Carrer Montcada is one of the most singular streets in Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella ‘old town’. The medieval palaces that line both sides for most of its length, with their imposing stone façades and porticoed courtyards, give it an unmistakable character of its own. The Museu Picasso opened its doors here almost fifty years ago, having found a home with a unique historic and artistic heritage. Following its example, other museums and art galleries have come to occupy spaces and buildings on the street, making it an exceptional nucleus of culture. But it’s not only culture that has found a place on carrer Montcada. Still open for business along the way are a number of historic shops, enduring testimony to the commercial importance that the district of La Ribera has had for hundreds of years.
Carrer Montcada. View from the Museu Picasso
Some of these shops are themselves nearly a hundred years old and have witnessed the profound social and demographic changes that the heart of the city has undergone in this time. Many of them came into being as a result of the huge economic significance of the old Born market, and it was a major trauma for these shops when the market moved out of the city in the early 70s. The businesses that have survived have had to recycle and reorient themselves. A good few of the old-established shops on carrer Montcada were in existence well before the creation of the Museu Picasso and have thus shared in the history of the museum, day in, day out, since the very beginning. These and other experiences accumulated decade upon decade make the shops and their proprietors part of the living history of the city. Allow us to introduce you to some.
On the privileged corner between carrer Montcada and carrer Princesa you will find one of the sweetest establishments on the street: the Pastisseria Brunells cake and pastry shop. First opened in 1852, this was originally a bakery, and the impressive old wood-burning oven in the interior, still in perfect working order, can be seen from the adjoining café. In 1917 the shop also began selling confectionery, made by the Brunells family that gave it its name. The business, which is currently run by Manel Díaz, who has worked there for 44 years, lovingly preserves the original aesthetic of its classic pastries, and in the back shop they continue to prepare their wares using the traditional methods and the same recipes they have used for over 50 years.
Just a few metres from the cake and pastry shop, on the corner of Montcada and carrer Barra de Ferro, there is a little pharmacy, which Mario Cerra has been running for five years now. In fact, it seems that the presence of a chemist’s and pharmacist’s on this corner dates back to 1598, according to the researches carried out by the previous owner, who ran the place for 60 years. Cerra is one of the many new neighbours that have established themselves in La Ribera in recent years. When he first arrived in Barcelona ??eleven years ago he liked the neighbourhood so much that he felt he had to live and work here. On taking over the pharmacy he thoroughly refurbished the premises while conserving some of its historic elements, such as the shelves and a set of nineteenth-century scales.
Papers Coma, on the ground floor of the Palau Dalmases, is another of the street’s historic businesses. Founded in 1920, this stationer’s started out supplying paper bags and wrapping paper to stallholders in the Born market. With the closing of the market in 1971, they switched to catering to the needs of the local residents. Today, in addition to boxes, trays and wrapping and packaging materials of all kinds, they also stock a wide variety of everyday stationery items. Ramon Coma, who manages the shop with his brother Francisco, says that although none of their merchandise is specially aimed at tourists, many of those who come to visit the museum come in, especially when it’s raining. In their case, the old shopkeepers’ saying about rainy days — ‘wet streets, empty tills’ — is wide of the mark.
1748. Handicrafts and things
For its final seaward stretch carrer Montcada widens out to form a little elongated plaza that ends on the passeig del Born. Here we find “1748. Handicrafts and things”, a unique popular handicrafts shop run by Toni Sallent and his wife on a site formerly occupied by a laundry. When the laundry moved out over thirty years ago Sallent opened this place where artisans working in clay and glass could show and sell their pieces. Over the years, however, finding new producers has become something of an adventure, because many of the original craftsmen have retired without leaving a successor. Nevertheless, now as thirty years ago the shop’s exposed brick walls are covered in wine jars, jugs, dishes, pots and other pottery and glass utensils in all possible shapes and colours.
As well as the many different shops, carrer Montcada also offers tempting places to eat and drink. The oldest is undoubtedly El Xampanyet, managed since 1929 by three generations of the same family: the founder Esteve Ninou, his son Estevet and his grandson Joan Carles, who is the current proprietor. In fact, the presence of a bar on this spot seems to go much further back, perhaps to the very construction of the building in 1872. The Ninous’ establishment was initially known as Ca l’Esteve, ‘Esteve’s place’, but then in the sixties they began selling a slightly sparkling semi-dry white wine, which they themselves bottled, and which the regulars called xampanyet, and before long the bar had a new name. Despite its 80-odd years of existence, the Xampanyet has managed to conserve almost intact the original atmosphere, decor and bill of fare, even though the clientele has changed out of all recognition. Estevet Ninou, who can boast 70 years of experience behind the counter, has seen the local residents, the neighbourhood and the museum go through successive transformations. He perfectly recalls the great variety of shops and warehouses that once occupied the ground floors of the palaces that now house the Museu Picasso, selling honey, petrol, mattresses… there was even a sweet factory. Estevet’s son Joan Carles, meanwhile, remembers riding his bicycle in the courtyards and corridors of the museum when the conversion work was under way.
This is just a small sample of what can be found on carrer Montcada, which has many more local businesses. Do you have a memory or an experience you’d like to share with us?
Internship at the Museu Picasso as part of the Masters degree in Cultural heritage from the University of Barcelona