Barceloneta reels in the cool crowd

Without abandoning its unique identity, Barcelona's maritime district is distancing itself from its seedy past with trendy new ventures designed to lure in the tourists

La Barceloneta in Barcelona is a neighborhood with the look of the mainland but the soul of an island. The area was first developed in the second half of the 18th century by military engineers who tried to give direction to the shacks and huts put up by fishermen, smugglers and vagrants, before being left to its fate until the advent of the city's Olympics transformation. Today it is forced to perform miracles on a daily basis to maintain the balance between its peculiar tradition and a modernity as homogenizing as it is enriching.

Welcome to the independent republic of Barceloneta where everyone is waiting for the imminent arrival of the future, but nobody thinks about letting anyone rob them of their past.

"I miss the breakwater. It was dangerous but fantastic. Great furtive moments for various generations of Barcelonans," remembers Marc Fabregat, 35, who runs the Pez Vela beach bar. The locale belongs to the Tragaluz group, located on the ground floor of the W (or Vela) hotel, and is the latest addition to the new VIP spirit that is taking hold of the area where many Barcelonans put their money and their lives at risk to steal their first kiss or examine their first chest.

Marc, his bar and the private security guards who patrol the area embody the controversial modernization of this enclave at the end of the San Sebastián beach. But not even they, in the middle of capitalizing on the luxury tourism, are capable of forgetting what this once was, despite having placed all their hopes in what it will be.

"This area must be improved," says Fabregat. "In a couple of years it could be amazing. The views are wonderful and the location lends the businesses an air of exclusivity."

He rules out the idea of the area as a reserve for tourists. "During the first month, 80 percent of our customers have been locals. Now we are at 60 percent and, even though we maintain a good relationship with the hotel, today, for example, we only have three tables reserved for Vela guests."

Scarcely 100 meters away from where they serve sophisticated cocktails to customers lolling in designer hammocks, Rafael "Fali" Carmona, a 57-year-old fisherman, plays petanque with a group of veteran saltpeter-men. For the last he-doesn't-know-how-many years he has spent the mornings in the Barceloneta Swimming Club waiting for them to moor the boats in order to head to the fish market.

"Today it is much better than before," he says. "Whoever denies that doesn't know the neighborhood. It's true there aren't many boats that go out to fish left in Barcelona. The little vessels, which brought small clams and sole from the coast, have disappeared. There are 15 trawlers and half a dozen others [...] Ten years ago there were more than 30," Carmona remembers.

That fishing fleet was the economic and vital engine of the neighborhood, attracting Italian immigrants and, from Castellón and the Ebro delta, those who gave Barceloneta the final thing it needed to certify its independence from the rest of the city: its own accent.

"Here everybody helped out. The fisherman brought fish and delivered it. The dock worker got hold of bananas that, by chance, had fallen off of some boat..." recalls Juan Cebamor, a 66-year-old retired panel beater, while drinking in the Santa Marta bar, an establishment that has worked the miracle of attracting tourists without repelling the locals.

"We have always been different from the rest of Barcelona. A train line separates us from the rest of the city. We used to enter via the last carriage and, when we left via the first, we were in another world."

"Here they still say 'we are going to Barcelona,' when they talk about going out of the neighborhood and they complain about 'those from Barcelona' as if they lived in another city," comments Quim Marqués, owner of the Suquet de l'Almirall, a maritime restaurant on Passeig Joan de Borbò that still, though it seems incredible, closes every August for 15 days' holiday. Marqués has spent 25 years working in the neighborhood.

"La Barceloneta was a very closed community. When you arrived by car from outside they used to steal your stereo. I remember whole streets where nearly all the parked cars had broken wing mirrors. There were also a lot of drugs. Despite all that, they were very united people and very happy. Many of them had never left the neighborhood, but here, thanks to the black market, there was everything. The hairdresser was a neighbor's apartment," he recalls. "The problem isn't the Vela hotel, nor modernization, but the economic mess of seedy businesses that City Hall ought to start controlling," says Marqués, while complaining about the souvenir shop next door, in the ethic and esthetic of which the real enemy seems to lie.

In any case, as the chef says, "whatever happens, Barceloneta will always be capable of getting over any eventuality, because it is a fighting neighborhood. The fishermen's wives built it - those women who opened the outdoor bars and cooked what their husbands brought from the sea. They showed us the way."

Barceloneta Beach with the W Hotel in the background.
Barceloneta Beach with the W Hotel in the background.GIANLUCA BATTISTA
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS