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Discovering Barcelona through Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s eyes

There is no separating Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s gothic mystery story, set in 1940s Barcelona, from the city even today

brunch Updated: Dec 03, 2016 18:43 IST
Street of the Gothic Quarter, where stands the bell tower of the Cathedral of Barcelona
Street of the Gothic Quarter, where stands the bell tower of the Cathedral of Barcelona(Getty Images)

It was 2010 the first time I went to Barcelona for a week-long visit with a pen pal. Coincidentally, it was also the first time I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, on the flight to El Prat airport. Since then, I have reread it several times.

The words were fresh in my mind that week in Barcelona, and my friend, also a fan of the novel, took me to some of the places mentioned in it. At the end of my visit, I felt as though I’d left a small part of myself behind; unaware that I would get another chance at exploring this enigmatic city.

Fast forward to 2014-2015, and I found myself with a job as a conversational assistant for English at a school in Igualada. Right on top of my weekend exploration list was a literary walking tour based on The Shadow of the Wind.

Chapter one

On a spring evening in 2015, our guide waited outside the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica on Las Ramblas, the famous wide promenade that runs through the old city of Barcelona. She was armed with a copy of Zafón’s book to read out relevant passages.

Our first stop was Calle del Arco del Teatro. It gets its name from the Teatre Principal, the oldest theatre in Barcelona. Stepping through its arch, we entered a narrow street, trying to imagine the location of the fictional Cemetery of Forgotten Books among the graffiti and rusted shutters. We tried to picture the young narrator, Daniel Sempere, brought here by his father on a hazy morning, in the opening chapter.

Picasso’s first exhibition was held in the Els Quatre Gats cafe in the year 1900 (Getty Images)

Our next destination was El Call, the Jewish Quarter, which has shadowy, narrow streets. Though it was once a seedy area, it is now transforming into quite a trendy neighbourhood. It hosts the historic Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, one of the oldest synagogues in Europe. It has undergone many restorations and renovations over the years, including an archaeological finding of part of the Roman wall that surrounded the old city.

Returning to the hectic activity of Las Ramblas was a bit disorienting, even with the soft, early evening light. The readjustment was apt for our next halt a few steps away on our right: Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), with its palm trees and vibrant, outdoor cafes, home of Daniel’s first love, the blind Clara Barcelo. We walked towards the back and moved towards Plaça de Sant Jaume through an arch where a jilted Daniel first meets my favourite character, Fermin Romero de Torres. The square, where the Barcelona city hall and the Catalunya parliament are located, is a wide space, impressive in its magnitude, but we hastened to Calle de Sant Jaume, stopping only on the corner where it joins Calle de Montcada, which, with its crumbling houses and empty courtyards, is the inspiration for the Santa Lucia hospice where a key character from the book, an old nurse, lives out her last days.

Into the barri

Further on Calle de Montcada is Passeig del Born, and just like that we were in the barri, vibrant with bars, restaurants and boutiques that pay homage to the area’s artisanal past. El Born was the site of merchant guilds in the Middle Ages; individual streets named after each trade. Even now there are commemorative bronze plaques set in the uneven cobblestones in honour of each guild.

The magnificent Santa Maria del Mar (featured in another popular Spanish book – Ildefonso de Falcones’s The Cathedral of the Sea) in El Ribera was next. We associate churches with opulence, but this one has a unique history. In medieval times, Vilanova del Mar (mar means sea in Spanish and Catalan) was an important neighbourhood, and the Santa Maria del Mar square was its centre. Local entrepreneurs and guilds paid for its construction by local craftsmen – a true symbol of the middle class. Built in the Catalan Gothic style, the monument embodies the feeling of freedom and space, of high arches, light and beautiful glass windows (some of which had to be replaced after various bombings).

Later it was time for my favourite part of that evening. We retraced our steps to Calle Freneria and entered El Barri Gòtic. Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is the heart of the Old City. Characterised by the same Catalan Gothic features of austerity as Santa Maria and the narrow, criss-crossing streets of the rest of the old city, this historically significant area is the site of remnants of the Roman walls that enclosed the Ciutat Vella. It also houses the Barcelona Cathedral and one of two underrated squares we discovered on the tour, Plaça de San Felipe Neri. It was getting dark and the dimly lit lamps and the half, moving shadows on the buildings and cobblestones fit perfectly with the gothic atmosphere.

Rooftops at El Call, the Jewish Quarter (Getty Images)

Nuria Montfort, another piece of the mystery Daniel is trying to solve, lives in a building next to the small church in the quiet San Felipe Neri. Despite the remnants of its violent past (bullet holes and shrapnel scars on the walls from a bombing by General Franco’s air force in 1938, killing 42 people, mostly children), there was a sort of peace there and you could imagine Nuria peeking down from her terrace waiting for an ill-fated love that would never return.

Similarly, our next point of interest made it impossible not to think of Daniel, the stubborn, naïve, but endearing boy we see mature into adulthood by the book’s end. We were on Avinguda Porta del Angel, a popular shopping spot. The Els Quatre Gats on Calle de Montsio just off this, where Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali were patrons, is where Daniel’s parents first meet. A few metres away, on Calle Sant Ana, is the location of their future family home and bookstore. Fittingly, the tour ended in the quieter, even more inconspicuous Placeta de Ramon Amadeu, a contemplative square housing the Santa Anna church.

Cities and stories

As we stood there, past dusk, I marvelled again at how the city’s multiple layers of time and history felt stronger in the dark, and somehow more accessible. I appreciated a city where Gaudi’s intricately designed lamp posts co-existed with the gothic features of Santa Maria and the modernism-inspired bright colours and lights of Quatre Gats. A unique identity not unlike our own, composed of disparate events, thoughts and influences, constantly changing, evolving, however minutely.

Zafón shows how these identities can be shaped by stories, written or oral, and passed down through the generations. These stories, and the people and places in them, have a soul contributing to the whole; adding to the history we feel when we walk anywhere in the world. Looking back, it is difficult to imagine whether I would’ve felt that keen, immediate belonging if I hadn’t had the evocative association of the book. But there is no separating me from that book or the book from the city.

About the book

The Shadow of the Wind was first published in 2001 and translated into English by Lucia Graves in 2004. It is a gothic mystery set in a 1940s Barcelona still reeling from the effects of the Civil War.

From HT Brunch, December 4, 2016

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