Here is a riddle: When in Spain are you not "in Spain?" The answer? When you are in the region of Catalonia, an area as distinct from Spain as the province of Quebec is from the rest of Canada.
To properly understand this riddle and its answer, it helps to know a bit of the rich history of the region and its capital city.
Student/academic travel in Europe gets a great start in Northern Spain. For Europe's business history and those wanting to study art and architecture, Barcelona and Catalonia offer both. For Romanesque, Gothic, Neoclassical, Art deco , modern and unusual forms of architecture, the Catalonian capitol city of Barcelona presents excellent learning opportunities. From Roman times to modern history, Barcelona and the Catalonia region endured invasions, changing conquerors and brief periods of independence. The many changes of cultures left a wide variety of architecture, tracing the development of the centuries from the early Romans.
Catalonia finally succumbed to Spain in 1714. Throughout the centuries, however, they managed to retain their own spirit, customs, culture, traditions and even their own language. Ironically, Catalonia celebrates that 1714 loss as a kind of "Dependence" day, calling it the "National Day of Catalonia." By the way, don't call a Catalonian a Spaniard. They consider it insulting.
Students looking for the history of the growth of the industrial revolution in Europe and the rise of business and trade practices are often surprised to learn that Catalonia has been the primary industrial and textile center of Spain since the 12th century even though much of their raw material was imported. With the new country of the United States of America and its expanding cotton market, in the late 18th and early 19th century Spain saw the rise of textile production to new heights. Forward-thinking manufacturers used newly invented steam power and innovative machinery from Britain to increase their cotton production. The region actually jump-started the Industrial Revolution in Continental Europe.
Booming economics produced a new social class--the Catalonia Bourgeoise. These wealthy industrialists formed powerful guilds and comprised the political, social and cultural leaders of Barcelona and its surrounds. They built mansions and commercial structures in neoclassical styles so distinctive to Catalonia. One such mansion served as the headquarters of the Cotton Textile Foundation for many years. Around the 1950's the lovely building passed to the Cotton Producers Guild who also used it as their headquarters. Finally, the Marriott Hotel chain acquired the building and recently opened the Cotton House as an historic tribute to the active cotton years. While the hotel is a luxury place to stay, it is worth a visit to note the rich decor and living areas of the long ago mansions.
Several areas in the hotel are unique. The L'Atelier originally served as a private room where Guild members consulted their tailors and shirt makers for measurements and fittings for custom garments. Refurbishing decorators kept the historic, masculine decor, with elegant furnishings, a granite fireplace and dark wood. Glassed "bookcases" display no books, but bolts of fabric instead. Today's guests can still order a custom fitted garment in this room, a perfect, luxurious souvenir from Barcelona.
Barcelona was the home of the Antoni Gaudi, the father of Catalan's Modernisme architectectural style, and provides many examples of his fantastical and very unique work. These include La Pedrera, Parc Guell and Sagrada Familia, all designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Gaudi's work defies description and must be experienced to appreciate.
Le Pedrera, or Castle Mila a former home, now business building, has several floors that make liberal use of Gaudi's love of waving, curving and swirling walls and iron. He used the same kind of theme in the beautiful Park Gaell, augmented with many floral and fauna motifs in colorful mosaics and wandering paths. The Sagrada Basilica is an unfinished, but active Roman Catholic Church which resembles a futuristic castle.
Barcelona's festivals offer an opportunity to observe Catalonian customs such as human towers, to dance the Sardana and sample the tasty traditional staple of pan con tomate. In addition to the many offerings of the city, itself, there are ample day trips for more educational as well as enjoyable activities. The region abounds with quaint villages which seem untouched by time. Both beaches and mountains are nearby. The famous Montserrat Holy Site monastery is within a day's drive.
For the best opportunities to experience Catalonia's individual regions and flavors as well as the hidden treasures of Barcelona, nothing beats having your own transportation. We have Peugeot car rental center in Barcelona outside the airport that makes it easy to make the most of your trip right from the moment you touch down. Contact us to take advantage of this fascinating area of Europe.
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