Natural history of Barcelona

Barcelona is constrained by geography. In Spain, Madrid expands unchecked daily across Castilla’s plains and up into the Sierra in an orgy of cranes. Zaragoza eats into the Monegros steppes and the Ebro Valley , and Valencia cuts down its orange groves. But, as Barcelonans never tire of reminding you, this city has nowhere to go. To the south-east it is bordered by the Mediterranean , and to the north-west it is hemmed in by the Collserola hills. Montjuïc sits squat on the coast narrowing the pass between the sea and the hills. Only beyond the hills of Collserola can a new Gran or Greater Barcelona really spread in an urban sprawl of Anglo-Saxon houses and gardens, slowly but surely encircling the forests of Collserola.

Map of nature sites in Barcelona

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There was a wide plain between two river deltas. The plain gently sloped down to the sea from a ridge of hills, and was cut by streams which emptied into a string of marshes and lagoons along the coast. These were separated from the shoreline by dunes and a narrow strip of beach. Once there were hyenas and lions and elephants and rhinos but the cold came and they moved south or died. As the ice waned some 10,000 years ago, the tundra plain was gradually replaced by forest. This passed through a series of successions until woods of holm oak in drier areas and beach in more humid ones became dominant. Wolves hunted deer and wild goats. There were bears, boars, lynx and rabbits. Monk seals basked on the primeval sands of Icaria , among the bleached bones of whales. Over the crags black vultures and imperial eagles soared.

Humans settled here, but despite the efforts of generations of Catalan archaeologists no truly urban remains have been found, though there does seem to have been some form of primitive village atop of Táber, the site now occupied by the City Council and the Generalitat. The Romans called them the Laietani. They raked the sands for oysters and grew primitive wheat in the slash-and-burn fields. Some 18 centuries later Via Laietana would be named after them in an apocryphal attempt to establish a parallel between Roman and Bourbon repression. At first the Romans were largely uninterested in the site; the harbour was too shallow and the road (Via Agusta) connecting Tarraco ( Tarragona ) and Emporium clung to the ridge of hills. Eventually, it was the lack of harbours, good or not, between Tarraco and Narbonne which changed the Romans mind and condemned the Laietani, though the oysters would survive until industrial effluent did for them in the twentieth century. Montjüic was perfect for defence but almost bereft of fresh water and streams (the barrio below its northern slopes is known today as Poble Sec ( Dry Village ) so they chose instead a small hill, Mount Taber , an extension of Montjüic to build their fort, and then their modest provincial town. This was no Tarraco. The site of the Roman temple became Plaza San Jaume. On the side facing Montjüic, was a gulley with a storm fed stream which ran down from Collserola. It would mark out the medieval walls of the city. Today it is known as the Las Ramblas (there are five, apparently in reference to the staggered in-filling of the gully over the centuries). ‘Rambla’ comes from the Arabic meaning dry stream. The Arabs were not in Barcelona for very long – and they left no palace or great mosque – but they did give the city two of its essential names: ‘Rambla’, and also Raval, the old working class district to the right of the Ramblas themselves, meaning market garden and orchard. The stream was both a moat and a sewer, and as such became known as the Caganell – the shit stream. Occasionally in torrential weather it will surge back up to the surface and flood what Garcia Lorca described as the only street in the world he wished would never end, with raw sewage. The stream emptied into the Caganell lagoon. In primitive times it teemed with waterfowl. In the Middle Ages, it became a festering cesspool and a breeding place for malarial mosquitoes. Along the coast towards the Besos Delta there were a series of lagoons and marches. This is reflected today in places (El Clot-an old Catalan word for marsh), street names and metro stops. La Llacuna (on the yellow line) was particularly abundant in waterfowl, and was one of the favourite hunting spots of King Marti the Humane at the end of the 16 th (?) century. These were slowly drained as more farmland and urban space was required though still in 1787 the remaining Llacuna wetland could support flamingos, bitterns and swans. However, the fight against malarial fevers was to finally condemn the last marshes to drainage by the mid-19 th century.

Malaria was endemic to Barcelona until well into the 20 th century. A particularly virelent outbreak hit the city in the 1880’s as developers ran out of money to finish the Eixample. As speculation sent prices sky high, the bubble burst and thousands of investors went bust leaving hundreds of plots left bare for a decade. Here stagnant waters built up, a ripe environ for mosquito larva. Malaria was finally erradicated from Spain in 1964, with the nearby Delta de Llobregat being one of its last outposts. MORE TO COME (EIXAMPLE, INDUSTRIALISATION, ETC)

Greening the city

Barcelona must be one of the densest cities in the world – indeed L’Hospitalet lays claims to be so. But the city is fringed by the sea and by a ridge of forested hills with a surprising array of fauna and flora. The decades of Francoist rule were an urban planning disaster for Barcelona as some of the ugliest estates in Southern Europe were built fuelled by corruption and neglect. Though impossible to set right, the council have expanded the ‘green’ areas, which at time seems like chipping away at a stone and concrete hunk, but over the last 20 years they’ve manage to double park surface areax. There are now some 60 parks, though you wouldn’t believe living in parts of the Eixample. 150,000 trees now adorn Barcelona’s streets and squares: (the figure doesn’t include its parks and gardens) made up of 140 species, though by a long way the most common one is the Spanish plane tree (platanus hispanicus – platano de sombra in Spanish). The new policy is to slowly replace them: although they give great shade, their fast growth and extensive roots make them difficult to control – they’re forever ripping up the pavements. The most magnificent plane trees in the city are those which line the Ramblas, transplanted here in 1859.

Parc de la Ciutadella lies to the north-east of the old city. It takes its name from the hated Bourbon citadel which was torn down on the site. Ciutadella was modelled by the 1888 exhibition. The park is massively popular at weekends but despite the crowds an interesting array of birds turns up. Check out the ornamental lake and the baroque cascade for seagulls and ducks. Robins, blackbirds, great tits, Cetti’s warblers and pied and yellow wagtails are all common. See birds of Barcelona below. (coming)

The park’s nort-eastern corner is taken up by the zoo. The zoo is home to a secret. Above the compounds and cages is the largest single heronry in Spain , and biggest urban heronry in Europe, with some 70 nests. A single heron escaped from his cage in the 1970’s and decided to stay. It was joined by a wild to-be mate, and so the colony was born, from which the then beleagered Catalan population has expanded and grown. Cast your eyes upwards down Aragon , Parallel or Diagonal in the early evening and you’ve a chance of spotting a heron flying home to its zoo roost. They feed in the lagoons of the Delta de Llobregat and along the Llobregat and Besos rivers. Increased agricultural activity gives them permanent all-year food supplies. Little Egret ( Egretta garzetta) with 6 nests are also present along with cattle egret and glossay ibis (up to 10 nests, depending on the year) The zoo masters have been careless over the years and a number of birds have escaped: particularly monk parakeet. From here they set up in the palm tress of the park and then beyond. They now reign over the whole city. Although they add a streak of colour and fun to the city’s dull litany of pigeons, sparrows and seagulls, they can cause serious problems as they expand out into the country. The monk parakeet has already crossed the second urban ring and is poised to take on the surrounding farmland. Monks are making forays into the fields of El Prat, where farmers claim they are causing considerable damage, before returning to the safety of their city nests. Worldwide the bird is said to be responsible for millions of euros of damage, particularly in the US, and the report warns that something should be done before their population explodes. Evidence of crop depredation by monk parakeets dates as far back as the Incas, and Charles Darwin was even aware of the problem in Uruguay in 1833, though the amount of real damage is probably exaggerated because of their raucous and rather noticeable presence.

There are also a couple of stuffy museums of interest to us here in the Parc de la Ciutadella; the zoological museum is housed in a fine Victorian brick xxx. The museum occasionally puts on an interesting exhibition but most of space is devoted to rather sad displays in ‘splendid’ old glass cabinets populated by snarling stuffed beasts. Each creature is portrayed as a ferocious animal from tiny deer, otters and monk seals all bearing their teeth with their paw or flipper raised in anger about to rip out the taxidermists throat.

Deadly monk seal and Spanish killer otter.

If you understand Catalan, you might want to check out their webpage for the excellent conferences and lectures they are occasionally organised here. A minute from the zoological museum is the rather dull geological museum, with its selection of rocks standing duty outside. In between the two however is a magnificent hiberancle (By the way, the best natural history museum in Barcelona by far is the new all-science CosmoCaixa).

Geography of Barcelona

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