Category Archives: History

A new view of Barcelona – from the Fabra Observatory

Mount Tibidabo is fast becoming my favourite place in Barcelona.

It’s a slow burner, granted. I’d lived here two full years before ever setting foot on a single funicular to ferry me up to its pine-clad slopes, up, up and away from the anything-but-bucolic Barcelona below.

And once you peak, chances are your head is turned by the exigencies of expiation. The screams from the funfair’s roller coaster (they must be atoning for something), or the beguilingly beautiful lanterns of the summit-smug Sagrat Cor church.

Sagrat Cor by Julie Sheridan

Admit it, you’re beguiled.

But all the while, right under your nose – and indeed, in most postcards of Tibidabo – is a century-old site that most Barcelonans themselves have never discovered.

The fabulous Fabra Observatory.

fabra observatory by scalleja

Perched among pine trees at over 400 metres above sea level, the Observatory was originally conceived of as a site devoted not just to the study of astronomy, but of meteorology and seismology.

In fact, dating from 1904, it’s one of the most ancient bases of astronomical, meteorological and seismological study in the world.

The first team of staff took up their posts in April 1906 (it had taken two years to recruit them – bear in mind, the guide points out, there was no InfoJobs back then). And they didn’t mess about. A good 29 years before the Richter Scale was even introduced, the Barcelona team’s instruments predicted major seismic activity on the other side of the world.

Sure enough, on 18 April 1906, the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was unleashed.

Fabra Observatory Museum by Julie Sheridan

“The universe knew we were coming.”

The ascent

The universe might have known we were coming, but I’m betting it hadn’t bargained on us coming by public transport.

The Observatory’s website helpfully counsels “we recommend you come by car”. Sadly lacking in the car department, I somewhat trepidatiously eyed up the public transport options. This involved a metro ride from Tarragona to Plaça Catalunya (20 minutes), then a connecting train from Plaça Catalunya to Peu de Funicular (15 minutes – make sure you sit in a middle carriage or you’ll alight straight onto a brick wall), then the funicular train from Peu de Funicular right up to Vallvidrera Superior.

Exiting the station, in the middle of nowhere up a mountain, I consulted the bus timetable from Vallvidrera, only to find out I had a good 25-minute wait in store. In what was probably not the wisest decision of my life (iPhone in handbag), I decided sod it, what’s a dark mountain top between friends on a Saturday night, and hiked it up the hill on foot till I reached the Observatory, pausing now and again to gasp in awe at the Sagrat Cor church lit up, up close. (The church is honestly spectacular, and well worth the trip.)

Suddenly I see

Reaching the Observatory, at last, it turned out I was 45 minutes early. Ushering me through the gates, the guide was magnanimous in the face of my quaintly British tendencies.

“Why don’t you wait at the look-out point?”, he suggested, as I nodded and obligingly circumnavigated the building in the dark.

Alone, early, feeling irksomely non-Spanish, I found myself stumbling towards a long bench of decking, flanked by trees, and then gasping at the sudden view of the whole Barcelona conurbation corruscating at my feet.

Barcelona view by mazlov
The photos, of course, don’t do it justice.

To the left stood the Torre Agbar, in all its contentious conflagrations. In the middle the W Hotel, punctuating the horizon, definitively marking the end of the beach. A little inland, the reasurringly blue rays beamed over MNAC, the Magic Fountain dancing and prancing in symmetrical synchronicity, commanding attention, the prettiest belle of the ville.

I thought of James Joyce and his epiphanies.

Welcome to our World

Half an hour later, I found myself, not for the first time in the last two and a half years, the only non-Catalan-speaking person in the room. The guide seemed a kind, friendly little man, who clearly knew his stuff. He quickly clocked the look of dismay/incomprehension/boredom on my face as he launched into his welcome speech to the audience, which I was surprised to see on a Saturday night were mostly made up of parents and young kids.

“I’m just going to switch into Spanish”, he smiled at everyone, much to my gratitude.

lecture at Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Owned by the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, the southward-facing Observatory has an illustrious history. It’s the fourth-oldest observatory in the world that’s still going strong, and the building itself is the brainchild of reluctantly Modernista architect Josep Domenech i Estapà (the same designer behind the likes of CosmoCaixa and the city’s Law Courts).

The Observatory’s scientists began keeping records in 1914, and our guide takes pains to point out that not one day of data over the last 99 years – on the local weather, regional seismic activity and celestial shenanigans – has gone unrecorded. (He also mentions that this October has been the warmest since records began, confirming my deeply-held Scottish suspicions.)

Poignantly, this uninterrupted track record comes despite the devastation of the city during the Spanish Civil War. The Observatory then became a makeshift refugee camp for some members of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the systematic bombing of Barcelona from its viewing deck must have been a terrible sight to behold.

The dame in the dome – the Fabra Telescope

Holding court in the Observatory’s cupula, the telescope itself is a grand old dame. One of the largest and oldest telescopes in Europe, it loomed large in front of us as we climbed the narrow access ladder, momentarily silencing the overweening Spanish children.

Each person got to take their turn, for about 20 seconds, to eye up the in-focus planets. On clear nights, our guide explains, they zoom in on the moon, but on overcast evenings the planets provide a more satisfying voyeuristic experience.

telescope Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Did the earth move for you?

I have to admit, what I saw through the lens wasn’t earth-shattering.

It could best be described as a nebulous white blob.

Later on, the young Spanish mother who I’d met in the museum and who had very kindly offered me a lift back down the mountain confessed to a similar sense of bemusement.

“What did you see?” she quizzed me as her husband took the Tibidabo bends expertly. “A white blob?” I ventured, and the three of us laughed in relief.

telescope Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Similarly starstruck?

The Observatory is open to the public on Sundays from 11am to 12.30pm, and you’re fine to just show up without booking ahead (note that it’s closed all throughout August, though).

For night-time visits (and let’s face it, that’s what it comes into its own), you’ll pay a bargain 10€ entry fee for a welcome speech (in Spanish), followed by on-eyeball planet action through the telescope, and a stroll around the panoramic outdoor walkway.

Feel Museum at Observatorio Fabra by Julie Sheridanlike splashing out? Or just hungry? From June till September each year the Observatory offers ‘Sopars amb estrelles’ (‘dinner under the stars’), where you get to dine in what must be one of the most privileged places in Barcelona. It’s not cheap (and I can’t vouch for the food), but having seen the look-out point/terrace where the supper takes place, I bet you’re in for a treat. Book ahead.

Whenever you go, bear in mind that Tibidabo tends to get a little on the frigid side (relatively speaking – I’m from Glasgow), and you’d be as well to bring a cardigan or light jacket for when that wind really starts to nip.


Filed under History

The magical La Mercè – best bits 2013

Of all Barcelona’s traditional myriad excuses for a knees-up (or ankles-up, in the case of the sedate little steps of the Catalan sardana), late September’s La Mercè festival is somewhat of a legend in these parts.

Sundry fabulous beasts of yore – giants, dwarfs, fire-breathing dragons – prance and parade in their finery, not to mention castles of quivering human loins and foes of fire and water reaching operatic heights in an awe-inspiring final farewell to summer.

The 4-day event is a compelling cacophony of Catalan culture, and, amazingly given the continuing Crisis, it’s completely free.

castellers by Julie Sheridan

Castles in the air – saluting the town hall

La lovely lady herself

The festival is named in honour of Barcelona’s co-patron saint, the Virgin of La Mercè, who’s said to have intervened in a particularly pesky plague of locusts in the 17th century, thus bagging the ‘patron saint’ accolade. She shares the podium with Saint Eulàlia, who, peeved at having to share the limelight, is credited with tears of rage when it inevitably rains on La Mercè’s parade every year without fail.

Except this year, when the sun shone blithely throughout, making the spectacle on the streets all the more scintillating.

sardanes by julie sheridan

The circle dance of La Sardana – that’s what it’s all about!

Having somehow managed to be out of the city for most of it last year (following a baptism of fire in year one), this time round I wasn’t going to miss the chance to honour my closet pyro. With two somewhat wary Scottish relatives in tow, we donned our best fire-protective clothing, threw our handbags in the ring, and prepared to kick up our heels.

drums-la-merce by julie sheridan

The ‘bastoners’ belt out the beat of Barcelona

The city is the stage when it comes to La Mercè – to enjoy the festival’s best moments, you need to be out on the streets. The festival even has its own soundtrack, in the form of 50-odd open-air concerts from both local talent and established international performers.


Anyone know the collective noun for giants?!

If you’re somewhere in the centre of town, you won’t need to wait too long for a passing procession of friendly giants, while circus acts and street performers do what they do best, enthralling kids up at Montjuïc Castle and thronging the main city park, Ciutadella.

Catalan conflagrations

The ‘correfoc‘, or firerun, takes place on the Sunday night, and is perhaps the most hotly anticipated event of the whole festival.

Forget running with the bulls – if you come to Barcelona for La Mercè, you better be ready to sprint with Satan himself. Plus his entourage of minor demons and aforementioned mythical beasts.

firerun by vosh

Throw caution to the wind in the non-BSI regulated correfoc

I’m no La Mercè virgin, but even I underestimated the strength of the tridents’ sparks. I emerged apparently unsinged from dancing with the devils under the umbrella of embers, but on the metro ride home, relative number 2 revealed she’d been burned right through three layers of clothing – as well as branded on her forearm.

dragon by julie sheridan

Nessie gets really mad

The ‘Pyromusical’

With full potential to be cringingly kitsch, but in actual fact touchingly impressive, Tuesday evening’s ‘Pyromusical’ saw the grounds surrounding the Magic Fountain packed to the gunnels.

The crowd of thousands in front of Montjuïc was remarkably well behaved as they craned their necks to catch sight of the first flare to light up the Barcelona night sky. The spectacle that followed was worth the wait – fireworks and fountain jets synching and sinking in time to the music, in a sublimely choreographed and jaw-dropping display.

All in all, a festival to take your breath away. See you there next year?

pyromusical by Julie Sheridan



Filed under Culture, History

Coasting the Costa Brava

Of all the reasons behind my move to Barcelona, being close to the coast was perhaps the most pressing. Having the sea on your doorstep is something I’d grown used to, having spent most of my life on one Scottish shore or the other. Like conches, many of the poems I write invoke the sea, and I suspect it will always be a legacy.

But somehow, having lived in Barcelona for the best part of two years, I have yet to really make friends with the Mediterranean. To be honest, at times the slick, spruced-up seafront – overhauled in the run-up to the ’92 Olympics – leaves me a little cold.

Plus, if you don’t happen to live close to the beach in Barcelona (and I don’t), it’s entirely possible to spend months without going anywhere near it. Which is a huge pity, really, when you think about it.

So when I was offered the opportunity to take part in a press trip around the Costa Brava, with a particular focus on the importance of the coastline to the Catalan sense of identity, I jumped at it.

L'Estartit harbour

The Costa Brava – where you don’t even need Instagram

From Barcelona to Girona and east to L’Estartit

Straddling the flood plain of the Ter estuary, L’Estartit is a small, seafaring town. A privileged wee place, its long beach and beautiful bay scintillate in the Catalan sunshine. The ace up its sleeve, though, is the enigmatic archipelago that sits about a kilometre off shore – the uninhabited Medes Islands.

Medes Islands from Girona Tourism Board

The Medes Islands as seen from the mainland

Once patrolled by pirates, these seven little islets are something special.

Twenty years of protection have made the Medes Islands one of the most important marine flora and fauna reserves in western Europe. A mecca for divers from all around the world, the area boasts the largest red coral reef in the Mediterranean. I am not a diver, but listening to tales of tame rays, barracudas, groupers and scorpion fish (but no sharks – always a bonus) made me want to load up on Nitrox and delve the depths of the seabed.

Approaching the Medes Islands

As the schooner skulked around the periphery of the seven moody monoliths, I was reminded of Ailsa Craig, that hulking heft of rock that rises up out of the Ayrshire seabed. It, too, was plagued by pirates. Seeing the islands up close felt a bit like reading the region’s palm. Not for the first time, I reflected on the connections between Catalonia and Scotland…Caledonia.

If scuba and snorkelling are not your thing, there are other ways to explore these compelling crags. Companies in L’Estartit offer boat trips in glass-bottomed boats around the islands and right along the Montgrí coast.

The Spanish flag - la Rojigualda - and the Catalan Senyera

The Spanish flag – la Rojigualda – and the Catalan Senyera

The port of Palamós

My head still conniving with cunning plans to jump ship from Barcelona and move lock, stock and barrel to L’Estartit, it was time to head south, to the less pretty, more gritty, port of Palamós.

Sorting the catch in Palamos

Sorting the catch in Palamós

The Catalan coastline is 580km long and fish is a hugely important part of the local diet. Surprisingly, though, fewer than 100 of the 532 species found in the western Mediterranean are of interest to fishermen, and only 12 constitute the basis of the fishing sector (anchovies, sardines, blue fin tuna, tuna, hake, blue whiting, angler fish, sea bream, red mullet, octopus, Norway lobster and, of course, prawns).

In Palamós, the seafaring traditions of Catalonia turn into a spectacle in front of your eyes. Palamós smelled of my childhood. Watching the guys at the docks sort and unload the day’s catch, the stench of salt and nostalgia was in my nostrils.

Monday through Friday, by mid afternoon the fishermen start to arrive back at the port, and the unloading of the day’s catch begins. Shanties and shindigs don’t come into it – this is big business. Years ago anyone and their dog could fish from the coast, whereas today you have to be a professional fisherman with a bona fide licence.

For fish to carry the prestigious ‘Palamós’ label, strict criteria must be met. Staff check to make sure the fish aren’t from polluted waters before the produce can take its place on the conveyor belt, bound for the daily auction.

The famous Palamos prawns (gambas de Palamos)

The famous Palamós prawns (gambas de Palamós)

The auction itself, conducted in a building closed off to the general public, is a sight to behold.

The first auction kicks off at 7am (for ‘blue’ or oily fish, like sardines, mackerel and anchovies), while the second takes place late afternoon.  The small auction room has a terse, no-nonsense atmosphere, with buyers (mostly restaurant and market stall owners) sitting glued to their handsets. Old sea dogs and their wifeys pack the pews.

Up until fairly recently, the prices were sung out, but modern technology means that things have moved on. Buyers are part of a sophisticated network, with their own Facebook groups and everything. Simultaneously, auctions are going on in Girona, L’Escala, Roses and Sant Feliu, and it’s all about getting the best price. Just to complicate matters (or facilitate them, depending on your point of view), prices are shown in pesetas as well as euros.

Although it’s an auction, there are no actual bids for the boxes of fish. The person who pushes the button first gets the lot. The price varies from day to day, with Friday being the most expensive. To give you an idea, a kilo of Palamós prawns will sell for 90€ in the market in the summer, but the fishermen only take home 27€ of this. Most of the time, all of the fish is sold by the end of the day – only flotsam and jetsam remain.


The tides of life on Palamós beach

The Fishing Museum (Museu de la Pesca) in Palamós 

Aside from the excitement of seeing the whole process up close – the smell, the a(u)ction, and yes, if I’m honest, the burly fisherman in yellow overalls – I think the highlight for me of the whole tour was the Fishing Museum in Palamós. This is a seriously well thought-out space, rivalling the best of the museums you will find in Barcelona.

Visitors are greeted by a suitably stirring 10-minute-long audiovisual presentation before being ushered through to the permanent exhibition itself.

The impressive Fishing Museum in Palamos

The impressive Fishing Museum in Palamós

In laying bare the relationship between humans and the sea, the Museum takes a modern, hands-on approach. I was struck most of all by the stories behind some of the characters whose voices echoed down throughout the centuries.

“I think if I was to be born anew, I’d choose again to be a fisherman. You do the the same thing every day but it’s never the same.” – Josep Mateu, Fisherman (1923)

“When I started, there were 50 women…We mended the nets on the beach. Ouch, the sand was burning! We sat on the ground all day.” – Joaquima Brull Vila, Net mender (1912)

If you’re planning a trip to Palamós and intend to take in the Museum, my advice would be to allow yourself plenty of time. In addition to the permanent exhibition, it offers guided tours, workshops, excursions and itineraries, and you’ll want time to enjoy it all.

I especially enjoyed the cooking workshop at the end of the tour. “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot,” said the Catalan writer Joseph Pla (1897-1981), and this seemed particularly apt as we chomped on fresh-caught tuna fillets. If there’s a recurrent theme throughout the various exhibits, it’s that of sustainability – and I certainly left with a new-found interest in the fish I consume and the way that it’s caught.


A live cooking demonstration in the Fishing Museum, Palamós

All in all, this taster tour of the Costa Brava left me desperately devising ways to spend more time there. If I can pluck up the guts to hire – and drive – a car in 2013 (the wrong side of the car, the wrong side of the road, the wrong side, no doubt, of the law) I will be hotfooting it north from Barcelona the first chance I get. See you there.

The compelling Costa Brava. Dive in.

Craving the Costa Brava? Dive in.


Filed under Culture, History

Barcelona’s bomb shelters – Refugio 307

Spend any amount of time in Barcelona and the chances are that beneath the Mediterranean façade of frolics and frippery, you will pick up on a much darker side of its history. This is, quite literally, under the surface – in the over 1,800 air raid shelters built underground during the Spanish Civil War.

Barcelona under the bombs

The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, had a particularly cataclysmic effect on the Catalan capital. In fact, Barcelona has the dubious accolade of being the first city in Europe to have had its civilian population systematically bombed. Both a front and a rear-guard at the same time, the city presented the perfect guinea-pig scenario for the aggressors.

The aerial attacks lasted two years and killed more than 2,000 of Barcelona’s civilians in that time. The bombings were in many ways a training exercise for the subsequent bombing tactics of the Second World War, which started in the same year the Spanish Civil War came to an end.

This experimentation in the techniques of warfare even earned its own chilling neologism – ‘urbicide’.

The air raid shelter in Poble Sec – Refugio 307

I had heard of the underground safety network in passing, and was even more interested when I heard that one of few shelters open to the public is in my own Barcelona neighbourhood, Poble Sec. On a scorching August morning I accompanied my friend and neighbour Eva to Refugio 307, on Nou de la Rambla, for a guided tour of this large subterranean labyrinth.

Going underground

What is immediately apparent is that no. 307 was a shelter far from the norm. Most of the 1,800 shelters, our guide tells us, had to be dug out of the ground – downwards. There were some city townhouses with air raid shelters in their basement, but mostly, it was a case of grab your shovel. And people did, partly organised by the Generalitat (Catalan government) but largely left to build the shelters of their own accord with whatever resources they could muster.

This particular refuge was built thanks to the charity of a Poble Sec local, who has remained anonymous. Not because the records are lacking, but because his family fear reprisals to this day.

This is one of the first facts we’re hit with before we enter the stone passageways, and it takes me a minute to fully assimilate the significance of the statement.

Here we are in a democratic country in western Europe, in the 21st century. But names have to remain secret in case…what? All of a sudden I feel that in my naiveté, I have spent the last 15 months living here in the mistaken notion that the city’s past is negligible. We bow our heads to enter the labyrinth and I feel a flush of shame.

information at Refugi 307

The shame quickly turns to awe and admiration. Battle-axed into the bedrock of Montjuïc hill lie 400 metres of vaulted tunnels, with crudely smoothed walls painted white in a deliberate attempt to combat claustrophobia. Initially, near the entrance, all bends are curved, to make it easier for the injured to be ferried in on stretchers.

Refugio 307, we learn, was a bit of a privileged spot, as air raid shelters go. Rather than digging down, Poble Sec locals were able to dig in – straight into the heart of Montjuïc mountain. The mountain has long been thought of as a spiritual source, and obligingly produced a source of running water that allowed the residents to install a plumbing system (of sorts).

Refugi 307 toilets

The ladies and gents in Refugi 307

Lit inside by oil lamps, the shelter had capacity for 2,000 people sat on wooden benches. But there was no ventilation (people feared chemical warfare) and consequently, you only had around two hours at a time inside before the air began to run out. Usually, this was adequate…until March of 1938, which saw the most protracted bombardment yet. For almost three days straight, Mussolini’s planes flew back and forth from their refuelling station on Mallorca, dropping 44 tons of bombs at random over Barcelona’s population.

Refugi 307 extended tunnelsEvery two hours, the attack would begin again, meaning that locals were confined to the shelters for the duration. Normally when the air raid siren sounded you had, on average, less than two minutes to gather up your family and run to the nearest shelter. (Our guide tells us that people used to take their cue from dogs and chickens, which would start to become agitated long before humans picked up on the looming threat.) On this occasion, though, the sirens were useless – no-one could tell if they signalled the beginning or end of yet another attack.

“And I heard you scream/from the other side of the mountain…”

Despite the venue’s attempts to recreate something of the conditions of the time, with a sound track of sirens and bombs playing faintly in the background, it is of course impossible to imagine what Poble Sec residents must have felt. This district was particularly devastated by the aerial attacks, and plenty people emerged from the shelter time after time to find that their home had been razed to the ground in the meantime.

The personal and communal catastrophe is something our guide doesn’t gloss over.

She leads us through to the belly of the mountain, where, hacked into the rock is the ‘infirmary’. In reality, it’s a cave, with the remnants of a shelf chiselled into the stone. Touchingly, or perhaps practically, people here had made an attempt to pave the ground rather than leave it as the normal mud. Many residents suffered panic attacks during the course of the bombings – hardly surprising, when you imagine a dark, dank environment with fighter planes screaming overhead and both children and adults screaming in the vicinity. Since all the doctors were off at the front, ‘nurses’ volunteered to staff the infirmary – essentially local teenage girls off the streets.

Refugi 307 tunnel

 House rules

There are touches of farce, of course, as well.

Our guide points out a plaque on the wall that spells out the topics that were off-limits inside the sanctuary.

  1. No politics (most folk taking shelter were on the side of the Republicans – but not all)
  2. No religion (probably goes without saying)
  3. No sleeping (wastes oxygen)
  4. No animals (leave your chicken at home – the guy next to you might not have eaten meat for six months)
  5. No furniture (looters used to raid houses while people were sheltering)
  6. No football (!)

And as the tour ends, our small party emerges blinking back into the sunlight, looking a little dazed in more ways than one. It’s been a sobering start to the weekend, and it leaves me wanting to find out more about the lives of the locals of my neighbourhood over the last century.

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Filed under History