This post will probably not be what you expect. It wasn’t what I expected, as we strolled the winding streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and Maria said, “Come on. I’ll take you to my favorite square in the city.”
I expected, I suppose, perhaps somewhere like La Plaza de las Naranjas in Marbella, a colorful square filled with flora, people and parasols. It wasn’t anything like that.
Fascinated by the narrow streets through which we passed, I was snapping photos and not thinking about much else. As Maria walked through an archway I called out for her to turn around and pose, but she didn’t hear me.
As I passed under the same arch something seemed to flow over me, a sense of peace. I was aware of a palpable silence, yet we’d only walked a few seconds from Barcelona’s hustle and bustle. It was as if passing under that archway marked a beginning and an ending. There was one of those wild-looking hobo-types ranting and apparently drunk, but he didn’t seem to be threatening, and his chatter was easy to block out in the overwhelming sense of tranquility.
The square wasn’t pretty, though there was an old fountain in its center, and a bar tucked into a corner. It was a austere, and had a run-down air……. and then Maria explained to me why.
We were in the square of the church of San Felipe Neri, and although I didn’t remember the name, I did remember reading about the place where Franco’s troops had executed untold numbers of folk during the Spanish Civil War. The run-down look of the walls of the church and the adjoining buildings, which had been a convent and a school, was because those pockmarks were caused by the bullets of the firing squads.
Knowing that, I can’t account for this sense of calm. Perhaps the ghosts are at peace, as some website claimed when I looked it up later. Civil Wars are always the most destructive, as if some special venom is reserved for our brothers and sisters, and Spain’s began a mere 75 years ago, it’s barely history. For sure there are still open wounds, events which need explaining, disappearances which need to be solved, and it’s hard to imagine that the ghosts would yet be at peace. If you google la Iglesia de San Felipe Neri many sites don’t even mention the executions, not unusual in a country which tried to bury its collective memories, and which, in many ways, still has to come to terms with them. The web sites mention the bomb, which fell there in 1938, which resulted in the the deaths of between 20 and 45 people (depending on which site you read), most of whom were children, sheltering in the basement of the 18th Century church when the ceiling caved in, and they mention that it is the site of an ancient burial ground, so if anywhere is the haunt of the dead, this place would be.
I left my camera around my neck, untouched. This place seemed too sacred to play tourist. The church doors were firmly shut on the day we were there. I don’t know if it is open to tourists normally, but as Maria’s words sank in, and I stood quietly by the fountain absorbing them, this quirky vehicle drew slowly by.
It seemed incongruous, brightly-colored and commercial against the sombre walls, and yet who was I to judge – isn’t that how wars begin? Perhaps the people were too infirm to walk the city’s streets, and wasn’t this environmentally friendly and quiet, and who am I to think I have any more right to be there than they? And if this tragic place is on the tourist circuit isn’t it right that we should know the truth and remember it? I raised my camera, but without the enthusiasm I usually feel.