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The Barrio Chino

Sandwiched between the Pigalle-like Avinguda del Paral.lel and the lower Rambla, Barcelona's most notorious district, the Barrio Chino, has raged raucous and unrepentant for centuries. For many years it was nearly more emblematic and characteristic of the city than, say, Gaudí or the Gothic Quarter. Local denizens inspired many of Picasso's paintings of circus acrobats and gypsies. Though all of the Raval has been commingled with the Barrio Chino (Chinese Quarter in English), the authentic, hard-core "Chino" is everything between Carrer Hospital and the port on the bottom right side of the Rambla facing east.

China and the Chinese never had anything to do with all this: the Barrio Chino's name is a generic reference to all foreigners, as the area was inhabited by immigrants from other parts of Spain or from abroad. Even today, in Plaza dels Àngels in front of the MACBA, children playing soccer can be heard speaking Arabic, Urdu, and Tagalog, as well as Spanish and Catalan. The Raval's louche context of prostitutes, transvestites, pimps, and common thieves has long been a literary gold mine for French novelists such as Jean Genet (The Thief's Journal, 1949), Claude Simon (The Palace, 1962), and André Pieyre de Mandiargues (The Margin, 1967). Even Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind, 2001) delves into the Barrio Chino.

Though there are pockets still used as havens for prostitutes, drug pushers, and thieves, the Barrio Chino is not especially dangerous. The police presence here may even make it safer than the Rambla or parts of the Gothic Quarter—but don't count on it. The Rambla del Raval runs through the middle of what used to be no-man's-land, bringing fresh air into what was once the most insalubrious and dicey part of Barcelona.

Updated: 09-2013

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