Barcelona VII: The Old City, called the “Barri Gòtic” or Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, the Barri Gòtic, was the center of the Roman city of Barcino and, subsequently, of medieval Barcelona; it’s still the site of several government buildings, including City Hall.  Once confined by city walls, its maze of narrow streets periodically open out onto secluded squares ringed with delightful cafes and boutiques.  Happily, much of the Barri Gòtic (“El Gòtic”) – an extensive area – is closed to regular traffic, making it a haven for pedestrians.  However, although several buildings date from medieval times, most of the Barri Gòtic was rebuilt in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when it underwent massive restoration projects for the 1888 Universal Exposition (international fair) and the 1929 International Exhibition.

We’ve seen some of the west edge of  El Gòtic when we did side excursions from La Rambla (post Barcelona V); we visited the Temple of Augustus, the church Santa Maria del Pi, and the plaza La Placa Reial.  In this post we will pretty much walk down the middle of El Gòtic, enjoying fanciful ironwork on its balconies, painted tiles, sgraffito and sculpted

wall decorations (examples above).

Starting from the elegant main Barcelona plaza (the Placa de Catalunya), we’re taking the road Portal de L’Angel into the heart of the El Gòtic, and the pictures shown above are from the early part of that road.  Our first stop is the cafe Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats, derived from a Catalan expression referring to people who are outsiders or a bit strange).   Time for some history!  Señor Pe Romeu had worked in a French cafe and decided to open one just like it in Barcelona.  He had 3 backers who were major modernist Spanish artists, among them the painter Ramon Casas.  In 1897 Els Quatre Gats opened in a modernist building designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch (you met him in the Barcelona I post).  The owners wanted the cafe to be known for its good and inexpensive food, but also for its “food of the spirit,” a place of music and ambiance where artists could meet to discuss their work or news of the day.  The cafe quickly became a popular haunt for artists (and architects, such as Gaudí).   It hosted performances, concerts, art exhibitions and literary gatherings.  The 17-year-old Pablo Picasso frequented the cafe and held his first solo exhibition in the main room.  So let’s see El Quatre Gats!  The exterior is pretty impressive, with Hobbit-like doors and windows and stone carvings everywhere.

Picasso himself made a poster advertising the cafe, shown below, and inside the cafe hangs a large painting of Ramon Casas and Pe Romeu on a bicycle (the painting by Casas).

Unfortunately Romeu was not a businessman, allowing tabs to go uncollected, and Els 4 Gats went out of business in 1903.  It wasn’t until 1978 that the famous cafe was again reopened to the public; shown below are pictures of the interior of the restaurant as seen today.

Further down we come to the plaza Placa Nova and two Roman towers flanking the main street, shown in the first picture below.  The towers once guarded the entrance gate to

Barcino.  Although much has been reconstructed, the big stones at the base are original.  Before going down that narrow street between the two Roman towers, if we were to look above the wall of buildings to the left of that first picture above, we would see the towering Barcelona Cathedral, shown below.   Let’s go see it!  Walking down that narrow street into the heart of El Gòtic, we pass underneath the attractive Carrer el Bisbe bridge that connects Catalan government buildings, shown below.  Although it looks old, it’s only from

the 1920’s.

The area where the Cathedral now stands has been a center of worship since the 300’s, but the Barcelona Cathedral (real name: Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulali) dates from the 1300’s.  The facade was added in the late 1800’s in Neo-Gothic style called

“French Flamboyant”.  It’s not the most impressive cathedral, but it does have some gorgeous medieval artwork.  We visited it in the evening, so lighting was a bit dim.  We entered directly into the cloister, which was completed in 1448.  Its courtyard is startling – rather than your manicured, mostly open formal-garden-like courtyard, this one is

practically a dense lush forest, with tall trees (including palm trees) and a fish pond/fountain that you can dimly see above.  Pictures of the cloister and some interesting doors are shown below.

It’s hard to capture the layout of the cathedral interior.  The vaulted ceiling covers 5 aisles, but the outermost two aisles are not passageways; they’re divided into 28 chapels.  Interestingly, these chapels function not only as places of worship but also as interior buttresses supporting the roof (note the absence of typical Gothic buttresses on the external walls in the picture of the Cathedral facade above).  Below are pictures of one of the aisles and a view back to the Cathedral entrance.  It does have a rough charm to it.

Views to the alter are shown below, with its 9 radiating chapels.

The decoration covering the point where ceiling vault ribs join is called a “boss”, and the bosses here are intricate and gorgeous, some examples shown below (they’re also hard to photograph with a hand-held camera, in dim light, upside down!).

The ornately carved choir is impressive, with the choir stalls retaining the coats-of-arms of Charles V’s knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, from 1519.  The nearby organ (1538)

and other details are pretty spiffy.

Now to the good stuff, the art in the many chapels.  There are 28 chapels, so I’m not going to show you all of them!  Besides, many of these chapels feature very large, busy, gilded, ornately carved alterpieces, such as that shown to the left.  They’re not my favorite; over-the-top exuberance can just be too much.  I prefer the old medieval paintings, with their fledgling relearning of perspective, patterned gold, beatific faces, and gorgeously painted vestments.  I hope you like them too, because I’m going to show a bunch of them!

Below are pictures decorating the Alterpiece of St. Gabriel the Archangel, painted in 1390.

I love the general lack of perspective, which wasn’t introduced in medieval painting for another couple of decades.  And Christ ascending into heaven in the next-to-last picture – there go his feet!  Another impressive alterpiece is The Alterpiece of Bartholomew and St. Elisabeth, from 1401, shown below.

I think it’s beautiful, as is the Alterpiece of the Transformation of San Benito from about 1450, below, that the Cathedral considers one of its more important Gothic pieces.  The

artist is Bernat Martorell, who did some really cool stuff (eg, see his painting “Saint George Killing the Dragon”, at the Art Institute of Chicago, at this link:

Another impressive alterpiece is The Alterpiece of St. Clair and St. Catherine, from about 1456, shown below.

Increasingly sophisticated technique is shown in The Visitation, showing St. Luke and St.

Sebastian, painted around 1470.  Lastly I’ll show the Alterpiece of St. Sebastian and St. Tecla, from around 1490.  The paintings are great, as shown below.  It’s always a treat to see art in the space for which it was designed.

OK!  We’re done with alterpieces!  Hope you enjoyed them.  The Cathedral is a veritable museum.

Below are a few more treasures to show off: a chapel with some gorgeous frescos, a baptismal from 1433, and a stained glass window, small and high up, from 1495, – and I think impressive for its time.

We’ll end our visit to Barcelona’s Cathedral with a view of the facade at night.  And with all that walking, how about a tapa or two?

At the start of this post I mentioned that the Barri Gòtic was the center of the Roman city Barcino, so you might guess there are Roman ruins here.  Yep, and they’re pretty cool.  In an earlier post you saw the ruins of the Temple d’August (Barcelona V: La Rambla).  Well, there’s a lot more, thanks to a city renovation that relocated a 1400’s gothic palace to a plaza near the Cathedral, the Placa del Rei, where ruins from a large section of Barcino were discovered underground.  The museum (Museu D’Historia de Barcelona) is centered on the Palau Reial Major (the Grand Royal Palace, shown below) that consists of 3 edifices from 1302, 1360, and 1549.  The picture on the right is the Palace’s main hall, built in 1360, the arches founded over vaults from the 11th century (which were built over a

monumental structure dating from the Visgoths’ rule [5th to 8th century]).  Interesting in its own right, over time the Palace was the residence of the counts of Barcelona, the Kings of Aragon, site of the Inquistion, and the royal administration.

Just for overview, I’ll start with representations of Barcino, shown below.  The excavated

ruins beneath the Placa del Rei date from the 1st to the 6th century and include an extensive area of workshops and an “episcopal ensemble”, the bishop’s residence and other buildings devoted to Christian worship (me – showing a remarkable transformation from paganism to Christianity within 200 years).  We’ll visit a piece of the city wall, ruins of a laundry and a dyeing workshop, a factory for salting fish and making fish sauces like garum, an important wine business, and some of the episcopal ensemble.

We’ll start with the inside face of the city wall, from 15-10 BC; originally 26 feet high, what we’re dealing with here are short sections and foundations, but they are the unaltered real

deal.  The last picture above shows the interior of one of the 78 towers that was built on the outside of the wall; notice the extensive use of recycled material.

Although we’re seeing just short walls and foundations, they’re still pretty revealing, as you’ll see subsequently.   The picture here shows a wall, a door, and a sewer.

The workers’ homes and shops opened to a street, as shown below in the schematic  visualizations.  In the last picture, the street had a portico for pedestrians and led from

the city wall to the forum.  The stone structure in the front is a sewer, reformed in the 3oo’s.

The following workshops are essentially small factories!  We’ll start with the laundry and dye shops from the early 100’s.  The drains and vats contained preserved colorants, lime

and starch for bleaching and sizing, and ashes and ammonia for detergents.  Note: the Romans were not acquainted with soap, and used instead different kinds of alkali.  The most common ingredient was the urine of men and animals, mixed with the water in which the clothes were washed.  The urine was typically supplied by vessels placed at the corners of streets, filled by passers-by.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

Nearby was a factory from the 200’s for salting fish and making fish sauces like garum.  Garum in particular was very popular in Roman times, made by macerating fish offal in

salt, sometimes adding anchovies, oysters, or other shellfish.  We mentioned it before in a (much) earlier post (Malaga, Costa del Sol).

Most impressive is an extensive wine-making facility, used from around 250 AD into the 300’s.  There were several vats for settling and pressing the grapes, transfer ducts for the

must (using gravity flow), and vats for fermentation of the must.  Subsequently the wine was processed and aged within dolia in the cellar, where honey and sea salt were added.

The two smaller vessels embedded in the floor in the pictures above were used to hold the honey and salt.

Also preserved in this Roman area is part of the peristylum (porticoed garden) of an important Roman house – probably the proprietor of the winery and garum factory.

The house is important because in the AD 300’s its owner gave part of his property to the emerging church, making it possible to build a basilica and baptistry in 343 AD.  In the AD 400’s with the increasing power of the bishops, an episcopal palace and hall were built (the city had been conquered by the Visigoths, but they tolerated the practice of Catholicism).  In the 500’s a cruciform church was built within the “episcopal ensemble”,

leading eventually to today’s Cathedral.

Some of the Roman art found in these ruins is impressive for this part of the woods.

Finally I’ll end this oh-so-long post with a walk through El Gòtic just looking at the interesting art on the buildings and the small medieval streets.  It’s an interesting area of this city, and I hope you enjoyed it!

Next post – Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital of the Holy Cross and of Saint Paul), designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner and considered to be one of the best Art Nouveau complexes in the world.  You’ll be impressed.