A route around the vestiges of Barcelona’s history

15 February, 2018 | Barcelona People, Unknown City

What exactly is the graó barceloní? Any megaliths in Barcelona? Any dolmens or menhirs? Anything left of the Rec Comtal waterway, apart from the street name? Any medieval bridges left? Where do some street names come from, like Creu Coberta? What were the barraques in Av. Paral·lel? What went on there? Why do the Sant Pau, Sant Antoni, Universitat and Sant Pere ring roads surround Ciutat Vella? Where were the boundaries of the Roman city of Barcino? The answer to all these questions and more are to be found in the book Barcelona Ciutat de Vestigis, authored by Enric H. March and published by Barcelona City Council.

Strolling around the city with one’s eyes open allows curious souls to discover hidden corners, details, remains, vestiges and more, offering insights into what Barcelona was like in times gone by and why it is like it is now, as well as where the names of streets, squares and buildings come from. In his book Barcelona Ciutat de Vestigis. Passejades per les petjades de la història, Enric H. March details 117 points around the city where, in some form or another, these types of details can be found, allowing us to discover stories about the history of the city.

In the introduction, the author sets out his goal and how he seeks to achieve it: “Using old paths, some dating back to before Roman Barcelona, we’ll travel by horse and cart to Horta, follow in the steps of the legions along the Via Augusta, lose ourselves in the alleys of El Call, witness the birth of Av. Paral·lel and the disappearance of Icària…”. He also asserts: “Finally, we’ll also see how science, shows and entertainment played a role in constructing the city and what vestiges they left. And, on a path we take in Montjuïc, where Barcelona was born, we’ll end up in heaven”.

The book consists of nine itineraries which allow readers to make their way around the city as they discover different vestiges. The first route starts where the remains of the city’s first human inhabitants were found, on the mountain of Montjuïc. The presence of Iberians was discovered here, and over countless years it was from here that stone was taken to construct the city’s buildings. The first chapter is dedicated to stone, describing the megaliths recorded in Barcelona, such as a dolmen on Montjuïc, another in the Camp de l’Arpa area, giving the neighbourhood its name, and the tip of a possible menhir sticking out of the ground in Pedralbes. The chapter also describes jasper stone works and the area around the Morrot caves at the foot of Montjuïc Castle.

The second stroll proposed by the author traces Roman Barcino: the remains of the aqueduct in Pl. Vuit de Març, the reconstructed arches in Pl. Nova which join the façade at the rear of the Casa de l’Ardiaca, inside which a couple of original sections of the aqueduct remain. These are not the only vestiges of the Barcelona aqueduct though, as there are also some in C/ Fernando Pessoa, in Sant Andreu de Palomar. Other remains from the Roman era are well-known and include the columns of the Temple of August in C/ Paradís and the subsoil in Pl. Rei.

Barcelona is much more than an ancient city, and although there are a fair number of vestiges from the past here, there are many others spread around the territory. Tracing the paths to ancient towns around the Barcelona plain means a chance to discover how the city has adapted to the terrain. March describes one case in the third chapter of the book: “The path to Horta is older than Horta itself. There’s not one main path to Horta, but rather a combination of footpaths, roads and riverbeds which converge and then take different paths again. For a few centuries, various sections of these paths combined and were known as the Horta path. However, as from the 19th century, many footpaths diverged again as they were turned into paved urban streets”. Old country houses can be found around the Horta path, such as Can Miralletes, Can Garcini and Torre Llobeta, as well as some modernista houses, water towers and the architectural set of buildings in Vilapicina.

The Rec Comtal is a thousand-year-old waterway which is essential in understanding the urban development of the north eastern part of the city. An open-air section of it remains intact in Vallbona, while its route through neighbourhoods such as Sant Andreu de Palomar, El Clot, Fort Pienc and La Ribera also offers physical traces and related street names. The archaeological site in El Born also features a section of the old riverbed.

Another ancient path which shared the same route as the present-day city streets is Via Augusta, which, the author explains: “Diverted its inner route to be able to get inside Barcino. From the north, the path went along what are now C/ Portal Nou, C/ Carders, C/ Corders, C/ Bòria, Pl. de l’Àngel, C/ Llibreteria, Pl. Sant Jaume, C/ Call, C/ Boqueria, Pl. Pedro and C/ Sant Antoni Abad, at the end of which there was a gateway”. Along this route one can find buildings such as the Casa de la Generalitat, built in the 16th century in the Gothic style in what is now C/ Sant Antoni Abad, or the former Hospital de la Santa Creu.

Over time, as many as three perimeter walls surrounded the city, hemming it in until they were demolished in 1854. The layout of the walls remains though, traced by streets and squares such as the Sant Antoni, Sant Pau, Universitat and Sant Pere ring roads. Likewise, some parts of the Roman walls can still be seen in streets such as C/ Tapineria and C/ Subtinent Navarro, while remains of the medieval wall can be found at Drassanes, where Av. Paral·lel begins. The latter is another itinerary proposed by the author, with a route around the sort of leisure which was highly popular early in the 20th century but which is not very familiar today. There, among the huts of the first film directors and seedy entertainment, other shows capitalised on people’s morbid nature, such as the Cabaret de la Muerte and the anatomical museums, which pulled in visitors as they showed nude figures.

The last two chapters offer a chance to get closer to the coastline and the Ciutadella. One proposes a route around the Somorrostro beach neighbourhood, where there was a sizeable shanty town, the Hospital for Infectious Diseases (the forerunner to what is now the Hospital del Mar), and the vestiges of factories which stood in Av. Icària. At the beginning of the 20th century, the latter was still a tree-lined avenue leading to the Poblenou cemetery, with train tracks on one side and industry and housing on the other. The final route takes in the Parc de la Ciutadella, which was the first public park in the city and was conceived as a meeting point for science, knowledge and technology as understood in the final decades of the 19th century. On the subject of science, the book ends by looking to the skies, remembering the figure of Josep Comas i Solà, the driving force behind astronomy in Catalonia and discoverer of various asteroids, one of which he named Barcelona.

Photo captions: View of Barcelona painted by Antonio Castelucho in 1882. The Parc de la Ciutadella dominates the lower part of the illustration, next to the Barceloneta bullring and the port, while Barcelona spreads as far as Collserola and Montjuïc. Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona. | The Pedra de l’Àngel [Angel stone] in the middle of the entrance to the Pedralbes monastery. The round stone protrudes in a way that suggests it is the tip of a menhir buried below. Author: Jordi Balanyà. | Passatge de León, seen from the start of C/ Cartagena, built along the same route taken by the old path to Horta. Author: Jordi Balanyà. | Santa Eulàlia de Vilapicina architectural ensemble, located in Passeig de Fabra i Puig, very close to Plaça del Virrei Amat. Author: Jordi Balanyà. | Current view of the Vallbona medieval bridge, after being remodelled. Author: Francesc Ayats. | Engraving of the Campamento Sanitario de la Constitución by Louis Vuillaume in 1821, the Creu Coberta can be seen in the lower part. The camp is the nucleus of shanty homes in Montjuïc mountain. It was built to house people fleeing the outbreak of plague and yellow fever in 1821. AHCB. | Engraving of the Portal de l’Àngel, or, dels Orbs, early in the 19th century, with the bridge which would allow the defensive moat below the medieval city wall to be saved. AHCB. | Portal del Mar, in Pla de Palau c.1857. Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona. Franck. | Avinguda d’Icària, early in the 19th century, when it was still a tree-lined avenue leading to the Poblenou cemetery. The human remains from the parish cemeteries within the city walls were transferred to the Poblenou cemetery. Author unknown. AFB.