Catalan Espardenyes: A Sole with Soul

Posted on October 7, 2012

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Courtesy of La Manual Alpargatera

Catalan Espardenyes: A Sole with Soul
by AnneLise Sorensen

SPAIN These days, it’s sangria, not sex, that draws customers to Barcelona’s Carrer Avinyó. In the early 1900s, the prostitutes of Avinyó – dark eyes flashing invitation from behind velvet curtains – supposedly inspired Picasso to paint his cubist work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The brothels have been replaced with tourist tapas bars with laminated quadrilingual menus, but there is something else: La Manual Alpargatera, Barcelona’s oldest alpargatas store.

La Manual Alpargatera features the city’s finest selection of the popular rope-soled canvas shoes, best known internationally by their French name, espadrille. “Alpargatas are like a drug. Our best sales tactic,” says Joana Martínez de Tasies, who co-owns the store with her husband Francesc, “is to get someone to try them on. People come in, slip their foot into the alpargata, and say ‘Ahhhh,’ pure relief.”

It’s the kind of pure relief that attracts everyone from Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas to the Pope, all of whom have bought espadrilles here. And Salvador Dalí, too, who used to pair his alpargatas with a tuxedo.

La Manual Alpargatera originated as a cobbler’s workshop in the spring of 1939, at the tail-end of the Spanish civil war. During the Franco regime, establishments were forbidden to have Catalan signs, and so the store’s name was based on the Castilian “alpargata” instead of the Catalan “espardenya.”

Courtesy of La Manual Alpargatera

The ancient shop reveals the living history of the Catalan capital’s Gothic Quarter. Beyond the whitewashed entrance, wrought-iron lamps hang from beamed ceilings, and black bins hold old-fashioned canes, some balanced with bowler hats. Wooden benches ring the main room, and an enormous floor-to-ceiling shelf of alpargatas dwarfs everyone who passes under it. And, in the best traditions of their craft, Joana and Francesc take custom orders, as they have for years. The dry, crackly smell of fresh-cut rope and hot-ironed fabric fill the air. In the back workshop, assistants pull on spools of bright ribbons, creating made-to-order shoes in a skillful blur of the fingers.

The fickle ways of fashion are laid bare in the store’s displays, with alpargatas in ‘80s neon greens, hippie Indian prints encrusted with mirrors, and black-and-white Dalí-esque patterns. The alpargata’s soul, however, is in its sole, which is made from tough hemp fibres that are stripped from the cannabis bush, and then braided and woven. And the alpargata is as Spanish as bullfights and castanet-clacking flamenco dancers: The first was a slip-on rope sandal, introduced 4,000 years ago in the Granada province.

Sophia Loren glamorized the alpargata in the 1960s, parading the pages of glossy fashion magazines in high-heeled espadrilles with bright ribbons criss-crossing her calves. You’ll still see them on the Paris runways (and on Paris Hilton) but in fact alpargatas are of humble origins, shoes of the paisanos. The espadrille ribbons that Sophia Loren strutted to stardom had very practical origins: to keep the alpargata snugly on as the farmer sloughed through the manure of his field at the crack of dawn. The official gala uniform of the Mosses d’Esquadra, Catalunya’s national police force, includes a sombrero de copa (top hat) to represent the rich, and espardenyes for the working class.

“Ask us the shoe size of any member of the National Ballet Company of Spain, and we can tell you,” says Francesc. “When they perform the traditional dances of Spain, they’re wearing our espardenyes.” Catalunya’s famously subdued circular dance of the sardana looks simple until you observe the dancers’ feet, an intricate mix of tiny, mincing steps and bolder jumps, all of which require precision and skill – and a pair of pliable, flat-soled Tabarner espardenyes.

The restorative powers of alpargatas were perhaps best summed up by the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamin, a longtime customer of La Manual Alpargatera: “I can’t paint unless I have my alpargatas on my feet, and Vivaldi on the stereo.” And a jug of sangria.

This story by AnneLise Sorensen originally appeared in a variety of publications, including Rough Guides.

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Posted in: Barcelona, Spain