Orwell in Barcelona

The Ramblas, the main pedestrian walkway in Barcelona, is crowded with tourists from the cruise ships and cheap weekend city breaks, but what else is there other than fake Barcelona FC shirts and badly painted fans? A bomb site. A battlefield and the fight for the future of Barcelona.

On 17th August 2017 a 22 year old male drove a van down the Rambla killing 13 people there and then and another 130 people were also injured, one of whom would die several days later. The male then killed another person to steal their car to make an escape.

There were other incidents around Catalonia which killed another person. 8 terrorists were killed in total. I went to Barcelona a year after the events and the Ramblas remains the same as ever. Lively and crowded.

The recent controversy is that the King attended the remembrance service for the terrorist attacks, apparently many Catalans never wanted him there. The fire of the independence has diminished but it is still simmering away in both the city of Barcelona, and it is also visible in the countryside from the motorway as I head back to Madrid whilst writing this.

The balconies and stalls are adorned with thin yellow and red vertical stripes with demands for political prisoners to be freed and the country to have independence. The Catalan language is dominant as Spanish takes a backseat next to English. They are a proud nation but I get the feeling they are a little unsure of themselves and their country more like the Welsh than the Scottish.

What ever the future holds for this region there is no denying that it has a varied history.

History intertwined

Much of this history is still visible and has been managed differently to the rest of Spain. They don’t seem to repress the past as some in Madrid are trying to do at the moment by stopping the removal of Franco’s grave from the Valley of the Fallen. Or discussing life under Franco.

Catalonia and Barcelona have always been the black sheep of the Spanish family. Whether it is strange Christmas decorations, banning bullfighting or holding a unrecognised independence referendum they are certainly one of the more interesting regions in Spain.

This extends to the Civil war. The Ramblas hold secret stories of the Civil war which can be read about in George Orwell’s classic Homage to Catalonia.

George Orwell went to Barcelona in December 1936 to fight fascism, Francisco Franco’s Nationalist army, which was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Orwell was fighting on the side of the democratically elected government, there were many factions and Orwell joined the P.O.U.M. a Marxist anti Stalin group. Many speculate that he had little idea of Spanish politics and was not sure what he was joining.

Orwell was followed by his wife several weeks later. They stayed at the Hotel Continental near Plaça Cataluña just on the Ramblas, it is still run by the same family till this day and from the outside looks rather grand but dated inside. Orwell and his wife stayed here for much of their time in Spain and it is worth visiting but easily missed when visiting Barcelona.

When Orwell arrived in Barcelona he described a passion for the city as he found it: an anarchists paradise. The anarchist factions were in charge of Barcelona not the Republican government. Everyone was referring to each other as ‘Comrade’, sharing the resources, there were no posh people or upmarket restaurants and they were getting ready to kill some fascists.

Orwell then went off the front and as he describes in his book he got very cold and very bored.

Orwell later wrote about his experience from the front. This is one of my favourite pieces:

At this moment, a man presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.

This was where the Telephone Exchange stood

As he returns this is where the action takes place on the Ramblas. Before the hotel, tucked in the corner of Plaza De España, used to be Barcelona’s telephone exchange, this was controlled by the anarchists, as was the city. Yet, in typical left wing fashion the in-fighting started.

128 Las Ramblas is now a modern overpriced hotel but in the past it was the head quarters for the anarchists in control of Barcelona. To this day a plaque commemorates this. The government wanted the city back.

Down the Ramblas, past the Hotel Continental and the HQ of the anarchists, Café Moka looks like any other modern day tacky coffee shop with up priced drinks, however it is the site of one of the shootouts that happened between the government republican forces, who were trying to oust the the anarchists from Barcelona, and the anarchists.

The government forces took cover in café Moka and opposite Orwell was stationed to fight them. He was there for several days but did pop out for meals. The stand off took place in the centre of the Ramblas where today people from all over the world walk and trade freely without giving it a second thought. When stood in front of the cafe it’s hard to imagine bullets flying overhead.

This is only a section of the book, there is much more, but it is the most recognisable part when visiting Barcelona. I would encourage you to read the book before visiting the Ramblas.

Later in the book you can see that fake news is not only a thing in the time of Donald Trump and social media. You can see how the experience of the civil war impacted upon Orwell’s later works such as the changing of headlines in Nineteen Eighty-Four and why he depicts Stalin as a dictatorial pig in Animal Farm.

Hidden History

Further down the Ramblas to the left you can find the historic gothic quarter of Barcelona. This is a very beautiful area that is a wonderful place to spend a warm summers afternoon. In the depths of the gothic quarter lies a surreal scene: a bomb-site.

Placa (Plaza in Spanish) de Sant Felip Neri is a square in the gothic quarter that was bombarded by Franco’s forces on St Patricks days 1938. 42 people were killed, including 20 children from the school in the same square, as they had taken refuge in the basement of the church but it collapsed and they were killed.

Heavy markings remain in the square along with a plaque commemorating the dead. To this day the school in the square continue to use the plaza as a playground. As I was there children were playing ‘el escóndite inglés’ and a busker peacefully strumming away on his guitar. Strange contrast.

Leaving the Ramblas in search of my last destination I was met with a maze of back alleys and streets with interesting shops and hostels. The smells from the back of the variety of different restaurants reminds you that Barcelona, in the 21st century, is the most modern and multi cultural city in Spain.

Barcelona commemorates George Orwell with a plaza named after him. Plaza de Georgre Orwell is situated near the Ramblas down the winding alleys. Locally it is well known for drugs but the neighbourhoods in Barcelona are always changing just like its history shows. This restaurant is a good example.

So read Homage to Catalonia and look out for the hidden sites of the Ramblas.

Also, I’d like to thank my family for following me around to explore these places and friends for showing me them.

My long suffering wife also accompanied me on an interesting trip to a Franco café and civil war angel.

2 thoughts on “Orwell in Barcelona”

  1. Good blog. I was in Barcelona for s month, during the time that you were there. I live in Murcia and was up there because my wife was on a course.
    Anyway, visited similar places and did Nick Lloydds civil war tour. Think it is important to say that whilst Homage to Catalunya us a good book (I am an Orwell fan) it is only one man’s perception of what was happening at that time in Spain and is not definitive of the whole country/Was. Also, think we should remember that there are many me of in Catalonia that do not want independence (Not talking about fash types but normal people) who don’t seem to have a voice .. I spoke to many.
    I was also suprised the influence Murcia has had on the city …. almost built the place in a similar way to the irish in the UK.

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  2. check the film “LAnd & Freedom”, K Loache’s take on aragon trenches & Barna. “may days” telf. exchange- barricades -v. like Orwells experience. Some conside r thse maydays as the herois end of the Rev. & start of the counter-rev, started by the CP/Stalinists,as in “Homage….

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