The Maritime Museum in Barcelona (Av. de les Drassanes, a short walk from the foot of the Ramblas), which May's cultural program took us to, is somewhere anyone visiting Barcelona should go to, and not just because of the fact that it is one of Barcelona's most interesting museums.
The coast of Barcelona - the seafront, anyway - was spruced up, along with everything else in the city for the 1992 Olympics, and you can now spend a day at the beach literally in Barcelona. But if you don't actually make the effort to look for it, the sea is to all intents and purposes invisible to anyone living here. And yet to ignore it is to overlook a vast slice of the city's history, linked so closely as it is to commerce across the Mediterranean and beyond.
The Martime Museum itself is housed in the Drassanes Reals, the former royal shipyards, built between 1283 and 1328, and a superb example of Gothic architecture. Once right on the seafront*, the only thing lapping its walls today is the rush hour traffic, which swirls round the statue of Columbus, a short distance away.
Inside the museum, they hand you headphones and a Walkman and point you off to discover the museum for yourself. You have a choice of languages but we only give you one if you're a complete beginner, as you're here to practise your Spanish, right...? (Hold on, mine doesn't work... You've not got the headphones on, honey!)
Among the museum's fascinating array of artefacts there are ships of all shapes and sizes, dioramas and maps and things that they discovered and brought back to Europe from the Americas (tomatoes, potatoes, bananas...).
There's also a superb model of Magellan's Santa María de la Victoria (photo, right), on which the first circumnavigation of the world (1519-1522) was made (though not by Magellan himself, as the natives of the Philippines took a fancy to his head).
The centrepiece of the museum, however, is a huge full-size replica of Juan de Austria's Lepanto "galera", which you have to stroll right round in order to complete the tour, and in order to be able to go up on board.
Half absorbed with my camera (photos yes, but no flash) I thought what a pity there isn't room for the mast... Until I got up the steps and on to the deck, and then it twigged: Galera - galley, right! They rowed these things!
On deck you get a brief 3D virtual reality show of the crew - chained four-by-four to their benches for months on end. You could smell these things two miles away, the commentator whispered in my ear (how did he know?!), you could smell them before you could see them, it was said. Many of the crew were Turkish slaves, prisoners of war, but either people did actually volunteer or else I just failed my Spanish listening comprehension.
Formerly, standing in the harbour, and part and parcel of the museum, there was also a full-size replica of the Santa Maria on which Columbus sailed in 1492, but it was thought politically expedient to quietly sink it (note to scuba divers: it's apparently up the coast off the Illes Medes, no gold on board)... which somehow seems a distinctly odd way to go about preserving your heritage, no matter what your politics are.
Meanwhile, having lost my group somewhere, I had to catch up with them the next day at school. They'd found the museum fascinating, and had still been then long after I'd gone to pick up the kids from school. Stephane Gilles, who works for a perfume company in Paris, apart from being impressed by Juan de Austria's galley, had liked the models showing how ship building had evolved over the ages.
Monique Van Driel, an occupational therapist from Hillegom (near Amsterdam) had been particularly impressed by the building itself. She was with us only for a week to kickstart her Spanish before going on a six month trip to South America next year. "Which made it fascinating to actually see things that I read about..." she said, "... Columbus and so on."
A straw poll round the staffroom suggested that we do tend to live with our backs to the sea. Maria couldn't remember when the last time she'd seen it was... unless going up to Begur on the Costa Brava at Easter counted. Dave had been up the coast to Masnou at the weekend but it must be, what, at least a year since he'd actually seen the sea here in Barcelona. Begoña had seen it two weeks ago from the chiringuito in Barceloneta where she'd sat outside and had lunch, did that count?
As inhabitants of the city, we can claim that we know it and its history so maybe we have some excuse. But for visitors to Barcelona wanting to appreciate the city and its past, a visit to the Maritime Museum (as well as to the beach!) really is a must.*In the Barcelona city history museum (Plaça del Rei) there are a couple of superb models showing you the city as it was in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with the shipyards clearly standing there on the shore.
For a superb view of the sea, including all of the port area, we recommend either the Transbordador Aeri (the aerial cablecar, not for anyone who has no head for heights!) which runs across the port, or going up to the castle on Montjuich, which overlooks it.
You can learn more about the Barcelona Maritime Museum on its website ... (Galleys had oars and masts, apparently!)
More from our Visit Barcelona program.