The land falls away, the buildings shrink – and suddenly, it’s all changed. Welcome to Rovira’s Hill, and a Barcelona you never knew existed.
Under you, the city sprawls in all directions, but you feel like you’ve stepped right out of it. The storied townhouses are gone, along with the chamfered street corners and seemingly endless touches of Gaudi. The houses here are increasingly low, boxy, pragmatic, sometimes whitewashed as if plucked from a Greek hillside, sometimes grubby concrete that doesn’t give a damn.
It’s an area with a heavy immigrant population, as it always has been – and even the architecture is in a different language.
It’s not clear where to go. Sure, you could head up the road as it climbs frustratingly slowly out of the El Carmel district, curling over the back of this mountain, but to hell with that, you’re not a car. Paths erupt up the hillside, some clumsily paved, others little more than a gap between trees, bushes and cacti. Twenty years ago there were staircases here, tethering the hilltop’s inhabitants to their city far below, helping them survive. Now there’s no people, and no need to rush. It’s just a hill again.
Metal railings and a better path guide you the last few metres, and then it’s up to you. You probably have no idea what you’re looking at. Is this a bomb site? An archaeological dig that ran out of funding? Mortared walls, bricks messily cemented into place, tiled floors, enormous shattered flagstones repurposed into walls and boundary markers, and greenery erupting wherever there’s a crack wide enough. Here and there, you see huge piles of stones, attempts to tidy the place. It’s still a wonderful, fascinating mess. You look and look and you have no idea.
Overhead, modern aerials mar the wrap-around view. You’re 260 metres above the Mediterranean sea glittering a few miles away. You can see why people would come up here. The ancient Iberians (800-200 BCE) may have used it as a look-out. Locals still spend hours hauling themselves out of Barcelona for this view, which is astonishing.
The mystery is why anyone would stay.
During the Spanish Civil War, the best reason for staying up here was to watch for Italian bombers, and when they droned into view, you’d open fire on them. Franco delegated his assault on Barcelona to his Italian allies, and the city responded with anti-aircraft batteries on its most strategically important hilltops. Here, the emplacement was formed of four 105mm Vickers cannons. Without radar or guidance systems, the defenders resorted to firing their guns vertically as the planes passed over. Since what goes up tends to come down, this strategy caused considerable peril to local residents – but other efforts proved more effective. Barcelona seems to have put up a spirited defence against the 200 bombardments it suffered (casualties: less than 3,000 people) before it succumbed to Franco’s forces on January 26th, 1939.
You don’t know all this, of course, as you stand here. You’ll read about it later. All you know right now is that there were clearly people living up here. There’s the remains of a tiled floor – a bathroom, or kitchen? One circular concrete battery has a hole punched in it, a scoop of earth now sprouting weeds. Another is tiled with red stone – carefully, perhaps even lovingly. There are touches of home all around you, things that would be pointless for a remote military installation. There are steps where you’d expect ramps. There were people.
Yes, yes there were. 600 of them, in fact, clustered in 110 shanties, brought here by the lack of building regulations, by crippling post-war poverty, by the problems of being an immigrant in a city recovering from a brutal policy of “de-Catalanising,” and by sheer desperation. Living up here would have been hard. There was no running water until 1963, when a Barcelonan water company built an enormous water tank, and some enterprising resident banged a hole in the side of it to make a fountain. The land around the Turó was fertile, supporting carob trees, almonds and grapes – but who up here would have owned land?
On foot, it’s a painfully long way into the city. Everything would have been hauled up by hand. Exposure to the elements would have been a constant threat, the wind tugging in the winter, the sun baking and cracking in the summer. Nevertheless – a community. The soldiers’ quarters became a school for children during the day, and for adults at night. Staircases were hacked out the side of the mountain, forming supply routes. Everything was reused, nothing was wasted. In 1972 they formed the El Carmel Neighbourhood Association, to put pressure on the government to grant them rubbish bins, public toilets and enough running water to keep a community alive.
There were even weddings.
Maybe people fell in love here. Maybe they died here too.
Now it’s a shell. You look out over that incredible, gut-punching view, and you see other houses lower down, still occupied, houses with cars outside them. You imagine all sorts of things, all kinds of stories. It’s that kind of place. If the long-running, eternally controversial urban design project to unite these three hills into one green space has its way, all those houses might be swept off the mountainside. For now, neighbourhood associations are digging their heels in. The road is churned up, partly fenced off, under development. Looks like they mean to stay. It’d be an interesting fight.
Up here, the fight is over. On November 7th 1990, the “Els Canons” shanty town was demolished. Everything fell into ruin until 2006, when the area was excavated and tidied up, officially making it fit for visitors. In 2011 it was designed an official historic site of the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHBA). Today there are information panels and guided tours, and the archaeology and building-work continues. One day, it’ll make a lot more sense when you arrive. There’ll be less to decipher, and your imagination will have less to work with.
Despite the incredible view, it’s still quiet up here, still under-trafficked. The best view of the city is still something of a local secret. Maybe that’s going to change – but for now, it’s a place for wandering around in silence, wondering what stories are under your feet, and if anyone will ever hear them.
Further Reading (With Directions To Els Canons)
“Another Point Of View” – Carol Moran, Metropolitan Barcelona.
Photographs 7 and 9 are cropped close-ups of on-site Museu d’Història de Barcelona information boards; all other images, Mike Sowden.