Barcelona in the Details Part V: Municipal Water Fountains

Barcelona is a city which has become justly renowned around the world for its attention to design in its architecture and infrastructure. Back in 2008 I wrote pieces about the city’s unique variety of sidewalks, its unusual street lights, its distinctive royal residences, and its unusual Christmas traditions. Another element of the city which deserves attention is the variety of municipal water fountains – as distinguished from purely ornamental garden or patio fountains – to be found throughout both the older and newer portions of downtown.

Access to water is, of course, one of the elements necessary for the growth of any city. Recently my parents and I admired the remnants of one of the Roman aqueducts that brought fresh water from the mountains that sit at the north end of Barcelona proper down into what is now referred to as the Gothic Quarter, the heart of the ancient city. These arches were only uncovered recently, holding up part of an 18th century building across from the great Catholic bookshop Editorial Balmes, when an old apartment building had to be torn down. City officials wisely decided not to redevelop the site, so as to leave the arches exposed.

Throughout the twisting streets of the Gothic Quarter, medieval water fountains of highly varied design can often be found. Take this amusing example, which sits in the small square in front of the ancient Basilica of Saints Justus and Pastor, which served as Barcelona’s pro-cathedral during the 11th century. It was built in 1367 with funds donated by Barcelona City Councilman Joan Fiveller, to pipe water from the same mountains where the Roman aqueduct had once run:


Most of the municipal water fountains to be found today are based on a 19th century design, featuring a columnar base and domed top. They come in several versions, large and small, featuring one or more taps. Some of these form the base of one of the wrought-iron Victorian street lamps which still illuminate much of the city. The most famous example of this particular style is the Font de Canaletes, located on the Ramblas. Legend says that if you drink from the Canaletes fountain, you will return to Barcelona one day, and the fountain has become the gathering point for fans of Barça, Barcelona’s legendary soccer team, whenever they win a match.

The design of these 19th century fountains has become so emblematic of Barcelona as to be copied in many other cities throughout Spain. In fact, it is available in a reduced size in many tourist shops, for those wishing to have their own personal-sized version on their desk or counter top. The one photographed here is seen in the early hours of the morning in the Eixample, Barcelona’s 19th century expansion district, at the intersection of Pau Claris and Diputació:


A grander version of this 19th century design however, can be found at the intersection of the Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s equivalent of 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, one of the prestigious, broad avenues lined with fountains and palatial banks, theatres, and hotels which cut across the 19th century city. Like the other, larger municipal water fountains, it has a columnar base, domed top, and multiple spigots for obtaining fresh water. Unlike these however, given the prominence of its location, this fountain is more elaborately decorated, and features gilt-bronze goddesses holding up the dome. It was only recently restored and re-installed by the city for the use of citizens and the admiration of those who appreciate its beautiful design:



It might be considered somewhat unusual, in this day and age, when homes have running water and concern grows over new infectious diseases such as swine flu, that Barcelona would continue to upkeep these beautiful elements of civic infrastructure. Certainly the user should obtain water from these fountains knowing full-well that to do so might run them certain health risks. However, in Mediterranean countries where fresh water is often difficult to come by, providing these many points of access to local water supplies is something which the city has always thought important to maintain in the interest of good civic service to its population.