The D&O Diary is on assignment in Europe this week. The first stop was in Barcelona, where I was a speaker at an annual industry event hosted by my good friends at HCC Global. The education session was a success. As for Barcelona itself … what can you say about a city that has a beautiful beach, a rich historic and cultural heritage, complex and fascinating architecture, and world-class nightlife?
Barcelona is larger, busier and more beautiful than I had anticipated. The city sits on the Mediterranean Sea, with Tibidabo, a 1,600 ft. mountain to the northwest, and with Montjuic, a rocky prominence that was the site of the 1929 World Fair and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, to the south. With a population of 1.6 million, Barcelona is about the size of Philadelphia (although all comparisons between the two cities stop there). While we think of Barcelona as Spanish, the locals consider their city to be Catalan. I don’t think I saw a single Spanish flag in Barcelona itself, but Catalan flags and banners fly everywhere.
Barcelona’s architecture is varied and much of it is beautiful. At many street corners, tourists stop to photograph façades and building ornaments. Many of Barcelona’s architectural gems are mixed into otherwise ordinary neighborhoods. For example, Antoni Gaudí’s famous Casa Milà was right around the corner from my hotel, on a busy upscale shopping street. The building for which Gaudí is best known, the stunning and still controversial and still unfinished Sagrada Família cathedral, bursts upward out of a quiet residential neighborhood like some sort of surreal volcano. The narrow alleyways of the Bari Gòtic, the medieval district inside Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella, its old city, are full of well-preserved medieval buildings as well as portions of the Roman Wall and the beautiful Plaça del Rei.
Running through the city center from the seafront northwestward into the upscale L’Eixample neighborhood is La Rambla (which at Plaçe de Catalunya becomes Rambla de Catalunya), a tree-lined avenue with a pedestrian walkway in its wide median. Along the several kilometers-long promenade are sidewalk cafes, small shops and kiosks, street musicians, and squadrons of tourists looking for the right place to sit down and have a glass of sangria.
I don’t speak Spanish (much less Catalan), but I have mastered a few Spanish words, including one indispensable phrase: Una cerveza por favor. I was sitting at a sidewalk café along La Rambla, after having successfully deployed my indispensable Spanish phrase, when a German couple sat down next to me. When the waiter came up, it was clear that the waiter didn’t speak German and the Germans didn’t speak Spanish. With instantaneous tacit agreement, both the waiter and the Germans switched to English. This was one of many incidents during my visit to Barcelona that caused me to contemplate languages and communications and the way the forces of the global economy are shaping both. Among other things, I was able to communicate – in English – with all of the other conference participants, regardless of where they are from. Most of the people I met in Barcelona spoke multiple languages, while I spoke only one – fortunately for me, I grew up speaking the one that everyone else could speak.
On my way over to Barcelona, I read a history of the Spanish Civil War. In analyzing the war’s causes, the book noted that in the early '30s, high levels of unemployment had led to social unrest. The book reported that the unemployment rate in Spain in 1933 was 12%. The current rate of unemployment in Spain is approaching 25%. The country now has safety nets that it did not in the '30s, and Barcelona itself continues to project prosperity. But during my visit, there were unmistakable signs that the current poor economic conditions are taking a significant toll.
For example, on my first day in the city, when I entered the Bari Gòtic, I walked right into a massive demonstration, involving a huge crowd of people chanting, blowing whistles, and beating drums. They had gathered opposite the Palau de la Generalitat (which houses the offices of the President of Catalonia). They were protesting against educational spending cuts. Many of the protesters also carried signs (in Catalan) about Catalonian independence. The protest was peaceful and even had a festive air. But surrounding the protesters was a heavily armed cordon of riot police. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how the peaceful protest could quickly turn into something much more ominous. But for most of my visit, the troubles stayed well in the background.
My visit to Barcelona coincided with the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix of Spain. I had never been to a Formula 1 race before, or for that matter, a motorsports event of any kind. Here is what you need to know about a Formula 1 race: the noise from twenty-two F1 race cars as the race starts is the loudest sound that has occurred in the entire universe since the Big Bang itself. The cars accelerate from a standing start (pictured below, left) to over 120 miles an hour in five seconds. The race, which is a combination of noise, speed, raw power, skill and danger, is 66 laps of total sensory overload.
After the race is underway and the cars begin taking pit stops, the cars are scattered across the course, and it becomes, at least for an uninformed observer like me, impossible to tell what is going on. When the race ended (an event I had no idea was coming), I turned to the person next to me and asked him who had won. I gathered later that my question was the F1 racing equivalent of asking -- after LeBron James has hit a buzzer-beater slam dunk to win an NBA playoff game -- who that guy was who scored the last basket. The winning driver, it turns out, was the local favorite, Fernando Alonzo, a Spanish driver for the Ferrari team. I believe that every single person there, other than me, knew which car was Alonzo’s and that he had crossed the finish line first at the checkered flag, ten seconds ahead of his closest competitor. Alonzo received a huge trophy and sprayed champagne on the crowd around the viewing stand. My ears were ringing for hours afterwards.
It has been many years since I have stayed out on the town past two in the morning. Because dinner time in Barcelona isn't until 10:00 p.m. or later, on two consecutive evenings, I did not return to my room until the early morning hours. However, it turned out that I was something of an early bird, by Barcelona standards. When I was in a cab on my way back to the hotel at the ungodly hour of 2 am, the city streets were still active and alive with revelers apparently planning on greeting the dawn. I know that I found the F1 race an absolutely overwhelming experience. I can only imagine how it felt to those who had come back from the nightclub at 5 or 6 am. The cars’ noise must have seemed the voice of an angry and vengeful god.
The central part of Barcelona is dense and bustling. But the city also has a great deal of green space, some spectacular parks and, of course, an absolutely stunning beach. Among the city’s parks is Parc Guell, which may be one of the most interesting and beautiful urban parks I have ever seen. The park sits on a ridge above the city and is full of fantastic buildings designed by Gaudí. Pathways lead up the hillside from the park’s eccentric, whimsical entrance, offering spectacular views of the city and the sea at every turn. On a sunny afternoon, a host of leisurely strollers made their way up the hill or sat at overlooks listening to the innumerable buskers. The view from the hilltop, pictured at the top of this post, is breathtakingly beautiful. As I stood there looking at the city spread below and the azure sea beyond, I was irrevocably confirmed in my certainty that Barcelona is a truly awesome place.
I would like to thank my friends at HCC Global for inviting me to be a part of their great event and for the opportunity to visit their beautiful city. It was a great pleasure to be able to meet so many industry colleagues from all over the world, and to find out that not only could I converse with all of them in my own language, but also that all of them read The D&O Diary. I must say that Barcelona is the perfect venue for …well, for just about anything as far as I can tell.
Farewell to you, beautiful Barcelona. Sorry that I had to leave, but I needed to get some sleep.
As I said, Barcelona is a truly awesome place:
A view of the old city and the Placa del Rei:
La Sagrada Familia bursts up out of the surrounding quiet residential neighborhood like some sort of surreal volcano.
Barcelona -- great nightlife and a world class venue for anything