A River Runs Through It: Tavira

Moorish BridgeVisiting Tavira, in the eastern Algarve region of Portugal, it’s easy to lose track of the time, the day and, indeed the century.  Neatly bisecting one of the most gracious cities in the province is the Gilao River which forms high in the Serra do Caldeirao Mountains from rivulets and tributaries and flows southward down to the Atlantic Ocean.  At its mouth are numerous mariculture clam beds, salt pans and the golden, finely-grained sand beaches worshiped by the tourists, all of which bolster the economy of this ancient fishing village through which it runs and which gives entry to both banks of its historic urban center. Spanning the river is an arched bridge initially believed to be of Roman origin but recently revealed to be of Moorish construction in the 12th century.houses along riverOn the western shore the city climbs the slopes of hills where the twenty plus churches are scattered around and about its narrow, winding and cobblestoned streets, many of which are steeply pitched.  A short climb up the streets will give you a view of the roof-scape and the many short hipped, traditionally tiled roofs with the truncated ridge poles, a signature characteristic of Tavira’s charms.  It’s thought that this roof style may have originated due to the shortage of timber in the area although another theory is that the slightly oriental appearing roofs may have just taken the fancy of long ago residents.  historical cityOverlooking the city are the well-preserved walls of its castle, Castelo De Tavira, a great vantage point and a lasting gift from the Moors during their lengthy occupation of the Algarve, intended to consolidate and extend their Islamic power over the region.Castelo De TaviraOn the eastern shore is the level area. A thoroughfare fronting the river provides more housing, trendy shops, churches and a mix of spacious walkways and meandering streets which attract the locals and visitors alike as a place to sample the local food, savor a coffee or glass of Portugal’s fine wine or view life next to the river in a shaded area during the mid-day lull. Here vendors, musicians, merchants and patrons mingle easily in a slow-paced ambiance.street bandchurch tower, clock & vaneTavira, by almost any yardstick, is ancient. But in truth and to be more precise,  it is an iteration upon iteration of cities, great and small, which have risen and fallen according to the vagaries of the inhabitants and nature across the ages. Its origins date back to the Bronze Age (2300 BCE – 700 BCE approximately for this region) when it rose as one of the first Phoenician settlements in the western Iberian Peninsula. The village grew into the massively fortified city of Baal Saphon with temples and a harbor which was destroyed in the sixth century BCE by conflict, perhaps internal. The Tartessos people, traders in tin as well as copper and gold, all prized metals in the Bronze Age, next occupied the site. Their time was brief and by the arrival of the Romans in the early part of the Common Era their presence was all but forgotten. In truth, the Romans paid scant notice to the ruins of Tavira and built a town they called Balsa a short distance from the small city that sat atop the ruins of the once proud Phoenician city of Baal Saphon. The new city and the region prospered and decayed parallel to the fortunes of the Roman Empire and by the time the Moors arrived with their new religion of Islam, Balsa was already an extinct town.roof tops and train tracks/bridges in backgroundchurchThe Moorish occupation of Tavira between the 8th and 13th centuries left its mark on the architecture and culture of the area and its influence can still be seen in Tavira today with its whitewashed buildings and Moorish style doors. The Moorish occupation was a good time economically for the city which established itself as an important port for sailors and fishermen. In the 11th century Moorish Tavira started to grow rapidly, becoming one of the most important towns of the Algarve.  This prosperity continued but evolved again “under new management” during The Reconquista – the expulsion of the Moors – in 1242 which unified the fledgling nation of Portugal under the banner of Catholicism.  In 1755 an even more formidable foe arose in the form of a massive earthquake, perhaps as large as magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, and subsequent tsunamis which virtually destroyed the city.  Slowly it rebuilt itself amidst the remaining ruins and the 18th century historic city of Tavira is much as it appears today.historic old townAnd now this charming center of certainly less than 30,000 souls finds itself in flux again, a situation perfectly suited to the history of this magnificent locale which has endured so much change. During the off-season many of its businesses shutter their doors although there is a modern shopping center operating year around. And, like the rest of the Algarve Region, masses of summertime tourists descend upon this city with its excellent restaurants, miles of nearby beaches, and rising real estate prices.  With the growing popularity of the area there won’t be any hope of holding back change.  Just as invasion and conquest, growth and abandonment, tsunami and quake have swept over this land and altered this city, the future of Tavira with its river running through it will be sculpted by the hand of 21st century modernism. Hopefully, its touch will be gentle.little plaza

By Richard and Anita

Here Be Dragons: The Promontory of Sagres, Portugal

lighthouse & cliffsAt times, we’ll hear the comment that we, two retired baby boomers with itchy feet and pursuing our travel dreams, are adventurous. And maybe for our time and (especially for our age!) we have the spirit of adventure since we’ve left the comfortable and familiar environs of a middle-class existence in the US to see more of the world, one continent at a time. We carry with us our laptops that link us instantaneously (or so we’d like) to information regarding bus, train and flight routes, weather, lodging and even recommendations for the best places to eat. But as we stood on the promontory of Sagres Point, near the southwesterly tip of continental Europe, we felt we were at the edge of the earth. As the ferocious winds buffeted us and we gazed at waves below us crashing into the sheer cliffs we couldn’t help but talk about the adventurers. Men who set off, in the times of “Here be dragons,” into the great unknown with sketchy maps, meager food and water supplies and a great curiosity as to what lay beyond as well as dreams of finding their fortunes.

When Portugal was in the ascendancy in the late middle ages it was in large part due to the efforts of their royal leader, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Recognizing the historic and logistic positioning of the promontory as a demarcation of the known and unknown worlds – Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian and Roman captains had all stopped at this boundary – Henry capitalized on its deficiencies. The area was sparsely populated due to the continual ravaging of pirate hoards; Henry recolonized the land and built protective forts. He brought in people so there were families to raise crops to feed the growing population. He mobilized craftsmen to work the timbers and metals which he imported to maintain the fleet of discovery and there were the skilled cartographers who worked with the returning captains and crews to update, clarify and expand the accuracy of mapmaking.

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry's death and The Great Age of Discovery

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry’s death and The Great Age of Discovery, Lagos

Henry’s exploratory crews benefited from the improved design and performance of the caravel sailing ships. These boats, of greater antiquity, were given more masts, a broader beam and a mix of square and lanteen sails that handled well, sailing into the wind. The fast, nimble and responsive ships were designed to meet the challenges of discovering and mapping the off-shore islands of the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and later, the coast of Africa and eventually, the Indian Ocean. In the process the astrolabe, sun-dial and mariner’s compass were improved and refined. Each new expedition of seafarers went forth armed with revised knowledge and techniques brought back by the previous crews. It is the simple truth that Prince Henry put his country on the path to the pinnacle of exploratory prowess in his lifetime.walls and entrance to fort - Promontorio de Sagressentry box - Promontorio de SagresAnd that path led directly to the Fortaleza de Sagres, a central fortress in what came to be a string of coastal defenses against privateers from the Moorish lands of North Africa and, in time, other European nations. As we approached the fort we spied from a distance the curtain wall that served as protection from a land based attack. The remainder of the fortifications outside of the walls were in gun batteries, and a lone, remaining sentry box, on the eastern shore battery.

The guns overlooked sheer drops into the wildly rolling waves of the sea. The armaments were protection for commercial watercraft, fishing vessels and explorers’ ships which could find shelter in the leeward bay under the guns. Those cannons facing out to the south and west could harass the invaders and keep them at bay.Promontorium de SagresInside the gate of the fort is an enormous design of rocks and cobblestones arranged in a pattern which some believe to be a mariner’s compass while others think it’s a sundial. Called the Rosa dos Ventos theChurch of Santa Maria -Promontorium de Sagres  outline was excavated in 1921. And again, opinions differ as some think the stonework may date from Prince Henry’s time, while others guess that the 16th century is more likely. The precinct’s oldest buildings include a cistern tower to the east (for always there was a need for water), a house, and the small, whitewashed, 16th-century church, La Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça , a simple barrel-vaulted structure with a gilded 17th-century altarpiece. A magazine, a more recent addition, for storing shot and powder stands prudently off eschewing neighbors in the event of mishap.

wall of cistern tower - Promontorio de Sagres

wall of cistern tower – Promontorio de Sagres

The Forteleza, begun by Portugal’s Prince, was altered, expanded upon and finally completed in the 18th century. It may be billed as the star of the promontory – the physical manifestation of Henry the Navigator’s designs for his fledgling nation. But in reality, the commanding presence at the site was the fissured, eroded land; the hardy low-lying vegetation that clung valiantly to life on the windswept escarpment; the gulls, terns, frigate birds and albatross that circled, rose and plummeted on the currents; the wind that swept up and over the land, bending people and plants to its will.outbuilding - Promontorio de Sagresfisherman on cliffsThese and the fishermen. For the people here have always been part of the sea and land. Here, at land’s end, at the edge of the once known world the men still gather to seek their sustenance. They fish for what the sea will offer that day such as bream, cuttlefish or sea bass. They challenge the wind’s wrath by moving about on these sheer precipices, precariously balanced and certainly we were relieved to see that none were carried off as we cautiously stood far back from the cliffs to keep our feet firmly planted on terra firma.fisherman on cliffs - Promontorio de SagresWe were enthralled. There was a tremendous power in the invisible hand of the wind as it pushed and swept around us and across the promontory accompanied by the background roar of the waves. You can see immediately why the ancients would have believed this to be the edge of the world and that beyond, dragons might indeed wait to prey on the foolhardy and unwary. It was with some reluctance that we left the site at the promontory of Sagres for it turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

Simple Pleasures in Southern Portugal: The Algarve Region

beaches and housesMention that you’re planning a visit to the Algarve Region of Portugal to most Europeans and they’ll nod knowingly and remark upon its reputation for having some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.streets of Alvor   Mention that you’ll be going in the months of June and July to a native Portuguese and they’ll comment on the rates which increase two to threefold during the high season as well as the influx of people from all over Europe which triples the off-season population of approximately 500,000 permanent residents.  In Portugal itself, the coastline is THE most popular holiday destination and it’s estimated that up to ten million people (Portuguese as well as millions of foreign visitors) vacation in the Algarve Region annually.  It’s difficult to find affordable accommodations in June, harder in July as rates do a quick upward tick and by August, the pinnacle of the tourist season, it’s almost impossible.

But, since we had to be somewhere in Europe during the early summer months and we’d read enough about the Algarve to pique our interest, we grinned bravely while looking at the rental bill, gulped a bit as we handed over our money and landed in the municipality of Albufeira, almost dead in the center of the Algarve coast.

We never quite got the pronunciation of the sleepy little parish where we stayed, Ferreiras (Fer-RARE-as) correct but we developed a real affection for this wide-spot-in-the-road of 6400 souls (we weren’t quite sure where they all were) with a round-about that sorted people into four different quadrants and a charming railroad station (circa 1918) from which we shuttled east and west across the southern coast every few days to view a different destination.  Located about 3 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the surrounding countryside of Ferreiras is mainly agricultural with almond, fig, olive and carob trees.  Gorgeously juicy oranges were abundant in the orchards and a bagful, sold at the side of the road, could cost as little as a Euro alongside some of the biggest lemons we’d ever seen.

countryside near Ferrieras

countryside near Ferrieras

Since we were in the middle of the Algarve Region we were never at a loss to find a place to visit among the fifty plus parishes, villages and little towns dotting the coast and interior like undiscovered pearls with their Roman ruins and ancient bridges still being used to this day, castles, mosques built by the Moors, centuries old churches and walled cities.  And of course, the Algarve’s hundreds of beaches, gracing the approximately one-hundred mile coast with their fine white and golden sands and coves, clear waters in vivid shades of turquoise and aquamarine, stunning rock formations and limestone bluffs that ranged from worn smooth and subtly colored to rugged precipices pocked with caves and hidden grottoes accessible only by water.beachfront

A favorite day trip of ours by bus and only 4 kilometers away was the municipality of Albufeira, famed for its red-white and blue, street scenebeaches and one of the most popular coastal destinations in southern Portugal since the 1970’s.  Originally it was a fortified Roman city, later occupied by the Moors (who gave the city its present name) for several centuries and then a quiet fishing village for hundreds of years.  The heart of Albufeira is its old historic town with dazzling whitewashed buildings silhouetted against an intensely blue sky and mazes of steep and winding, narrow streets leading down to the sea.  Alongside the cobbled streets are cafes, shops, bars and bistros and a central square, Largo Duarte Pacheco.  Spreading out from the old town are tourist accommodations for every budget including ultra-posh resorts, five-star hotels and residential homes and condos as well as a recently built marina.overlooking streets and shops

Several outings to Albufeira to wander its charming streets, visit its beaches and people watch at the outside cafes were always topped with meals of local dishes like razor clams and rice, freshly caught fish such as grilledwind vane sardines and sea bass, roasted piri-piri chicken, spicy from the peppery sauce and the mouth-watering seafood dish we ordered whenever we saw it on the menu, cooked in a large copper pot, called Cataplana.

We may have hesitated initially at paying the inflated rates for accommodations during the summer season but the Algarve Region has us convinced that the Portuguese know how to celebrate the simple pleasures of life.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed by people who smiled and spoke a few words of English during a transaction or tried to help us with our mangled Portuguese pronunciations.  And the beautiful countryside, beaches, historic landmarks and an abundance of fresh food beautifully prepared were always near by.  We’re convinced that the Algarve Region lives up to all the hype and acclaim and is well-worth a visit at any time of the year.

clock tower & wandering streets

Clock tower with filigreed iron support and bell on Rua Bernardino de Sousa, Albufeira

Next post:  More on the Algarve from Sagres.

By Anita and Richard


Pillars of the Earth: La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada FamiliaOver twenty years ago we voraciously devoured the Ken Follett historical novel “Pillars of the Earth,” a huge volume about a 12th century stonemason who dreams of building a massive cathedral unlike anything seen before.  Tom Builder begins his life’s work knowing that it will not be completed in his lifetime but trusting that it will be finished.  And we couldn’t help but compare this fictional character to the real life Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, who collaborated with the Catholic Church to design and oversee the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the most iconic structure in Barcelona.  Begun in 1882 and still under construction today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is Barcelona’s number one tourist site, welcoming over 3,000,000 visitors a year.La Sagrada Familia

Outside, the cranes tower over the basilica’s spires, plastic sheeting covers parts of the exterior and everywhere, throngs of people stand:  in long lines behind the gates, shorter lines awaiting admittance with their e-tickets, s-curved lines at the stands for audio headsets and lines awaiting entrance into the church itself.La Sagrada FamiliaThose not in lines gather alongside the walls with their heads tipped back and looking up, up, up, examining the carvings and sculptures, stories in stone, cameras clicking.La Sagrada Familia

And inside … We join the throng of people surging into the central nave and extricate ourselves as quickly as possible to stand quietly for a few moments trying to absorb the vast space. Organ music swells in the background and reverberates around us, voices are muted and there is the sound of shuffling feet.  We are awestruck.La Sagrada Familia

Above us the giant, tree-like pillars reach from earth to heaven, branches touching and supporting the spectacular vaulted ceiling.  Light filters in from enormous panels of stained glass through the branches and pillars of granite, basalt, porphyry and Montjuïc stone. The noise from the crowd fades and we are in nature’s hallowed forest.La Sagrada Familia

Much has been written of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s final work and all-consuming obsession. Gaudi, like the fictionalized stonemason of “Pillars of The Earth” was well aware that he would never live to see his life’s work completed and is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.”  At the time of his death in 1926 the church was approximately twenty percent completed and construction was expected to last for a few more centuries in a time when all stone was carved by hand.La Sagrada Familia

With advances in technology, machines to shape and tool the stone and computer-aided design, the hope is to finish the basilica in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s death. Private benefactors sponsored the initial construction and Gaudi contributed his own money as well. At present the money received from ticket sales as well as donations from Friends of La Sagrada Família fund the continuing work at the site.La Sagrada Familia

Perhaps a highlight of our almost two-hour visit was the organ recital at noon of Ave Maria.  We were totally moved as we stood in the sublime surroundings of the central nave.  For people who profess no religious affiliations or interest we seem to find ourselves in churches and cathedrals rather often during the course of our travels.  Churches are often the place where a city displays its best architecture and art and the structure becomes linked with both a city’s history and identity.  This most certainly is true as La Sagrada Familia has become Barcelona’s signature emblem.

By Anita and Richard

One Street and Three Architects: Barcelona’s “Block of Discord”

crowd in front of Casa BatlloClose by our apartment in Barcelona’s Eixample District was the boulevard Passeig de Gràcia, filled with tourists, many of them gawking (like us) or lined up awaiting their entry at one or another of the landmark structures.  Among all the significant buildings however, is one block with addresses at numbers 35, 41 and 43 Passeig de Gracia, that generates considerable interest and lots of camera clicking.  Between the years 1898 and 1906 three of the era’s most important modernist architects took existing buildings on the block and refurbished them in such dissimilar visions and contrasting styles that the street is often referred to as “The Block of Discord.”La Casa Lleo i Morera

We bought tickets online for an English speaking tour given each Sunday morning and joined a surprisingly small group of four other people to visit Casa Lleo Morera, Passeig de Gràcia 35. The original structure was built in 1864 and in 1902 Francesca Morera, a widow of considerable wealth, hired the renowned architect,  Lluís Domènech i Montaner to refurbish the entire building as well as design a private residence on the second floor for the Morera family.La Casa Lleo i Morera

Morera translates to mulberry tree in English and representations of the tree are found throughout the house. The home is an astonishing collaboration by leading artists and craftsmen of the day and each room seemed to outdo the one before it by upping the WOW factor with stained glass creations, sculptures, original parquet floors with the mulberry motifs, woodwork and cabinetry, sculptures, mosaics and on and on. Everywhere we looked was another detail to draw our interest away from the preceding attention grabber.  It was a huge stimulus overload of art, design, color, textures.La Casa Lleo i Morera Sculptures by Eusebi Arnau tell the tale of Saint George and the dragon while elsewhere his sculptures show several objects relating to the notable technological advances of the time such as the lightbulb, gramophone and phonograph, camera and telephone.  In the dining room, surprisingly small because families of the era did not dine with guests at home, are seven mosaic panels on the walls by Lluís Bru and Mario Maragliano representing country scenes with porcelain additions of faces, hands and feet by a noted ceramist. La Casa Lleo i Morera We questioned one panel with a large patch of blue tile and where told that the mosaic was custom-made around a piece of the original furniture which was removed at a later time.La Casa Lleo i Morera

But our hands-down favorite were the huge bay windows of stained glass designed and created by Antoni Rigalt i Blanch and Jeroni F Granell with naturalistic scenes that dazzled and enchanted us.Casa Amattler

After sticking our heads into the open ground floor door of the foyer of 41 Passeig de Gràcia (admission free for the first floor only) we bought tickets for a tour the following day for the second floor.  Originally constructed in 1875 it’s called the Casa Amatller after the family who commissioned the prominent modernist Catalan architect, Joseph Puig i Cadafalch, in 1898 to refurbish both the inside and outside.   The outside façade was inspired by the style of Netherlands houses with its fanciful stepped gabled roofline and the inside is a rather gloomy but fascinating combination of gothic and neo-gothic styles. dining oom Casa Amattler

For our tour we climbed up the spectacular curving, marble staircase, donned cloth booties to protect the floors which had just been restored and stepped back in time to the previous century.  We wandered among rooms furnished with early 20th century period pieces.  The motto here seemed to be, “Let no surface go undecorated.” Everywhere we looked – floors, walls, windows and ceilings –  were adorned.

ceiling woodwork

ceiling woodwork

It was a visual assault of colors, patterns, textures and light and the very definition of extravagant opulence.  Here, as in the Casa Lleo Morera house, the architect had collaborated with some of the finest modernist artists and craftsmen in Barcelona, all who appeared to be in competition to show us their best, and we admired stained glass windows, mosaic walls and floors, surfaces of marble and elaborately carved wooden ceilings.Casa Amattler George & the dragon - Casa Amatller

The sculptors Eusebi Arnau and Alfons Jujol, displayed their talents with an astonishing assortment of dragons and knights, damsels and classically beautiful faces as well as fanciful creatures cavorting among vines and animals.Casa Batllo

Next door to Casa Amatller is Number 43 Passeig de Gràcia and the iconic Casa Batlló, one of the most photographed buildings in Barcelona and one of the nine structures in Barcelona declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We had admired its extraordinarily over-the-top exterior on our previous strolls around the neighborhood and whenever we had walked by, there was usually a long, long line in front of it waiting for admittance.  One day, with a few hours of time on our hands and without much planning, we joined the line, bought tickets (they can also be bought online to avoid the wait) and donned headsets for an audio tour.Casa Batllo

Built between 1875 and 1877 the structure was bought by Josep Battló i Casanovas who wanted the prestigious address and a home extraordinaire. He engaged Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, the renowned modernist architect who set about the task of renovating the building, both inside and out, bottom to roofline, between 1904 and 1906.  Gaudi redesigned the façade of the house with walls of stone that undulate.  These were plastered and covered with trencadis, a style of mosaic used in Catalan modernism created from broken tile fragments and glass. mosaic Casa Batllo

Often referred to as the “House of Yawns” because of its enormous, irregularly shaped windows on the lower floors resembling gaping mouths, it’s also referred to as “The House of Bones” because of the decorative bonelike pillars.  Salvador Dali, after seeing the house said, “Gaudí has built a house of sea shapes, representing the waves on a stormy day.”  The sinuous lines and the feeling of gliding through waves continued in the interior space of the house as straight lines and right angles were avoided by Gaudi whenever possible.  This created rooms that totally delighted us with their originality, watery colors and reflected and filtered use of light.Casa Batllo

Surrounding himself with the master artisans and craftsmen of the day the beautifully proportioned rooms are a synthesis of stained glass, burnished woodwork and floors of tile and parquet.  The house is crowned by a roof terrace every bit as extravagant and dramatic as the rest of the building.  Said to resemble a dragon’s back, the iridescent tiles catch your eye as the spine wends its way around chimneys and a tower topped with the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of Barcelona.rooftop - Casa Batllo

The “Block of Discord” showcases three magnificent houses designed by three men with totally diverse visions.  It’s a step back to an era where all things seemed possible, new discoveries abounded and modernism symbolized wild extravagance, innovation and creativity, artistry and astonishing genius.



By Anita and Richard


Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around

Arc de Triomf

Arc de Triomf

A couple of years ago we met a photographer friend, Paula, in Antigua, Guatemala who gave us some useful advice as we were checking out the sights.  Our eyes were trained on the uneven sidewalks and streets, both of cobblestone, to sidestep potential trips and falls and dog bombs.  When we looked around we’d try to steer clear of the numerous masonry windows, with decorative grille work, projecting from buildings at concussion-inducing head height and still try to take in the people, the sights and our surroundings.  And then our friend said, “Remember, if you don’t want to miss anything, look up.”Arc de Triomf

Luckily, in Barcelona there’s any number of things for a visitor to see regardless of where you look and one of the best ways is just walking around the city.  Our apartment was in the Eixample (Catalan for extension) district, a 19th century urban expansion that merged the old city with the street scenevillages and towns nearby.  The urban plan was the brainchild of the progressive designer and Catalan Spaniard, Ildefonso Cerdá.  A strict grid pattern of long straight streets crossed by wide avenues helps to keep even the most directionally challenged people (we’re not naming names) oriented. Of course it helps that the streets have signs and numbers on the buildings and maps are readily available at tourist information sites as well as online.  The thing we were most taken with however, was Cerdá’s unique design of octagonal blocks (picture the corner building with its corner cut off) which allows for greater visibility at each intersection.open intersection

A five to forty-five minute walk from our apartment in any direction could take us to a flower, bakery or ice cream shop.flower shop on street

Or we could find a grocery store, farmacias (pharmacies) with their crosses of green or red displayed, organic fruit and vegetable shops and numerous ATMs as well as  metro stations.pharmacy

And of course there were elegant churches.Cathedral near Sagrada Familia

Nearby, we found numerous restaurants and tapas bars, trendy clothing stores and even a castle called the “House of Spikes” built in 1905 by the Terrades sisters."House of Spikes" - 1905 Casa Terrades - Casa de les Punxes

One Saturday we came across an enterprising company who had set up ping-pong tables on the wide sidewalks near the landmark, La Pedrera.ping pong on the street

And on another sunny afternoon people relaxed near an avenue in lounge chairs that had been set out in the common area as an urban park.Sunday in the city by House of Spikes

And we found one of Barcelona’s locations for its bicycle borrowing program called “El Bicing” where we could take one of the free city two-wheelers for a short spin.free bikes for tourists

Another way to look up, down and all around was riding around on the double-decker hop-on, hop-Hop on -Hop Offoff buses.  We took advantage of these to orient ourselves to the city as well as sight-see and while we rode inside the bus for a few stops, riding on the upper level gave us an entirely different experience that we enjoyed much more. The city actually has two companies that offer the tours: the red buses from Barcelona City Tours with 2 routes and the blue and white buses from hop-on hop-offBarcelona Bus Touristic with 3 routes.  The prices are comparable, they both offer one or two-day tickets and each runs in a continuous loop from early morning to late in the evening so that passengers can hop off to visit the sights they want to see and then hop on for the next destination.  Audio guides and headsets give information in several languages and explain each area’s significance, pointing out landmarks along the way and giving a little history.

view from hop on - hop off bus

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

view from hop on - hop off busA few days into our visit to Barcelona both of us noticed our necks were stiff.  It wasn’t too difficult to figure out the cause as we were continually tipping our heads back or craning our necks.  There’s lots to see if one looks down, around and straight ahead but, in Barcelona it’s good to remember to LOOK UP too!

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

By Anita and Richard



What Lies Beneath: The Lost City of Barcino

Gothic quarterTucked away in the teeming-with-tourists Gothic Quarter of Barcelona we followed the narrow, twisting streets, backtracked along the cobblestones and still managed to turn ourselves around looking for one branch of the Museu D’ Historia De Barcelona.  Finally, we saw a plain brown sign with an arrow pointing the way to the entrance affixed to an unobtrusive building that was, indeed, the Museum of History of Barcelona. Go figure, this marvelous museum tucked away in the oldest part of the city which is itself just jammed to the gills with gargoyles, arches and cherubim.  Could it be that the citizens of the city are a bit jaded about their own rich culture?

And here was the museum, housed in A GOTHIC PALACE built between 1497 and 1515.  Serving as the public visage of the museum, the Casa Padellás was dismantled and moved, stone by stone, from its original location in order to preserve it during the construction for the International Exposition of 1929.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - the exit to the Gothic quarter

However, while the new site in the Gothic Quarter near the Placa Del Rei (King’s Plaza) was being readied the ruins of the original city of Barcino were discovered, one of the largest Roman settlements ever found. The archeological importance of the site was immediately understood and the palace was placed upon pillars to allow for the excavation and preservation of the ruins.  In 1943 the Casa Padellás became the headquarters for Barcelona’s Museum of History with the excavated city of Barcino lying beneath it


We stepped inside the museum and paid for our tickets (with one of us getting the geezer discount) then spent a moment to figure out how to change the audio tour handheld recorders to English.  After thumbing through the introductory pamphlets we viewed a video then took the elevator down two levels … and took a giant step back in time.  From this point we would slowly but inexorably climb back up to the street level and in the process pass through this incredible time capsule.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - public walkway and portions of walls

Beneath the Placa del Rei the immense subsoil museum (4,000 square meters) is devoted to the archeological history of the original city and its people and contains the remains of the fortress walls, homes, workshops and religious structures. Excavated between 1930 and 1960 and painstakingly conserved in this underground site, the timeline covers the period from the creation of the original Roman city to the establishment of the religious structures in the sixth century, a rather imposing sweep of time in one setting.

Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - rubble in fill of wallThe story and the tour began with the founding of the Roman city of Barcino between 15– 10 BC under the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was a colony for soldiers who had completed their obligations to the empire, their families and slaves.  Built at a defensive location on the top of a hill it was fortified by a stone wall with the city laid out in a grid pattern as was the Roman preference. As we gazed around at the stone walls, walkways and columns before us we noticed that, surprisingly, the Romans recycled stones, tiles, pottery and other rubble as fill inside the walls as they expanded the city’s perimeter;  little or nothing was wasted. In that respect, a rather thrifty and industrious group of folks.

walkway  with entrance to shop

entrance to shops

Walkway between shops

walkway between shops



Outside the homes of both the wealthy and the humble the city swirled around them as a place of social engagement and commerce but it also contained the minutiae that’s part of day-to-day living.  Although women lacked a political voice they did possess legal rights; they could buy and sell property and they were very visible in the life of the city. The city streets passed by numerous shops run by Roman citizens and one of the first excavations that we came upon was a public laundry. The clothes were washed and bleached in large round vats with ashes, lime and ammonia mixed with water. After the laundry was done the water would be washed down a drain and flow into an aqueduct which carried it outside the city to maintain sanitation. And the source of the ammonia?  (We loved this interesting little tidbit!)  In the streets, containers were assigned for urine collection from the public at large, which, when mixed with lime, resulted in an ammonia solution that was used during the laundering.

vat in garum factory

vat in garum factory

Also on display was a shop for processing garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment atop all sorts of dishes and beloved by Romans.  The mechanics were a bit messy but the fish (and leftover parts too) and shellfish were smashed, mashed, pulverized and marinated in large vats, macerated in salt and left to rot or be cured and then sold commercially.  According to the lore, the smell was so rank during the fermenting that the citizens weren’t allowed to make it in their own homes – hence the shops.   Definitely an acquired taste!

maceration tanks for garum

maceration tanks for garum

In one section of the ruins were public baths for both men and women:  hot water baths (caldarium), warm water baths (tepidarium) and cold water baths (frigidarium) which were intended to be used in succession. Massages were offered and then as now, the masses and aristocrats were concerned with their appearances.  Cosmetics and unguents and creams to moisturize or hide the signs of aging and whiten the skin were available.  Linseed was applied to shine the nails and a mix of honey and oats polished the teeth while laurel leaves could be chewed to freshen breath.

cold water pool, part of the public baths

cold water pool, part of the public baths

And what’s a society without its intoxicants?   The Romans were egalitarian in the use of wine and, regardless of class, wine was served along with bread and salt at every meal. Structures of a wine making facility were found in the ruins along with vats for fermentation, a wine-press and even a wine cellar.  The wine was produced in great quantities and, while considered an unimpressive, inexpensive wine, it was suitable for export and became a staple in the western Mediterranean.

wine factory with vats remnants

wine factory with holes for vats

Christian carving

Christian carving

Towards the end of our tour, well into our third hour of roaming the walkways and as our energy began flagging we came upon the ruins of a 4th century residence of an early bishop of the Christian Church.  As the Roman Empire declined the new religion of Christianity gained in popularity until, by the fourth century, Christianity was Barcino’s official religion as well as entwined in its political life.  Evidence of a small necropolis exists and there’s a display of several pieces of sarcophagi decorated with Christian motifs, some originating from Rome.  Additional renovations in the sixth century changed the bishop’s residence into a grander palace, added a new church and show a religion gaining in influence, power and wealth.  Lastly we admired the remains of intricate tiled mosaic floors and the remnants of some of the remarkable paintings that decorated the ceiling of the baptistery and walls of the episcopal hall.

mosaid tiles from Episcopal palace

mosaic tiles from Christian palace

It was rather disorienting to climb out of our subterranean time capsule and surface into the 21st century sunshine.   Maybe what was more unreal was that we emerged in the midst of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, another chapter of architecture, artistry, religion and history.  What a magnificent city!

By Richard and Anita

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