Of all the countries in Europe, I always find myself going back to Spain. With my origins from a former colony, wriggling back to the womb of the uninviting Motherland, as Robert Hughes had put it, would be considered as “colonial capitulation”. But visiting the country for the fourth time within six years, Spain has somewhat felt like home to me. My return to the Catalan capital has proven that Barcelona is just as welcoming as any other Spanish cities that I’ve been to. This time, I’ve felt more than acquainted to its surroundings; I’ve somehow become a part of it. At least I knew that the classes I took up at the university about Catalan literature and history were not all in vain.
19th-century Catalan poet Joan Maragall once described Barcelona in one of his poems as “la gran encisera” or the Great Enchantress. Though I’m a big fan of Andalucía, there is no doubt about the fact that this proud city has indeed its own striking identity and a rich architectural heritage, ranging from medieval to modernist. Traveling for the first time with my mother and her friend, I had a great pleasure to give them an extensive and comprehensive introduction of what this city was all about. After all, we had a whole week to immerse ourselves in this fascinating Ciudad Condal that is Barcelona.
Our accommodation was a short walk to Columbus’ monument by the Mediterranean sea and close to La Rambla where all the (touristy) happenings took place. In short, we stayed at El Raval, the red light district lying west to La Rambla. Carrying our luggage, we strutted our way down to the other end of the promenade and so I thought it would be a good introduction for my mother to experience the stifling crowd in an overly touristic city. Since I would always travel alone, I had become used to walking a lot in getting around and I was worried that my mother would complain about not taking the public transportation. But I was glad she didn’t.
After dropping off our stuff, we wasted no time and continued our tour at Barrí Gòtic or the Gothic Quarter at Ciutat Vella as our starting point. At the Plaça Reial, we got acquainted with Gaudí’s modernist lamp posts within the medieval district. With a mishmash of buildings in the old city, even vestiges of its Roman past are still visible to this day at the cathedral square such as the remnants of an aqueduct of the old Barcino, the 1st century underground temple dedicated to Emperor Augustus, whose three pillars remain standing tall surrounded by residential buildings close to the cathedral and of course, the underground museum of Roman excavations at MUHBA.
Just because it’s called the Gothic Quarter doesn’t mean that the whole district’s architecture should be in that style. Since Barcelona had been bombed throughout the ages, the old town didn’t limit itself to retaining everything in Gothic or in Romanesque. However, a great deal of buildings still exist that date back to that time.
La Catedral de Santa Eulalia or endearingly called La Seu by the locals is the centerpiece of the old quarter. Surrounded by box-shaped buildings, the Gothic cathedral, though built quite lower than its French and English counterparts, stands majestically in the middle of the square. Another architectural masterpiece that I’ve recently discovered is the Placa del Rei, which houses the Museum of Catalan History, “Saló del Tinelll”, St. Agatha Chapel, Palau del Lloctinent, the old Inquisition Palace and the Archive of the Crown of Aragón.
My travel motto is to never look at maps. Nothing is more adventurous than to get lost in the winding streets of an old town as exciting as the ones in Barcelona. Behind the cathedral is a long alley with a stunning Gothic-influenced footbridge that eventually leads to the Jewish district, El Call, and continuing further, we ended up seeing the two most important buildings of Catalunya, the Generalitat and Casa de la Ciutat or the Regional government and the City Hall. Both in Neoclassical style, these institutions have witnessed the unfolding of the Catalan history since the early 19th-century.
Tucked away from the mainstream sights slumbers an 18th-century church in a small, quiet square: San Felipe Neri. I learned to appreciate its simple façade that shows scars of bullets from the Civil War, a reminder of how Barcelona had suffered through those times. The city also had to endure bombings and burning of churches and convents in the course of the 19th-century and in the Tragic Week of 1909 led by anarchist movements prior to the war between 1936 to 1939. Barcelona may have retained those wounds from the tumultuous turn of the century but some unhealed damages have turned into beauty, they should be left as they are.
As we moved a bit further away from Barrí Gòtic, we landed at La Ribera where another church that would’ve competed with the main cathedral stands: La Santa María del Mar. Constructed in the same period as the Catedral de Santa Eulalia, it only took around 54 years to complete the church, while the other one lasted until the 19th century. With the financial help of the rising bourgeoisie and the will of its citizens, it was truly record-smashing for a Gothic building to be finished in less than a hundred years! Partly destroyed by fire before its inauguration, seven centuries later, however, it fell victim to the Civil War with attempts to burn down the church but somehow failed. La Santa María del Mar is an example of persistence and hardwork of the Catalan people.
La Ribera Quarter offers a wide variety of shops, be it traditional or trendy. We walked along one of the “noblest” streets of Barcelona: Carrer Montcada. Palaces of rich families from the glorious times line up along the narrow alley, one of which houses the Picasso Museum in the 15th century Palau Aguilar at C. Montcada 15. Though he was born in Málaga, Andalucía, Pablo Picasso spent his creative years in Barcelona before his exile to Paris. Through this, he has become one of the greatest Spanish exports and ex-pats that contributed to contemporary art.
As this was my third time in Barcelona, I could say that “third time was literally a charm”. I was truly glad to be back (this time with my mother) to see the same familiar sights that gave me comfort and a sense of direction. But even with a sense of orientation, I was willing to get lost within the labyrinth of the Ciutat Vella that made me discover more of Barcelona I wasn’t able to visit in my previous travels. As a self-confessed Gothic architecture lover, the city served as a paradise to satisfy my visual pleasure. In the next few parts of this blog series, there will be more walking tours of different periods and I will get to enjoy the sights through my mother’s eyes in this Great Catalan Enchantress.