A Joan Miro sculpture towers over Barcelona's Parc de l'Escorxador, its riotous colors glinting in the sun. Around it, grandmothers in sneakers, stocky shopkeepers and children in starched frocks join hands. A brass band brays for a slow-motion minuet. Toes out! Toes in! Deliberately, then merrily, 500 people count steps. The sardanas are courtly affairs, far removed from the stomping passion of Spanish flamenco. Under the Franco dictatorship, the dances were banned as subversive evidence of Catalan nationalism. But now, on Sunday afternoons, they are as ubiquitous as barbershop quartets at Iowa county fairs. "They're a sign of our identity," says Joan Anglada, a furniture salesman, pausing for breath.
A tourist set loose in born-again Barcelona bumps into such euphoric boosterism around every corner. "Catalonia is a nation!" exults Jordi Pujol, president of the autonomous region of 6 million people. "We have our own language, our own history, our own culture." To show it off, the city of 1.7 million has seized upon the 1992 Summer Olympics, with its windfall of government money and free publicity, and has catapulted itself into the ranks of Europe's favored capitals. "You go to Milan, Paris or Hamburg, and people marvel that Barcelona has become the most dynamic city in Europe," says Jose Maria Marti Ruffo, a London-based Catalan businessman.
Along the waterfront, where Christopher Columbus' statue points triumphantly out to sea, rusty railroad tracks were torn up to make way for two miles of sandy swimming beaches and palm-shaded cafes. About $2 billion worth of stadiums, hotels, restaurants and museums have been built or are under construction, a showcase for internationally known architects such as Richard Meier, Arata Isozaki and Jose Rafael Moneo. "It's an orgy of creativity," says Mayor Pasqual Maragall, grandson of Catalonia's most famous poet. A former lecturer in urban planning at Johns Hopkins University, Maragall invited such American artists as Claes Oldenburg and Ellsworth Kelly to make sculptures for a new park system that has become an international model of city planning.
Aesthetes may complain that Barcelona lacks the glittering royal art galleries and grandiose vistas of London, Madrid or Paris and that its geography, a natural amphitheater framed by mountains and sea, produces a smog worthy of Los Angeles. Some may even view as excessive chauvinism the natives' insistence on speaking Catalan rather than Spanish. But those who take the time will discover in this most Mediterranean of cities a rare personality, fanatically avant-garde yet obsessively preservationist. First century Roman baths are being excavated amid the twisting streets of its dense Gothic quarter. The famous Picasso Museum is housed in a 15th century palace; the main Olympic stadium is a renovated 1929 arena. This month Antoni Tapies, Catalonia's best-known living painter, will open, in a refurbished art deco mansion, a foundation featuring four decades of abstract works. "Catalonia," says Tapies, "can be summed up in an old motto, seny i rauxa -- prudence and daring."