ON A BARCELONA back street, rain-slicked after a storm, only a deliveryman is out and about. Much of the city in northeast Spain is far more raucous, however, with bustling streets and markets; bars, clubs and restaurants busy late into the night; and floods of tourists sweeping through the city’s sights and indulging in the world-class dining.

Long a trading and sea power — all the way back to Roman times — Barcelona is the cultural and political hub of Catalonia, the region suppressed by Spain starting in the 18th century.

A Catalan separatist movement, fiercely opposed by Spain’s central government, has simmered for many decades. It broke out visually in September this year with a peaceful, mass protest. Hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands in a 250-mile-long human chain that stretched through villages, along country roads and into Barcelona, to showcase their support for an independent Catalan state.

They sang and held hands at some of the city’s icons, from the Barcelona team’s soccer stadium to Sagrada Familia, the ornate, unfinished cathedral masterpiece designed by Antoni Gaudi. For many Catalans, their quest remains unfinished, too.

Kristin R. Jackson is The Seattle Times NWTraveler editor. Contact her at kjackson@seattletimes.com.