Ciutat Vella, the old city, is a permeable urban core that can be easily entered from any point along its perimeter. Since there are no gates, no arches, no way points through the remains of ancient walls, it is not readily recognizable unless you know where it starts and ends. Our bodies venture into old Barcelona in the same way our minds access data in the digital age, indifferent to distinctions of history or context.
We do not know if past Barcelonans were aware when they crossed into the Raval or the Gòtic, whether their brains went click as they passed from a 19th century street to one from the Middle Ages; nowadays the lines are blurred. A shopper on Portal de l’Àngel, in medieval turf, could be on an extended browse that started on Passeig de Gràcia. Students at the Faculty of Geography and History could care less about acquiring intellectual capital in the long-stigmatized, déclassé Raval. I have never heard the beach at Barceloneta described as “Baroque”, which, in terms of human construction, it most definitely is. The break between old Barcelona and new, in urban and historical terms, is barely registered.
The mental melange is unusual if you think just how neatly Ciutat Vella is set off. Barcelona’s Rondes, as the name suggests, were broad perimeter boulevards that ran outside the city walls, the last iterations of which were built in the 1300s. Later roads, like along the port, enhanced this separation, turning the entire outside edge of the old city into a flurry of motorized vehicles. The only exception, where a car-less expanse spans old and new, is recent: the section of Ronda Sant Antoni where the temporary market was housed while the handsome Sant Antoni market was being reformed.
Just as Ciutat Vella stands apart, it too is sharply sectioned into four similar-sized parts, like an airline food tray. The result is unusual, compared to most Old World cities: these four quarters actually make up a whole (the same could be said about the oval Roman city, nestled inside the Gòtic, also sliced into four). Other cities have a Latin quarter here or an ethnic quarter there, but never get past the fractions. Before the medieval walls were demolished in the 1850s, this was Barcelona. In terms of built space there was nothing more.
Each part of the quartet, like members of a combo sitting straight in distinct chairs, is separated by broad avenues; there is no merging here either. At no point does any one quarter mesh into another: the Rambla
separates the Raval from the Gòtic; the Gòtic arbitrarily ends where Via Laietana storms through, barely a century old; Barceloneta is on the other side of the Estació de França terminal, far from El Born. The only arguable sections straddle the water side of Pla de Palau, with cava bars and electronics bazaars tucked in amongst monumental 19th century buildings like Els Porxos d’en Xifré, with its Masonic motifs.
Since we have become dulled to the details, we fail to take any pleasure from the subtle play between past and present. Barcelona’s oldest quartet once harmonized on a lot of keys, back in the day. Each touched upon the waters of the Mediterranean, which a few millennia ago were closer in, until erosion and the encroachment of the port pushed them back. Santa Maria del Mar was originally Santa Maria de las Arenes [of the Sands], which leaves no doubt: it was a beach church. We are told that the liquid now exiting the polar icecaps will reverse this outward trend, though no one dares ask how or to what effect.