A Timeless Snapshot
Delighting in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood.
The scents of cocoa and the spicy peppers beloved by the conquistadors no longer perfume the air of Barcelona, but the multicolored patchwork of cultures that flowed into the city during its long history of maritime trade is still alive and well in Raval. The neighborhood west of Barcelona’s iconic La Rambla walking street, El Raval, was among Europe’s most densely packed urban areas during the Industrial Revolution. The most charming features of this local barrio — its narrow streets, towering buildings and myriad of tiny shops — are the very conditions that sent the once overcrowded, working-class area into a spiral of blight and ill repute.
For decades, Barcelona’s now picture-perfect Gothic Quarter and trendy El Born neighborhood rightly drew the bulk of tourist gazes, until a city revitalization campaign (conveniently timed for the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics) revealed a thriving community that had quietly transformed Raval into the most eclectic, hip and artistic quarter of the Spanish city.
Today, broad plazas crisscrossed by manic skateboarders give way to winding cobblestone alleys replete with cozy bars. This is the Barcelona where Hemingway, deep in his cups, dreamed of the sparse, resplendent prose that would haunt a generation. And it still sets the imagination alight today.
Architecture throughout the ages
Raval’s most alluring quality is its captivating mix of old and new. Although everyone visits Barcelona for the famed La Sagrada Família, Sant Pau del Camp dates from the 10th century and is not only the oldest church in the city but also one of the great preserved specimens of Romanesque architecture. What’s more, Raval once served as Barcelona’s unofficial “District of Monasteries” until uprisings against the Catholic Church in 1835 destroyed all but a few. Sant Pau del Camp is the neighborhood’s visible link to the Middle Ages, and the medieval sculpture-work in the tympanum over the western entrance — a simple scene of the Christ with Saints Peter and Paul — presents a beautiful contrast to the elaborate gothic-style reliefs found on the city’s more well-trafficked churches.
From there, visitors can leap forward in history to a modernist masterpiece: Palau Güell. One of the earliest creations from Antoni Gaudí, the mansion presents a prime example of how the renowned Spanish architect played with structure and light. While the ceiling of his La Sagrada Família reminisces of a summer forest, the perforated ceiling here shares glimpses of dappled lantern-light, giving the impression of a starry sky overhead.
In search of art
Even on the sunniest of days, a soft filtered light trickles into the tight, shady streets to illuminate a Raval highlight: street art. The art here is not the refined, classical art one would find elsewhere; it is newer, electric and unorthodox. It challenges every assumption about the lines between graffiti and art, and around Raval, even the humblest piece has its place. It’s impossible to not notice the bold striping of graffiti covering the shutters of every tienda — a consolation prize for those who arrive at a shuttered shop during the Spanish siesta every afternoon.
While many of the neighborhood’s most famous pieces of street art make political and social statements, others draw from a patriotic love of city and country. Sprawled across the broad side of a former apartment building on the corner of Carrer de Sant Pau and Carrer de la Riereta, for example, is a gorgeous piece by Barcelona-born street artist Sixe Paredes. Inspired by the late celebrated Catalan artist Joan Miró, Paredes pairs large, simple shapes with a bold color palette to create eye-catching pieces at any scale.
Just a fraction of all the art in Raval, however, takes places on the streets. The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, abbreviated as MACBA, is a glistening building faced with a solid wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. The museum’s permanent collection of over 5,000 artworks spans from the mid-20th century onward, and fascinating themed exhibitions rotate throughout the year.
Outside, on the museum’s plaza and steps, dozens of skateboarders congregate at any given time to practice art of an entirely different sort. Hundreds of decks, trucks and wheels whir, undaunted by weather and powered by hipsters wearing hoodies and Converse sneakers. MACBA patrons can grab a perfectly-pulled espresso from the nearby Nømad Every Day cafe on Carrer de Joaquín Costa and indulge in shameless people-watching from this perfect perch.
Flavors both old and new
Those who manage to resist indulging in a fresh croissant after wandering past countless bakeries will find a booming craft cocktail and fusion food scene awaiting on the neighborhood’s main walking street. The heart of evening activities in Raval can be discovered by navigating the winding lanes to La Rambla del Raval. While smaller than the main La Rambla running through Barcelona’s center, the street serves the same purpose: as a cultural and social hub for locals to share drinks and conversation.
Tides of people take to La Rambla del Raval every evening for its sights and sips, such as those served at the Hotel Barceló Raval, where the rooftop terrace bar offers crisp cocktails and unparalleled 360-degree city views. The best tapas in the area lie just across the street at Palosanto, an unassuming, bohemian-chic restaurant serving quirky takes on these traditional small plates. Some claim the tapas trend all started in the bars of Andalucia, while others say their local king gave these small snacks their name; but just as wide-ranging as the origin stories are for the humble tapas, so too are the regional varieties. Tapas in Barcelona pull flavors from Spain’s most beloved national dishes — paprika-dusted octopus from Galicia, Andalusian-style squid, and the ubiquitous, paper-thin Iberian ham. It’s fun to tapear, as the Spanish would say, and make a meal of these tasty snacks, sampling the millennia of culinary traditions that have shaped Spanish cuisine.
Of course, any visit to Raval would be incomplete without a nightcap at Bar Marsella, where Hemingway drank deep of anise-scented liquor and got carried away on visions of Spain’s most beloved painters and poets. Today, bohemians from all walks of life deliver themselves to Bar Marsella as if on pilgrimage to sip absinthe under smoke-stained ceilings and elaborate chandeliers that cast shadows like the ghosts of literary loves lost.
It’s fitting that visitors to Raval take one last chance to raise their glass here — to a neighborhood both bright and gritty in equal measure, revealing a Spain that embraces the timeless while ever looking forward to the new.