The Young Ladies of Avignon

11 things you did not know about Barcelona and its people

The famous Catalan capital is all together a swarm of people, music, frenzy colours, palm trees, flamboyant buildings – an ever buzzing city, pulsatile, alive.  The city of Gaudi, Picasso, Miro. The city of tapas, patatas bravas, churros and cava. There are many landmarks of this extravagant city and even more stories, legends and gossips whispered at every street corner and bodega. Some are just to enchant travellers, some are pure truth and some are a blend of the previous two. Thus on my recent trip to the magnificent city this May I got an earful of such tales – here is just a small selection for you.

  • Why did Gaudi, the famous architect whose name is eternally linked to that of Barcelona, work only for private clients? In fact he didn’t. In the early days of his career Gaudi carved a beautiful street lamp for the City Council, which was placed in Plaza Reial. Only that, once it was finished the Council decided they only had money for half of the amount negotiated with the artist. Gaudi was so upset that he concluded he would never work for the public sector again – and he hadn’t. All his masterpieces from then on were made only for private clients.
  • Eiffel Tower could have belonged to Barcelona – local rumour has it that during the Universal Expo of 1888 hosted in Barcelona, Gustav Eiffel offered to build his quirky creation in the city of Barcelona. His engineer, J. Tolouse Lapierre went to the Expo set up to seal a deal for a 210 m wooden tower and carried a dummy with him all the way from France. The Catalan government of the time didn’t quite like the idea of the strange object, seen as an architectonic monstrosity and refrained from chipping in the bank account of Mr Eiffel & Mr Lapierre, blaming it on the budget austerity (it seems that when it came to major art projects  along the history the Catalan government has always proved a bit short of cash – Sagrada Familia has been “work in progress” for over 100 years, the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia took over 150 years to complete and the list could continue).
  • The palm trees in Plaza Reial are not native trees but a gift from the Bacardi family (yes, you’re right – they are connected to the famous Cuban rum).  Bacardi is the largest privately held, family owned spirits company in the world founded in the 19th century by a Catalan wine merchant who emigrated with his family to Cuba. They make a perfect example of the commercial and entrepreneurial spirit of Catalans, but also of solidarity with the mother-land.
  • Catalans are recognized as very practical, entrepreneurial people… and no less inventive. Thus it might not come as a surprise that there is a shop in Barcelona where you can buy a variety of bags, wallets and other accessories made of discarded tires, street banners and other advertising material. These products are sold under the brand Demano (, created thirteen years ago and the products are known to be very resistant and weather proof; besides every design is unique and the colours are guaranteed for life as street banners use special extra-resistant dyes, which do not fade in time.
  • George Orwell Plaza was not too long ago known as Plaza Trippy – this is because it was a well-known meeting point for drug dealers in the city; about a year ago the City Council decided to eradicate the issue and had some surveillance cameras installed around the little square as well as a… children playground. The initiative worked well, although it is not clear if it was the playground or the cameras to scare the “urban entrepreneurs” away. Some people found it ironical though that the square dedicated to George Orwell, a symbol of social freedom, had surveillance cameras mounted on the buildings around. George Orwell was a 20th century English writer who spent half of his life in Catalonia, deeply in love with the locals’ aspirations of liberty and social equality. He fought as a Republican volunteer in the Spanish civil war (he was even shot in the throat but miraculously survived) and later on recorded his life experiences and deep feelings in the book “Homage to Catalonia”.
  • It is forbidden to be half-naked in Barcelona but it is not illegal to be completed naked – the truth is you might struggle to find topless hotties or shirtless guys on the streets and beaches of Barcelona. Simply because the government made it illegal, to put an end of the general exhibitionism of past decades. However, it is not illegal to walk completely naked on the streets and this has to do with numberless nudist areas and tourists that pack the nudist beaches in summer. Therefore if you visit Barcelona in summer you might come across a 70 y.o. granddad, rambling naked on Las Ramblas and down to the beach. His nickname is the Elephant Man and you might just imagine why that is (I can give you a hint – he has an elephant head tattooed on his underbelly…).
  • The famous painting The Young Ladies of Avignon by Pablo Picasso has in fact nothing to do with the French town of Avignon as many of you might think. Initially titled The Brothel of Avignon it was inspired by one of Barcelona’s old red light districts on the street Carrer d’Avinyo and where, apparently, Picasso used to be a regular. Also it just happens that this street goes into Placa de la Veronica where lies the Art School that Picasso attended as a youngster and where, the legend has it, he also lost his virginity (right in the dark left corner of the School, obviously with one guapa Segnorita d’Avinyo).
  • Ironically, the ugliest building in Barcelona is considered to be the School of Architecture (Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Cataluna – COAC), a 1970s building with a funny story attached to it, lying just opposite the Cathedral, in the Gothic quarter.  The building displays a Picasso drawing from his early years. The drawing looks a bit naïve and the legend has it that while drunk in a restaurant with friends Picasso made a childish sketch on a napkin, just to mock the style of another artist of the period whom he thought not very gifted. When the party left the waiter took the napkin thinking “OMG, this is a Picasso, I shall make lots of money with it” and he did – he managed to sell the sketch to the local council who, naively, decided to use it for the façade of the School of Architecture.
  • Catalans have by far the weirdest Christmas tradition ever – this is because it is not Santa Claus to bring presents to children but a rather strange character by the name of Cagatio (“Uncle Shit” – Caga means “poo” while Tio means both “uncle” and “log”). In case you are confused about what has “caga” to do with X-mas, let me help you solve the puzzle: uncle Poo, an unfortunate relative of Santa is brought in the house (it’s nothing more than a piece of log with a smiley face painted on it) and looked after by children who cover his “bottom” with a blanket to keep him warm and feed him oranges & Turron between the 8th and the 24th December. When the time comes they hit him with a stick and order him to “poo” presents which the poor thing does under the blanket. These are small gifts and sweets as the more consistent ones are brought by the Three Wise Men on the 6th January. To complete the picture, Catalans also have Caganer, a farcical figurine who poo-es  in the nativity scene – people say he is not a Christian offense as his “caga” is a sign of fertility, prosperity and good-luck.
  • While in Barcelona drink not sangria but cava – if you go to Barcelona don’t relish just sangria. It is by no means a specific Catalan drink. Do try cava instead – it is the equivalent of champagne and it comes in two assortments: white and pink.
  • There are no bull fights in Barcelona and no Flamenco  – these are traditions of Southern Spain and the numberless Flamenco shows in the city are a just a commercial way of luring tourists. If you want to try something typical Catalan – then go for Sardana, a completely different dance, much less flamboyant than Flamenco and very solemn. It is an important symbol of Catalan unity and pride, a nation of very patriotic and proud people, with a distinct culture and identity compared to the rest of Spain. Sardana dances take place in the summer months in the evenings and hot spots include Plaza de St. Jaume on Sunday evenings after 6 -6.30p.m. and Catedral de Barcelona on Saturday evenings.

3 comments on “11 things you did not know about Barcelona and its people

  1. Pingback: Travel Trivia: 5 Out-There Facts About Barcelona | Rue La La

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