One feature common to many cities across Catalonia is their “Rambla” – a surprisingly complex concept to describe when you stop and think about it. It is little more than a straight road (more or less), usually lined with trees either side that is located relatively centrally in the town in question. A suitable English translation could be something like “avenue” or “promenade”, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
Ramblas are often partially or entirely pedestrianised. Many of the more famous ones do accommodate both motorised traffic and walkers. The generous amount footfall that ramblas sustain makes them also fantastic commercial centres; it is not uncommon for a city’s or a town’s rambla to host its flagship fashion stores as well as many excellent cafés and restaurants whose proprietors take advantage of the ample space and glorious Spanish weather to expand their business directly onto the street – another common feature of ramblas. This combination makes them cultural hubs in practically every Catalan town and city lucky enough to have one. Your local rambla is a place to take your date, to find a bar to watch the big game, to take a post-lunch stroll to aid digestion or a humble spot to people watch. In Catalonia, ramblas are the arteries of cultural life.
Lleida has a great one. Sabadell and Girona do too. Vic has several small ones, but these are dwarfed by the various ramblas of Catalonia’s capital. And though many different neighbourhoods of Barcelona are equipped with their own ramblas that serve a particular local community, one attracts attention above all others. If you have ever visited the city, you will know which one it is.
Looking at a map of Barcelona is very telling of how the city grew through the past two centuries. The rigid, functional grid plan of Eixample, Poblenou and Gracia demonstrates the modernity of these barrios – their emergence as residential districts (except probably Poblenou) founded at a time when mass transit in and out each day obligated wide streets that were straight. These wide vias intentionally built to accommodate transport are a stark contrast to the ungodly mess of wavy lines that make up Raval, Barri Gotic and Born – three of Barcelona’s oldest neighbourhoods that date back far beyond the Industrial Revolution. In a sense, you could say that these three quarters make up Barcelona Proper. And the defining boundary that divides the first two of these three is La Rambla, spelt with a capital R.
At just over a kilometre in length and stretching from the port that once drove the fledgling city’s economic growth up to the elegant, functional but slightly bland Placa de Catalunya, La Rambla is a place that tourists and locals alike gravitate towards. It definitely lives up to the hype and hysteria that it seems to attract; it is the street that your nerdy friend insisted you visit after he visited once 16 years ago but still pretends to have insider knowledge of the city. It is the place your girlfriend got pickpocketed one sweltering day in June while you were both too busy watching the talented street performers to pay attention. It is the exact spot where that hooker propositioned me on my way home before becoming my agony aunt and helping calm me down in a matter of seconds as soon as she realised how awful my night had been up to that point. Though it can hardly be considered the most opulent or the chicest street in the city, La Rambla (technically called “Las Ramblas”) does retain real cultural significance in Barcelona, simultaneously symbolic of the city’s charm and its crime.
So what better place for the marketing department of a rival city to make a point?
In a Spanish city of over 5 million inhabitants, there is always going to be a market for official merchandise of Club de Fútbol Real Madrid – even if the city has its own world-class club to call its own (and RCDE Espanyol too I suppose). It’s not uncommon to see Real Madrid scarves and shirts of varying degrees of authenticity on sale in local bazaars and souvenir stores, so why would the club not choose to open an actual shop somewhere in the city in order to take advantage of passing trade and cash in big time? They could have opened a store anywhere, but high level managers saw a great opportunity. In order to pull a fast one and really get under the skin of their fiercest rivals, a few cunning execs working in the marketing department of Real Madrid have founded their official shop right on La Rambla – the most iconic street in the city and arguably a central pillar of Catalan culture in the 21st century.
This has clearly not going unnoticed by FC Barcelona. Only a few doors up is one of their (many) licensed stores in the city where punters can buy everything from matchday tickets to Barca bubblegum. I am uncertain as to which of these two Spanish megaclub shops outdates the other, but one represents a fantastically smart attempt of one club to undermine the fundamental core narrative of the support for the other. The other is a store you would expect to find on one of the main commercial streets in town. The Pride of Catalonia, FC Barcelona, embraced this identity as the club of the Catalan Consciousness by establishing a commercial presence on the most famed street in the whole region. Real Madrid demonstrated their power and cheapened FCB’s branding efforts by doing exactly the same thing.