When my great grandfather from Maçanet de Cabrenys, living in Barcelona since his childhood, had to undergo a stomach operation, he asked the ambulance driver if he would be so kind as to go down La Rambla before taking him to the hospital. In January of 1939, with Franco at the doors of the city, the Catalan president Lluís Companys also wished to say goodbye to La Rambla at the time of heading to exile, and with tears in his eyes he ordered the chofer to make a last trip along the famous thoroughfare before taking the road to cross the border.
Since the middle of the eighteen century until the Spanish Civil War, la Rambla was the symbol of Barcelona and the street most loved by the catalans. To understand this devotion, it should be explained that when the first Borbonic king of Spain defeated the city in 1714 he ordered, in the name of holy providence, an enormous fortress to be built in the quarter of la Ribera, exactly where the Parliament of Catalonia now stands.
The spanish nobel-prize Camilo José Cela recalls sportingly, in his book about Barcelona:
“With its squares and its more than fifty street, la Ribera was one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of the city, but despite the desperate begging of its inhabitants more than 1.300 buildings were demolished. Amongst them were the Convents of Sant Agustí and Santa Clara, as well as the orphanage of Montserrat, and the church of la Pietat, all of them barnished by the glow of History that shone in the flower of their medieval stones. Viva España!”
Maybe because la Rambla was a peripheric space not very build up, it didn’t suffer the general fate of Barcelona after the occupation of the country. In the Middle Ages the Catalan kings had dreamed of building a great palace facing the sea that would have changed the fisionomy of the city and the lower part of the thoroughfare. With the complicity of the Council, the kings bought the terrain and hired the best gardeners, but along came the extinction of the catalan dynasty and the posterior union with Castille and the project was abandoned. Maybe because of this disapointment La Rambla was relatively forgotten and only from the XVI century very slowly recovered its atmosphere, thanks to the academic and religious institutions that decided to establish themselves there.
When the war between the Catalans and the first Bourbon began, la Rambla wasn't the best place to walk, nor to show off the ladies or the money. The City Council had just made some reforms to the street but the big cakes were still eaten in La Ribera. Interestingly, it was necessary for the Borbons to rule Spain before the Catalans could enjoy la Rambla. Once the city was submitted, the invading army established two headquarters in the thoroughfare: the artillery in the south, at Drassanes, and the infantry in the north, at Canaletes, where the old University building stood. Thus, the students were sent to the small city of Cervera where they found a rector who was proud to say: "Let's maintain the dangerous vice of thought away from us."
The militarization couldn't prevent la Rambla from becoming the most vibrant space of Barcelona and, therefore, the main focus of its rebirth. As if it was immune to the holy power of the Borbons, the thoroughfare took over from the old streets destroyed to make way for the great repressive fortress and, while Catalonia got sunk into provincial boredom, the life of La Rambla began to modernize the city. Little by little, the untidy torrent, barely urbanised, brought back the memory to Barcelona. Thus the old medieval city that had been made with taverns and shops in every street, and a guitar and a gun in every house, was reborn. People are childish and need to recognize themselves in a mirror to be sure of their existence. Well, la Rambla was that mirror. Here you have a way to explain why this thoroughfare was loved with such an intense and unanimous passion.
Until the Spanish Civil War, la Rambla represented the democratic spirit of the Catalans and their attachment to an ideal of Europe and prosperity. Its fame was so noisy that when writers began to talk about her, in all the neighborhoods of Barcelona and in all the provinces of the country, large streets attempted to imitate its cosmopolitan air and its life, graceful and sensual. La Rambla of Guinardó, la Rambla of Catalunya, as la Rambla of Tarragona, of Lleida, and Girona were opened under the inspiration spread by the phenomenon of la Rambla. The obsession even spread abroad and, in Montevideo, la Rambla Wilson and la Rambla Roostvelt were inaugurated according to this enthusiastic state of spirit.
In Barcelona, people used to say: "You are not a good barcelonian if you don't stroll the Rambla every night or every morning". The poet Joan Maragall was so fond of Barcelona that during those bloody strikes that made the city famous at the end of 19th Century wrote to a friend quite desperate: "All week without seeing la Rambla de les flors neither el Pla de la Boqueria!" Josep Pla wasn't exactly a fan of Barcelona, but in his masterpiece -El Quadern Gris-, he writes: "La Rambla is marvellous. Its one of the few streets of Barcelona that makes me feel good."
The praises were coming from so far afield that in 1837 the skeptical Stendhal pointed out, after criticizing the Catalans: “La Rambla is really lovely". In his guide to Barcelona from 1951 (he had written another in the happy twenties), Carles Soldevila says that, before the Civil War, walking along the thoroughfare was like stroking the heart of the city with a hand full of gossip and tenderness. The writer explains (trying not to offend the censor) why, under the rule of Franco’s dictatorship, la Rambla hasn't recovered its magic charm.
Thus he remembers that la Rambla wasn't a street of pedigree, neither monumental nor venerable. He assures that in her golden moment, when he first knew her at the beginning of the 20th Century, the buildings were made of simple materials, the facades looked dirty and the sidewalks were cracked. He says that the kids that sold newspapers wandered along the street raggedly dressed; that the itinerant shops offered stinking and suspicious products; that the wheels of the diligence made an irritating and deafening noise. He recalls that caos, mixed with the squeaking of the trams and the shoutings of the drivers of the horsecars, that used to whip the animals furiously, and concludes that the street, as a whole, was almost a madhouse.
"Watching it detail by detail -Soldevila wrote- la Rambla was shockingly vulgar." An urban planner or an aristocrat of that epoch wouldn't have known how to arrange it. The lines of the street seemed drawn by a genius like Gaudí. The trees grew feral, lacking the minimum care. The branches of the trees were full of birds that, when feeling their stomachs overwhelmed, loosened a thick liquid with the texture and color of condensed milk. Needless to say that when the thick liquid fell upon the hat of any of the passersby a explosion of profanities was heard. Before Franco, the Catalan language was rich and the barcelonian citizens had an special grace for coarse expressions.
The Virreina's palace, walled between two rental houses, looked like an old warty ragged woman. The March Palace, transformed into a police station during the Napoleonic occupation, was used in that moment as the headquarters of the Bank of Spain. The shops on the groundfloor of Moja's Palace weren’t precisely decorative showcases, although the marquis of Comillas hadn't yet sold the garden, from where two palm trees showed their leaves to the walkers, fresh and greens as the ideas of the students that wandered along the thoroughfare and the thinking of the priests, that hadn't permanently been expulsed from the Rambla. And don’t forget the whores and the drug dealers. Josep Pla explains that the drugs were sold on every corner. In his best book, Private life, written next to la Rambla in two very inspired months, Josep Maria de Sagarra demonstrates that the aristocrats were the main consumers...