The Gothic Quarters
My partner and I decided to have an autumn break in Barcelona, which has been on our to-do-list for a little while. Perusing the guide books we came up with a huge lists of things to do and to see but in order to avoid sensory overload we restricted ourselves to two main attractions a day. This still gave us plenty to see as we had planned a week long trip. Having worked out a schedule, we started looking for a place to stay and found a nice centrally located apartment close to the Picasso Museum and within walking distance of Barcelona’s cathedral. Even walking to the Sagrada Familia took no longer than 20 minutes. Moreover, as it turned out there were several nice Tapas bars close by. The apartment had only one downside – it was located on the 5th floor and there was no elevator. Looking on the positive side, this provided us with some exercise and helped us burn of some of the calories gained by gorging us on the excellent food.
The history of Barcelon stretches back 2000 years. Remains from the Neolithic have been found on the coastal plain near the city, while ruins of an early settlement have been excavated in the El Raval neighborhood, including different tombs and dwellings dating to earlier than 5000 BC. Later, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the area was settled by the Laietani, an Iberian people before be conquered by the Romans during the Cantabrian Wars. During the declind of the (Western) Roman Empire the Visigoths moved it only to be kicked out by Arab forces which arrived on the Iberian Peninsula a couple of centuries later, around 710 CE. The Arab rulers, however, did not get to enjoy their stay in Barcelona overly long as they got turfed out by Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne who captured Barcelona in 801 after a siege of several months. In the 12th century it became part of the Kingdom or Aragon and after the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille in 1469 it became part of Spain. So much for a potted history of Barcelon up to the end of medieval period.
Most of the medieval parts of Barcelona can be seen by wandering through the Gothic Quarters which encompasses the oldest parts of the city of Barcelona, and includes the remains of the city’s Roman wall and several notable medieval landmarks. However, funilly enough, some of the most photogenic spots actually do not date back to medieval times but were constructed in the late 19th and 20th century. These include the main facade of the cathedral which was constructed between 1882 and 1913 and the rather picturesque bridge that crosses the Carrer Bisbe between the Palau de Generalitat and the Cases dels Cononges: newly built in 1928.
Nevertheless, wandering through the Barri Gotic, which its labyrinthine streets and small squares is a delight as you never know what sights await you around the next corner. One of the main squares, the Placa Reial is ideal for a spot of lunch and some people watching, although there are plenty of cafes and tapas bars dotted around the Gothic Quarter, in case one needs to rest. One of the main port of calls in the Barri Gotic is the cathedral, which was constructed between 1294 and 1448 and hence just took a little bit longer than the Sagrada Familia, which is just now nearing it’s completion. The cathedral is dedicated to Eulalia of Barcelona, patron saint of Barcelona, a young virgin who, according to Catholic tradition, was martyred by the Romans at the age of 13. In order to commemorate her death, 13 white geese are kept in the secluded cloister of the cathedral.
The Pont del Bisbe is just round the corner from the cathedral and from here it is just a small hop to the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, a tiny little square, whose octogonal fountain is surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque Buildings, the Church of Saint Phillip Neri being the most prominent one.
The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, is one of the few spots in the city to bear witness to Barcelona’s suffering during the Civil War. On the 30 January 1938, one of Franco’s bombs fell on the church killing 30 people most of whom were children from the School of Sant Philip Neri and some were refugee children from Madrid. As people pulled survivors from the rubble, a second bomb hit the square, killing 12 more bringing the death toll to 42. It was the second worst bombing hit in Barcelona during the war. Evidence of the bombings can still be seen today in the pockmarked walls of the church.
There are two more churches in Barcelona that absolutely deserve a visit, namely the Church of Sant Pau del Camp and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. I actually thought that these two churches were much nicer than the cathedral (mainly because they contained less Baroque bling). Sant Pau del Camp was a former monastery that once stood outside the city walls (hence the name of “Saint Paul in the Field”). Not too much is known about its history – it was sacked by Muslim troops in 985 and reconstruction started in 1096. Most of the remaining buildings and in particular the amazingly beautiful cloister date from the 14th century. Note that the Church of Sant Paul del Camp is not located in the Gothic Quarters but in the El Raval district, only a short-ish walk from the “La Rambla”.
Santa Maria del Mar was constructed between 1329 and 1383 at the height of the Principality of Catalonia’s maritime and mercantile preeminence. It is an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic and what I really liked about this church was it’s austere looking inside. The interior is almost devoid of imagery of the sort to be found in Barcelona’s other large Gothic churches, such as the cathedral. This austere appearance is, however, did not happen by design, but is the result of a fire which occurred in 1936 during anticlerical disturbances and during which many of the Baroque works of art went up in flames. Moreover, the inside of the church is light and airy, the ribbed vault being supported by slender octagonal columns. The spacing of these columns is the widest in any Gothic church in Europe, about 14 meters apart – centre to centre.
In order to avoid “gothic/medieval sensory overload” my partner and I alternated between visiting the Barri Gotic and the Barcelona of the Art Nouveau (well in between we also had plenty of coffee breaks).