Like all big cities, Barcelona hides myriad hidden treasures: its streets whisper stories to passers-by, hinting at past events and legends. Do you know about the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pau del Camp and its alleged connection to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? What about the famous taxidermist in the Plaça Reial, used by none other than Salvador Dali himself?
Have you seen the extraordinary Keith Haring mural in the Raval district, a powerful reminder of the importance of taking precautions against AIDS? What about the underground bomb shelters, Barcelona’s Chinatown, the story behind the mythical lighthouse of Montjüic, Buffalo Bill’s old circus in the Eixample district and the career of Nicomedes Méndez, the official executioner of those more sordid times? These are just some of the storied handed down through the city’s generations as each rediscovers the fascinating history that awaits in a city that has become renowned for its cosmopolitanism.
“There are so many reasons to visit Barcelona. To the typical attractions like the beach, the climate, the culture, the food and the unbeatable views from Tibidabo and El Carmel, I would add the chance to lose yourself among its streets, discovering a world of curiosities ripe for investigation, the sorts of things that don’t appear in the guide books and that will really surprise you.”
These are the words of historian Roser Messa, author of Anecdotario de Barcelona (Anecdotes of Barcelona), illustrated by Pep Brocal and published by Comanegra, which has its headquarters in an old doll factory. This fact may seem trivial but it is highly representative of the metropolis: almost everything we see today carries the baggage of previous lives, sparks of intensity that forged the city’s physiognomy, its character and the hallmarks of its identity. This book is packed with curiosities about the City of Counts, allegedly founded by Hercules.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these vignettes of the past. We’ll begin with the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pau del Camp, between Avinguda del Parallel and La Rambla del Raval. This perfectly conserved example of ninth-century mediaeval religious architecture in the heart of Barcelona is striking on account of its aesthetic and character, an anachronistic and eternal urban testament lodged between more prosaic buildings such as the Civil Guard barracks, Pakistani shops, a gymnasium and a multitude of bars. Stepping inside, visitors are submerged into the tranquillity and beauty of its cloisters.
Pablo Picasso was said to frequent the monastery during his time in the Catalan capital: “In fact, it’s believed that the decoration of one of the capitals, the one related to the original sin and featuring Eve’s face, was the inspiration for his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, dedicated to the prostitutes of a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó,” reveals Roser Messa.
Or what about the Plaça de Joan Coromines, behind the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. It was there that the artist and activist Keith Haring painted a prophetic mural in 1989 to highlight the importance of taking precautions against what was the most lethal illness of the time. His creative legacy against AIDS is actually a replica of the original, which stood in the Plaça de Salvador Seguí, a run-down part of the iconic Raval district where the original artwork was damaged.
Haring’s own death from AIDS in 1990 cut short his plans to restore the work in its original location and, as Roser Messa explains, “the Barcelona City Council, Museum of Contemporary Art and the Keith Haring Foundation, agreed that the best way to save the mural was to trace it and transfer it to its current location. And that was precisely what they did.” Over a quarter of a century after Haring painted the original mural. But let’s not stop there… let’s talk about the famous taxidermist at No. 8 Plaça Reial?
This time, the change has been more dramatic: the property is now a restaurant. Although the structure of the workshop of the legendary Josep Palaus remains the same, the stuffed animals have long since disappeared. “The inside is decorated with photographs from the period,” explain the authors of Anecdotario de Barcelona. “Salvador Dali was one of the best customers and the bullfighter Mario Cabré once asked the taxidermist to stuff the ear of a bull he had just killed as a present for Ava Gardner.”
All this is a powerful reminder that what makes a place that is thousands of years old so special and mysterious is that part of its history is hidden from view. It’s the neverending story of an unwritten history that continues to evolve, day after day, revealing new details, sometimes unpredictable sometimes repeating itself.
Mural de Keith Haring (MACBA)
Reminiscences of a past that was forged with varying degrees of wisdom. The present. Perhaps the future. Beyond the sublime icons of Barcelona’s surface lurks a fascinating world of history, one that transforms travellers into explorers, one that explains life itself, perhaps even better and more fully.
Photo: Roser Messa