Short Cuts

Colm Tóibín

Joan Miró, the Catalan painter, who was 82 when Franco died in 1975, had spent the previous 35 years in a sort of internal exile in Palma de Mallorca. Now that the dictator was dead, he was free to come to Barcelona as much as he wanted. He did a poster for the Barça football club; he designed record sleeves for young Catalan singers; he did the costumes for a young theatre group. He loved the fresh graffiti and the new open atmosphere in the city. In 1976 he was asked by the Town Hall to design a set of tiles to be placed at the very centre of the Ramblas, the long boulevard that stretches from Plaça de Catalunya to the statue of Columbus at the port.

At that time the Ramblas was still the place where locals strolled in the evening. It had begun as a small stream whose channel was used in the dry season as a roadway. In the 18th century the stream was diverted and the Ramblas became a place to walk, with plane trees offering shelter. It is about the width of a four-lane street, with kiosks selling newspapers, flowers and (these days) ice cream, and some outdoor tables for bars, with two narrow lanes on either side, like an afterthought, for traffic. Although the pedestrian section is slightly raised, there is no real barrier between the lanes for cars and the boulevard for walkers.

Miró’s tiles were put down in an almost-circle at Plaça d’Os, just above the Liceu Opera House, near the Boqueria Market. Miró loved the idea that people would actually walk on his tiles, made in his customary colours – blue, yellow, red, black – and using some of his customary iconography. This was the first sign of a new spirit in Barcelona, which would use culture, civic pride and the idea of vivid street life to reimagine the city, giving rise, in turn, to the development of mass tourism.

It was precisely on these Miró tiles that the white van, driven by Younes Abouyaaquob, a 22-year-old from the town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees, more than a hundred kilometres north-west of Barcelona, finally stopped on Thursday, 17 August at close to five o’clock in the afternoon. The van’s airbag, it seems, had activated so the van could no longer continue. Some minutes earlier, the vehicle had mounted the Ramblas close to Plaça de Catalunya and driven at speed, zigzagging, mowing down pedestrians, killing 13 and injuring many more.

The entire area around the Ramblas has changed a great deal since Miró designed his ceramic tiles. It is no longer a place where Catalans stroll, but has become a busy tourist venue, especially in the summer. Indeed, it is often so packed with pedestrians that it makes sense, if you are not a tourist, to use one of the side streets to get from one place to another. Most of the old shops in the area have closed or cater just for tourists now. Around the corner from where the van stopped, for example, was the great bookshop Documenta, which opened in 1975 but moved uptown a few years ago to be replaced by a fast food joint and a tourist cocktail bar. Opposite where the van stopped there is Aromas de Istanbul and American Soda and Souvenir Sports.

Since the van was facing towards the port, if Abouyaaquob, as he was escaping, had gone to the left, he would soon have found himself in one of the city’s old squares – Plaça de Pi, or Plaça Sant Jaume, or the square in front of the cathedral. This would have been a much harder terrain in which to disappear than the area to the right of the Ramblas, which is where Abouyaaquob actually fled.

One of the streets to the right is Carrer Sant Pau, which is almost entirely made up of Pakistani shops; it has been utterly transformed over the past twenty years from one of the most rundown and dangerous streets in the city to one of the most vibrant. It is presumed that Abouyaaquob went along Carrer d’Hospital, parallel to Carrer Sant Pau, and turned right into the very narrow Carrer de les Cabres. This led him to the interior of the Boqueria market where his image was caught on CCTV. If he had looked up as he moved along Carrer de les Cabres he would have found a large banner in the window of the only two-storey building that he faced. Written in English, it says: ‘Tourist Invasion Go Home.’

People who live in Barcelona have come to deplore the volume and intensity of tourism. In the aftermath of the 1992 Olympic Games, which took place in Barcelona, I interviewed one of the city’s main public architects and asked him if he and his colleagues felt they had got anything wrong when they created the image of Barcelona that went all over the world. He smiled and said that they had created miles of beach and pretty clean seawater, really good roads and a better train and metro system, but had forgotten about the number of pedestrian tourists and how they would come to crowd out the locals in the old city. In recent years there has been an effort, led by the left-wing mayor, Ada Colau, to cut back on the number of new hotels and the number of apartments available for short-term rentals.

The 32 million visitors who come to a city of 1.6 million people, and provide 14 per cent of the city’s income, employing 100,000 people, congregate in the old part of Barcelona for very good reasons. It is startlingly beautiful and easy to walk in. It combines wide streets and very narrow ones. It has great bars and cheap hotels and superb museums and Gothic churches and civic buildings. It is within walking distance of busy beaches and good nightclubs.

The sheer volume of walking tourists in very few streets made Barcelona an easy target for a terrorist attack. Abouyaaquob was, it seems, part of a group of 12, all living in Ripoll: two of them were killed in an accidental explosion in the town of Alcanar, two hundred kilometres south, on Wednesday, 16 August; five were shot dead by police in the beach resort of Cambrils in the early hours of Friday, 18 August; the other four have been arrested. The original plan was, it appears, to pack a number of vans with explosives, thus causing a much greater number of deaths in Barcelona, but this had to be abandoned when the explosion occurred.

Since Catalonia is living through a period of political uncertainty, what happened over those few days in the middle of August will have significant repercussions. The search for the planners and perpetrators was conducted by the Catalan police force, Els Mossos d’Esquadra, rather than the Spanish police. The head of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, was in charge. Even the Madrid newspaper El País, which vehemently opposes the very idea of the referendum on Catalan independence planned for 1 October (Puigdemont insists it will go ahead), carried an editorial on 22 August praising Els Mossos for their professionalism over the previous four days.

But what we noticed in Catalonia was Puigdemont himself, his competence, his calm, the aura he exuded of complete control. He acted and sounded like a head of state. When, on the other hand, the prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, spoke, he sounded like an outsider, despite his firm and sympathetic tone. Puigdemont’s handling of the crisis has hugely increased his stature in Catalonia.

On Tuesday, 22 August, the day after Abouyaaquob was shot dead, having been found fifty kilometres south of the city, the tourists stood silently around the space where Miró had placed his tiles. It was now completely covered in candles and flowers and teddy bears and handwritten messages, some of them in Arabic. All the way up towards Plaça de Catalunya, on the route the van had taken, were other shrines placed where people had been killed. The first one, at the very top, opposite Bar Núria, marks the spot where the van had come onto the pedestrian boulevard. Among the candles and the flowers and the handwritten messages was a brand new edition of the Collected Poems of Federico García Lorca in Spanish. Lorca, who came to Barcelona first in 1925, said that the Ramblas was a street he hoped would go on for ever.