BARCELONA – Finding an open ping-pong table at the corner of the Parc Ciutadella in Barcelona is a near impossible task on a sunny spring afternoon. Dozens of people meet here every day to socialize and play lively rounds of the sport because in Barcelona, old men don’t just sit and play chess in the park: they play ping-pong.
Apart from the older men, who are by far the most competitive players of the group, there are also couples and young people, who are often left waiting in line for a table if they don’t get there early enough. But this is just one corner of the 74 acre park, which acts as an oasis from the bustling city life of Barcelona for locals and tourists alike.
On any given day in the park you will find locals walking their dogs, children playing football and groups of “hippies playing their bongos” as one travel website aptly describes some of that park’s visitors.
A sign hangs on the entrance of the park’s wrought iron gate with an X marking a symbol of a bongo drum, which is meant to dissuade the hippies from getting out of hand with their drum circles. But the anti-drumming rules don’t seem to be strongly enforced since music can be heard from almost any location in the park. The bongo players have some other artistic friends: a group often practice tightrope walking with a yellow cord tied between trees. Nearby, the click clacking of tap dancers practising in the gazebo can be heard. In addition to the artists, there is also a zoo that lies at the edge of the park with 400 kinds of different animals. The Natural History Museum of Barcelona, the Catalan Parliament Building and Castel dels Tres Dragons are also located in the park.
The weekends at Park Ciutadella are especially busy. Multiple birthday parties take place, with streamers and decorations finding their place in the trees and on the grassy embankments where families and young couples relax. Families often rent small boats to take in the park’s lake. Cycling tours bike on the dusty dirt pathways to take in the Park’s largest attraction, the Cascada fountain. This grand fountain, with it’s crystal clear aqua water, rivals the Trevi fountain and was built in 1888 for the Universal exhibition, which was Barcelona’s first fair. Part of the Cascada’s fame comes from the fact that Antonio Gaudi, Spain’s most famous architect, acted as an apprentice to architect Josep Fontsèrefor in the design of the Cascada, which is a tribute to the god Neptune.
But before the fountain was built, the park served many different purposes. When Barcelona fell to the army of King Phillips V after a 13-month siege in 1714, the new king built the star shaped “Ciutadalla” in order to maintain his strong hold over Barcelona. At the time it was the largest fortress in Europe, thanks in part to the demolition of the Ribera district. The park became a symbol of the government and was demolished between 1869 and 1878 after the Catalan general Prim handed over the citadel to the city. The chapel, the Governor’s palace and the arsenal, now home to the Catalan Parliament are the only three buildings that survived. The park Ciutadella slowly began its transformation into a public park.
Designed in 1872 by the architect Josep Fontseré, the original design for the park was later changed to accommodate the Universal Exhibition, which was held in 1888. It was later modified for the Barcelona Zoo, which takes up half the area occupied by the park.
La Parc Ciutadella was one of Barcelona’s first designated parks and in 1951 was declared a monument of historical and artistic interest. It’s considered to be an open-air museum, with sculptures by Frederic Marès, Eusebi Arnau, Josep Clarà, Josep Llimona, Pau Gargallo, Manuel Fuxà and others. But the most notable part of the park is its liveliness as a true meeting place for young and old alike.
The Parc Ciutadella is the only park in the world where you can find multiple museums, parliament buildings, public art, artists practicing their crafts and a castle. It may be occasionally frequented by tourists, but locals make up the core of the park’s visitors. The Parc Ciutadella is truly an oasis from the tourist metropolis that is Barcelona and is one of the last authentic places to visit in the city.