Rainy days are meant for museums. And in a place like this, it’s obvious that a lot of people think the way we do. The Picasso Museum, for example, was sold out for the next 5 hours when we arrived at 1:30PM. This will make the second time here that we’ve decided to do without him.
Even the Alehop mascot was trying to keep dry.
Heading out with umbrellas in hand and after securing the New York Times and coffee we stopped first at the Barcelona Cathedral. This one is quite impressive, particularly the extremely ornate altar pieces in the side chapels, mostly executed between 1380 and 1500. Lots of gold and lots of suffering on display. Officially known as The Church of the Holy Cross and Santa Eulalia, it was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries, with the bulk of the work done right in the middle. Interestingly, the very ornate neo-Gothic façade was added in the 19th century over the original face, which was done in the austere Catalan style (like Santa Maria del Mar, mentioned yesterday.) Protecting all the fancy capillas is a flock of guard geese, traditionally present since the Middle Ages and today living by a small water feature in the outside cloisters.
Demonstrating the age of the place, and as a testament to re-use, one side of the complex incorporates 3 of the Roman towers that formed the wall around the original city of Barcino. A bit of old aqueduct sticks out there too.
I realize that there are entire tour companies devoted to the cathedrals of Europe, but I have to say I am getting to the “seen one, seen them all” camp after all these years of visiting them. Surely some are far more ornate or far more simple. Many are gilded and many nothing more than cold gray stone. In some you see the influence of the Moors, in others the Spartan will of the Anglicans. They all seem to have really nice stained-glass windows (although Saint Chapelle in Paris puts them all to shame.) I guess what I’m saying is I will continue to visit them as I find myself in their presence, but I may be past the stage of being wowed.
Next up was the Museu D’Història de Barcelona, housed just to the back of the cathedral in one of a long line of former mansions that line the Carrer de Comtes. This turned out to be a real gem - not present on any of the guide maps or in the books, the museum covers the history of the city from pre-Roman times up until the Renaissance. Best of all was an extensive underground display with what seemed like miles of walking that began with Roman Barcino and ended with Visogoth Barcinona. In the Roman section we walked through ancient ruins dedicated to dyeing material, making wine and fermenting garum, the fish sauce that Romans apparently ate on everything. The Roman knack for civil engineering was on display here with clear water coming in and dirty water going out and the wastes of the city and its industries carefully managed to keep the place as healthy as it could be. An interesting sidenote – once the Empire fell, and the various barbarian tribes began to take over, the engineering works all fell into disuse. The cities became rank, polluted places for the next 12 centuries before someone finally figured out (again) that sewage control was a good idea.
The walkways slowly worked their way up through the layers of centuries, ending with the episcopal palace of the Bishop of Barcelona. I find museums like this just fascinating, and it’s always a wonder for me in these old cities to think about what’s 8, 10 or 50 feet below the building I’m sleeping in.
Next we headed in the direction of Picasso but as I mentioned it was a crowded nightmare so we continued down into La Ribera and crossed over into El Born for a stop at the old Born Market, now converted into a covered open-air archeology museum. I found it in the guide book yesterday and we’d been by the place a dozen times (thought it was closed) and judging from the pictures it looked like more underground Roman stuff. Which of course I cannot resist. Turned out it was more a chronical of the time of the War of the Spanish Succession in which Frenchman Philip V, a Bourbon, was trying to put himself on the Spanish throne. The British, Dutch and Austrians opposed this and so a war was fought which ultimately ended here in Barcelona when the Catalan were abandoned to their fate by the alliance and defeated by the French troops. To make a point Phillip tore down the entire area to build a big citadel so as to discourage anyone from challenging him again. That lasted for a while and he died and things changed and then the citadel was torn down and El Born was returned to the locals to be rebuilt. The original cast iron frame market served the community for years but was replaced by better alternatives nearby. It fell into disrepair and was about to be torn down but the community, wishing to maintain what they considered a symbol of their community, protested. It went through a series of failed alternative uses before someone discovered that preserved underneath it was the entire patchwork of the 17th century city. So excavation began and today you can get a feel for what the area looked like 300 years ago. Lanes, shop walls, irrigation ditches, all kinds of commercial and residential remains. My favorite was the Carrer de Viols, the old street dedicated to guitar and violin making where the stench from the animal guts being used to string the instruments was said to be completely overpowering. Preserved here is the Casa des Budells, literally the “House of Bowels” where the guts were worked into the proper form.
Still raining but nothing like Paris, we headed back towards home along Carrer de Assaonadors, one of my favorite street. While it looks like Street of the Assassins, its name is actually more prosaic, indicating the place where the guild of hide tanners did their work. The name first appeared before 1447 and it’s said that the quarter was dedicated to this industry since the middle of the 13th century.
But we weren’t seeking leather, we were looking for Argentine empanadas at a little storefront we’d passed a few days ago. We took home an assortment – pork, chicken, spinach, beef, tuna and cheese. And boy, what a lunch they turned out to be.