A changing rambla
La Rambla is a Barcelona street full of life and full of controversy. The latest polemic was caused by the closure of the 14 stands selling live birds and animals there, which had to shut down their businesses by December 31st, as the Ajuntament enforced a long-standing city law. However, the owners were not willing to go quietly, and with the public and animal rights’ organisations weighing into the argument, the world-famous location became the stage for a passionate confrontation. Furthermore, the closure also stoked up the wider debate about what La Rambla is today and what it should be.
The avenue’s long past is highlighted in its name, which comes from the Arabic word ramla, for the riverbed that lay here a thousand years ago. The one-kilometre stretch has evolved over the centuries, and recently there has been a slew of updates as it continues to adapt itself. Sound-reducing asphalt was laid on the roads last November, and the main pavement will soon be renewed. The Liceu metro station is being modernised, while this month sees the start of a traffic-restricting system on one side.
“In the past 24 months, 20 existing establishments have been renovated and 15 to 20 new ones have opened,” said Ramón Lamazares, president of the Associació d’Amics, Veïns i Comerciants de La Rambla. Additionally, the city has proposed that the human statues along the promenade be required to undergo some kind of quality control to restrict their numbers. Details have yet to be worked out.
However, the future of the ocellaires (from the Catalan for bird, ocell) is the change that has attracted most attention. The sellers argued that they have history on their side and that their creatures are not mistreated. As Mónica Trias, one of the animalerias noted, the stands have been on La Rambla for over 150 years. “They started in the Rambla de Canaletes and for the 1929 Universal Exhibition, became a fixed feature. Officially, it’s not a public way here, we’re part of the Boqueria market.”
Although the birds were originally sold inside the market, it was decided to move them outside in the mid-19th century. Over time, the range of creatures on sale expanded. Today there are turtles, hamsters and iguanas to name but a few, while Trias’s stall holds exotic-looking versions of familiar birds such as huge king pigeons and silkie chickens.
For the Ajuntament, the history of the stands is secondary. Rather, the city council is concerned with finally enforcing a by-law that has been in place for some time, prohibiting animals from being displayed in this way, as if in a shop window. It is a regulation that all establishments selling animals have to adhere to. What the Ajuntament is seeking to avoid is the spontaneous purchase of animals. “The animals deserve more than ‘product status’ and shouldn't be bought just because someone sees them in a shop window,” said Ajuntament spokesman Steven Guest. “The law has to be applied, otherwise the council can be held liable.”
It is not just the main players involved who have strong opinions on this matter. La Asociación Defensa de los Derechos del Animal (ADDA) has been fighting for years to get the city council to enforce the law, according to co-ordinator Francina Ballester. “The animals are locked up overnight, with no ventilation and have to withstand any rain or bad weather. Some animals bought there die very quickly, because they have had contact with ‘street birds’. It’s a disaster.”
However, Mónica Trias defended her work, and said that there is a fast turnover of the animals she sells, which are mainly for specialists. “All the cages have been checked by vets. Everything here is super-controlado. They are only here for a week or 10 days. I wouldn’t be able to sell them if they weren’t healthy.”
Inevitably, Barcelona’s residents have also become part of the debate. The ocellaires and ADDA have had petitions running, with support received for both sides of the argument. Alfred Bosch is a Catalan writer and journalist who lives just off La Rambla and recently wrote a novel entitled Hereteràs La Rambla (You Will Inherit La Rambla). He said, “I've seen the cages all my life. It's part of life here. As long as they are kept in good conditions and the animals aren’t mistreated, it’s all right.'”
Still, the image of caged animals and birds on display can be unnerving for some. Many of the tourists that Metropolitan spoke to were in favour of closing the animal stands. “It’s so cruel, I can’t even look at them,” commented one woman visiting from the US, and others echoed her feelings.
The divergent opinions regarding the fate of the bird sellers reflect the larger issue facing La Rambla. Although in this case the question of animal rights will ultimately make the difference, the conflict effectively highlights the difficulties that a principal street faces when it is also a major tourist attraction. Everyone interviewed for this article mentioned the conflict present in La Rambla between locals going about their day-to-day lives, and tourists here to see the sights.
Alfred Bosch and Mónica Trias talked about the heavy impact of tourism that they had seen. Bosch spoke of La Rambla “being abandoned by locals and an invasion by visitors,” while Trias described “being colonised by tourists.” They accept there is a difference between travellers and guiris, between those who are interested in what they see and come to learn, and those simply looking for the cheapest sangria and Mexican sombreros. However, among long-time denizens of the Rambla, there is a sense they are losing control of decisions affecting their lives.
So, is there a way to maintain the special features of La Rambla in the face of its ‘Lloretisation’, as Alfred Bosch put it? Francina Ballester of ADDA suggested that the animal stands could stay open, but sell something else—for example, souvenirs—and Trias thought this could well be an option that the Ajuntament would support. But would such a move not just dilute the very essence of the Rambla, which paradoxically, is what keeps it of interest to visitors?
Such a concern is clearly at the forefront of many minds. Carles Martí, Ciutat Vella councillor, whose district includes the Rambla, spoke of creating a Rambla of convivencia, of coexistence. “It cannot simply become a tourist attraction, although we cannot ignore the interest that its singularity arouses,” he said. Ramon Lamazares said his Association looks to develop a balance between the past, present and future, protecting La Rambla and enhancing it at the same time. A fair proposition, but by no means an easy one to achieve.
At the time of going to print, negotiations were still underway between the Ajuntament’s Institut Municipal de Mercats and representatives of the ocellaires to reach a final decision about the fate of the stands. Although no information was available about the details of these talks, the Ajuntament’s Steven Guest said, “Having pets on show is not an option for these stands anymore. They are free to decide whether they carry on [selling something else] or not.”
Mónica Trias, however, seemed equally confident that she would be on the Rambla for a long time to come. “We'll win. I've heard things and I’m optimistic.”
• From the 16th to 18th centuries, La Rambla was lined with convents and churches, giving rise to the religious names some parts of it still have (e.g. Sant Josep and Santa Mónica).
• If you drink from the fountain of Canaletes, legend says that you will stay in Barcelona, or return if you're a visitor.
• In the 15th century, there was a university at the upper end, which gives its name to the section Rambla dels Estudis.
• In the 19th century, the Rambla dels Flors was the only place in Barcelona where flowers were sold.
• The Rambla de Mar was created in 1994 and is the wooden passageway connecting to the Moll d'Espanya.