TO walk from Barcelona's old town to the new Port Vell and Olympic Village on the Mediterranean Sea is to travel in time: The feel and texture of the 15th century suddenly give way to something closer to the 21st.
Within a few blocks, a city center that could be Marseille, Palermo, or any other ancient Mediterranean metropolis - with narrow streets, shuttered windows, colorful markets, and people everywhere - abruptly shifts to the ambience of seaside San Diego, Calif., complete with relatively low-density residential developments, beaches, joggers - and even a pier-side Pizza Hut.
The metamorphosis of Barcelona's waterfront from an old industrial quarter is perhaps the most visible element of an astonishing modernization program that has transformed a congested and choking city. After more than six years and $7 billion spent on roads, public transit, a new airport, housing, parks, athletic facilities, and expanded telecommunications capabilities, Catalonia's capital now has the infrastructure and capacity to match its aspirations of becoming the undisputed focal point of Western E urope's Mediterranean.
A year after the successful Summer Games, Barcelonans are enjoying the fruits of the city's labor, from less-congested streets and lower pollution levels to the heat-relief of the new in-town beaches. Yet leaders from both the city and Catalonia's regional government say they are determined that Barcelona not just sit back and enjoy its accomplishments.
Especially with Europe experiencing an economic downturn and Spain in a recession expected to last until 1995, most of the emphasis is on economic development. To build on the physical improvements achieved, Barcelona officials are focusing on the city's less-visible outlying neighborhoods and on a substantial number of cultural developments - the latter designed to enhance both an unfulfilled tourism potential and the city's already improved quality of life.
"We are not interested in becoming just the managers of a success," says Josep Vegara, Barcelona's deputy mayor for programs and budget.
"In a sense," he adds, noting the list of museum and performing arts projects, "we've had the emphasis we needed on the hardware, and now we are turning to the software."
Guiding the city's continuing development is Barcelona 2000, a strategic economic and social plan launched in 1991. The project's authors say that "probably no city in the world has ever created a master plan as ambitious."
Such hyperbole might sound like common municipal boosterism if it were not for Barcelona's record of creativity and a proven ability to reinvent itself.
Before the Olympics, an international exposition in 1929 and an even earlier universal exposition in 1888 were grandiose excuses to correct glaring urban deficiencies of the day.
And while the city's name is practically synonymous with the 19th century urban planner Ildefons Cerda and innovative modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, other examples of "Catalan genius" include cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals, and artists Joan Miro and Salvador Dali.
"Barcelona and the Catalonia region have this base now for moving ahead, but the kind of economic and cultural vitality we're talking about doesn't develop from an airport or the Olympic Games," says Salvador Giner, director of the Institute for Advanced Social Studies here. "What will make the difference is the human capital, which is a resource Catalonia has counted on for centuries."
Experience has shown that without the right human dimension, the benefits of massive public spending may be fleeting. The Spanish government tried to use last year's universal exposition in Seville, Andalusia to create a new "Silicon Valley," Mr. Giner says. "But that was a flop," he adds. "There's no way the Andalusians have today the human capital to succeed in that."
Even in Barcelona's private sector, support is strong for the high-dollar public spending that permitted Barcelona's transformation. "Here we are reminded every day of the value we got out of the investment as we drive the streets, make a phone call, or visit the new neighborhoods," says Alfonso Vila, director of Spontex Espana, maker of household cleaning products.
Like Giner, Mr. Vila speaks of the "Catalan spirit" as the "difference" that has ensured the region's prosperity: With 15 percent of Spain's population, Catalonia creates a quarter of the country's gross national product. Unlike the rest of Spain, "Catalonia was part of Charlemagne's empire," Vila says, "and we have looked north for our references, our ingenuity, pragmatism, and industriousness, ever since."
Spontex Espana offers its own example of those qualities: With energy costs making up 3-8 percent of its manufacturing costs, and with energy prices in Spain a quarter to 40 percent higher than in competing European countries, the company is looking to build its own gas-fired turbine for electricity generation.
These qualities and the good image left by a successful organization of the Summer Olympics were recognized last month when the European Economic Research and Advisory Consortium, a grouping of seven European research institutes, ranked Barcelona first among 32 European cities in their growth prospects for the 1990s. The report specifically cites the stimulating effect of the city's unprecedented infrastructure work.
"We have eliminated a variety of bottlenecks that were restraining us," Mr. Vegara says. "Now a lot of things can happen."
OFFICIALS here say that the increasing influence of Europe's regions will also work to boost the role of dynamic regional centers like Barcelona. The European Community's Maastricht Treaty on European unity, expected to be fully ratified this fall, for the first time places the regions in an EC treaty by creating a regional advisory committee.
Having learned again the effectiveness of using an event like the Olympics to concentrate a renewal effort, Barcelona is now turning its focus to cultural development. This year the city has gone all out to celebrate the centenary of Mirs birth, and for the future it hopes to be named the EC's "cultural capital" - an annual title placing a cultural spotlight on one European city - for the year 2000.
"After the intense activity before and during the Olympics, there's a sense that we need a period of reflection, to contemplate how best to use our new amenities," says Manuel Foraste, cultural affairs spokesman with the Catalan government. But that "reflection" includes an extraordinary number of cultural development projects, including a new museum of contemporary art.
Acknowledging that new museums, theaters, and outdoor sculptures are more than reflection, Mr. Foraste says, "The worst thing we could do now is waste our momentum. When you have the vocation of becoming Europe's Mediterranean capital, you have to keep moving."