Barcelona and the Civil War air raid shelters (refugis aeris)

Hidden under the surface of Barcelona lie many remains of the city’s history. Including about 1,400 bomb shelters built during the Civil War.

Because of its strategic position, Barcelona was the target for the attacks made by the Italian Fascist air force, which collaborated with the revolutionary forces that were fighting against the Republic. The city was one of the first places where non-military targets were bombed, attacking the civilian population. Madrid and Gernika were also brutally bombed, but while these two cities were near the front-line fighting, Barcelona formed the rearguard.

Bomb shelter in Barcelona

Prior to the bombings, the city council made the citizens aware of the threat and orders were given to build 30 shelters, which would not be sufficient for even 5% of the population. Everyone laughed at the first shelters because no one could ever imagine that Barcelona would be a victim of air raids. Sirens were also placed all over the city and pamphlets were issued giving instructions about what to do in the event of bomb attacks. On 13 February, 1937, Barcelona underwent the first of the 192 attacks and when everyone realised that there were not enough shelters they began to build many more that were gradually registered. Resources were scare and the strongest people were away fighting on the front, which meant it was mostly elderly people, women and children who were responsible for building the underground tunnels. There are records of about 1,400 shelters, although there could easily be as many as 2,000.

Most of these shelters were built using the Catalan vault (volta catalana), an architectural technique used in Catalonia to make arches stronger and wider. In this way, the passage could be wider and throughout its length there was enough room to place benches on both sides, so people could sit down whilst they waited. Usually people had to wait about two hours: the time an attack lasted and also the length of time the battery could supply electricity to the underground area. We need to take into account that during the attacks the city’s electricity was cut off, thus making it difficult for the planes flying overhead to identify their clearly marked targets, because, among other things, the aim was to destroy historical monuments in order to demoralise the citizens, create an atmosphere of bewilderment and open a new front of internal war.

Bomb shelter in Barcelona

Due to the lack of radars at that time (they were discovered for World War II), there were ‘lookouts’ who patrolled out at sea with the mission of observing the sky and if they saw planes, they warned the whole city. From that moment, the citizens had between one and two minutes to reach the shelter before the bombing commenced.

The tunnels had several entrances as only one would have acted as a bottleneck, especially when taking into account people only had two minutes to enter inside, and also for prevention, because in the event one door caved in, it would be possible to exit through another.

Today it is possible to visit several air raid shelters, including number 307, the Bomb Shelter (Refugi) in the Plaça de la Revolució and the one in the Plaça del Diamant.

Nuts roasted on a wood stove

Roasted nuts, shop in BarcelonaIn one of the streets adjacent to Santa Maria del Mar, Sombrerers 23, there is a small shop that sells home-made products and which specialises in roasting nuts. The owners have been working in this trade for over a century and a half, since 1851. Its name was originally Casa Gisbert (the house of Gisbert), then they added the initials of the founder’s sons, Enric y Alfons, and later on, the words ‘mestres torradors’ (master roasters), which has remained as the definitive name and current brand name of the products sold by ‘E&A Gispert Mestres Torradors’.

It was originally a warehouse for colonial products: coffee, tea, cocoa, spices and saffron that came from the Americas, which were then sold wholesale under the brand name ‘SABOR’ (flavour). Later, it specialised in roasting nuts and coffee.

Today, although the shop has undergone minor changes, it still has the original furniture, which gives it an air of the olden days. In a glass case there is a pair of scales, which they used for weighing the nuts before and after they had been roasted and the difference in weight was then returned to the tradesman.

But in particular, the most valuable item, and responsible for giving the nuts a special flavour, is the wood stove which was used for roasting our great grandparents’ almonds. The stove has an iron cylinder, which had to be turned by hand, although about 70 years ago they bought an automatic device which makes it easier for the shop assistants. Piles of oak firewood lie next to the stove and baskets hang from the walls waiting to be filled with steaming nuts.

Roasted nut shop, Barcelona

Hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, walnuts repose in wicker baskets waiting to be sold. On the shelves and in corners of the shop there are other kinds of products, such as coffee and spices, which are marketed under the brand name ‘E&A Gispert mestres torradors’. The whole shop has a traditional air, which gives it a unique personality, and it’s not difficult to imagine the original employees at work.

Photos of the shop ‘E&A Gispert Mestres Torradors’.

Address: C/ Sombrerers 23, 08003 Barcelona

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Bomb shelter in the Plaça de la Revolució

During the Civil War, about 1,400 bomb shelters were built in Barcelona. The most well known, and which can be visited today after booking in advance, are the bomb shelter number 307 (refugi 307) in Poble Sec and the one in the Plaça del Diamant, in the district of Gràcia. But there is a third, unknown to most people, located in the Plaça de la Revolució, also in the district of Gràcia. The shelter can be visited free of charge and the most curious thing is that visitors have to go through the underground car park in the square to access it, after asking the cartaker for the keys.

Bomb shelter in the Plaça Revolució, GràciaIt’s really exciting! If you decide to go, make sure they don’t give you the wrong key, which is what happened to us today. Check the key ring says ‘Llave del refugio’ (shelter key). We were really excited about opening the door but after going down four levels (it’s on the bottom floor, 4B) we had to go all the way back up again to get the right key.

Once you’ve opened the door, the light switch is on the left. However, there are two rooms in darkness so you’ll have to bring a torch if you want a clearer view of this area. There’s not much left of the bomb shelter: an L-shaped passage with a bench where the refugees used to sit and two small rooms, which might have been the infirmary. On the ceiling it’s still possible to see what’s left of what used to be the shelter’s electricity supply. There was enough electricity to light the room during the air raid, which went on for about two hours, the time the battery lasted.

Civil War bomb shelter, BarcelonaApparently the shelter used to be longer but whilst they were building the car park, part of it was destroyed.

It’s really worth a visit so you can try and listen to the echoes of bygone days. Aah, if only walls could speak!


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