‘Live Free’. This is a slogan you will see a lot of while visiting Barcelona at the moment. Well, what you will actually see is ‘Viure Lliure’ (the slogan in Catalan), which has been adopted by the Barcelona city council to describe the year-long activities and festivities currently underway and and which will finish on September 11th, 2014. This will be 300 years to the day when a besieged Barcelona (and with it an independent Catalunya) fell to the Spanish. The Catalans had sided with the Austrians against Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession and was to pay a heavy price for this decision as the victorious Spanish king, Felipe V, later got rid of its key institutions and outlawed the public use of the Catalan language.
Every year in modern times, September 11th has been marked by Catalans eager to turn the clock back and see this region become a self-ruling nation. Known as ‘la diada’ and described as Catalunya’s ‘national’ day (despite it not being a nation), there are not many places that remember such a burdensome historical defeat with an annual public holiday.
If you’ve visited Barcelona before, you will know that it is a city teeming with history. From its Roman wall to the cathedral of the Middle Ages and 20th-century architectural landmarks, the past here is not so much a ‘foreign country’, but rather an intrinsic and essential part of the city’s character. With so much attention being paid to the city of the early 18th century, why not get into the spirit of that time and visit some of those places that were around in some form or other 300 years ago?
The Born neighbourhood is the obvious place to start. Renovations at the former local market ground to a halt a few years back when excavations uncovered extensive remains from the years immediately after the September 1714 defeat. As a result, plans to transform the market into a major library were changed to make it into a cultural centre—opening on September 11th this year—with a significant focus on the historic finds. They include more than 50 homes, taverns, butchers and wells, and some of them are thought to date back to the 14th century; visitors will be able to view these remains from a specially constructed walkway. As well as this, the Born Centre Cultural will feature a permanent exhibition about life here in 1700, activities for families and guided tours.
The reason why this area is so rich in historical features is that, following the fall of Barcelona, the Spaniards decided to build a citadel in the city to keep an eye on the locals. When built, the star-shaped military construction is said to have been the largest of its kind in Europe. Today, the main site for the Spanish fort has become the Parc de la Ciutadella, just metres away from the old Born market. To build the citadel, a whole neighbourhood was basically laid waste, with 1,200 homes thought to have been destroyed (leaving 4,500 people homeless and uncompensated for their loss) along with two convents and part of the city’s water transportation system, El Rec Comtal, which had to be diverted. The citadel was destroyed around 1870—visit the park today and you’ll see the modern-day Catalan Parliament, situated where the arsenal once stood; the only other surviving parts of the 18th-century construction are the chapel and governor’s palace.
Apart from the citadel, the Spaniards used two key city landmarks as a means to supress any revolutionary leanings of the defeated Catalans: Montjuïc Castle and the Drassanes. The castle (which is currently being renovated into a centre of historical memory and cultural activities) sits high above the city centre and the views it offers alone make the trip there worthwhile. You can also enjoy the sights from the short cable car ride that runs from the funicular station (which connects with Poble Sec metro) to and from the castle entrance.
Once a thriving royal shipyard, the Spanish army took the Drassanes over in the mid 17th century. Since 1941, it has been the city’s Maritime Museum and has recently reopened following 25 years of renovation work. The central exhibit is a life-size model of a royal galley built there in the 1560s for John of Austria, while you can also see remnants of life from when Barcelona was a Roman settlement, with a necropolis found during the recent works.
Finally, back in the Born, a visit to the Fossar de les Moreres, next to Santa Maria del Mar church, is a must. This is Barcelona’s memorial to those who died during the siege—which lasted 413 days—a tribute to the human cost of that long-remembered event.