The Secret Guide To Barcelona

Monday, October 3, 2011

There is something about Barcelona that brings out the intrepid adventurer in travelers. Maybe it’s the long narrow passages that seem to disappear around dark corners that arouses the explorer in all of us to want to push further into the unknown.

I have always felt the urge to walk and discover Barcelona on foot, pushing further into the uncharted, discovering what is behind the next corner, and to see what square or small oasis of urban life suddenly reveals itself, forgotten, left to age in peace and quiet without the roar of tourists to trample its delicate offerings.

One day while browsing a book stall at my local market, I discovered something that would change my exploration forever: The Secret Guide to Barcelona by Jose Maria Carandell.

This celebrated Spanish travel writer and journalist’s articles and books pushed boundaries, constantly seeking out the hidden truth in everything, taking a peek through the keyhole to see what lies on the other side.

Carandell took 400 walks across Barcelona to write The Secret guide to Barcelona in his bid to seek out the hidden parts of the city. Published in 1982, every square, bar and corner of the city was visited in order to seek out the undiscovered, the unconventional and overlooked.

Barcelona has changed a lot since then. The 1992 Olympics had a large financial impact on tourism and opened the city up as a major destination. Many of Carandell´s secrets have now been long discovered and form a part of the many wonders that is Barcelona.

However, secrets do still exist there, and if Carandell was alive today, here are some of the sites he would surely visit.

Placa Sant Felip Neri

Hundreds of squares make up the 10 districts of Barcelona. Some of these squares hide an interesting history.

Settled in a small, quiet square in the Gothic Quarter is Placa Sant Felip Neri, an oasis of quiet in this busy district that is now home to the suave boutique Hotel Neri. Unique in its own architecture, the square is medieval baroque style.

The square is secretly located down a small labyrinth of alleys close to Barcelona cathedral, and was once home to the palace Neri built In 1752. The church was visited daily by Antoni Gaudi to seek peace and quiet. The square contains an octagonal fountain dedicated as a symbol of life, although this quiet square has had a dark past. It was bombarded in 1938 by Franco, and the walls of the square are pockmarked by bullet holes where enemies were executed by Franco´s firing squads once the fascist forces had taken control of the city.

Today, the square still remains the same, a quiet symbol of Barcelona´s dark past and a oasis of secret tranquillity in a bustling  area.

El Poblenou

This old fisherman´s district is made up of Mediterranean architecture differing greatly from the gothic and modernist contrasts of other districts in the city. Here you’ll find Plaça Prim, where the daily catches were brought in before being distributed around the city. The square is known for its restaurant El Pescadors due to its classic style approach to cooking fresh fish. The area seems to have been frozen in history still going about the same business as it did at the turn of the 20th century.


Wedged neatly in between the vast Avenida de Diagonal and the grand district of Eixample is the humble district of Gràcia. This area is to Barcelona what Montmartre is to Paris: a social hub for artists and musicians. There is a great cultural contrast between the bohemian elements and the local population still living their day-to-day lives as if the district was still a village in its own right.

Bohemian Gràcia and its many squares interconnect through a labyrinth of small callejuelas that are home to some of Barcelona’s most interesting markets and bars.

Every year in August the district holds a carnival, Festes De Gracia, where each street is decorated in a fierce competition for such converted prizes as “Best Lighting” and “Best Artistic Design.” Every street has a committee working all year round in preparation for the celebration.

Gracia also is home to Barcelona’s art house cinemas where films are shown in their original language. The narrow streets are host to row upon row of bars and restaurants, each more unconventional than the last. Here you’ll also find the infamous plaza, Plaça del Sol, Barcelona’s unofficial headquarters of the anarchist movement, where drinkers and musicians gather until the early hours of the morning.

The Laribal Gardens

During the early part of the 20th century, Barcelona began creating zoning laws with the idea to develop green spaces in the city to combat urban sprawl and free up parts of the city owned by affluent families. This brought in a host of landscape architects eager to leave their mark on the city.

The Laribal Gardens, in the southwest part of the city, was designed by French architect J.C.N. Forestier, and is the largest park space in the city. The characteristic design of the gardens is Arabian with ceramic tiles and ornamental water fountains. The park is full of paths that seemingly lead nowhere and are full of quiet, wisteria-lined terraces.

Parc del Laberint d’Horta

Parc del Laberint d’Horta is located in the area of Horta, which used to be the residence of a wealthy family whose social status gave birth to the creations they made. The gardens feature a labyrinth desiged in the neoclassical style featuring 750 meters of trimmed cypress trees, romantic gardens, waterfalls and canals filled with carp and fresh water turtles.

Three terraces run up the mountainside featuring statues from Greek mythological figures. At the top is is a neoclassical pavilion.

Built in 1791, the gardens were used a focal point of Barcelona´s high society social functions with views across the city. It was especially popular during the stagnant summer months since the park is blessed with a fresh breezes. In 1967 the gardens were eventually handed over to the city so that they could be opened to the public. During the summer months, the city draws only a few visitors quietly looking to escape the heat and crowds — a secret pocket of neoclassical tranquillity.

Parc de La Creueta del Coll

Parc de La Creueta del Coll is an old quarry in the disrict of Vallcarca that was redesigned as a large outdoor swimming pool with a “Deserted Island” in the middle. The quarry also holds a bizarre 50-ton sculpture that hangs from the quarry walls. There are several terraces that lead up the hillside, and the pool is a well kept secret of the area but open to all.

Parc del Guinardó

Located next to Gaudi´s Parc Güell is the lesser known Parc del Guinardó. During the 16th century, the famous Catalan bandit and Nyerros faction member, Perot Rocaguinarda, lived in a farmhouse in the park. It is believed to contain a labyrinth of secret passages running under the park that took Rocaguinarda and his bandits from the park directly into the Gothic Quarter for criminal escapades.

The group of bandits disappeared from the area using these tunnels while under attack from the viceroy of Barcelona’s troops. Rocaguinarda was indeed so legendary that Miguel Cervantes mentions him in Don Quixote.

At the Park´s peak are several bunkers looking over the city left behind from the civil war. This park has some of the best view over Barcelona, and sitting on the bunker gives a sensation of having Barcelona at your feet.


Caradell´s book still holds many undiscovered locations, and during my walks through the city I have taken the routes that Caradell took back in 1982 and found the same places he visited still open and functioning today. As Caradell said, “Barcelona is the kind of city where you can find something without even looking for it.”

By Anthony Bain

[Festes de Gracia by jas_gd/Flickr; Plaça Sant Felip Neri by Neus Prats/Flickr]


About the Author

Anthony’s intrepid writings and accidental ramblings from deepest darkest Barcelona can be found at his blog The Barcelona Review.

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