After weeks of soaring tensions in Spain's protest-hit northeast region, triggered by the Supreme Court's jailing of nine separatist leaders last month, security was tight for the royal visit during which the monarch gave awards to talented youths.
Gathered in the city, several thousand people rallied with all manner of banners and slogans including “Death to the Bourbon (monarchy)” and “Barcelona will be the nightmare of Felipe VI”.
Some held up signs in English saying: “The Spanish king is not welcome in Catalonia”, while others carried upside-down pictures of the king, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
Since Felipe's arrival on Sunday, security has been tight with a large number of forces deployed around the venue where the awards ceremony was taking place, and police cutting off one of the city's main roads.
The king did not directly mention the unrest that followed the court ruling, but he hailed the contributions made to Spanish democracy by a “plural and inclusive” Catalonia which is “constructive and supportive of progress”.
“These values represent without a doubt the best of Catalonia's stories. They cannot and should not be a memory of the past, but a present and future reality, a reality in which there can be no room for violence, intolerance, or the impairment of the rights and freedoms of others,” he added, delivering this part of his speech in Catalan.
— Casa de S.M. el Rey (@CasaReal) November 4, 2019
King Felipe VI drew the ire of Catalan separatists two years ago when, at the height of the crisis, he sternly denounced the independence bid and urged the authorities to “ensure constitutional order.
His intervention came just days after the region staged a referendum barred by Madrid which was marred by police violence, and later issued a short-lived independence declaration, triggering Spain's worst political crisis in
“The king aligned himself with the police who beat those who came to vote,” said 45-year-old business manager Jose Ligero, referring to the monarch's speech in which he made no mention of the violence.
“We are demonstrating so that the king does not come back to Catalonia, even more so after the totally unjust sentence handed to the separatist politicians.”
The current standoff has been a dominant theme in the runup to Sunday's election, the fourth in as many years, which surveys suggest will give a boost to the far-right Vox, which is likely to come in third place.