority

Staring at the exterior and interior of the church amounts to a Bible reading or mystical experience of faith, as Gaudi might wish. “He envisaged the church as a Bible made of stone, which told the history and mysteries of Christian faith,” the official guidebook of Sagrada Familia says. The church’s three façades evoke the three milestones of Christ’s life: his birth, death and resurrection.

A careful observation of the church’s Nativity (birth) façade will reveal that the angel chorus sculptures have slanted eyes. It’s no wonder the stone sculptures were carved by Japanese artist Etsuro Sotoo based on Gaudi’s ideas.

Somewhat controversial is the sculpture of Jesus crucified in the Passion (death) façade worked out by Jose Maria Subirachs. Jesus is described as totally nude, which according to Gaudi was what the Gospel said about the extreme humiliation Jesus suffered prior to his death.

Gaudi himself died in pain three days after a tram struck him in 1926. To pay homage to the architect, the church will be inaugurated in 2026, 100 years after Gaudi’s demise.

There are many more remainders of the past to explore or simply admire in Barcelona and its surrounding cities, like Tarragona, home to the oldest remains of the Roman Empire outside Rome. But nobody would disagree that modern Barcelona, and Catalonia in general, is fertile soil for freedom of expression.

Unlike other parts of Europe, the influence, if not justification, of Barcelona’s history and its people’s dynamics today are easily felt. Not just the omnipresence of the Catalan flag with its red and yellow stripes or the writing on the wall across the city that reads “Independencia”, the expression of nationhood of the Catalan people transpires in a subtle way through arts or on the soccer field through the el Clasico between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Barcelona’s Nou Camp and Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadiums have always been fully packed when it comes to emotion-filled duels typifying the arch rivalry between Spain’s strongest teams, as it represents a classic tale of “the ruler” versus “the oppressed”. No wonder the el Clasico is the second most followed club match in the world after the UEFA Champions League final.

Despite the animosity, Barcelona’s contribution to the Spanish national team is unquestionable. The club formed the backbone of Spain’s two-time European champion in 2008 and 2012 and world champion in 2010.

But nationalism and national unity will remain an issue, particularly ahead of a planned referendum next year, although no definite schedule has been set so far.

A huge rally took place in Barcelona to mark Catalonia’s National Day on Sept. 11 last year, demanding independence for the autonomous region. The Eurozone crisis affecting Spain and a general sense that Catalonia paid the government in taxes more than other autonomous regions were behind the renewed call for separation. The self-determination referendum will prove whether the aspiration will materialize.

“This is a matter of fairness. It is just unfair that we pay so much tax to the government but only a little returns to us,” says Ita, a middle-aged senior PR manager based in Barcelona.

Monica, a Barcelona native working in Singapore, is more cautious about the political event that will determine the future of Catalonia. “Various surveys revealed that the majority would vote for independence, but I only hope for the best for the people,” she says.

Nothing, however, will change Barcelona, whatever the outcome of the referendum. The city will be as captivating as it used to be for travel enthusiasts.

As Fariz puts it, they will come back for the love they leave in Barcelona.


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