The storied Spanish region of Catalonia has resisted Muslim invaders, rancid kings, and even thumbed its nose at General Franco on occasion. It is known for its beauty and the fierce independence of its people -- ancients settled the region long before Spain was considered a country.
There is a desire in Catalonia to once again achieve independence. The Basque terrorists who recently concluded a deal with the Spanish government that granted their region more autonomy was considered a step forward by the people, but with the huge economic troubles facing Spain, many Catalans are wondering if full fledged independence wouldn't be a better option.
There is a vote in Catalonia today that might be the first step to realize that goal.
Catalans have begun voting in elections that could lead to the north-eastern region breaking away from Spain, after the region's leader Artur Mas made the running in the campaign by vowing to hold a referendum on independence for rich but indebted Catalonia.
Unlike the Scottish referendum set for 2014 in agreement with London, the central government in Spain has pledged to block an independence vote for Catalonia by appealing to the constitutional court, which stopped the Basque country from holding a similar plebiscite in 2008.
Voting closes at 8pm local time (19:00 GMT), and exit polls are expected shortly afterwards. A Sigma Dos opinion poll for the Guardian on Thursday predicted that Mas's Convergència i Unió (CiU) party would fall 9-11 seats short of an overall majority in the Catalan parliament, meaning he would have to reach deals with smaller parties to hold the referendum he has promised within a four-year mandate.
"Catalonia is one of the oldest nations in Europe and the world. We have overcome all our difficulties: we have fought the military and dictatorships, and we're still alive," Mas said on Friday, the last day of campaigning allowed by law.
Apart from opposition in Madrid, and heading for fewer seats than he won in the last elections two years ago, one of Mas's biggest difficulties is uncertainty over whether a newly independent Catalonia could remain within the European Union and the euro currency.
The European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, said in Spain last weekend that EU treaties required breakaway states to join the queue for membership.
Catalonia has its own distinct language and culture, and many Catalans think they would be better off without Spain, because some estimates show they pay more in tax than they get back from Madrid. In September, 1.5 million people flocked to an independence rally in Catalonia, which prompted Mas to call for early elections and a referendum.
A recemt poll showed 57% of Catalans would support independence - as long as they could retain the Spanish language, Spanish passport, and other manifestations of Spanish citizenship. This makes any "referendum" on the subject an exercise in futility. The Catalans want more political clout and more money from Madrid. If they can get that, the move for independence will lose most of its luster.
Corrected to remove reference to Basques