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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of La Rambla in Barcelona

What is La Rambla?

La Rambla is the most famous street in Barcelona that’s considered the city’s spiritual backbone and favoured territory for street artists, tourists, and locals alike.

La Rambla from above

La Rambla History

La Rambla has come to define Barcelona's city centre. The tree-lined avenue is one of the Catalonian capital’s most popular tourist destinations, and the numbers back this up: it’s walked by around 150,000 people every day. Its origins date back to the Middle Ages, but not to a grand road: the street was a sewer stream tracing the old city limits.

Until the 15th century, La Rambla was a large gully separating the walled Citutat Vella (or Old City) from the Raval suburb. The moat served as a sewer and drain for the heavy rainwater flowing from the Collserola mountains. Occasionally, in torrential weather, the stream would surge, causing floods of raw sewage. Locals gave it the nickname Cagalell (or ‘shit stream’), but as Barcelona’s population increased the already unhygienic arrangement grew untenable. La Rambla became a festering ditch and a breeding place for malarial mosquitoes.

Beginning in the early 18th century, the stream was slowly transformed in five sections. The term 'Rambla', derived from the Arabic word raml meaning ‘sand’, refers to the path left where water once flowed. Furthermore, each section filled received a name: the Rambla de Canaletes, the Rambla dels Estudis, the Rambla de Sant Josep, the Rambla dels Caputxins, and the Rambla de Santa Mònica. (The plural term 'Las Ramblas' stems from these five sections.) With the unhygienic stream now filled in, La Rambla was transformed into a street.

Over the next few centuries, La Rambla became an essential axis for the city's life. Among Barcelona’s mostly narrow, winding streets, this new thoroughfare suddenly stood out: a long wide avenue where people could stroll and spend their leisure time. Buildings, monasteries, and monuments sprang up along the boulevard. However, nowhere in Barcelona seems immune from conflict, and in recent centuries plenty has taken its toll on La Rambla.

La rambla pedestrians

On the night of Sant Jaume in 1835, monasteries and churches were set alight by revolutionaries, and several friars were murdered on the main walk. La Rambla was also the centre of fierce fighting during the Spanish Civil War. Novelist George Orwell, who volunteered for the POUM militia in support of the Republic, wrote about his first-hand account of the violence in Homage to Catalonia: ‘I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side-street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower… I thought instantly, ‘It's started!’’.

Most recently, however, on the 17th of August 2017, 14 people were killed, and over 100 were injured in a terrorist attack by Islamist group ISIS on La Rambla. The attacks left the city stunned, horrified and defiant. The boulevard's flagstones were transformed, suddenly covered in tokens of mourning and multicoloured like the floor of a shrine: flickering candles, bunches of flowers, soft toys and messages of solidarity, love and defiance from around the world. These included: ‘Las Ramblas cries, but it is still alive’, and ‘No words. Just love’. In this tragedy, La Rambla has returned to its historic role as a centre of life, reflection and defiance.

Today, the 1.2-kilometre boulevard is considered the city's emotional centre, defined by its mixture of street artists, tourists, and locals. Despite its tragic past and, at times, chaotic present, many would agree with poet Federico García Lorca in describing the boulevard as ‘the only street in the world which [he wished] would never end’.

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