Saturday, July 21, 2007

Barceloneta - a little history and a side-street "show"


Well, I just got in from an evening stroll around the neighborhood. For some reason today's walk sent me back to the first time I visited Barcelona several years ago. It was summertime, too, and that was when I first started to hatch the idea of living abroad.
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As a matter of fact, I remember thinking dreamily at the time that one day I would like to live in the small seaside neighborhood known as Barceloneta -- "little Barcelona." Sometimes I still have to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming and that I actually do live here!
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Barceloneta is a colorful little barrio between the harbor and the sea. I have read that its origins date back to 1715, as that was when the plan for it was first completed. It was intended to rehouse people who had been displaced by the building of Fort Ciutadella.
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Today Ciutadella is a lovely park nearby. However before that it was a Spanish fort which tried to keep the Catalans in check. The people eventually got their revenge by tearing it down and replacing it with the park. But that's another story, so let me get back to Barceloneta.
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Barceloneta is still the little triangular grid that was originally designed by a military mind, a French army engineer with the rather prophetic sounding name of Prosper Verboom. Its long, narrow streets were initially home to working class people who made their living from the sea -- sailors, fishers, fishmongers, boat builders, etc. Even though it is no longer such a neighborhood, it still has a nice working class maritime feel.
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For all it's precise layout, it is a colorful chaos of sights and sounds. It's full of cafes, bakeries and bars, with tourists wandering through, locals talking in the streets and clothes hanging on lines in front of the windows of the centuries old multi-story modules that rise up everywhere.
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The collection of restaurants on Barceloneta's beach and harbor sides are renowned for their seafood and paella. Paseo Juan de Borbon (Passeig Joan de Borbo in Catalan) in particular is so packed with such places that I have nick-named it "Paella Row." I often stroll down to Paella Row to get to the sea. It's always a sight to behold, with restaurants and sidewalk cafes crammed with customers and people sauntering to and from the Mediterranean. Sometimes, however, I choose to walk down C/ del Mar (Sea Street) instead.
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Located one street inland from Paella Row, and running parallel to it, C/ del Mar is like most of the little lanes in Barceloneta, except for a couple of things. One is Pl. de la Barceloneta, a public square located about halfway down the street.
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This small plaza is framed by the baroque church of Saint Michael of the Port (San Miguel del Puerto / Sant Miquel del Port) on one side and on the other by a snapshot view of the Port Vell marina, thanks to a break in the buildings along Paella Row.
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The church was built between 1753 and 1755. It had no no bell tower and only a small cupola until 1853 when one was added. Until that time there was a rule that buildings in Barceloneta had to be low enough for cannon balls fired from Fort Ciutadella to fly over!
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It is for this same reason that the lower floors of buildings in the barrio date from the late 1700s while the upper ones are usually from the late 1800s. If you look closely at the buildings, you can see differences in design between the facades of the lower and upper floors.
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In the center of the plaza stands an ornate antique lamppost / drinking fountain, with a Barcelona coat of arms on it. The Can Ganassa tapas bar, on the square's east side, is popular with the locals.
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Whether you sit at one of the bar's terrace tables or simply take a seat at one of the park benches scattered around the square, Pl. de la Barceloneta is a nice spot to rest and enjoy the atmosphere, while trying to imagine how on earth they managed to hold bullfights in the plaza until about 75 years ago. ¡¿?!
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The other unique feature of C/ del Mar is the fact the kitchens of many of Paella Row's restaurants open onto it -- and I mean literally open! For this reason, rich aromas often fill the tiny street and at peak dining times the sights are rather unique. Instead of only checking out the polished decor of restaurant dining rooms, with a stroll down this little street you can turn the tables and catch a glimpse of the utilitarian spectacle out back. To do so it is best start from the beginning of C/ del Mar, at C/ de Ginebra, and continue on to it's end, at C/ Drassana.
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Take this walk at lunch or dinner time and have a look into the open kitchen doors to see silver pans, black pots, large knives, giant ladles and such being wielded by staff dressed in black or white or pin-stripes or checks. Prep cooks chatter, chefs laugh, waiters yell, dishwashers dash out for a cigarette and kitchen managers run in with an ingredient hurriedly purchased around the corner. At times food sounds surround you as you step along -- chopping, frying, stirring, grilling, slicing, bubbling, stacking, steaming, pouring... A feast for the senses and a great run up to a delicious meal on the other side!
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Once you get to C/ Sant Carles, look to your left for a lovely little restaurant named Can Sole. While it certainly is not the best restaurant in the neighborhood, and is somewhat over-priced, it has been serving food in this rustic building for over a century.
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Stop and look up at the frieze of the sun on the corner and walk around the three sides of the building to view the colorful farming, fishing and hunting images painted on its exterior tiles. Speaking of tiles, just down the street at number 59 C/ del Mar, a beautiful tiled icon of the Virgen del Carmen sits above the ornate doorway to a private residence.
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After crossing busy C/ Almiral Cervera, kitchens won't be as frequent on the next block, before a final burst of culinary activity on the last two. However, until then you can take time to notice that here, as in much of Barceloneta, residents of ground floor apartments often have their living room doors open to the street. Neighbors may even pull chairs out onto the sidewalk to visit one another or to watch television sets centered near their doorways. As you pass, simply smile and say, "Hola!"
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You should also pause to look up at the nicely preserved building at number 97, which is the home of the International Dockworkers Council. Just across the street is the back entrance to the only hotel in the neighborhood, Hotel 54 Barceloneta. This recently opened establishment is housed in what was previously the Fisherman's Assocation building.
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As it nears its end, C/ del Mar is denied a direct approach to the sea by the rather ugly facade of an overpriced corporate convenience store. But perhaps that's a blessing in disguise, as the lack of access contributes to the street's being such a nice respite from the crowds of Paella Row. However, just a walk around the corner and you are back with the tourist throng on the great wide way after a refreshing and hunger-inducing walk.
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If you haven't yet, I hope you get to experience it someday!
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Chao amig@s,
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Carloz
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P.S. Wondering where to eat after such a walk? See these previous posts for a couple of suggestions:
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P.P.S For an example of one of the many seasonal activites that occur in Pl. de la Barceloneta, see the following post: The Night of Fire - La Noche del Fuego - La Nit de la Foc. Or, of you want to read other posts which mention my neighborhood, just click on the word Barceloneta in the list of lables below.

1 comment:

Minimbah said...

Enjoyed learning more about where we stayed for a week in December 12.We particularly enjoyed Xiringo which I think is relatively new. I have just published a travelblog on our stay in Barcelona with another coming soon! Thought Barcelona was a great place.