La Rambla, the most famous boulevard in Barcelona. I am starting a series of three articles that will help visitors discover this must-see attraction. This is not a regular walk to talk about the flower sellers or the human statues but a nice way to get a feel for the walkway that has been the place of gathering in Barcelona since the XVIII century. Find out what surprises are waiting for you.
If you travel around Catalonia, one detail you will notice is that there are plenty of streets called rambla. Tarragona has one, Lleida too, even some of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods take pride in their very own rambla. But there is only one original Rambla and that is the one in the centre of Barcelona where all the rest took their name from. The story started long ago, when this unpopulated area was a sandy dry plain which the Romans called “arenno” (sand bar). Maybe the Moors that came later didn’t leave the beautiful buildings that you can find in Southern Spain but they left something that stuck: they translated its old Roman name and started calling this isolated area “Ramla”.
Look at the illustration on the left to see how La Rambla looked in the old times. The XIII century medieval walls helped defining its sinuous layout when it was nothing but a dry river bed. However, it would have to wait for another 300 years to see its first buildings go up: convents and monasteries. The old medieval city was so crowded inside those walls that there wasn’t even room for trees. La Rambla became the first street in Barcelona to have that privilege. Come the XVIII century and the actual boulevard that you can see nowadays, with its wonderful palaces on each side, started to take shape.
So let’s start our walk at the top, in Plaça Catalunya. This is the best spot to look down and appreciate the bustling street life. Just at the very beginning on your right is the famous Canaletes Fountain. This is where the Barça football fans gather for celebrations. This tradition started in the 1930s when just across the street a local newspaper used to have a board showing the updated football results. Those were the times before internet and television and this was the best way to know how their favourite team was doing. The tradition stuck. See if you can find an inscription in Catalan on the floor: “if you drink from the Canaletes Fountain you will fall in love with Barcelona forever and, no matter how far away you go, you will always come back”. Press the tap, drink some water, get refreshed and book your return ticket to Barcelona.
I still remember when, instead of the small benches that you can see behind the fountain, there were chairs that people rented by the hour. But long before the chairs and benches this space was occupied by the “Estudis Generals”, the first university of Barcelona. Now we have another university at Plaça Universitat, not far from where we are. Inside this newer building you still can see the XVI century stone carved coat of arms of Charles I of Spain. Funnily, this is the same one that used to be at the main entrance of the old building here.
Walk a few metres down and on your right you will see an institution of Barcelona: Boadas Cocktail Bar. Opened in 1933, this is one of the first bars in the city specialised in caribbean cocktails. The owner learned his trade at the bar that invented the daiquiri: Hemingway’s Floridita Bar, in Havana. Soon after, he came to Barcelona ready to show the city this new trend of cocktail drinking. If you need something with a bit more kick than the water at Canaletes Fountain, order a daiquiri here from the bow-tied waiters behind the bar. Relax and enjoy the quiet Art Deco atmosphere.
Further down to the right is Farmacia Nadal, still in the same family since it opened in 1850. The interior has been renovated but you can still enjoy the beautiful “Noucentista” facade with its glazed tiles. Take a look at the very top and see if you can read the word Pharmacy in a few different languages.
Now you have to cross to the other side of the street to enter one of the most obscure chapters in Barcelona’s recent history: the May Days of 1937. In between #128 and #130 there is a plaque commemorating the place where Andreu Nin, the leader of the anti-Stalinist communist party, was seen alive for the last time. Look across the street and you will find the Royal Academy of Science and Arts. It is from this terrace that, during the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell spent several days fighting against the communist forces located at Cafe Moka, just beside you. This scene is depicted in his wonderful book “Homage to Catalonia”.
La Rambla is a busy place and, with so many things to see and do, it is quite easy to forget what time it is. Just under George Orwell’s terrace there is a clock showing, not only the time, but the official time of Barcelona. Imagine the days when the wealthy Barcelonians took out their pocket watches at this precise spot to set the correct time. One of these wealthy citizens was Antonio López, Marquis of Comillas, and further down is a Neoclassical building that now houses the Hotel 1898. This was the headquarters for his Philippines Tobacco Company. On top of the door, you can see the allegorical sculptures of overseas and commerce. Cross the street again to find the Marquis family house, the XVIII century Palau Moja. It opens to the public only a few days of the year so, if you are lucky to be in the city then, you can admire its beautiful interior and mural paintings. Antonio López died in 1883 but not before his daughter married one of the most promising businessmen in Barcelona: Eusebi Güell. Does the name sound familiar? Let me give you a clue: a park and Gaudí.
The Jesuists have a special connection to Barcelona since the order’s founder, Saint Ignatius, made his pilgrimage to Montserrat. Their Church of Bethlehem is one of the few remaining buildings from the period when La Rambla was a strip full of convents and monasteries. Like many other churches in the city, its interior was destroyed by a fire during the Spanish Civil War but you can still enjoy one of the very few examples of Baroque architecture we have.
We finish this part of the walk at the fountain on the other side. This is where one of the entrances to the medieval city stood. The street that leads from here into the Gothic Quarter, Portaferrisa (Iron Door), still bears its name from the huge iron measuring devices attached to one of the entrance towers at the time. The fountain that you see was part of one of the old towers and preserved after the demolition of the walls. Take a look at the 1959 ceramic tile and imagine how life looked here in olden times, when the new “Eixample” was still to come and the city was just that, the old city.
You can now go down Portaferrisa street towards the old maze of the Gothic Quarter. This is the one of the areas we cover on our Free Tours Barcelona. Sit down for some people watching or read the next section: A walking tour down La Rambla (part 2). But for that, you will have to wait a little bit more.