If the guidebooks and glossy weekend supplements are to be believed, Barcelona’s a shiny, happy, vibrant city with one foot in the future. And, in many ways, it is. But like any place that’s been home to humans for a couple of millennia, the city has also witnessed a certain amount of death, doom and destruction.
Over the centuries, the city has seen plagues, riots, famines, bombardments and gun battles on Las Ramblas—not to mention the everyday tragedy of less violent deaths. Monuments throughout the city tell some of the story, like the flame that burns beside Santa Maria del Mar to commemorate the collapse of the city’s year-long siege in 1714, which ended Catalan independence. Elsewhere, the clue is in the name: the street Baixada de Santa Eulàlia marks the place where, it is said, the young martyr Santa Eulàlia was rolled down a slope in a barrel filled with nails and broken glass as part of her punishment for enraging Emperor Diocletian in 303CE.
If you look in the right places, there are many corners of the city with a decidedly morbid glint to them. When better than Halloween to give the sparkly city-of-the-future a break and head into the gloom?
Cementiri del Sud-Oest
Since 1883, Barcelona residents have been interred on a quiet flank of Montjuïc, away from the day-trippers, museums and magic fountains. Some suggest that the mountain, itself, takes its name from an earlier Jewish cemetery on the hill. The modern cemetery is a huge site, with a density that more or less matches that of the city itself. It even has its own bus service, winding its way up the steep seaward side of the hill through the calm, sun-bleached avenues flanked with cypress trees. There are avenues of opulent, ornate crypts built for rich families, and walls and walls of simpler urn compartments bearing a clear and unsettling resemblance to the L’Hospitalet apartment blocks that can be seen from the hilltop.
Among the tens of thousands of people who found their final resting place here are the artist Joan Miró, and Generalitat presidents Lluis Companys and Francesc Macià.
The spectre of the Civil War looms over the cemetery—both physically (it’s located just beneath the Castell, where thousands of Catalans were executed) and otherwise. Many of the victims of Franco’s firing squads, including Lluis Companys, are buried here, some in unmarked graves. There is a memorial park, the Fossar de la Pedrera, commemorating the Catalan victims of the Civil War and members of the International Brigades who lost their lives.
It’s possible that some of the occupants of the grand crypts would be a little peeved to discover that their pristine Mediterranean view is now interrupted by the shipping containers and cranes of the industrial end of the port, but the cemetery remains one of the quietest corners of the city and is a good spot for an afternoon spent pondering one’s mortality.
Plaça de Sant Felip Neri
Tucked away in the ancient warren of streets near to the Cathedral, Plaçca de Sant Felip Neri is a tiny, shady square that’s popular with practising buskers and the occasional lost tourist. A gorgeous Baroque church (Sant Felip Neri) forms one side. The tranquility is only broken a couple of times a day as children rush out of the primary school by the church and kick footballs against the walls and the fountain in the square’s centre. However, the church’s pockmarked façade hints at a darker past.
The square is built over a medieval graveyard, and local legend has it that Gaudí was on his way to the church, which was one of his favourites, when he was hit by a tram in 1928. Later on, during the Civil War, the square was used for executions by firing squads, damaging the church. Tragically, at around the same time, an Italian bombing raid killed over 200 people in the square, including many children and refugees, and further scarred the church.
Despite its bloody history, these days Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is peaceful again, with only its bullet holes and a certain melancholic feeling remaining. The square is also home to one of the city’s quirkier cultural institutions, the Museu dels Calçats (the Shoe Museum), in the ancient cobblers’ guildhall, an older building that was moved here in the Forties. A couple of streets away, Barcelona’s darker past is traceable once again in the Call, the once-thriving Jewish quarter that was purged in the pogroms that swept Catalunya in 1391, when all Jews who would not become Christians were expelled or killed.
Museu de Carrosses Funebres
For sheer weirdness, the city boasts few things that beat the Hearse Museum. Hidden in the basement of the municipal funeral service building, the deliciously grim collection of carriages and cars claims to be the biggest of its kind in the world, and is not for the faint-hearted.
Visitors who ask nicely at the reception desk of the Serveis Funeraris are shown into a little elevator by a security guard and ushered into a large, hushed chamber, filled with the pomp and splendour of funeral rites. There’s a lingering but indefinable smell to the dimly-lit room that makes it difficult to concentrate on the sumptuous horse-drawn carriages and enormous, sleek gunmetal cars, and the building’s air conditioning system periodically emits a low, hollow groan. Frozen model horses in elaborate harnesses and plumed headdresses draw the carriages, led by costumed mannequin pallbearers that seem to move slightly.
Some of the huge, ornate carriages in the collection are over 200 years old. The white ones (used for virgins and children) have a warped Cinderella feel to them, while the black ones are more reminiscent of Dracula. For those brave enough to linger, photographs, documents and artefacts accompany the carriages and costumes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, it’s so far off the tourist trail that visitors are a rarity, and 20 minutes with the mannequins is enough to send most lone thrill-seekers scurrying back to the sunlight.
To get there
CEMENTERI DE MONTJUÏC
Mare de Déu del Port, s/n, Tel. 93 484 1700
The Montjuïc cemetery is best approached from the port side on the 38 bus, and is open 8am to 6pm.
MUSEU DE CARROSSES FUNEBRES
Sancho de Avila, 2, Tel. 93 484 1700
Open 10am to 2pm and 4pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday, 10am to 2pm Saturday.
First published October 2006.