Remember how I wanted to go on a free walking tour of Barcelona but missed it? Well, the day after, I made sure to wake up early enough so that I could actually find the group at the meeting spot in Plaça Catalunya. The tour was put on by Sandeman’s New Europe and I had heard about it from the map that I got on the Aerobus. Like all other free walking tours, you only pay for the guide’s tip at the end. Most of the info that I got from this post are things that I jotted down on my phone from the tour.
Though we met in Plaça Catalunya, that’s not actually where the tour started. The guide who met us there took us over to the Gothic Quarter, where there were more people and guides waiting. Everyone was standing around the Jaume I station and I was thinking about how I was just there the day before and would probably have seen the tour guides had I not stopped by my hostel first. Anyway, we all got split up into our actual tour groups and mine was led by a guide named Reuben.
The first stop was Plaça Del Rei, another place that I was at the day before since it is right by the Museum of Barcelona History. Reuben talked about the Gothic Quarter and Wilfred the Hairy (aka Hairy Willy), the first non-dynastic Count of Barcelona who was apparently hirsute enough that the nickname stuck. The Catalan flag, the oldest flag that is still used today in Europe, actually has a really interesting link to Wilfred the Hairy. After being wounded in battle, it is said that his four bloody fingers (not counting the thumb) were slid over a gold shield, depicting an image that is similar to the four red stripes on the flag.
We also learned about other interesting characters from Barcelona history like Martin the Humanist, the last Count of Barcelona, who reportedly died from laughter after hearing a really funny joke from his jester. I looked up the joke and I don’t get it, but I guess comedy was just different back in the 15th century. The plaza also was home to the executioner who got to keep the bodies after he had done his job and ended up selling limbs to alchemists.
From there, we started to head towards the cathedral, but stopped to look at a detail of Wilfred the Hairy fighting a dragon on the side of a wall. What looks like it could be a suit of armor is actually just hair. Oh, Hairy Willy.
We continued on until we were in front of the Catedral de Santa Eulalia (aka Barcelona Cathedral). The cathedral is named after Saint Eulalia, a patron saint of Barcelona, who was thirteen-years old when she was subjected to thirteen different tortures by the Romans for refusing to recant Christianity. This included being rolled down a hill in a barrel filled with sharp objects thirteen times, getting her breasts cut off, and other gruesome things. Ultimately, she was decapitated and a dove supposedly flew out of her neck after the deed was done. Her body is supposed to be inside the cathedral, but not allowed to be seen. I believe there was a story about how a priest or some other guy took a peek and was struck blind afterwards. Anyway, the cathedral houses thirteen geese (previously, doves) to represent the tortures and her age when she died.
Just around the corner is a building with some artwork by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The actual design was done in Paris and it was sent to a friend to carve. The scenes depict various Catalan traditions including the sardana, La Mercè (the Festival of Our Lady of Mercy, honoring Barcelona’s other patron saint), and the annual human tower that is part of the celebration. More on the human tower later on in this post.
I think it was at this point that we took a break at a small restaurant so people could get a drink or a quick bite to eat before we moved on. Next up was the church of Santa Maria del Pi. “Pi” is Catalan for “pine” and the church was named after an incident in which a man saw the Virgin Mary on a pine tree and was inspired to build the church. There is still a pine tree growing in the small courtyard in front.
Some more walking led us to the Plaça Sant Jaume, where Barcelona’s city hall is located. Barcelona is a semi-autonomous city and many Catalan people have been calling for the city to gain full independence from Spain. Though the traditional Catalan flag is comprised of red and yellow stripes (or red stripes on a yellow background, to be more precise), I think a variation of the flag with an added blue triangle and white five-pointed star is much more common. This flag represents the Catalan separatist movement and can be seen throughout the city, mostly draped down on windows and balconies. Independence is a really big issue in the city and it’s one of the topics that I’d like to explore more in a separate post.
This plaza is also where the human tower, called a castell and created by castellers, are done. Each level is made up of different people, trying to balance and hold the weight of those above them. Stronger people are generally at the bottom while lighter people, including children, are closer to the top. The most dangerous job goes to a girl who must climb the tower and then raise four fingers in the air to represent the four red stripes on the Catalan flag. You would think a parent would be crazy to let their child do something that dangerous, but there is a sort of prestige involved and it is a big part of the tradition. The smallest mistake can cause the tower to collapse and, sometimes, it does. In 2006, there was a 12-year-old girl who died from head trauma after falling off the castell. The largest towers have been comprised of ten levels and there is a monument near the square that is supposed to depict the tallest height that has been reached so far.
We continued on to another one of Barcelona’s plazas, Plaça Reial, to check out a funky lamp post designed by Gaudí.
We then continued on to another one of Barcelona’s churches, Santa Maria del Mar. This church is an example of the Catalan gothic style and we learned that most traditional Catalan churches have flat roofs and are not adorned with a ton of embellishments. I wrote down in my notes “White Terror”, but I don’t actually remember the exact connection to the church. The White Terror was a series of violent acts done by the Nationalists under Franco during the Spanish Civil War and there was a huge death toll of up to 400,000 victims.
Nearby is the Fossar de les Moreres, a square which contains a memorial to those who defended the city during the Siege of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession (not “secession”, which I had earlier believed). The Catalans fought against France and pro-Philip V Spanish forces, but ultimately surrendered on September 11, 1714. Catalonia lost its autonomy and Spain tried to suppress various aspects of Catalan culture. Many of the defenders are buried underneath the square and there is an eternal flame that was lit to commemorate their sacrifice.
September 11 is still remembered as the National Day of Catalonia and it is an important day for Catalans who are fighting for independence. When Scotland had a vote on whether they wanted to secede from the United Kingdom last year, there was apparently a lot of Scottish support in the city with people flying Scottish flags. There has been another big push for secession lately and we were told that there are three pro-independent members in the parliament. There are some arguments thrown back and forth in favor of seceding now, including that the average GDP per person in Barcelona is higher than the average of the EU as a whole. Again, I think this story requires its own post to explore further.
The last stop of the tour was Parc de la Ciutadella. Here, we learned about some of the more recent history of Barcelona, particularly the impact of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Prior to the Olympics, Barcelona was a poor, industrial city that was completely different than what people picture it as today. The Olympics caused the city to focus on redevelopment and made changes in infrastructure, including importing sand from Egypt to create several man-made beaches. There was a lot of money invested in Barcelona and it was a big and important upturn that sparked the tourist industry and left a lasting legacy. According to Reuben, 1 in 4 people who live in Barcelona today are like him and not originally from the city.
With that thought, the tour ended. It was very informative and I believe it took about three hours to complete. Reuben was a cool tour guide to have, so it was a good experience.
Parc de la Ciutadella was really close to my hostel, but I didn’t go back straight away. First, I wanted to do a little more walking and take a leisurely stroll through the park. More on that in my next post.