Barcelona in the Details Part III: Royal Residences

An interesting new development for the city of Barcelona:

Barcelona to be HQ for Med union
November 4, 2008

The Spanish city of Barcelona will host the headquarters of the embryonic 43-nation Mediterranean Union.

The decision was announced on Tuesday at a meeting of foreign ministers from the union’s participating countries in Marseilles, southern France.

The union embraces 27 EU states and countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Joint work is planned in areas such as water, energy and education.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy launched the union at a summit in July.

Barcelona was the site of a previous EU-led Mediterranean initiative, called the Barcelona Process.

Arab-Israeli tensions dogged that process, but diplomats say a compromise deal was reached on Tuesday.

Despite its initial opposition, Israel finally agreed to the Arab League participating “at all levels” of the union, provided an Israeli was appointed as one of five deputy secretary generals, Reuters news agency reported.

The secretary general has not yet been named.

The union is being co-chaired by Mr Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr Sarkozy has said the new grouping will help “build peace in the Mediterranean”.

The article does not mention that the headquarters for the organization will be the Royal Palace of Pedralbes which, along with other royal residences in Barcelona, has an interesting history.

The original Royal Palace in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, known as the Palau Reial Major (the “Great Royal Palace”) was built for the Counts of Barcelona, who started off around 800 A.D. as vassals of the King of France. The Counts eventually achieved independence from France and became the Kings of the Kingdom of Aragon through dynastic marriage around 1100, with Barcelona serving as the capital for four centuries. During the time of its greatest expansion, Barcelona was the capital of a Mediterranean empire that included Eastern Spain, the Balearic islands, parts of what is today Southern France, Sardinia, Sicily, Southern Italy, and Greece.

The palace, like the city, expanded over time, and like most great Catalan architecture of the 12th to 15th centuries, was heavily influenced by Cluny and the Cistercian movement. Eventually, with the centralization of power in Castille under the Habsburgs and later the Bourbons, independence was lost and the building became the home of the Inquisition in Barcelona. After the downfall of that particular institution, the property was returned to the city, which has restored it and it now forms part of the city history museum complex:

Probably the most famous event to occur at this palace was when Columbus returned from his first voyage to America, and presented himself here before Ferdinand and Isabel, who were in the city at the time of his arrival.

When visiting Barcelona, the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family is now the Palauet Albéniz (the “Little Palace” named after the Catalan composer Isaac Albéniz) located on Montjuich. The mood of this 1928 neoclassical revival structure, in a heavy and somewhat severe Castilian style that is not at all organic to Catalan architectural tradition, is somewhat lightened by its attractive gardens. It is located close to the National Museum of Catalan Art and the complex built for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics:

The Palau de Pedralbes which will form the HQ for the nascent Mediterranean Union did not in fact start out as a royal place, and only briefly served as a royal residence. The present structure was the weekend/country residence of Count Eusebi Güell, a Barcelona industrialist and the most important patron of Gaudí. It was visited briefly by King Alfonso XIII when it was remodeled and expanded as a Royal Palace before the Civil War, so the royal connection is somewhat tenuous. It was then used by the Republican government, and following the War it was only occasionally used as a residence by General Franco during his reign (Barcelona not being one of his favorite places).

Although it is a more cheerful-looking edifice than the preceding residence and features some nice sgraffito work, it is not an especially remarkable or interesting building, and was not built by Gaudí himself:

However, Gaudí did design an interesting fountain of Hercules for the property which was recently rediscovered, and also designed the spectacular entrance pavilion and stables which were later subdivided from the grounds of the estate. The structure features a justly famous, massive iron gate guarded by a fierce dragon. As St. George is the patron saint of Barcelona, Catalans have a thing for dragons and this is probably the most amazing sculpture of one in the city:

The Palace was returned to the city, and used as a textile and ceramics museum for some time. However, the city managed to find new locations for these collections within the last year or so, and began looking for a new use for the property. It now seems to have found a purpose more worthy of a building of this size.

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