Photo by Jordi Casañas
For half a century, the neighbourhood of Cal Notari has perched precariously over the city
Most people have probably never heard of Cal Notari, although if they have driven along the Ronda de Dalt they may have caught sight of a crop of irregularly built houses in the hills just as they passed Horta. Far from the celebrated Modernista architecture and the carefully sculpted seafront of the city centre, Cal Notari is a reminder of another Barcelona, one in which Montjuïc and the beaches of Barceloneta were occupied by shanty towns.
That Barcelona was progressively cleared away from the Sixties onwards, in a series of drives to make the city more presentable. These efforts can be said to have started with a visit by Franco in 1966, and culminated in the Olympic Games of 1992. Its discrete location meant that Cal Notari escaped these clearances and has even managed to wrest official recognition from the council, although its legal status is still somewhat ambiguous. It doesn’t even have an official name, Cal Notari being the road that leads to it.
Other names that get used are Font del Gos and Lourdes. Green Council leader on the Horta council, Elsa Blasco, denies that it exists in a legal vacuum, saying that since 1976 the houses have been afectadas, or earmarked for demolition, and that plans have been drawn up to re-house the residents in nearby Horta.
Cal Notari is built along a valley and divided into two parts. The valley’s floor is the more established part of the neighbourhood and whilst there has obviously been little planning, the houses are generally well constructed. On the shoulder of the valley, the houses are irregular in shape, poorly finished and cling precariously to the steep ground banked up along the road, one behind the other.
Daniel Oriol, a former president of the Catalan Ramblers’ Association, was among the first to build his house on the floor of the valley in 1950. Now a sprightly 88 year old, as a young man poor health prompted a doctor to advise him to get out of the city. So, when he returned to Barcelona after the Civil War he bought a plot of land in the valley and built his house. He explained that the houses on the shoulder were built almost exclusively by immigrants in the Fifties and Sixties, many of whom were getting away from the poor conditions in Somorrostro, the shanty town built along Barceloneta beach. They would buy a plot of land by the track and build their houses at night so as not to attract too much attention. Once built, the procedure was to actively encourage the Guàrdia Urbana to come and fine them, because this represented official recognition of the existence of the house, which brought with it a de facto semi-legal status.
Oriol also revealed why the houses are banked up one behind the other. The land was bought for the cost of one peseta per palmo (a measure that corresponds roughly to the palm of your hand squared). The strip not only included the land next to the track, but all the land behind it too. “So then a friend would turn up and ask, ‘Blimey, is all this land yours? Well why don’t you do something for me? Why don’t you sell me a bit and I can build a house and I’ll be as happy as punch here,’ and the first would say, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll sell you all the land from behind my house up the valley for two pesetas per palmo.’ So the friend would build his house and then, in turn, sell the land behind it for three pesetas per palmo and that’s why the houses are one on top of the other.”
Another resident, known locally as ‘El Catalan’, or ‘Cata’, despite having Andalucian parents, told of how, until the Seventies, there was no electricity and he and his six brothers and sisters used to collect firewood from the Collserola and water from a spring higher up in the valley. They would also trap rabbits, hares and partridges. “Just the sight of a fried egg would make my eyes widen,” he said. “We were hungry!”
The city council was reluctant to provide services because the people who lived there were so poor and uneducated that they didn’t know how to fight or to get things done, he said. By the Seventies, however, they had started to organise themselves and on a number of occasions they staged protests on the road which is now the Ronda de Dalt, bringing traffic to a standstill. Cata believes that it was only because of these protests that services eventually reached the neighbourhood.
Cata’s biggest battle with the council involved fighting to build a full-sized football pitch, complete with changing rooms, showers, barbecue and large stone table at the head of the valley. This cause meant a lot because, by chance, the original residents of Cal Notari included a disproportionate number of young men who were crazy about football. They had formed a team called La Virgen del Camino, which was sponsored by Bar Soto, a bar in Horta which had traditionally been the pick-up point for residents looking for a lift up to the barri at the end of a working day. The problem was they were a team without a home ground.
Cata recalled how he went down to the council offices every week to try and persuade them to give permission for the pitch, and when eventually they gave in everyone contributed to pay for the ground and the facilities. He still remembers with pride the inauguration of the pitch in 1972, which coincided with the end of a season in which the team had won every single game. “At the inauguration there were majorettes, who had marched from Barcelona, there were a thousand people and we barbecued two or three sheep and we all ate and drank like there was no tomorrow,” he recalled. “People even started calling the barrio La Virgen del Camino after the football team. In those times if the team went well, everything went well.”
Despite the good memories, Cata was not optimistic about Cal Notari’s future. “It’ll be cleared away. I don’t know how long it’ll take, it could be one year or it could be 10, but it’ll be cleared away.”
Councillor Elsa Blasco agreed. “The council is currently working on a special plan for urban organisation, which should be ready by the end of the current legislature,” she said, noting that the plan foresees the re-housing of the residents of Cal Notari in a specially designated area of Horta. “It’s still difficult to say when the plan will be put into action, however.”
She insisted that the plans are wide ranging and affect many areas of Horta, and that in mutual agreement with the residents of Cal Notari the part that affects them will not be implemented until the end. It would seem that the residents of Cal Notari or Font del Gos or Lourdes or La Virgen del Camino, or that collection of ramshackle houses that can be seen from the Ronda del Dalt will have a few more years to enjoy their privileged position.