Gothic Quarter, Barcelona – Myths and Legends

Today we’re going to talk about a short tour around the Gothic Quarter based on myths and legends of Barcelona.

We’ll start off with the remains of the four Roman columns (three are from the original temple) which are in the building that houses the headquarters of the CEC (Catalan Excursionist Centre), located in a small street, Carrer Paradís, which joins Plaça Sant Jaume and Carrer de la Pietat. These columns, remains of the ancient Temple of Augustus, are found at the highest point of the city (16.9 m) on Mont Tàber, which is where the Roman city was established. These remains, and many others which have been found around Barcelona, help us learn about our earliest origins after the Íbers.

Gothic Quarter, BarcelonaIn order to prevent Barcelona from having such ‘banal’ origins, over the years several legends have appeared which have endowed Barcelona with a more original history.

On the one hand, it is said that the city is of Greek origin and that it was founded by Hercules. On one of his numerous journeys, nine ships became separated, of which eight managed to group back together and they set off to search for the ninth ship, which they eventually found moored at the bottom of the hill of Montjuïc. The members of the crew fell in love with the area, so they decided to found the city which they named Barca (boat) Nona (ninth), Barcanona. It is also said that Hercules met a beautiful girl, Pyrene, with whom he madly fell in love. However, they were unable to share their love for more than two months because their journeys prevented them from staying together any longer. And this where the name ‘Pyrenees’ comes from.

On the other hand, the city’s origin was attributed to the Carthaginians, to Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father. He arrived in this area and founded the city, then gave it his surname, Barca.

At an etymological level the theories of these origins are totally acceptable, although they lack historical or archaeological grounds.

Gothic Quarter, Barcelona

Carrer Hercules is the street that takes us to Plaça Sant Just, a quiet square with a great deal of history to tell. There we find a Gothic water fountain, which dates back to the 14th century; legend says that it was created by Joan Fiveller, who was hunting in the forests of Collserola when he came across a spring whose water he channelled to where the fountain is today, near his palace, and which still works today. It was the first important public fountain in the city and it is the oldest one in Barcelona. At the top of one of the sides, it is possible to make out a falcon catching a partridge in honour of its creator and his hunts.

Situated in the same square is the Church of Sant Just i Pastor, a Gothic church dedicated to two boys, Justus and Pastor, who are venerated as Christian martyrs. Some authors affirm that the myth of the two martyrs is the conversion to Christianity of two brothers, Cástor y Pólux. On the other hand, it is said that the church was built on an ancient temple for a religious cult that worshipped Mithras. Mithraism was a mystery religion of an initiative kind that was popular during the Roman Empire. Inside, there are some valuable Byzantine-style fonts of blessed water that come from an ancient Visigoth chapel that once existed in the place. It is interesting to note that until 1995, the church maintained a curious privilege for the citizens of Barcelona: anyone in danger of death could make their will before another person who would then go to the church and, in front of the altar, could state under oath what the dying person had said, and it was considered to be a legal Last Will.

Gothic Quarter, Barcelona

And finally, Palau Moxó, the palace of the Marquises of Sant Mori from the 18th century, which stands out for its floral decoration on the façade.

It is said that under the square there is an underground river, which lets you feel the heat it gives off and fills you with renewed energy.

If we take a walk around the narrow streets of the Call, the old Jewish Quarter during the Mediaevel period, we’ll see that the streets conserve their original narrow and haphazard structures. Nestled among the streets is the Sinagoga Major (Main Synagogue), which is said to be the oldest in Europe. On the right of the door lintel we can see a hole, Mezuzah, which identifies a Jewish home and reminds us that we need to remember to pray when we enter or exit a home. For many years, this district was where Jews lived during the Middle Ages. The protagonists of a great number of injustices, in Barcelona they were also victims of expulsions and assassinations. When the district was dismantled, the stones from the houses and cemeteries were used for other buildings, which is why in some areas of the Gothic quarter (for example, Carrer dels Comtes) we can see walls with inscriptions written in Hebrew.

Before reaching the Plaça del Rei (King’s Square) we pass under the Pont del Bisbe (Bishop’s Bridge). A bridge of a Neo-Gothic style that joins the Palau de la Generalitat with the Casa dels Canonges (House of the Canons). Another more recent legend is that if we look at the skull located right in the centre, under the bottom of the bridge, it will bring us bad luck. We will explain how to rid ourselves of this curse later on. 😉

Gothic Quarter, Barcelona

We’ve arrived at the Plaça del Rei. This square was where the Palau Reial Major (Grand Royal Palace) stood. It was the residence of the Counts of Barcelona, where the Saló del Tinell (Tinell Hall) is found. In the same square, on the right, we find the Chapel of Santa Àgata and on the left, the Palau del Lloctinent (Deputy’s Palace), historical buildings that date back to the 14th century.

For many years the square was used as a marketplace until the king suddenly got tired and decided that the market would no longer be held in the area due to the daily hullabaloo that prevented him from sleeping. The executioner lived in the same square. His job was very hard and no one wanted to exercise the profession. For a long time, a small bag containing money was left in a corner next to the tools needed for the execution and a volunteer used to take the money and appear the next day to carry out his task. There were occasions when nobody used to appear because if you were an executioner you would be rejected by everyone. During that period, butchers were appointed to be official executioners since they were experts in handling the tools that were required for performing an execution. After a number of suicides committed by people who did not want to perform the execution, the guild decided that they would stop being responsible for carrying out such a task. This eventually meant that an official post had to be created for the executioner, who would work as a royal employee and receive some additional benefits, including the right to live in a small house attached to the Chapel of Santa Àgata and the possibility to sell the possessions that had belonged to the people who had been executed. In this sense, the executed people’s shoes were coveted items because it was believed that if the shoes were placed in the entrance to a home, they would protect it from bad spirits.

Before reaching the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, and bringing our tour to an end, we will take a look at the Casa l’Ardíaca (Archdeacon’s House), in Carrer de Santa Llúcia, which was the home of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the archdeacons in the 12th century whilst the cathedral was being built. The house was reformed in the 15th century to the style of contemporary palaces. Given that the house was limited by the Roman wall and the interior Cloister, which at that time was usually in the centre, it was necessary to rebuild the the entrance. In the small Cloister there is a small fountain where every Corpus Christi an egg is made to dance over the jet of water: it corresponds to the actual tradition of «l’ou com balla» (the dancing egg). Before entering inside the house, on the right side of the entrance, there is a modernista letter box, designed by Domènech i Muntaner, dating from when the house was used as the seat of the Bar Association. The letter box is decorated with swallows that remind us that the post should ideally fly but the tortoise symbolises the pace at which it really moves. Anyway, if you stroke the tortoise’s shell, we get rid of the bad luck the skull gave us earlier.

Gothic Quarter, Barcelona

Now, to end the tour, we will visit the Plaça Sant Felip Neri, the most enchanting square in Barcelona. The Church of Sant Felip Neri, from the Baroque era, stands in this square. The Shoe Museum is also in the same place, since it was an area where there was a concentration of guilds.

A false legend, which began in the 20th century to explain the holes that can be seen in the walls around the square, is that they were caused by the executions made by firing squads during the Civil War. After inspecting the holes, pure logic and reasoning causes us to discard this idea, mainly because the holes are of a variety of sizes, shapes and heights, although human brains are capable of conjuring up anything, LOL! In reality the holes were caused by the shrapnel from a bomb that exploded near the area. Just for interest, one of the scenes in the film ‘The Perfume’ was shot in this square.

Gothic Quarter, Barcelona

Although there’s much more to discover in the Gothic Quarter, we’ll finish our tour of myths and legends here.

We’ll talk about the cathedral of Saint Eulalia another day, because she has many things to tell us.

View the Route of the Myths and Legends of the Gothic Quarter in a larger map

Barcelona and the Civil War air raid shelters (refugis aeris)

Hidden under the surface of Barcelona lie many remains of the city’s history. Including about 1,400 bomb shelters built during the Civil War.

Because of its strategic position, Barcelona was the target for the attacks made by the Italian Fascist air force, which collaborated with the revolutionary forces that were fighting against the Republic. The city was one of the first places where non-military targets were bombed, attacking the civilian population. Madrid and Gernika were also brutally bombed, but while these two cities were near the front-line fighting, Barcelona formed the rearguard.

Bomb shelter in Barcelona

Prior to the bombings, the city council made the citizens aware of the threat and orders were given to build 30 shelters, which would not be sufficient for even 5% of the population. Everyone laughed at the first shelters because no one could ever imagine that Barcelona would be a victim of air raids. Sirens were also placed all over the city and pamphlets were issued giving instructions about what to do in the event of bomb attacks.

On 13 February, 1937, Barcelona underwent the first of the 192 attacks and when everyone realised that there were not enough shelters they began to build many more that were gradually registered. Resources were scarce and the strongest people were away fighting on the front, which meant it was mostly elderly people, women and children who were responsible for building the underground tunnels. There are records of about 1,400 shelters, although there could easily be as many as 2,000.

Most of these shelters were built using the Catalan vault (volta catalana), an architectural technique used in Catalonia to make arches stronger and wider. In this way, the passage could be wider and throughout its length there was enough room to place benches on both sides, so people could sit down whilst they waited. Usually people had to wait about two hours: the time an attack lasted and also the length of time the battery could supply electricity to the underground area. We need to take into account that during the attacks the city’s electricity was cut off, thus making it difficult for the planes flying overhead to identify their clearly marked targets, because, among other things, the aim was to destroy historical monuments in order to demoralise the citizens, create an atmosphere of bewilderment and open a new front of internal war.

Bomb shelter in Barcelona

Due to the lack of radars at that time (they were discovered for World War II), there were ‘lookouts’ who patrolled out at sea with the mission of observing the sky and if they saw planes, they warned the whole city. From that moment, the citizens had between one and two minutes to reach the shelter before the bombing commenced.

The tunnels had several entrances as only one would have acted as a bottleneck, especially when taking into account people only had two minutes to enter inside, and also for prevention, because in the event one door caved in, it would be possible to exit through another.

Today it is possible to visit several air raid shelters, including number 307, the Bomb Shelter (Refugi) in the Plaça de la Revolució and the one in the Plaça del Diamant.

Bomb shelter in the Plaça de la Revolució

During the Civil War, about 1,400 bomb shelters were built in Barcelona. The most well known, and which can be visited today after booking in advance, are the bomb shelter number 307 (refugi 307) in Poble Sec and the one in the Plaça del Diamant, in the district of Gràcia. But there is a third, unknown to most people, located in the Plaça de la Revolució, also in the district of Gràcia. The shelter can be visited free of charge and the most curious thing is that visitors have to go through the underground car park in the square to access it, after asking the cartaker for the keys.

Bomb shelter in the Plaça Revolució, GràciaIt’s really exciting! If you decide to go, make sure they don’t give you the wrong key, which is what happened to us today. Check the key ring says ‘Llave del refugio’ (shelter key). We were really excited about opening the door but after going down four levels (it’s on the bottom floor, 4B) we had to go all the way back up again to get the right key.

Once you’ve opened the door, the light switch is on the left. However, there are two rooms in darkness so you’ll have to bring a torch if you want a clearer view of this area. There’s not much left of the bomb shelter: an L-shaped passage with a bench where the refugees used to sit and two small rooms, which might have been the infirmary. On the ceiling it’s still possible to see what’s left of what used to be the shelter’s electricity supply. There was enough electricity to light the room during the air raid, which went on for about two hours, the time the battery lasted.

Civil War bomb shelter, BarcelonaApparently the shelter used to be longer but whilst they were building the car park, part of it was destroyed.

It’s really worth a visit so you can try and listen to the echoes of bygone days. Aah, if only walls could speak!

View Civil War bomb shelter on a larger map

Bellesguard Tower

Gaudi's Bellesguard Tower or Casa FiguerasLying on the mountainside of Collserola, not as well known but just as precious as any other of Gaudi’s works, is the Bellesguard Tower (Beautiful view in Catalan).

A magnificent small palace that reminds us of the castle where Martí l’Humà, a Catalan monarch who ruled in the 15th century, used to live during the summer months and which used to stand in the same place.

It was not until 1900 when María Sagués Molins, the widow of Jaume Figueras, asked Gaudi to redesign the neglected castle. This is the reason for its official name, Casa Figueras (the House of Figueras), although it is commonly known as the Bellesguard Tower.

Today, though it belongs to another family, the house is still private property. However, the garden gates are open to anyone who wants to peep inside. Especially this August, on Tuesdays, there are guided tours around the outside of the house and visitors are treated to a glass of cava and a concert for two violins, whilst on Thursdays, it is possible to enjoy a mojito listening to chill-out music in the background, allowing visitors to calmly contemplate the tower.

Visiting hours: Tuesday and Thursday from 18h to 21h (August).
Price: €20
Bookings: + 34 646 800 127 or [email protected]

From September there will be guided visits every day.

I’ve had the chance to visit the place once and I’ve had no doubts about making a second booking, so they can give me a detailed explanation of the house with all its nooks and crannies.

As a matter of interest, the day was extra special because the clouds occasionally let the sky through, which lit up the Bellesguard Tower like an apparition. Until the rain suddenly appeared and finally a double rainbow filled the sky, crossing the house. Spectacular.

Rainbow over Gaudi's Bellesguard Tower

Click here to view more photos of the Bellesguard Tower.