Barcelona’s beaches are the perfect escape for those who live here or visit the city, especially when hot days come. But this life of leisure, sand and sea that today is so familiar and natural to us every summer, did not begin until a little over 150 years ago.
Today we travel to the past to see what it was like to “go to the beach” in that Barceloneta.
Summer. Heat hovering around 30 degrees. Stinging sun on the skin. And one single wish: entering the sea, fresh and refreshing.
Afterwards, rest on the sand, listening to the mesmerizing murmur of the waves.
Around the world, the idea of “vacation” is always closely related to a season by the sea. “Going to the beach”, relaxing or practicing a sport in or near the water is what we look for, when we decide to go to the coast to enjoy a well-deserved rest.
Barcelona is a magnificent city that offers its visitors art, culture, history, gastronomy, nightlife… and the beach!
It has that privilege, that of allowing us to escape from the rhythm of the city to enter the world of swimsuits, umbrellas, the sun, the sand and the sea, just with a trip by subway or a few minutes of walking.
There, right in the Ciutat Vella district, next to the old town, is Barceloneta, born and raised next to the Mediterranean.
And that same Mediterranean sea is the key to Barcelona’s past, to its growth, to its openness to the world. The port was the great protagonist. And the commercial life of the city revolved around him.
But they were not those years of bathing or leisure on the beaches. That would come a long time later.
It was only during the 19th century that society discovered and turned bathing in the sea into a leisure activity. And Barceloneta would be one of its main stages.
A healthy bath
At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, a new “fashion” began: bathing in hot sea water for therapeutic use and the beach as a new place of leisure.
The more affluent classes then began to visit the coastal areas of France and Italy … and also reached the sea coast of Catalonia.
And, of course, Barcelona.
Now, when they “go to the beach” they do not enter the sea to bathe, as we do today. That was quite unusual and, if anything, only practiced by the more popular classes.
These visitors looked for bathhouses on the beaches: establishments built near the sea, where they could take baths in “picas” or small bathtubs located in cabins.
These baths could be hot or cold water, drawn directly from the Mediterranean.
There are already records in the 20s, of the 19th century, of three bathhouses in Barcelona. One of them, precisely in Barceloneta.
It was known as Can Solé, because it was located in the orchard that bore the same name. It opened its doors from June 10 to the end of October and depended on the Casa de Caridad.
It offered fresh and salt water baths, cold and warm and over the years, it would be expanded and its facilities would be improved. For example, the “picas” made of marble, a lounge and a cafe.
As it was far from the city center, and crossing Barceloneta in those days was not as “touristy” as it is now, it also included its own transport service from today’s Placa d’Antoni Maura, which was known as Sant Sebastià, to the bathhouse.
Hydrotherapy equipment, a steam engine to capture sea water, a garden with springs and even a terrace with views of the sea, were services that were added as of the middle of the 19th century.
But Can Solé will not be alone. During the decades of the 50s and 60s of the eighteen hundred other bathhouses will open their doors, such as the Shipyard o Sant Miquel.
With neoclassical architecture, these establishments had a lobby or lounge from which two wings emerged: one for men, and the other for women. A corridor separated them, along which were the cabins with marble or wooden bathtubs.
The final closure of Can Solé will arrive in 1861, when its facilities are purchased to expand those of La Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima, an important metallurgical company located in Barceloneta, and of which there are still traces in the neighborhood today: one of its streets It bears his name (La Maquinista) and the entrance arch to the factory is still standing.
The oriental baths
Around the same time that Can Solé disappeared, the first booths and barracks began to be installed on the beaches. These were assembled and disassembled every summer. The infrastructures will grow and add more services to users, such as restaurants, floating baths and gymnastics equipment.
In 1870, going to the beach had less and less to do with health and more with leisure, taking care of the body and the practice of swimming.
It is in this context that the most important baths in Barcelona would emerge: the Oriental Baths. Recognized as the best in Spain and one of the most important on the continent, they were built in 1872 following the project of the architect August Font i Carreras.
It consisted of a building with neo-Arab airs that had 50 bathtubs, duly separated between men, women and families. Luxury was visible, for example, in materials such as Carrara marble in hydrotherapy facilities.
For the year 1876, it was decided to add a wave sector that entered the water. This section was protected with a wooden structure and allowed bathers to perform gymnastic and swimming acrobatics in the water.
A year later, two 20-meter long indoor pools were inaugurated, which were illuminated by the recent electricity that arrived in Barcelona at the end of the 19th century.
And, how could it be less, they also had a tram service (first drawn by horses, and later electrified) to link the center of the city with the famous baths.
Barceloneta has changed a lot since those distant years. And the seafront much more. There are no more bathhouses and going to the beach is more democratic and popular than ever.
Manners, clothes, customs and customs have changed. But it is curious to imagine, while you are lying on the beach listening to the crashing of the waves (and the odd “cerveza-beer” vendor), those times when this hobby was born, which today is a pleasure for many.
Icon of Barcelona, it is one of the most photographed monuments of the city.
Nowadays it is the access to Passeig Lluís Companys, a place full of life. But the Arc de Triomf (or Arc de Triunfo) was the great door of the Universal Expo that took place in Barcelona in 1888.
In order for us to get a good idea of the importance of this, we must understand that the universal expos were great events in the late 19th century.
Being chosen as the venue meant several things for your city: first, it was the best way to put the city on the map, and that was very important in this “new” modern world. Second, it allowed showing the full industrial, economic, scientific and artistic potential of the country. And third, it was a great source of future foreign investment and economic resources for the city.
Arc de Triomf was built with the idea of being an impressive gateway to the avenue that culminates in Parc de la Ciutadella; the definitive entrance to the Expo.
It was a great opportunity to support Modernism, which was a mainly architectural movement that arose in those years in Barcelona. And from the first stage of this movement, it came this Arc de Triomf, which recovers neo-Mudejar elements.
Arc de Triomf is about 30 meters high, and although the structure is of classical proportions the abundance of details, color and decoration would bring it closer to the eye-catching Catalan modernism.
Brick is the material that characterizes it, and even highlights it compared to the vast majority of triumphal arches that you can see in Europe. Not only that though, because it should be noted that the rest of the triumphal arches were built to commemorate important victories or great generals in history, but in this case, as we already explained, this triumphal arch was built to give a spectacular entrance to the universal exhibition of 1888. A detail that gives us an idea of the importance of trade (industry and science) for Barcelona (and Catalonia).
Continuing with the description, we can see that several sculptural elements and friezes stand out on both sides of the arch.
The side that faces Passeig Sant Joan, contains in its upper central section the frieze that welcomed visitors, called “Barcelona welcomes the nations” by Catalan sculptor Josep Reynés.
The opposite side has the frieze called “Distribution of rewards to the participants of the Exhibition” by the renowned sculptor Josep Llimona.
On the sides of the Arc de Triomphe you will see profuse decorations, among which stand out the allegories of Industry, Agriculture and Commerce on one side; and in the other those of the Sciences and the Arts. In addition, you will see “famas” on the buttresses, which are statues of winged figures and were sculpted by the artists Manuel Fuxà y Pere Carbonell.
In the curve of the arch is the shield of Barcelona, flanked by the shields of the 48 Spanish provinces
The Lluís Companys avenue
The Passeig Lluís Companys, conserves the modernist lampposts designed by Pere Falqués (the same as the lampposts of Passeig de Gràcia or Av. Gaudí) and was the outdoor area of the Universal Expo of 1888. The lampposts combine stone and iron, and as in the design of Passeig de Gràcia’s lampposts, there are also seats at the base.
In its original design, the avenue was flanked by statues of important figures from Catalan history. During the Civil War the statues were removed and only two have survived: that of Antoni Viladomat (Catalan painter) and that of Roger de Lluria (Catalan navigator), which are seen at the end of the walk, just opposite the entrance to the park.
The third sculpture that you can see at the end of the avenue, between the two already mentioned, belongs to Rius i Taulet, who was mayor of Barcelona in the years of the Expo and a great promoter of the project. The piece is by Pere Falqués and Manuel Fuxá, with the collaboration of Eusebi Arnau for the figure that represents Barcelona.
At the base of this sculpture there are 4 shields representing the 4 most important works of Rius i Taulet’s management:
the Universal Exhibition;
Parc de la Ciutadella;
the Columbus Monument and
Gran Vía de las Cortes Catalanas
Looking up, an obelisk appears, where the mayor’s bust and two female figures that symbolize Work and Barcelona are found. On the back side there are three geniuses representing Industry, Science and Art.
Also at the end of the avenue, just before reaching the three statues, there is a map painted on the ground that recreates the Barcelona from 1714.
It is about 200 square meters and in it you can see two planes, superimposed. The current one and the other from 1714, where the points or places that have disappeared or were altered after the War of Succession and the Siege of Barcelona, and throughout the last 300 years, are indicated.
The map is known as the “Mapa Tricentenari BCN” and if you reach it, you will be able to obtain additional information about the city at the beginning of the 18th century, using an application available on mobile and tablets.
The Palace of Justice
A building that attracts the attention of those who walk here is the Palace of Justice; a beautiful building, in an eclectic style, designed by Enric Sagnier and Josep Domènech i Estapà at the end of the 19th century and inaugurated in 1908.
It is one of the first monumental buildings in the city, that combines the use of stone, which gives the idea of solidity and the weight of justice, along with iron, the material that best represented the modern era that was being lived.
The Gothic quarter of Barcelona, between Vía Laietana and the famous Rambla, is the heart of the city’s development.
A convoluted tour of the streets and some small squares represents this beautiful neighborhood, where there is much to discover.
Religious architecture has left its mark; and it is spatially that the Gothic style sets the pace in this very special neighborhood.
One of those churches, which are the testimony of Barcelona’s past, is that of Santa María del Pi. Today surrounded by squares, which once were cemeteries, the temple is part of the architectural legacy of the Catalan Gothic.
It was built throughout the 14th century, during the period of greatest expansion and boom of the Crown of Aragon.
The port and its commercial activity had turned Barcelona into a rich and prosperous city.
That same prosperity would give the input to the renewal of the city, and the churches are not left out of that transformation: bigger temples were needed, that could accommodate more parishioners, and more beautiful. For this reason, around 1320 (it is not known when this started exactly) the construction of a Gothic temple began, where there had previously been a Romanesque one.
In the middle of the century, and with half a temple already built, the works had to be interrupted due to the arrival of the black plague in the city. Finally, in 1391 the last stone was laid and the consecration would come in the middle of the following century; century in which the bell tower, the sacristy, the Chapter chapel and the rectory would also be added.
Where did it all start?
Despite the lack of documentary evidence, it is generally believed that as early as the 5th century AD, in the place where we find the Gothic temple today, there was a small church or construction, outside the ancient Roman walls that delimited the city at that time.
Around this initial construction, it is believed, a settlement developed that later became known as Vila Nova del Pi: one of the suburbs of that old Barcelona, which some eight centuries later would be incorporated into the city with the expansion of the walls.
Now, if we follow the documentation, the first reference to Santa María del Pi is from 987, when there are references to a small Romanesque church with at least three altars.
It would be, as we said before, in the fourteenth century when the great Gothic renovation arrived to this temple.
Testimony of the past
Santa María del Pi, being more than 600 years old, has witnessed the historical events that have marked the life of Barcelona and Spain.
Earthquakes, bombings, sieges, fires … yes, it has survived a long time.
The church has been part of the defenses of the city and its bells rang strongly to rally the people in armed conflicts, not without suffering damage to its structure and loss of its artistic heritage.
One of the most devastating events was the one that occurred in the context of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936. The fire, carried out by anti-clerical groups, consumed the High Altar, the stalls, portals, chapels and the Main Organ, among others structures. And the rose window, one of the largest in Europe of almost 10 meters in diameter, exploded due to the heat.
It was the effort of the community that managed to give life to this temple again, so that it could continue to be part and witness of the history of this wonderful city.
Why “Santa María del Pi”?
An unmissable element of the Plaza de Santa María del Pi is the pine. Because, let’s say it already, “pi” in Catalan means “pine”.
Popular tradition tells that a sailor found the image of the virgin in the crown of a tree like this. So a small chapel was built that, over time, evolved into the church we have today.
It is clear that the one that stands today in the plaza is not the original pine. Upon its death, it was replaced with a new one, as a memory of the one where the miracle occurred.
It is even said that this specimen continued to exist in times of the French invasion, at the beginning of the 19th century, but that it died as victim of a bayonet attack by a Napoleonic soldier.
The pine continued to be replaced whenever necessary. The one that stands today in the square is part of such a long tradition since 1985.
A bohemian avenue
Not only the church is beautiful: its surroundings are not far behind.
The three small squares that surround it come alive, especially on weekends.
Terraces of bars and cafes overflowing with people, street artists who share their music and talent and, always located in the Plaza de Sant Josep Oriol, local painters who sell their works, many of them portraying Barcelona and its corners.
Also, in the square that the main façade of the church faces, there is usually a craft fair held by the Food Artisans Collective.
Every Saturday and Sunday and the first and third Friday of each month, you can find them offering cheeses, honey and its byproducts, yogurts, pates, sausages, caramels, spices, jellies, olives, cookies, sweets, wines and more.
Barcelona has many corners to discover and we always say that it is best to get carried away and get lost in the city. There is no better way to get to know it.
But if you are in the Gothic, do not miss the opportunity to meet Santa María del Pi: a corner where art, history and bohemian lifestyle come together, always under the shade of a legendary pine tree.
One of the most beautiful and emblematic areas of this neighborhood of medieval origins.
Today, this avenue is the center, not only of the gastronomic life of the neighborhood, but also of a design district that includes clothing, accessories, art, decoration and more stores. And at night, Passeig del Born is one of the main protagonists of the city’s nightlife.
And while it is known to all, this avenue has a name that many wonder where it comes from. Yes, as the name of this article says, the origin dates back to the Middle Ages.
The growth of the city
By the 13th century, the ancient walled Roman city had exceeded its limits.
New settlements had grown, over the years, around convents and churches that were outside the walls, and one of them was Vilanova del Mar: a town made up of fishermen and port workers, around the old church of Santa Maria de las Arenes, which would later become Santa María del Mar.
The economic growth of Barcelona and the active port life, would make this area a dynamic, bustling place, where cultural and religious shows and activities would take place.
One of those activities (among the main attractions, by the way) that were carried out in this avenue were the jousting competitions.
Those who know Passeig del Born personally will be able to say that the street does not have the ideal length to hold such tournaments. And it’s true.
But that is today, because the walk was much longer in medieval times, reaching up to where Passeig Sant Joan is today, approximately.
In those years this was the most important square in the city.
Wide and extended, it would allow the celebration of all kinds of activities and was the meeting point for Barcelonians: parades, markets, carnivals, processions, popular festivals and even acts of faith carried out by the Inquisition were held there. But it would be the fair competitions that gave the place its name.
The origin of the avenue’s name
(Note: remember the jousting competitions? It consisted of two knights on horseback, each carrying his spear and a shield, placed facing each other, each at the end of a long track. At a signal, they began their charge and the objective was to knock down the opponent)
And why do we say that the fair would be the one that gives the name? Because fighting in a joust, or “tornear“, was also known by the name of “bornar“.
Between the 13th and 17th century, Passeig del Born (or Borne, in Spanish) was the center of this social life, and “bornar” was what gave it its identity and name, until today.
In a document known as “Rúbriques de Bruniquer” appears the oldest record of a fair competition held in this place: on September 9, 1372.
It is known that the space was surrounded by “tablados” and “palenques” where cloths were placed in the colors of the Catalan flag (la senyera). Nobles, authorities and important figures sat in stands.
But it was not only about competing, because previously, a religious service and a procession to the esplanade were held where the show took place.
Many of these jousts were for purely sporting purposes: the winners were awarded jewelry, which then were handed over to their beloved or ladies. But also a knight could face a joust when challenged by another; in such cases, they fought until first blood or even death.
The arrival of the 18th century would bring important changes to the appearance of the avenue.
The War of Succession and the Siege of Barcelona until September 1714, when the city was finally defeated, brought the destruction of much of the Barrio de la Ribera and the disappearance of an important sector of this avenue.
A great survivor of a past full of history, although transformed, Passeig del Born always invites us to visit it, to recognize the traces of the centuries in its buildings and to enjoy the life that continues to fill its spaces.
Going out for drinks in the Gràcia neighborhood often means taking a walk around the Placa de la Virreina. Surrounded by three streets where there is no traffic, it is the perfect place to find a bar and meet friends. And the best part: it is only 170 meters from Elephanta!
Why is it so known? The answer is more than logical: for being the wife of a Viceroy.
Manuel d’Amat i Junyent, of Catalan origin, was governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru until 1777. Back in Spain and at age 75, in 1779 he married María Francesca, a young woman of just over 20 years of age, Belonging to an important Barcelonian family and who, before her marriage, had been a novice in the convent of Santa María de Jonqueres.
The circumstances of the marriage are unclear. Don Manuel is said to marry Maria Francesca in a kind of reparation of the young woman’s honor… because the wedding should have been with the viceroy’s nephew, Antoni d’Amat. But for unknown reasons the boy never did his part and Maria stayed with the uncle, a man much older than her but of great fortune.
What is known is that the viceroy was a man who liked to show his status and show off his money. For this reason, he ordered the construction of two large palaces. The first on the famous Rambla de Barcelona known as the Palau de la Virreina, is a wonderful example of Catalan Baroque and belongs to the Barcelona City Council.
A Summer palace
The second, in Villa de Gracia. A palace built as a summer house for the married couple and, it is said, was even more imposing than the one located in the center of the city.
Keep in mind that the town of Gràcia in those years was fundamentally rural, land of farmhouses and orchards. With the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the 19th century, the landscape changed. But in those years of the late eighteenth century, the viceroy took control of a more than considerable “little land”: from Travessera de Gràcia to Carrer Providencia, and from Torrent de l’Olla to Torrent d’en Vidalet.
Unfortunately, poor Manuel would not be able to enjoy his new properties. Only three years after his marriage, he died. And the young viceroy was the one who could enjoy such a legacy. Hence, we all know the Rambla palace and Gràcia square with her name and not with that of her husband.
The roles it fulfilled.
María Francesca died in 1791, and from that moment, changes would begin in what had been her estate in the town of Gràcia.
It previously was the residence of a religious order and, later, of French people who escaped after the Revolution in the neighboring country. Also, it became a hospice to care for yellow fever patients in the early nineteenth century.
Then came the decline and finally the destruction of the palace.
The lands began to be redistributed and urbanized, and in 1878 the architect Josep Artigas i Ramoneda built the square that we know today. Located precisely in the place where the palace of the viceroy was.
It’s a shame, but almost all vestiges of that incredible building have been lost. Its stones are believed to be part of the church in the plaza today
However, there is a piece that can be identified as part of the old palace. Yes, only one that we encourage you to look for on the right side (if we look at it from the front) of the Sant Joan church.
There, there is an original tile where they are represented, which are supposed to be, the viceroy and the “virreina”, in some medallions. And here comes the legend: they say that if you stop at midnight, in front of those medallions, and you repeat “Perricholi” three times, the name of the lover of French Mary, the face of the viceroy gets angry!.
Maybe it’s only a matter of trying it (I think it should work better after a few gin-tonics)
Last important fact: this church (the parish of San Juan Bautista de Gràcia) by itself is quite special. If you are one of those who look for the traces of Gaudí throughout Barcelona, you cannot miss the parish of Sant Joan.
At the time when the architect lived and worked in Parc Güell, he used to walk down every morning to pray in this same church, on his way to the Sagrada Familia. He did it with his partner and right hand, Francesc Berenguer, who is credited with building the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament which is in the basement. However, in 2016, Josep María Tarragona, researcher of Gaudí’s work, questioned this statement and presented evidence to demonstrate that the chapel was actually the work of Antoni Gaudí himself. There is no official confirmation of his hypotheses, but it certainly does not stop adding more attractiveness to such an emblematic and beautiful place in the Gràcia neighborhood.
The Cuiner de Damasc, as we have already said, has an unbeatable location if you are visiting the Old Town of Barcelona, and its heart: the Gothic Quarter. Although they have tables inside the premises, many also choose to take their kebab and eat it outside; and steps away, is the Placa de Sant Miquel, a large space to enjoy the sun and make yourself comfortable.
This square was not always like this
In fact, its configuration is quite modern, if we think that this place has been part of Barcelona for more than 2000 years.
So let’s review the changes a bit: in Roman times, some hot springs were located in this same square. But after the empire ended and with the consolidation of Christianity, the same space was occupied by a Romanesque church that was built on the structure of the Roman building.
The name of the current square comes from the name of this church, which was the Sant Miquel church.
The construction stood until its demolition in 1868, dated back in 1147, being one of the oldest churches in Barcelona. It is worth clarifying that before this, there had been another Romanesque church, which also was destroyed in 1145.
As the temple had been built on the bases of the Roman baths, the nave had the mosaics of this ancient construction on its floor, with motifs of fishes and monsters in black. Today, they are in the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia, for those who want to see them personally.
The 1147 Romanesque church underwent several renovations throughout the centuries. In the 16th century, a Gothic-Renaissance door was added on one side, which had the image of Sant Miquel on the tympanum.
In 1868 the demolition of the church was decided in order to expand the City Council offices, which ended a year later.
The church was “dismembered” and some of its elements can still be seen in Barcelona. For example, the Gothic-Renaissance façade is today part of the Church of la Mercè, in Carrer Ample. If you look closely, you can see on the stones the numbers that were used to identify the order of the stones, used in the transfer process.
The square today
Today, in the middle of the square, we see a sculpture that is very significant for the Catalan culture, but which generates some confusion at first glance.
More than one thinks they see a fence or the wire mesh that covers the champagne or champagne bottles. And if you are one of the latter, in reality, you are not so disoriented.
According to the sculptor, Antoni Llena i Font, the idea for this work came to him one day when he was buying wine and he saw it. He thought that “it was a very nice abstraction to make the castle, because it contains the idea of cohesion, fragility, transparency.”
Now, you may be wondering: what “castell”? Well there we go. One of the Catalan traditions that we like the most, and that is repeated every time there is a party in the cities and towns, is that of the Castellers: human towers, human castles, built on the basis of trust, cooperation, solidarity and a lot of effort.
And they represent what we can achieve together as a society, if we collaborate and put the best of each other for that common good.
The sculpture by Antoni Llena i Font is called Homenatge als Castellers, and although it was an idea in development since 2004, it gained momentum and materialized with its inauguration in 2011. And this materialization occurred because a year before the castellers were recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The work consists of 12, 10cms diameter stainless steel tubes, which intertwine until reaching 26.5 meters in height. At the same time, it represents the fragility and strength of a castle.
If you are far from Catalonia, we invite you to watch a video of one of the castellers performances on YouTube (you will find hundreds of videos). But if you are lucky enough to see them live, in these lands, do not miss the opportunity. It is a more than exciting show and always takes place around celebrations and parties.
And if you are truly willing to know this world of the castellers, we promise we will make a video about them, so you can know them more thoroughly. A promise is a debt.