From the air, it looks like a broad green river running through the city. The poet Garcia Lorca called it 'the most beautiful street in the world'. It's busy day and night, the place where most visitors to Barcelona head first. The Ramblas is so popular it may be the only street in the world to have its own verb—to take a stroll here, as many Barcelonans do every day, is to ramblejar.
In fact, it once was a river. 'Ramla' means a torrent in Arabic. It ran past the walls of the medieval city and was used a moat—also a common sewer, which gained it the nickname Cagallel, the 'turd-taker'. In the dry season it became a thoroughfare, where butchers had their stalls, employers came in search of day-labourers and the gallows were kept for public executions.
The Cagallel was filled in in the 14th century. At the end of the 18th, trees were planted and benches installed. Cast-iron streetlights, kiosks and flower stalls were added in the early 19th century; the flower girls, who got their jobs for their looks, became one of the famous sights of the city. The gracious and shading plane trees came in 1859.
Today, the Ramblas (actually five connected streets in a mile-long string) are crowded with natives and visitors from every continent. Kiosks sell newspapers in every language; cafés, hotels, burger stands and magically tacky souvenir shops have sprouted up along its length; Catalan Elvis impersonators, unicyclists, puppeteers, flamenco buskers and dozens and dozens of posing ‘human statues’ use it as a stage (watch out for pickpockets). If not the real Barcelona, the five Ramblas have a big share of Barcelona’s extrovert soul.
Starting down the Ramblas from the north end, at Plaça de Catalunya, the first section is the Rambla dels Estudis, home to the age-old pet bird market. You'll notice first the Font de Canaletes. Dispensed beneath a four-headed street light, this magical fountain promises that all who drink of it will stay or return to Barcelona. The fountain also functions as an informal debating platform, one of the few such outlets under Franco; jubilant FC Barça fans often come here to celebrate after an important football victory.
Next, at no. 115, the Reial Acadèmia de Ciènces i Arts got its grandiose facade in 1883. George Orwell was positioned in one of its towers in 1937, during the bitter fighting between the CNT, POUM and the Communists; shot through the throat, he stayed with his wife in the nearby Hotel Continental, undergoing therapy and lying low while his POUM militia was being ruthlessly purged by the Communists.
At no. 109, from the same era, the Philippines Tobacco Company is dressed with allegorical figures representing Commerce and Overseas Trade. This was run, like much else in Barcelona, by Eusebi Güell, and supplied most of Spain’s cheap smokes. It is now the posh 1898 Hotel. Next to stretches the long flank of the Iglesia de Belén, with the finest, pointy-est Baroque façade in the city.
The next stretch is the home of the flower stalls, the Rambla de Sant Jose, or Rambla de les Flors. The flower sellers may not be as decorative as in the old days, but you can get carrot seeds, bags of manure and everything you need to plant a garden (as if anyone in Barcelona had room for one!). At no. 99, you can buy concert tickets or take the measure of Barcelona's radical political-artistic currents in the exhibitions at the Palau de la Virriena/Centre de la Imatge.
Just a few steps further down, on a spot that has been a marketplace for centuries, is Barcelona's cathedral of food, the beautiful and boisterous La Boquerìa Market. You can awaken different senses across the street, at the Museu de l'Eròtica.
Pla Boquería (or Pla de l’Os) has a colourful ceramic mosaic on the pavement by Joan Miró (1976) who grew up nearby on Passatge del Crèdit. This little square was once the main entrance to Barcelona, when it was the Gate of Santa Eulàlia, with famous Moorish doors (now lost) taken as booty from the Andalus city of Almeria by Count Ramon Berenguer IV. The area outside it was the site not only of the market but the gallows.
At No.82, a bank now occupies La Ramblas’ most exotic Modernista landmark, Casa Bruno Quadros (1896), a former umbrella-maker’s, still studded with bright Oriental parasols and defended by a swirling dragon holding a brolly, designed by Josep Vilaseca. Opposite, at No.77, is Enric Sagnier’s narrow Casa Doctor Genové, with its mosaic-framed clock (1911), and the lavish Modernista Antiga Casa Figueras (1902), selling luscious Escribà cakes and chocolates.
Next comes the Rambla dels Caputxins, once Barcelona's theatre district and still home to one of the city's proudest institutions, the opera house called the Gran Teatre del Liceu. A block south from here, take a diversion just off the Ramblas one street east to see the monumental Plaça Reial.
Back on the Ramblas, the Teatre Principal (1850) on Plaça del Teatre occupies the spot where Barcelona's first theatre appeared in 1579. Just a block down from here, at 8 C/ dels Escudellers, the Grill Room (1902) has retained much of its delicate Modernista decor inside and out.
Finally, there's the Rambla de Santa Monica. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, this leafy, lowest section of the Ramblas lay under the pall of ironwork foundries. More recently, it was shared by sex shops and prowling prostitutes, but like the rest of the city, it was tidied up for the 1992 Olympics. On weekends, the entire Rambla de Santa Monica turns into a busy arts and crafts fair.
The focal point of the big Olympic clean-up was the Arts Santa Monica, a bleakly modern art centre, created by Albert Viaplana and Helio Piñón from the cloisters of another lost convent. In an uneasy fusing of old and new, the soaring arches, once built to awe, have been divided up into cramped cubes to create hanging space for serving up spoonfuls of avant-garde Barcelona's cultural castor oil.
The Centre keeps uneasy company with the Museu de Cera, Barcelona's inevitable wax museum. Just outside this is a Wallace fountain made of four graceful caryatids supporting a dome. This is one of twelve donated by the English philanthropist Richard Wallace to mark the 1888 Universal Exhibition (only five remain). There’s another just up the street. If they look familiar, you’ve been to Paris, another recipient of Wallace’s largesse.
The Ramblas end at the seafront with a fittingly tremendous exclamation point, the Columbus Monument.
metro: Catalunya (north end), Liceu (centre), Drassanes (south end)
Images by: Manuel Martín, Christian Van Der Henst S., Jackson Pauls