Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Secret Guide to Barcelona

There is something about this city which brings out the intrepid adventurer in me.

Maybe it’s the long narrow passages that seem to disappear around stone dark corners that arouses the explorer in me to want to push further into the unknown.

I have always felt this urge to walk and  discover this city on foot, pushing further into the uncharted; discovering what is behind the next corner; what square or small oasis of urban  life would suddenly reveal itself in all its glory; forgotten, left to age in peace and quiet without the roar of consumer tourism to trample its delicate offerings.

One day while browsing a book stall at my local market I discovered something which would change my exploration of Barcelona forever; A book entitled “The Secret Guide to Barcelona” by Jose Maria Carandell.

This celebrated Spanish travel writer and journalist’s articles and books have pushed boundaries constantly seeking out the hidden truth in everything, taking a peek through the keyhole to see what lies on the other side.

During his years travelling he wrote several books including “Japan; A Journey through its life and its beauty”.

Carandell took 400 walks across Barcelona to write “The Secret guide to Barcelona” in his bid to seek out the hidden Barcelona. Published in 1982, every square, bar and corner of the city was visited in order to seek out the undiscovered, the unconventional and overlooked.

Barcelona has changed a lot since 1982. The Olympics had a large financial impact on tourism and opened the city up as a major tourist destination. Many of Carandell´s secrets have now been long discovered and form a part of the many wonders that is Barcelona.

However secrets do still exist and if Carandell was alive today, here are some of the sites he would surely visit.

Hundreds of squares make up the 10 districts of Barcelona. Some of these squares hide an interesting history.

Settled in a small quite square in the gothic district lies; Placa Sant Felip Neri. It is an oasis of quiet in this busy district and is now home to the suave boutique Hotel Neri. Unique in its own architecture the square is medieval baroque style. The  square is secretly located down a small labyrinth of alleys close to Barcelona cathedral. The square was once home to the palace Neri built In 1752. The church was visited daily by Antoni Gaudi to seek peace and quiet. The square contains an octagonal fountain dedicated as a symbol of life although this quiet square has had a dark past. It was bombarded in 1938 by Franco laying siege to the city and the walls of the square are pockmarked by bullet holes where unfortunates were executed by Franco´s firing squads once the fascist forces had taken control of the city.

Today the square still remains the same, a quiet symbol of Barcelona´s dark past and a oasis of secret tranquillity in a  bustling tourist area so secret that only urban explorers and lost souls will surely stumble upon it.

The old fisherman´s district of Barri de Taulet  known as “the district that looks towards the sea”, is made up of Mediterranean architecture differing greatly from the gothic and modernist contrasts of other districts in the city. Here lies the Plaça Prim known as the old fishermans square  where all catches were brought in before being distributed around the city. The square is known for its restaurant “El Pescadors” due to its classic style approach to cooking fresh fish. The area seems to have been frozen in history still going about the same business as it did at the turn of the 20th century.

Wedged neatly in between the vast Avenida de Diagonal and the grand district of Example lays the humble district of Gracia.

Gracia was established in 1626. In 1897 when the district of Example was constructed during the modernist boom it was annexed and became a part of the city of Barcelona.

This area is to Barcelona what Montmartre is to Paris. The area is the social hub for artists and musicians. There is a great cultural contrast between the bohemian elements and the indigenous population still living their day to day lives as if the district was still a village in its own right.

Today Gracia is essentially the bohemian area of Barcelona its many squares interconnect through a labyrinth of small callejuelas that play home to some of Barcelona’s most interesting markets and bars.

The district, every year during the August holidays holds a carnival, La Festa De Gracia, where each street is decorated in a fierce competition for such converted prizes as “Best Lighting” and “Best artistic design”. Every street has a committee working all year round in preparation for La Festa.

Gracia also is home to Barcelona’s art house cinemas where films are shown in their original language. The narrow streets are host to row upon row of Bars and restaurants, each more unconventional than the last and the infamous Placa del Sol, headquarters  of Barcelona’s anarchist movement, where drinkers and musicians gather until the early hours of the morning.

During the 1900´s Barcelona laid down zoning laws with the idea to develop green spaces in the city to combat urban sprawl and free up parts of the city owned by affluent families. This brought in a host of landscape architects eager to leave their mark on the city.

The Laribel Gardens  in the South West of the city spans the side of Mont Juïc designed by French architect J.C.N Forestier it is the largest park space in the city. The characteristic design of the gardens is  Arabian with ceramic tiles and ornamental water fountains. The park is full of paths that seemingly lead nowhere and quiet wisteria lined terraces, perfect to escape the tourist hoards at the water fountains at the Plaça de Espanya.

Parc del Laberint d'Horta  is a hidden gem of the City located in the green belt area of Horta this used to be the residence of  a high standing family who social status gave breath to the creations they made. The gardens feature  a labyrinth made in the neoclassical style featuring 750 meters of trimmed cypress trees, romantic gardens, waterfalls and canals filled with carp and fresh water turtles.

Three terraces run up the mountain side featuring statues of Greek Mythological figures surrounded by Mediterranean forest, at the top the crowning glory is a neoclassical pavilion.

Built in 1791 the gardens were used a focal point of Barcelona´s high society social functions with views across the city, during the stagnant summer months the park is blessed with a  fresh breeze. The gardens were eventually handed over to Barcelona to be opened to the public in 1967.  The park during the summer months draws a few visitors quietly looking to escape the heat and crowds, ,a secret pocket of neoclassical tranquillity.

Parc de La Creueta de Coll is an old quarry in the disrict of Vallcarca which was redesigned as a large outdoor swimming pool with a “Deserted Island” in the middle. The quarry also holds a bizarre 50 ton sculpture which hangs from the quarry walls, there are several terraces which lead up the hill side with another incredible 360 view of the city. The pool is a well kept secret of the area but open to all.

Located next to Gaudi´s park “Güell” is lesser known Parc del guinardó made up of three sections, the city park, the historical park and the woods.

In this park , during the 16th century  the famous Catalan bandit and Nyerros faction member, Perot Rocaguinarda lived in a farmhouse in the park. It is believed to contain a labyrinth of secret passages running under the park that took Rocaguinarda and his bandits from the park directly into the gothic district on criminal escapades. The group of bandits disappeared from the area using these tunnels while under attack from the viceroy of Barcelona’s troops. Rocaguinarda was indeed so legendary that Miguel Cervantes mentions him in his famous novel, Don Quixote. 

At the Park´s peak are several bunkers looking over the city left behind from the civil war. This park has the best view over Barcelona, sitting on the bunker gives a sensation of having Barcelona at your feet.

Caradell´s book still holds many undiscovered locations and during my walks through the city I have taken the routes that Caradell took back in 1982 and found the same places he visited still open and functioning today.

As an intrepid urban explorer, and the words of Caradell himself “Barcelona is the kind of city where you can find something without even looking for it”.


  1. What's the matter? No updates since January? :-/

  2. im very proud to be part of Barcelona, thank you for this blog entrance.
    plaese feel free to check this video out : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO4T1CJzNjg