Photo by Frederic Ballell
Today it is easy to see Avinguda del Paral·lel as a noisy thoroughfare lined by undistinguished apartment blocks, but for decades the street was the centre of the city’s nightlife with a dozen theatres, numerous music halls and cafés peopled by cabaret artists and bon viveurs; a steamy mix of eroticism and anarchism.
The avenue was originally laid out in 1859 as part of l’Eixample, Ildefons Cerdà’s great project for expanding Barcelona. After planning the characteristic blocks of his grid pattern, he then grandly drew two great avenues perpendicular to the grid: La Meridiana (running north-south) and El Paral·lel (running east-west). Cerdà himself seems to have named the avenue, noting that, unlike any other street in Barcelona, it ran parallel to the Equator (41º22’34’’ north). He had intended it as a fine ceremonial boulevard like Gran Via or Diagonal, but its proximity to the port and because it cut through the working-class quarters of El Raval and Poble Sec meant that it was always destined to become the centre of Barcelona’s popular, if not sleazy, nightlife.
Since the Middle Ages, the city’s working -class entertainment had been centred on the area around where Plaça Catalunya is today, and along the old road connecting Barcelona to the village of Gràcia, but with the building of Passeig de Gràcia came gentrification and stalls and fairs gravitated towards the new plots opened up along Paral·lel. When the street was officially opened in October 1894, it was already home to a burgeoning entertainment industry of cafés, music halls and, particularly towards the port end, brothels. By the early 20th century, it had as many as 10 theatres and several music and dance halls along a stretch of barely 300 fun-laden metres, leading to the avenue’s nickname of the ‘Montmartre barcelonés’.
One particularly rough-and-ready tavern, which would become the most famous building on the street, was called La Pajarera, a haunt of drunken sailors and unruly workers. Its owner grew tired of their antics and sold the business to an Andalusian who had recently arrived in the city with the aim of making his fortune. He set up a precarious platform at the back of the bar, initially offering flamenco shows, but soon expanded the repertoire to include zarzuelas (Spanish musical comedy) and the performances of a remarkable ventriloquist. The hall was sold again in 1905 and renamed the Gran Salón del Siglo XX, which alternated variety shows with the latest technological wonder: a cinematograph. Three years later, its name was changed again to the Petit Moulin Rouge. The idea was to bring Parisian-style cabaret shows to the city. In 1929, coinciding with the International Exhibition, the façade was renovated, whimsically adding the sails of a windmill, which have become its trademark.
During the Civil War, the waiters, ticket sellers and other employees, who were members of the Anarchist CNT trade union, collectivised the Moulin Rouge, and established the same salary for all employees, much to the annoyance of many of the dancers and vedettes. The hall continued to offer somewhat piquant shows, though the artistes now performed as scantily-dressed militia fighters. When Franco occupied the city, not only was Catalan repressed, but foreign languages were also suspect, and Moulin was ‘Castillianified’ to El Molino while Rouge was dropped due to its communist connotations. But while Francoism imposed a terrible yoke on the city, at least at El Molino the show went on, its eroticism a small but welcome relief in the repressed, grey city of the victors, though it had to deal with censorship, including a law against cross-dressing artists, and raids by the police (who could often later be found frequenting the premises as clients). With the advent of democracy and permissiveness, the theatre fell on hard times and eventually closed its doors in 1997, remaining shut for more than a decade, despite a colourful campaign for the authorities to step in. Finally, in 2010, it was bought and restored by a group of companies, and although it has lost its original 1929 windmill, the new kitsch façade has quickly blended into Paral·lel’s streetscape.
El Paral·lel reputedly once had the longest stretch of street cafés in Europe, including the still surviving El Café Español and perhaps the most notorious bar in the history of Barcelona, the remarkably inappropriately named La Tranquilidad, which stood at number 69, next to the Teatro Victoria, until it was demolished in the Forties. As a haven for gangsters, police spies and, above all, anarchists, anything but tranquillity reigned here. During the period of pistolerismo in the early Twenties, Barcelona was awash with guns smuggled from France after the end of the First World War. Weapons were sold openly in La Tranquilidad, which also organised raffles, with the winner taking home a Star pistol. Anecdotes about La Tranquilidad abound. In the early Thirties, the legendary Anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti and his friends were habitués of La Tranquilidad. One story relates how a young beggar with a defeated air came into the bar asking for money. When he approached Durruti’s table the bar went silent. Durruti looked the man intently in the eyes, and then pulled out his revolver and slammed it on the table, saying “There, take my gun. Go to the bank.”
Another great of symbol of the avenue and Poble Sec are Les Tres Xemeneies, built between 1896 and 1912, and known popularly as ‘La Canadenca’, after the Canadian company that financed them. The power station here was the origin of one of the most successful working-class actions in history when eight office workers were sacked in February 1919. Beginning with a call by the CNT to reinstate the workers, the strike spread rapidly, and evolved over 44 days into a general strike demanding lower working hours that paralysed much of the industry of Catalunya. Among the consequences of the strike was that the Spanish government was forced to limit the working day to eight hours, one of the first such laws anywhere in the world, though it was soon to be repealed. Not surprisingly, the association of El Paral·lel with such activities, led to another nickname, ‘the Anarchist Boulevard of Barcelona’, among radical circles in Europe.
These days much of Paral·lel has lost its glamour and notoriety, and as one moves towards the Plaça Espanya end of the avenue, one is faced with a dull and uninspiring series of residential blocks. However, just off Paral·lel is the unusual Casa dels Cargols (House of Snails) at Tamarit number 89. Legend has it that the original owner had the house built after coming across a stash of gold while looking for snails on Montjuïc. In thanks to these gastropods, he covered the façade of the building in snail motifs. Or that was his story, anyway, for covering up some early 20th-century dodgy dealing.
In addition to El Molino musical hall, today just three theatres remain: Apolo, Condal and Victoria, but the city council has recently purchased (from the Chinese Evangelical Church) the old Arnau theatre, which has stood in a sorry state for several years, with the aim of turning it into an as-yet-unspecified cultural centre. The plan forms part of a project to return Barcelona’s Broadway to its former glory (presumably without the Anarchist heritage), making what the council calls an “avenue of leisure” for the city, leading from the newly-renovated Las Arenas complex in Plaça Espanya all the way down to the port, passing through new squares to be created along the avenue, and allowing the historic street to become more of a meeting-point, rather than a division between, the districts of Poble Sec, Raval and Sant Antoni.
Nick Lloyd leads Civil War tours in Barcelona with the Centre d’Estudis de Montjuïc and runs the website www.iberianature.com