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Photo by Jasna Boudard
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Photo by Jasna Boudard
Inside Bar Marsella
Where do you go in Barcelona if you want to try absinthe, the highly potent aniseed-flavoured spirit that inspired a generation of artists and writers?
To the nearly 200-year-old Bar Marsella in the Raval, where Gaudí, Picasso and Hemingway all drank absinthe and surrendered themselves to its supposed mind-bending effects in order to induce creativity.
There are other old-town places in Barcelona where you can enter the world of the Green Fairy (absinthe’s affectionate nickname due to its green colour and the hallucinations you are meant to see if you drink enough of it) but Bar Marsella and absinthe are synonymous.
Now, however, the famous drinking spot’s days may be numbered, as plans have been proposed to turn the crumbly old building in which it stands into tourist apartments. Around 5,000 people have signed a petition showing their support for the bar’s preservation, and owner Josep Lamiel has vowed to relocate if he is forced to close the present venue.
If the closure does take place, it will mean a hiccup in Catalunya’s long history with absinthe—unlike much of 20th-century Europe and the US, absinthe was never banned in Spain. Somewhat perversely, considering his efforts to control many aspects of Spaniards’ lives and shield them from external liberal influences, Franco never stopped the masses from downing absinthe (absenta in Castilian and Catalan), although it’s true that the drink fell out of favour after the Civil War and only really saw a comeback in Catalunya this century.
Absinthe was created for medicinal purposes by a French doctor living in Switzerland back in the late 18th century. The flowers and leaves from the wormwood plant are key ingredients along with other herbs and spices, including anise and fennel, which give the drink its distinctive flavour. Note that absinthe is a spirit not a liqueur as no sugar is added in its production.
The popularity of absinthe grew during the 19th century (the time when it started to be exported to Spain), especially amongst bohemian types who thought it would get their creative juices flowing. However, concerns were quickly raised about the drink’s darker side—it was believed to be addictive and hallucinogenic, and thought to occasionally lead to violent behaviour. Van Gogh, a big fan, is said to have cut off his ear after too much of the green stuff. Therefore, after reaching its zenith around the early 20th century, absinthe was banned in most European countries by the time of the First World War. But not in Spain.
Bar Marsella first opened its doors in 1820 and is reputedly the city’s oldest boozer. A hangout for many important artists and authors, it has been in the Lamiel family for over 100 years, with the only interruption to their business occurring when Grandfather Lamiel was incarcerated for his pro-Republican sympathies during the Franco era. Battered signs indicating that punters are forbidden from singing or from conferring together at the tables were not put up by grumpy barmen but by Nationalists who feared insurrection.
Josep Lamiel is Bar Marsella’s current, third generation owner. He could not talk about redevelopment plans for legal reasons but he did want to discuss his desire to return to a period when people sat together long into the night and put the world to rights.
“To drink absinthe is a philosophy,” Lamiel explains. “Nowadays people want to get drunk fast but absinthe is not a drink to be drunk fast—it should be savoured over many hours while you have a long conversation with friends. We have lost the magic of socialising.”
The arcane ritual that accompanies absinthe drinking lends itself to Lamiel’s aspirations; you place a small silver fork and sugar cube across the top of the glass of absinthe then trickle water (from a punctured plastic bottle) over it until the sugar dissolves. The sugar takes away absinthe’s bitterness and the water-to-absinthe ratio is usually between three and five to one. The ceremony involving setting fire to the absinthe is apparently a modern gimmick and no self-respecting connoisseur from the belle epoque would have dreamed of taking a match to their glass.
Marsella’s absinthe is handmade in a traditional factory, Lamiel tells me, without the shortcut production methods or artificial colouring commonplace to many others. Indeed, you may have seen the brightly-coloured bottles of absinthe in off-licences around town whose contents look more akin to mouthwash than anything else. Unlike spirits such as whisky and gin, there are few regulations governing absinthe production. As such, anything can be labelled ‘absinthe’ without reproach.
While its alcohol content historically ranges from 45 to 74 percent ABV, some modern absinthes weigh in at over 80 percent ABV. The Marsella’s 55 percent ABV variety makes for a smooth drink. “That’s not much more than a vodka or whisky,” Lamiel says. “It needs to be enjoyable and not harsh.”
The revival of interest in absinthe in the Nineties followed the adoption of EU laws permitting its production and sale. By the turn of this century, several hundred types of absinthe were being produced worldwide, with Spain one of the main producers. Thujone, a compound found in many plants including wormwood, was believed to be behind absinthe’s psychedelic properties, so nowadays the thujone content is strictly controlled. This is despite the fact that thujone levels in absinthe are actually so low that you would die of alcohol poisoning before you could drink enough absinthe to feel any ill effects from thujone.
Thus, after seeing off the prohibitionists and fascists, it seems ironic that the Marsella could now fall victim to the developer’s wrecking ball. At present it is unclear whether the landlords who own the building on the dodgy end of Sant Pau will renew the bar’s lease, which expired earlier this year.
Steven Forti is a history researcher who organises regular poetry slams and music events at Bar Pastis, another irreplaceable survivor of Barcelona’s old Barrio Chino. Customers can drink absinthe here, too, or the similar but less alcoholic pastis. “Bar Marsella is part of the city,” he says. “If you lose a very historical site then there is less protection and your place could be next.”
José Ángel de la Villa has owned Bar Pastis since 1980. “If they close Bar Marsella, Barcelona will be finished,” he tells me. “I don’t know why people come to this city any more—it’s horrible, it’s all being changed for something new.”
De la Villa’s original neighbours have all gone now, but an attempt to shut his bar and stop live music there about five years ago was robustly seen off. “Bar Pastis is so small that if you change anything, you destroy it,” says Steven Forti. “Ángel puts up resistance but what would be the future of Bar Pastis without him? It would be impossible to continue.”
The Marsella has certainly been impervious to such change over the last two centuries—the peeling paintwork and tarnished mirrors, the cobweb-covered old bottles and chandeliers all attest to that fact. But now, with change in the air, it remains to be seen whether Lamiel will have to recreate this little corner of Barcelona, which is as unique as the house drink itself, elsewhere.
Bar Marsella: Sant Pau 65
Bar Pastis: Santa Monica 4. www.barpastis.com