Barcelona celebrated its true golden age during the Gothic period in the 1200s through 1400s, though it went through a silver age during the modernista period of the 1800s. When the city grew during those years, the streets spilled over the Roman walls (traces of which still exist), streets running like streams of water down to the port and back into Las Ramblas, through areas like Ronda Sant Pere and Calle Rec Comtal, then looping back around to the sea. Unfortunately, most of these old byways are long gone. But the buildings that once lined them often remain, making up the most complete Gothic quarter in Europe. You’ll find Gothic architectural treasures housing government offices, churches, and guild houses. Even the main cathedral of Barcelona is one of these Gothic treasures.
The guild houses are among the most interesting sights of the Barri Gotic. They preceded trade unions and filled the same place in society, and Barcelona was largely built around guilds. You can still see guild shields on buildings in the area which denoted trade headquarters. Street names like Escudellers (meaning “shield makers”) still preserve their memories. In El Call, the ancient Jewish ghetto, you can see a small plaque memorializing the sacking of the Jews by Christians in the 1400s. The Ajuntament and the Generalitat are contained in the Placa Sant Jaume, where the center of Catalan politics was historically located. And the the Placa del Rei’s medieval palace is where Columbus went upon his return from the New World. Small squares like the Placa Felip Neri, with a lovely center fountain, and the square before the Frederic Mares Museum mark the particular character to the Barri Gotic.
Most places like this are found only if you walk through the Barri, and the best time to walk here is at sunset, when the stone buildings are lit warmly in tones reminiscent of the old masters of art. At dusk, street musicians vie for space along the streets.
While you’re visiting the Barri Gothic, check out the little stores, from espadrille makers to designer boutiques, and try one of the many cafes along the street.
Places to Go
The Mirador de Colon is a famed monument to the great explorer, erected at the Barcelona Harbor during the Universal Exhibition of 1888. It is in three parts, the first a circular structure atop four stairways and eight heraldic lions; the second the column’s base, and the third the Corinthian column itself. At the top of the column is a 25-foot statue of Columbus pointing to the new world. You can take a tiny elevator to the mirador, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of Barcelona and its harbor.
The Catedral de Barcelona is not to be missed. It’s a fine example of Catalan Gothic architecture, spires visible from most of the Barri Gotic. Its square, the Placa de la Seu, is one of the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood. The site has always been the center of Barcelona religion, once a Roman temple and later a mosque, with the cathedral built in the 13th through 15th centuries, with the west facade dating only from the 19th cedntury. The illuminated nave has excellent Gothic details, and the bell towers blend medieval and Renaissance styles together. The Catedral de Barcelona is one of the most impressive cathedrals in Spain. In the chapel of Sant Benet, you’ll find a cloister of vaulted galleries with forged iron grilles, and orange, medlar, and palm trees grow around its mossy central pond and fountain. Beneath the stone floor, many of the most important historical figures of Barcelona are buried. On the north, you’ll find a museum around the 15th century La Pietat of Bartolome Bermejo, and in another area the alabaster sarcophagus of Saint Eulalia,who was burnt at the stake by a Roman governor for refusing to renounce Christianity. On Sunday at noon, the Sardana, a Catalan folk dance, is performed before the cathedral, and if you’re not careful you’ll be pulled in for the fun.
The church La Merce, named for the city’s patron saint Our Lady of Mercy, is the home of a statue of the lady herself, where she stands out plain against the city’s skyline. La Merce is revered for diverting a plague of locusts, and her feast on September 24 is one of the main fiestas of the city.
Where To Eat
In a little alley near the Placa Reial you’ll find the Agut d’Avignon, with a following of politicians, writers, financiers, artists, and even visiting dignitaries like the king and cabinet ministers. A small 19th century vestibule greets you, opening to the main hall of the dining area, which is reminiscent of a hunting lodge. Don’t be afraid to ask for translations of the menu — they’re in Catalan and sometimes hard to figure out. Whatever you get, you won’t be disappointed.
At Bliss, you can have a light lunch, or enjoy coffee on the terrace on nice days; alternately, you can sink into a plush chair inside the cafe to drink hot coffee and read the magazines placed here for patron’s enjoyment.
For an experience, try El Cafe de l’Academia. Its dark interior and old stone walls set off cozy booths and hearty Catalan dishes. If you really want something different, ask for seating in the wine cellar. Or sit on the outdoor terrace during summer and watch the happenings in the medieval square fronting it.
Where to Stay
Near the Catedral de Barcelona is the Colon, an elegant old-world hotel with marble and chandeliers. Classic rooms are brightened by the use of bright colors, and many have balconies with a fine view of the cathedral. There’s a little cafe on the terrace.
A smaller, cozier hotel is the Hotel Raco del Pi, very new and in an ideal location for sightseeing. It’s in an atmospheric older building that was fully renovated for modern comfort, and its wood-beamed ceilings and tall windows will charm you.