This week, it’s happily off the modernista trail we go, to the Industrial town of Rubí. It might not have ‘buenas tetas’ as one friend put it. In fact, it seems like the last place you’d enjoy getting lost for a day. But, explore a little, and you’ll find a spirited multicultural town full of hidden modernista treats, only 20 minutes on the train from Barcelona.
A Catalan friend of mine once said that Rubí doesn’t have ‘buenas tetas.’ If you’ve ever driven past it on the C-16 or through it along the Avinguda de Salut, you’ll know what he means. It’s the quintessential industrial/residential Barcelona satellite town just the other side of the AP-7 highway from Sant Cugat, most of it built in a haphazard 1970s-1980s construction binge.
I ended up in living in a flat in Rubí for three months. Don’t ask why. The flat was close to Can Oriol, a big, lovely park on the edge of the city at the site of a ruined Roman villa. Here old men would play dominos and petanque every afternoon in the shade of the pine trees, with squadrons of parakeets shrieking in the branches; the hills of Collserola and the church-spire summit of Tibidabo in the distance on one side, and the hemarroidal clump of Montserrat on the other over the roofs of the apartment blocks.
With a population of about 75,000, it’s a town that has traditionally received large swathes of immigrant workers from Extremadura and Galicia, visible in the names of its bars and restaurants, and it’s got sizeable Magrebi and Latino communities, which all gives it an agreeably diverse population, where Castellano and Amazigh are heard as much as Catalan. At night the terraces of the squares, particularly beside the San Pere church, fill up with families out for a noisy good time, children pretty much have the streets to themselves to do as they wish, and then around midnight the procession of baseball-capped kids begin to do their holy drive-by in cars blasting out reggaeton.
Nearby the flat was the Plaça d’Etanislau Figueras, where there’s a mini-hub of interesting modernista buildings dating back from the time when Rubí was an enclave for artists, performers and bourgeois weekenders from Barcelona. That old Bohemian Rubí is now a distant memory, but you can see glimpses of it along many streets, hemmed in between all the nondescript apartment blocks, like orchids squeezing up out of cracks in the pavement.
On one corner of the Estanislau Figueras square, surrounded by cedars opposite an impressive, castellated mansion, is one of Rubi’s chief early 19th joys, a noucentiste palace known as Torre Teixidor. It was home to one of the many wealthy indianos who made their fortune in the Americas and returned home to Catalonia to live in luxury. Nearby it is another beautiful early 20th Century modernista house, Can Plantada, where lived the famed soprano Mercé Plantada Vicente, who sang with the Liceu orchestra and accompanied the legendary cellist Pau Casals.
Slowly a picture emerges of an interesting old town, hidden in the modern one. A little further down from the square along Carrer Xile are the Torre Ribas, now the Ateneo cultural centre, accessed through a coned gate with trencadis mosaics, and Torre Gaju. Both of these mansions were built by a railway magnate who had made his fortune in Chile.
Down the hill from here is the city centre, and the main shopping area along Passeig de Francesc Macia, which leads to the FGC station and the handsome, tree-lined square, Plaça Doctor Pearson. When I lived there the square had a big ice rink parked at one end and was full of the scent of roasting chestnuts on cold winter nights. Its name recalls the American engineer Frank S. Pearson, who founded the Ferrocariles de la Generalitat de Catalunya company, and was responsible for bringing the railway track to Rubí by extending the old Barcelona-Sarria line via Collserola. He is an important figure in the region’s development. La Floresta, for instance, was for a time named after him: La Floresta Pearson. On the day the rail track was completed in Rubi, in September 1918, a huge celebration was held, with a football match, dances, theatre and other events held in the American’s honour. Today the square still retains the charming old houses built in the square at the same time; now they’re the town’s trendiest bars, cafes and restaurants.
A few blocks from the station, down beside the sandstone-banked riera which gave Rubi its name (in Latin, Rivo Rubeo – red stream) was an equally important, but infinitely less joyous episode in Rubí’s history. On September 25th 1962, heavy rains (212 mm in three hours) over-gorged the stream, flooding the surrounding area to cause the biggest hydraulic disaster in Spanish history. For years the riera’s banks had been neglected. When the stream swelled with rainwater descending from the mountains, the banks couldn’t contain it. Sadly, hundreds of houses had been built on unsuitable land close to it. Over a hundred of these houses and 815 lives were taken within minutes of the river breaking its banks.
To rehouse the homeless victims of the flood, the Ajuntament built four new towers beside Rubi’s station, now known as the ‘Septiembre 25’ blocks.
Back to Rubi’s monuments. Close to the main food market and hidden behind Chinese pound stores and fast food shops on Carrer Lluís Ribas, is perhaps Rubi’s most striking modernista building, the Escuelas Ribas. Built to provide schooling for the children of workers at the nearby Vapor Nou industrial plant (owned by the Ribas family) , Escuelas Ribas has a flamboyant noucentrist façade inspired by Victorian English school architecture, with sculptured reliefs and a colourful tiled roof. Surrounded by patios and fragrant gardens, the playground still hollers with school children a hundred years after it was built. Though it is, in appaearance, a disastrous example of modern urban planning, Rubí itself still hollers with ghostly snippets of its modernista past.