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Photo by Richard Owens
Craft beer on tap at Ese Efe
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Photo by Richard Owens
Enjoy tapas at Suculent
Once regarded as one of Barcelona's least appealing neighbourhoods, the Raval is in the midst of transition.
The Raval. Two words that rarely fail to provoke a reaction. Some eyes light up with the excitement of a fiestero: “There’s this bar that I love on Sant Pau, last weekend it was crazy…” Or the nose wrinkles in disgust: “Why do all you foreign people want to live in neighbourhoods like that?” Or, perhaps, the mouth breaks into an ironic grin, though not without affection: “I used to live in the Raval, it’s not that bad.” One of the oldest areas in Barcelona is also one of the most controversial.
Surrounded by trendier, prettier, richer, more beachy and touristy neighbourhoods, the Raval has long played the role of black sheep in the family—you know, the one that refuses to clean itself up, get a job and a haircut, and move out of mum’s place. Formerly the barrio chino of pirates and prostitutes, it was considered to be a scary part of Barcelona for a significant part of the city’s history. Some would argue that it remains so to this day—scary, that is, as well as populated by prostitutes, and possibly even the occasional pirate—but the Raval is slowly experiencing a renaissance. It’s becoming a cool place to live and work and hang out. Street by street, corner by corner—one could even say bar by bar—changes are occurring before our eyes.
The ‘renaissance’ per se has been slowly picking up steam over the last couple of decades, but it is the past several years that the changes have become rapid. Let’s start with the elephant(s) in the room: the well-established CCCB and MACBA museums have served as epicentres for the wave of cool little terrace cafes and alternative shops that have popped up around them. Opened in 1995, the MACBA initially created controversy, as it didn’t actually have a collection of art when the building itself was commissioned, but over time the two neighbouring sites have become cornerstones of the city’s cultural life. They sponsor everything from jazz to punk to traditional Pakistani music concerts in their outdoor spaces, while multimedia projects and films are shown inside; and nobody seems to mind that the MACBA ramp has been converted into an unofficial skate park.
Flash forward a decade or so, and the Filmoteca de Catalunya is the most obvious new kid on the block. The squalid empty plaça abutting Carrer Sant Pau resembled a war zone while construction was going on from 2007 until last year. Now, in the same spot, there sits a clean, sparkly, post-modern glass building that houses a trendy little bookshop, temporary and permanent exhibitions on Spanish and Catalan film-makers and, of course, three salas that show independent and art films. Families, couples on dates and locals of every stripe can choose between Almodovar and Fritz Lang, French film festival favourites and black-and-white American crime flicks from the Fifties.
But these are just the most obvious examples of a neighbourhood in transition. Look closer and you’ll notice the smaller changes and renovations that are popping up all over. From art to theatre, music to eating out and drinking, you’ll find a whole host of places that are bringing a new vibe to the Raval.
Art is a good example. There are brand-new places like the Blow Gallery, a multimedia art collective that opened last December, taking over an empty space on Sant Rafael. It supports local photographers including Vicky Garcia and Christian Maur, and visual artists such as Manuela Torres Garcia while also bringing in electronica musicians from all over Europe to perform, such as Eastern European techno stars Nastia and Hector, and Spanish musician and producer Alberto Pascual.
And there are venues such as Miscelanea, another art space just off Nou de la Rambla on Carrer Guardia. It’s been around for longer, since 2004, but despite being physically tucked away from view has grown in popularity as the barrio has become increasingly popular with hipster artists.
The local theatre scene has also been renovating itself. The Teatre del Raval, located in a renovated church on Sant Antoni Abat, has been attracting a more diverse audience as it tries to adapt to changing times, putting on everything from Catalan musicals about the Raval’s dark past (La Vampira del Raval) to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The tiny Café Teatre Llantiol on Riereta isn’t new, but again, the place has benefitted from the fresh blood (tourists and locals alike) that filters in these days to check out the latest nearby restaurants and bars. “My friends and I were having drinks at a place called Ambar, which wasn’t here last time I visited,” American tourist Peter Durran told me. “We just wandered down this side street because it looked kind of weird and interesting, and ended up seeing a play at Llantiol. It was really fun. I never would have thought there was so much here. When I came to Barcelona as a student a long time ago, I remember we used to kind of avoid this part of the city. Not anymore, obviously.”
Nightlife is a big part of the Raval’s renovation. It’s nothing new that Raval is known for its movimiento but what is changing are the kinds of bars, restaurants and live music venues that are coming into the area. The young and the beautiful party at the rooftop bar in the Hotel Barceló Raval, which is an obvious example of the ‘new’ face of the neighbourhood. The cocktails on the manicured rooftop terrace are expensive, but what you’re really paying for is the fantastic 360-degree view of the city.
At the other aesthetical extreme is tiny Bar Aurora on, fittingly, Carrer Aurora. We wandered in on a Wednesday night, and ended up hanging out with the bar’s loquacious and very sharp dueña, Claudia. Nothing special from the outside, the inside is a wild mix of leftover discoteca décor that is pure Raval: handmade metal tables and fibreglass benches, a rainbow-coloured illuminated staircase, haphazard art and photos festooning the walls, but the place is barely big enough to house a dozen people. “The bar reflects the diversity of the neighbourhood,” said Claudia. “I opened the bar here eight years ago, because the area [was] starting to become a cool part of town to hang out but still is very authentic Barcelona…sort of like the Gothic quarter was a long time ago, before it turned into Disney World. You get all kinds of people coming in here, especially in the last few years as the neighbourhood has gotten a bit safer. It’s the people who make this place special.”
Jordi Perez is originally from Barcelona, but has lived in the US, Cuba and the Canary Islands. He works for a market research company on Passeig de Gràcia, but is raising his two daughters in the same apartment that he has had in the Raval for over 15 years. He loves the neighbourhood and likes the changes that are taking place. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, no one from here even wanted to hang out in the Raval, much less live here. But around that time, some friends and I all decided that we wanted to relocate, in order to help change the neighbourhood for the better. We figured that if there were interested people living there, we could be part of an exciting period of growth and transformation. Now a lot of people have moved on to other neighbourhoods—I suppose they felt the neighbourhood didn’t change quickly enough—but I stayed. I like the mix of Spanish people, Pakistanis, Indians, South Americans, Catalans, Europeans from all over, students, musicians…That’s what makes it an interesting area. And it’s safer than people think. Sure there might be a party atmosphere, sure the streets might be in need of some renovation—but, for example, the local people are always looking out for the kids of the neighbourhood. One time my younger daughter ran off when we were sitting in a restaurant, and both the waiters inside and people outside instantly took off after her to make sure she was OK. It’s a good community of people, even if it looks a bit rough from the outside. And in the past three or four years, there have been so many good things happening here.”
But are all of these changes for the better? New business is good, yes? Everybody wants to clean up the neighbourhood, right? But like Greenwich Village in New York or Montmartre in Paris, once you start cleaning up, is it possible to preserve the character of the area? In other words, where do you draw the line so that a once-freaky-but-interesting neighbourhood doesn’t turn into a bland barrio full of overpriced ice cream shops?
Craft beer place Bar Ese Efe on Carretes is a relatively new arrival in Barcelona, even if its owner Dan Sites is not. Originally from San Francisco, he has lived in Barcelona for 20 years, has owned several bars and seen the neighbourhood change for the better and, in his opinion, for the worse. “I actually miss the old days sometimes, before they put in the Rambla del Raval and the big gato,” Dan said. “It was dirty, but it had character. Don’t get me wrong—I like that the barrio is cleaning itself up, but the city hasn’t let the area catch up to itself, so to speak. There are all kinds of little places struggling to hang on in the middle of a financial crisis, but they get walloped with a massive fine for having music too loud, or because the lateros are selling beer outside their place without permission…it doesn’t make sense, because we all want the same thing, no? Just to live and let live, to enjoy the character of the neighbourhood. I like when new faces venture onto our side of the Ramblas because they read online somewhere that the Raval is the place to go these days. I just don’t want it to lose its punk-rock vibe in an effort at self-improvement.”
Tiny tapas restaurant Suculent on the Rambla del Raval is owned by Armando Anta and he agrees with Dan Sites that some of the changes in the neighbourhood are an improvement and some, perhaps, not so much. “It’s a really complicated subject. The downside to the so-called cleaning up is that the neighbourhood is becoming more and more policed. More tourists are drawn to the barrio, which results in more money coming in as well as more controls… It’s a good thing to have safety, obviously, but, for example, you now can get fined for singing on the street here… I’m worried that if we continue along this road, the barrio will lose the things that make it special. In my opinion the area is changing for the better and for the worse all at once. It depends on your definition of a renaissance I guess.”
Luckily, the local character is strong enough in the Raval that it’s unlikely to get swallowed up or overly watered down. Local residents are proud of their checkered past. For example, there is a little café on Rambla del Raval called Madame Jasmine’s, which used to be the house of a famous brothel madam. It still has the original floor, composed of an eclectic collection of rajoles (typical Catalan decorative tiles), broken-down velvet-covered furniture that looks like it came out of a vampire movie and dusky red lighting.
In addition, there are other aspects of the ‘renaissance’ that go beyond new places to eat, drink and be entertained. The Raval is becoming more environmentally conscious. For example, the Ajuntament sponsored a huge recycling drive on Rambla del Raval this summer, and there are highly visible recycling containers all over the area. Locals will actually stop you and tell you how to use them, which is something I’ve never experienced in any other part of the city. And there’s construction on every other corner, including the continuing renovation of the impressive Modernista colossus that is the Mercat Sant Antoni. The Raval is reforming itself practically by the minute.
But there is still a lot of work to do. There may not be quite as many prostitutes working in front of the Filmoteca anymore, but they’re not gone; they’ve just moved to Carrer Sant Ramon a few streets over. The beer-sellers will still harass you every few metres as you walk home at night, and it’s impossible to eat fish and chips on the terrace of the eponymous eatery without a dozen individuals begging for change. You find cute places to tapear sandwiched between ugly buildings with broken façades, kids playing on basketball courts next to a park where junkies congregate. It’s definitely a barrio in transition. But it’s also one worth discovering, whether you live in another part of the city or are just passing through. And I, for one, am curious to see what the next few years will bring.
RENAISSANCE LIFE IN THE RAVAL
- CCCB: Montalegre 5. www.cccb.org
- MACBA: Plaça dels Àngels 1. www.macba.cat
- La Filmoteca: Plaça Salvador Seguí 1-9. www.filmoteca.cat
- Blow Gallery: San Rafael 27. www.blow-gallery.com
- Miscelanea: Guàrdia 10. www.miscelanea.info
- Teatre del Raval: Sant Antoni Abat 12. www.teatredelraval.com
- Café Teatre Llantiol: Riereta 7. www.llantiol.com
- Bar Aurora: l’Aurora 7
- Bar Ese Efe: Carretes 48
- Suculent: Rambla del Raval 43. www.suculent.com
- Madame Jasmine’s café: Rambla del Raval 22
- Hotel Barceló Raval: Rambla del Raval 17-21. www.barcelo.com
- Obsessions del Raval (tapas): Riereta 15
- Africa Tamarane: Riereta 26. www.africatamarane.com
- Guixot (crêpes and sandwiches): Riereta 8
- La Poderosa (Catalan dishes): Riereta 18. www.lapoderosa.es
- Wah-Wah Records: Riera Baixa 14
- Revolver Records: Tallers 11
- Luchador Records: Ferlandina 39
- Discos Paradiso: Ferlandina 39