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Spanish Civil War walking tour

   
   - darkometer rating: 4 -
   
A unique offering in Barcelona, Catalonia's magnificent capital in northern Spain, these 4-hour tours run by a British expat, who's lived in the city for more than two and a half decades, take you to various spots within Barcelona related in one way or another to the Spanish Civil War. They are done in such a way that they are suitable for anyone from novices to the topic to already well-versed experts. And they're an absolute must-do for any dark tourist visiting Barcelona too!   
More background info: For general historical background see under Spanish Civil War, and also under Barcelona and cf. Ebro.
  
Barcelona played a very special role in the Spanish Civil War, in particular during its first year. It was here that the libertarian revolution with anarchists, unionists and communists joining forces first seemed to be a fantastic utopian success story. A truly egalitarian society appeared to have been created. Amongst the many anecdotes told about this time are those about waiters and bellboys proudly refusing to accept tips. Some 80% of businesses were taken over by the 'proletariat' and its organizations. As Noam Chomsky once remarked: Barcelona in the second half of 1936 and early 1937 was probably “the greatest attempt at workers' self-rule in history”. No wonder it attracted a large number of international people too, not least the author George Orwell (see under Spanish Civil War), who were enthusiastic about these societal developments.
  
But it was a short-lived dream. With military weaknesses on the Republican side becoming increasingly clear in the early battles against the better organized and better equipped Francoist forces, the importance of the role of the Soviet Union for the Republicans grew stronger. As Stalin provided military and logistic support, his ideological influence also increased. This led to the tragic May Days of 1937, when the pro-Stalinist communists assumed control and the other factions suddenly faced persecution, including George Orwell himself, who had joined the anti-Stalinist organization POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). POUM was declared illegal in June 1937. And after that Orwell and his wife had to sneak out of the country to avoid further persecution and arrest.
  
Others were less fortunate. POUM's founding member and one of the leading figures of the communist revolution in Barcelona, Andreu Nin “disappeared” in June 1937, i.e. was captured and taken to a camp near Madrid, tortured and eventually killed by the Soviet NKVD (the precursor of the KGB), as documents released after the collapse of the USSR confirmed.
  
Barcelona was also systematically bombed from the air, especially during 1938. In March Mussolini sent Italian aircraft stationed in Majorca to fly a series of devastating bombing raids over Barcelona, attacking the civilian heart of the city. Thousands died, but many more were saved thanks to the fact that Barcelona was also the first city in the world to construct a network of air-raid shelters (some still exist to this day and a couple of them can even be visited – though not as part of this tour).
  
After the Republican side was defeated in the decisive Battle of the Ebro, hundreds of thousands of civilians fled from Barcelona and Catalonia over the border to France (where many were interned in concentration-camp like conditions). Barcelona was eventually taken by the Francoist Nationalists in January 1939. Shortly after the Civil War was over and the long reign of dictator Franco began, in which practically all the societal changes the Republicans had achieved were reversed … (see under Spain).
    
  
The Spanish Civil War walking tours have been offered since 2010 by a British resident in Barcelona, Nick Lloyd, who has lived in this city since 1991. It all began with Nick taking an interest in the history of the working class neighbourhood he had settled in, and he gradually became an expert in the local history of Barcelona at the time of the Civil War. This expertise eventually also fed into a guidebook Nick Lloyd published in late 2015 called “Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War”.
  
Given that the tours are in English, and the majority of participants tend to come from English-speaking countries, especially Britain and the USA, there is a certain emphasis on the role of Brits, and in particular George Orwell.
  
But you get people with all sorts of special interests in the topic taking part in these tours. For instance, when I went in March 2015, there was a fairly young British bloke who displayed an impressive degree of specialist knowledge about anarchism and was able to contribute interesting additional details and angles.
   
That's the nature of these tours – they are not fixed and only “top-down”, as it were, not just a one-way guide-to-audience narration only. Instead they invite participation and debate and can thus vary quite a bit according to participants' individual interests and previous knowledge, even though the walking route as such is always the same. That's why I would happily do the tour again if ever I go back to Barcelona, which I very much hope I will one day.
   
Note that when I went on the tour the first time it wasn't led by Nick Lloyd himself (who was away on a tour outside Barcelona at the time following his other special interest: wildlife watching, especially wolves!).
  
Instead the guide on my tour was his assistant Catherine Howley, who hails from Ireland, has a degree in Hispanic Studies and did post-graduate studies for a masters in Spanish History first in Grenada and then in Barcelona, where she's lived since 2010. I can't compare, but my impression was that she was probably just as capable a guide as Nick would have been – very enthusiastic about the topic and certainly extremely knowledgeable as well as pleasant and approachable in character.
  
  
What there is to see: I do not want to give too much away of the details of the narration on this tour (do go and take part yourself!) – just a few notes on the route, the style of the presentation and some key historical points brought up during the tour:
  
After assembling at the agreed meeting point the group was first led to the nearby monument on the south-west corner of Plaça de Catalunya, which was then explained in detail.
  
On the square we were also shown various historic photos from back in 1936/37 from a folder our guide was carrying along. Obviously the stories behind these images were presented too. This includes the building on the northern side of the square which back then served as the HQ for the communists. On the roof of this building one of the most iconic photos of the Spanish Civil War was taken – showing a young woman posing with a defiant, revolutionary semi-smile on her face and a rifle over her shoulder … (I bet you'll recognize it when you are shown it!).
  
After the roles of few more buildings had been explained we headed south down the famous La Rambla Street. One stop was outside the hotel where George Orwell stayed initially during his time in Barcelona – also pointed out was the building on whose roof Orwell was once positioned with a rifle. Various other anecdotes about him and his associates are told at this point too.
   
We then headed into the Gothic Quarter, where the first stop was at Plaça del Pi, in front of the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi … for a reason. Here the topic is the often brutal attacks on clerics by the revolutionaries and the destruction, desecration and/or looting of churches (atheist communists and anarchists were obviously anti-Catholic, whereas Franco deliberately sided with the Catholic Church). Such anti-clerical atrocities committed by the Republicans actually prompted some devout Catholics from Italy or Ireland to join the Francoist Rebels.
   
Moving on through the Gothic Quarter various buildings associated with the anarchists or communists were pointed out before we reached our next major stop: Plaça de Sant Filip Neri. Here you see a church wall that seems heavily scarred … by what? Not bullets from anarchists executing enemies. That's a Francoist lie that can still often be heard. But no, in reality these scars are from an aerial bombing raid that destroyed an orphanage, killing dozens of children. (Have you ever seen that propaganda poster with the caption “if you tolerate this, your children will be next”? – that's a reference to this incident and other horrors of the bombing of civilians like it … which is somewhat ironic when you think how all sides in WWII, including especially the Western Allies, eventually resorted to carpet-bombing of civilian cities.)
   
We then headed back to La Rambla for yet more George-Orwell-related stories but also to a plaque affixed to a house in honour of Andreu Nin (see background).
   
The tour finished at a small café at 48 Carrer dels Tallers, where an upstairs room was reserved for our group. While some people had drinks and/or snacks, our guide used a TV screen for showing a slide show of yet more images and gave us yet more detailed narration to accompany the images. This also touched on the aftermath of the Civil War, including the story of photographer Francisco Boix, who was later imprisoned at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and after WWII was a witness at the Nuremberg Trials.
  
The café's interior design itself also provided some imagery, especially in the form of period propaganda posters, including one that shows a female revolutionary figure leading a crowd – and her depictions appears to be based on the looks of film star Marlene Dietrich!
  
All in all, this walking tour was definitely one of the highlights of my Spain trip around Easter 2015. Anybody visiting Barcelona who has at least some interest in the history of the 20th century should do it. Highly recommended!
  
  
Location(s): When I went on the tour in late March 2015, the meeting point was outside the Café Zurich on the south-western corner of Plaça de Catalunya, bang in the centre of Barcelona. The route then took in La Rambla and parts of the Gothic Quarter.
  
Google Maps locators:
  
Meeting point on Plaça de Catalunya: [41.38579, 2.16974]
  
Former communist HQ: [41.3878, 2.1691]
  
Plaça del Pi: [41.3824, 2.1737]
  
Plaça de Sant Filip Neri: [41.3834, 2.1751]
  
Civil-War-themed café: [41.3849, 2.1675]
  
  
Access and costs: easy, though booking ahead is advised; reasonably priced for what you get.
  
Details: The area where the walking tours take place is easy enough to reach and when you book the tours you are given directions to the meeting point. If it is still on the corner of Plaça de Catalunya, then you can get there easily by metro to the station of the same name. But if you are staying in or near the city centre you can probably just walk it.
  
Times: tours currently (as of early 2017) take place daily except Sundays and Wednesdays (but they run less frequently in winter), and last from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (or a little longer).
   
Cost: 25 EUR per person (in 2017), 11-15-year-olds 12 EUR. Younger children can be taken along for free, though most of the tour is probably not really suitable for young kids.
  
It is strongly advised that you book your tour in advance, by emailing info(at)spanishcivilwartours.com!
  
  
Time required: Nominally these walking tours last four hours in total, but can easily overrun a bit, depending on the group and how actively they get involved and how many questions are asked.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Barcelona.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Barcelona.  
  
  
   
  • 01 - monument to the republic on Placa de Catalunya01 - monument to the republic on Placa de Catalunya
  • 02 - little inscriptions02 - little inscriptions
  • 03 - former communist HQ03 - former communist HQ
  • 04 - Las Ramblas04 - Las Ramblas
  • 05 - hotel in which George Orwell stayed05 - hotel in which George Orwell stayed
  • 06 - roof where he was once positioned06 - roof where he was once positioned
  • 07 - restored gothic church07 - restored gothic church
  • 08 - historical trace08 - historical trace
  • 09 - Iglesia de Sant Felip Neri09 - Iglesia de Sant Felip Neri
  • 10 - bombing scars10 - bombing scars
  • 12 - memorial plaque12 - memorial plaque
  • 13 - reconstructed and changed13 - reconstructed and changed
  • 14 - plaque for Andres Nin14 - plaque for Andres Nin
  • 15 - Civil War theme cafe15 - Civil War theme cafe
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
 

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