Each city has its own elite, and therefore an elite area. In Spain, an area where affluent people live is referred to as Zona Alta, i.e. High Zone. In this context, “high” refers primarily to the income of its residents. Ironically enough, in Barcelona the term inevitably acquired a dual meaning as the term “high” refers not only to the distribution of income, but also to the geography of the landmass on which the Catalonian elite live: the area is located on the slopes of the Collserola Mountain Chain
As you might have gathered by now, Zona Alta is not the official name of the area. In Barcelona, this term is used for the district of Sarrià-Sant Gervasi with its Bonanova, Tibidabo, Galvani and Tres Torres as well as Pedralbes, a tiny bit of Les Corts. This is why your search engine top result will not be a Wiki article but countless exclusively upper-class real estate agents. This is a highly priced real estate indeed. The cost of a square metre here is twice to two and half times higher compared to the average city price.
Zona Alta does not reveal itself to your average passer-by. If you want to learn more about this area you have to rely on the guiding help of a local dweller
When you start talking about the wealthiest area in Spain your thoughts may fancifully take you to various images of graceful, horseback-riding beauties with grotesquely legs, wearing, quite appropriately, Hermès gear, Aston Martin cabriolets, things of that nature. To the contrary, none of that sort can be found in this area. Quiet, mostly empty streets appear to be spiritless. The buildings concealed with the fences and verdure. There are barely any cafes or bars. Until this summer, I had only been here a few times to see my doctor in a clinic in Bonanova. To find a corner shop to buy a bottle of water was a major challenge. on another occasion, I climbed my mountain in Sarrià-Sant Gervasi for the ratatouille-making class. It was conducted in Catalan, in a local community centre, the people were nice, the sun was shining, I loved everything and not a single thought of the attendees affluence ever crossed my mind. In other words, Zona Alta does not reveal itself to your average passer-by. If you want to learn more about this area you have to rely on the guiding help of a local dweller.
Cakes for the princess
“Sarrià is surrounded by the mountain chain of Collserola and in the summer,it is somewhat cooler here than at the bottom of the city, says Maria, a doctor by profession. — Until 1920 it was a place where Barcelona’s elite would move to stay for the summer. some of them had their own houses here, some rented.” The breeze and the mountain air drew the wealthy into this small village. They would buy a house close to its centre and soon accession to the metropolis became inevitable. With the advancement of railway transportation and a new fashion for automobiles, the affluent Barcelonans began to move closer to the mountains and established their permanent residence here.
Lionell Messi as well as Shakira and Gerard Puiqué, Barcelona’s main star couple also live here now
“Here, on that street once lived infanta Cristina” — remarks Maria as we walk through Pedralbes. not far from the location marked by the royal presence a luxurious confectionery called Foix de sarrià can be found. The sign says: “serving You for over 125 Years”. The interior remains unchanged since the beginning of the last century. Inside you find tranquillity, stillness, and precious dark wood. The cakes are generously seasoned to taste with natural fruit and embellished with bits of chocolate featuring the establishment’s signature on them. One of the masterpieces of strawberry with custard is called Royal Cake and the name is not a mere fancy invention. In 1997 it was this very confectionery who were responsible for the baking of the cake for the wedding of Princess Cristina and Iñaki Urdangarín. At the moment, Princess Christina is under investigation into alleged assistance to her husband in money laundering and does not live in Zona Alta anymore. This alleged indiscretion has had no repercussion with regards to the number of affluent residents that are firmly established in this area: the city’s best doctors, university professors, judges and business people. Lionell Messi as well as Shakira and Gerard Puiqué, Barcelona’s most prominent star couple also live here now.
What is also interesting is that Zona Alta has many schools. Their per capita number is higher here compared to the rest of Barcelona. There are some semiprivate schools in the are that are financed jointly by the municipality and either parents, sponsors or the Church but the vast majority of them are, of course, private. Free municipal schools are literally non-existent and that fact, I suppose is self explanatory. Also, self-evident is the exquisite approach to education here. In some schools children from theage of five learn to play several musical instruments at once, not to mention the con- fident horseback riding. In other schools, the curriculum is focused on development of language skills and the kids are carefully put to bed by nannies from the United Kingdom with pedagogical university degrees. In some schools, upon departure, their graduates receive diplomas that are automatically homologized for the UK while Collegi Jesús-Maria, a school located in Bonanova, may very well prompt memories of Hogwarts for a split second, before you finally realize that it is not young magicians who are raised here but good and sound young Christians.
Children and teachers here prepare special performances for the Catalonian Independence Day
As for the patriotic sentiment here, it has to be said it is widespread. “Sarrià not a separatist area?” asks again Dora, my other guide, a beautiful and vibrant young woman. she laughs out loud and says: “Children and teachers here prepare special performances for the Catalonian Independence Day.” Dora’s son is here with us. I ask him the question that was directly removed from the bulletin on secession of the region from spain: “Adria, would you like Catalonia to be an inde- pendent country?” Without hesitation, Adria says, “Yes!” and Dora acknowledges his response with a pleased spiteful smile.
Tranquillity of affluence
I am having my coffee in one of Bonanova’s cafes. Your normal spanish café — metal chairs and tables, sun umbrellas, unhurried waiter of respected age. on my left, I see a loud crowd of teenage girls who are climbing the chairs with their feet, laugh- ing happily. on my right, I see a grey-haired gentleman talking to his stunningly handsome son. They only catch my eye when the father lights a cigarette and I notice a Ralph Lauren logo on his seemingly simple plain colour shirt.
We, Catalonians do not like gloss and glitter. Here in a café you may meet the supreme Judge and you’d never even guess that”
“Oh, this is quite normal”, — says my guide, owner of Fermi Travel Agency. “We, Catalonians do not like gloss and glitter. Here in a café you may meet the supreme Judge and you’d never even guess that.” He explains that this is exactly what draws celebrities and top middle class here, to Zona Alta. “In Madrid, for instance, it’s all very different. Paparazzi and tabloids there stalk celebrities. Here, it doesn’t matter. If I pop into Messi by chance I won’t start making selfies with him. I may say, you scored a good goal in the last game, good man yourself, that’s all really” — says Fermi smilingly and I have no doubt whatsoever that is ex- actly what he would do. The high standard of living here is con- veyed not so much by the villas and the shine of boutiques, but by the atmosphere of tranquillity. In 2012, Barce- lona Public Health office conducted a research that produced some interesting figures. It appeared that Sant Gervasi residents live on average 8 years longer than residents of Raval. And, of course it is not by accident. Literally, every local resident here is registered with a private clinic; they attend yoga classes, eat organic food and jog in Collserola forests in the morning. And when they feel like splashing out on something they send their child to a good private school or join a golf club that will be effortlessly concealed from curious eyes.
Dora Cabanillas Muños, photographer
“I was born in Can Caralleu, residential area that used to be a village and now is a rather posh part of Barcelona. When I grew up there we had no major stores, no schools, not even buses so to actually get to school we had to walk down the mountain o Sarrià. Me and my Mum would have breakfast by the cathedral, next to the granite fountain, I would go to school and she would go to work. There is no fountain there anymore. They replaced it with some ordinary metal structure. I used to like the old fountain much more. After school, I would come to san Vicens square to meet friends. It is still one of my most beloved places in Zona Alta. You have all those cute little buildings there painted with the colours of rainbow; and the most wonderful thing is the fact that the square has not changed at all since my years of youth. The same, well not exactly the same teenagers hang around the square, having there botellόn sessions. Let me add here: Botellόn is a sort of semilegal alcohol consumption in public.
“My neighbour, for instance has eight children with a time gap between them of a year or a year and a half. And my younger son’s school friend has fifteen brothers”
There are a lot of newcomers in Zona Alta these days and they are a majority, numberwise here compared to the people who were born and grew in the area. The way it used to be, you see, a family in Pedralbes would raise their three children, and of course they all had to live omewhere. The family would sell their old house and buy several new apartments. That was perfectly possible as the property prices were on a steady rise. This is how most of the original dwellers moved out with time and top middle class and elite gradually moved into the area. We are now walking through the street and I can tell you that most of the people who come our way are newcomers. Living here is a matter of prestige, it reflects your social status. That is why apart from the old residents and re- cently arrived wealthy you will also meet another type of new residents: it is people who can’t quite afford living here but do so to acquire the status. We live happily with all of them. In spain they say that Catalonians are dry and insensitive meanies. That is so untrue! I negate that categorically! People’s habits have also changed in Zona Alta have also changed. In the old days, people who lived in sarrià or around it would hardly ever go down to Barcelona. Today, many, especially young people go out to the old Town at nights. You see, we don’t have night clubs here and as wide a variety of bars. We have a lot of children, though. A lot. Families give birth to kids one after another. I have a theory to explain that. Local elite, provided they are believers, as a rule belong to opus Dei, a religious organization. They are Catholics, they have the money and they have a ban on contraception. My neighbour, for instance has eight children with a time gap between them of a year or a year and a half. And my younger son’s school friend has fifteen brothers.”
Fermi Marco, travel agency proprietor
“One of my most favourite cafes in Sarrià is San Marco. It is very old and its appearance and ambience are ancient! They make really good coffee there and keep the tradition alive. Another place where I love to be is the mountains. Zona Alta is very close to Collserola. When I was a teen I would often grab a bike and would go riding there, watch the city from above. I also used to swim in a lake in Vallvidrera. They don’t allow that anymore though. Life here unlike in Barcelona’s city centre is calm. In a way it’s a tradition. Two hundred years ago sarrià was a village where people used to make their living off the land, they used to plow the land and gather their fruit and vegetables. People from the capital would be coming here as they would come to a spa, to restore their health, to relax. When epidemics would break out in the old Town wealthy people would ascend to the mountains to stay away from the danger safely until it goes away. A lot of them have their estates and villas here. The old residents of the area when they go down to town will never say ‘I am going to the city centre’, they say ‘I am going to Barcelona.’ For them it is still another town. Another local peculiarity is a substantial influence of religious organizations and the number of religious schools. escolas Píes, Los Jesuitas… People from the entire province make a conscious choice to send their children there. Zona Alta has the highest concentration of schools per square mile in europe! It’s a fact. This is why in the mornings and in the evening the roads in Sarrià, Bonanova and Sant Gervasi are absolutely flooded with cars.
“if you are a Catalonian and you start showing off your jewels be ready for criticism”
The historical centre of Sarrià is the main meeting point in Zona Alta although the really wealthy live beyond it, of course. Their social life takes place elsewhere too. They spend time in private establishments, tennis clubs, horseback riding clubs etc. This is also where artists, actors, football players live. s metimes they’d go out for a walk, have a coffee on the square but you’d never be able to detect them. not that Zona Alta residents have that task. In Catalonia, we have a habit of noninterfering with other people’s lives. ‘Do not bother people around you and they won’t bother you’ — that is our philosophy. I have a friend who is a poet and a laureate of ever so many prizes. But just as me he goes out to simple bars and never would he emphaize the fact that he is an outstanding litterateur. When we meet he is just my mate, my neighbour, there is no pomp in our relationship. Demonstration of affluence is also bad manners. of course, when families come from abroad we understand, it is a different culture, we let it be, but if you are a Catalonian and you start showing off your jewels be ready for criticism.”
Lydia Ruiz Garcia, cosmetologist
“I have my own private practice in Bonanova. I practice cosmetology, aesthetic medicine and therapy. I work with each client on a purely in- dividual basis, pay maximum attention to them, their problems and wishes. I would say in mywork health is a foundation of beauty. I live nearby and on weekends I go out for walks in sarrià. For example, on sundays I go to Jaume Piquet street where a chain of little bars is located. According to s anish tradition, on sundays, around 1 p. m. people meet for their good old vermouth. By the way, there is a bar nearby called Tomás, it’s really famous for its patatas bravas.
“In Sarrià there is this sense of a village within the city and people here are welcoming
I have to say that when I walk through the main streets of the area I always experience that one special feeling — I feel like I am in a village and in a city at the same time. The historical part of sarriàis exclusively pedestrian. overall, Zona Alta is acalm, tranquil part of Barcelona. There are tourists here, no problem youths, no large shopping malls. Partly, the reason being is the price of a square metre in the area, the highest in the city. so, people who live here are either wealthy or really wealthy. Your average Zona Alta resident is a person with a higher degree and a really well-paid job. Writers, artists, a lot of business people, university professors… I have said that in Sarrià there is this sense of a village within the city and people here are welcoming, simple, well-mannered, so here it’s easy to feel at home. Also, people in Zona Alta tend to lead a healthy life-style. They all buy organic foods, do sports and attend therapy. They shop primarily in the vicinity, there are a lot of organic food stalls all around the place where the supplies come directly from our local Catalonian farms. People speak Catalan here, although there are alot of people who tend to prefer spanish. ZonaAlta is not really your radically separatist belt of Barcelona. I would say majority of local residents prefer to remain part of spain. Affluent people traditionally tend to stick to the ‘right’ persuasions.