Tour guides are there for entertainment purposes. This I have learned. Sure, the tourists who hire them also want good historical information, but who doesn’t love a story of intrigue? For this reason these stories are incredibly embellished with details of lust, stupidity, and greed. Of course all humans have some of these qualities, but if I didn’t know any better, I would be led to believe our ancestors were barely functioning individuals. As an educated tourist, I was quite proud that I am able to distinguish between fact and fiction in the stories my tour guides weave for me. It does make me wonder if all histories are as embellished and biased as those I hear here. Of course everyone emphasizes details they find most exciting, but when do these exaggerations interrupt accurate recollections of history? When are we so focused on making a story interesting that we place a bias on historical accounts?
Here are some examples of stories my bike tour guide in Barcelona shared with me:
- Isabel and Columbus had an affair and the reason the queen approved of his journey to the new world was because rumors of their relationship were beginning to spread rapidly through the kingdom.
I don’t know for sure if the affair was imagined, but I do know that it was because of a friendly priest in the Catholic Church that Isabel listened to Christopher Columbus’ proposition in the first place. The queen and king were much too busy with the reconquest and the inquisition to pay much attention to a new trade route to India. In truth, it took several attempts in several countries by Columbus to get anybody to fund his travel.
- Until Columbus sailed, the world still believed the earth was flat.
This is pure fiction, but it makes for an interesting discovery by Columbus, yes? In reality nobody had thought the world was flat since the times of the Greeks.
Other fun “true” stories about Barcelona and Spain in general:
- Sand is not natural in Barcelona. In order to create a beach for tourism after the World Fair, they imported a HUGE quantity of sand from Egypt in order to make a sandy beach. Every once and while they send out many boats into the harbor to haul all the sand back to the shore that the tide tried to steal into the sea.
- It was against the law for Jews to bury their dead within sight of the city of Barcelona. Asi que, there is a massive graveyard on the other side of Montejuic, a hill overlooking the city.
- Because Cataluña had a tendency to rebel, they were closely monitored when King Phillip V was on the throne. They weren’t allowed to expand the city. For a mile around the old quarter there was nothing but field so a fortress could shoot a cannon at the city if the people misbehaved.
- Because they could not expand, the living conditions were very dark and cramped and the old city was dying. When they were finally allowed to build out, they created the part of the city known as the extension. It was cleverly designed in a grid system with gardens inside the blocks to give a break from endless buildings. On the corners of these blocks they allowed a cut edge to create 8 sided blocks. This allowed the sun to shine much more into the streets and bring in fresh air around the tight corners.
- Palm trees are not native to Barcelona either and had to be imported from Hawaii. They were planted all over the city for aesthetic reasons and have had to learn to adapt to the Barcelonian climate.
- Barcelona is the birthplace of modernism. It also began the industrial revolution in Europe.
- Gaudi spent the last decade of his life in his workshop working on plans for La Sagrada Familia. Because of this, he did not eat, sleep, or shower. He looked like quite a mess, utterly unrecognizable. One day when he was walking through the streets, he was hit by a car. Because he looked like a homeless person, he was left for dead until someone picked him up and took him to the homeless hospital. A few days later some of his friends found him right as he died.
I suppose it is up to you to decide what to believe or not to believe about the histories that are told to us by “trustworthy sources” such as tour guides. One thing is for certain though, Spain, and especially Barcelona, really is as different as people claim it is.