Barcelona can be hot and steamy in summer, pushing many towards its unique beachline. But even on a hot day, some parts of the city remain excellent for exploring.
The alleys that lead you through the magnificent Gothic Quarter, have long been known as one of the coolest places of Barcelona. Its medieval buildings make up a maze that offers not only shade but also plenty of treasures and secrets. Do you know what the narrow streets of El Gòtic hide?
The very first mention of Barcelona appeared 4000 years ago, connecting it with a Phoenician tribe that was living on the slopes of Montjuïc Hill. Nearly nothing is left from this far period, except for some old coins.
Barcelona really started developing as a town with the arrival of the Romans. It might be hard to believe though, that the vibrant Barcelona of today, covering an area of 102 square kilometres, originated as a small Roman city of just over one square kilometre.
Octavian Augustus arrived in Iberia where he created this new city in 14 BC, under the name of Barcino. The place initially served as a settlement for retired soldiers and numbered no more than 50-100 people. The most characteristic feature of Roman cities of that time was the grid or orthogonal plan, where streets intersect at 90 degrees. Besides, there was always a forum in the centre with the main streets departing from it, in North-South direction (called Cardus) and in East-West direction (called Decumanus). Parts of this typical shape, including the perimeter of the roughly rectangular city walls, are still visible in the plan of El Gòtic.
Some pieces of ancient Roman architecture also remind about Barcelona's early days. Perhaps one of the most obvious remnants of the former Roman greatness are the ruins of the gates of Porta Praetoria and the aqueduct, which can be found on the Plaça Nova. Large letters placed on the ground help reminding that this is the place of the former ancient city of Barcino.
For an idea of the size of the Roman walls of that time, have a walk along the Carrer del Sots - Tinent Navarro and the Carrer de la Tapineria, where you can find a part of the second Barcino defensive wall with two towers, as built in the 4th century AD. And it’s huge!
Another monumental artefact can be found at the nearby Carrer del Paradís. It is the place to see the remains of the Temple of Augustus, which dates from the end of the 1st century BC. Four columns and part of the podium have survived to this day, to indicate that this must have been the location of the forum of Barcino. How unusual and delightful, seeing ancient Roman columns hidden in between the buildings of El Gòtic!
A tour of the Roman city will not be complete without a stop at the MUHBA - Barcelona History Museum, located at the nearby Plaça del Rei. It invites visitors to go on a fantastic journey through the ancient Roman colony of Barcino.
Part of the exhibition is located under the square, a place that can be reached via a special elevator. There, in a mysterious dungeon, you will see unique ruins of the city, including fragments of walls, pavements, Roman baths, and the remains of a real water supply system and even an ancient sewage system.
Time passed, and the greatness of the Roman architecture was replaced by fascinating medieval buildings which started appearing on a large scale in El Gòtic as of the late 13th century. During the Renaissance, Barcelona was going through an economic crisis which halted all sorts of construction. This saved the Old Town from typical Renaissance-style buildings and is one of the reasons why the district with all its gloomy medieval grandeur has survived to our days. The layout conveys the spirit of the Middle Ages, consisting of winding and very narrow streets.
The historical core of the district became the Plaça del Rei, a charming square flanked by the historical building of the Palau Reial Major, which served as the scene of countless events in the history of Barcelona. For example, it is said that on this square on April 3, 1493, the Catholic Kings Fernando and Isabella met Christopher Columbus, who returned from his first voyage to America.
When we talk about Gothic, we recall the magnificent rose windows of majestic churches, gorgeous carved details, huge central entrances and tall spires of cathedrals. This style spread across Europe roughly from the 11th to the 15th century.
However, Barcelona had its own style, more restrained. It could not boast of such an abundance of detail and settled instead for simple and gloomy. The district began to be called Gothic only after several architectural structures with neo-Gothic elements, which were added in the beginning of the 20th century.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Pi is one of the main attractions of the district. It is believed that the first version of the church was built here in 987, on the foundation of an even older temple from the 5th century. Today we can see the cathedral almost as it looked in 1391. At the entrance, there is a round rose window considered one of the biggest in the world. And of course, the 54-metre bell tower, standing next to it. This octagonal tower from 1461, houses six bells, of which the Antònia is the largest and most famous, weighing not less than 1,806 kg.
It is no coincidence that you can see a pine tree on the square in front of the church. There even used to be an entire pine forest on this place, a fact that is eternalized in the name of the church – as "Del Pi" in Catalan means “of the Pine Tree”. In the church tradition, this tree is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary. Inside, the cathedral looks no less impressive than from the outside: pay attention to the Gothic arches, the monumental altar and the stained-glass windows of the early 18th century.
The architectural highlight of El Gòtic is certainly the glorious Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. Its magnificent spires rise above all houses, symbolically proclaiming its importance. It is also this church that is the main cathedral of Barcelona, and not the Sagrada Família, as many mistakenly believe. The construction of the cathedral began on May 1, 1298, on the site of an ancient Romanesque temple and took 150 years to complete.
However, the cathedral didn’t look so “Gothic” all its life. On the occasion of the 1888 World Exhibition in Barcelona, it was decided to reconstruct the nondescript facade of the building in the neo-Gothic style that you can see today. The work was completed by the beginning of the exhibition, but the church still did not have the 70-metre central spire, which was added only in 1913.
The layout of the cathedral consists of a wide central nave and two side aisles, separated by elegant colonnades. The real masterpiece of the cathedral’s altar is the wooden crucifix Holy Christ of Lepanto. Once this sculpture was located on a ship of the Spanish fleet in the battle against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. In the centre of the nave, there's carved wooden choirs from the 14th century, crowned with the coat of arms of the Barcelona branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece. In the crypt underneath the altar, you can see the alabaster sarcophagus of Saint Eulalia, one of the patrons of Barcelona.
Eulalia was born in the 4th century AD and was raised by her parents as a righteous and humble Christian. From an early age on she wanted to devote her life to God, and tell people about the word of the Saviour. Once early in the morning, Eulalia appeared on a square filled with people, trying to urge the inhabitants of Barcelona to disobey the Roman invaders and remain faithful to the true God. She was immediately captured by the legionnaires and subjected to terrible torture, from which she eventually died before she reached her fourteenth birthday. After some time Eulalia was canonized as a Saint for her faith. In honour of the age of the girl, 13 geese live in the courtyard of the cathedral, one for each year of Eulalia. They are said to be white, to symbolize the purity of the Saint.
And of course, we didn’t forget about The Bishop's Bridge, or as it is called in Spanish El Pont del Bisbe. It could well be the most famous place in the whole Gothic Quarter. In fact, this is not a bridge, but a covered gallery connecting the Government Palace and the Canon's House. The bridge is not as old as it may look, as it appeared only in 1926, when the palace was being reconstructed according to the project of the architects Joan Rubió y Bellver and Geroni Martorelli. The legend says that if you make a wish when you pass under the bridge looking at the skull on its base, it will come true. Sounds not too difficult, and could be worth the try!
Unlike the bridge, the dark-colored Canon's House is one of the oldest buildings of El Gòtic, erected between the late 13th and early 16th century. The house was built atop an old Roman structure, which has proven stable up to this day. Nowadays the House of Canons serves as the official residence of the President of Catalunya. If he arrives here, the staff raise the flag of Catalunya on the balcony.
The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is the pure heart of the city, filled with narrow alleys and romantic squares. It is one of the largest well-preserved medieval areas of Europe and it can be rather easy to get lost in its maze of streets.
Apart from the magnificent ancient architecture, El Gòtic also offers you countless shops and bars. To find them, have a look at our Streetwise map of Barcelona. Perhaps the most famous café here is Els Quatre Gats. It was opened in the 19th century by the then-famous contemporary artist Pere Romeu i Borràs, after he got inspired by the famous Le Chat Noir cabaret in Paris. Guess who was a frequent guest here? Pablo Picasso!
What other secrets does Barcelona hide? We will tell you next time!