By Saul Schwartz
Bask in the beauty of Barcelona, that has not only amazing Modernisme architecture but an amazing history as well. And a city centre that reflect the decades gone by: Romans, Christians, Jews and artists have all made their mark on the capital of Catalunya. Follow in the footsteps of Saul Schwartz as he discovers Barcelona for the very first time.
Barcelona is the second biggest city in Spain with a population of 1.7 million residents. As the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city with a layout that goes from Roman remains and medieval neighbourhoods to some of the most beautiful modern architecture. For over one week, my wife Fern and I enjoyed the charm of the city even beyond its well-known Gaudi architecture.
Tour of the Historic Quarter
By participating in a walking tour on our first full day, we quickly became oriented to central Barcelona. We really enjoyed the Old Town Tour with Olga. The comprehensive three hour tour began in Catalunya Square at 9:30 a.m. The focus of this tour was on the gothic quarter and our guide gave us an excellent introduction to the city and its origins. Since only one other couple joined us on the tour, Olga was quite willing to answer our questions.
We began our walk in Catalunya Square, which is a very large public square bordered by monuments. Nine streets meet here and it is Barcelona’s busiest square. Placa de Catalunya was constructed following Barcelona’s Universal Exhibition. In the northern portion, there are a number of fountains that are lit up at night. We learned that the square was originally outside of the city’s walls, but the walls were taken down in 1858.
We then rambled down La Rambla, the busy pedestrian tree-lined avenue that goes from Catalunya Square all the way to the seafront. The wide 1.2 kilometre long boulevard is filled with shops and restaurants. La Rambla was laid out in 1766 on a dried up river bed.
We stopped at the Canaletes Fountain which is an iron monument with four golden water spouts underneath the shield of Barcelona and a street light with four arms. Fern drank from the spouts to comply with the legend that anyone who drinks from the fountain will return to Barcelona!
Next, we entered into the Barcelona Cathedral, the old town’s spiritual hub. The impressive 19th century gothic façade draws your gaze up to the twin towers, the spire, the stained glass windows and carved angles. The beginnings of the church predate the façade, as construction of the present church began in 1298. Inside the church, the beautiful cloister is graced with a fountain presided over by Saint George on a horse, palm trees and thirteen roaming geese! The number of geese is explained by the age at which a young Saint Eulalia – the patron saint of Barcelona – was martyred. We also gazed up at the bell towers and the great artistic organ. There is no fee for entry during certain times.
We spent some time viewing the ruins of Roman Barcelona. Barcelona was founded as a Roman colony called Barcino. The Barcino letters are contained in sculpted letters nearby the Barcelona Cathedral. The sculpture is in on Placa Nova in front of several thick remaining Roman walls, with two square towers dating from the 4th century A.D.
In addition, four remaining nine meter high columns of the Temple of Augustus can be viewed inside the premises of the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya. This temple was built in the 1st century B.C. We also saw a well-preserved Roman necropolis called Via Sepulcral Romana, with tombs from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. This burial site is on Placa Vila de Madrid and is one level below the surrounding buildings on the square. Some of the unusually shaped tombstones contain holes so that decedents could provide food offerings to their relatives.
Our tour took us back to Catalunya Square through the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic). These beautifully preserved neighbourhoods of gothic buildings along atmospheric alleys exist today as a splendid reminder of medieval Barcelona. On the way back, we passed by Barcelona’s two most important government buildings, the city hall and the seat of the Catalonian government in the Plaça de Sant Jaume. The flags of Spain, Catalonia and Barcelona fly over these buildings.
Modernisme – beyond Gaudi: Casa de les Punxes
We learned that there is interesting architecture in Barcelona other than that of Gaudi! This modernist urban palace is medieval-inspired and looks like much a castle. This art nouveau gem was built in 1905, and designed by Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. The project was built for a textile and farming family’s widow and her three daughters, the Terradas family. The Casa consists of three houses with three floors each, one house built for each daughter. The three houses set on a triangular site were designed to blend into a single building on three streets with six corners.
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The façade makes use of a wide range of decorative techniques, including sculpture, ironwork, glass and ceramics. In the upper part of the façade, each of the blocks has a ceramic panel with images that refer to the three sisters. There is a ceramic panel of Saint George, whose legend is described during the first part of the audio tour. The Saint George legend is the most important Catalonian legend.
To get there, we took the metro to Diagonal. The casa is located at Avinguda Diagonal 420, about a ten minute walk from the metro stop. Casa de les Punxes opened to the public in 2016. The 13.5 Euro entrance fee includes an audio guide. One of the highlights is the rooftop terrace with exceptional views of the Eixample neighbourhood. The rooftop contains six pointed towers, crowned by conical spikes. The towers (punxes) give the house its name. We were able to sit within the towers and enjoy the views. .
Barcelona has several intriguing museums. The Picasso Museum of Barcelona opened to the public in 1963. The museum’s core collection is the most comprehensive regarding Picasso’s early works and his time in Barcelona. The Picasso family came to Barcelona when Pablo was 14. The museum is arranged chronologically. There are several masterpieces from his Blue and Rose Periods, as well as more than fifty works that reflect his personal interpretation of Velazquez’s painting called Las Meninas. The admission fee of 12 Euros includes an audio guide.
The museum is a short walk from metro Jaume I stop, with an address of Carrer Montcada 23. The building itself is interesting, as it occupies five palaces and is a fine example of civil Catalan Gothic architecture from the thirteenth and fourteenth century. The palaces have an internal courtyard and a grand external staircase which gives access to all five palaces.
Fern and I like to explore the Jewish aspects of each city. The Call de Barcelona is the old Jewish quarter of the city, which still retains its medieval architecture from the twelfth through fourteen centuries. Upon entry into the quarter, we saw a plaque in Hebrew with English language with a biblical inscription and information that we were entering into El Call Major, the main section of the former Jewish quarter.
Because the Barcelona Jewish Quarter was essentially destroyed in 1391, there are not many elements left to see. That attack in the quarter led to the death of more than 300 Jews. Approximately 100 years later, about 250.000 Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 or forced to convert to Christianity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews returned to Barcelona, primarily from Northern Africa and Eastern Europe. Even today, the Jewish Barcelona is relatively small, estimated at 5.000. The Jewish Call is located within the gothic quarter of Barcelona.
MUHBA El Call
We visited the small Jewish Museum (MUHBA El Call) which opened in a house where a medieval Jewish weaver named Jucef Bohhiac lived. This centre provides some history about the Jewish heritage in Barcelona and contains a small collection of Jewish ceramics and Hebrew tombstones from Barcelona. Some of these objects date back to the 13th and 14th centuries and the building is of medieval origin. The museum opened in 2015.
Admission costs only 2 Euros
Sinagoga Major de Barcelona
The Major Synagogue (Sinagoga Major de Barcelona) is located at Carrer de Marlet 2, near by the Jewish Museum. The restored original synagogue is the principle remaining evidence of the Jewish presence in Catalonia. The building reopened as a small museum in 2002. The major synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in Europe and was recently rediscovered. This building was the greater synagogue of Barcelona until 1391. https://www.sinagogamayor.com/en/home.
The short English language guided tour showcases the Jewish culture of Catalonia and the history of the building. The two room building is now used for private bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah and weddings. The tour fee was only 3.5 Euros. Most of the furnishings, art and antiques (including a stained colourful glass window with a Jewish star and a large menorah) were donated from other Spanish congregations.
Finally, we our tour guide Olga pointed out how old Jewish tombstones were used as parts of other buildings in the gothic quarter. In several buildings, we could make out Hebrew lettering within isolated stones that were joined with other stones in these buildings.
Getting around Barcelona
The Hop on Hop off Bus tour took us to places beyond the reaches of our walking tour and beyond metro stops. An audio guide was included on the Barcelona Bus Turistic. During our February trip, the bus had two alternative routes. A third route is available in the summer. We chose the longer red route. Because of the distance of certain sites from central Barcelona from our hotel, such as the ports and the beaches, we only saw them from the bus and never toured in those areas. www.barcelonabusturistic.cat
Eating our way through Barcelona
La Boqueria Market
This world famous food market is an attraction in its own right, within an amazing building. La Boqueria was officially opened in 1840 and the roof was finished to enclose the market in 1916. The indoor market is contained within a tall, modern building made with case iron to hold the stalls. More than 200 traders offer choice local and international food products. There are several areas where you can sit and eat. I had never before seen the huge Iberian hams (jamon) on display at various vendors. The market is located off of La Rambla. There are many other food markets in Barcelona, but none of this magnitude.
El Corte Ingles Department Store
Europe’s largest department store has an amazing cafeteria on its 9th floor, with a glass fronted restaurant overlooking Catalunya Square. We took the metro several times to Catalunya Square to eat lunch or dinner from one of the fabulous stations. The salad station contained extensive options, including delicious pumpkin slices. Fern and I thought that our pasta meals from the Italian station compared favourably to any Italian restaurant. The store itself is vast.
- El Corte Ingles website (in Spanish)
Tips for Getting the Most out of Barcelona
The Metro was easy to use. Best value for us was the 5 day (120 hour) ticket for our first five days, followed by the 10 ride ticket for our final two days. Unfortunately, the paper tickets stopped working several times and we needed to replace them. It was not at all difficult to follow the signs and switch lines when necessary. All of the major attractions were within walking distance of a metro stop.
The Aerobus goes non-stop from Barcelona’s El Prat airport (terminals 1 and 2) to downtown Barcelona every ten minutes during its operating hours. Normally, the only downtown stop is in Catalunya square. Due to a demonstration in the square, we took the bus back to the airport from Plaza de Espana, across from the arena that was formerly used for bull fights (Plaza de Toros de la Arenas). The cost is 5.90 Euros in one direction. The ride takes about 20 minutes and is very comfortable.
We stayed at Hotel Barcelona 1882, which is a short walk from the Sagrada Familia metro station at Corsega 481. The hotel is named after the year 1882, when Gaudi began working on the Church of the Sacred Family.
The hotel featured a gym with cardio equipment, weights and free yoga classes once per week. In addition, the Hotel Barcelona 1882 offered a free one hour tour of the neighbourhood around the Sagrada Familia one evening per week. The neighbourhood by the hotel has markets and an extensive supermarket which contained a bakery. Because lunch and dinner at restaurants took place much later than we were used to eating, Fern and I often purchased our meals at the market and ate at the hotel.
We used DK Eyewitness Travel’s Top Ten Barcelona. The easy to use guide contains dozens of top ten lists, information on the major attractions and a very useful pull out metro map.
The Barcelona Pass provides free entry to approximately twenty attractions, including sightseeing tours, museums and monuments. At several attractions, the pass allowed us to avoid the line through fast track entry. Discounts are available for other sites as well. The pass includes an extensive guidebook.
We purchased the three day pass, which is the maximum number of days available for this pass.
Although Gaudi’s architecture is not to be missed, there are many other attractions that Fern and I enjoyed throughout Barcelona. Just before our trip ended, we saw demonstrations for the Catalonian independence movement. Throughout Barcelona we saw as many Catalan flags as Spanish flags and signage was in Catalan as much as in Spanish.
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.