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Parc de la Ciutadella

Lazy afternoons and messing about in boats

This popular park, home to the Barcelona zoo, is an important lung for a dense medieval city that has few open spaces. On Sunday afternoons it fills up with families, musicians, and performers; colourful parrots fill the palm and orange trees. But it was hardly intended that way; in fact, it was born of defeat and sorrow.

In September 1714, as Barcelona fell to the troops of Philip V after an heroic 11-month resistance, Madrid decided it was high time to let those feisty Catalans know who was boss. The districts of La Ribera and El Born would bear the brunt: thousands of residents were forced to tear down their own homes, stone by stone, so Barcelona could build (naturally at its own expense), the 270-acre star-shaped Ciutadella. It was of the largest fortresses ever constructed in Europe, occupied by an army that kept its cannons well oiled and aimed straight at the city. Mostly, however, it was used as a prison, especially for liberals during the Napoleonic era and early 19th century.

And so it stood, menacing and hated for 150 years, until Catalan General Prim took power in 1869. One of the first items on his agenda was to give the fort to the city, reserving 150 acres for a park, while ordering the rest to be sold off for housing to finance the demolition of the walls that squeezed the growing city. Prim also ordered that the heirs of original property owners should be compensated (and many were).

The winner of the park design competition was architect Josep Fontseré, who destroyed all the buildings of the fort —except for three around the central Plaça d’Armes, the old parade ground, where El Desconsol (Despair), a copy of Josep Llimona’s famous Rodinesque nude of 1907, gazes into her lily pond, slumped over by the weight of (presumably sexual) sin. Here you'll find a chapel, the Governor’s Palace (now a school) and the Arsenal, designed by Prosper Verboom, with its trumpet-mouthed gargoyles. This was later converted into a royal residence, then into an art museum, and during the Republic, with a nice sense of irony, into the seat of the Catalan Parliament—a role it has re-assumed.

La Cascada

Fontseré was also Barcelona's greatest talent spotters: he hired Domènech i Montaner and Antoní Gaudí, both then young and completely unknown, to work on the design team. Gaudí provided the fancy ironwork on the gate at the end of Avinguda Marquès de l’Argenteria and (according to legend, anyway) arranged the boulders around the monumental stair in Fontseré's operatically flamboyant and magnificently awful centrepiece, the Cascada, a work inspired by Marseille's Palais de Longchamps and populated with allegorical characters from central casting - Venus emerging from her half shell, and the Quadriga of Aurora (recently restored to its full gilded glory) and of course, dragons. Hire a boat to paddle about on the little lake.

The Parc de la Ciutadella was just beginning to shape up into a proper park filled with trees when Barcelona's boisterous mayor Francesc de Paula Ruis i Taulet announced that he had secured loans in Madrid to make the park the site of the 1888 Universal Exhibition, to be opened in a mere 11 months’ time. Fontseré protested, and Fontseré was promptly fired. Chief among the surviving fair structures is the Arc de Triomf and Domenech's Castle of the Three Dragons café, the building that launched the Modernista revolution.

Just outside the park, stroll along the Passeig de Picasso to see Antoni Tàpies’ Homenatge a Picasso (1983), a glass cube in a pool that contains everyday household items impaled by steel bars, perpetually splashed by jets of water that were added after the cube cracked in the heat. The work, according to Tàpies, is based on Picasso’s statement that ‘A picture is not something to decorate a sitting room, but a weapon of attack and of defence against the enemy.’

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Hours Daily 8am-dusk

Adm Free

Metro Arc de Triomf or Ciutadella/Vila Olímpica

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Laura Padgett, Jordi Payà