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Castell de Montjuïc sits on top of a hill overlooking Barcelona and has a long and varied history. Although the castle itself is a relatively recent addition to this site, the oldest remains of a settlement date from the sixth and seventh centuries BC and lie between the castle and the cemetery.
Various excavations have unearthed all sorts of evidence of the life on Montjuïc. For example, during the work leading up to the 1929 Universal Exposition, a number of finds from Roman times were made on the roadway that led from the stadium to the area of Vista Alegre. The remains of walls made of stone and mortar, silos cut out of the natural terrain and archaeological material dating from between the end of the second century BC and the sixth century AD suggest a small rural villa.
With the onset of the Revolt of Catalonia (1640-1652) the Consell de Cent municipal government decided to fortify the summit of Montjuïc by surrounding the lookout tower with a wall, giving it importance as a defensive stronghold and marking the beginning of the militarization of the hill. Thus today’s castle was begun.
Attacks over the century would reduce the castle, sometimes to rubble. But rebuilding and improvements were made throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. We were curious whether guns had even been fired from the castle and here is the answer: In 1842, during the Regency of General Espartero, the city of Barcelona was bombarded from the castle in order to put down a revolt. Over 2,500 shells rained down upon the city. A year later one General Prim ordered another shelling but this time the guns were turned on the Drassanes shipyards and the walls of Barcelona.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the castle took on an even darker purpose. It was at this time that Montjuïc was used as a prison for nationalists, anarchists, trade unionists, and revolutionaries, and it was also where they were court martialled and executed. Throughout the 19th century and part of the 20th, whoever was in power used Castell de Montjuïc to imprison and execute those that were in opposition.
The Guided Tour
At the time of writing, the general ticket for entering Castell de Montjuïc was €5 per person. At 11AM every weekday morning, though, for an additional €5, you could join up with an excellent English language guided tour that lasts anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. We cannot recommend this guided tour highly enough. In addition to getting an excellent history of Castell de Montjuïc, you gain entrance to places that are otherwise not available for the general admission including the cisterns, the prison cells, and the top of the signal tower.
Our guide was the most excellent Ferran. He brought Castell de Montjuïc alive for us and helped to connect the dots between the historical events represented by difference places in the castle and what was happening in Barcelona and Catalonia today. He said early on that one could not understand the castle’s or Barcelona’s history without a study of the participants and events surrounding the Spanish Civil War. We couldn’t agree more.
Inside the Baluard and the Castle Cisterns
Our first stop on the tour was the baluard (or bastion) at the front of the castle where Ferran provided some history and an orientation.
We were then able to go inside the baluard and see through one of the openings that would have been used by the defenders of the castle to catch assaulting troops in a cross fire at the front gate.
At some point in the planning of the castle’s defenses, they realized that the castle was going to need a water supply if it expected to survive a long siege. So, they got busy and dug huge cisterns underneath the castle and modified the roof structures to funnel rain water into these cisterns, which were recently renovated and refilled with water. The cisterns were a most interesting part of the guided tour.
The Prison Cells
Our next stop on the tour was the prisoner cells which have recently been reopened to the public.
Each cell held 30 prisoners who were required to sleep directly on the floor with only thin, lice infested blankets to fight off the cold and damp. In addition to getting a sense for the crowded, unsanitary conditions under which prisoners were kept, the cells provided a very direct history of the prisoners themselves. The castle historians have uncovered at least three layers of drawings and inscriptions that prisoners scratched into the walls over the decades. Phrases, drawings, calendars, advice, pornography, and pleas were among the hundreds of messages left by these prisoners.
Ferran explained that during the Franco dictatorship prisoners from all across the spectrum were herded into the small cells. Apparently they apportioned a space on the wall to each inmate who appear to have respected the various messages and pictures regardless of ideology or content. Which is not to say that they did not denounce each other as spies or traitors, but those accusations and rebuttals were left in place and not defiled by their opponents. It’s a remarkable display and historians are only starting to catalogue and analyze their contents.
Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos of the prison walls. Apparently the folks in charge of Castell de Montjuïc wanted to make certain that these walls were fully documented before allowing images to get out. It was an explanation that sent a chilling message and we couldn’t help but wonder if these voices from the past might some day disappear if they were in ideological disagreement with those currently in power. Time will tell.
The Site Where Lluís Companys was Executed
Lluís Companys was the President of the Catalan Republican Generalitat throughout the Spanish Civil War. Accused of treason for using his position as President to implement left-wing policies (crazy ideas like universal education and a 40 hour work week), opposing Franco’s military coup in 1936, and leading Catalan resistance during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Companys was sentenced to death on Friday, 14 October 1940 and executed by firing squad at dawn the next morning. The site chosen for his execution was the Santa Eulalia Moat. Why not the Santa Elena Moat where executions had taken place in the past? Because that had been the site of the execution of Francoist prisoners earlier in the Civil War and was a place held sacred by the military dictatorship. To this day, Companys remains the only incumbent democratically elected president in European history to have been executed.
A plaque in the castle moat marks the site where he died. The cause of death given in the legal report was “traumatic internal haemorrhage”, a commonly-used term by the Francoist regime. Companys’ body was buried the same day in Montjuïc Cemetery.
Memorial to the Spanish Civil War Fallen
In the Castell’s Santa Elena moat is a memorial to those who gave their lives for Spain during the Civil War.
As in all things associated with the Civil War, there is much more history to this memorial than meets the eye. As mentioned earlier, this is the place where many of the military officers who led the July 1936 coup attempt and fifth columnists were executed by the Republican government. Franco had a memorial dedicated to their memory that remained until 2005. At that time, the site was rededicated to “Honor All Who Gave Their Lives for Spain.”
It was our impression that no one of Republican sentiment was fooled by this conversion. There are no flags or flowers at this lonely memorial. And more than one source pointed out that this is still a place where facists and neo-nazis meet to commemorate these deaths, although since 2015 the city government has banned a traditional Mass.
There is also a statue that Ferran called “The Fallen Soldier.” It’s curious that with some investigation we were unable to really find out additional information about this statue such as the name of the artist who cast it, when it was made, or its original purpose.
The Conclusion of the Tour
Our guided tour of Castell de Montjuïc with Ferran ended with a climb up some steep steps to the top of the signal tower.
From here is an excellent view of the castle below as well as the city of Barcelona itself. Access to the tower is reserved for those on the tour, so it’s another good reason to spring for those €5s.
There is also an excellent view of the Barcelona harbor from the signal tower.
The Firearms Collection
Let’s jump into the Way-Back machine. Team Mago first visited the castle in 2003. At that time, the remnants of the Franco-era modifications to the castle were still in place including an imposing statue of Franco sitting on a horse planted in the middle of the castle courtyard and an extensive firearms collection. The statue and the weapons were removed from Montjuïc shortly afterwards because of their association with Franco’s brutal 36 year fascist dictatorship.
Although we understand perfectly, it’s too bad about the weapons collection that included the only instance of a Baker rifle that we had ever seen (hopefully it will end up in a memorial to Richard Sharpe somewhere someday).
Mago Tip: If you’re interested in Castell de Montjuïc and its role in the Spanish Civil War, we recommend an excellent book by Nick Lloyd called “Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War.” And if you like getting your history through historical fiction, there’s also an excellent novel by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon called “The Prisoner of Heaven.” Finally, check out Ken Loach’s movie “Land and Freedom.”