Photo by Mónica Navarro
Plaça del Rei
The old city of Barcelona is home to one of the greatest collections of medieval buildings in Europe. They form an open-air classroom where one can learn about Gothic architecture and Catalunya in the Middle Ages.
But behind this real history of buildings and kings, there is another secret city of folk tales and arcane traditions, many of which were collected between the Twenties and Fifties by the remarkable Catalan folklorist Joan Amades. Every street and corner seems to have spawned a tale, a legend or a weird medieval custom. This short wander through the Gothic quarter tells just a few of them.
Our little walk begins in Plaça del Pi, which takes its name from the pine tree growing in one corner. Although the present tree was planted here in the mid 20th century, it seems a tree has been growing here for centuries, a tradition whose origins have various explanations. Some believe the Romans planted the first pine as a symbol of victory over the local Laietani people. Others claim it was the work of a giant (gegant). There are many versions of the story of the gegant del pi, of which this is one. One day a giant reached the city gates on what is today Les Rambles. He had a bit of a limp and supported himself using an immense staff, which was actually a young pine tree he had uprooted on his way to the city. On seeing it, the gatekeepers demanded the giant pay a tax for bringing firewood into Barcelona, for surely he was going to chop it up and sell no sooner had he passed through the city walls. The big man was so incensed by their meanness, that he huffed and puffed and threw the tree over the walls as far as he could. It landed in a small square with such a force that it rammed into the ground and took root. And so a tradition was born.
In the same square is the lovely Santa Maria del Pi church, one of the jewels of Gothic Barcelona. It also has an interesting tale attached to it. When the master builder was constructing the bell tower, he ran into difficulties sourcing the stone. The Devil, always on the lookout for an opportunity, conveniently turned up at the construction site. He told the builder that his schedule prevented him helping with the physical work, but he kindly offered to provide the materials to finish the job. In payment he demanded the standard fee for such transactions: the man’s soul, on completion of the last of the one hundred steps of the tower. The master builder accepted. Years went by, the builder grew older and the work slowly progressed, but when he reached the 99th step, he abandoned the tower, and continued with the rest of the church. This lasted long enough for him to die a natural death and so save his soul. After his death, his sons finished the job, now free from any responsibility.
From Plaça del Pi, it’s a short walk to El Call, Barcelona’s old Jewish quarter that has produced a host of local folklore, perhaps the most famous of which is the tale of the alchemist and his daughter. Very unusually for the Gothic quarter, the last building on Arc de Sant Ramon del Call is a single-storey house. It has recently been restored and now houses a Jewish history centre, but when I arrived in Barcelona 20 years ago, it was in ruins. People said the house was cursed and it had been empty for 700 years. The story goes that the house was owned by a Jewish alchemist who lived here with his daughter who was, of course, the most beautiful maid in the city. Unbeknown to her father, the girl had fallen in love with a wealthy Christian knight. They would meet furtively in squares and gardens, holding hands and perhaps exchanging a chaste kiss. The girl was content with their relationship, but the man soon wanted more, and asked for a night of joy with her. She replied that this was unthinkable unless they were married. They began to argue. He became enraged. How could he, a Christian, marry her, a Jew. And so he went to see a famous Jewish alchemist and told him he wished to avenge a disloyal lover. The alchemist accepted the rich man’s seven gold pieces and cooked up an evil perfume which he sprayed on a beautiful bunch of flowers.
The man got word to the girl and implored her to meet him. He had wronged her and wished to apologise. Would she concede to see him one last time? She agreed and he presented her with the bouquet. She was delighted and inhaled the alluring fragrance. She began to feel dizzy but the knight just smiled and bade her farewell. By the time she had reached her home, the girl was wracked by terrible pains. Her father used all his powers of alchemy to save her but in the end it was a relief to see her find comfort in death. He had killed his own daughter and was disconsolate. By way of penance, he avowed to wander in the wilderness for the rest of his life, but before he did, as the crowd gathered round, watching him lock shut the doors of his home for the last time, he uttered a curse for all to hear that anyone who came to live in this house would meet the same fate as his daughter. And so it stayed empty.
Just round the corner from El Call is Plaça del Rei. The square was a place of execution over the centuries and it was here that the Inquisition held their auto de fe rituals of public penance. On the same square, there also used to be a tiny house, by tradition the smallest in the city, which, conveniently, was the home of Barcelona’s executioner. In addition to accommodation, he received a stipend as a royal functionary to compensate for his work and the immense social rejection he was subject to. As a perk, he was also allowed to keep the remains of the executed fellows, whose body parts could then be sold as good luck charms and for use in medicines. Particularly prized were the shoes of the deceased, as they would protect the entrance to a home from evil spirits. As a footnote, when an executioner died he would be laid to rest in the same graveyard where his victims were buried, in the nearby Plaça de San Felip Neri, reserved specially for this purpose.
On the other side of Via Laietana is Carrer Corders, the old base of the rope-makers’ guild. Like the executioner, rope-makers (corders) were also excluded from society and not even allowed to enter churches or sleep within the city walls until the 16th century. They lived near the marshes of what is today Poblenou, where they collected the reeds to make their wares, which they then sold along this street. The corders were ascribed numerous evil powers such as the ability to wiggle their ears and when they spat on the ground it was said worms would grow out of the saliva. But why were they so hated? Because they also used to make the hangman’s nooses. Relatives of the condemned would bribe rope-makers to make weak ropes, for if the noose snapped, the victim would be pardoned as it was accepted to be a sign from God. In turn, the authorities would also sometimes slip the rope-makers an extra coin to make stronger rope to ensure there was no pardon.
Nick Lloyd leads historical tours in Barcelona and runs the website www.iberianature.com