Exploring the Neighborhoods of Barcelona Spain

We loved Barcelona on our first trip. We loved it even more the second time. But despite all this love, our blogs on it will be unusually brief. And we blame it all on Barcelona. There is so much to do, and dinners are so late, that our daily schedules kept us out from 7:00 AM and 11:00 PM. Life, therefore, became a continual game of catchup, where we continually lost. In other words, we continually won wince we maximized our all too brief four days in this wonderful city. But lost out on the time to write it all down.

Our first day was dedicated to walking a number of the neighborhoods, just to get a feel of their character. We then supplemented this with a couple of guided walk. Although we unfortunately missed the Get Your Guide Gothic Quarter Walk we especially wanted to take), we did find a couple of less than satisfying substitutes: about 50 minutes of a Hostel Cultures tour which we happened to run into and an hour tour sponsored by our hotel by a guide who told stories and anecdotes in Gothic Quarter locations.

Gothic Quarter

We stayed in and spent much of our walking time in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, one of the largest and best preserved medieval districts in all of Europe, with extensive retained Roman ruins to boot. It is the location of the original city (founded in 27 B.C.), the site of the main Roman city gates, the meeting point of the two largest aqueducts and the home of the original royal palace. A few remnants of these sites remain, including two rounded keeps around the old gates, a link of the original aqueduct, a square water tank and, under the city streets, in the historical museum, foundations of Roman homes, government buildings and baths.

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Many remnants of the past remains, or have been reconstructed. The stones from parts of the original wall which had been dismantled were reused in other buildings, helping to account for a number of walls with a mix of different size stones obtained from different sources.

The primary remaining and most actively used site is the cathedral, the original of which was constructed in about 400 A.D., and the current one dating from 1298 (with the current façade and spire added in the late 19th century). Its highlights include its nave (with Catalan arches), carved 15th-century choir stalls, beautiful chapels and its cloisters.

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Other particularly noteworthy buildings include the Governor’s Palace (Palau de la Generalist), the town hall (Ajuntament), the its Bishop’s mansion (with beautifully painted walls), the remnants of the Royal Palace (Palau Royal) the historical museum (Museu d’Historica), which houses subterranean Roman ruins, the palisades and entry to the Frederick Mares Museum) and a number of local churches.

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At least as interesting as these remnants and buildings, however, are the lovely narrow streets and the history that took place in the streets, the buildings and especially in the now tranquil squares. Many of these squares used to be church burial grounds until the city created a formal cemetery and removed many (albeit not all) of the remains. Some of them have gruesome histories. The square in front of the city gates, for example, used to be home to the city gallows. One nearby, the location of the stake at which “heritics” and other victims of the Inquisition were tortured and burned. Another retains the remnants of the bullet holes incurred when its wall was used to execute civil war prisoners and of the shrapnel from a bomb that revolutionaries through into the courtyard. This being said, other streets, walls and squares have more pleasant memories and current uses. Some, for example, have been featured in movies: one has a wall on which Picasso created a remembrance of a former king and queen. Another has been converted into the pretty and functional Santa Catalina Market

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The Ramblas

The Ramblas, a grand historic boulevard, was originally a dry riverbed lined with convents, monasteries and a university. The riverbed was eventually filled in to create a road to provide well-to-do residents of the Eixample district (see below) direct access to the port and beaches, has become a center of evening activity, with its restaurants, bars, opera and, in the center of the boulevard, the tree-lined medium houses all types of merchant stalls and street performers. There’s also plenty going on during the day, with the shops, the stalls and especially, the huge source for much of the city’s fresh food—the wonderful Boqueria market.

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And Ramblas and the squares and buildings that surround it also have their share of whimsy. One corner, for example, is marked by Miro mosaic. A corner building that used to house an umbrella maker has been graced with paintings and sculptures of umbrellas and an ornate Art Deco dragon (dragons are a common theme in a city of which Saint George (of Saint George and the Dragon fame) is the patron saint. The nearby Placa Real, meanwhile, is the site of a set of lampposts designed by the newly graduated architect, Antoni Gaudi as his first commission and the only public commission he ever received—one that paid the grand equivalent of 12 E. And the grandest demonstration of whimsy in the area: the neo-Gothic palace that Gaudi created for Spanish industrialist and primary Gaudi-patron,  Guell.

 

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The Port Area

As the Ramblas rambles southward to the port, it is lined by the grand Port and Aduano buildings—and at the street’s end, a 200 foot-tall monument to Columbus (who landed at this spot after discovering the Americas) pointing to the west.

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The port’s days as a terminus of ships of exploration, fishing boats and Mediterranean merchant ships, however, has long past. It is now the site of, among other things, a large touristy shopping center, a pleasure craft and sightseeing cruise harbor, a seafaring museum, a beach, a repurposed 1992 Olympic village and Barcelonetta, a working-class neighborhood that was created in 1753 to house the fisherman who had been displaced by the building of a large fortress.

El Born

More interesting than the port is the fascinating, ancient medieval community of El Born. Its narrow, winding streets and alleyways and its inviting squares have become magnets for hip, well-to-do millennials. The streets, alleys and squares are pocked with 14th and 15th-century mansion and loaded with upscale cafes, bars, boutiques and galleries. They also house a few significant museums, including the Picasso museum.

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Meanwhile, the local neighborhood mercato, under which has been discovered the remains of an early- 18th century neighborhood, with streets, foundations of buildings and a water systems, has been transformed into an historic archeological site and cultural center that traces the history of the areas during the War of Succession through which El Born was occupied by French-Spanish forces. The center, in addition to showing the ruins, explains the history of the neighborhood and how its occupation helped spur the ongoing push toward Catalonian independence.

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Eixample

Eixample is an upscale area that was created in the mid-1800s when the city walls were torn down (or built around and on top of) and the city began extending northward. It became home to a fashionable section in which the well-to-do merchant class built mansions just at a time when Art Nouveau architecture came into vogue and Antnoni Gaudi became one of the most fashionably architects in city.

The neighborhood, which effectively begins just north of Plaza Catalunya along Passeia de Garcia and its string of upscale sidewalk booksellers, became and remains an Art Nouveau showcase. A block-long stretch, the so-called “Illa de la Discordia” for its concentration of non-traditional Art Nouveaux buildings (including Gaudi masterpiece Casa Batilla and La Pedrera), and more recently, a few contemporary buildings that provide more modern interpretations of Nouveau-like curves.

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The discordant, or at least very non-traditional architecture extends northward though Eixample. Examples include the Hospital de la Santa Creu I de Sant Pau, An innovative 1902 hospital complex whose individual buildings incorporate a number of Art Nouveau flourishes (including sculptural turrets and broken ceramic and glass mosaic murals) and are separated by large landscaped lawns.

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Then there is the grand master of “discordant architecture: Gaudi’s end-of-life obsession: that grand, ongoing work-in-process called the Sagrada Familia—the still to be completed (101-years since work began) church that has become the emblem of the city and its most popular tourist destination. (Gaudi, his life, his architecture and his buildings are all discussed in detail in a forthcoming post entitled Gaudi’s Barcelona.)

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Montjuic Park

We just pierced the edges of this large, museum-filled mountain-top park to visit one museum dedicated to Joan Miro (Fundacio Joan Miro) and the series of fountains climbing from Placa d’Espanya. The museum, which provides an overview of the innovative surrealist artist, is discussed in our Barcelona Museums post. The fountains, while pretty all the time, comes alive at night with a display bathed in colored lights and choreographed to classical music. And since our dinner at Pakta (seeour post on Barcelona restaurants) was just a few blocks away, we willingly braved the rain for an extravaganza that, in our mind, surpassed the similar nighttime shows we have seen in Las Vegas and Dubai. While photos can barely suggest the lovely show, we will let our rain-soaked pictures speak for themselves.

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