To visit Barcelona‘s Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gotic, is to tap into the deepest roots of the city’s history. The footprint of this area dates all the way back to Roman times, when the fledgling town was known as Barcino; in fact, fragments of the Roman walls still peek out amid the medieval stonework and the Gothic flourishes that arrived centuries later. It is here that the patchwork of Barcelona’s past is on display, and its gravitas makes for an alluring contrast with the urban energy and the flamboyant Gaudi landmarks nearby. Simply put — it’s the perfect place to dive in.
The Gothic Quarter is best explored with a kid-friendly guide who can distill the complex history and help children understand the nuances of Catalan culture. Our guide, Elena — cheerful, engaged and extremely knowledgeable — kicked things off by giving the kids cards with a baker’s dozen of sights and symbols to find during our 2 1/2-hour stroll. Each of these, from the Catalan flag and a stone turtle to aqueduct ruins and a giant letter B, corresponded to a stop on the tour and a key component of the quarter’s past.
Elena’s route took us deep into the quarter’s reaches — down slender cobbled lanes, past dignified churches and into snug, shady squares. We stopped at the austere Plaça del Rei, flanked by a palace that was home to medieval royalty, and the showier, brighter Plaça de Sant Jaume, built on the site of Barcino’s public forum.
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Barcelona Cathedral — officially the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulàlia, a patron saint of the city — anchors the Gothic Quarter and is the major draw for tourists. Although the church was completed in the 15th century, the ornate, gargoyle-bedecked facade is relatively new, crafted to augment a plainer one in the late 1800s. We didn’t go inside with Elena but had plenty of time after the tour to visit on our own, which I strongly recommend. Kids will especially like the cloisters that house a flock of 13 white geese, one for every year of Saint Eulàlia’s brief life.
TIP: If you happen to be at the cathedral on a Sunday, look for locals outside dancing the sardana, a beloved tradition that symbolizes Catalan solidarity. Anyone can participate, so jump in if you feel inclined.
As the Gothic Quarter has endured wartime bombing, political upheaval, natural disasters and more over the centuries, Elena brought along a thick folder of photographs and illustrations so we could picture certain buildings as they looked years ago. It was helpful, especially for the kids, to have a visual reference that connected the dots. She also had a knack for pointing out tiny details we might never have registered on our own, deftly weaving together historical significance and everyday life: marks made by ancient knives sharpened on the Roman stones; pretty tiles lining the undersides of balconies; the Catholic custom of hanging Palm Sunday fronds on balconies to dry in the sun.
Even with a guide, it’s easy for kids to lose interest in history tours amid the torrent of dates and details, and when they stop having fun, you will too. The remedy? Tempt them with the promise of a treat. About halfway through, Elena led us to a local shop full of handmade chocolate, where the friendly confectioners greeted us with blindfolds and had us hold our hands out for samples. We received half a dozen tidbits to guess by taste alone (chocolate with salted caramel, pure dark chocolate and white chocolate, among others). The kids loved it, and it was just long enough to rejuvenate everyone for the remainder of our walk.
Because two dessert breaks are better than one, our tour finished at a local cafe for churros con chocolate, the ubiquitous Spanish duo that’s nearly impossible to resist. (Officially, this is the prize for finishing the scavenger-hunt checklist, but Elena confessed with a smile that she would never let a child miss out.) We rested our feet and took our time indulging in freshly fried, sugar-dusted strips of dough dunked into hot chocolate as thick as pudding … a perfect finale to a lovely afternoon. As they say in Catalan, deliciós!
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Editor’s Note: We received a complimentary Gothic Quarter tour in order to facilitate our review. As always, all opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.
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