If you’ve walked in the creamy Barcelona sunlight through the streets around the Paseo de Gracia, you will be no stranger to the elegant charm of the Eixample, the imposing 19th-century grid that is the Spanish city’s geographical and architectural heart. Magnificent modernist buildings gaze proudly over the tree-lined boulevards. Delights beckon from every shop front: sleek furniture, elaborate tapas, chic couture and handmade chocolates.
Hidden from view, however, behind the Eixample’s grand facades, is a little-advertised patchwork of public gardens and courtyards that offers refuge from the urban rush and an intimate view of everyday Barcelona life.
Many of these green spaces have been carved in recent years from the patios that form the center of each city block, and are reached down narrow passageways or by cutting through a building. They are the ideal place to pause between the sights of the Eixample, which stretches from the old city to neighborhoods like Gracia, especially if you have children in tow.
As you stroll around the Quadrat d’Or — the central section of the Eixample known for its modernist gems — step into the gracious garden of the Palau Robert, a late-19th-century mansion that hosts the Catalan tourist office. Filled with stately palm, cyprus and orange trees, the gardens were part of the estate of Robert Robert i Suris, a Spanish grandee. You can reach the garden through the door of the palace, at Paseo de Gracia, 107, or through two gates around the corner on Diagonal.
This is drought-stricken Barcelona, however, not well-watered Paris or London, and some of the Eixample’s gardens are paved and spare — more interesting as places to watch people than to spot flora.
If you take a few minutes out of your hunt for designer cookware at the popular shop Vincon (Paseo de Gracia, 96; 34-93-215-6050; www.vincon.com), you can sit in the peaceful courtyard behind the shop and check out the undulating balconies on the rear facade of Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Mila. You may even catch a couple of the residential building’s lucky occupants chatting.
Or for a taste of local life, pop into the courtyard at the end of the Pasaje Rector Oliveras, where children clamber on the climbing frame in the shadow of the Gothic Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was moved stone by stone from the old city in the late 1800s. A local resident said the neighbors use the garden for alfresco dinners in summer, so, you never know, you may even snag an invitation to partake of some pa amb tomaquet.
Or cool your heels — literally — in the shallow, turquoise swimming pool reached via a dark passageway at Calle Roger de Lluria, 56, one of the first patios returned to the public by the city in the late 1980s and home to a looming brick water tower. (Entry during summer costs 1.45 euros, about $2.20.)
“The patios are like a window onto Barcelona,” said Francesc Munoz Ramirez, a professor of urban geography at the Barcelona Autonomous University, during a recent afternoon stroll through the Eixample. “You can be an urban voyeur — watch the business of the city from the inside.”
This speckle of green in the Eixample’s urban lattice is a nod to the vision of Idelfons Cerda i Sunyer, the progressive civil engineer whose design for the district marks its 150th anniversary this year. When he submitted his plan in 1859, the city Cerda had in mind was to be functional rather than flamboyant, a breed of socialist utopia where rich and poor would live side-by-side in city blocks of identical size wrapped around parks and kitchen gardens.
Back then, Barcelona was a teeming, disease-ridden warren of streets, clustered around the port and hemmed in by medieval walls beyond which lay the wide expanse that became the Eixample. Life for the working class was grim and short; the average person died before his or her 36th birthday.
Onto this squalid, airless muddle, Cerda grafted his huge, orderly grid, an ambitious expansion that was an heir of Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s plan for remodeling the chaotic center of Paris earlier in the decade.
Cerda foresaw the needs of modern life and created a template from which the city has evolved to become one of Europe’s most vibrant and enticing.
Thrilled by the potential of railways, he designed wide streets that could handle trains and trams. To help visibility and, some believe, to allow trams to turn, he cut the corner of each block at an angle, creating the graceful chamfered corners so characteristic of the Eixample.
Cerda’s plan became the DNA of modern Barcelona, but his detractors condemned it as vulgar and monotonous, and many of its egalitarian precepts were ignored.
“Cerda’s vision was so avant-garde, so modern that few people at the time recognized his genius,” said Lluis Permanyer, a Catalan journalist who has written books on the Eixample. “It is only today that we are realizing how important he was.”
Some streets became more equal than others, with grand avenues sprouting elaborate mansions that made the Eixample a showcase for modernist architects like Gaudi, Lluis Domenech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, while nearby streets languished, unpaved and without sanitation.
Greedy developers constructed more, and taller, buildings than Cerda intended, cutting the light and public space that were supposed to make his city sanitary and pleasant (like other 19th-century urban planners, he believed good ventilation would prevent the spread of disease). The patios inside each block became cluttered with warehouses, garages and offices.
However, the green spaces that Cerda believed would define the Eixample prefigured a very contemporary need. As part of an effort to make Barcelona greener, the city has created 40 gardens and plans to add more, as well as create a network of pedestrian-only areas.
“We’re returning to Cerda’s original concept,” said Munoz. “The vision we have for the city now isn’t very different from the one he had, 150 years ago.”