Walk down La Rambla these days and you’ll see a multitude of restaurants, street performers, tourist shops and a few rather impressive buildings, such as the Liceu theatre. The locals will be few and far between but that doesn’t stop La Rambla being one of the city’s busiest streets. However, back in the Middle Ages you would have struggled to find much else than mud and water on La Rambla.
Look carefully at the positioning of La Rambla and you’ll notice it running in the direction of the sea, which it meets at the site of the Christopher Columbus monument. In fact, until the 15th century, where La Rambla now stands there ran a stream which carried water from the surrounding mountains. It was only when the city was rapidly expanding that the stream was built over and became a paved street.
If today La Rambla runs through the heart of the city centre, once upon a time it would actually have been outside the city walls. The Ciutat Vella or Old Town – comprising neighbourhoods such as the Gothic Quarter and El Born – is the historic centre of Barcelona and stretched only as far as the current day La Rambla to the south and to what is now the Ciutadella park to the north.
In fact, the famous Boquería market is located where it is today – just off La Rambla in the neighbourhood known as El Raval – because traders in the 19th century wanted to avoid the import tax on produce entering the city, by trading outside the city walls.
As far as its name is concerned, rambla comes from the Arabic word ramla or رمل which means sand and in this case refers to the sandy deposit which would gather in the bed of the stream. It also refers to the fact that this particular kind of stream filled and emptied depending on the rain, meaning that it could be dry at certain periods.
What’s more, this isn’t the only Rambla in Barcelona: la Rambla del Raval, la Rambla de Poblenou, la Rambla de Badal – these are all streets which run in the direction of the sea (although not all of them used to be streams). The term is also in use across much of Catalonia, Valencia and the so-called Països Catalans.
Finally, it’s worth noting that although this famous street often goes by the name ‘La Rambla’, there are actually five different segments of it, each with their own name: Rambla de Canaletes, Rambla dels Estudis, Rambla de Sant Josep, Rambla dels Caputxins and Rambla de Santa Mònica.
The Rambla de Canaletes is where you’ll find the Font de Canaletes, a small water-fountain famous for being the gathering point of FC Barcelona fans after a big victory. The Rambla dels Estudis was the former home of a Jesuit University – estudis meaning ‘studies’ in Catalan.
The Rambla de Sant Josep is also called the Rambla de les Flors sometimes, owing to the great number of stalls selling flowers on this segment of the street. This is also where the Boquería market is located, officially called the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. The Rambla dels Caputxins was home to a Capuchin monastery but is now best known for the Liceu theatre. Finally, the Rambla de Santa Mònica got its name from the Santa Mònica which today is a contemporary arts centre, Arts Santa Mònica.