This is the perfect setting for a museum of city history. The Casa Padellas, a 15th-century Gothic merchant’s palace was painstakingly moved to this site in 1931 to make way for the new Vía Laietana. While digging its foundations, workers uncovered a surprise: houses of Roman and Visigothic Barcino, stretching beneath the modern C/ de los Comtes, complete with a 4th-century baptistry.
These layers of the ancient Barcino – the largest underground excavations of any ancient city in Europe – were left remarkably intact; here you can look down on roads marked by wheel ruts gouged out two millennia ago. Traces of indigo dye still stain the stone vats of the laundry and dying workshops, which were later incorporated into the baths, equipped with a gymnasium and massage rooms.
Further evidence that Barcelona was born industrious awaits in the tidy and still faintly pungent remnants of the fish factory where salted fish and garum were prepared for export (garum was the most popular condiment of the Roman world, something like the Asian fish sauce of today). Circular fermentation vats are pocked with the grape skins and pips of Laitania, a simple, cheap wine popular in the 1st century BC, when the average Gaius knocked back around three-quarters of a litre a day. Laitania’s distinctive amphorae have been found as far away as England.
In the 4th century, when Christianity became the empire’s official religion, a prestigious Roman family donated its property for the city’s first Christian basilica and episcopal palace; note the pretty floor mosaic from their house that survived in the church. For these early Christians, baptism required total immersion, and the remains of the deep 4th–8th-century font are topped by the words ‘Iubet Renuntiare Inimicum Dominus’, chanted to renounce the devil during the rite.
Exhibits in the museum proper include models, diagrams and photos, such as the 14th-century Llibra Verd, the book of the city's legal privileges. A small gallery area contains busts of unknown Romans who now resemble prize fighters with their chipped or missing noses. Two faded early Gothic frescoes depict a procession of knights (c. 1265–1300), with fabulous creatures cavorting along the borders. From here, a walkway leads up into the Palau Reial Major itself in Plaça del Rei.
Barcelona’s royal palace was renovated in the 14th century, when its great hall, the magnificent Saló de Tinell was added. Begun in 1359 by Guillem Carbonell, architect to Pere the Ceremonious (who insisted on a number of astrological calculations before laying the first stone), its six huge rainbow arches cross a span of 56ft, with wooden beams filling in the ceiling between; when viewed from the corner of the hall, the arches appear magically to radiate from a single point.
Banquets, funerals and even parliaments were held in the Saló de Tinell; in 1493 Ferdinand and Isabel received Columbus here after his first voyage, and later the Inquisition held its trials here, so dreaded that the stones in the walls were said to move if a suspect told a lie. After 1714, the room was baroqued over as a church for Clarisse nuns who had been displaced by the building of the Ciutadella, and everyone presumed the original Saló de Tinell was lost for ever, until someone dug under the plaster in 1934, and voilà.
The hall is linked to the apse of the lofty and narrow Capella Palatina de Santa Àgata. Begun in 1302 by Jaume II and his queen Blanche of Anjou, the chapel was re-dedicated to St Agatha by papal bull in 1601, thanks to a precious relic: the stone where the breasts of St Agatha were laid after Roman soldiers snipped them off in Catania, Sicily. The chapel’s glory is the golden, lavish Retablo del Condestable (1466), the masterpiece of Jaume Huguet. The vestry holds a bell-tower clock, made in 1575 and the largest of its kind in the world. After keeping the Barcelonans punctual for three centuries, it was restored in 1986 and can be visited by request.
A narrow, almost hidden, staircase leads out to the curious skyscraper which rises over the square – five storeys of galleries built by Antoni Carbonell in 1557 and anachronistically named the Mirador del Rei Martí after that popular and humane king, to hide the unpleasant truth that it was really a spy tower for the hated viceroy, or Lloctinent, a position set up by Ferdinand the Catholic.
To the left of the Palau Reial is the Palau del Lloctinent, also by Carbonell. After holding the viceroy, it held the Archives of the Crown of Aragón, one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval documents, dating back to 844, but these were moved in 1994 and the building is now closed. Walk outside Plaça del Rei to C/ de les Comtes to peek into the fine courtyard with a magnificent coffered ceiling over the stair.
Like all museums these days, the Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat de Barcelona as been branded with initials (in this case, MUHBA), and manages several other outlying MUHBA historical sites and interpretation centres scattered through the city: , the Casa del Guarda Centre d'Interpretació del Park Güell, Centre d'Interpretació del Call, Centre d'Interpretació Històrica, Refugi 307, the Temple of Augustus, the Domus de Sant Honorat, the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid, and the Museu-Casa Verdaguer.
Plaça del Rei
Hours Tues-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-8pm
Adm €7, €5 under 29s and over 65s, under 16 free; free after 3pm on Sun (1st Sun each month, all day)
metro: Jaume I
+34 93 256 21 00
Images by: Laura Padgett, Ajuntament de Barcelona