Barcelona: Places to Explore

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El Raval

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El Raval (from arrabal, meaning "suburb" or "slum") is the area to the west of La Rambla, on the right as you walk toward the port. Originally a rough quarter outside the second set of city walls that ran down the left side of La Rambla, El Raval used to be notorious for its Barri Xinès (or Barrio Chino) red-light district, the lurid attractions of which are known to have fascinated the young Pablo Picasso.

Gypsies, acrobats, prostitutes, and saltimbanques (clowns and circus performers) who made this area their home soon found immortality in the many canvases Picasso painted of them during his Blue Period. It was the ladies of the night on Carrer Avinyó, not far from the Barri Xinès, who inspired one of the 20th-century’s most famous paintings, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, an important milestone on the road to Cubism. Not bad for a city slum.

El Raval, though still rough and tumble, has been gentrified and much improved since 1980, largely as a result of the construction of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and other cultural institutions nearby, such as the Centre de Cultura Contemporània (CCCB) and the Convent dels Àngels. La Rambla del Raval has been opened up between Carrer de l’Hospital and Drassanes, bringing light and air into the streets of the Raval for the first time in a thousand years. The medieval Hospital de la Santa Creu, Plaça del Pedró, the Mercat de Sant Antoni, and Sant Pau del Camp are highlights of this helter-skelter, rough-and-tumble part of Barcelona. The only area to consider avoiding is the lower part between Carrer de Sant Pau and the back of the Drassanes Reials shipyards on Carrer del Portal Santa Madrona.

A Good Walk

Starting from Plaça de Catalunya, take an immediate right after the Font de Canaletes into Carrer Tallers, named for butchers, tailors, or small textile factories (shops), depending on whether you’re using Catalan or Spanish. Go left through Carrer de les Sitges to Plaça del Bonsuccés and take a right at the handy and excellent Bar Castells, with its convenient marble counter outside on the corner. Stay on Elisabets past La Central del Raval, presently a bookstore but once the chapel for the Casa de la Misericòrdia, a former center for wayward or orphaned women, next door. Walk out into Plaça dels Àngels, where the medieval penumbra is suddenly brightened by Richard Meier’s gleaming Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, known as MACBA. To the left is the Convent dels Àngels, while behind the MACBA is the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), a rolling potpourri of art exhibits, musical events, lectures, and films. Beyond that is the Casa de la Caritat–Pati Manning, yet another cultural institution. Head back toward the MACBA and take Carrer de Ferlandina out to Carrer Joaquin Costa, where you will see Bar Almirall, a landmark Art Nouveau saloon. Go left all the way down Joaquin Costa to Carrer del Carme and turn left past an even more beautiful Art Nouveau bar, Bar Muy Buenas, with its curving wooden arches, etched glass, and a marble bar that was once a codfish-salting basin.

Continuing down Carrer del Carme, you will reach the back entrance to the medieval Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Cut to the right into this entrance. The first door and patio to your right is the former Casa de la Convalescència (Convalescence House), now the Institut d’Estudis Catalans. Continue through the patio of the medieval hospital, where you will pass the doors, on your right, to a reading room of the Biblioteca de Catalunya and, to the left, the children’s library. Continue through the orange trees in the patio of the hospital. The main section of the library, one of Barcelona’s finest Gothic spaces, is up the stairway to the right after the orange grove. Leaving the Escola Massana art school on your right, you will emerge through the massive wooden doors into Carrer Hospital. First, go left to look at the Capella de l’Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu, now used as a space for art exhibits; then turn around and walk back down Carrer Hospital, past the tempting Passatge Bernardí Martorell (with a good restaurant, Casa Leopoldo, at the end of it) across La Rambla del Raval to Plaça del Pedró. From here, walk out Carrer de Sant Antoni Abad, past the former Sant Antoni chapel, to the Mercat de Sant Antoni, a combination flea, food, clothes, and (on Sunday) stamp market (undergoing extensive restoration until late 2010). From here, follow the Ronda de Sant Pau east toward the port, cut left on Carrer de les Flors, and you will pass the excellent Ca l’Isidre restaurant before reaching Barcelona’s oldest church, Sant Pau del Camp. From here it’s just 300 yards to Drassanes Reials, Barcelona’s medieval shipyard, and the bottom of La Rambla.

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