A Tourist in Divided Catalonia

We were in Spain from February until the end of April, with a brief trip through Portugal in March, and ending with two weeks in Catalonia to the east.

I must admit that I hadn’t been following the news very closely – I have limited internet on my phone and it is quickly used up on blogging and updating Instagram. But even I, in our little van, had heard snippets of what was going on in Spain, and more specifically, Catalonia. This is what I knew when we entered Catalonia in April: the autonomous Catalonian government had called a referendum vote for independence from Spain which had not been approved by the Spanish government; the result of the vote was in favour of independence but Spain said the vote was illegal and Catalonia could not leave Spain; the European Union agreed with Spain; Catalonia’s government fled the country to Belgium.

Driving into Catalonia, we quickly saw a marked difference from the rest of Spain – more green crop fields, less ramshackle or abandoned houses, more shops and businesses open, less litter and much fewer stray animals and tethered horses. We quickly noticed that Catalonia was generally a richer region of Spain, where people seemed to have a higher quality of life.

I am an unobservant person but even I could not miss the signs of unrest decorating every other road and building. There was graffiti proclaiming that democracy shouldn’t be illegal, that voting should not be punished. Catalonian flags hung from balconies or were displayed over shop windows. And yellow ribbons, the symbol of the pro-independence campaign, were tied around everything from trees to lamp-posts to fences. Even statues in Barcelona held up yellow ribbons. You could not travel through the region without seeing blatant signs that the people here felt strongly about their vote, their government and their independence.

We were in Barcelona for a week, and I was astounded by how different it was to Madrid. Madrid was lovely, but didn’t have so many “sights”, and you could sense that it had a lot of growing to do. Madrid felt more manufactured and lacked the cultural vibrancy that Barcelona had in bucketfuls, with its arty buildings and more liberal attitude (for example, Barcelona’s council pledged to encourage vegetarianism and veganism in the city).

We also had to get used to a new language in Catalonia – many residents speak Catalan, with Spanish as their second language. Signage and names of food suddenly changed and we had to get Google Translate out a lot more to help us get around!

It was easy to see how Catalonians could feel separate to the Spanish since they have their own unique cultural identity and language. I noticed that many hotels had even taken down their Spanish flags, and had one empty looking flag pole next to a proudly flying Catalonian flag.

I also wrongly assumed that Barcelona would have the strongest support for independence as the seat of the Catalonian government, but actually as we travelled towards the Pyrenees and Andorra, the yellow ribbons and Catalonian flags on the streets became even more frequent. Official looking yellow ribbon symbols had been marked onto the roads and there was no object outside that could escape the fluttering lemon-coloured ribbons. Some towns had official welcoming signs with the town name written above a “Republic of Catalonia” emblem. Town halls we passed were literally covered in giant Catalonian flags.

It was clear to us that the people here were frustrated and angry about how they’d been treated. There wasn’t a feeling of unity with Spain and in many ways, Catalonia already functioned independently and successfully.

But I’m not a politician and I’m just a traveller, moving through places and observing people. I don’t pretend to know whether Catalonia would be able to succeed completely independently or if that’s what everyone wants in the region. I do however know that people here are unhappy and I hope that the situation can be rectified in a respectful and peaceful way.

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