Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Barcelona, Hostess Extraordinaire

Though Barcelona is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, it wasn’t always this way. Before the 1992 summer Olympics, which the city used as an excuse for a complete transformation, it wasn’t so sought after; the beautiful architecture was still there, and the sea, and La Rambla with all its sights and sparkle, but it wasn’t a place you’d necessarily want to visit. The industrial city hadn’t really found its footing in the modern world. Thanks to the influx of money that came from winning the Olympic bid, however, the local Barcelona government was able to revitalize the city’s entire infrastructure and economy. The revitalization was all-inclusive, transforming not only the area around the Olympic buildings but also the airport, train stations, city center, and harbor.

Barcelona had won the hosting over cities including Paris and Amsterdam, and the 1992 Games proved to be remarkable. For the first time in thirty years, no countries boycotted or were banned from the Games. Germany competed as a unified country for the first time; South Africa, having been banned from competition since 1964, participated; the break-up of the Soviet Union led to the inclusion of newly independent nations, including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; baseball counted as an official sport for the first time; and the Dream Team debuted, impressing everyone and trouncing every other team that crossed its path.

Each Olympic city offers its own charms as a backdrop to the Games, but Barcelona seems to have been particularly remarkable. The Olympic Stadium and pools were constructed on the top of Montjuic, one of the highest points in Barcelona, with amazing views of the city spread beneath it. The diving pool, in particular, is breath-taking: it’s set on the side of the mountain, and being in the pool feels like you’re floating over the streets below. The diving pool and the swimming pool next to it are now open to the public—the shadow of the Olympic rings is still visible on the side of the entry building—and Andrew and I swam there one afternoon. Our apartment is on Montjuic, quite close to the Olympic constructions, and Andrew spotted the pools on a run one night.

I remember watching the Olympics in 1992, but I remember nothing about Barcelona. Fifteen years ago, to me, Barcelona may as well have been the moon. Where it was, what it was like, what made it different from other cities, why I should care; none of it registered. Little did I know I’d one day live within sight of the Olympic buildings, that I’d soon personally appreciate the revitalization the Games brought about in the city. That one day I’d be swimming in the very pools shown on TV.

Besides the Olympics, Barcelona holds another hosting distinction: it was home to the World’s Fair in both 1888 and 1929. In 1929, the Fair saw the construction of the amazingly grand Palau Nacional on Montjuic—an immense, turreted palace situated at the top of hundreds of steps and flanked by countless fountains, including the Font Magica. A notable aspect of all World’s Fairs is that the “pavilions” created for the event must be brand-new. After the Fairs, most pavilions are destroyed; less often, the new structures become a true part of the city. (The Eiffel Tower is one of these exceptions: after the Paris World Fair in 1889, the city kept it up, despite calls for it to be destroyed.) The Palau remained, but it fell into disrepair. When Barcelona won the Olympic hosting for the 92 Games, the Palau found new life as a museum of Catalonian art. It’s now one of the grandest structures and one of the best museums in Barcelona. (And Andrew and I can see it from our bedroom balcony.) The Olympic Stadium, too, was actually created by refurbishing a pavilion that had been built for the 1929 World’s Fair.

Two grand, global events, one Spanish city—in the past month or so, a question has come up: What other cities in the world have held both the Olympics (summer or winter) and a major World’s Fair? Surprisingly few, we discovered. In fact, only six: Barcelona, London, Paris, St. Louis, Melbourne, and Montreal. It’s an interesting distinction, one it seems more cities should hold. The fact that Barcelona is one of the select few adds to the unique, often strange nature of the place, suggesting—as does the crazy architecture, as do the bizarre sights on La Rambla, as does the sense that this is, for a lot of backpackers, the end of the road—that there’s a hidden layer to Barcelona, more than meets the eye.

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