Plaça Reial

The Fall And Rise Of Barcelona's Regal Square

Located just off La Ramblas via Carrer Colom or off Carrer Ferran via Passatge Madoz and right on the edge of the Barri Gòtic, Plaça Reial is quite easy to miss if you don't know it's there and missing out on one of Barcelona's finest squares would be a dreadful shame.

This regal square was built and designed by architect Daniel Francesc Molina in 1849 and, like many other building projects around this time, occupies the space left by a demolished convent following the rampage known as The Burning of the Convents in 1835.

It was actually part of Barcelona's first major urban renewal programme since the 1820s, which also included the completion of Carrer Ferran symbolically linking the city's beloved Rambla and hated Citadel with its political and administrative centre at Plaça Sant Jaume.

What's interesting about Plaça Reial is that it is the only square in the centre of Barcelona that was designed as a complete entity, buildings and all, and, with I think the exception of Plaça del Mercadal and Plaça Massades in outlying Sant Andreu de Palomar, also the Catalan capital's only porticoed square.

I've read that Molina modeled Plaça Reial on the residential squares of Napoleonic France with elements of John Nash's London residential projects.

To me, however, Plaça Reial is very Spanish and although much more modest in size, its porticoed arcades remind me of squares I've seen in major Castilian cities.








I do so love Plaça Reial's solid grace precisely because its space and buildings transmit an internal coherence.

Two high-windowed floors, tied together vertically by white pillars, rise above the uniform porticoed arcades and above these a heavy, emphatic cornice leads to attics perched on top of the buildings.

The square was designed to be occupied by rich merchants who had made their fortunes in the Americas and if you look closely you'll see terracotta decorations depicting conquistadors with their shields supported by cherub-like indian slave children.

In 1876, the iron Three Graces fountain was added in the centre and its worth mentioning the two fine lamp standards, which were designed by a very young Antoni Gaudí, who in 1878 was yet to finish architectural school.

Even on his first commission, Gaudí's design was full of challenge and symbolism and the lampposts are crowned by a winged helmet and a caduceus, made up of two entwined snakes, representing Hermes, the trickster and dealer, who had been adopted by the Catalan business class as their patron God.

However, all this finery was soon to fall to rack and ruin as the bankers and merchants for whom Plaça Reial had been designed abandoned the Barri Gòtic for the recently-built Eixample District in time for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888.

The sumptuous apartments with their 15-foot ceilings fell empty, were sudvided and turned into tenements and the lower section of La Rambla closest to the port became a red-light district occupied by a human flotsam and jetsam racked by drugs and prostitution.

When I arrived in Barcelona in 1988, a century later, Plaça Reial had a dreadful reputation and although the dead-eyed whores and rouged old maricones seemed more a tourist attraction than a menace, you certainly had to watch your back for the dangerous stratum of muggers, addicts and dealers.

In those days, however, I was young, fit and fearless and nothing bad happened to me in my nightly reveries at the wonderful Glaciar bar from where we'd adjourn to our favourite night spot, Karma to bop till we dropped as night time turned to day.

I do remember a gay friend telling me that Plaça Reial was classified as AYOR meaning 'at your own risk' in one of the many gay tourist guides to Barcelona because presumably when a rent boy was reduced to hustling in Plaça Reial, he was definitely at the bottom of the heap.

The gentrification process, however, had already begun.

In 1982, architects Correa and Milà had completed a respectful restoration of the square, which was repaved along with the cleaning of the fine facades.

This was when the already mature palm trees were planted, which serve to reinforce Plaça Reial's status as an urban oasis.

By day, the square is a wonderful spot to take a liquid break from trudging the streets and the shade of the arcades provides a welcome respite from the hot summer sun.

On weekend mornings since time immemorial Plaça Reial has hosted one of Barcelona's most authentic experiences - the stamp and coin collectors fair, attended by serious dealers but with enough lightweight exhibits and frenetic bargaining to be entertaining. 

The apartments have been returned to their former glory and are now occupied by celebrities and the opening of the 5 star Hotel DO in 2011 has confirmed Plaça Reial's upwardly mobile status.

The cheap hostels are still there, though, the city's lowlife still cross the square on their way to their dens in the backstreets and down the alleys on the other side.

On summer evenings, the open air restaurants are full of diners - I was interested to see that the old Museo Pedagogico de Ciencias is now a swish seafood restaurant - and of course, the bar terraces are occupied by slightly drunken revellers.

As evening turns to night and the legendary clubs - Jamboree, Karma and Sidecar - come into their own, it's pleasing to know that Plaça Reial has lost none of its honky tonk charm.

Plaça Reial is always lively so if you want to stay where something is happening 24/7, you should definitely check out my Plaça Reial Accomodation page.





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