Barcelona is one of those places that effortlessly blend gothic cathedrals and rich cultural life with vanguard architecture of high-tech office buildings, convenient subway transportation and enticing boutiques of every posh brand on Earth, maintaining the vibrant atmosphere of a modern and youthful European city.
But plunge deeper into the old part of the city to find yourself under the heavy weight of ages and stories from the glorious Roman Empire and dark Middle Ages when Barcelona was quite different from the cosmopolitan megalopolis it is now.
Although the place was inhabited since at least 4000BC the story of Barcino (so the city was called then) began with the arrival of Romans who raised here one of their colonies. Roman cities were built from the highest point of the premise so it is easy to find out where Barcelona began – down the Paradis street in front of the building number 10 a circle clearly marks this spot on the ground.
Just around the corner stood the Temple of Emperor Augustus who reigned over Rome when Barcino was founded. It is easy to keep the history of city in perspective since Augustus lived at the same time as Christ, exactly when the modern calendar starts. Today not much left from the temple but enter the gates at the Paradis 10, walk down the corridor and look to right to see tall columns that give a pretty good idea of how splendid the venue was.
Why are the columns of the temple inside the building? Before people did not care that much about history so when a building fell another was built on top. So now there are two important monuments at the same place – Paradis 10 is an example of a typical medieval house.
It starts with an arched gate large enough for carriages fit. Servants unloaded the goods and put them to the rooms on the right. They lived on the same floor to attend to their duties quickly. The landlords lived on the second floor and the third one was reserved for guests.
To learn more about old Barcelona go to the Museum Of The History Of Catalonia which apart from a deep dive into the battles and intrigues of this period offers the remnants of the Roman city on the underground level.
Walk to the La Piedad street to find majestic Cathedral of Barcelona. It’s construction started around 13th century and lasted for over 200 years so the building gracefully mixes elements of Gothic, Renaissance and other styles at the same time. The exterior of the cathedral often had material as well as spiritual function like the famous gargoyles meant to gather rainwater and to scare away bad spirits.
The precious wooden masterpiece La Piedad dated as early as 15th century is outside the entrance. As you can imagine it is a reproduction, the original would not have lasted here for long. It is a sad fact that hardly anywhere in Europe can you find original old architecture. For centuries European nations waged wars destroying, rebuilding and again destroying their cities. Lately they have been using bombs leaving the continent mostly in ruins so that important historic monuments had to be carefully reproduced, often from scratch. So walking through romantic streets of Barcelona or Paris remember that they are as different from their old selves as a good historic movie is different from the real life in that period.
Speaking of good movies, many of them were filmed in Barcelona, as was The Perfume: The Story Of The Murderer. Although the original story of the pic develops in old Paris the movie itself was filmed in Barcelona. Placa de Sant Felip Neri where the main action of the movie unfolds is just a couple of minutes from the La Piedad street.
Some dramatic events took place here not only in movies but in the real life as well. During Franco’s bombing of Barcelona in 1938 more then 150 people were killed here while hiding. The scars of this atrocity can still be seen on the walls of the cathedral that carry marks where pieces of bombs hit. It was also Placa de Sant Felip Neri where in 1926 Gaudi was walking to only to be mortally hit by a passing tram.
Next to the square is the entrance to the Jewish quarter. Today it is a regular place like any other in the city, however it was the sight of the Jewish ghetto until 14th century when raging crowds massacred all local Jews.
Here don’t miss Caj Chai, an excellent tea house with a selection of teas from every part of the world, from Japan to Latin America.
The oldest Synagogue in Europe is right here, it is worth passing by if only to hear an exciting story of how the place was lost for several centuries and then rediscovered just as it was about to be converted into a bar.
After the passage through the Middle Ages it is time for something more cheerful. Head to the Drassanes port and stroll to Barcelonetta enjoying the site of yachts, listening to the cries of seagulls and wondering how many different faces the city of Barcelona has.