From Roman Barcino to medieval Barcelona
Follow in the footsteps left by Barcelona’s peoples over the ages, for the stones in this city have been trodden for two thousand years and more. Discover how they lived, what they ate, what trades they pursued, where they met, what they did in their free time… And share a cup of hot chocolate and fritters or a tasty arrós negre with their descendants. All little by little, slowly…
Pass through the Decumana Gate, which once formed part of the old Roman walls, enter Barcino by Carrer del Bisbe. If, by chance, a street musician is performing, sit for a while, resting your back against the wall of the Chapel of Santa Llúcia and enjoy the gentle melodies, songs whose roots may go back as far as medieval times.
Enter the courtyard of the Archdeacon’s House, or Casa de l’Ardiaca, and listen to the water burbling from the lovely fountain. At Corpus Christi, you can see l’ou com balla, a unique spectacle in which an egg “dances” on the water shooting from this spout. And if you are visiting the city just before Christmas, do not miss the chance to wander around Saint Lucy’s Fair (Fira de Santa Llúcia).
The wares on sale here, outside the cathedral, include craft-made Nativity scene figures, including the caganer, a traditional feature of Catalan Christmas cribs that represents a shepherd crouching down to relieve himself. A statue of Saint Lucy herself can be seen in the charming Romanesque chapel adjoining the cathedral. Now, continue your stroll in the footsteps of the barcinonensis, turning into Carrer del Paradís. Here, at number 10, are four columns from the ancient Temple of Emperor Augustus, which stood at the end of the Forum, the political and social centre of the Roman city.
Next, skirting around the exterior of the cathedral apse, we turn off to the right into Plaça del Rei, one of the most beautiful squares in this Gothic Quarter. Here, below ground level and forming part of the Museum of the History of the City (Museu d’Història de la Ciutat) is the most important archaeological site in Barcelona: a Roman artisans’ quarter and an Episcopal site from the late years of the Empire. The artisans’ quarter was lined by workshops devoted to different trades, such as pressing grapes to make wine, fish salting and washing and dying clothes. The remains conserved from the Episcopal site include the baptistery, where Barcino’s first Christians were baptised. We now continue walking towards the sea, entering Plaça de Sant Jaume. This square, which has been the heart of Barcelonan and Catalan political life for more than two millennia, is where the Patricians met to discuss public issues. On the occasion of Catalonia’s National Day, or Diada, on September 11, and the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the city’s patron saint, on September 24, the doors of both the Palau de la Generalitat, seat of the Catalan Government, and the Casa de la Ciutat (City Hall) are opened.
Both are jewels of Catalan Gothic civil architecture. The other patron saint of the city is Eulàlia, one of the first Christians in Barcelona. She was martyred by the Romans, who placed her in a barrel full of broken glass, which was then rolled down the street, probably on the site now occupied by Baixada de Santa Eulàlia. The saint is honoured during the week of February 12 each year in festivities known as the Festes de Santa Eulàlia.
We now continue along the course of the old decumanus maximus towards the sea, until we reach another gate, the Porta Praetoria or sea gate. This is where goods brought here by sea were taken into the city. One of the side arches is still conserved, though half-buried inside the Pati Llimona Civic Centre, where we can also visit the remains of the old Roman Baths.
We now retrace our steps, returning to Plaça de Sant Jaume to explore the narrow, winding streets of the Call, or former Jewish quarter. Here, we can visit a real synagogue and learn about the vicissitudes that the Hebrew people suffered in the city. If you are hungry, then Allium is the ideal establishment for replenishing your strength. This restaurant serves traditional Catalan dishes prepared using ingredients sourced directly from the producer: order a delicious starter of cold cuts from L’Albera, followed by mouth-watering Xarolesa organic veal from Berguedà county or the sensational fresh fish purchased in the port at Vilanova i la Geltrú. All this, sprinkled with exquisite extra virgin olive oil from Les Garrigues and accompanied by fresh bread as you never tasted it before, wood-cooked at the Baluard bakery in La Barceloneta…
Or, if it is tea-time, stop off at Caelum, which occupies the former mikveh (Jewish baths) and sample the delicious cakes and pastries made by nuns at several convents all over Spain. If you would like to find out how Barcelonans cooked in ancient times and the Middle Ages, sign up for a Roman and medieval cookery workshop at Cuínica, in the Boqueria market. Towards dusk, relax in the city’s most beautiful and solitary nook, Plaça de Sant Felip Neri.
Delight all five senses at the restaurant in the Hotel Neri, then take a room here, looking onto the square, and drift off to sleep accompanied by the gentle murmuring of the fountain which stands outside, facing the church of the same name. You will never forget the Church of Sant Felip Neri once you have seen the shrapnel marks on its façade, caused by bombing during the Spanish Civil War.
Until not so long ago, horse-drawn carriages entered into the then walled city of Barcelona through Portaferrissa, an iron gate erected in the 13th century. Pause a moment to read the text in the mosaic that adorns the fountain here, and try to image how this place must have looked in the past, with people going by in the costume of the day. Stroll around pleasant Carrer de Santa Anna and enter the church of the same name, one of the city’s best-kept secrets. A stone’s throw from busy Plaça de Catalunya, this oasis of silence, history, art and spiritual beauty takes us back to the times of the knights of the Templar and other orders, who prayed to the saint before setting off to the Holy Land to fight the “infidels” during the crusades. A little further, and our stroll leads us to a real Roman cemetery, in Plaça de la Vila de Madrid.
Next, we turn into bustling Carrer de Petritxol, where we can enjoy tapas, such as superb potato salad with spring onion, or a sandwich made from organic bread at Bagauda. Even better, have tea in this street, ordering a delicious suizo (hot chocolate with cream) at La Pallaresa or Dulcinea, two of the most rightly famed granjas, or traditional Catalan cafeterias.
Refreshed, we now follow the street down in Plaça del Pi, one of the most charming little squares in the Gothic Quarter. Taste some of the exquisite Catalan goat’s milk cheeses on offer in the market here and, when ready, enter the Church of Santa Maria del Pi. Once inside, go up to the viewpoint to observe the city from a different perspective.
On leaving, browse the artworks by local artists that form a permanent market along one side of the church, in Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol. Perhaps you will like one of the paintings so much you will decide to take it home with you. Pause for a while and have a rest at the Rufoo Fish Spa, the tiny fish causing a pleasant tickling feeling as they nibble at your feet.
Are you ready to continue with this tour? Then let’s stroll down to Carrer Argenteria, the traditional gateway into La Ribera neighbourhood. Then we can visit one of the palaces that line Carrer Montcada, one of the noblest streets in the medieval city. Those on the left as we face the sea house the museum devoted to that most universal artist, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, who spent periods during his youth in both Barcelona and Paris.
At Els 4 Gats (“The Four Cats”), the renowned bar and restaurant near Portal del Ángel, the likes of Santiago Rusiñol, Ramon Casas and other illustrious early-20th century artists used to meet. Have a relaxing coffee here whilst you view Casas’ famous painting in which he appears with Pere Romeu, mounted on a peculiar tandem from those times. We now return to Carrer Montcada and take this street down to Passeig del Born, turning right to find the Church of Santa Maria del Mar, a precious jewel in the crown of Catalan Gothic architecture.
Sit on a pew here and raise your gaze to the infinite, as expressed in these marvellous ogival arches. Then ascend to the viewpoint in the belltower, if you so choose. Or perhaps you would like to sit and read for a while in this magical church. Get yourself a copy of Ildefonso Falcones’ novel Cathedral of the Sea and travel back to the 14th century, when, with mighty efforts and great devotion, this masterpiece of universal architecture was built.
When you are ready, cross Passeig del Born to admire the market of the same name, an outstanding example of 19th-century iron architecture, and visit the Born Cultural Centre, where we can see the remains of a 17th-century neighbourhood, which predates the conquest of the city by Philip V of Bourbon during the War of the Spanish Succession. A dramatised visit gives us an idea of the suffering caused by the siege of Barcelona, which ended in defeat and the abolition of Catalan self-government.
Then, digest all that pain in the most pleasant way possible, by tasting the magnificent paella with ecological vegetables served up at Espai Mescladís.
Follow that with a similarly lovingly-prepared and equally delicious home-made dessert. By afternoon, you have earned a break, so take time out at the Aire de Barcelona Arab baths to enjoy a cup of tea and a relaxing massage. Finally, embark upon an unforgettable gastronomic experience at peaceful, intimate Montiel, the finest way to round off a memorable day that we can then crown by having a drink under the moonlight on the terrace roof of the Hotel Bòria.
The last part of this visit to medieval Barcelona can be turned into a slow and gentle bike ride. After a tasty breakfast at the ecological bakery Barcelona–Reykyavik, we begin our tour in Plaça dels Àngels, facing MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona. Heading downhill towards the sea, we come to the former Hospital of La Santa Creu.
Park your bike here, and stroll around the old cloister, sitting on bench or at a pavement café to enjoy the sun. Next, we take Rambla del Raval to the Church of Sant Pau del Camp, the finest example of Romanesque architecture conserved in Barcelona. Next come the Drassanes shipyards and a visit to the MaritimeMuseum.
For lunch, Mam i Teca is a small and friendly slow food restaurant where the specialities include mouth-watering pork chops with chickpeas and the house signature dish, mojamaof anchovies, tuna and cod. We can now pedal down to the sea. Cycle along the Moll de la Fusta (“Wood Dock”) and along the promenade to La Barceloneta, the city’s old seafaring neighbourhood. Reaching the beach, park and lock your bike securely and lie down on the sand. In hot weather, enjoy a refreshing swim.
At dusk, ride up to the Cinc Sentits. After marvelling at one of the amazing tasting menus at this outstanding restaurant, including home-grown vegetables, relax at Spaciomm, the spa centre in the Hotel Omm.
Enjoy one of the special, customised services on offer, including natural, biological products before spending the night in one of the establishment’s elegant rooms. What better way to round off your slow visit to Barcelona?
© Roger Jiménez – Slowing Catalunya
© Carlos S. Pereyra – Fotouropa. Travel Photography / Rufoo Fish Spa / Aire de Barcelona / Espai Mescladís / Barcelona-Reykyavik / Mam i Teca / Hotel Omm