Exploring Barcelona’s Subterranean Roman Ruins

To find the City Museum, just look for the Barcelona Cathedral. (Photo by Susan Schwarz.)

“No.” The museum guard’s voice was preemptory as he gestured in my direction. He was pointing at me in a way that said I was doing something very wrong. I don’t speak Catalan, and he didn’t speak English, so I wasn’t sure exactly what my transgression was. I was merely trying to leave the building. I had ducked into the History Museum of the City of Barcelona (Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat) on a whim, not knowing anything about it, but needing a quiet place to recover from blinding summer heat and a too-close encounter with a would-be pickpocket.

Once inside, I dutifully looked at some sketches that told me today’s Barcelona looked nothing like the city of yesterday, exchanged stares with city fathers who brooded in their formal portraits, and studied maps that would have gotten me lost had I tried to actually use them. I like history museums about as much as the next tourist (sometimes a lot, and sometimes not at all) but exploring the basement of one was a little beyond my interest level. Which is what the guard seemed to want me to do.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You’ve never actually walked through a first century B.C. ancient city before.
  • It’s a well-displayed glimpse into an entire lost world.
  • Good for culture hounds and history buffs.

I tried to continue on my way, but the guard brooked no argument, gesturing even more forcefully to an elevator. Clearly, I needed to go somewhere else — downstairs, it turned out, as he finally led me to said elevator and pushed a button that sent me plummeting four stories below ground level of the city of Barcelona. Truly, it was like disappearing through a vortex in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. From the elevator, I stepped out into an alternate reality, a whole other world.

The Roman City of Barcino

Today’s Barcelona, known for its architecture, is built on the ruins of Barcino, a Roman City. (Photo by Susan Schwarz.)

In the basement was an entire city. Not a model of one, a real one: the original Roman city of Barcino. Walkways were constructed to run around, over, and through streets that dated to a century before Christ. Floodlighting lit up the cavelike interior, revealing an expanse of nearly 40,000 square feet. I followed the narrow walkways through the maze of old homes and shops. Here is where wine was pressed. There, a shop where fabric was dyed. Another where fish was salted and a fermented fish sauce known as garum was made. There were occasional remnants of mosaics and murals, waterworks that led to baths and pools, and churches built in later centuries, and tombs.

Only a handful of other people were making their way through the basement at that moment, and something about the echoey, cavelike interior made us talk in hushed voices. Our exclamations seemed to bounce off the ancient rock walls, and I wondered about all the centuries of conversations these walls had heard, the secrets they were keeping: A lover’s tryst, a child’s fears, the grief and happiness of an eon. I slowed down to take in each building, trying to imagine what it might have been like to walk through these streets when they were at ground level, open to the sun, rather than buried forty feet below today’s city’s surface. What would it have been like to bathe in that tub, to sleep in that room, to walk through those streets on my daily rounds to buy bread and cheese and that unappetizing sounding fish sauce? I had the strange sense of living in one time while above me, city life went on in another. And when I returned to that shiny sunlit surface, a part of my mind stayed underground, wondering about the parallel lives that had been lived in that other place, so many centuries ago.

Practicalities

  • The History Museum of the City sits right next to the Cathedral.
  • Watch for pickpockets on the street: I caught a young woman whose sleight of hand was such that her fingers were inside my waist pack before I even knew she was there.
  • Audio guides in English are available.
Average rating for this trip

Comments

  1. Jill Browne says

    Wow, what a fascinating underworld. I would love to see this. Thanks for the article. I’d probably never have found out otherwise.

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  2. says

    OMG, I am from Barcelona and I didn’t know they had this running! And I must have gone to that Museum before… Well, next family visit is the perfect excuse 😀 To think I used to live almost next door!
    And yeah, careful with the pickpockets, particularly if you look like a tourist. An absolute shame, as the city is welcoming and very pleasant to walk around.

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