The construction of the international railway station and the opening of the line in 1872 resulted in the rapid growth of what had been a small community. Until then Portbou had been a cove with a few shacks where fishermen sought shelter when the sea was rough. This may be the origin of its name, because fishing trawlers used to be known as bous. However, another theory holds that the cove was formerly known as Port Bo or ‘good harbour’, and the waters of the little bay of Portbou are indeed well protected from the east wind and the tramuntana, the north wind that affects the whole of the Empordà.
Located at the eastern end of the Serra de l’Albera, the last range of foothills where the Pyrenees drop down to the Mediterranean, Portbou is part of the Alt Empordà region. For the tourist, it marks the northern limit of the Costa Brava. Abutting on the neighbouring district of Vallespir in France and the town of Cerbère, its position on the border has given it a highly distinctive identity and has helped shape the lives of its inhabitants. A favourite refuge of fishermen and smugglers, its population began to grow with the coming of the railway in the late nineteenth century. The main road from Figueres reached Portbou in 1918, and the stretch to the Belitres pass on the French border was opened two years later. The Barcelona International Exposition of 1929 prompted the construction of a new station, and the large and imposing modern building is still in use today.
In 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Portbou had about 3,000 inhabitants. When the war ended in 1939, a large number of the 350,000 people who went into exile in France passed through or near the town. The end of the War brought great destruction to Portbou, which was shelled and bombed from land, sea and air. When Walter Benjamin arrived there in September 1940 it was still suffering from the destruction inflicted by the victorious Franco. Those were very lean years — closed-in years in every sense.
The 1960s saw the advent of tourism, and the 1970s brought political change with the restoration of democracy. In 1993, the creation of the European Union and the Maastricht Treaty ushered in a Europe that has opened up its borders. The customs posts have disappeared and Portbou has lost jobs and population, but this town on the sea, shaped by its border location, has done better than most in maintaining a quiet tourism and a restrained urbanism.
The recovery of the memory of Walter Benjamin began in 1979. When Benjamin’s old friend, the German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt came to Portbou in October 1940, shortly before leaving Europe for the United States of America, to look for her friend’s grave, nobody could tell her where it was: the philosopher had been buried under another name. As a Jew, fugitive, an exile, a philosopher and a probable suicide, his death demanded silence and discretion: he was buried in the Christian part of the cemetery under a stone without any name.
The first step to reinstate Benjamin and his sojourn in Portbou step was to locate the official death certificate and investigate the circumstances. One of the key moments in ensuring his remembrance was the unveiling of the memorial Passages by the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan in the town cemetery.
Since then, the number of visitors has increased year by year. Two routes have been arranged Walter Benjamin: the route through the streets of the town and up to the cemetery, and the cross-border route by which Benjamin made his escape from Banyuls to Portbou, the last section of which was opened in summer 2009. In parallel, we have put together a collection of Walter Benjamin’s writings and studies of his work which will form part of the future Walter Benjamin Remembrance Centre, which after years of delay is now on the point of becoming a reality. Finally, in September each year, to mark the anniversary of the philosopher’s death, Portbou will host an international conference centred on Benjamin’s work with leading figures from the world of contemporary thought and culture.
Since 2016 we organise at the end of September the Summer School Walter Benjamin. The objective of the seminar is to think about the figure and the work of philosopher in the village where his life ended abruptly after crossing the Pyrenees at the border between France and Catalonia.
Description of the activity
The Walter Benjamin Summer School is a key activity to support the development of the Walter Benjamin House in Portbou. During the seminar philosophers, artists, historians, humanists, art critics, writers, psychologists, psychoanalysts or sociologists, among others, dialogue to promote interdisciplinary thinking around the concepts of the work of Walter Benjamin, which can help us to understand and face the challenges of our current European society.
Promotion of culture and arts
The programme of the seminar is complemented by other cultural events for all audiences (exhibitions, plays, theatre plays, poetry reading, etc). At the same time, the annual commemorative events gather the population at the cemetery to pay homage to Walter Benjamin.
The Walter Benjamin Chair, memory and exile of the UdG organizes annually this Colloquium that takes place in Girona, with a session in Portbou, to develop cultural academic work in the memory of both the figure of Walter Benjamin and the historical conditions of dictatorships, exile and war in which Benjamin’s life and work unfold.
Every two years it announces the Walter Benjamin essay prize with the support of MUME de la Jonquera.
Portbou Town Council runs a reception and information service for people visiting Portbou who would like to know more about where Walter Benjamin died. This service includes background materials on his thought and work and visits to places where he would have been during his brief stay in the town.
There are two Walter Benjamin Routes in Portbou, clearly marked with information panels.
-The Town Route connects the places where the philosopher spent the last hours of his life (the international train station, where he presented himself to the authorities, and the Hostal França, where he died) and the town cemetery, with his grave and the monument that the sculptor Dani Karavan has created in his memory.
– The Cross-border Route from Banyuls in France to Portbou, over the Coll de Rumpissa (or Rumpisó) pass on the Querroig hill, follows for 95% of its course the track from France into Spain that Benjamin took to escape persecution as a Jew. Since September 2009 this old smugglers’ trail has been upgraded and signposted in all its 7 km length. Also known as the Lister Route, after General Enrique Lister, who led the withdrawal of the 1lth Division of the Republican army, it winds up from the little town of Banyuls (and vice versa) over Querroig and down into the valley of Portbou. Guides are available to accompany groups or individuals on the trek.
The Benjamin Route: from Banyuls to Portbou
The Walter Benjamin route is a cross-border route that is sought after by many groups that cross the Pyrenees of Banyuls in Portbou on foot and who are looking to arrive at Portbou a center dedicated to Walter Benjamin that is not there. Other groups make the Collioure / Portbou route, to unite two cemeteries with an exile footprint: the Cotlliure cemetery, where the poet Antonio Machado rests, and the cemetery of Portbou, by the figure of Walter Benjamin and the beauty of a cemetery of which Hannah Arendt, a friend of Benjamin’s philosopher, who sought his tomb unexpected a month later than his death in October 1940, has written: “It is the most beautiful cemetery you have seen in my life.”
For group visits, guides, stays, routes or for more information:
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