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Streets of Barcelona

The exuberant public life of a great city

Barcelona—once dismissed as an industrial city in a backward country—is now mentioned in the same breath as Paris, London and Rome as a must-see destination for any visitor seeking to experience Europe at its best. What happened?

The city sports gorgeous architecture, both in its charming tangle of medieval streets and later masterpieces by Antonin Gaudi and other geniuses of the late 19th Century Modernisme architectural movement.

But on a recent visit, what struck me as Barcelona’s greatest strength is an exuberant sense of public life that sweeps everyone up in the festivities. More than its cathedrals, museums and cafes (which are terrific!), walking the streets is the city’s chief attraction. With no entrance fee or cover charge, you are treated to a showcase of top-flight actors and musicians as you stroll past.

Particularly intriguing are the human statues that stare down from their pedestals on La Rambla, the pedestrian street that is the heart of the city. You consider poking them to make sure they really are alive, when suddenly they break into a dance or shriek or song. Plopping a half-euro coin into their basket feels like the best tourism bargain on the continent.

Elsewhere around town, I came across talented buskers—tango dancers, gypsy jazz players, tai chi masters, dulcimer pluckers and many more—as well as circles of people dancing traditional Catalonian sardana steps. The wide smiles, particularly on the face of older dancers, is explained by the fact that the sardana was illegal during the Franco dictatorship—one of his many efforts to quash any signs of Catalonian culture.

In fact, the joyous embrace of public life in Barcelona, where even walking down the sidewalk in the company of others feels like a celebration, can be traced back to Franco’s 40-year reign, when any public gathering outside of religious rituals was forbidden.

People coming together in a congenial public space for any reason is one of the most basic expressions of the commons—which Franco and other totalitarians understood was necessary to repress. A vibrant public life is not only a source of pleasure, but an essential element of democracy.