Parakeets and parapets
Having known the Diagonal since time immemorial – well, at least since well before the colonisation of its palm trees by parakeets – I’ve been reflecting on how little it has changed. The rumble of traffic at busy times, mercifully relatively free of jams, continues much the same, although the number of motorbikes parked along its length has multiplied.
Where once you would find – on the corner of Villarroel – the Finisterre restaurant of yesteryear with waiters in white gloves and tuxedos delivering fine dining in old-fashioned style, today it’s the livelier, more hip, but less refined, Daps. The ubiquitous Zara has added its imprint on the scene, the old Galerías Preciados department store that sprung up in the 60s has long been swallowed up by the El Corte Inglés juggernaut and the dark ochre steel shell of the Habitat store is now a long-standing and familiar feature.
But, by and large, the central part of the avenue retains much of its character. The steady stream of cyclists using the dedicated lanes along the central walkways and the evening joggers are a feature of the changed mobility and fitness habits of the Barcelonese, but essentially it remains the domain of the strollers, dog walkers, shoppers and commuters who have always made up the mix of patrons using this city artery within a largely unchanged cityscape of imposing noucentista edifices.
In the 1880s the Diagonal was still the road that led to surrounding towns like Sarrià, bordered in the area between what are now the streets of Balmes, Aribau and Còrsega by an open space, used by Buffalo Bill to stage his Wild West show as part of his European tour.
But now Plaça Francesc Macià, which then stood at the edge of the city, is the same as the Francoist Plaza de Calvo Sotelo in all but name and, turning down into any of the streets of the Eixample, but for the addition of children’s play areas and some pedestrianisation, you will find the same combination of bakers, bars and boutiques, antiquarians, hair stylists, restaurants and electrical shops as forty years ago. True, the offer is now more diverse and eclectic, with Japanese tea-rooms, Korean restaurants or acupuncturists and 24-hour mini-marts as much part of the scene as the traditional patisseries, florists or fishmongers.
The character of the Eixample is defined as much by the vibrancy of a residential and commercial quarter mixing tradition and modernity, as by the fact that it sees people come and go from around Barcelona along one of its main avenues, the Diagonal itself. And part of that character derives from its distinctively designed layout and architecture. It is a tribute to the planners who devised the Plan Cerdà 150 years ago and to the architects and designers of the modernista period, that modern Barcelona continues to offer a quality of city life that is both intimate and cosmopolitan, distinctive and immediately recognisable and draws in growing numbers from around the world, who come to enjoy not just the splendours of the “historic” Barcelona, but the diverse and enduring pleasures of one of Europe’s great modern cities.