1 of 2
Photo by Veikko Jumppanen
The popular Catalan lolly Chupa Chups was 50 years old in 2008
2 of 2
Palau de la Música
The emblematic Palau de la Música Catalana celebrated its centenary in 2008
Boom and bust, rise and fall, building up and tearing down, 2008 has been a particularly eventful year in Barcelona. It was a year in which the city became a mirror for global concerns, such as the environment and the braking economy. Yet it was also a positive year for culture and communication, with Barcelona pinned up there with the Hollywood blockbusters, and the long-awaited launch of the AVE. With one eye on 2008, and the other on 2009 (if that’s physically possible), let’s look back on the year’s big events.
The year marked the 800th birthday of Jaume I, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, an intrinsic figure to the establishment of the Catalan language, and was also the year in which three venerable institutions celebrated their centenaries. The extraordinary Palau de la Música Catalana did so with bombast and controversy. A grand orchestral cycle entitled ‘Palau 100’ added to its increasingly eclectic repertoire, which saw Suzanne Vega, Vicente Amigo and Joe Satriani perform. But the radically decorative Modernista music machine also continued its contentious expansion policy, deciding that it now wanted a hotel next door. This put heritage-listed building Casa Agustí Valenti at risk until the Generalitat’s Comissió de Patrimoni stepped in. The Palau is presently negotiating a new plan to maintain the building’s original façade.
At 100 years old, the Via Laietana is still heavily trafficked. A century ago, its construction sparked controversy, because it displaced some 10,000 people whose homes were razed so the Eixample could be well connected to the old city and the Port.
While businesses are going bust all around us, no one can fail to raise a cheer for the 10-decade survival of an emblematic Barcelona sell-it-all: Colmado Quílez, on Rambla Catalunya, still has its original cash registers, and stocks an appetising 1,000 types of whisky and 325 types of rum, cheek-by-jowl with everything else you could possibly want. It has been owned by the aptly-named LaFuente family (the Fountain) since 1974.
The 50th anniversary of Catalan-established lolly company Chupa Chups was a low-key affair in lieu of its (a-hem) sell off to Italian confectionary giant Perfetti two years ago; but a loud, standing applause was accorded 62-year-old tenor Josep Carreras, who, in June, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his debut performance at the Liceu, with a performance at the Liceu.
This year, even the slickest and crudest of the oil moguls had to admit that we are responsible for messing up the environment, and that it’s not going to get better by itself. Barcelona dutifully leapt into action, reducing the speed limit on motorways—a measure, it is claimed, that has improved air quality by four percent (although soaring petrol prices might have had an effect too). In May, the council declared war on plastic bags, aiming to reduce their use by 30 percent. Supermarket chain Bon Preu took the bull by the horns, and now gives us a discount if we bring our own. The city has also vowed to reduce noise pollution with a law that comes into effect at the beginning of 2009.
Water shortage was probably the year’s biggest environmental worry in Barcelona, and dominated national and international headlines for the first half of the year. By April, it was of such concern that the local government was considering rationing. Other options included temporarily diverting the river Segre, importing H2O on ships or building six underground tanks for storing it. Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach (the Archbishop of Barcelona), even prayed for it: “May the rain come that shall bring us the water our society needs,” he pleaded. Finally, the skies opened and it poured all summer. No one complained.
Statistics proved what everyone already knew: the world wants to be in Barcelona. Newcomers arrived in a variety of ways. In February, it was reported that the birth rate in Catalunya was the highest in 20 years, although still one of the lowest in the world, and the number of dads taking paternity leave topped Spanish figures (the divorce rate was also high—second only to the Canary Islands). Immigration remained a concern for many people, and in April, a study determined that immigrants made up 13 percent of the population, one of the highest percentages in Europe.
The tourist industry had a successful year, and local observers pointed to a big rise in the number of Russians with Barcelona on their list of preferred destinations. And, despite the crisis, two ostentatious hotels opened: Melia’s ME in Poblenou and the Barceló Raval, plus a classy youth hostel, Urbany, in the Eixample.
In February, the long-nosed, super-speed AVE finally linked Barcelona and Madrid, some 16 years after the Seville-Madrid line was launched. It sliced journey time between the two cities to an airline-challenging two hours and 40 minutes. Ticket prices were also competitive with the airlines, and special deals are available, according to RENFE, for those who book well in advance.
The year of global economic collapse and national bailouts was felt most acutely in the property sector in Barcelona where prices plummeted, building work ground to a halt and offices of real estate firms closed; around half have disappeared since 2007. Spanish socialist PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero dutifully injected €40 billion of our money into the economy. Crisis apart, rental prices continue to soar in the city. In March, reports showed that flat rentals averaged €1,000 per month and a room cost €380 and upwards.
Culture-wise, it was a banner year for the city. Local filmmaker Isabel Coixet’s poetic take on Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal was well received by critics in April, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s gushing homage to the Catalan capital was released in September. In May, local bestseller writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón published El Joc del Ángel, set in Twenties’ Barcelona, and it will soon be out in English. Cathedral of the Sea, the English translation of Ildefonso Falcones’s bestselling ode to the Santa María del Mar Cathedral in the Born district, was also out this year.
In music, global trends prevailed. It was the year of the golden oldies: performers Marc Almond, Paul Weller, Nick Cave and Mark Knopfler were among those giving the young ones a run for their money, and, occasionally, a punch in the face, as Sex Pistols’ John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) did to Bloc Party’s Kele Okereketo during the Summercase festival in July.
This month, the curtain rose on a concert venue housed in a new Conservatori Superior del Liceu, which, with the new Filmoteca slowly being built, contributes to the gentrification of the ‘unruly’ downtown district of Raval. A series of drug and prostitution raids in October were aimed at cleaning up the neighbourhood.
Kicking it around
Perhaps though, for many of us superficial souls, the most memorable event of 2008 was the ignominious exit of Barça player Ronaldinho, who brought us footballing joy for five years (well, almost). Amidst press accusations of excessive partying, the 28-year-old Brazilian reluctantly accepted a €21 million offer from A.C. Milan, snubbing a larger bid by Manchester City, which was still a credit-crunching 50 percent less than that of Barça’s asking price: €50 million.