Keeping on my last post’s subject of Albinez, I have chosen his Suite Espagnole today. Albinez originally wrote this in 1886 as a set of three pieces each with the name of a Spanish province. His publisher added eight more pieces after the composer’s death from a much later opus number, and so the entire suite paints sound portraits of 11 regions. Albinez quite deftly wove the Spanish folk melodies into quite sumptuous and evocative works. One of them is called “Catalonia.” (Barcelona was the capital of Catalonia in the heart of Basque territory.)
This piece takes me back to my first visit to Barcelon in 1977, where I hitchhiked with two friends. I think back to the tall plane trees that lined Las Ramblas, the main boulevard that bisects Barcelona on its way down from the hills to the port. I seem to remember my guidebook likening Las Ramblas to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The comparison was weak–in 1977 when I was there, Spain was just awakening from the economically depressed decades under fascism, and there were no Cartier, Bulgari, or Gucci boutiques around. But the Ramblas had something going for it that the Champs-Elysees would never have–it was designed for people and not traffic. The wide, raised pedestrian walkway ran through the middle of the street and the single lanes of traffic ran along its edge. This created what was effectively the longest plaza in the world. On this vast playground sat benches, newsagents, and small cafés. Pigeons and people strutted, sat, did little courtship dances or just sunned themselves in the clear green light that filtered down through the leaves of the plane trees.
The Ramblas had a nice feel to it, and business seemed to be picking up, though the people still looked a bit threadbare. Cinemas advertised the old-fashioned way–they commissioned local sign painters to build portable placards that they could bring in at night. I believe some version of Jaws had just come out and the sign in front of one of these theatres had been cut into the shape of a huge shark and painted in lurid colors–the long sharp teeth dripping with crimson blood.
I never told my parents this, but I almost got killed on the Ramblas. Since Franco had died just the year before, people were finally starting to demand more and more freedoms. Every day the papers carried stories of bombings by Basque separatists.
One day as I was exploring the city by myself investigating an old church near the port, I thought a nice drink at a café on the Ramblas would do me just fine. I emerged onto the Ramblas very near a subway station. I had a strange sensation and noticed that it was dead quiet. I looked to my right. A crowd of protestors stood glaring in my direction. I looked to the left. A crowd of riot police, swaddled in riot gear and bulletproof vests and armed with carbines and tear gas launchers glared back. I stood right in the middle. A few of the police were looking down into the mouth of the subway. Shards of glass lay on the pavement. The cops decided to run down the steps. As soon as they started, the protestors began to jeer at them. Immediately, the police rushed out guns drawn. I heard a “pop”; the police had started firing and canisters of tear gas arced through the air toward the protestors who had already begun to throw rocks. I did not stick around to find out who won.
I would like to say that was the only time I was concerned about my personal safety in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. However, I don’t want to imply that it was a scary or dangerous city. Over the next few days, I will let you decide.