The transformation of this street in Barcelona’s Eixample or Expansion District into one of the world’s most luxurious avenues has been a long process not without its share of hardships. Passeig de Gràcia’s worldwide fame spread in the wake of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, when the prestigious U.S. urban designer Allan B. Jacobs discussed it in his book Great Streets, setting it on a par with New York’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’s Champs-Élysées (a street in which our avenue sees itself reflected). Passeig de Gràcia’s most particular feature, however, is its perfect blend of unique architectural heritage and high-end shopping, but it would be best to consider all this one step at a time because the path leading up to this avenue’s status as Barcelona’s Luxury Promenade has not always been an easy one.
THE FIRST BUILDING ON THE STREET
To understand how Passeig de Gràcia came to be, we should travel back in time to the Barcelona of the 14th century. In 1370, King Peter the Ceremonious issued a law forbidding the construction of any more religious buildings within the medieval city’s walled precinct. Accordingly, in 1429, a new structure – the Franciscan convent called Santa Maria de Jesús– was erected more or less opposite the site where Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló stands today. Between what is now a square called Portal de l’Àngel (Gate of the Angel) and the convent, the road (today’s Passeig) came to be called the Camí (Way) de Jesús, going on from there by the name of Camí de Gràcia since it led to what was then the town of Gràcia (now a city district), to the north.
The convent remained standing until the Napoleonic invasion in 1813, when it was demolished. A few years later, during the “Liberal Triennium” of 1820-1823, in the times of King Ferdinand VII, the municipal authorities decided to fix up the road. They commissioned the military engineer Ramon Plana to do the job, although the restoration of the absolute power of the monarchy finally prevented the work from being carried out. The project would be resumed by the Field Marshal of Catalonia, Francisco Bernaldo de Quirós (Marqués of Campo Sagrado), in August of 1824.
LESS THAN NOBLE BEGINNINGS
To defray the expenses of the works on the road, the king approved a tax of twenty reales de vellón on each pig slaughtered in the city. It is curious indeed to find that a glamorous avenue like Passeig de Gràcia had such hardly noble beginnings. The fact is, however, that the tax proved effective and three years later (instead of five as had been envisaged) the remodelled road to the town of Gràcia was inaugurated. The first gas lights would be installed here in 1852.
On October 4, 1860, Ferdinand VII’s daughter, Isabella II, laid the foundation stone of the ambitious urban development scheme conceived by the engineer Ildefons Cerdà. The project, which had been approved one year earlier, was a liberation for the city of Barcelona, which had remained corseted within its medieval walls until then. Indeed, the expansion process would multiply by ten the land area available for development, which posed a real challenge for the local architects and builders and marked the starting shot for the rise of the celebrated Modernisme movement.