Santa Maria del Mar and the barrio of La Ribera
Among other interesting places in Barcelona, January's social programme found us visiting the Barcelona district of La Ribera and the church of Santa María del Mar.
La Ribera, to the left of Via Layetana as you head down towards the port, has its origins at the time when the old medieval centre of Barcelona started to get too cramped. The narrowness of La Ribera's streets even today are witness to the fact that it too was originally built in late medieval times.
By happy coincidence it also found itself spring up at a time when Barcelona's merchants were extending the Catalan-Aragonese empire half way across the Mediterranean and today, as you walk down the Calle Montcada, La Ribera's best known street, the palaces to left and right are testimony to the fortunes then made.
In fact, as our guide Montse Vilarrubla explained, the Carrer Montcada has Barcelona's greatest concentration of Gothic palaces, all with their huge arched doorways to let the carriages in and stairways leading up from inner patios to elegant first floors (a particularly good example being the Palau Dalmases, in the photo, right).
The Carrer Montcada is also famous as the site of the Picasso Musuem, recently hugely expanded to now occupy five contiguous palaces. We didn't stop there (in fact we'd all already been, the Picasso Museum being one of Barcelona's countless must-see attractions), and poked our noses only briefly into the patio of the Textile and Clothing Museum (mental note to stop there for coffee, next time), which we also did a little further down the street at the new Barbier-Mueller pre-Colombian art gallery, something else we'd have to find a next time for.
With us on the trip was Daniele Raule, who had just finished an Economics degree at Bologna and who had only been in Barcelona three days - not that that was stopping him from conversing in Spanish. It's quite easy to learn Spanish for Italians, he said, something which another person in our party, Christa Bintella, a Zurich housewife, confirmed. She was thankful she knew some Italian: it was certainly helping her learn Spanish, and was useful to fall back on. Being with students from all over the world is great - someone always knows what you're on about!
By now we'd got as far as the Passeig del Born, a favourite area for lovers of Barcelona nightlife. Nowadays the Born is even more packed with bars, though it's nice that places like the Miramelindo are still there, largely unchanged.
And at one end of the Born, we had come to the Santa María del Mar, one of Barcelona's most attractive churches. Typical of the Catalan Gothic, it's sober and much less baroquely ornate than, for example, Barcelona Cathedral, and much more pleasing to look at for that.
Santa María del Mar, too, was built - as a private initiative - on the wealth accrued from overseas ventures by the inhabitants of La Ribera. In those days, the Barcelona seafront was literally a stone's throw away. Nowadays, it's easy to forget that Barcelona is a port city at all, one that historically owes much of its wealth to its location on the Mediterranean.
Right beside Santa María del Mar is the Fossar de les Moreres, where an eternal flame (photo, right) burns to commemorate those that died in the 1713-14 war of succession.
If you've come to Barcelona to learn Spanish, the cultural visits of this sort are well worthwhile. It's not just a question of the opportunity to speak some more Spanish (though it certainly is that, too). It's also a question of getting to know the place, of starting to understand it, of knowing enough to want to come back for more.
Thanks, Montse, it was an interesting trip.
There is an interesting display on the 1714 siege of Barcelona at the excellent Museu d'Història de Catalunya. Another museum well worth a visit, if you want some historical perspective on Barcelona, is the Maritime Museum.
• More from our Visit Barcelona program.