El Poblenou

A Journey Into Barcelona's Industrial Past

Literally New Village in Catalan, El Poblenou is both an area of Barcelona occupying over half of the District of Sant Martí and a neighbourhood centred on the Rambla del Poblenou and the old historic centre.

The different neighbourhoods that can be loosely referred to as Poblenou occupy the area of the San Martí district that extends from Gran Via del les Corts Catalanes down to the seafront.

Until the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 this was an ugly sprawling area dominated by rundown factories long since closed.

The urban renewal programme in the run up to the Olympics opened up the seafront and beaches and since then the area has become home to the Fòrum as well as the [email protected] Technology area.

Apart from the neighbourhood of El Poblenou, the barris that comprise the area are:

This article, however, will concentrate on the historic centre of El Poblenou itself.


The Historic Centre of  El Poblenou

The original nucleus of Poblenou is the ancient barri of Taulat, which means piece of farmable land and occupies the section of the old municipality of Sant Martí de Provençals closest to the sea.

For centuries, it was a swamp area full of lagoons - hence the streetnames such as Llacuna or Joncars, which mean lagoon and reeds respectively.

The abundance of water meant that early textile factories were established here in the 17th century and with the arrival of steam El Poblenou became heavily industrialised.

With a broad manufacturing base centred on textiles but including oil, wine, machinery, paint, plastics and food, by the end of the 19th century Poblenou was the most heavily industrialised neighbourhood in Spain when Barcelona was known as 'the Manchester of the Mediterranean'.

This was brought home to me many years ago when I gave an L.S. Lowry calendar to my ex-wife's aunt, now in her nineties, who was born and brought up in Poblenou.

The stick figures and industrial scenes brought tears to her eyes and I doubt whether I've ever been so right about a Christmas present before or since.

Industry brought low cost housing and also the shanty towns of Pequín and Transcementiri and the beach shacks of Somorrostro in the 20th century.

From the 1960s onwards, the process of deindustrialisation turned El Poblenou into a rundown slum of empty factories backing on to a decrepitly dirty seafront and this was how it appeared to me when I arrived in Barcelona in the late 1980s.

The Rambla de Poblenou was always a great place with cool restaurants and bars but it was in the run up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that everything began to change for Poblenou.

The increasingly fashionable Rambla de Poblenou is the hub of the Poblenou’s cultural, social and retail life where modernity blends with the traditions that have defined this former industrial area over the years.

Originally named the Passeig del Triomf, the locals have always called it the Rambla de Poblenou, which finally became its official name in 1986.

It is a typical Barcelona rambla, stretching elegantly from the sea to the mountains, structured in rectangular and circular forms.

Its origins date back to 1853, when the Cerdà Plan was laid out, around an industrial Poblenou which was starting to grow in the centre of the Sant Martí district.

The Rambla del Poblenou still fulfils the same functions today, and is lined with shops, bars and restaurants with a past closely associated with the social life of Poblenou.

Next to beautiful modernista buildings, with their stunning decorations, you’ll come across the traditional shops and bars, as well as institutions, such as the Casino de l’Aliança, which has been the focus of the neighbourhood’s social and cultural life since the end of the 19th century.

Just up from the Casino, you'll come to the wonderful Tio Ché an authentic horchateria and ice cream parlour that has been quenching the locals' thirst for over a century.

A more modern watering hole is the trendy Quatre bar and in keeping with the multicultural atmosphere of Poblenou, Sitar is getting a reputation as one of Barcelona's best Indian restaurants.

A number of sculptures enrich this colourful, friendly avenue, such as the one at the top, at the junction of Carrer Pere IV, dedicated to pioneer surgeon Doctor Josep Trueta, one of Poblenou's most famous sons.

The Rambla de Poblenou finishes at a park and on the other side of the Avinguda Litoral main road you come to Bogatell Beach, which is one of the beaches that was opened up in the run up to the Barcelona Olympic games.

Bogatell Beach is made up of about 600 metres of golden sand with a mildly steep gradient into the sea and tends to be popular with families and people in their thirties and forties.

It's got all the normal facilities including an information point, red cross, adapted showers and public toilets, children games area, sun loungers, parasols, drinks and ice cream kiosks, sports, bicycle parking areas and restaurants.

Although the beach is the main tourist reason for visiting the area, it is the old Poblenou of narrow streets and modest dwellings, where blue-collar workers and fishermen once lived, that really captivates me.

As I mentioned earlier, the historic centre of the Poblenou district originates from an area known as Taulat - the lowest part of the old village of Sant Martí de Provençals which stood closest to the sea.

At the start of the industrial era, textile production was always close to water and  the abundant wetlands, lagoons and reed beds became the first plots of land where the untreated fabric was set out to bleach by exposure to the natural elements before being dyed or printed. 

Naturally it was here that some of Barcelona's first textile mills were estabished.

Nearby you find one of my favourite spots in Poblenou the Plaça de Prim, which was built in 1851, and forms the core of the residential area of Poblenou.

This charming square, with century old Argentinian ombú trees and benches, is set against the backdrop of the chimney of the old steam mill and this is the part of Poblenou where one gets the strongest sense of its industrial past.

Incidentally, here you'll find Els Pescadors, which until the 1950s was a local fishermen's bar but these days is one of the most prestigious fish and seafood restaurants in Barcelona with prices to match.
The industrial architecture in Poblenou has been put to new uses adapted to the needs of today and old factories, such as Can Felipa and Can Ricart and now house new activities.

Can Felipa, on Carrer Pallars, is more reminiscent of a Parisian residential block, with its mansard roof and large windows on the façade, than a former textile factory dating from 1855.

It is currently the home of a community centre, which runs a whole host of activities, as well as the local archive, the Arxiu Històric del Poblenou, and even has a theatre in the roof space.

The former factory of Can Ricart, which was built between 1852 and 1855, rises up majestically next to the Eix de Pere IV.

Can Ricart was an important textile mill that manufactured printed fabrics and today, the central section of the building, the adjacent tower and an area now used as studios by artists in residence are the surviving parts of the original building.

Another unlikely attraction of Poblenou is its magnificent cemetery on Avinguda Icària, which was originally Barcelona's main cemetery and in many respects is a museum of funereal art.

Originally opened in 1775, the original Cementiri del Poblenou was destroyed by Napoleon's troops and what we see today dates from 1819 and is based on a design by the Italian architect Antonio Ginesi in a sober, neoclassical style featuring occasional Egyptian elements.

The Cementiri has two distinct areas - the original cemetery and the part that was extended in the second half of the 19th century, and not only is of great artistic interest but if you know the history behind the tombs also contains some very poignant features.

The cemetery houses the tombs of eminent Catalans, such as the composer Josep Anselm Clavé, the playwright and poet Serafí Pitarra, members of former mayor Pasqual Maragall's family including his grandfather the poet Joan Maragall as well the Counts of Godó, industrialists and owners of La Vanguardia newspaper.

There are also anonymous tombs, such as the final resting place of the santet or little saint of Poblenou - a boy from the neighbourhood who still receives many floral tributes.

Or the tombs of gypsies, often featuring highly realistic sculptures, such as the one of the elegantly dressed gentleman with his inseparable packet of cigarettes in his pocket.

The cemetery was expanded in the second half of the 19th century; the modern part made it possible for the affluent families of the Barcelona bourgeoisie to build pavilions and mausoleums of great artistic quality.

Should you visit Poblenou cemetery make sure to see Jaume Barba’s striking sculpture Petó de la Mort - Kiss of Death - which dates from 1930 and shows a skeletal grim reaper kissing a dying man.

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