One of the first things we did on our first full day in Barcelona was to head to the place where it all began, the place which gave birth to the city today – Barri Gotico. The city of Barcelona first got its start here, it was here that the walls of the Romans camp of Barcino were established. Testaments of this history, from old city walls to headstones lining outside the city walls exist side by side residential and commercial buildings till this day.
Roman headstones that were buried outside the Roman city walls
The old Roman city walls
This history was quite nicely documented in a computer recreation by the municipality a few years back. And much of what was found from this era is displayed underground at the Placa del Rei in the heart of the old town. As the name suggests, the Placa del Rei is a square that was built for a king, where the King of Aragon would have his palace and a smaller palatial structure for the lieutenant of the city next door.
Placa del Rei
The city has seen an unbroken history of Visigothic, Moorish, Frankish, Catalan and Spanish rule till this present day. A whopping almost 1800 years of history. Despite the depth of history, much of the Gothic Quarters in Barcelona is not considered authentically Gothic since most of the buildings were rebuilt in 1929 in time for that years International Exhibition, so as to enable Barcelona to put its best leg forward to the international audience. This was before the phenomenal development of FC Barcelona into a global brand that catapulted Barcelona into global fame.
Regardless, this recreation has produced an old town with some really beautiful Gothic-styled medieval landmarks that are worth talking about. The first is the external facade of the Barcelona Cathedral (known as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia), the seat of the Catholic Bishop of Barcelona.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia
It should be said that St Eulalia was herself a local of Barcelona back in the 3rd century, noteworthy because not many cities in Europe even can claim a patron saint who was one of their own. Eulalia was a christian under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian who persecuted the people of the faith. For her refusal to recant her faith she was subjected to thirteen tortures including cutting off her breasts, rolling her down a slope in a barrel of knives, and crucifixion. She was said to have miraculously survived all these tortures and succumbed only at the ultimate(but least painful of tortures) – decapitation.
Another beautiful reconstruction restored church is the Church of Santa Maria del Pi (Our Lady of the Pines), named after the scrub pines that can be found all around the city. The church is designed in what is called a fortress church design, unique to Catalan Gothic designs which meant that the structure looked imposing and similar to a castle or military fortress.
Church of Santa Maria del Pi
In the middle way point between these two beautiful churches is the Plaza del Sant Felip Neri, a quiet beautiful square with hardly anyone that served as the backdrop of the main seduction scene in the 2008 Woody Allen romantic comedy Vicky Christina Barcelona.
Nestling deep in the recesses of this beautiful square however is a dark past that chills you to the bone. During the Spanish Civil War, this placa and the kindergarten behind it (which is still in operation today), was bombed twice in an air-raid that left 42 people, mostly children dead.
Placa del Sant Felip Neri
That history remains with the shelling from the bomb staring out prominently. Perhaps fittingly this place was a scene in the Evanescence song My Immortal, which according to the group was a song speaking about “a spirit staying with you after its death and haunting you until you actually wish that the spirit were gone because it won’t leave you alone.”
From the dark to the romantic, is a bridge called the Pont de Bisbe that is thought to make all your wishes come true – if you wish it right under the bridge. It also happens to be a great location for wedding photoshoots.
Pont de Bisbe
Hidden within the labyrinthine weaves of the Gothic Quarter is the former Jewish Quarter, El Call, and one of the oldest synagogues is all of Europe. The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona as originally built in the third and fourth centuries and was expanded over centuries bcoming a centre of Jewish culture, learning and social life in its early days.
Ancient Jewish Synagogue of Barcelona
One of the major conflicts between Christians and Jews is over the role of Jesus, was he the Messiah as Christians believed or an individual who claimed to be more than he was as believed in Judaism, as part a promotion stunt and an a result of religious fervour, the then new Dominican order of preachers (founded by Domigo de Guzman) convinced the then King of Aragon to call for a debate between the leading theologians of Christianity and Judaism to debate whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.
This event was called the Disputation of Barcelona, and the representative of the Jewish faith performed so well that the King then, James I, gave him gold and announced that he had never heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended.” The Christian king then proceeded to visit this synagogue, a shockingly progressive move of religious tolerance then even today an draw consternation in some quarters.
The Jewish population were chased out of Spain after the reconquista but after years of disuse, the synagogue was reopened as both a synagogue and museum in 2002, although there is still no large Jewish population in Barcelona to have regular worship services in the synagogue. The old Jewish Quarter is today a hip part of town with cafes and bars but less packed with tourist (very relative concept at least).
These beautiful stand out buildings are complemented by some really charming small back alleys and corners that make exploration a real treat.
It may not be authentically Gothic, but you have to credit the amazing transformation effort a century ago for recapturing the essence of the old town we see today.
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