Wooden wine barrels with taps, shabby old furniture, noisy antiquated fridges, soda siphons from the 1960s… these are the building blocks of Barcelona’s classic bodegas. Formerly shops that sold bulk wine, liquor and ice, these bodegas survived the Spanish Civil War, social conflicts, food shortages, financial crises and, of course, modernity, with their essence intact, even if they morphed into bars or restaurants along the way.
The most important element of a neighborhood bodega, however, is neither readily visible nor easily captured: it’s the place of importance these spots occupy in the lives and hearts of the local residents. They are the scene of innumerable childhood memories and infinite moments shared with other locals from the block, making them a dependable point of reference in time and space. Recently the Barcelona City Council has finally awoken to this reality, recognizing the importance of developing some kind of plan to protect these urban hangouts from the twin plagues of gentrification and homogenization.
In July, the City Council suspended all renovation permits and work licenses for 31 of Barcelona’s oldest bodegas, with a particular focus on those in rental spaces. It is the first step in determining whether to include these establishments in the municipal Plan de Protección y Apoyo a los Establecimientos Emblemáticos (Plan of Protection and Support for Iconic Establishments).
Since its inception in 2015, this initiative has safeguarded 211 of the city’s iconic businesses. Under the plan, the Council assumes some of the responsibility for the establishment’s economic viability; in practice that means getting involved in rental negotiations to ensure a fair price and advising establishments on how to maintain a viable business. It also calls for the protection of material and non-material patrimony, such as architecture, decorations and iconic professional elements, and provides incentives for preserving the establishment. These measures are a step in the right direction toward maintaining Barcelona’s identity and neighborhood life, especially as international chains spread through the city and foreign investment continues apace.
Curiously, the owners of these bodegas learned of the Council’s decision from press coverage, rather than the Council itself. Some are positive about the change but remain skeptical about what, exactly, will be achieved. “I don’t really know what this plan is about, as the City Council never spoke directly with us,” says Jordi, who works in Gràcia at Bodega Marín, which is owned by his mother, Teresa Cercós.
“For me, [Salvat] is more than a bar, it is an old gathering point for the neighborhood. If we lose this place, we lose everything.”
“All this is good – any help for small neighborhood businesses is great,” he continues. “But after 30 years here, in a [bodega] that’s more than a century old, without any protection… Imagine they leave you for 30 years in a lion’s den, 30 years of bites, and now a guy comes and says, ‘Look, I just remembered you, and I think I’m going to give you a small bandage since you have a lot of bites.’ Well, maybe you are coming a little bit too late, man; my bites have already developed gangrene. After years of restrictions and not receiving any help from the municipality for silly details, and another hundred complications, maybe first just leave us alone to do our jobs.” Jordi is referring to the huge hurdles that small businesses must overcome to survive in Barcelona nowadays. “The first thing we need is for them to let us work in peace,” he says.
Rafa Ortiz from Bodega Cal Pep, which was founded in 1936 in the upper Gràcia neighborhood (Gràcia has the most bodegas on the list, with nine entries), is a bit more optimistic but makes a similar point. “I’m very glad about this. Currently, in fact, I’m not interested in doing any renovations or other works. The only thing I want is to preserve [the bodega] as it is. And also keep the rent [from going up]. It’s already a lot!” he says. Some sort of assistance with maintaining fair rental rates, perhaps in the form of rent control, is a common refrain among the bodega owners we spoke to – a sign that preserving these historic bodegas requires more than prohibiting renovations. “Our customers are very happy with the bodega as it is,” Rafa explains. “They always say to me, ‘Rafa, don’t change anything!’ We just want [the Council] to leave us as we are, to not complicate our lives!”
But that’s not to say the Council’s attempt to preserve the interiors is unimportant: Barcelonans love their local bodegas in part because of the nostalgia they inspire. “If some new owners removed the marble counter and the wine barrels, that would be the end,” says Juan Esteban González, who worked for 50 years at Bodega Salvat in Sants, which was founded in 1880, making it one of the oldest in the city. “If they change the bodega, it will lose everything,” he adds. Although he also brings up the issue of rising rents: “There are a lot of bodegas that are renting and [rental prices] must be protected.”
“The most important thing here is the neighborhood, we are like family,” Juan Esteban, who is now retired and just another customer at Salvat, explains. “The postman used to leave mail for the neighbors here; we were like the errand boys.” He speaks passionately about the integral role Salvat plays in the neighborhood, where it has been a refuge for five generations of locals. “If they remove this place… we won’t allow it, because it is our gathering place.”
As we’re chatting with Juan Esteban at the counter in Salvat, another regular, Ricardo, pipes up. He’s standing nearby with one of the bodega’s draft beers, poured directly from a barrel in the ancient fridge, in hand. “I was born in Sants, but for the past 10 years I’ve lived in Cornellá [a city on the southwestern periphery of the Barcelona metropolitan area]. And yet I still come here every day to have a beer and see people before going to work. If there’s something we have in Cornellá, it’s bars, but I still come here every day. For me, [Salvat] is more than a bar, it is an old gathering point for the neighborhood. If we lose this place, we lose everything.”
Perhaps the bodega most in need of the Council’s intervention is Bodega Carlos, also in Sants. The building housing Bodega Carlos was sold – before the City Council made this plan of action – to a new owner who wants to demolish it and build apartments for tourists. While Carlos, the eponymous owner, is getting close to retirement age, one of his employees is interested in taking over and keeping the bodega open, as it is. “I know Carlos and his bodega very well,” says Juan Esteban. “In this case, the City Council may have to pay something to keep it open. So now we are going to see how serious the Council is about protecting bodegas!”
While the Council has taken an important first step, many more should follow if they truly want these classic spots to stick around. The big fear is that the city’s old-school bodegas will find the same fate as many artists: “Like how the great painters and sculptors became famous only after they were already dead and buried,” says Jordi from Bodega Marín.
So we raise our glasses and, with a hopeful yet hesitant eye to the future, make a toast to these storied bodegas – may they live a long life.
The 31 bodegas included on the list (grouped by neighborhood):
Ciutat Vella: Bodega Montse, Bar del Toro, Bodega de la Masia, Bodega Sergio, El Moll del Rebaix, Bodega Fermín and Bar Leo
L’Eixample: Bodega Vendrell, Bar Gelida, Bodega Gol and Celler Miquel
Sants-Montjuïc: Bodega Salvat, Bodega Montferry, Bodega Carlos and Bodega Nadal
Gràcia: Bodega Marín, Bodega Iturre, La Vermuteria del Tano, Bodega Cal Pep, Bodega Casas, Bodega Costa Brava, Bodega Manolo, Bodega Quimet and Can Ros
Horta-Guinardó: Bodega Massana and Bar Bodega Lepanto
Nou Barris: Bodega Eduardo
Sant Andreu: Bodega Lluís
Sant Martí: Bodega Carol, Bodega Sopena and Bodega J. Cala
We visit many of Barcelona’s historic bodegas on our culinary walks.