Plaza España - From Past to Present
Wandering the streets of Barcelona you are bound to come across more than a few squares and plazas. The city is patched together with these small and sometimes grand spaces where a maze of side-streets or major avenues converge to create a quaint meeting place at the heart of a tiny neighborhood or a crucial crossroad for urban traffic. Plaza Espana just by the sheer size of the roundabout is a prime example of the later version.
Plaza España is one of Barcelona’s largest junctures connecting several main city thoroughfares that include: Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, Avenida Parallel and Calle Tarragona. It is also the gateway to Montjuic and Avenida de la Reina Maria Cristina, which is the main pathway that leads traffic into the fairgrounds of La Fira de Barcelona straight up to the regal Palau Nacional & Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna (houses an extensive collection of Romanesque and historic Catalonian art).
Therefore while visiting Barcelona it is highly likely that you’ll make your way to Plaza Espana whether it be for a convention at the Fira, to visit the numerous cultural spaces such as the Fundacion Joan Miro or the plethora of gardens on Montjuic hill. In fact, for first time visitors, many of whom aren’t familiar with the city, don’t realize the first major sight to greet them as they enter the inner city from the outskirts where El Prat airport is located is Plaza Espana.
Historically the location of the square was the gruesome sight of public hangings, which was later moved to the now dismantled Ciutadella fortress in 1715. However the proposal for its design was brought on by a more uplifting pursuit, that of the 1929 Universal Exhibition. With plans for the expo to take place in Montjuic the city was required to invest in urban development of the immediate district and adjacent areas as well as renovate public spaces, which fundamentally meant Plaza Espana. The revised layout of Plaza Espana was completed in 1915 although construction didn’t start till almost 14 years later on the heels of the commencement of the expo. Since then, the plaza has been in public use.
Unlike Plaza Cataluyna for example, which caters to pedestrians, Plaza Espana is primarily a large roundabout designed for motorized traffic so crossing through the square on foot is impossible. Pedestrians have to circumvent the square walking along the sidewalks that boarder the circular route where cars and motorists weave in and out of lanes maneuvering to their exit.
This is a bit of a let down because the primary architectural detail attributed to the Plaza is an ornate fountain with the requisite mythological statues, columns and cascading water that you would expect for a grand square is in the center of the roundabout. Very few have ventured to the grassy mote that surrounds the fountain when open to traffic because it’s a death wish trying to make it in. The only time anyone can think about getting an up close look at the work designed by Josep Maria Jujol (Catalan architect that collaborated with Antoni Gaudi on many of his most famous works such as Casa Batllo) is when it is closed to motorized traffic.
From street-level the best way to appreciate Plaza Espana’s architectural details is to walk the large circle or better yet, take a few spins around the roundabout. The less dangerous to inspect and possibly overall the least interesting architectural structures that sits at the southeast side of the plaza are the Venetian Towers. Two on either side of Avenida de la Reina Maria Cristina, they stand at 154 feet tall and announce the formal entrance to the La Fira de Barcelona and Montjuic.
However crossing over Avenida Parallel just to the right of the Towers is the Arena de Barcelona bullring. Now this is a cool building built in 1900 in the style of Moorish Revival. It reminds me a bit of the Coliseum in Rome on a much, much smaller scale and all of it is in tact. Today there aren’t any bullfights held there as the building is being converted into a major shopping center.
In my personal opinion the best way to appreciate the immensity of Plaza Espana is high above from the steps of the Palau Nacional. The vantage point is unbeatable giving you a clear view of Avenida de la Reina Maria Cristina with the Fira buildings on either side on down to the Plaza and across the whole city to the mountains of Tibidabo.
At night the view is spectacular as the normally drab Plaza is aglow in incandescent light. The Venetian towers, the street lamps that circle the plaza and lanterns in the central fountain are all lit up. If you time it perfectly, you can watch the Font de Magica show at dusk during the summer season and the lights and music turns the visiting Plaza Espana into more of fantastical experience.