Normally when you cross Las Ramblas, it’s like trying to navigate a river coursing with energy; more often than not, the current is too strong. On some days, the rush is easier to manage and more enjoyable. Lately, however, a strange emptiness has descended on the boulevard – no more crowds, no more buzz.
But if you listen closely, a pulse remains, that of the area’s historic resilience, which is baked into the very stones that pave this famous thoroughfare. So many things have happened here, and Las Ramblas has endured so much. As Barcelona struggles with the current pandemic, which has brought a surreal silence to the city and raises difficult questions about how to reopen and rebuild, La Boquería, the 19th-century market at the heart of Las Ramblas that in recent years had become overrun with tourists, is reclaiming its role as a neighborhood market.
“Now with no tourism we are focusing on online selling,” says Fran Pereira, the fourth generation to run the fruit and vegetable stall VidalPons. “We have to go back to our essence, that of being a neighborhood market,” he adds. His family opened their first stall in the market in 1897 and to date have added seven more, all dedicated to fresh and dried fruits. “We fight hard so that our clients receive delivery on the same day,” he says, referring to the delivery service that La Boquería, like other municipal markets in Barcelona, is offering to their clients (it can normally take longer than a day). Many people are calling in their orders (especially older people, who are encouraged to stay home), while some are using other methods, like the local delivery app Manzaning or the websites of individual stalls.
La Boquería looks very different these days. In place of the 50,000 or so international visitors that used to pass through each day, there are now only dozens of local shoppers keeping a wide berth. Despite being one of the 39 food markets in Barcelona classified as a fundamental service, same as supermarkets and grocery stores, a majority of the market’s 250 food stalls are closed. “Supermarkets are packed and they are being emptied out… and the fresh product is kind of abandoned,” complains Rocio Álvarez, who works at stall number 5 in the farmers’ market next to La Boquería. Gemma Bosch, from the fishmonger Palmira Neus, explains how they have adapted to current situation, besides pivoting to home deliveries: “We go every day to Mercabarna [the wholesale market], we buy the fish super fresh, as you can see. We try to buy less to finish the day with nothing and do a total renovation the next day.”
In contrast to the shops and stalls still open for businees, some sections of the market are lined with gray metallic shutters where they’re normally a riot of colors and mouthwatering smells. Inma Jiménez, from Pesca Salada Pujamar, explains: “Many vendors prioritized tourism too much and local people were kind of left behind. This is going to change a lot, because it is going to make people think more.”
Obviously all the restaurants had to shut down, but many of the stalls that are now shut are ones that had turned their focus to tourists, selling takeaway cones of fried fish or Iberian ham, packs of precut fruit, or smoothies. But for Manel from Olives I Conserves Graus, another century-old family-run stall, there was no question of remaining open and catering to people from the neighborhood: “It is our duty to be open, even if you say that it’s not worth it economically, maybe not, but I think it is our duty to be open and offer a service to the people who want it.”
Even though the building, with its modernist front, was built in 1840, the first open-air stalls of La Boquería – mainly Jewish vendors selling the meat of kid goats (called boc in Catalan) – date back to 1217. Since then, this iconic market has survived all kinds of epidemics, conflicts, battles, revolutions and a terror attack, not to mention the Spanish Civil War and its bombings. So the vendors are used to persevering, and they will. But everything is easier with a little help from your friends (neighbors, colleagues and institutions). And it’s help we’ll willingly give, as the energy that flows through Las Ramblas is vital for our city.
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