Buscando Barcelona

Stepping Back in Time: The Roman Barcino

Posted on: December 15, 2009

Seeing the ancient Roman walls next to modern architecture allows for a direct connection between the old and the new. So it was only fitting that our first field trip in Barcelona: Past and Present be to a location which most effectively illustrates this. The perimeter of this old Roman city is still visible today, and can still be walked by following this outlineStarting at Placa Nova, follow Carrer de la Palla to Carrer dels Banys Nous, to Carrer d’Avinyo toward the port. Then take Carrer Ample, Carrer del hostal d’en Sol, Carrer de Angel Baixeras, Carrer del Sots-tinent Navarro, Carrer de la Tapineria, back to Avinguda de la Cathedral.These six-foot-thick walls run for about 1350 yards and once enclosed 25 acres in a fat coffin shape. Four main gates to the city were denoted by the 2 main avenues that crossed at the forum at the center of the city. This forum is believed to be beneath the plaza in front of the Cathedral.

There are several interesting sites in this area of the city, like the three original columns of the Temple of Augustus in the courtyard of Carrer del Paradis (which unfortunately we didn’t see because it is under restoration right now), but my favorite would have to be the Placa del Rei in front of the Cathedral. It’s a wide open space frequented by visitors and locals alike. I love the Barcino sign off to the side and the fact that you can still see part of a Roman aqueduct projecting into the square. It is hard to believe that this sprawling, busy, metropolis was ever anything but that. Barcelona  started out as any other; small and exclusive with most of its population living outside the city walls. 

           Having just been back to the plaza to visit the Christmas market, I still got the chills knowing that ancient Roman ruins were right beneath my feet. Seeing them was even more interesting when our class visited the Museo de L’Historia de la Ciutat. Robert Hughes, the author of our textbook Barcelona, was right when he said that the ruins aren’t much to look at aesthetically. I have to admit I was expecting a Pompeii-like scene, or something similar to Rome itself. However, that is not to say that the ruins were disappointing. In fact, it was hauntingly beautiful. The silence as we walked through really made you appreciate the humble beginnings of this great city….but the museum workers, and other visitors were none too happy when that reverent silence was broken by a water bottle that was sent flying down the metal walkway in to the ruins themselves by my slightly clumsy friend Mary. Ooops! She was incredibly embarrassed, but at least the bottle was tightly closed! Luckily the ruins were left unharmed, but I’m not sure that Mary will be if the museum sees her there again with another water bottle!

            Next to this museum is the Salo de Tinell, another impressive architectural monument in the city. Its arched cavern-like construction was one of the largest of its kind in Europe spanning over 50 feet. It was designed by Pere III’s architect and placed on top of Berenguer IV’s royal palace, yet another example of Barcelona’s penchant for using the past to define the present. Though its name means “banqueting chamber,” that was not its sole purpose. Throughout the 1370s it was used as Parliament for the region and in 1493 it is said that Ferdinand and Isabella received news of the New World from Christopher Colombus in that very room. Though there is no real evidence to back that claim up, it definitely adds a certain presence to the already magnificent structure.

Today, Parliament has moved to Placa Sant Jaume, also in the Barcino, or Barri Gotic district. Facing each other are the Generalitat (Regional government) and the Ajuntament (City Hall). This is another plaza in which people congregate for various events of the city. The Generalitat celebrates St. George, or Sant Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia with a sculpture on the façade overlooking the square. The city hall across the way is a major historical site. It was from the Salo de Cent within this building that the Council of the Hundred ruled Barcelona as a city-state for nearly 500 years. This government had a more populist view than that of the Corts which was succeeded by the current Generalitat. The Council of the Hundred was selected by the count-king of Barcelona’s electoral college of 200 men who all represented various trades and professions. The council chosen were common citizens nominated though a lottery. While its not quite as busy as the plaza in front of the Cathedral, many a historic speech has been made and many demonstrations have occurred between these two important buildings.


            Seeing these monuments next to ancient ruins brings up an interesting dichotomy in the definition of the modern city of Barcelona. Is it solely the area within the Roman perimeter leaving the neighborhoods as mere extensions? Or has the city encompassed those neighborhoods willingly embracing each of their unique beginnings?   Your viewpoint really depends on how you view the city. Are you more a fan of the historical origins of Barcelona? Or do you agree more with the fact that the city changed as the times changed and that Barcelona is now a sprawling, thriving metropolis?

            While I think that both sides have valid points, I’m going to have to side with the post office. Incoming mail to anywhere within the city limits is addressed to Barcelona, Espana. While I live in L’Eixample Esquerra, my mail I receive is still addressed to the main city of Barcelona, not L’Eixample. This applies to any other neighborhood whether it be Gracia, El Born, Barri Gotic or Barceloneta. Then again, the post office makes these distinctions with the postcode, similar to how they do in the United States, which consequently brings me back to where I started. It seems this is one of those age old questions that may never be legitimately answered. Whatever the case, it is easy to see that Barcelona of the present can never be fully appreciated without first understanding the Faventia Julia Augusta Paterna Barcino of the past.


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