Somehow, in Barcelona, I lost a cathedral.
Admittedly I have no sense of direction (except in Hong Kong. For some reason I never get lost there.) I lack that bit of my brain. My children regularly ask me which way to go, then walk in the opposite direction.
Yet Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic, or Gothic Quarter, is not that large. And cathedrals have spires stretching to the sky, which should be able to be seen.
The cause of the problem is also the delight of the Barri Gòtic: small, winding alleyways, buildings which reach out to one another across the cobblestones, almost touching overhead. Ancient walls bulge out into the street, and the street signs I found weren’t of any help. Even in a large square (which I never found on the map) I found no reference to centre me, and so I did what I always do: I set off at random. Something was bound to turn up. Hopefully a cathedral.
We had started off the day exploring La Rambla, Barcelona’s – if not Spain’s – most famous street. Our hotel was almost at its start, where La Rambla runs from the Plaça de Catalunya to the towering statue of Columbus at Port Vell.
This tree-lined street is never quiet, and always changing. Many locals sit on the avenue and watch the pantomime of life pass by. A seasonal river once flowed here – indeed the name is derived from the Arabic for such a river bed – and by the 13th C the city wall followed its line. Time and commerce have filled in the watercourse, and now La Rambla is lined with grand mansions, and the street filled with markets, stalls, musicians, tourist, locals, police, tarot readers – whatever you can imagine, it will probably be there.
At its start near the Plaça de Catalunya is the Font de Canaletes, the fountain of water pipes. Like fountains the world over, this one comes with its own history and legends. Complete with lamp-post, this ornate fountain is the city’s most popular rendezvous spot, especially for Barça football fans, who have met here after matches since the 1930’s. The water is said to be the best in the city, and the inscription on the fountain runs:
Si beveu aigua de la font de Canaletes sempre més sereu uns enamorats de Barcelona. I per iluny que us n’aneu, tornareu sempre
If you drink water from the Font de Canaletes you will always love Barcelona. However far you go, you will always return
The flowers stalls along La Rambla are bright and beautiful, with blooms of all descriptions. Every type of seed was also for sale, including cannabis. We passed a bar – Hajans – packed with Australians watching a State of Origin match. I could hear them from the street.
Stone benches are everywhere for those who want a rest, or simply to watch the life of the street. Often the pavement itself becomes a section of mosaics, or patterned tiles. Further along La Rambla the Umbrella Shop. Perhaps it has a name, but it needs none, decorated as it is with umbrellas, and a dragon. The dragon renders it impossible to
Nearby are the Central Markets, one of the most amazing I’ve ever visited. Stall after stall selling fruit, fresh meat, vegetables, cheeses, salamis, fish, hams, spices, flowers, prepared meals; the smell along was intoxicating. Interspersed amongst it all were cafes and counters for the freshest meal possible.
Exhausted by the summer heat and the crowds, we sat at a bench simply watching it all, nibbling on tapas and drinking sangria. Not a bad way to pass the morning.
Halfway along La Rambla, the Carrer de Ferran cuts across to the Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter. This is where the Romans founded their new town, and it remains a delightful maze of alleys and grand buildings hidden around unexpected corners. Indeed, there is almost too much to see here, but simply taking in a few of the sights while wandering around is more than enough to step back into Mediaeval world.
Naturally, I got entirely lost – assisted, most probably, by the intense heat. Most of Europe, it seemed, sweltered under a heat wave, and for the last few days the temperature had been consistently over 40 C. It was at least a dry heat, not the humidity of a summer back home.
The streets in the Barri Gòtic are never quite straight, and many of the buildings bulge over the cobbles. In one place the walls date back to the 4th C. The place might look tiny on the map, but there is a lot packed into this area, such as the old Roman wall, or the Royal Palace where Isabel and Fernando received Columbus on his return from America. Beneath the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat, (a 14th century mansion), lie the streets and squares of Roman Barcelona – the largest subterranean Roman ruins in the world.
The Carrer Montcada is perhaps the most authentic medieval street in the city, with buildings crowded so close together their roofs almost touch across the street. Many boast a gargoyle or three, and at no. 22 is the renown cava bar, El Xampanyet.
Our way to manage in the soaring heat was to wander a bit, find a tapas bar and sit for a while with a plate of delectables and a glass of cava, wander a bit more, stop for a coffee and some water, and so repeat the cycle.
Eventually we stumbled upon Barcelona Cathedral, also called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulàlia. It proved one of the best cathedrals I saw on this this trip (which, being a cruise from Venice to Barcelona, encompassed a lot of grand architecture). Built on both the foundations of a Roman temple and the ruins of a Moorish mosque, the cathedral was begun in 1298 but not completed until 1913, when the central spire was finally finished. The roof is covered with gargoyles.
The single nave with its vaulting ceiling is a perfect example of Catalan-Gothic style. Over two dozen side chapels line the nave, complete with their own artworks. A stunning rood screen grabs your attention as you enter, for it is completely built from stone – statues, in fact. Behind it are carved wooden choir stalls, decorated with the coats of arms of the nights of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Beneath the altar are the remains of St. Eulàlia, martyred in the 4th C AD by the Romans.
What I loved most about Barcelona Cathedral were the cloisters. Complete with a fountain to cool the air, it is home to geese, a most unexpected sight (and sound) in a cathedral! The Well of the Geese (Font de les Oques) was completed in 1448. The geese number 13 in all, representing the age at which St. Eulàlia was martyred.
We wandered back with the fading day along La Rambla and so into the small streets by our hotel. A salad, a true seafood paella, pork sausage and beans, a crema catalane, washed down with a rosé – a perfect way to end the day. There is always tomorrow to explore the other half of La Rambla, and so onto the rest of Barcelona.
The Literary Traveller
What else to read in Spain, but Don Quixote?
Impossible to give a summary over a few lines (or a few pages), yet this remains a major work in the literary canon. Perfect for travelling, as it can be read as a collection of vignettes. And who are we, as modern readers, to question what is reality, or who is the more noble?