Passages of Barcelona
© Jorge Carrión

All the passages in the world share a certain magic: they elicit a conversation between two spaces, two worlds. The writer Jorge Carrión invites us to travel in some “time machines” of this type in the city he calls his home.

To reach the sanctuary of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, it was necessary to cross a long gallery, the ceiling and walls of which were dripping wet: it was believed that the falling drops of sacred water cleansed the pilgrim’s spirit. Since ancient times, natural or man-made tunnels, bridges or rock-hewn stairs have been symbols of the passage between two worlds. In the modern city –a world in itself– passages have occupied this metaphorical space. One need only trace them in the poetry of French surrealism, in Walter Benjamin’s essays or in the short stories of Julio Cortázar to confirm this magic of interdimensional lifts. In El otro cielo (The Other Sky), for example, Cortazar’s narrator admits that “passages and galleries have always been my secret homeland”. It was at the Güemes Arcade in Buenos Aires that he left behind his adolescence. And thanks to the power of desire and of literature, he was transported to the legendary passages of Paris.

All the world’s cities have passages and in some cases more specifically arcades. Most of them form part of the functional structure of the metropolis, like back alleys or markets. But what interests me is the illustrious minority: the arcades which cross a city block –imitating the English model or the French passages–, giving rise to a microworld, a village, a garden or a shopping centre. They connect two very distinct realities, inviting one to travel.

This is the case of the only two Barcelona passages that are completely covered: the Passatge Bacardí, which links the Rambla to the Plaça Reial (the one-time torrent bed to the palm-treed oasis... the spectre of the demolished city wall –which separated the medieval town from its suburb– to the square of the burgeoning bourgeoisie); and the Passatge Manufactures, which starts or ends, depending on whether you are heading up or down, with some stairs that are a perfect metaphor of the change of level, of the leap in time, since they span the little geological fault that crosses Barcelona, separating the Eixample from the quarters dating from before the 19th century. In effect, the motley glass decoration of Passatge Bacardí, with its restaurants at both ends, changes the light and your gaze: if you come from the Rambla, with the Columbus Monument behind you and Mount Tibidabo in the distance before you, this little perpendicular axis with its embalmed air radically alters your perspective, leading you into a porticoed square like those found in all the Spanish cities (and which are almost always near their arcades). The Passatge Manufactures, on the other hand, recently reformed by a hotel, has a little flower shop at the end that opens onto the Eixample and a big hipster café by the gate that leads to the upper part of the Born District. It was the path that established a dialogue between the bourgeois world and that of the working classes and it is now a place of passage for local residents and tourists.

Both form part of the labyrinth of Barcelona’s most evident passages, those of the 19th century, the most celebrated representative of which is the Passatge Permanyer. Photogenic, botanical and very pricey: it should never have come into existence because the law did not allow the division of the blocks of the Cerdà Urban Plan since it would put an end to the sprawling central community courtyard that should characterize them. But Speculation is Barcelona’s middle name and that is why, although I recognize the beauty and historical importance of the Passatge Permanyer, where several illustrious figures once lived including the brilliant painter, illustrator, designer, poet and gardener Apel·les Mestres, who also trained spiders, I always try to get away to other less stately passages where the land value and the plants and residents do not proclaim so clearly the overbearing power of money. My favourites are the Passatge del Camp, which lies quite near my home in the Poblenou district and which is one of the few in this city that is not yet paved, so on treading the earth you can imagine the rural spirit that persists and insists beneath the hard urban layer (in Barcelona as in all cities); and the Passatge de Robacols, in the neighbouring district of El Clot, which is locked shut to preserve its air of an Andalusian village, with geraniums on the façades of the houses, white plastic tables with their chairs outside, and residents who stop to chat when dusk starts to fall and the metropolis slowly fades beyond the rusting gate.

The restaurant passages
Some of Barcelona’s most emblematic passages have been monopolized by restaurants in recent years. The trend began at Passatge de la Concepció, where there are a number of establishments of the Tragaluz Group, and it has spread throughout the city. El Nacional, a very sophisticated and touristic dining courtyard that cuts across a city block between Passeig de Gràcia and Carrer Pau Claris, occupies –de facto- the Passatge Maria Canals. And the proliferation of hipster cafés, experimental doughnut shops, restaurants and wine bars specialized in vermouth at Carrer Parlament, has already entered the Passatge Pere Calders. Luckily enough, in the rear, amidst such a plentiful gastronomic offering, the Calders bookshop still resists. It is not only beautiful but one of the city’s foremost cultural spaces as well.

The painters’ passages
Joan Miró y Josep Maria Sert tal vez sean los dos pintores catalanes del siglo XX más cotizados internacionalmente. Aunque ideológicamente pertenecieran en vida a bandos contrarios, ambos nacieron en sendos pasaje: Miró, en el passatge del Crèdit, donde hay una placa que lo recuerda (y una suite del hotel colindante conserva los techos de la vivienda original de la familia); y Sert, en el Sert, porque el pasaje era propiedad de su millonaria e influyente familia, donde también lo recuerda una placa. Por suerte, son dos de los pasajes mejor conservados de la ciudad. Y de los más bellos. Ambos conservan detalles originales de finales del siglo XIX. Por cierto: tanto Miró como Sert coincidieron en un pasaje a medio camino de sus casas respectivas, el del Patriarca, donde estaba la academia del Cercle Artístic Sant Lluc y ahora se encuentra el famoso café Els Quatre Gats (un remake del original).

Photos: Xavi Carrión.