If humankind were to ever build heaven on earth, a true utopia, it would probably look alot like Barcelona’s Ciutadella Park.
Built on the scorched earth of an old military barracks and a cannon firing range, the park was opened up to the public in the late-nineteenth century, and in so doing the area was transformed from being a tool for human oppression to a symbol of human emancipation. Though most of the old military buildings have since been knocked down, one of the few that still remains was in the 1930s – during the years of the Second Spanish Republic – converted into a public school where it was hoped that a new generation of children might be raised free of militaristic nationalism, free of religious dogma and free to use their native language, Catalan, in classes. The Catalonian Parliament stands nearby the old school in the old arsenal building, replacing violent methods for conflict resolution with peaceful ones, and giving the schoolkids what is surely the world’s most beautiful schoolyard in the form of the Parliamentary Gardens that separate the Parliament and the school.
Entering the park you will waltz – literally if you want – through scattering and gathering clouds of people singing, dancing and playing instruments. The showcase is always the drum circle of the African migrants, them patting away on the tambores until the sun goes down, kids dancing away in front of them, people as high as the clouds above them, brought there by the bellowing calls of the drum leader, getting lost in the ceaseless boom of the drums and the tish of the tambourines. Then there are the didgeridoo players a little further on down the way, humming away in synchronous rhythm with the pulses of blood rushing through the hearts of young lovers lying all around them nearby. Then you have the Arabic pipes buzzing through the air like a swarm of helium-drunk bees, only louder. If there is any rule in Ciutadella it is this, written by the poet Hafiz in the gardens of Shiraz nearly a millennium ago: “stay close to any sound that makes you glad to be alive” – stay close.
In between the concerts you’ll find the theatre. The circus is in town all week in Ciutadella, with the gymnasts jumping on and rolling over each other, with the acrobats bouncing on the slacklines and tightropes, and with the hoola-hoopers gyrating like belly dancers. The swing dancers throw their partners nearly into the trees and the tango dancers slide around the gazebos throwing their eyes like darts as sharp as roses’ thorns to their partners. Meanwhile, scruffy little Hairy Maclaries from Donaldson’s Dairies and a million of their mates are having a field day running around the park flirting and fighting with each other. Ciutadella is a carnival; every morning day and night.
But while the park looks something like a utopia, it still is apart of the ugly social world outside of it. Even though the beer sold there is a bargain, the migrants selling it for a euro can’t be getting the greatest deal, and neither have the homeless people wandering in and out of the park ever been given a decent deal in life. But Ciutadella – just about the greatest symbol of human freedom the species has ever known, the greatest platform for human creative expression we have ever built – is the single greatest thing there is in Barcelona. So if you ever find yourself in that city, go take a bottle of cheap tinto, a good book or a great friend, and let the Ciutadella sun warm your face for a while.