By Richard Varr
I walk on raised platforms above the subterranean ruins – crumbling walls, sections of chipped stone columns and carefully-laid mosaic floors amidst rugged walkways and alleys. Historically speaking, however, the ancient stone chambers, streets and squares within Barcelona’s Musea d’História de la Ciutat (City History Museum) are often described as the most extensive and comprehensive underground Roman ruins in the world.
In the city best known for the genius of Antoni Gaudí’s Modernisme architectural style – undulating walls, colorful chimneys and eye-catching building facades designed with nature’s image in mind – it’s often easy to overlook the City History Museum’s fascinating glimpse of Barcelona’s past in what was once the old Roman city known as Barcino.
Located in the central Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter, the museum sits adjacent to the 13th and 14th century Royal Palace where, in its medieval courtyard known as the Plaça del Rei, it is believed King Fernando II and Queen Isabel welcomed Christopher Columbus upon his return from the New World. And it’s under this courtyard where the museum’s vast underground ruins lie.
Dating back to between the 1st and 6th centuries AD, the ruins were once buildings housing aspects of the Romans’ everyday life. They include a factory where fish was chopped and salted, and a wine-making facility where grapes were pressed and wine fermented in open vats. Hot and cold baths refreshed Roman citizens. Well-defined pits once served as dyeing and laundering centers.
Another important Roman site not particularly obvious to those strolling through the old town are four grand columns that were once part of the landmark Barcino Temple, the dominant structure in the Roman forum, the lively public city square. “This is the most ancient part of Barcelona – the very origin of the city or Barcino,” says tour guide Artur Costa. “The temple was constructed over a hill and was in the center of the forum.”
The columns are housed in a museum of sorts known as the “Temple Roma D’August, Local Dei Centre Excursionista de Catalunya,” standing tall – although chipped and eroded – within an internal courtyard of a medieval mansion. They once supported the back end of Barcino Temple, built in the late first century BC and presiding over the city’s forum for more than four centuries. With the dawn of Christianity in the 5th century AD, the temple lost its importance and its columns were used in the construction of new buildings and palaces.