So much has been written about Antoni Gaudi and his association with Barcelona that it is almost inconceivable to venture to that pearl of the Mediterranean without at least spending some time admiring the sinuous extravagances of the architects fanciful imagination. Equally as interesting are the other architectural periods and historic areas, but what sometimes goes un-noticed in the search for antiquity offered by the many guide books are the small shops and corners that are of no great moment in the vast history of such a grand city but are as interesting in their own right as many of the grand edifices, most of which now act merely as sterile representations of a historic period and fail to give an idea of life as it was lived through those periods.

El Rey de la Magia, BarcelonaAt number 11 Carrer de la Princesa, a narrow street off Via Laietana, one of the main roads leading from the port, a painted beturbaned head glares out from the curve of a large blue question mark. Below it a glass display case holds playing cards, puzzles, wands and intricate explanations of the illusionist’s art. This is El Rey de la Magia, founded in 1881 and the oldest magic shop in Spain.

At fifteen, José Maria Martinez had his first taste of magic and from then on he became a regular visitor to El Rey la Magia, learning – literally – the tricks of the trade. When the owner, Carlos Bucheli, a well-known magician who worked under the stage name Carlston, decided to retire in 1984, Jóse Maria bought the shop and made his passion for magic his life. But the shop goes back over a hundred years before José Maria took up residence.

In 1881, just before Gaudi began work on the Segrada Familia, Joaquin Portagas owned a pharmacy but was intrigued with the world of illusion. After a trip to South America where he learned some new tricks and techniques, he decided to take a full-time step into the magic world and opened El Rey de la Magia, a brave step at a time when the illusionists art was understood and practiced by only a few. At that time magic was mainly performed on street corners, in markets and bars – it wouldn’t become really popular until the 1930’s, when it finally entered the theatres and became a major hobby.

In the shop and the museum of magic nearby, posters going back to the early years of the last century advertise the famous magicians of the day, a number of them dressed in flowing Chinese robes. Why the Chinese influence? “The bright costumes were seen as very exotic when they first appeared, and besides – there was plenty of space to hide things!” grins José Maria.

The first magician to use this type of costume was Dutchman David Bamber, and when his son, who performed as Fu Man Choo, came to Barcelona in the early 1940’s he created the model for magicians in Spain.

A magic prop at El Rey de la Magia Barcelona“Carlos Buchelli became a great friend of Fu Man Choo and sold a lot of his illusions in the shop,” continues José Maria, “but magic had begun to become popular almost a decade earlier. In 1933 the first magic group in Spain was started in Barcelona, the Asociación Catalana Illusionistas, in Quatro Gats, the same café where Picaso, Joan Miró and other artists, writers and poets would meet. Magic was seen by many as part of the arts in those days.”

By the time Jóse Maria took over El Rey de la Magia the business had been in decline for a number of years – there was even talk of converting the property into a bar. At that time he and his wife, Rosa Maria Llop, were professional actors but included magic in their specially produced performances, something they still do today. A lull during the ‘90’s was a struggle to get through, but they kept going, with the aid of New Yorker, Jack Silver, another magician who has spent many years in Spain.

“Magic is now a very popular hobby again,” says Jack, “and even though most people quite like the very grand David Copperfield-type illusions, it’s still the close-up, more intimate stage performances that people really prefer.” And you don’t get much more close-up and intimate than the performances held at their theatre, where toddlers to granddads goggle in awe at the ‘magical’ Sunday shows.

The theatre is part of a museum of historic magic props (where you can see Rosa’s grinning head mysteriously suspended in a glass case), but in the workshop below El Rey de la Magia, Jóse Maria works devising new tricks for customers world-wide, although Jack likes to point out that in the world of magic nothing really changes.

“Basically magic is defined by a few rules – levitation, changing colour, shape or place, and breaking something apart and putting it together again. Even if you’re chopping someone’s head off you still have to put it back again or where’s the magic? There isn’t – it’s then known as murder!”

Technology plays a part, but whilst the equipment used might be complex and very carefully designed, magic comes down to one major thing.

“The most important thing in magic is creating the truth of something that doesn’t exist,” says Jóse Maria. “That comes down to technique, you need to focus the public’s attention where you want it. One of the most difficult illusions to do is levitation because it needs about four minutes to set up, in full public view, and four minutes is a very long time for a magician to stand on stage and do nothing.”

Muesum at El Rey de la Magia Barcelona