Photo by Antonio Lajustícia
There’s a certain irony to one of Barcelona’s central metro stations being named after a shipyard. The Drassanes were a space for naval construction, repairs and maintenance, preparing vessels for sea voyages centuries before train travel had been invented. Located at the foot of Montjuïc and boasting 700 years of history, the site now houses Barcelona’s Maritime Museum.
In their shipbuilding heyday, the Drassanes specialised in the construction of galleys—warships with sets of oars the size of telephone poles, which were powered by slaves. John of Austria’s 16th-century royal galley was built in the Drassanes and a replica of the impressive ship is now the focus of exhibits at the Museu Marítim (pictured). This particular galley was the flagship of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a coalition of southern European Catholic states decisively defeated the fleet of the Ottoman Empire, thus preventing further Ottoman expansion along the European side of the Mediterranean. The clash was the last naval battle in the Mediterranean to be fought entirely with galleys.
If you visit, don’t be fooled by the forest of ‘Gothic’ arches—although construction began on the initial structure of the Drassanes at the end of the 13th century, during the reign of Pere III of Aragó, what we see today is a 16th-century replica as revealed during excavations that took place last year. The construction of a new port in Barcelona changed the currents of the ocean and moved the shore further inland, which then caused flooding and damage to the medieval Drassanes. Thus the shipyards were moved inland in the 1500s, but they kept the same Gothic structure. This was a practical decision, but one that would baffle historians in years to come.
Following the Catalan Revolt or the ‘Reapers’ War’ (1640–1652), the Spanish army took over the Drassanes. In the 18th century, shipbuilding was relocated to the Cartagena shipyard and, following the War of Spanish Succession, Spanish soldiers were posted in the barracks to prevent further uprisings by the Catalans.
The Drassanes have been the site for the Museu Marítim since 1941. The museum is home to a replica of Ictíneo I, the world’s first submarine, which was built by Catalan socialist Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol and made its maiden voyage in 1859. The original was sold for scrap by the impoverished inventor, who believed in a kind of utopia beneath the surface of the sea.
Excavations in 2012
Although the structure is 300 years newer than once thought, the recent archaeological digs also uncovered something much older: a Roman necropolis. There were 19 burials and 11 cremations discovered in the mausoleum, which was used by the Romans in the first six centuries of the common era. Of the urns, six are ceramic, while five are rare glass vessels.
Archaeologists have also discovered around 1,000 ivory fragments that correspond to the graves, revealing that the deceased were among the Roman nobility. The mausoleum and some of the uncovered urns will be displayed on site, but the remainder of the findings will be relocated to the Museu d’Història.
1243 – Earliest documentation of the Drassanes
1568 – The royal galley of John of Austria was built
1976 – The Drassanes were declared a Cultural Site of National Interest because of their historical significance in the construction of boats and ships
2013 – End to 25 years of renovation works