The city from the tour bus

…the difference between the old and new way of visiting a city is the same as that between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’… The photographer ‘looks’ at how others ‘see’. And so, as it looks at sights, the book explains in a very new way the complex contents of the city of Barcelona.

Veure o mirar (Looking or seeing), by Oriol Bohigas

It would seem that in recent years there have been certain changes in the itineraries of occasional and reversible migrations: cities have become priority targets for mass tourism. We are surprised, for example, by the amount of tourists that every day inundate not just historically prestigious cities such as Paris, London, Rome and Venice, but many other more modest and less classifiable ones that until now had maintained a certain discretion, limited to receiving just the transitory leftovers from coastal, countryside and, in general terms, sport and leisure tourism, that has predominated for the best part of a century. Barcelona is a highly characteristic example of this new situation, a city that, in recent years, has witnessed a greater increase in overnight stays than the rest of Catalonia.

I don’t think that this situation is quite so new, but rather it is the return of a certain historic tradition. Before the fascination with beaches and snowy mountains, before tourism was a purely sport and leisure pursuit, relatively well-off and cultured minorities travelled directly to the great cities to admire their culture, and to visit their monuments and museums. The famous Grand Tours of Italy in the 18th century and the cultural attraction of 19th-century Paris are undeniable examples, and the splendour of New York in recent decades shows how the idea has persisted. However, Romanticism certainly led to a new form of tourism that has developed over the centuries to culminate in the mass tourism of our times. The main objective until very recently was the romantic, and anti-urban, reconsideration of the natural landscape and the obsessive, and also anti-urban, quest for sport and adventure that was relatively domesticated by charter flights and ´package holidays’. Although the social efficacy of such forms of tourism is worthy of every respect, we should also recognise that it has caused disasters that are and will be very difficult to rectify, such as the destruction of the coastal landscape and the commercial massification of natural environments for sporting uses that has also led to major visual and functional defects. We have moved far beyond the kind of tourism that, rather than contaminate the environment, gave it an almost aristocratic air of distinction, as was the case with the luxury hotels on the Côte d’Azur and the Swiss paradises.

As I have said, it would seem that in recent years there has been a considerable increase in specifically urban tourism which, to a greater or lesser extent, includes more cultural parameters, leaving the pleasure of the landscape and sport and its recreational identity to other types of itinerary. I do not know whether the cause has been the aforesaid degradation of the landscape making it less enjoyable, or whether it is simply a new extension of tourism objectives, which once again seek to take in certain cultural aspects that, in some way or another, now have to be included in the organisation of any mass tourism schedule, on which city visits have to be made using a new method, a method that has nothing to do with the trips of the 18th and 19th centuries, not just because we have to take into consideration the evident quantitative, but also qualitative, demands of mass tourism, but also because the public’s interest has shifted from the particularities of individual monuments to the city in general, viewed not only as a set of monuments, but also as a social phenomenon with highly varied functionalities and, therefore, disperse suggestions. It is not a case of looking at, admiring, studying and cataloguing culture in the memory, but of ‘seeing’ the real complexity of urban phenomena. The difference between the old and the new way of visiting a city may well be similar to the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’.

Any good dictionary will show us that the Latin root of the Spanish verb mirar (to look at) originally meant, “to be amazed, to be astonished, to admire”. One only has to look at the derivatives such as “mirror”, “miracle”, “mirage” and even “marvel”. On the other hand the Spanish verb ver (to see) does not imply the same admiration, but a simple reference to fact, as is clearly seen by its derivatives: “review”, “revision”, “evidence”.

The most efficient way of seeing a city rather than looking at it is to share an itinerary with an improvised group, driving at a discreet pace, in other words, the tour bus. That’s why I think this book of photographs by Massimo Cova is such a good idea, as it provides constancy to this way of understanding a city, a method by which no specific, isolated or ‘marvellous’ protagonist ever appears, but where there is instead a complex but ‘evident’ reality.

The great thing about Cova’s photographs is precisely the way in which he has expressed the complexity, even confusion, of the objects shown: the monuments are merely the backgrounds to a people-focused urban reality and the moods that the people themselves have conformed, and he has given sense to the long process of building the houses, the streets, the squares, the monuments and the gardens, even adding to this changes to the ambience caused by the active presence of the visitors themselves sat in the tour bus. The windows and rear-view mirrors of the bus that are used to frame the images, along with deformed reflections of faces and the backs of travellers’ heads in the foreground, forced and often unexpected points of view, symmetries and asymmetries imposed on the urban landscape from the internal order of the bus, are new details in the global vision of the city. The use of only black and white proves to be a fine resource for giving the same level of importance both to casual anecdotes and the representativeness of the monuments, and to the fluctuating sequence of the itinerary and the stability of the urban landscape.

In this case, the photographer ‘looks’ at what and how the other ‘sees’. And so, as a look at how we see things, the book offers a very new way of explaining the complex content of the city of Barcelona. An unprecedented guide to the itinerary and some formal essences of the city.

Oriol Bohigas

Travelling in Barcelona