I had a lovely last morning in Barcelona – kind of a greatest hits of the main city stroll. I wanted to get photos of some of the things I’d taken for granted like the grocery stalls, the arrangement of the street corners in L’Eixample, the density in the old city and the single building blocks in Barcalonetta. Then I used my last run of my 10-ticket pass to take a metro shortcut back to my hostel’s neighborhood. I wanted to nail down some of their differential characteristics in my head. To say one has “been to Barcelona” would be seriously blurring together a number of distinct areas and subcultures. Not to mention, periods of architectural history.
The neighborhoods of Barcelona: An Incomplete Guide:
Barcelona is thought to have been founded as a colony of the Carthage empire around 230 BC. The name comes from Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca. It was a roman city but less important in the region than Tarragona and was subsequently occupied by Muslim and then Frankish leadership. Catalonia slipped into the trade vacuum left by the fall of a Muslim caliphate of Cordoba in the 11th century to establish its own colonial empire. At various points, the Balaeric Islands, Valencia, Malta, Athens, Corscia, Sardinia and Naples were all Catalan cities. Catalonian interests ran afoul of larger politics when Ferdando (of Catalonai-allied Aragon) married Isabel (of Castilla) and merged the region into the greater Spanish empire in 1479 and subsequent failed rebellions resulted in the Catalan culture and language being harshly quashed by the Spanish government.
The medieval nucleus of the city is impossibly labyrinthine with high narrow streets running into each other at odd angles and opening out into unexpected small plazas. The area is totally pedestrian now any car would displace all the walkers into stone walls. Built on the ruins of Roman “Barcino,” the area still has a few fragments of roman wall visible. At first glance the whole area seems unlivably dark with its canyon street scape but each building actually features in interior courtyard to provide privacy as well as air and light. Some penetrate all the way to the ground, others block off the entire ground level from the sky and start their courtyard level at the first (American second) floor which would have been the main living level in the days when animals and stores were housed in the cellar-like ground floor rooms.
Both the Museu Picasso and the Museu Mare are in the Barri Gotic and showcase its style of spartan ground floors, narrow access streets, generous interior courtyards and opulent upper floor living.
El Raval seems to be the first area built into outside the original medieval center and features streets nearly as narrow and winding but a slightly younger architecture. This area was heavily re-built during the 1992 Olympic preparations and now stands as an active nightlife area of the city.
This is the port-side fisherman’s area created in the mid 1900s to replace the housing torn down when the city park and zoo area of La Ciutadella was built. Originally small houses, then subdivided apartments and finally tiny and incredibly narrow six story slum housing. In some areas each block is only a building wide (rather than the usual two) and the streets and building have roughly the same dimension. Some of the residential blocks are missing (were removed) and the area now features a dramatic covered market which drew my attention for many photos. Fish still feature prominently in the markets’ stalls.
Barcalona and its surroundings did well in the 19th century and industry and increasing population pushed the city to expand outside its historic boundaries. The medieval walls came down and a new district was planned adjacent to the old city. This area called l’Eixample (the extension) was platted with wide tree-lined streets, extensive green space and functional public transportation was home to the wealthy industrialists who set themselves up in style with architect-designed homes on the 1st and 2nd floors of apartment buildings. The area is even more light-filled than it appears since the center of each wide block has a 1st floor patio accessible by the owning families and overlooked by balconies of all the renters above.
The turn of the century experienced a renewed interest in Catalan culture at the time with a resurgence of the language and local pride. Architects like Antoni Gaudi worked to create a new Catalan Architecture – their own blend of Modernisme and history. Built during this time were most of Gaudi’s notable Barcelona undertakings as well as the Palau de la Music Ctalana which I featured in my Post Modern Barcelona post.
L’Eixample was platted by architect Ildefons Cerda who is responsible for its distinctive intersections – all the streets except a few main avenues are one way traffic with three car and one bus lane all going together. The corners of each block of buildings are cut off resulting in a vaguely octagonal intersection where pedestrians deviate to the side at each block.
The apartment block area of the city, this was described to me as a neighborhood of “hipsters” and seemed like a place more for passing through than lingering in. I didn’t love or hate it but I did find a handy hardware store and buy myself a 3m extension cord for those hostels where there isn’t an outlet next to my bunk (the iphone MUST be charged) so I have a happy feeling about it.
More residential than any other part of the city I visited, this hilltop settlment boasted both single family homes and the parked up streets to go with them. Its an easy metro ride from the city center and has vistas over the whole city and down to the ocean and of the neighboring city park. It actually reminded me a lot of certain parts of San Francisco I wandered last fall. Most of the houses are modernist bordering on avante gard and all have fantastic views.
So there you have it, an incomplete tour of the city. For more information … get a ticket and go visit Barcelona for yourself. Its well worth the trip!