Anarchotourism in Barcelona

Sant_Felip_Neri_-_Barcelona, by MarcelloScotti

The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is quiet, despite the constant flow of tour groups. I perched on the edge of the fountain and watched the pigeons, people sipping their coffee at the cafe, the wind in the spindly trees actually audible over the crashing thunder of Barcelona. I had wandered through a few slender lanes, almost missed it once, but backtracked and found myself at the plaça. And sat.

The plaça was bombed by Franco in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, killing 42 people, mostly children, including orphaned refugees. The shrapnel scars attest to the intensity of the blast. Like Berlin, Barcelona bears its architectural wounds for anyone who cares to notice. I’m constantly crafting a patchwork understanding of history after a thoroughly mediocre American-jingoist public school education.

I half-heartedly took a few snaps of the pockmarked facade, but knew they wouldn’t look like anything in the chiaroscuro sunshine. I didn’t take many photographs at all in Barcelona. I was constantly wading through people shrieking with drunken glee while I was looking for the leaden weight of history. I was unexpectedly consumed by the Civil War and Catalonia’s history of anarchism, and vicious acts of government oppression as remembered in place names and bullet holes. Between sessions, keynotes and dinners for the EAA in Barcelona, I walked between 15-20 km a day, trying to make my own map of the place.

In 2001, a group of artists founded Tactical Tourism, “organizing interventions in public spaces drawing on the practices and language of tourism” to rescue secret histories of Barcelona. Their most famous intervention was the Route of Anarchism, a route “conceived as a guided tour to a hidden Barcelona, silenced and out of tourist view, the ‘red and black city’ of the anarchist movement, a Barcelona that is also known as ‘the Rose of Fire’.” This quote is from Pau Obrador and Sean Carter’s short article, Art, politics, memory: Tactical Tourism and the route of anarchism in Barcelona, which discusses the tactics of the group.

I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood El Raval, at the site of an infamous women’s jail, stopped by La Rosa De Foc, an anarchist bookshop, wandered by lots of mosques and read up on George Orwell and the Myths of the International Brigades. I could feel the voyeuristic spectre of difficult heritage hovering just outside of my eyeline. So I did what any good tourist would do and bought a poster:

Ricard Obiols 1936  Barcelona CNT-AIT

Ultimately, I failed as an anarchotourist. I focussed on the oppression, destruction and brutality and did not engage (as much) with the joyful noise of the situationist-led play that characterizes anarchism, “Tourism here is not seen as a passive spectator activity but rather as an active, playful form of engagement with the city.” Instead of visiting squats, I went to the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, which covers the continual Catalonian resistance but also has a fancy rooftop cafe overlooking the harbor. I couldn’t afford the drinks, sadly. So I continued to wander through Barcelona, soaking up as much as I could.