George Orwell, born in Eric Arthur Blai, India, during the time of English imperialism, marked the literature’s history by his lucid and polemical prose. We all keep in mind the stress and agony of being watched by the Big Brother in Orwell’s probably most known fiction novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, or 1984. Nevertheless, George Orwell experienced previously chapters of his life in the city of Barcelona.
At the end of 1936, Barcelona was a pained city and the civil war that confronted fascists and Republican supporters was strongly punishing all the country. That is why George Orwell decided to come to Barcelona with his wife, with the idea of covering the war as a journalist. Then, he joined the POUM –a Barcelona-based socialist party- and decided to fight as a republican volunteer on the Aragon front. After being shot he returned and wrote its famous novel Homage to Catalonia (1937), a personal account of his experiences and observations of the Spanish civil war. With the company of the English author and the civil war as a context, we can get inside the unknown Barcelona of George Orwell.
While he was visiting Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, George Orwell and his wife stayed in the Hotel Continental, a beautiful and cozy 3-star hotel located at the top of Las Ramblas, right in the heart of Barcelona.
During his life he returned several times to Hotel Continental and he mentions it in Homage to Catalonia. Actually, after entering in the black list for the Stalinists due the strong split between the various leftist factions, the Stalinists agents searched the room where his wife was staying while Orwell was recovering from a shot in the throat in the hospital. The agents took his diary and the first notes of Homage to Catalonia.
There are still many travelers that come to Hotel Continental to see the hotel where Orwell used to stay in Barcelona. In fact, the hotel is still run by the same family, Malagarriga, whose member had to learn about the hotel’s history after so many guests asked them about its famous past resident.
Hotel Continental retains a special atmosphere like from another past era. Located in Barcelona centre, its chintz wallpaper and pink satin bead covers have a lot to say about the history of the city. You can quite imagine foreign guests trying to maintain social etiquette while the sounds of battles taking place below floated up to the balconies and chandeliered lounge.
A walk through Las Ramblas: Teatro Poliorama
During 1937 the mythic Barcelona’s boulevard with trees, Las Ramblas, was quite different than today. Barcelona was about to tip into violent insanity: the different factions of the left side were splitting apart and during May shootings started in Las Ramblas.
If we continue walking down Las Ramblas from Hotel Continental we find the Teatro Poliorama, where George Orwell stayed for three days and nights in order to keep an eye: the Assault Guards were poised to attack the POUM headquarters (now the Hotel Rivoli Rambla at 128 Ramblas) and there was a good sight from the roof. If we stand in front of the Poliorama and look up we can still see the rooftop observatory and the twin domes Orwell described.
After walking down Las Ramblas we reach the beautiful Liceu opera house: in its metro station, into the entrance in front of the theatre and in the middle of Las Ramblas, George Orwell described that the crowd was surging to take cover as the bullets flew. Today, el Liceu and Poliorama are offering an extensive program of culture and music through the year and they are part of the rich culture life of the city.
Felip Neri Square
Sant Felip Neri is, without any doubt, one of the most beautiful and quietest squares of Barcelona. The most visible legacy of the war is hidden in a corner of the Gothic quarter and next to Las Ramblas. This tiny and romantic square, with its fountain and the church, is related with George Orwell and his commitment of defense of the Republic due to the painful memory of the church. In January 1938, the square and the building were hit by a bomb dropped by Mussolini’s air force; 42 people were killed, many of the children, who had taken shelter in the basement of the church. Nowadays, the wounds etched into the stone of Sant Felip Neri persist as a reminder of the attack and the silence of the square seems to be very far from the sounds of everyday life.
George Orwell Square
The only reference to George Orwell in Barcelona is the Plaça de George Orwell, also being locally known as “Plaça del Tripi”. We will arrive to this square after arrive to Plaça Sant Jaume from Sant Felip Neri and walk through the labyrinth Gothic, behind the Barcelona’s City Hall historical building. Nowadays, the square and the streets around it are a popular place for young people and locals for its bars and small shops. As a curiosity, in the square there is a placard that says “Watched area in 500m, Plaça George Orwell”. Maybe the society watched by the Big Brother is not so far from us.