'We'd play in the shelter's tunnels': 90-year-old recalls bombing of Barcelona

Manel Bachs took refuge in one of Barcelona's 1,322 bomb shelters during Spanish Civil War

Manel Bachs at the entrance to the building on Carrer Mallorca that houses the bomb shelter where he took refuge as a child during the Spanish Civil War
Manel Bachs at the entrance to the building on Carrer Mallorca that houses the bomb shelter where he took refuge as a child during the Spanish Civil War / Jordi Borràs
Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | @cristinatomasw | Barcelona

April 1, 2023 10:51 AM

April 1, 2023 12:14 PM

Manel Bachs may be 90, but he remembers the Spanish Civil War vividly. A lifetime resident of Barcelona's El Clot neighborhood, he was only 3 when the conflict started and 5 when the Catalan capital became one of the first major cities in the world to suffer sustained 'carpet bombings' with the main purpose of instilling terror among civilians. 

Bachs still resides in the very same apartment complex on Carrer Mallorca street that he lived in as a child with his family. "My father was drafted in 1938 and sent to the Ebre," he told Catalan News in a recent interview from his building's lobby, explaining that while he fought in the bloody southern Catalonia battle, Bachs, his mother, and brother waited out the war in Barcelona. 

"The buildings in front of ours didn't exist back then and you could see Carmel, where the antiaircraft defense was," he said of what today is known as the Carmel Bunkers on Turó de la Rovira hill, a popular viewpoint frequented by tourists and day drinkers. "From our window we could see them firing tracer bullets toward the sea."

But once the air raid sirens began ringing out, his family had to take refuge. Luckily for them, the closest bomb shelter was located right beneath them, under their building. 

"There were many young people, many children," Bachs recalled. "We'd play in the shelter's tunnels," he said, while adults "would talk about who had gotten a letter" from the front. "We could hear the 'boom, boom, boom' but when it was over you'd leave and that was it."

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Remembering the past

85 years after Barcelona's notorious 'carpet bombings', the shelter is still standing, but Bachs no longer goes down there - the stairs are far too hard on his 90-year-old frame. 

And yet it is important for him that there be "a written record of it because it was closed for many years after the war," Bachs said as he unlocked the the door to its entrance for a Catalan News Agency crew to explore alongside Xavier Domènech, a historian and former MP for En Comú Podem, and photographer Ana Sánchez, the co-curators of the '1,322' photo exhibition at Barcelona's La Model prison, a nod to the number of documented bomb shelters in Barcelona. 

"These shelters speak to the way Barcelona residents fought for survival and their values," Domènech said; most were built shortly after the war broke out in 1936, with a higher concentration of them in areas with strong neighborhood associations and community ties

Tucked away from sight beneath the intersection of Barcelona's Mallorca, Biscaia, and Clot streets lies an underground maze of tunnels, some more spacious and well lit than others. Despite the passage of time, it remains in remarkable condition, closed off to the public who for the most part have no idea of its existence.  

"Unfortunately, there are no longer many shelter children left," Ana Sánchez says. "Manel Bachs is a unique witness."

90-year-old Manel Bachs remembers Mallorca Street shelter and a new photography exhibition from Ana Sánchez and Xavier Domènech takes visitors underground and eight decades back in time / Catalan News