When the crowd at Camp Nou is roaring on game day, the two powerful forces of Real Madrid and Barcelona are tearing the country apart, unanimously, and comparing the ‘Spanish ’ with its ‘un-Spanish’ quarters. Anwesha Sanyal pitches a Madrid vs Barcelona battle and discovers how the cities’ politics actually make your trip thrilling and fun.

Madrid vs Barcelona
Pepe of Real Madrid and Leo Messi of Barcelona FC compete for the ball during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on April 2, 2016. Photograph by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid; Getty Images

Europe’s relationship with football is not a new one, only here, every on-field confrontation between the two teams brews a shared response to prove how the region of Catalonia is ‘not Spanish.’ When you arrive in this autonomous region of Spain, of which Barcelona is the capital, one of the first things you might hear is, “And remember, you’re not in Spain…you are in the land of the Catalans,”—as did I from a friend, to which an Indian traveller could easily be caught off-guard.

Sardana, a popular and traditional dance of Catalonia. Courtesy of Getty Images
Sardana, a popular and traditional dance of Catalonia. Courtesy of Getty Images

But for the longest time, centuries even, Catalonia has escaped from within Spain’s conspicuous boundaries by asserting itself through every conceivable difference they’ve had— the history and art, language and culture, national flag and holidays, cuisine and of course, football—to an intangible effect.

In Catalonia, you need to acknowledge the differences before you can see the country as a whole. The artistic tendencies that glare at you in Barca are marked by a sharp difference from those in Madrid.

You’re likely to bump into Antoni Gaudi’s unmistakable architecture in the major neighbourhoods of the city—like the most famous La Sagrada Familia, a church at a height of 170-metres whose construction began in 1892 and is not expected to finish before 2030, and Casa Batllo, an old building restored by Gaudi, both of which have elements of Catalan art nouveau (designs built with stones, ceramics, and forged iron).

The Gothic Quarter which is mostly remembered as ‘the place where Picasso lived’—the queue of college art students at the Picasso Museum is self explanatory—is a proud heritage for the locals. Its pedestrian-only walkways reveal the most local communal practices, one being the traditional Catalan sardana, a dance form outlawed by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco till about 1975, but now an expression of Catalan nationalism in the Sunday gatherings in front of the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia.

In his book about Spanish history, Giles Tremlett in Ghosts of Spain: Travel Through Spain and Its Silent Past discusses the country’s strategic silence on the Civil War, which has made Catalonia (at the time at the receiving end) forever a sensitive issue. This silence culminates into a fantastic noise at the game, because something has always remained to be communicated.

Then again, nationalism latches itself on to every occasion where Catalans have the scope to celebrate. Two million people attend the week-long annual festival of La Merce in September to celebrate their traditional culture and artistic expression with street parades, street theatre, dance, and music among 600 other events at plazas, museums, and parks.

The cuisine that the Catalans defend as ‘different’ from other parts of Spain, finds its roots in Andalusia and Extremadura in the south, and the Spanish Valencia and the Balearic Islands in the north. Naturally, this fusion has given way to an entirely different palate. Catalans love their gazpacho and paellas, but they like to mix meat and seafood on the same plate; mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) they call it.

The incredible bias towards pork sausages, the dislike for paprika or butter on toast (they like to scrub it with ripe fresh tomato, garlic, salt, and olive oil): You’ll recognise a Catalan from the far corner of the restaurant. But for a traveller looking for cultural exposure, it becomes essential to notice the social structure. You notice Catalonia’s need to be recognised as a sovereign nation embedded into the lifestyle, making this immensely humble community rise above the angry slogans on the field by being… just themselves. In spite of myself, I am drawn to see Catalonia in different light. I still love the other parts of Spain as much, especially Madrid, but only now, I am beginning to adjust to the constraints of the Spanish border.