Portbou (Catalunya, Spain) and Walter Benjamin

Portbou (Girona/Gerona province, Catalunya/Cataluña/Catalonia) is the first place travellers arriving from France reach after crossing the border with Spain. It has not only a beautiful natural setting but a rich and dense history of border crossings both ways, by such figures as George Orwell, Alejo Carpentier, and, above all, Walter Benjamin, who breathed his last in Portbou in tragic circumstances in 1940. ** I have published an article about Benjamin and Portbou: ‘Border Crossing, Resting Place: Portbou and Walter Benjamin’, Lingua Franca (Brussels), Vol. 5, No. 8, 2002, pp. 4-9; on-line at: 

Click to access BenjaminPortbouWBRSversion.pdf

Here is a brief extract from that text: ** ‘On the afternoon of 25 September 1940, a group of three clandestine travellers arrived in Portbou, exhausted after a harrowing trek across the Pyrenees from Banyuls-sur-Mer in France (15 km distant as the crow flies). One of them was a stateless German Jew, who carried on his person a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseille, stamped with a Spanish transit visa, also issued in Marseille and good for the land journey to Portugal. A fugitive from the Vichy regime, he now aimed to reach the safety of the US via Lisbon. He had once visited Ibiza, but spoke no Spanish, although he had an excellent command of French. The Spanish frontier guards accosted the group and demanded their documents. They told the bearer of the US passport that he could go no further: his presence on Spanish territory was illegal because he had no French exit visa. However, in view of the traveller’s evident ill-health, the police agreed to postpone expelling him back to Pétain’s France until the next day. Impelled, perhaps, by inexplicable generosity or covert republican sympathies, they allowed him to spend the night, not in a police cell but in the less undignified surroundings of a cheap room in the Hotel de Francia – at No 5 in Avenida del General Mola, a street in the town centre near the police station, recently renamed after a Francoist commander. At 10 p.m. the next day, in Room No 4 on the hotel’s second floor, the traveller was found dead. The stateless refugee whose life ended in Portbou on 26 September 1940 was Walter Benjamin, now recognised as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century (…)’ ** These photographs complement my article. From left to right you can see:  1. The cemetery, with marble slab in memory of Benjamin;  2. The Casa Alejandro, formerly the Hotel de Francia, where Benjamin died (in the second-floor room with the balcony). 3. View of Portbou;. 4. The Benjamin monument by Dani Karavan, 5. The Benjamin museum.  ** The words on the memorial slab read: in German, ‘Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein’, and then in Catalan: ‘No hi ha cap document de la cultura que non ho sigui també de la barbàrie’ (‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: