Seen from the direction of the sea, the Collserola mountain range resembles a sleeping prehistoric reptile, its back overgrown with evergreen trees and vegetation. Tibidabo is somewhere in the region of its spine and can easily be identified by the Church of the Sacred Heart, the Ferris wheel and the Norman Foster-designed television tower. But visiting these landmarks is far from being the only reason why it’s worth the climb to the highest point in Barcelona
Until the 16th century, Tibidabo, which today is part of the Vallvidrera, el Tibidabo i les Planes neighbourhood, was known as Puig de l’Àlig, which translates from Catalan as Mountain of the Eagle. For centuries this was a wild and inaccessible place, almost untouched by human hand. The new name came from the monks of the monastery of Saint Jerome. “Tibi omnia dabo” is the Latin for what Satan said to Christ in offering to give him “all the kingdoms of the world”. Naturally, the monks were not claiming that the action of the well-kown New Testament story took place here, though, on the other hand, the Gospels are also vague when it comes to precise geographical location… Trackless, cloaked in thick vegetation, alive with bird song and the mournful sighing of the wind pushed suddenly up to a height of 512 metres above sea level, these rocky heights were an almost virgin wilderness. They remained so right until the end of the 19th century, known only to shepherds and hermits, until the mountain suddenly caught the attention of Dr. Salvador Andreu i Grau.
Don Salvador did not wait for permission from the city authorities, and immediately put 250 labourers to work. What happened next was, by Spanish standards, quite astonishing. Construction that began in mid-1900 was successfully completed in 1901
A respected pharmacist, whose cough pastilles are on sale to this day in every Spanish pharmacy, he was also a highly successful property developer. The story with Tibidabo, however, was not entirely typical… As he was walking around San Gervasi one day, the doctor noticed an advertisement for a farm for sale a couple of hundred metres from his own house. He was struck by the extent of the land on offer, stretching from the built-up area right up to the top of the mountain. And the price was very reasonable, too. The owner, a widow of a wine-grower who had been ruined by phylloxera, didn’t think anybody much would be interested. Once bought, things moved fast. In 1899 Andreu found investors, formed the Tibidabo company, and announced a boldly imaginative plan to create an unusual new urban district with a broad avenue, a tram line and a cable car, which would enable people to get to the top of the previously inaccessible mountain ridge. Special attention was paid to the lower slopes, which were to be turned into an ideal garden city, while the Avinguda Tibidabo, a broad thoroughfare not less than 20 metres wide, was to be the thread that tied together the upper part of Barcelona with the old inhabited quarters down below.
Don Salvador did not wait for permission from the city authorities, and immediately put 250 labourers to work. What happened next was, by Spanish standards, quite astonishing. Construction that began in mid-1900 was successfully completed in 1901. They say that the council was so impressed with the speed they did not even bother to complain. Furthermore, our medical entrepreneur’s instinct and luck did not fail him. His vision of a garden city proved attractive to Barcelona’s wealthiest families, and soon both sides of the avenue began to fill up with new luxury Art Nouveau villas — Casa Muntades, Casa Fornells, La Rotonda, Casa Casacuberta and others. The house at number 33, incidentally, figures in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s bestseller The Shadow of the Wind. The sinister Aldaya mansion is, in reality, an elegant neo-classical tower inhabited by the respectable employees of the Doxa Consulting Group.
It seems reasonable enough that, as the person who thought the whole thing up, Salvador Andreu should keep several properties on the main avenue of Tibidabo for himself. Only one of them, number 17, served as the family residence. The design of Torre del Doctor Andreu was entrusted to architect Enric Sagnier, who was also responsible for the Church of the Sacred Heart on the mountain’s summit. He injected a spirit of supremely elegant modernism that not even the drab utilitarianism of Soviet diplomacy could destroy. During the Civil War the Republican authorities expropriated the villa and it became the Soviet consulate. Franco’s pilots, who were often to be seen in the skies over Barcelona in 1936, were well aware of this, and so the Stalinist apparatchiks turned the basement into an air raid shelter. The bunker contained all the necessary living and working facilities: kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, offices, and also an electricity generator, a water cistern and a ventilation system. It’s still there to this day, and if you really want to have a look, the current owners, the Mutua Universal insurance company, will give permission for a visit if requested in advance.
Time has not dealt kindly with the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi district and there has been a distinct change in the class of people who live there — some of the owners of the big villas fled as long ago as the Civil War, fearing the Anarchists, others fell into financial difficulties later
The blue tram, which every tourist knows, is a good way to see the Avinguda Tibidabo. This is the most antiquated part of the Barcelona transport system. It rattles and squeaks, and is always breaking down, but still manages to crawl its way up to the foot of the mountain and back. The speed of 10 kph is perfect for examining all the beauties of the avenue, and also for getting into the unhurried rhythm of life in the Catalan capital at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries. Or if you’re really not in a hurry and want an even better impression, then make your excursion on foot. But don’t expect to see too much luxury or display of private wealth in today’s Tibidabo. Time has not dealt kindly with the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi district and there has been a distinct change in the class of people who live there — some of the owners of the big villas fled as long ago as the Civil War, fearing the Anarchists, others fell into financial difficulties later. In the second half of the 20th century, the heirs of the original builders could no longer afford to maintain the family properties, and they were gradually sold off at auction. Bought up by banks and big property companies, the villas now house private clinics, international schools, consulates, restaurants and management consultancies.
Even so, the uppermost part of Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, Vallvidrera, el Tibidabo i les Planes is still one of the most prestigious places to live in Barcelona. Very few apartments come up for sale. The main property deals are for houses. For a luxury detached villa right on the avenue, with six bedrooms, several bathrooms, wooden staircases, mosaic floors, lift, garden, garage and other conveniences, expect to pay 5 to 6 million euros. Not cheap, admittedly, but the view is magnificant, the air is clean and the neighbours are decent. Just over a year ago Barcelona FC defender Gerard Piqué and singer Shakira bought themselves a house on the nearby Avinguda Pearson. Get to know them, and you might be able to save money on tickets to Camp Nou or concerts.