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The famed cemetery atop Montjuïc is a place that is hard to describe in full detail. In this way, it is memory personified. The more you analyze it, the more its details come rushing to the surface. At first glance, you get a general sense of it but not the whole picture.

When you see the cemetery in the distance as you get off the V3 on Passeig de la Zona Franca — that’s how we arrived, anyway — you see that, more or less, there are a dozen levels to hike up to get to the top, but that’s just an illusion. It’s more complex than it seems.

When you enter through the main gates, you’re greeted by flanks of graves on either side, most of which are claimed by somber angels who sit on top of them. You notice the dates on some of the gravestones, most are from the mid-1880s, and after a few minutes of exploring you realize that even the traffic from the busy street just outside the walls has been hushed and is barely noticeable. It’s as if the cemetery is whispering to you, saying, “Pay attention. You haven’t seen anything yet.”

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Halfway through looking at the graves and mausoleums in “Agrupació 1,” or “Grouping 1,” of which there are 15, you come to an opening where the Plaça de l’Esperança will most likely capture your attention. I think this is the first moment when you get an inkling as to how big the cemetery might be, emphasis on might. It’s one of the points where you look at the different off-shooting pathways and wonder which way you should go, especially if you’re without a map like we were.

Our strategy was to keep climbing up to make our way to the top, as we only had two and a half hours until closing time; the gates close at 6pm. Had we had a map, we might have done things differently, like visiting Ildefons Cerdà’s grave located at Plaça de l’Esperança. In hindsight, though, especially since we’re likely to go back to do some more exploring, this was the perfect way to get a first impression of what I now call the “City of the Dead.” Just by analyzing the specifications of the cemetery — it covers an area of about 57 hectares (140 acres) and houses more than 152,000 graves— you might agree with the nickname.

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Climbing up to Plaça de la Caritat, you can’t help getting impacted by the size of the place. It truly looks like a small city. If you scan your surroundings, you realize that, behind each wall of family vaults, mausoleum and sepulchral niche, there are layers after layers of even more, stretching from left to right and ambling up the hill. It left me awestruck.

And then there’s the view of the Mediterranean or, more accurately, of the Barcelona Port. With all of the activity going on down below — cruise and cargo ships announcing their arrivals and departures by blasting their horns, cranes lifting and lowering containers, trucks driving in and out — it creates such a stark contrast, visually and audibly, to the activity, or lack thereof, inside the cemetery.

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Trying to capture this juxtaposition and show the complexity of the cemetery’s layout, we realized we needed to get a better vantage point. Photos from here weren’t going to achieve the goal. So, up we went. Ascending more stairs, we arrived up to Plaça de la Fe, where Francesc Macià and Joan Miró are buried, although we didn’t know this at the time. By now, the sounds of the port, albeit intermittent, begin to die down and you almost forget about the port completely. That, or you are simply too tied up in inspecting the cemetery details to notice those far-off sounds anymore.

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Continuing the climb, we quickly made our way up to Plaça Sant Manel where, suddenly, the Torre Calatrava, Palau Sant Jordi and MNAC unfold before you in the foreground. With Collserola Tower and Tibidabo as the backdrop, the panoramic scene before you is both dynamic and unique. After we spent some time taking photos, we tried to find the way down and out from this side, which a security guard in his mini, electric car had explained to us earlier, but we were unable to find it. Instead, we ended up walking west, through Agrupació 12, and then all the way down to where we had started.

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At this point, the sun was beginning to set, and the atmosphere inside was pretty magical. The shadows slowly crept in and, along with the ember light, cast themselves on the gravestones, making for some great photos and also for a nice send-off before we headed for the bus stop.

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I’ve been to some impressive cemeteries, but this one is one-of-a-kind. The graves, some differing only slightly and others drastically, are works of art, but you can argue that the cemetery itself is one as well.

Cemeteries are meant to preserve memory, and this one seems to have been designed as much in honor of doing so as well as a metaphor of memory itself. Granted, I don’t know how the planning was developed over the years between 1883-1960, but it’s as if Günter Grass’ “peeling onion” metaphor as was taken into account.

Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way. When pestered with questions, memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. — Günter Grass, from his memoir Peeling the Onion (2006)

When I mentioned that Cementiri de Montjuïc is memory personified, I was trying to get at what Grass so eliquently describes here. Like memory, this cemetery does seem to play a sort of “hide-and-seek” with its visitors. The more you try to inspect it, or peel through its layers, the more it lays itself bare to you, grave by grave.

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Planning your visit:

  • Have a map handy!
  • Opening hours: 08:00-18:00
  • Admission: free
  • Choose one of three planned routes: historic, artistic or a combination of the two; you can get a route plan at the cemetery office
  • Count on spending 2-3 hours inside the cemetery (bring a snack with you; drinks are covered as there are water fountains located around the grounds)
  • Visit Fossar de la Pedrera — used as a mass grave by Franco’s regime during the Spanish Civil War; now a memorial in honor of the 4,000 victims, Lluis Companys among them
  • Check out the Col·lecció de Carrosses Fúnebres  a funeral hearse collection; happens to be the only one of its kind in all of Europe

For a link to the cemetery’s map, click here.

For more photos, click here.



Check out @carrersbcn‘s photos on Instagram!


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