Barcelona is the capital city of the autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain; this metropolitan area is home to about five million people. Being such a fascinating and colorful city Barcelona is very popular with tourists mainly due to its rich cultural heritage, the entertainment available and the friendly nature of the people who certainly display a zest for life. Another plus point is the beautiful parks and beaches that several million tourists flock to visit every year. After London and Paris, Barcelona is the third most visited city in Europe.
The Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gòtic, is at the center of the old city; it was founded by the Romans and contains many important monuments that are great points of interest for tourists. However, if you are an enquiring and exploring type there are little gems of history and geology in Barcelona that are hiding in the shadows. There are three very special locations in the city that are tucked away in concealed corners but are by no means forgotten; they are a bonus for those that take the trouble to seek them out.
Refugi 307 Tunnel
During the Spanish Civil War (1926 – 1939) Barcelona became a target for bombing raids carried out by General Francisco Franco’s army – 192 took place in all. To protect themselves the locals built air-raid shelters in the basements of their homes and in subway stations; however, when the bombing intensified they worked together to find new solutions. Shelter number 307 survives today as one of the interpretation centers of the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat, or Barcelona City History Museum.
During construction a vast web of narrow and winding tunnels was completed, extending to over 656 feet in length; the tunnels were capable of housing up to 2,000 people. Located in the El Poble Sec neighborhood, in what is now the district of Sants-Montjuïc, the tunnel interiors were constructed using bricks of clay, which is porous. As a result the walls were able to absorb the impact of the bombings without cracking. Internally, they were coated with lime in order to create an impervious seal and then whitewashed in an attempt to dispel the sense of claustrophobia. After the war Franco extended the tunnels in anticipation of using it if he joined the war in support of Hitler – which he didn’t.
The Refugi 307 Tunnel tour lasts for about 30 minutes and the guides speak in Spanish or Catalan. Tours in French and English are available but it is necessary to book in advance. The commentary explains the history of this remarkable feature over the succeeding decades when Refugi 307 was used in many different ways (not all of them legal) at various times. It’s a fascinating excursion into Barcelona’s past and the tunnels are well worth a visit.
The El Call area of Barcelona is the location of the Jewish Quarter and staying there means having the wonderful Cathedral of La Seu, Plaça del Pi and Plaça Jaume on your doorstep. In many ways, the Barri Gòtic remains the center of historic Barcelona with the cathedral being named for Barcelona’s patron saint – purportedly a 13-year old Christian martyr named Eulalia. The presence of Jews in Catalonia dates as far back as the ninth century, however, it took two centuries longer before El Call was created.
The Jewish population helped to establish Barcelona as a center for trade in medieval times, although towards the end of the 14th century the Jewish quarter was attacked and many of the human rights of the inhabitants were revoked.
In the quarter there is a lovely, tiny, almost completely hidden museum dedicated to the former Jewish weaver Jucef Bonhiac. It dates from the 14th century and is sometimes referred to as Casa de l’Alquimista or the Alchemist’s House. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the storage space and wells used at the time, as well as a variety of Jewish artifacts. They include ceramic items that were excavated close to El Call and there are intriguing maps and a detailed explanation of the Jewish quarter as it once was.
Just off the Ramblas, Plaça del Pui is a charming public square and is one of the areas particularly favored by artists and bohemian types. It is dominated by the church of Santa María del Pi with its enormous multicolored stained glass window. Regular markets and fairs featuring arts and crafts where organic foods are also on sale are a great attraction. “Mató”, which is a mild cheese made from goats’ or cows’ milk is a good seller. It is usually served with honey as a dessert.
Gaudí is one of Barcelona’s most renowned architects and was one of the creators of Catalan Modernism. Together with the painter and poet Santiago Rusiñol he is lauded for taking inspiration from the amazing Salnitre Caves in Collbató. These limestone caves are well illuminated, well maintained and have good accessibility, which makes them a great place to visit with a group of friends or family.
The mountain of Montserrat, at the foot of which Les Coves del Collbatóare is located, is to the north of Barcelona. Here there are wells and salt deposits that are fascinating, and visitors also have the opportunity to accompany an experienced guide on a tour to explore the section of the caves lit by electric light. The part that is suitable for visitors is about 600 yards in length, and to reach it visitors must walk up a steep slope for roughly 65 feet. The temperature is stable at 57 degrees Fahrenheit (circa 14 degrees Celsius) and the humidity is 97 percent.
Tours usually include a trip to the abbey, including a view of the famous statue of the black Virgin Mary, La Moreneta. It seems that thousands of pilgrims from all over the world visit this special part of Barcelona; they say that the Virgin Mary of Montserrat grants the most cherished wishes of many women – that of conception.
Among the caves that can be visited is La Cova de la Cathedral – this cave is 196 feet long and 114 feet high. It has walls formed of huge coarse-grained sedimentary rocks and it contains a small lake. El Pou del Diable (The Devil’s Well) has spectacular stalactites and stalagmites on a particularly grand scale, while La Cova del Cambril o Columnes (cambril means monastery) is possibly the most unique and spectacular of all, having many stalactite columns and a slope allowing water to exit towards the south east.
All in all, Barcelona’s hidden world has many attractions beyond those most tourists associate with this popular vacation destination. Just do a little research beforehand and make the most of the time there by seeking out these intriguing and unusual experiences.