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The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, which is usually just known as “La Boqueria”, can be found about two thirds of the way up Barcelona’s famous central promenade “La Rambla”. The world-famous market is an essential stop for many of the tourists who visit the city and want to see its ornate entrance and browse the corncopia of exotic and traditional local food displayed on the stalls. The Boqueria, however, is much more than a tourist attraction. Not only does it host thousands of tourist visitors every day, but also serves as a commercial hub for the hospitality industry in Catalonia and abroad.
The structure of the market was built in 1835, but there have been markets at this site since as early as 1217 (although not officially recognised until 1826). The purpose of the market has changed over time, from selling pigs, then hay, and then to goat meat (it is believed that the market takes its name from the Catalan word for goat) before becoming the market that we know today.
The main entrance to the market is a huge iron gateway decorated with coloured glass surrounding a central design of the city’s coat of arms. The market has been updated over time and now has a contemporary looking metal roof dotted with aluminium chimneys and a surround of tinted glass to protect shoppers and workers from both the sun and any rain.
Nowadays however, La Boqueria is not limited to hay or goat meat, but hosts an enormous variety of produce. You can spend an afternoon sitting on the terrace of one of the many bars where you can enjoy a range of tapas that reflects the different produce available in the market such as acorn fed Iberian ham, fresh seafood or “pintxos” (small portions of food skewered on a small wooden stick). Alternatively, you could walk around sampling the snacks, fresh fruit juices and exotic fruit that are on offer. Or, like many local people you can simply do your regular shopping and pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and seafood, meat, eggs and bread.
The market itself takes a grid formation, 11 blocks long and 9 blocks wide. Many of these blocks are subdivided into different stalls. In the centre of the market is a ring of fishmongers and stalls dedicated to seafood. The stalls at the front and edges tend to cater more to tourists and people who want to eat and drink, the remainder of the stalls are dedicated to a more local market; butchers, greengrocers, delicatessens, herb, spice and nut stalls and even a bakery. If you are looking for exotic or hard to find ingredients in Barcelona, you can usually find them in La Boqueria; From Scotch Bonnet peppers to pony meat, you can find it all.
The market is surrounded on three sides by buildings housing bars, restaurants (specialising in the types of quality food that is available on the market) but nowadays also host more international establishments such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. The terraces that skirt the market are serenaded by groups of musicians playing popular traditional and modern songs with violins, accordions and brass instruments, adding to the almost carnival-like atmosphere as people eat, drink, socialise and wander among the crowds surrounded by vibrant colours, music and delicious aromas.
Although the market traders arrive early in the morning to set up their stalls (some starting their day as early as 4 or 5 o’ clock) the market only really starts to get busy just before midday but remains so until closing time. The public address system sporadically blasts out music, at other times alerts the public to opening and closing times and health and safety instructions. Due to the number of visitors, security guards patrol the market keeping an eye out for pickpockets, keeping large groups from obstructing access to the stalls, making sure that all health and safety regulations are followed by staff and public and ensuring that the market is a safe place to visit, work and shop at.
The trade that we see in the busy market is just the tip of the iceberg, as many of these stallholders cater to the tourism and hospitality industry at large, with stalls supplying private residences with home delivery services, chains of hotels and even cruise ships.
There is a persistent myth that locals don’t shop at the Boqueria and while the process of adaptation to the tourist market may mean that the market is busier than it would be wothout tourists or that prices of the produce may be higher (to reflect rising rents, which in turn reflect demand), but it is plainly untrue. Local people can be seen queuing to buy meat and vegetables in the market and in the small adjoining plaza where local farmers and allotment owners hold temporary markets to sell their fruit and vegetables.
Throughout the period of strict restrictions during the global pandemic, when it was impossible for tourists to visit Barcelona, many of the market stalls remained open to cater to local conumers. Some of the traders even expanded during this time, such as well-known butcher “Carnes Serrano” which moved into fully equipped shops just around the corner from the back of the market.
The market is both the geographical and symbolic heart of the city and one of the most important points where tourism interfaces with the community and and the businesses that call Barcelona their home. For this reason, the market has become the focus of many conversations about the nature of and future of tourism in the city. For many of the cities residents, the market is nothing more than a tourist trap that they may actively avoid, but for others it is a place to work, trade, enjoy a drink or do a bit of shopping.
Unfortunately, many residents see tourism as a negative influence on the city, causing litter, noise, crowded streets and pushing rents up and do not see the benefits that tourism brings to the city. For many of these people, the Boqueria is a representation of part of the city that has become lost to tourists. The reality is that in the modern era economies of scale can make a huge difference to profit margins. Many other markets in Barcelona have experienced a massive drop in trade as customers have started doing all of their shopping in supermarkets where prices are usually lower. Some markets, such as the Mercat San Antoni have adapted by renting land to supermarkets, the revenue of which then subsidises the operation of the market.
La Boqueria has endured the challenges of civil war, economic crashes, the COVID-19 pandemic and has each time overcome and adapted to changes. While the produce that the stalls offer can change with the changing demands of the city, many stalls remain constants, having been established long ago and becoming part of the history and an integral part of the actuality of the market. Thriving tourism or even a temporary lack of tourism are just more challenges that the market will without doubt meet with great gusto.
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The Boqueria is located at the edge of the city.
The entrance to the market is made of metal and glass.
The structure of the market was built in 1826.
The site of the Boqueria was once a haymarket.
The market’s name probably came from its time as a goat meat market.
The stallholders and traders in the market are also an important part of the supply chain for the catering and hospitality and tourism industries.
Local people don’t shop at the Boqueria.
Many people who work on the market start very early in the morning.
The writer is not confident that the Boqueria will be able to adapt to the future demands of the city’s tourism.
The market stalls are always changing to meet new demand and none of them last long.