THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY IN BARCELONA’S OLD TOWN
There is a vibrancy in the narrow lanes of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella (i.e. old town) that makes this part of town very different to the wide boulevards of L’Eixample, or the shiny 20th century appeal of the harbour. Encircled by the city walls, La Ciutat Vella was once the entirety of the Medieval town of Barcelona; now it’s the heart of a much larger city. It’s an area characterised by ancient churches, Bohemian art studios, funky shops, hole-in-the wall bars, narrow streets and old buildings. It’s also where Barcelona’s prostitutes, pimps, pick-pockets, and drug dealers ply their trades. La Ciutat Vella is certainly a colourful district, but it’s not without its beauty and appeal, as we saw today. We spent our day exploring the old city; wandering its winding lanes and exploring its churches, secluded squares, and colourful markets.
La Ciutat Vella is nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the 19th century “extension” to the city, L’Eixample. It is considered as the centre of the city and is divided into 2 neighbourhoods: El Barrio Gotic (the Gothic Quarter) and El Raval. The famed La Rambla boulevard separates the 2. We began our walking tour in the Barri Gotic, where the city’s main cathedral, remnants of Barcelona’s Roman past, and Picasso’s favourite café can all be found.
The Barri Gotic retains a labyrinthine street plan, with many small streets opening out into squares. Once these squares would have served as public meeting places and market spaces; today they’re inevitably filled with tourists and the tourist-inspired entourage of souvenir shops and ice cream vendors.
In one of these squares we came across one of the city’s oldest church, dedicated to Santa Maria del Pi (i.e. St Mary of the Pine Tree). This 14th-century Gothic church stands on the site of a much older chapel – a church stood on this site as long ago as the 5th century. It is said that a pine forest once stood on this site of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, which is where the church gets its name. Today just 1 pine tree stands in the square in the square, providing shade for the children of the nearby school when they comes out into the square to play every day.
Most of the buildings in the Barri Gotic date from Medieval times, some from as far back as the Roman settlement of Barcelona. Remains of the squared Roman town wall can still be seen, and within a small courtyard we even found the last 3 pillars remaining from the Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter.
Some of the old buildings have been left to go to ruin, others have been restored and decorated with geometric designs. As with many of the old towns and villages we’ve visited around Europe, the beauty of these old buildings was often in the small details – the intricate door knockers, the detailing around the windows, and the wrought iron lattice work of the balconies.
The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, also known as Barcelona Cathedral, is also within the Barri Gotic. The cathedral took 150 years to build, with the principal work done in the 14th century. We didn’t go into the church as the queue to enter was stupidly long, but did get to admire the intricately carved exterior.
Within the Barri Gotic we also found the remains of the Palau Reial Major (i.e. Grand Royal Palace). This Medieval castle was once the residence of the Counts of Barcelona and, later, of the Kings of Aragon.
El Call, the medieval Jewish quarter, is located within this area too. A few Jews remain in the Barri Gotic, with one small synagogue hidden down one of the lanes.
Santa Maria del Mar (i.e. St Mary of the Sea) is another imposing church in Barri Gotic. Built between 1329 and 1383, at the height of Catalonia’s maritime and mercantile pre-eminence, the church was surprisingly simple for a Gothic church. This is no doubt explained by the fact that the church was funded by the city’s tradesman and merchants – practical people for whom function over-rode form.
For many centuries Barcelona’s port had no light house; Santa Maria del Mar served this function instead. Lamps were placed within the bell towers of the church, providing guidance for ships coming into harbour. Today the church serves just as a place of worship, it’s dimly lit interior cool and quiet, especially compared to the crowded streets of the old town.
Beside the church we stopped to admire the Fossar de les Moreres. This memorial flame burns in memory of the Catalans that died during the 1714 War of Spanish Succession. The memorial and its surrounding plaza was built over a cemetery where defenders of the city were buried and recalls one of the most tumultuous periods in Spanish history.
We stopped at the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria for lunch. Often simply referred to as La Boqueria this large public market is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to the year 1200.
Today the market sells a wide range of fresh produce, from fruits and vegetables, to cheeses, olive oil, and the famous Spanish jamon. There are also a few pintxo places there where weary tourists (like us) can stop to refuel.
One thing we learned at the market is that Spanish people take their jamon very seriously! Speaking to one of the guys selling jamon at the markets we learned about the different types of dry cured ham, and why the type of pig the ham comes from and what the pigs are fed matters so much. We got to taste some of basic jamon serrano, which is delicious and not too dissimilar to Italian prosciutto, but to sample the far more expensive jamon iberico we had to pay. Unsurprising given he was selling jamon iberico for around €100/kg! Having sampled the best of his wares we can attest that we are jamon fans – in all its incarnations.
La Boqueria began as a market for pig sellers. During the Medieval era it was set outside of the city walls as there was no room for a pig market of that size inside the old town. In 1840, a permanent market was built and the Boqueria market has continued to grow ever since then.
Today La Boqueria is one of the largest fresh produce markets in Europe and made for a great place to stroll and admire the fantastically colourful displays of culinary delights and fresh products (taking care to watch for the seemingly ever present pick-pockets – what is it with this town and pick-pockets?!).
After lunch we crossed over into El Raval, an area historically infamous for its nightlife and cabarets. Being the closest district to Barcelona’s old port, it’s perhaps no surprise that El Raval has also long been associated with large-scale immigration, poverty, prostitution and crime. Once a no-go zone, the area is being transformed thanks to concerted efforts on the part of the Barcelona City Council and seems safe enough (at least in the light of day). Many restaurants, cafés, and bars have opened up in the area too, lending some parts a funky, Bohemian air that we liked.
El Raval’s narrow lanes and old buildings today house a growing population of Middle Eastern, Turkish, North African, Indian, and Pakistani immigrants; and many of shops had signs up advertising their wares in Arabic and Hindi. This is where Barcelona’s only mosque is, as well as its most infamous street where the prostitutes ply their trade. It’s an interesting mix, and the overall effect is an area that has a certain “gritty” appeal.
Some of the graffiti and street art in El Raval was especially eye-catching, adding flashes of colour to an otherwise rather bleak urban environment.
Parts of the district were once quite affluent, which is why Eusebi Guell built his family’s home here in 1886. Designed by Gaudi (of Sagrada Familia fame), Palau Guell is a mansion that combines Medieval style with Modernist principles. As one of Gaudi’s earliest architectural works, Palau Guell lacks some of the more outrageous elements that his later constructions are famed for, but is still rich in detail and ornamentation.
El Raval is certainly an interesting part of Barcelona, but it may not be to everybody’s taste. It is a very REAL kind of neighbourhood, where people work hard, and life isn’t sanitised for the sake of tourism. It’s not that clean or beautiful, but it does have a lot of personality and character and was worth the visit for us.
Obviously there is so much more to Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella than what we saw today, but even the little we roamed allowed us to see a different side to this city. Our sense of old Barcelona is that you need to take some time to get to know her – she’s not as grand as Paris, nor as dramatic as London, but if you scratch a little below the surface, there’s a fascinating city there that’s passionate, alive, and vibrant. We could easily see ourselves coming back to Barcelona and spending a couple of weeks here, getting to know the city better and seeing more of its museums, galleries, beaches, and parks. For now though we’re going to say farewell to this fascinating city – tomorrow we’re moving on to Zaragoza!