Through the Eyes of Catalonia
'Let us hope that Catalonia shines on as vibrantly as ever.'
James Green | 3 December 2017

Catalonia, or Cataluña, has been making the headlines recently for its regional independence movement, dividing the nation politically. The social significance of the scenes caused by Madrid’s government’s response begs the question: what are the differences between this North-Eastern region and the rest of Spain?

A notable distinction is one of language. Anyone who has walked around Barcelona will know that the place names don’t quite sound typically ‘Spanish.’ Some people call it ‘a funny mixture between Spanish and French’. Why? Catalonia has its own regional dialect, Catalan, which is found on many signs and documents. So why are they so keen to use this dialect? Well, one explanation is that the language was oppressed under the Franco dictatorship (1936-1975), and the Catalan population reacted to the end of that era with a certain local pride. However, the vast majority of the eight million-strong Catalan population is bilingual, speaking standard Spanish as well.

Historically, Catalonia had always been an independent state until 1714, when the war of the Spanish succession culminated in King Philip V defeating Catalonia, Valencia and other islands. Attempts were then made to impose Spanish law and customs on the state, all of which were futile. In 1931, the Generalitat - the national Catalan government - was restored. However, after winning the Battle of Ebro in 1938, General Franco seized control over the region, continuing his dictatorship until 1977. Since then, separatism has attracted growing support.

Economically, Catalonia is recognised as a powerhouse of Spain. It’s geographical location on the sea has led to strong business in trading, such as in textiles. What is more, the finance and services industry has developed hugely, especially within Barcelona. Until recently, many of the largest Spanish banks had their headquarters in Barcelona (including La Caixa and Banco Sabadell). The Spanish economy has Catalonia to thank for 19% of its GDP, and the OECD estimates that, if it were a single economy, it would be the 34th largest in the world. That would put it ahead of Denmark and Singapore, with a GDP per capita of $35,000. For some familiar context, Catalonia’s contribution to Spain is double what Scotland’s is to the UK.

However, as ever, the most important issue here is food. Some of Catalonia’s signature dishes include: Pan amb tomate, toasted bread covered with tomato, olive oil and salt - a delicious starter or tapas dish; Botifarra, a spiced sausage unique to the area; and, of course, Crema Catalana, custard topped with a hard layer of caramel. When in Catalonia, I fully recommend trying these amongst other local dishes.

As much as food is a route into local culture, football offers a unique view of the provincial attitude, wherever you are in the world. This is very much true of Catalonia, with the biannual match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (El clásico) being a drama that the whole world tunes in to watch.

Spain as a whole is renowned for its provincial festivities, with each region having its own traditions and fiestas. Catalonia does not disappoint, with three main celebrations a year. Firstly, La Merce is a week-long party of everything Catalan, from a wine fair to human towers (Castellers: a culturally exclusive activity in which Catalonians attempt to create the biggest human tower possible). A Catalan party would not be the same without the traditional Sardana, a native dance originating in Empordá. Then there is the Dia de Sant Jordi, where on the 23rd April, men give their lovers a single rose, which is reciprocated by the gift of a single book. This is said to be the equivalent to Valentine’s Day, and has remained remarkably less commercialised. If you have ever been to Catalonia, you are sure to have seen its flag draping from the windows and balconies. The iconic four red stripes on a yellow background is a symbol known as the Senyera. As well as the flag, a burro is the bestial sign of Catalonia; some say it represents the work ethic of the Catalan populous, whilst others think that it is just a jest at the expense of the Spanish bull!

So remember, when Catalonia’s identity is called into question by bureaucracy, that there is something unique and magical about the area. Whatever happens politically, let us hope that Catalonia shines on as vibrantly as ever.

Fins aviat!

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Original Image by James Green.

James Routledge 2016