From the Merciful Virgin’s legendary fumigation of an apocalyptic locust plague to the heroic last stand celebrated on September 11 and the short-lived Moorish invasion of 'Barshiluna', here are nine significant events you should know about in the history of the Catalan Capital…
Number 1: February 3, 1753. A barrio is born out of the sea
Following the end of the Spanish War of Succession - marked by the occupation of Barcelona by the forces of the Bourbon King, Felipe V - a giant fortress is erected, the Ciudadela, to keep watch over the rebellious city. Military engineer Juan Martín Cermeño is charged with fashioning a whole new district out of the sea for the thousands of citizens of El Born whose houses were demolished to make way for the much-despised Ciudadela fortress. Sand and sediments from the Bèsos river are used as landfill for the new peninsula sticking out into the sea. And then on February 3, 1753, the first stone is laid of what will become the fisherman’s barrio. The little Barcelona. La Barceloneta. Two hundred and fifty years later, there aren't any fishermen left, but it remains the city's most maritime district, with its popular beaches, ports and crowded seafood restaurants.
Number 2: 1687. The Merciful Virgin saves the city from a plague of locusts.
It’s 1687 and Barcelona is being terrorized by a giant plague of locusts. The people of the city invoke the spirit of La Mare de Deu de la Mercè, aka The Merciful Virgin, who makes a timely emergency appearance and manages to turn back the onslaught. The miraculous fumigation earns her widespread fame, and the Cult of the Merciful Virgin is born. In 1868 Pope Pious IX declares her Patroness of the city. In 1888, the bishop bears an image of her into the Cathedral. And ever since the Festival of La Mercé is held in her honour. Three days of drunken carousal. An appropriate way to honour a virgin cult. But then she did save the city from locusts.
Number 3: November 2006. The end of the road for Barcelona’s biggest-ever squat
Until a crisp november morning in 2006, Makabra was Barcelona’s biggest okupa, or squat, and one of only two circus schools in the city. It had transformed 5000 m2 of a forgotten, derelict awnings factory in Poble Nou into a multi-functional arts space, a hostal housing people from all over the world, a flourishing site of workshops for performing arts, capoera and dance, with a ramped-up space for skaters, a dining hall, a shop and a theatre.
After 108 people had been turned out- without incident- by the Mossos de Esquadra, Makabra was no longer. The site was returned to its original construction firm owners. But not without a party first. Which lasted until three in the afternoon. Now there is a glassy building in its place, at the centre of the new hipsterish Poble Nou. Makabra is dead. Long live Makabra!
Number 4: Sometime between AD870-898: Wilfred the Hairy bleeds all over his shield and a legend is born
Cast your mind back, To a time called the Dark Ages. A mist-enveloped battlefield, littered with bodies and groans. A wounded warrior lies in a tent, tended by servants. His name is Guifre, or Wilfred. He is the Count of Barcelona. The legendary slayer of the Llobregat dragon, which he attacked fearlessly with an oak branch; nicknamed el pilos, ‘the hairy’, because of the unusual birthmark only his mother could recognize, when he returned from exile in France.
On the day of his death, Wilfred The Hairy had been fighting a fierce battle against Normans or Moors- historians can’t decide which. Some sort of aggressive occupying force, anyway. At Wilfred’s bedside, there was a Frankish King. His name? Charles the Bald. Charles stoops before Wilfred’s hairy fingers and dips them in his own wounds. He uses them to daub Wilfred’s copper shield with four bloody stripes. Wilfred’s newly created coat-of-arms, the red stripes on a golden background, will become an abiding image of Catalan-ness that will later prompt Catalonia’s renaissance thinkers to adopt it as the symbol of a proud but oppressed people. La Senyera: The flag of Catalonia.
Number 5: AD717: Barcelona becomes Barshiluna.
Rampaging Moorish forces are sweeping across the peninsula, spreading terror throughout the Visigoth- and Vandal-ruled Kingdom. After Tarragona is reduced to rubble by a force led by a man with an extremely long name- Al-Hurr ibn Abd ar-Rahman al-Thaqafi- Barcelona decides to adopt innovative military tactics; unequivocal surrender. The Moorish conquerors enter the city unopposed. The cathedral becomes a mosque. Barcelona becomes Barshiluna. And for the first in its history, the city is part of the Islamic World, and also not for the first time, its citizens are subject to an unfair increase in taxation. Only for 84 years though. In 801 the Franks come down from north of the Pyrenees and return the city to the Christian fold. And Barshiluna is once again Barcelona!
Number 6: 25 July 2014 Jordi Pujol admits diddling the Catalan electorate
On this date, Jordi Pujol I Soley, the dominant figure in Catalan politics of the Transition Period and President of the Generalitat for 23 years, admitted to having ‘un dinero en el extranjero’. Or to put it more explicitly, deliberately conning Hacienda throughout his term of office and beyond by syphoning money out of the country - with the collusion of family members - into an Andorran bank account. The figure was reportedly at the very least €4 million, though the Manos Limpias agency put it between 3000 and 5000 million. Pujol stood accused of trafico de influencias, blanqueo de capitals, prevaricación, malversación and falsedad, with a bit of the old fraude fiscal thrown in for good measure. The legendary political career of Pujol’s is left in tatters. Some say it even led to the departure of his protegee, Artur Mas, after a dubious campaign to focus the media and public spotlight on the Independentista movement, away from the Caso Pujol.
Number 7: October 17 1986. Barcelona is granted the 1992 Olympic Games.
Euphoria takes hold as ambitious building projects are given the go-ahead, including the Arata Isozaki-designed Palau Sant Jordi, Roy Lichtenstein’s Barcelona Head sculpture at Port Vell and the replenishment of disused areas of what is now the Villa Olímpica, and its beachfront. The Games themselves turned out to be one of the most successful ever. As well as the economic boost created by tourism (£29 million taken during 1992 alone) the Games provided an injection of civic pride and morale that has sustained Barcelona ever since. Even once the Flame was doused, there’s been no looking back in the transformation of Barcelona into a blueprint for urban regenero-gentrification.
Number 8: October 15, 1940. Lluis Companys cries ‘Visca Catalunya’ before being riddled with Falangist bullets in front of Montjuic Palace.
Spain’s Republican government, supported by a semi-autonomous Catalonia, has been overthrown by General Francisco Franco’s Falangist forces. Companys- President of the Generalitat, leader of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and a supporter, though often critical, of the failed Republic- has fled to France. When France is invaded by Germany, the Nazi Gestapo delivers Companys back to Spain. Now, he stands before a firing squad outside the Palace of Montjuic, his crime; being a Catalan patriot.
As he savours his last moments of time on earth, Companys foregoes a blindfold and exclaims ‘Visca Catalunya!’ earning himself in posterity, a) the naming of an Olympic Stadium, b) a Barcelonese avenue and c) several large statues.
Number 9: September 11, 1714. The heroic/suicidal last stand of the Siege of Barcelona
The most important date in Barcelona and indeed Catalonia’s history, the Diada, like 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, commemorates a defeat; it's known simply as l’onze de septembre or La Diada. It recalls a heroic rebellion, a last stand, which, in local folklore is the Catalan equivalent of the suicidal last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
During the Spanish War of Succession, Catalonia, through its alliance with England, took on the combined political and military might of Castile and France, only to be utterly betrayed by the English - perfidious albion! -, and left on her own to face the furious vengeance of Philip the Second, the pretender to the throne whose claims the Catalan parliament had rejected. For a whole year, Barcelona held out as the last opponent to his succession, and even when the enemy forces broke through the bulwarks, the city's dilapidated militia fought to defend every street down to the bloody end.
A vengeful Philip would, like the dictator Franco some 200 years later, tear away all the principality’s privileges, outlaw the use of the Catalan language and marginalize Catalonia from the rest of Spain, whilst cutting her out of all trade in the Americas. While a demoralized Catalonia would have to resign herself to political insignificance for over 200 years, Castile would continue to dominate the affairs of the peninsula. Today the date continues to have massive significance and is celebrated each year with a growing clamour for independence represented by peaceful marches in Barcelona's streets and an omnipresent Senyera. The Mercat del Born has become a focal point for these celebrations, with its excavations of the original buildings of the citizens whose houses were demolished by Philip following the siege, while the Fossars de les Moreres (Cemetery of the Mulberries) monument beside Santa Maria del Mar church commemorates those who died in the conflict with an eternal flame.