Spain's New Golden Age

Much like Italy in the 15th century, Spain is experiencing a cultural renaissance, one that's transforming the country--city by city, block by block, building by building.

The Forum site in Barcelona

The Forum site in Barcelona

(Albert Masias / Forum Barcelona 2004)

What you'll find in this story: Spain travel, Spain culture, Spanish attractions, Madrid museums, Spain lodging, Spain restaurants

The government is pouring money into cutting-edge museums, performing-arts spaces, and convention centers. Not surprisingly, there has been a trickle-down effect, as the recent wave of infrastructure has inspired galleries, stores, and restaurants to open near the new buildings. Industrial wastelands are being reinvented as vibrant, hip neighborhoods.

Right, you're thinking, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Indeed, if there's one symbol of the country's changes, it's the Guggenheim, which opened in 1997. But Frank Gehry's jutting, curving, titanium-clad wonder was only part of a $1.5 billion citywide overhaul, which included a convention hall, British architect Norman Foster's Blade Runner-esque subway stations (nicknamed Fosteritos by locals), and an airport designed by Spain's own Santiago Calatrava that looks like a cavernous dinosaur fossil with structural "ribs" made of steel.

Bilbao, however, is only one example of what's happening across the nation. Name your favorite city--chances are a glittering architectural marvel is sprouting up between red-tile roofs.

Historical context only makes these changes more dramatic. In the space of 30 years, Spain has shifted from a dictatorship to a democracy, from economic stagnation to growth, from cultural isolation to a place on the world's main stage. From 1939 to 1975, Francisco Franco basically ran the country with an iron fist, keeping strict control of regional governments from his center of control, Madrid. The problem was that, like Italy, Spain is wildly diverse--as those who have tried to flex their high school Spanish in Barcelona can attest. A Catalan or Galician from the north eats different food and often speaks a different language from a Castilian from Madrid or a Canary Islander. Franco, in a sense, forced Spain to unify. After his death, the country reorganized into a constitutional monarchy of 17 autonomous regions.

Ten years later, in the mid-1980s, the newly empowered community leaders of Galicia used their authority to make over the blighted city of Bilbao--luring in the Guggenheim with $40 million in funds. The national government paid for a new airport and subway. Close to 6.3 million people have visited the Guggenheim since its opening, generating $173 million in GDP in 2003 and morphing Bilbao from a faded shipping port to a must-see European attraction. Nothing succeeds like success: Cooperation between national and regional governments became the model for Spain's future.

Bilbao wasn't the first time politicians realized what a lot of planning and money could do. To prepare for the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona transformed a 183-acre riverside section of the city into stadiums and athlete housing. After the games, the area was revamped into a posh neighborhood with apartments, malls, even an aquarium. Now Barcelona is kicking off another phase of redevelopment. This past year, a 74-acre complex of buildings in the industrial riverside district of Sant Adrià de Besòs opened as a 15,000-person-plus convention space for southern Europe. Before the conventions arrived, however, the head of the Catalan government, Pascual Maragall, chose to mount Forum 2004, a progressive-themed world's fair in what is a decidedly capitalistic zone. The themes: cultural diversity, sustainable development, and conditions for peace, all of which sounded rather dry unless you saw the Forum in action. Around the convention buildings (a dramatic glass box by Spaniard Josep Lluis Mateo, and a teetering purple triangle by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron) stood palatial tents where African bands, Chinese acrobats, and American pop stars performed. A huge seawater pool stretched down the center of a riverside esplanade. In effect, the site was turned into a humanistic block party, where folks from all over the world came together to eat, drink, dance, sunbathe, swim, and learn a little about global issues.

As with the former Olympics sites, most of the Forum areas have been converted into parks, and the construction of public beaches, housing, and a marina is creating an urban fun zone along the Besòs river. Swank hotels and a new metro line have already sprung up on the main thoroughfare. At the end of the day, Barcelona will spend more than $2.3 billion on the project.

Barcelona is Barcelona, though--a major European city with an inherent appeal. Some of the most exciting evidence of the new Spain is in lesser-known cities. Like Bilbao, they're gambling on major architecture as a way to make the world pay attention. In the hills above the medieval cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest corner of the country, a $125 million performing-arts complex designed by American Peter Eisenman is under construction, with three of the buildings due to open in 2006. Encompassing 810,000 square feet, the project--which the local government has named the City of Culture of Galicia--includes a history museum, a library, a landscaped forest, and a theater for ballet, opera, and symphonies. Santiago, which has 92,000 residents, is clearly hoping that the City will draw new visitors, as well as the usual religious pilgrims, to help pay the tab.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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