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WAGONERS AND MULES SHOW OLD BARCELONA THE WAY

They are on many corners all around the Ciutat Vella, Barri Gòtic, Born and Raval neighborhoods. You can spot them without needing to search them out. Upon catching sight of them, you might ask yourself, “What are these for?”

We’re talking about the Entrada (Entry) and Salida (Exit) street signs on the corners of some of the Old City’s narrow streets.

Old entry sign on building near torch lamp in the sunlight.

On these rectangular 19th-century ceramic plaques, you’ll see Barcelona’s coat of arms, a muleteer, with the bridle in his hand, leading a mule and pointing his finger out in front of him. In the Sant Pere neighborhood, there are even older ones that depict a mule-drawn carriage whose mule is also being guided by its muleteer, who is carrying a whip in his other hand. From the beginning of the 19th century and on through the beginning of the 20th, there were different models, such as ones in ceramic tiles that are preserved in the Museum of History of Barcelona (MUHBA).

Old exit sign on building above "Carrer d'en Xuclà" sign.

Despite the differences amongst the various sign designs, each served the same purpose: direct traffic.

Traditionally, the public roads of Barcelona had the direction that the pedestrian, or the rider or driver of a carriage, went. Street signs and regulations on circulation were virtually nonexistent. At best, there were badges for certain houses— namely palaces, churches, union headquarters or brothels —which were marked with shields, images, trade emblems or gaudy colors. It wasn’t until 1770 that streets began to be labeled with municipal ceramic plates.

Later, starting around the second half of the 19th century, Barcelona experienced incredible growth, and, with it, vehicle traffic throughout the city increased. As the first stagecoach service on the Iberian Peninsula was opened in 1818, and its administrative building was housed on Carrer Nou de Sant Francesc (with a branch on La Rambla), there were markedly more wagons traversing the streets. Without any signs, you can imagine the chaos. If a mule- or horse-drawn wagon needed to back up, it would create a hectic mess. Better if drivers knew which streets they could enter so as to avoid a nightmarish traffic jam.

Old entry sign next to a balcony and above "Carrer de la Llibreteria" sign.

To address this issue, the Barcelona City Council decided to create special signs that would signal the correct direction of traffic. In 1857, the first ordinances were written. As stipulated in those ordinances, muleteers had to be over 16 years old, get out of the vehicle on narrow streets, not drive at night, carry a bell (for warning pedestrians of their passing) and not use more than one draft animal. In addition, passenger drivers could park on the sidewalk as long as they had paid a fee. They could also park at Pla de Palau, Plaça del Pi, and the old Plaça Santa Ana, as well as at various points on La Rambla. They were forbidden to carry more passengers than were permitted, and it was mandatory for them to wear a watch. All of them were granted a permit and given a metal plate with their registration number, acting as a license plate.

While its wasn’t a fix-it-all solution, the city’s first form of traffic control certainly helped to instill some much-needed order.

For any of you who have walked the streets in the city center, you’ve noticed how narrow and irregular they are. Imagine how difficult it was for these drivers to get around back then. It’s already hard enough when it’s just pedestrians milling about. It’s even likely that, at some point, you have had to get up on tiptoes and pin yourself against a building to let a service car or truck pass by due to the tight quarters on so many different stretches around town. Undoubtedly, it can be agreed that these traffic signs were completely necessary.

Next time you find yourself in the city center, be on the lookout for not only these signs, but also something else: scrape marks. On the lower part of some buildings’ exterior walls, there are visible scars where cars’ wheel axels, when entering the street, scraped against them and made these marks. Back at that time, there were even streets that were protected by chains; Carrer de la Cadena in Raval, which no longer exists, got its name because neighbors would tighten or loosen chains along the street at certain times of the day in order to prevent the circulation of vehicles.

View of Barcelona's narrow Gothic Quarter streets and old entry and exit signs

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the use of vehicles took over that of mules and horses, all of these old traffic signs became simple decorative pieces. They are remnants of a period when the cobble-stoned and paved streets were filled with the clip-clopping of hooves and the sound of carriage bells announcing their passage.

Now, instead of directing traffic, these plaques transport us back in time.

By EMILY BENSON

Photos by ISABEL TROYA

Information gathered from:

Barcelona: Secretos a la Vista by Xavier Theros

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