Tucked 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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