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Capital of an ever-more-autonomous Catalonia, Barcelona continues to thrive as a bilingual (Catalan and Spanish) city in love with everything avant-garde.
A Tale of Two Cities
Having languished for centuries in official "second-city" status in the shadow of Madrid, Barcelona's drive to excel, create, innovate, and improvise is largely a result of its ongoing obsession with eclipsing its eternal rival. Even within Barcelona, a healthy sense of national identity goads designers, architects, merchants, and industrialists to ever higher levels of originality and effectiveness. Ever since 1990, when the International Olympic Committee announced that the 1992 Olympic Games were to be held in the Catalan capital, Barcelona has been booming with pride and confidence in its ever brighter future as (finally!) a bona fide European capital recognized on its own merits.
Design, Architecture, Fashion, Style
Now that the city's haute couture status is increasingly seen as biting at the heels of more established design superstars such as Paris and Milan, present-day Barcelona more and more resembles a carousel of postmodern visual surprises, from "cool hunter" Brandery fashions to dizzying architecture—Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar gherkin, Norman Foster's giant erector-set communications tower on the Collserola skyline, or Ricardo Bofill's Hotel Vela (Sail), the W hotel's nickname, looming over the waterfront.
Cuisine: Haute and Hot
Ever since Ferran Adrià and his restaurant El Bulli became synonymous with the planet's most innovative avant-garde culinary phenomenon in Northern Catalonia's Roses, the spin-off chef d'auteur successes, especially in Barcelona, have exponentially proliferated. With more than a dozen superb restaurants winning international awards and more on the way, keeping abreast of the city's gastronomic rock stars can be a dizzying pursuit. Direct Adrià disciples such as Sergi Arola at the Hotel Arts and Carles Abellán at Comerç 24 join Adrià precursors such as Jean Louis Neichel or old pals like Fermí Puig at the Hotel Majestic's Drolma, along with relative newcomers such as Jordi Artal of Cinc Sentits or Jordi Herrera of Manairó, in a glittering galaxy of gastronomical creativity. Meanwhile, carpetbaggers like the Roca brothers from Girona or Martin Berasategui from even farther afield in San Sebastián have opened award-winning hotel restaurants in, respectively, the Omm (Moo) and the Condes de Barcelona (Lasarte) even as younger and smaller restaurants such Saüc, Ot, and Hisop are producing creative and streamlined cuisine at less than bank-breaking prices.
Barcelona's always amazing FC Barcelona soccer juggernaut seemed as if it had peaked in 2006 when a hirsute athlete with an overbite named Ronaldinho led the team to its second European title…but the best was yet to come. Former star midfielder Pep Guardiola and a largely homegrown team of stars dazzled the world in 2009, winning the triplete, or the trifecta: the Spanish Liga, the King's Cup, and the Champions League European title. With star player Leo Messi still in his early 20s and the farm system producing a steady supply of new players committed to Barcelona's razzle-dazzle style of attacking, esthetically stunning play, 2010 could be even more apotheosic than 2009. What is certain, with or without titles, the creative choreography and the dedication to exciting, offensive soccer is here to stay.
With a new airport terminal, a new waterfront monolith towering over the Mediterranean, the new AVE high-speed train connection making once remote Madrid into a little more than a Barcelona suburb, Barcelona is once again on the move. City planners predict that the new AVE terminal at Plaça de les Glòries will shift the city center eastward, and that the new Barcelona hub will surround the Torre Agbar and the Fòrum at the Mediterranean end of the Diagonal.
The approval of Catalonia's controversial new Autonomy Statute ushered in a wave of change in Catalonia. Bitterly opposed by the right-wing Partido Popular, the new autonomy agreement gives Catalonia a larger slice of local taxes and more control of its own infrastructure, such as ports, airports, and the high-speed AVE train. Perhaps more importantly, the new statute reinforces the use of the Catalan language and formally establishes Catalonia as one of the most progressive pockets in Europe, with special provisions safeguarding human rights on same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and abortion that would win scant support in other more traditional regions of Spain.
What We're Talking About
Can FC Barcelona do it again? The chance to win a second consecutive Champions title in Madrid's Bernabeu stadium where the final is scheduled to be held in May of 2010 is unadulterated fútbol aphrodisiac to Catalans.
The new Mandarin Hotel opening in 2010 in midtown Barcelona will star Carme Ruscalleda, Spain's most important female restaurateur, guiding the hotel restaurant with her son at the burners—another great leap forward for the pixie-ish Sant Pol de Mar master chef.
The W Hotel, also known as Hotel Vela, a huge sail-shaped skyscraper over the Barcelona waterfront, is causing a stir. While Barcelona's movers and shakers celebrate this iconic new monolith, residents of La Barceloneta protest the loss of the fishing quarter's salty character and identity.
Barcelona's Formula One chefs, the molecular gastronomy gang led by chef Ferran Adrià, is retreating from the brink of scientific cookery and running for the cover of grandma's apron with restaurants celebrating simpler fare and more traditional recipes. Fermin Puig's Petit Comité, Carles Gaig's Fonda Gaig, the Freixa family's Freixa Tradició, Albert Adrià's Inòpia, and Carles Abellan's Tapaç 24 all offer mainstream Catalan cuisine at affordable prices.
Catalonia's ongoing campaign to reinforce an identity distinct from that of Spain—comparable to Ireland distinguishing itself from England—is poised to lower the boom on bullfighting. The Parliament of Catalonia, pressured by animal rights groups and Catalan nationalists, is about to vote on the abolition of bullfighting, though in business-minded Catalonia the bottom line will probably be…the bottom line.
Gaudí's Sagrada Família has been placed on the World Monuments Fund's endangered monument Watch List as a result of ongoing construction of a high-speed train line under the site. The Madrid-based train tunnel project managers and Barcelona's Sagrada Família architects do not agree on the degree of danger the excavation entails.
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