Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rambling on La Rambla

Decades ago, a stroll down La Rambla in Barcelona was a real delight. It had upscale hotels and restaurants, flower stalls, paid seating (you used to have to pay to rent a chair to watch the passersby), a mix of architectural building styles, and boutique shops, all underneath the glittering shade of plane trees that line the pedestrian avenue. Nowadays it's seamier, with kiosks selling cheap trinkets, swaths of overpriced restaurant seating, painted human statutes, prostitutes (mostly at night and toward the southern end), and pickpockets, in a tourist trap atmosphere.

But it's still kinda fun.

At the north end of La Rambla.
"La Rambla" means -- depending on which source you consult -- "stream" or "dry creek bed" or, borrowing from the Arabic "ramla," a "sandy riverbed." Historically, the route in Barcelona used to be a sewage-filled drainage ditch outside the walls of the medieval city. The stream was diverted in 1440 when new walls were built further to the west; gradually the dry stream bed evolved into a street. Given its width, La Rambla became a host for festivals and markets. The first plane trees were added in 1703, and now they line the entire promenade. Since it forms the western border of the Barri Gòtic, the street functions as a tourist zone that the locals nevertheless must use for daily life.

Many Catalonian towns have "Ramblas," and Barcelona itself has several other streets known as "La Rambla." But this "La Rambla" is actually a series of five connected streets (Ramblas de Canaletes, Ramblas dels Estudis, etc.) and sometimes is referred to as "Las Ramblas." It's now a stream of people, stretching ¾ of a mile from the city center Plaça de Catalunya downhill to the Christopher Columbus monument at the old town's port. One line of the Barcelona metro has three handy stops along its length, at top, middle, and bottom -- we used one or more of them nearly every day of our trip.

Wavy concrete sidewalk tiles represent the waves on the former stream.
At the northern end is a popular city meeting spot, the Fountain of Canaletes. Fans of Barça, as the immensely popular FC Barcelona football club is known, meet at the fountain before and after matches, some giving it a "kiss" by kissing their fingers and then touching the fountain. The current fountain was built in the late 19th century, replacing a fountain from the 1500s. According to legend, drinking from the fountain ensures you will return to Barcelona. So I had to do so.

Fountain of Canaletes.
Watching two locals drink from the fountain.
Filling up Jackson's water bottle, to make sure he can return, too.
A little further south is a clock at the Royal Academy of Science, which provides the "official" Barcelona time:

The "Hora Oficial" of Barcelona.
Another hundred yards south is a tile mural showing the gate and city wall which used to stand at that spot.

Painted tile mural depicts an imagined scene along the stream bed.
Travel a hundred yards further down La Rambla, and you will find the highlight of our La Rambla explorations. The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, usually just called La Boqueria, has been operating for nearly 800 years. It's bursting with overflowing stalls selling all manner of produce, meats, fish, and other delectables. The pyramids of food look perilously balanced. Displays are set up as a feast for the eyes as much as the belly.

Entrance to La Boqueria. The current metal roof was completed in 1914.
Shortly after I took this picture, the woman in the foreground bumped some olives and they cascaded onto the floor.
Kate's smile might, just possibly, maybe, perhaps, could have something to do with the sign for "chocolat."
'Shrooms galore.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers  /  Where's the peck of pickled peppers that Peter Piper picked?
Guidebooks caution you to avoid the stalls near the entrance, which have to pay higher rent and therefore charge higher prices. But we did a little comparison shopping and didn't find much difference in prices throughout the market. While we couldn't escape without sampling some food, there were a few meats available that didn't quite strike our fancy:

Kate's really good about trying new foods in different cultures, but this is pushing it.
Nope. Not even if you paid me.
I didn't want Jackson to encounter these specimens. He may not have understood what they were, but I'm sure he would have asked some questions. Fortunately, we didn't have to worry:

Power nap.
Across from La Boqueria on the opposite side of La Rambla was the Erotic Museum. We gathered they wouldn't allow toddlers to visit, so I'm afraid you'll have to visit yourself and find out what's inside.

Marilyn invites you to join her.
The Erotic Museum indicates you're headed toward the sketchier half of La Rambla. As you proceed further south, you might encounter a few prostitutes. There are also street performers -- typically painted human statues -- who function as distractions for pickpockets. Every guidebook and online resource I consulted made note of the many pickpockets on La Rambla, and they pointedly and repeatedly suggested moneybelts. Barcelona is the only European city where I've worn a money belt, and I also put a cheap lock on the zipper of my backpack; it wouldn't stop a determined thief, but he could find easier pickings elsewhere. Our apartment was near La Rambla and we walked at least a part of it every day, so those measures seemed prudent.

We didn't pause at any of the human statues (limited by the city to a maximum of 15 working at any one time), not so much because of the chance of pickpockets but mostly because they spook Jackson. Since we didn't offer any money to the performers, I thought it wouldn't be right to snap pictures of them.

While the tenants and workers are a bit less upscale, the ambiance and character of La Rambla doesn't shift much. It's still a pleasant shaded promenade.

Napping Jackson gets to recline during his stroll down La Rambla. To the right is the Liceu opera house, reopened in 1999 after a fire. On the left is a subtle McDonald's (see those "M"s?) and a KFC. High culture and low culture in equipoise.
Instead of Mickey D's or KFC we opted for a guidebook-recommended tapas lunch at Taverna Basca Irati, located a block off of La Rambla. You stand at the counter and snatch whatever looks good as it passes by. At the end, they add up the number of toothpicks for your bill.

You get a workout holding a toddler during a standing meal.
Back on La Rambla is public art by Joan Miró, who grew up nearby in the Barri Gòtic. Not many folks passing by paid attention to this abstract mosaic by an artist who recently had a painting sold for $26.6 million at Christie's London.

The black arrow supposedly represents an anchor, an allusion to Barcelona's history on the sea.
Adjacent to the Miró mosaic is another of the city's famous dragons (see here for the little dragon in the Barcelona cathedral cloister, and here for the Gaudí dragon in Park Güell). Dragons are common in Barcelona, where the most popular boy name is Jordi, in honor of the city's patron saint Jordi (George) who slew a dragon. This dragon is merely ornamentation on a former umbrella shop, and Chinese rather than European in style.

The dragon holds a lamp.
The stream of people on La Rambla flows out at its southern end toward a towering statue of Christopher Columbus. Columbus points over the old city's Port Vell, where he returned from his first voyage to the Americas.

The 1888 monument to Christopher Columbus lies at the southern tip of La Rambla.
La Rambla makes for a fun excursion. Some folks like to make a comparison, but La Rambla should not be mentioned in the same breath as a stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Perhaps once it had the same elegance, but that sophistication has long since faded. Nonetheless, La Rambla is quintessential Barcelona, bustling, dramatic, and creative.

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