Every Barcelona guide book has to have a chapter on it. Which is just what you’d expect: the Gothic Quarter is the very heart of the city, its severe stone cradle encrusted with toy marvels, the starting place for its history, the dot from which it all expanded. And it’s also the object of studies and controversies that tourists hardly ever know anything about. «Your City» has decided to break the silence and tell you what the guide books usually leave unsaid.
The Gothic Quarter is one of four districts that comprise the Ciutat Vella, the Old City. It is bounded on the west by the noisy, boisterous Rambla and on the east by the proud Via Laietana, full of quiet inner strength, what the locals consider the most «New York» street in Barcelona. As to the southern edge of the Barri Gòtic, it abuts the Passeig de Colom, while the invisible northern fence runs along Fontanella Street, where it is unceremoniously squeezed up against Catalunya Square, looking so obviously flustered by the incident. A curious fact: if you take a pencil and outline all that on a map, you get an odd figure that looks like either a toothless saw or a butcher’s cleaver. But what does the Gothic Quarter (and up until the twentieth century, it was called the Cathedral Quarter) look like when you’re inside it? It is, in a word, impressive. Built in accordance with all the traditions of the Middle Ages, it is a webwork of narrow streets emerging into rectangular plazas surrounded by majestic buildings belonging to a variety of periods and styles. We know that the earliest surviving structures here go back to classical antiquity: the remains of the city walls, the Palace of Octavian Augustus Caesar and the aqueduct near Tapineria and the New Square. Of course, these things are hardly Gothic in themselves — like most of the houses, residential or not, that form the basis of this labyrinth teeming with myths and legends.
Any experienced local realtor will confirm that the Barri Gòtic — even today, in the twentyfirst century – beats out virtually all Spain in the number of minuscule apartments (about three hundred square feet or even less) clustered together in one place
Because until the end of the end of the nineteenth century, it never occurred to Barcelonans to worry about their past. And so they had no qualms about adapting their urban spaces to their current needs. In the eighteenth century, for example, when the city underwent a sudden surge of industrial development and a corresponding increase in population, the Gothic Quarter began to grow — upwards. At the time, it seemed there was no place to expand, so they often simply piled new stories atop old houses. And sometimes they outright demolished them to build higher buildings in their place. The quality of living conditions in those buildings wasn’t always a top priority, either. Any experienced local realtor will confirm that the Barri Gòtic — even today, in the twentyfirst century – beats out virtually all Spain in the number of minuscule apartments (about three hundred square feet or even less) clustered together in one place.
Barcelona only began to realize it had a heritage to preserve somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the city center was once again being rebuilt. This time the reconstruction was guided by the interests of the middle class, which had decided it would turn the provincial Catalan capital into a modern European city. They would attract foreign tourism and investment. The historians tell us that this process was launched by the transformation of the facade of the Cathedral and the construction of Via Laietana. Those projects sparked a genuine urban revolution over the course of which eighty-five entire streets and three hundred and thirty-five buildings disappeared, while over one hundred thousand people were put out into the street, forced to move to the slopes of Montjuïc.
Well-informed skeptics see the Gothic Quarter as a kind of theme park, a forgery created to attract flocks of naive tourists who unwittingly pay good money for fake history
Both in the case of the Cathedral facade and that of the new thoroughfare, the architects and builders had to give an account of themselves to the authorities and the public in 1913. The creation of the “historical” neighborhood around them, however, wasn’t over yet. Streets were redirected, buildings were physically moved, modern windows were replaced with bay windows and friezes, the standard street lamps gave way to more artistically conceived designs. As a result, well-informed skeptics see the Gothic Quarter as a kind of theme park, a forgery created to attract flocks of naive tourists who unwittingly pay good money for fake history. But such well-informed skeptics, as you may imagine, are relatively few in number. Far more numerous are those who fall under the spell of the place and are quite happy to believe that when they touch its darkened stones, they’re touching genuine history, hearing the echoes of the past, feeling the beating of a centuries-old urban heart.
That circumstance may have led us to an inherently paradoxical situation: foreigners comprise fully half of the populations of the Gothic Quarter. And here we’re looking only at officially registered residents. If you choose to take into account the hordes of tourists who want to spend their holidays in Barcelona just steps from the Plaça Sant Jaume or La Boqueria, the numbers become far more daunting still. The mass influx of tourists has been a doubleedged sword for Barcelona. On the one hand, the city’s guests leave behind millions of euros, filling the city’s coffers and creating numerous jobs. On the other, there are so many of them that the locals are often put out by it, periodically gathering for demonstrations, demanding that measures be taken. Ah, those fanatics of Gaudi, paella and the Mediterranean, all squawking in their own strange languages — it seems they’ve brought with them every imaginable kind of trouble. The noise, night and day. The pickpockets who grow more shameless with each passing year. The high prices. And you can hardly squeeze your way through the crowds in the narrower streets. But what has Barcelonans most worried is how quickly the appearance of the Gothic Quarter has been changing over the last few years. Rising rents, both residential and commercial, are leading to the disappearance of cafes, drug stores and other places emblematic of old Barcelona, places whose histories can span literally centuries. Losing their regular clients and unable to extend their leases on the old terms, their owners pass their traditional spots to faceless chains — stores, restaurants and hotels.
Rising rents, both residential and commercial, are leading to the disappearance of cafes, drug stores and other places emblematic of old Barcelona, places whose histories can span literally centuries
Ada Colau Ballano is Barcelona’s current mayor. What is the real source of her enormous popularity? Agreeing that the center of town is swamped with tourists, she put a moratorium on construction of new hotels. And she stopped issuing licenses to companies and private entrepreneurs connected in one way or another with tourism in the Ciutat Vella. New rules are about to go into effect that regulate the external appearance and the hours of operation of outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants. And that’s just the beginning — an establishment’s very right to put chairs and tables out in the street in the first place will depend on how established it is, where it is located, the time of year and a host of other factors.
Ada Colau is waging a ferocious battle with the illegal renting of apartments to tourists, even going so far as to encourage neighbors to anonymously report on one another. “If we don’t want to end up like Venice, we have to put restrictions in place in Barcelona,” says the Alcaldessa (ie, Mayor), and she’s doing everything in her power to take the load off of the Gothic Quarter, steering tourists towards other parts of the city. It’s probably the right idea. But can it bring back the Barcelonans? After all, neither demonstrations nor laws can “repeal” the drawbacks of the Gothic Quarter, great and small, drawbacks the transients hardly feel — the chaos of the medieval street plan, the humble size of the apartments, the crippled infrastructure and so forth. We’ll just have to wait and see.
La Boqueria. The first mention of La Boqueria dates to early medieval times, when peasants from the neighboring villages established the custom of selling meat and vegetables by the city wall. For several centuries, La Boqueria remained anitinerant market. But in 1840, it managed to find a permanent place for itself. Where the San Josep Monastery (a refuge for barefoot Carmelites that had been swept from the face of the earth by a wild mob five years earlier — more on this below) had once stood, rows of stalls were built under the direction of the architect Mas Vilà. That’s the source of the market’s official name: the Sant Josep Market. The unofficial name may be connected with the Catalan word “vos,” meaning “goat.” But that’s just one of a number of theories. However that may be, since the end of the nineteenth century, La Boqueria has been Barcelona’s number one meal ticket. And one of its most popular attractions. Tourists are here from the crack of dawn,taking pictures of langostinos they clearly have no intention of buying. Recently the city government decided to limit their numbers at the market. The plan is to bar entry for groups of fifteen people or more on Fridays and Saturdays. Sellers will also be obliged to observe a certain balance between fresh and prepared foods. Cut fruits, for example, will have to be wrapped and sealed to prevent customers from eating them where they stand.
Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. The foundations were laid in the twelfth century on the site of an earlier Christian church. It was completed, in point of fact, only in 1913, thanks to an impressive donation from Manuel Girona, a successful banker who was Mayor of Barcelona for eleven years. Today the Cathedral, like a treasure box, is filled with precious stories in a variety of genres. There are tales of civic service, of virtue, of sacrifice, of money, and even of love. One of the most stirring, and so one of the stories most pitilessly overexploited by the tour guides, has to do with Saint Eulalia. She was a thirteen-year-old girl who converted to Christianity and was put to horrible tortures by the Romans, who had nonotion of freedom of thought, freedom of conscience or freedom of religion. She is now one of the patron saints of the city and her relics in their alabaster sarcophagus are located in the crypt beneath the Cathedral’s central altar. And in the inner Cathedral courtyard, in symbolic memory of the martyred girl, are thirteen white geese wobbling about, honking, preening themselves and pecking at curious tourists. The courageous girl, legend has it, was a simple shepherdess from the village of Sarrià, long since incorporated into the city of Barcelona and now one of its most prestigious neighborhoods.
Plaça Reial. In 1835, on July 25th, Barcelona was celebrating St. James’ Day. The main event was supposed to be the bullfight at La Barceloneta. But things weren’t going according to plan: the bulls were passive and clearly had no intention of fighting. The disgruntled spectators went out into the streets and headed towards the Rambla where, since the seventh or eighth century, monks belonging to various orders had lived, prayed and preached. The Franciscans, the barefoot Carmelites, the Capuchins, the Trinitarians… Suddenly it seemed as if they were to blame for everything — the recent outbreak of the plague, civil wars, the cramped quarters in the Old City… And they were shown no shred of mercy. Not even the stone walls of the aged monasteries were spared. The abode where the Capuchins appealed to God was among the victims of the destruction wrought in the course of that uprising. And in the place where it had stood the Plaça Reial was laid out. Despite all the gloomy history, today this is one of the brightest and happiest corners of the Gothic Quarter. A big part of that is the terraces belonging to the restaurants and bars that line its perimeter. Visitors sit at their tables far into the night, enjoying a Dorado, sipping white wine and listening to the murmuring of the recently restored Fountain of the Three Graces..