Anyone who knows me knows that I am endlessly fascinated with Barcelona – its history, architecture, food, etc. I am never so happy in any one place as I am walking about the streets of the city, just absorbing the joy of being there and the myriad details of daily life. I first went to live in Barcelona briefly, as a small child, over thirty years ago, and my most recent visit was last Christmas. In all of that time, the city has continued to evolve in my thoughts, and serve as a source of inspiration.
Barcelona unquestionably has great monuments, beautiful art, amazing restaurants, etc. For me however, these aspects in and of themselves are not what makes Barcelona special. Rather, the love for La Ciutat Comtal, as it is known, comes in the little details. It took the rest of the world long enough to catch up with the fact, but Barcelona is a very stylish city – it usually *thinks* about how something is going to look before it makes it, and it is that which I hope to write about over time.
Since this is a topic of personal curiosity I intend to return to again and again, I decided to start at perhaps the most basic level: under one’s own feet.
One thing that many of us take for granted as we go about our daily business is the fact that the sidewalk – or pavement if you are a Limey – is simply a paved surface on which we walk. Usually that surface is made of concrete or, if you live in an historic district like I do, brick pavers. The brick of course looks perfectly nice, but in nasty wintry weather it isn’t much fun to slip and slide on.
In Barcelona however, the question of sidewalk materials is not purely an utilitarian one. I was relaxing last evening and thinking about how nice it would be to have a wander around Barcelona. The wind was howling outside, and it reminded me of the Tramuntanya that blows down from the Pyrenees at times, knocking everything and everyone about in the city streets. And one thing that instantly popped into my reverie was the thought of the different sorts of sidewalks I might be walking on as I wandered about.
Sidewalks in Barcelona are, generally speaking, composed of tiles or stamped concrete. The most famous of all Barcelona sidewalks is probably this one, which was designed by Antoni Gaudi i Cornet, an ancestor of mine:
It’s a bit difficult to see in this photograph, but the cast of these unusual hexagonal tiles is a blue-green reminiscent of the sea, and thus all the more appropriate to the design. These tiles are only to be found on the sidewalks of the Passeig de Gracia, roughly the Bond Street of Barcelona, and on no other city street. It’s even possible to purchase coasters in the shape of these molded tiles.
There are other types of tile that are ubiquitous to various parts of the city. For example, that found in the old city (the Gothic quarter and thereabouts), is a slab tile in a running bond pattern:
This choice is a nice accommodation of the desire to provide a functional surface with easy access to sewage and utility mains located in ancient, historic areas, that does not detract from the aesthetics of the surroundings. Unfortunately these tiles tend to collect water underneath and pop up at times, or squish out water when you step on them. Still, if you are laying sidewalk tile in an area that has been populated for around two to three thousand years, nothing is going to be perfect.
Two stamped concrete tile designs that are very commonly used in central areas of Barcelona include the pattern I call “the flower”, which features interlocking circles surrounded by a square:
and another pattern I call “the circles” showing a simple circle surrounded by a square:
There is also a third pattern that is a variation on the preceding circle theme, showing four smaller circles around an “x” or cross shape, each circle occupying one quadrant, but that particular tile does not seem to have been as popular in recent years.
My father often complains that the patterns stamped into the concrete tend to collect rainwater and make thing slippery, which is certainly true. However, they are such an iconic part of the experience of being in Barcelona, that I do not begrudge them their impracticality. Anyone who has been there and paid attention to their surroundings cannot help but feel their heart leap if they see this simple detail of everyday life there in an unexpected setting – for example, as chocolate.
Another feature often found on Barcelona sidewalks is the bronze plaque honouring a long-established city business, such as this one installed in 1993 on the sidewalk in front of the 19th century Xocoloteria Fargas, a famous chocolates shop on the Carrer del Pi. In Catalan, the sign reads, roughly, “City Government of Barcelona in recognition of Fargas Chocolates’ years of service to the city”:
These are actually just a few examples of the variety of sidewalk tiles in Barcelona, and there are others that are equally interesting. The Ramblas has alternating curved bands of white and red tiles down its center, while northern parts of the city sometimes have pale gray square tiles with a rough, tumbled surface that resembles stone. All of these variations are a pleasure to the eye, since there is always something new and interesting to look at, and enjoy. They are one of the many reasons why it is in its details that Barcelona proves to be so memorable, at least to this writer.