Julia travels to the Barcelona, Spain, one of the world’s most extraordinary cities, and decides to seize the day.
We seized the opportunity offered by Ryanair to buy cheap flights and revisit Barcelona at the beginning of October. My husband had been there on business 30 odd years ago and loved the small bit he was able to see in between meetings. I had flashed through once from a holiday on the coast and another time with a school trip. We hadn’t realised what a truly wonderful place Barcelona is.
We chose to stay in a tiny apartment in the Old Quarter (Barrio Gotico) just off the Via Laetana near Jaime 1 Metro. The street looked a bit scary at first with all the metal blinds pulled down and graffitied over, Banksy style. The Barrio Gotico was always a bit edgy. Thirty years ago we wouldn’t have been able to walk around there without getting our pockets picked or experiencing some aggression. At least, that’s what guides always told us.
Nowadays, the Barrio is full of people from morning till late at night and didn’t seem to wake up till at least 10 am. Noise was normal. We country bumpkins found it a bit overwhelming at first but were soon won over to the buzz and excitement of the city.
We were a bit disappointed by the “apartment” which was small and poky and the kitchen was little more than a fridge/microwave and kettle on a shelf next to a sink. However, there were so many tapas bars and such good cafes in the area that we didn’t really want to get into cooking.
The big surprise for me was Old Roman Barcelona which has been expertly excavated and exquisitely presented as it lies under the Medieval town.
Barcino was founded by the Emperor Augustus between 15-10 BC. It was small as cities go, only 1000 inhabitants but they had most of what constitutes a Roman Imperial city. It was a walled city with four gateways and a part of these walls can still be seen above ground, incorporated into later buildings in the Placa Nova. The Archdeacon’s house (Casa de l’Ardiaca) was built over a lot of this in the 15th century but a visit inside will reveal the interior of the Roman wall and an arch from the viaduct which carried water into the Roman city.
The entrance to the History of Barcelona Museum is through the 16th century house Casa Padellas which had been moved here in the 1930’s to make way for the Via Laietana. As the workies were digging the foundations they discovered Roman Barcelona – Barcino.
Here you wander along glass pavements which allow you to see down into Barcino and its 2000 year old streets. You will see the old laundry within front of its doors, the pots for passers-by to piss in (urine was used for its ammonia content to bleach clothes and the fullers used it for cleaning wool), the public baths, the wine depots and the garum tanks. Garum was a salty sauce made from rotting fish very like the Vietnamese sauce Nuoc Mam.
Although no theatre nor circus nor amphitheatre has been found, there are the remains of a huge Temple of Augustus – just four pillars behind a glass screen in a little courtyard. You can see the old Roman cemetery in the Placa Vila de Madrid sunk down in a pleasant little garden. They would have been outside the gates of Barcino.
The old main street of Barcino, the decumanus, is now Carrer del Bisbe which runs along the side of the Cathedral which seem to have been built directly over the old Roman town. I reckon the Spanish must have found El Dorado because the side chapels in the cathedral have to be seen to be believed. They even have a noisy flock of geese in the cloister garden as protection.
The Cathedral frontage was apparently re-built in the 19th century. It looks very Gaudiesque anyway and very much like the Sagrada Familia, that famous Gaudi creation in north Barcelona. We didn’t achieve one of our ambitions which was to go inside the Sagrada Familia because we are crowd- and queue-averse. It was also quite hot to be in a line-up for an hour.
On the way back to our tiny apartment, we stopped several times in the square in front of the cathedral to sample some of Spain’s lovely light white wines. One time there was an ecumenical service being broadcast on huge screens with the most glorious choral singing. I espied a Greek Patriarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury – Rowan Williams.
Barcelona has quite a few medieval churches which all merit a peek. Santa Anna (just off Las Ramblas and near Plaza de Catalunya) has a lovely little quiet cloister to which we repaired one day with tired feet, thinking to sit quietly and munch something. There was a Jewish wedding using the cloisters as a venue for their meal so no luck there then! One warm evening, we discovered Santa María del Mar, its penitents tumbling out of Mass into the fabulous tapas bars in the surrounding monumental square.
By the third day, we admitted defeat and couldn’t even do mille passum (the paces of a Roman mile) so we took a bus tour of the city. I hadn’t thought to take a sunhat so had to shade my head and eyes with maps and postcards.
We saw the Gaudi houses on the Passeig de Gracia (Casa Batlló and La Pedrera) and the Casa Amatiller by Puig y Cadafalch, a contemporary of Gaudi and went back to really take them in the next day but we missed the insides again because of the queues but the outside architecture was mind boggling. La Pedrera looked as if it were built from bendy quarry stones that people referred to it as La Pedrera (the stone quarry) instead of its real name Casa Mila.
Two days later we caught up with the Palau de la Musica Catalana by Domenech which is also stupendous. It is just across the Plaza de Catalunya in a little side street off Via Laeitana. Towards the end of our week we managed briefly – too briefly — to take in the Park Güell which was also a Gaudi design. Park Güell is a magical, wondrous and romantic place straight out of a novel by Gabriel García Marquez or Isabel Allende.
Nineteenth century Barcelona must have been as prosperous as its medieval and Roman counterparts – at least for the merchants and business people. Although many markets have disappeared there are still two excellent ones Mercat de la Boqueria and Mercat St Catherine.
If you want a great lunch time selection of tapas, then La Boqueria is for you but get there early! We bought some sobresada and Squid ink to bring back but left it in the tiny fridge in the apartment so some cleaner got lucky!
One ambition was achieved in Barcelona – to eat in Los Caracoles. I have eaten there every time I have been to Barcelona so at least three times and my husband ate there two to three times when he was there on business.
We turned up with no reservation and said innocently “But we always eat here when we come to Barcelona.” When we mentioned that we had originally eaten there in the time of Senor Bofarull, we were introduced to his granddaughter who now runs the place and given a table on the balcony which overlooks the kitchen – our dream table!
Los Caracoles is a fantastic old medieval house with rooms up and down stairs and along corridors and around corners where you need to be led to your table and shown out when you finish! The food is classic Spanish cuisine and wonderful especially if you eat what is recommended for the day.
We ate there twice but otherwise tried out different restaurants – all very atmospheric, hidden down medieval side streets or in little squares and not far from our teeny apartment.
The only sour note was that my Canon camera jammed up. Nothing ventured, as they say so I went and bought a tiny Coolpix Nikon which seemed to work well. But my wide-eyed enthusiasm for Barcino, Gaudi and Barcelona in general left me ill equipped to keep my eyes on my tiny new camera which I left in a taxi.
Never mind. I got myself a new mouse mat to replace the one with all the Roman Emperors on it. It just says CARPE DIEM*.
* Carpe Diem is translated as Seize the Day.
Cathedral ‘Sagrada Família’ in Barcelona/Spain, designed by Gaudi” Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons
“Barrio Gotica, Barcelona: Carrer del Bisbe” by Llull, Wikimedia Commons
“Temple of Augustus in Barcelona” Wikimedia Commons
Santa María del Mar in Barcelona. Photographer Unknown.
“Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music)” Marcel Germain @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Los Caracoles” courtesy of Live the Dream