Cataluña is, at the time of writing, the most precariously tethered of the Spanish autonomous communities. Latest elections for the regional parliament showed a virtual 50-50 split between support for parties committed to a push for independence, and those who prefer to remain a part of a larger state. For the time being, the Spanish courts have thwarted the local governments attempts to push through a break from Spain, but it is very much a case of watch this space.
The basis for the Catalan identity has foundations back to the time of the Moors. The region was originally conquered by the marauding Muslims, but after experiencing defeat against the Franks they were forced to retreat and the Spanish March was created as a buffer zone. Counts were appointed to rule the various counties in the March, and ultimately the spectacularly named Count Wilfred “the Hairy” managed to unite the three counties which roughly encompass the majority of modern day Catalonia. For this, Wilfred is still revered by the current Catalan nationalist movement as the founder of a separate state.
The region declared independence in 985, and over the centuries Catalonia became the naval base for the Aragon Kingdom, which expanded its grip to control large parts of the peninsula and the Mediterranean. The relationship was akin to one of a dynastic union, and Catalonia was a wealthy and respected maritime power in its own right.
This proved to be the peak of Catalonia’s power, as Castile and Aragon united with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel in 1469, and power shifted towards Castile. Catalonia retained its own laws as a principality of the Crown of Aragon until losing its autonomy following a war of succession in which Catalonia supported the losing side in the eighteenth century. Barcelona finally fell after a fourteen month siege on September 11, 1714, a date now celebrated as the National Day of Catalonia.
Catalonia became an industrial force in the nineteenth century, and with it came a cultural flowering which became known as the Renaixença, or “rebirth.” This led to the emergence of the modernist movement and many of the architectural masterpieces of Barcelona, most famously from the hand of Antonio Gaudi.
With it too came support for political movements which sought to undermine the centralized monarchy, but when Franco triumphed in the Civil War he sought to crush any semblance of regional identity. It was not until his death that the new constitution in the 1970’s saw Catalan given “Nationality” status, and the region used the Olympic Games in 1992 to showcase its identity on a world stage. It is only very recently though, possibly triggered by the economic crisis engulfing the country and a central government that refuses to engage in the conversation, that public opinion seems to have shifted from majority support for a greater level of autonomy to a half of the population preferring full independence.
It must be said that Catalonia has much to be proud of. It features great diversity within a relatively contained area, from the picturesque coast packed with playful beach-goers, to the rocky peaks of the Pyrenees in the interior. Cities like Taragona, which contains spectacular Roman ruins including a nearby aqueduct, and a Colosseum overlooking the bay, wear their history comfortably. It is also the origin of Cava, the delicious sparkling white wine. It even has an an enormous river delta of over three-hundred square kilometers, two thirds of which occupied by rice-paddies, and featuring a lagoon full of pink flamingos.
And then there is Barcelona, the most visited city in Spain with over 7 million tourists each year, countless bars and restaurants, and some of the finest museums about. And of course the works of Gaudi, who was famously presented his university graduation by a rector who remarked that he was unsure whether he had just handed the certificate to a genius or a madman. Seven of his projects in the city have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most famous of which is probably the Sagrada Family Basilica, which may one day actually get finished. What the status of Catalonia will be by that stage only time will tell.