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Forget the Itinerary: Barcelona's El Raval Neighborhood

El Raval often gets a bad rap. In April, video circulated of a violent confrontation between two machete-wielding men. Although the incident did not result in any major injuries, it is likely the fight was drug-related. Many consider the neighborhood, located just off of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, a stone’s throw away from city’s main tourist artery of La Rambla, a hotbed of prostitution, petty thievery and drug trafficking. However, there’s more to the El Raval neighborhood than attention-grabbing headlines.

Cities are Alive

Naturally, when visiting a city for the first time, we turn to the attractions covered in the guidebooks we hurriedly pick up from airport bookstores. We read them as we taxi down the runway, scanning top sights and making mental itineraries of where we want to go. If you’re someone like me, you also partly do this in an attempt to squash the near-paralyzing fear that you have willingly boarded a tin can that is about to launch itself into the high heavens.

Once you touch down and have made your way to the sanctuary of the arrivals area and are waiting to collect the one piece of hand luggage the budget airline you traveled on undoubtedly made you check, you return to revising your itinerary.

Unfortunately, the problem with travel guides, and I recognize the irony of claiming this while writing what is essentially a travel guide, is the promotion and recycling of travel experiences.

Take Barcelona for example. A travel itinerary for Spain’s most visited city will invariably look something as follows:

1. La Rambla
2. Barrio Gotic
3. Sagrada Familia
4. Park Guell
5. Casa Batlo
6. Montjuic
7. La Boqueria
8. Camp Nou
9. Eat Tapas
10. Go for a swim

Now, this isn’t a question of authenticity. Authenticity is in many ways a myth in modern-day tourism. But, travel is about, as Anthony Bourdain put it, “[finding your] own way without any particular itinerary [leaving yourself] open to things happening. To mistakes… because that’s the most important part of travel.”

Far be it from me to try to insert myself into your holiday. This too is the beauty of travel. You get to do what you want when you want. But, we do forget that a city exists beyond the top ten list we’ve saved to the notepads on our phones. That they are alive. With entire areas and neighborhoods functioning like living, breathing organisms that ooze history beyond the determined stops on a Segway tour.

So, to pique your interest and hopefully encourage you to find your own way, I’d like to introduce you, through its history, to El Raval in Barcelona. A neighborhood that’s colorful, gritty and vibrant.

The History of El Raval in Barcelona

Squeezed between the Gothic Quarter and Sant Antoni, El Raval, which translates literally to outskirts or periphery, has, in many ways always existed on the margins. In the 17th century, it was Europe’s densest working-class neighborhood. And, housed much of Barcelona’s textile industry, built here away from the wealthier areas of Barcelona. Living conditions were poor, accommodation crowded and facilities such as water and toilets shared. As the population grew, life expectancy declined.

  • The Rise of Shanty Towns

By the 19th century, the textile and tanning factories, slaughterhouses and many of the other industries that had set up shop over the centuries packed up and moved out. The big, empty spaces they left in their wake were hastily transformed into low-rent living areas that quickly filled. Overcrowding led to the building of shanty towns atop the roofs of these buildings. And, introduced the “barraquismo vertical” or verticle slums.

The El Raval neighborhood’s proximity to the harbor made it prime real estate for the seedy underworld of sex and drugs. Soon, brothels and sex shops punctuated the cafes, taverns and music halls that lined the narrow streets. The area quickly earned itself a reputation as Barcelona’s red light district, attracting artists and paying “johns.” By the turn of the century, the area was being referred to as “Barrio Chino” as it resembled the Chinatowns represented in American films.

  • Civil War: Dark Consequences

After the Spanish Civil War and with the rise of Franco, the moral climate in Spain underwent a change. Officially banning prostitution in 1956 led to further deterioration of the neighborhood. In the 1960s the nightlife scene moved out of El Raval district leaving the neighborhood with very little. And, with the introduction of heroin the social life that remained left too.

  • The 80s: New Beginning 

For years the El Raval district existed in a state of slow deterioration and neglected. It became, to many, a “no-go” area. But, low rent prices continued to attract migrants from both Spain and further afield. Eventually, in the 1980s the local government turned its attention to the neighborhood, which had never seen any major investment for regeneration, and began to consider urban landscape improvements.

  • Raval Breathes Again

El Raval’s layout was, and still is in large part, based on the tangled knot of its medieval streets. However, prior to the El Raval neighborhood’s rejuvenation, large, grey, dilapidated buildings bordered the streets. The lack of light and air traveling through the streets created a suffocating atmosphere adding to the area’s unruly nature. It, therefore, became the aim of the urban regeneration plan to reopen the neighborhood. In essence, to let it breathe. And, so the Barcelona government set about knocking down buildings to open things up. 

Chief amongst these efforts was the construction of the Rambla del Raval. Completed in 2000, the street, not to be confused with Barcelona’s world famous, La Rambla, cuts down the middle of the neighborhood. It is an oasis that provides a welcome respite from the narrow streets that defined the area for so long.

  • Diversity, Creativity & Art

Since its urban regeneration, the neighborhood has undergone a transformation that extends beyond just the physical. While many may be quick to cry gentrification, the El Raval neighborhood is far from gentrified. Alongside the pop-up shops, galleries, boutiques, and trendy bars exists a rich mix of vibrant cultures all of which come out for the Festa Major del Raval

And, the intermingling of the two creates a buzzing environment of exchange. Here, the most spoken languages are Catalan, Spanish, Urdu, and Tagalog. Art exists both inside and outside of purpose-built creative spaces. Restaurants serve Thai, Chinese, and Indian food. Boutiques sell handcrafted wares.  And the lives, cultures, and traditions of different people interweave and overlap. It is a beautiful place.

Forget the Itinerary

So, forget the itinerary. Forget the Sagrada Familia. Forget Park Guell, Casa Batlló, and Montjuic. Forget Casa Mila, La Boqueria, and La Rambla. At least for a day. And, take yourself down to El Raval where you can wander the streets and pop into a restaurant or a gallery or stop at a market or a cafe you’ve never heard of before. 

Stroll down the Rambla del Raval knowing that its construction brought new life and energy with it. Eavesdrop, people watch and soak it all in. But, most importantly, when you get to a crossroads advance into the unknown. There are treasures to be discovered everywhere.

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