History, Peace, and Beauty: On Barcelona’s Ramblas

Of all the massacres perpetrated in Europe in the name of Islamic State, yesterday”s slaughter in the Ramblas has a particular personal resonance for me. I spent nine years in Barcelona, living near the Ramblas for part of that time. Even when I moved further away from downtown Barcelona, hardly a week went by in which I didn”t pass through it. This is because the Ramblas has a special place in the life of the Catalan capital. It”s where you go to meet people, at the Café Zurich at the top of the Ramblas, or by the entrance to the Plaza Catalunya station, or by any other point up and down this fabulous thoroughfare.

It”s where you go to shop at the marvellous La Boqueria indoor market, or look at the fruit and vegetable stands laid out with meticulous precision in dazzling displays of colour. More than anything else, it is a place you go to stroll. Lorca famously described the Ramblas as a street that was so beautiful that you didn”t want it to end, and he wasn”t wrong. Despite the over-priced cafés, the dense thicket of tourists, the traffic running up and down alongside the pedestrian thoroughfare, the Ramblas remains a space of peace and beauty.

On Sundays it was a pleasure to join the families walking up and down the rows of plane trees, past the flower-sellers, bird stalls, and newspaper stands, to check out the dancers, the ridiculously elaborate living statues, musicians, the skinny little guy who used to perform astounding tricks with a football, the silver-painted Columbus I once interviewed for a radio feature.

Sometimes you might let yourself drift dreamily all the way down from the Plaza Catalunya to the Drassanes medieval shipyards; past the rebuilt Liceo opera house; the Miró mosaic where the murderer eventually crashed his van yesterday; past the Poliarama cinematograph where George Orwell spent three days reading detective novels in June 1937 while anarchists and Assault Guard soldiers shot it out in the Café Moka down below; past the seedy side-streets of the Barrio Chino, where Jean Genet had once picked up knife-fighting lovers in sleazy bars; past the former stamping ground of so many characters from Juan Marsé”s Barcelona novels; past doorways that still bore the marks of the high heels of prostitutes waiting for ships to arrive at the harbour.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here.

Spain is different (2)

Spain may be hovering on the brink of disaster,  but Barcelona is  not the kind of city to allow the prospect of bailouts, cuts and economic collapse to interfere with the essential rituals of the Spanish summer.  On Wednesday night the middle-aged football fans leapt from the couch in the opposite flat and came out onto the balcony to shout ‘gooaaaal’ after a Messi strike against Real Madrid in the second round of the Supercopa.  Soon afterwards the streets were filled with bleeping horns and shouting in celebration of another defeat inflicted by Barca on Mourinho’s not-quite dream team.

In my old neighbourhood in Gracia, the streets have been decked out in their usual finery for the Fiestas de Gracia, the largest and most elaborate Fiesta Major (Neighbourhood Festival) in the city.   Every August Gracia residents drape their streets  in fantastic decorations for a week of street parties.   Some of these guarniments (Catalan: decorations) are amazingly elaborate and creative, transforming entire blocks into fantasy environments populated by aliens, giants and undersea creatures.

Many of them are the result of more than a year’s work by local  residents, and competition for the first prize is so fierce that there have been rumours of sabotage during previous years.  Here’s a photograph of this year’s prizewinner, with a J.M Barrie/Peter Pan theme (not a choice that I agreed with, but I’m often mystified by the criteria of the festival judges):

And another:


These incredibly vibrant fiestas leave Royal Wedding street parties standing.  They are primarily intended for the benefit of the Gracia residents – so much so that their organizers once refused to change their traditional dates to coincide with the 1992 Olympic Games, despite the inducement of a not-inconsiderable sum of money from the city council.   Nowaways the festival is a huge tourist attraction.  Every night tens of thousands of people swarm through the neighbourhood to dance, drink and listen to the array of bands, discos and orchestras blaring from streets and plazas.

For many of Gracia’s residents sleep is impossible until about three or four in the morning, and even then the sound of horns and exploding fireworks is likely to wake people up around eight o’clock.  No one seems to mind, and those who do will at least put up with it for the week. Even young children stay up with the parents and grandparents till way past midnight, and there are activities for all ages,  from lindyhop classes to punk bands and live opera.

Spain’s economic woes are not  entirely absent from the celebrations.   When I was last here three years ago there were clashes between riot police and local anarchos, who argued – somewhat unreasonably in my opinion – that the fiestas were ‘repressive’ because people were only allowed to party until the early hours rather than the whole night.

This year one street has been decorated with rows of anguished theatrical masks and a giant pair of scissors in protest against les retallades (cuts).  Apart from that, and the festival goes on – as in Spain and Catalonia – it always will.   An indispensable component of Catalan neighbourhood festivals is the  Correfoc (fire run), my favourite Catalan tradition, in which processions of devils, and sometimes dragons, parade through the streets dancing and igniting chains of fireworks.

British standards of health and safety are generally absent from these gloriously anarchic processions.  On Wednesday we followed a Correfoc through the twisting alleys and streets of the Barrio Gotico in the San Roc neighbourhood near the old Gothic cathedral.

For an hour or so, devils danced and twirled, holding forks containing fizzing fireworks, and the ancient streets of the Gothic quarter were filled with smoke and fizzing fireworks and deafening explosions,  in a joyous parody of hell, accompanied by the manic rhythms of a local samba band.    I don’t have a camera, but this picture gives you a pretty good idea of the mayhem involved:

It was a hugely enjoyable spectacle – a tribute to the appetite for irreverent mischief-making and unbridled lunacy which has always coexisted seamlessly with the very practical, mercantilist Catalan temperament.  On Sunday we’re going to another one on the last day of the Gracia fiestas and I can’t help thinking these processions would make a terrific accompaniment for a papal visit to Barcelona.  I can see Ratzinger’s dark hooded eyes peering warily from the glass PopeMobile, waving his hand to bless the dancing devils and dragons.

Now that would be a Correfoc to remember.



Spain is different (1)

I’m writing from Barcelona, where I lived for nine years during the 1990s.    The early 90s were boom years for the Catalan capital, as they were for Spain in general.   It was a period in which the Barcelona town council and the regional government was pouring money into public building and urban renewal projects, from the Olympic village to the renovation of the old port, when property prices shot up to European levels, and the city was already becoming one of the cool European travel destinations.

The 90s was also the period in which Spain joined the Schengen Area and effectively became the policeman of Europe’s southern maritime borders again ‘illegal immigration’ from outside the EU.

For Catalonia – and for Spain in general – these were optimistic times, in which Spain was finally emerging from its historic isolation and many Catalans hoped that European integration might usher in an independent Catalan Switzerland south of the Pyrenees.

Today Barcelona is more popular than ever with the tourists who swarm through the city centree, but Europe – or rather the European Union – is less popular with many Spaniards.  The  Spanish economy is creaking under the weight of public debt and jobs are scarce.  Official unemployment hovers at around the twenty percent mark,  and employers are grinding away at working conditions and wages under  the buzzword of ‘flexibility’.

Money is still being made in Spain – and not always legally.  In Galicia, 30 associates of the fugitive narcotrafficante Antonio Pouso aka ‘Pelopincho’  have been sent to prison on charges of moneylaundering, following a six-year investigation into money laundering in Galicia, that has far found the massive sum of 700 million euros of drug profits channelled through property investments in the province.  In the perennially-corrupt city of Marbella, two local and various councillors have been indicted for siphoning off funds from the public coffers.

Meanwhile  cuts have already begun to rip into the public sector.  In Las Palmas, 1,000 pensioners, some of whom have serious disabilities,  have just been told by the local council that they will no longer receive domestic help.  Everyone knows  that there is worse to come, whether from the ruling Socialists or from the troglodyte Spanish right, which is eagerly waiting to take advantage of the Socialists’ willingness to do the dirty work of the EU and the IMF.

No wonder  los indignados (‘the angry ones’ –  indignats in Catalan) remain an active movement across the country.  It’s just over three months since the police ended the occupation of Plaza Catalunya by firing rubber bullets at unarmed demonstrators, but posters across the city continue to urge people to join the movement.  Many young  Spaniards have, like their counterparts in Greece and Ireland, begun to up sticks and open a new chapter in Spain’s long history of emigration.  Unlike the migrant workers of the 60s and early 70s, the new emigrants are often highly-educated.

Tomorrow the reactionary Pope Benedict begins a visit to a country that his predecessor once described as ‘ a country of pagans’.    Yesterday thousands of young Catholics celebrated mass in Madrid’s Cibeles Plaza in anticipation of the papal visit and to celebrate the Church’s World Youth Day, where Cardinal Rouco Varela, the city’s archbishop, railed against ‘rampant relativism’ such as abortion and gay marriage.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Pope’s visit.  Today a Mexican chemistry student was arrested, apparently for planning to attack the Pope’s entourage with poison gas.  But these last few days there have been processions of fervent and mostly young believers, many of them Latin American, around the Barcelona city centre, singing and hymns and religious songs to the accompaniment of guitars and drums.

Religious fervour is the exception rather than the rule in early 21st century Spanish society.   Some Spaniards have found their own ways of dealing with the crisis.  Last weekend Ratón  the homicidal bull killed a 29-year-old man at a festival in Xativa, near Valencia.   Ratón  has already killed two people and injured various others.  He now has his own website  and his owner commands a fee of 10,000 euros for each festival appearance, compared with an average of 2,000 that most bull-owners receive.

Ratón’s owner, unlike many Spaniards, has found a reliable source of income.  It can only be hoped that others don’t feel the need to follow his example.