One of the best ways to see a city is to walk it. You can wander down that alley that looks interesting, stop into a store that sells unique items, or just grab a seat on a bench and people watch. An even better way to see a city is to take a guided walking tour of it. Not only do you get to see the sights, you usually explore areas that you would not have made it to otherwise, and you often get a historical context to associate with it. With limited time in Barcelona, we knew we wanted to try out a walking tour, and I am so glad that we did.
During planning, a friend of our recommended the Sandeman's walking tour. They are probably one of the best known free walking tour companies in Europe with tours in most major cities. We did not book ahead of time, not thinking it would be much of an issue. But we were definitely wrong. After nearly running from the train station to the meeting point on Sunday, we were informed by the very nice representative that the tour had just left, and was already overbooked. Bummer. This was to be the first thing we did in Barcelona after arriving and dealing with travel issue, so I was definitely upset. Alas, we had tapas and cold drinks, and internet to do some googling.
And that is how I found that there are a whole host of other walking tours in Barcelona. We opted for the Gothic Quarter, also known as El Barri Gotic, tour offered by Runner Bean Tours. I have to say, we were pretty impressed. They cap their tours at 20 people, which meant the group wasn't too big. We met our guide a couple hours later, right by our hotel at Placa Reial. He is from the island of Mallorca, home of famous tennis player Rafael Nadal, but now lives in Barcelona, so he is very familiar with Catalan history and the history of Barcelona.
The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona was, hands down, one of the most interesting neighborhoods that I have ever seen. Buildings 3, 4, or more, stories tall are built one on top of another, and seem to close in over the alleys in between, giving a slightly tunneled appearance to the neighborhood. It's easy to wander from side street to side street, emerge into squares in front of churches, and then pop back into an alley and discover little bars and cafes.
Once the group was assembled, we started with a brief history of Barcelona (it was founded by the Romans!) and our guide pointed out the two Gaudi light posts in the square. There were supposed to be 4, but the city of Barcelona only paid him the equivalent of 150€. In protest, he only made two and never again contracted his services to the city of Barcelona.
Our first stop was Placa del Pi, a small square in front of Maria del Pi church. Here. our guide pointed out the second largest rose window in the world (the largest is in Notre Dame in Paris), and the ornate facade of the building opposite. These facades are constructed by first applying a base layer of masonry (pinkish-red in this picture), and then a contrasting color over top. Before the top layer dries, it is carefully carved away to reveal the design. The more complicated the design, the richer the home owner. This owner who had this one done, which is the oldest in Barcelona, was very rich.
The tour than continued to the old Jewish quarter. While Jewish quarters don't exist in much of Europe any more, almost every city has a historical Jewish quarter. In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Barcelona. According to some estimates, over 200,000 Jews were expelled from their homes. They were allowed to take their possessions, but no gold, silver, or money. After they were expelled, the Jewish cemeteries were raided. The tombstones were used as building material and even today, these tombstones can be seen in some of the buildings.
Our next stop was Placa Sant Jaume, where we learned the legend of the Catalan flag and about Wilfred the Hairy. After a bloody battle, Wilfred was given a copper shield. He then took his bloodied hand, and dragged it across the shield creating 4 lines of red blood on copper. Today, the flag of Catalonia is four red stripes on a yellow background.
Right next to Placa Sant Jaume, is the cloister of the Cathedral of Barcelona (not to be confused with Sagrada Familia). The Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalie of Barcelona, who was tortured, and eventually killed, by the Romans at 13 years old. The story has that she endure 13 different tortures (one for each year of her life), including being placed in a barrel full of nails and knives and rolled up and down a street known today as Baixada de Santa Eulalia. She was eventually being decapitated, and upon her death, a white dove is said to have flown from her body. Today, there are 13 white geese kept in the Cloister of the cathedral to commemorate her and her martyrdom. One note, they do have,and enforce, a strict policy of no hats, no bare shoulders, and shorts and skirts must be of a proper length for women. If you want to see the cloister, be sure to dress appropriately or else you will be turned away. We watched it happen to many people while we were there.
After our visit to the cloister, we headed to Placa Sant Felip Neri. Here is another church, hidden away in the Gothic quarter. This is a smaller church, but bears a startling reminder of the brutal civil war that gripped Spain in the 1930s. A bomb was dropped on this square, causing a lot of damage. Hours later, when civilians were busy cleaning up the debris, a second bomb was dropped, killing 42 people, most of whom were children that had sought refuge in the bomb shelter below the church. The church and neighboring buildings still bear the scars of the bombing, a stark reminder of just how brutal the Spanish Civil War was.
It is here that we learned the reason for small squares in front of all the churches we had seen. When Barcelona was still small, the cemeteries used to be directly out in front of the church. As time passed, the number of dead needing to be buried grew, and the space available in which to bury them decreased. Eventually, all the remains were relocated outside of the city, leaving behind the small squares that can be seen today.
As the tour continued, a portion of the old Roman wall was pointed out to us. It no longer forms a continuous wall, but has been absorbed into the buildings of the neighborhood. It is not uncommon to find that buildings have not only been built immediately adjacent to the old walls, but also right on top of them. How cool would it be to say that you live on an ancient Roman wall?!
We then stepped into the Placa del Rei, where the kings of and queens of Barcelona used to live.
The tour concludes at the Santa Maria del Mar, another large church in Barcelona. We stepped inside for a few minutes to check it out and rest our feet and found it beautiful. The architecture of churches in Barcelona is very different from those found in Germany. The stone is often left natural and bare, sometimes remnants of old paint can be seen, but they more or less seem to have been left to nature. The buildings are structurally sound, but extensive restoration work is not necessarily seen.
After we finished our walking tour, we had some time to explore on our own. All over the city were street vendors selling various wares. Most commonly seen were old pop (soda) cans that had been carefully cut and bent into ash trays. Had either of us been a smoker, one of these would have been cool to pick up, but alas, neither of us smoke.
That night, we headed to the Magic Fountain of Montjuic on the other side of the city to watch the show. The main fountain is pretty big, and TONS of people turn out for it. During the summer months, there are performances every half hour from 9:00 - 11:00 at night, Thursday - Sunday, meaning it is easy to see. Each performance is loosely set to music and includes colored lighting of the fountain. It's pretty cool and definitely worth a stop if you're in Barcelona.
If you're looking for a guided walking tour of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, check out Runner Bean Tours. They offer many different free walking tours and booking online is super easy (and they're fast with their response times -within minutes!). The guides are knowledgeable, funny, and incredibly friendly. The tour was offered in English, but I think it is offered in other languages as well. To be sure though, check their website.
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