I get carried away by ideas quite easily, especially if they’re written compellingly in a book.
Before I went to Barcelona, I decided to read something set there. I could have gone with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, but since I’ve already read that, I settled on Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.
Orwell, aged around 33, went, like many others, to Spain to fight against fascism and for the government and other socialist parties in 1936. He realised when he got there, that it wasn’t as simple as fighting for one side against another. Where Franco’s phalangiste far right movement had a unified voice and fighting force, the socialists were hideously splintered amongst themselves. The Communists were arguing against revolution at the same time as victory; the anarcho-syndicalists and the rest wanted revolution as well. But then they couldn’t decide between themselves what that would look like.
After spending months on the front doing nothing, Orwell gets leave in Barcelona, engages in some exciting street fighting along La Rambla, before going back to the front, getting shot in the neck and eventually escaping home to Surrey.
Barcelona was at the heart of the action from the socialist side, YET unlike other cities that capitalise on their history, Barcelona chooses to focus on its fiestas and its Gaudi architecture. There are no free civil war themed walking tours, and very few plaques or statues commemorating the valour of the dead on either side of the conflict.
I should have remembered this from the last time I was in Spain. The ‘Pact of Forgetfulness’ is still in full swing, and no one mentions Franco.
I did a free walking tour of the old city, where we visited a quiet square. Our guide talked at length about the buildings, what they had been and how they had been built; how the church had been Gaudi’s favourite. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said ‘Those holes in the stonework of the church are bomb damage.’
In 1937, 42 people had been sheltering inside from an air raid by Italian fascist planes. A bomb had hit the church, killing them all. Most of them were children evacuated from the battlegrounds of Madrid. Later that same day, as hundreds of rescuers pulled away the rubble looking for survivors, a second bomb was dropped, killing and injuring lots more, and completely destroying the buildings on one side.
The square now doubles up as a school playground.
As we walked on to the next place I asked why Barcelona doesn’t make more of its recent history like Berlin does, for example. My guide was hugely uncomfortable. ‘It was very complicated,’ he said. ‘And we don’t talk about it.’
End of conversation.
But the story I had just heard, combined with the book I had just read, all made it a bit too vivid to leave. So I went on a bit of a mission for my holiday to find out a little bit more.