For my study abroad group’s second “field trip,” we went to Montserrat – a mountain in Catalunya. Its name translates to “serrated mountain” because of the bizarre and unique structure of the cliffs. Although there is a lot to see in Montserrat, we only had time to tour portions of its famous monastery.
Before I studied in Barcelona, I knew very little (ok next to nothing…) about the region of which it is a part – Catalunya. So, here’s some very brief information: Spain is broken up into 17 autonomies communities, which are further broken up into provinces so Barcelona is a province in the larger autonomous community of Catalunya. The city of Tarragona is another province with some very important historical context to Catalunya.
There are certainly a number of known tourist attractions in Barcelona, but La Rambla is one of the highest on that list. The road cuts east to west, dividing El Barrio Gótico and El Raval. It offers souvenirs of every kind, from tiny cacti you can hang on your fridge to elaborate paintings and caricatures. There are also tapas bars galore and plenty of restaurant employees trying to reel in business.
The Gothic District itself also draws tourists because of its renown. I have spoken with several locals who say they avoid the easily-accessed areas of the neighborhood because the tourists are so prevalent and many are disrespectful. One local even said, “It’s difficult to find anything worthwhile along La Rambla anymore.”
I feel conflicted about this issue because, of course, tourists are bringing in millions of dollars in revenue to the city of Barcelona, but no one should feel like their home is being disrespected. I think that it’s a difficult balance for tourist destinations to achieve. I hope that the situation improves within the coming years, but I can only realistically see tourism continuing to increase in Barcelona.
A necessary facet of Barcelona’s layout as an urban area is the presence of public spaces. Because the Gothic Neighborhood has evolved through the ages, its squares and plazas are more limited than they are in the rest of the city; I think this makes them more important.
For example, the Plaza de Catalunya is a common meeting place for locals, but it doubles as a rallying point for protesters in times of unrest. During the 15 M movement in 2011, protesters set up camp in the Plaza and enlisted the assistance of most of the surrounding businesses.
Last week, on International Women’s Day (March 8), thousands of women and supporters marched from the University of Barcelona, past the Plaza and east toward the Mediterranean. I think they chose this path because it is the city center and it holds the most significance, but it also offers the most exposure for their cause. Many locals pass through this area on their way to other parts of the city, but all tourists make a point to stop by.
Barcelona was one of the cities that sustained the most damage during the bombings of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Instead of targeting military objectives, Mussolini’s air force chose large concentrations of civilians.
One famous example can still be found in the Gothic District, La Església de Sant Felip Neri. During the war, the church was used as a shelter for evacuated children. On Jan. 30, 1938, Franco’s troops dropped a bomb directly in front of the building, killing dozens of children. A second bomb exploded shortly after, increasing the death toll. Scarring from the bombs is still clearly visible on the church’s facade, and a plaque reads, “Here died 42 people – the majority children – due to the actions of Franco’s airforce on the 30th of January 1938.”
Like many other European cities, Barcelona’s old city is made up of narrow alleyways that never seem to take you where you think they will but eventually open into large squares.
In the Middle Ages, the city that was once Barcino expanded under King Jaume I. The Catalan Gothic style was developed and construction began on the Cathedral of Barcelona. Romanesque influences also appeared in the Gothic Neighborhood.
When the Romans conquered the northeastern part of Spain, around 15 A.D., they established a capital in Tarraco (modern day Tarragona), another major city in Caesaraugusta (modern day Zaragoza) and Barcino (modern day Barcelona). Although Barcino was not initially the most powerful, it quickly grew in importance. The Romanization of Spain was vital to the nation’s development as the first laws came from the Romans, and Spanish (and Catalan) are derived from Latin.
The city was in a strategic location between two rivers, the Llebregat and the Besós. It was protected from the northern winds by the Collserola Mountains and had contacts in the
Mediterranean – Greeks and Carthegenians. It was also built on a branch of the Via Augusta, one of the major roadways that ran through the Spanish Roman empire. Barcino was a walled city built in the shape of an “oppidum,”or elongated rectangle.
Based on artifacts uncovered from the era, it’s clear that the city thrived later in the Roman Empire. The first amphoras, or ceramic containers, were used to ship fish and other products from Barcino.
Today, all that remains of the ancient Roman city in Barcelona are three columns from the Temple of Augustus, a large temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus, and the archeological site of the Museu d’História de la Ciutat. The temple was built on Barcino’s highest point, Mount Táber at 16.9 meters.
Walking through El Barrio Gótico today, locals and visitors are reminded of Barcelona’s Roman history through street signs and Joan Brossa’s sculpture in the plaza of the Cathedral of Barcelona. A portion of the city’s arched aqueduct is also visible, along with small portions of the Roman walls.
Ruins are something I find extremely fascinating, and when I came to Spain I did not realize the country was founded on such a strong Roman base. Marks of the ancient community are everywhere, if you just take the time to look.