A Brief History of Plaça Reial in Barcelona
What is Plaça Reial?
Plaça Reial is a public square in Barcelona whose elegance belies its turbulent history, and which once housed a convent and a military barracks while also playing host to periodic violent protests.
Plaça Reial History
From humble origins as a hub of prostitutes, the majestic Plaça Reial (or ‘Royal Square’) has witnessed it all: convents have opened and closed, cafés and restaurants have sprung up as the bourgeoisie rose, social decline and unrest have manifested themselves in ugly images. The eventual redemption of this forum is thanks to tourism. More than just a square, the Plaça Reial tells the story of an ever-changing Ciutat Vella (or Old City).
During the Middle Ages, this area was the site of a Capuchin monastery, from which the nearest stretch of La Rambla takes its name. The constant flow of people around the convent, and the area’s privileged location right in the centre of Barcelona, made the area increasingly popular. In the 1840s, the city council decided to maximise their returns on this popularity; they demolished the old, damp monastery and instead built a square that matched the taste for ostentation of the increasingly wealthy Catalan bourgeoisie.
The square, designed by Francesc Daniel Molina, was influenced by Parisian precedents: the buildings framing the square, with their roofs framed by a stone balustrade, recall the Palais Royal. A fountain dedicated to the three Graces was brought in from Paris and installed in the square's centre, surrounded by palm trees and lampposts designed by a young Antoni Gaudí – he of the cathedral. At the time, the Plaça Reial fulfilled the ideals of the local and international elite. Illustrious visitors, including the United States of America’s former president Ulysses S. Grant, and the Austrian Empress Sisi, walked the Plaça Reial's stone pavement. However, the grand and prosperous image in which it had reinvented itself did not last long.
By the start of the 20th century, wealthy families were leaving the Ciutat Vella, and the Plaça Reial changed as its importance waned. Nightlife venues popped up around the city centre, and sex workers returned to the Plaça Reial for the first time since the Middle Ages. During the First World War, the square became an asylum for foreign refugees living on alms. Eventually, inflation and rising prices during the 1920s and ‘30s caused large workers' protests, many of which took place in this square and ended in violence. After the Spanish Civil War, the square definitively lost its bourgeois character; it housed people living in extreme poverty and became synonymous with crime and drug trafficking.
Even after the end of the Francoist dictatorship, political and social fractures were exposed within the Plaça Reial. Throughout the 1980s, regular fights broke out between political extremist groups. One of its most dramatic episodes occurred in February 1988, when two rival gangs clashed in the square in a confrontation lasting several hours, using batons, knives and machetes. Ultimately, only the police could fight the fire of deprivation.
However, the square has experienced a much-needed resurgence. In the early 21st century, the city council endeavoured to return the Plaça Reial to its former glory. The square was restored and soon became the tourist attraction it is today. From its humble origins, through its glamorous presence during the 19th century, its rock bottom during the 20th century, to the Plaça Reial's final rebirth at the beginning of the 21st century, the square's history compresses that of the Ciutat Vella as a whole.
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