Barcelona is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. This gem of Catalonia is full of incredible sights, art, shopping, and restaurants. But it’s the spirit and friendliness of the Catalonian people that truly warms this city. Barcelona has been on my list of places for so long (I have a very long list). I was not disappointed! Between the many, many museums, the Gaudi and Art Nouveau architecture, and the stunning Gothic quarter, I couldn’t wait to explore. (More on the museums and Gaudi to come in later posts)
We decided to stay at the Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona. It was the perfect choice! This 120 room oasis opened in 2009. Entering the hotel is very dramatic; a long, illuminated ramp through an atrium brings you to the 2nd floor lobby. The contrast of the white building with the dark, black floors makes for a very dramatic, cool entrance. The lobby itself is very elegant and airy with geometrically designed panels decorating the walls. But my favorite thing about the lobby was the sweet amber smell that welcomed guests. I loved it so much I purchased the scent in the spa.
The Mandarin features many incredible amenities including a 10,000-sq. ft. spa, a roof top pool and bar with unbelievable views, an incredible restaurant and a unique pop up bar. The restaurants are run by Spanish chef Carme Ruscadella, the only female 7 star Michelin chef in the world. Needless to say, the food is to die for! Several times during the year, the hotel invites a unique bar (from around the world) to replicate their establishment in the hotel. During our visit, a New York City bar, Employees Only, had recreated their downtown speakeasy; a secret door allowed access to this cool, downtown bar serviced by the NY bartenders. We were happy to have a bit of home in our hotel!
Perhaps the best thing about the Mandarin is its prime location! The hotel sits on the Passeig de Gracia, one of the most fashionable, major avenues of Barcelona. The street exudes the same vibe as the Champs Elyssee in Paris (which it was loosely based on!) From the hotel, it was a five-minutes’ walk to so many major sites: Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter, and Placa de Catalunya. Our room had a view of Gaudi’s Casa Batallo. In the early days of Barcelona, this street was called Cami de Jesus (Jesus Road). In 1824, the avenue was widened and became the spot “to be seen” by aristocrats strolling or on horseback. This continued into the 19th century when Pere Falqués i Urpí added the ornate benches and streetlights. Passeig de Gracia is lined by the most incredible architecture created by the modernists during the art nouveau period; Antoni Gaudi and Lluis Domenech i Montaner left their mark on this street.
During the 19th century Barcelona underwent a massive expansion. The city began in the 1st century as a Roman colony for retired army personal. This colony occupied what is known today as the Gothic quarter. The city grew as time went on but it was during the 19th century that Barcelona became what it is today. Ildefons Cerda was tasked with the 19th century expansion called L’Eixample: the area between the old city and what were small surrounding towns. He created a plan for the “new” part of the city with streets laid out like a grid, a sewage system and many parks. One of the most famous street, Las Ramblas, was actually located outside of the city until the 14th century. Las Ramblas started out as a stream that was eventually diverted to become a street. The main promenade begins by the water with the Christopher Columbus column ending in Placa de Cataluyna. Today this beautiful tree-lined pedestrian promenade forms the eastern barrier of the Gothic quarter and offers a great spot to eat, drink and people watch!
Wandering through the Gothic Quarter (or Barri Gotic) feels like stepping back in time to medieval Barcelona. I loved these narrow winding streets. The Gothic Quarter sits on the site of the original Roman colony called Barcino. While retired Roman soldiers settled the colony, it became an important center of trade and commerce due to its location on the water. There are so many incredible things to see in this section of the city especially if you love medieval art and architecture like I do!
The Gothic Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia or “La Seu” is a must see and a great way to start any visit to this area. While approaching the Cathedral in the Placa de la Seu make sure to glance at the cool Picasso frieze sitting atop the modern School of Architecture building. This graffiti like frieze is called The Three Friezes of the Mediterranean Sea. I am always amazed when I travel to places and see the juxtaposition of modern and old works proving how deep and rich the 2000 years of history in Cataluyna is!
The Cathedral is an imposing and impressive building. Started in 1298, it took 600 years to complete. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona. The neo-Gothic façade, however, was completed in the late 19th century; prior to that the façade was plain and simple. The façade today features Christ watching over the entrance while the 12 apostles flank the door. There are 75 figures and 8 stained glass windows that were created from the Renaissance to Modernist times. Its stunning! A statue of Saint Helen sits atop the dome of the Cathedral for two reasons. She is the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great who found the True Cross of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. The Church is dedicated to the Cross. The patrons of the façade, the Girona Family, were also followers of Saint Helena.
The Cathedral is also named for Saint Eulalia, the co-patron Saint of Barcelona. Eulalia lived during Roman times. It is believed that she was a virgin martyred by the Romans. She was exposed naked in the square in late spring but a miraculous snowfall fell and covered her. The cloister in the Cathedral also pays homage to her. There are 13 white geese kept in the cloister representing the age she was martyred; she is buried in the crypt below the main altar. The Cathedral is known for these geese as well as the gargoyles and animals that adorn the outside.
The interior of the Cathedral features chapels and statues honoring 140 saints. The wooden choir stalls are one of the most fabulous part of the interior. Carved on the stalls is the crest of the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order dating back to 1430 when Philip the Good of Burgundy married Portuguese Princess Isabella. Today, King Felipe VI of Spain is the grand master.
After exiting the Cathedral on a small side street, we wandered down the narrow streets into the Placa de Sant Felip Neri. This square today houses a school, a church and a hotel. But it is also a monument to an event during Franco’s Spanish War. In 1938, a convent resided here. At that time, it was being used to house evacuated kids due to the war. On January 30, Franco’s air force dropped a bomb in the square killing 30 of the children. During the rescue process a second bomb was dropped killing a total of 42 people. A bronze plaque indicates the event. It’s fascinating to see the bullet holes on the exterior church wall that still exist today as a reminder of this tragedy.
From this square, we continued walking as if we were the medieval inhabitants of Barcelona. Our next stop was a hidden gem on Paradis Street behind the Cathedral. The Roman Temple of Augustus, which dates to the 1st century, sits within a medieval building’s courtyard. The four remaining columns were part of a temple building that would have had 6 columns in its front. The building stood in what would have been Barcelona’s forum. It’s incredible how the columns were incorporated into the medieval architecture.
Leaving the Roman Temple, we wandered into the Placa del Rei (King’s Square) which was once the center of noble life in Barcelona. The City History Museum is located here in what was the Royal Palace from the 13th to the 15th century. The building is a gorgeous example of Gothic architecture and an equally peaceful square. We took a quick peak inside to the 14th century Royal Chapel of Saint Agatha- a stunning chapel with an incredible altarpiece. One interesting fact about this building: it is believed that when Christopher Columbus returned from discovering the New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received him here.
We continued to meander thru the narrow streets heading closer to the water when we decided to visit the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Sea). Located in La Ribera district (the shore), this Basilica was built from 1329-1383. This area was home to ship builders, merchants, nobles, fisherman, artisans, and wealthy merchants. As the district grew and the kingdom’s maritime and commerce rose to prominence, the church was conceived. The merchants paid to have Santa Maria del Mar built. They used stone from the mountain of Montjuic (which sits above the city) and created this amazing example of Catalan Gothic architecture. Tragedy struck on July 19, 1936. During an anticlerical movement, the Basilica was set on fire and burned for 11 days. Most of the interior was destroyed with the exception of several columns and the stained glass (as the fire didn’t reach that high). The outside of the church feels very heavy but the inside has a much lighter, airy feel.
A few blocks past the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, we saw what was one of the most unexpected things of the day. Walking to the edge of the Gothic Quarter we came upon an open space in front of the Born Center of Culture. The building originally served as a market. Today, it is an exhibition space of excavated city ruins from the 1700s. I was enthralled! A little background history first. During the War of Spanish Succession, the Archduke Charles of Austria and Philip V of Spain battled for the Spanish crown. The Catalans supported Charles in the fight. Philip and the Bourbon forces laid siege to Barcelona from 1713-1714. On September 11, 1714, the Catalans surrendered and lost their independence. Even today, September 11th is known and celebrated as the National Day of Catalonia
After the conquest, Philip decided to build a military citadel. In between the town and the citadel, however, he wanted open space. So, he ordered the people living in this area of the Ribera district to not only leave their homes but to destroy them before they left. The Born Center for Culture excavation exhibits the actually streets, a tiny bridge, and the bottom floors of some of these homes. Before entering the center, look down; the tile laid on the ground creates outlines of even more of the buildings that were destroyed. The archaeology lover in me was in heaven!
My four days in Barcelona were spectacular. I wish that I had a few more days to explore this amazing city. The Gothic Quarter is one of the most beautiful medieval areas in the world. The mix of medieval history and architecture combined with the beauty of the Art Nouveau/Modernist architecture make Barcelona one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A must visit for any art and history lover!!