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Of when we discovered the sea

The first thing I would like to explain to all you travelers is that Barcelona is a city overflowing with unjustified pride. Our vision of the world is dramatically affected by some of our distortions of what we have done and of what we are doing, in the same way as glasses too powerful for the eye obfuscate the world. This is also the reason why the city undergoes cyclic depressions: Reality's revolt is usually a painful process. But gothic Barcelona, the period convention places between the 12th and 15th centuries, allows us to voice our opinion in justifiably self-satisfied terms. Back then, Barcelona was a city that discovered the Mediterranean. The problem today is it perhaps continues to discover it with surprising innocence. But what I am talking about here is that first time, the intensely symbolic moment in which the city turned its face and stopped looking northwards, rushing into high-seas backed of course by the necessary military and commercial precautions. I'm not qualified to speculate about my ancestors' overall happiness: they have died and that is a tanca caixa, or closed shop, as we say here. The traces of what they did, however, still visible today throughout Barcelona, have a light, refined, genteel flair to them. Moreover, the gothic, coincidentally or not, occupies one of Barcelona's most recommendable spots.

For starters, head toward Pedralbes Monastery. A calm and solitary spot at the foot of a mountain, perfect on a working day. The Poor Claire order has always been here, always, and that is why we see it as a vital, solid place. Queen Elisenda de Montcada was the first one to occupy it in the 14th century. The outside world had undesirable faces for women, even for queens. The convent is of great interest from many different perspectives. I would suggest getting there early, on a crisp day in order to appreciate the movement of the sun on the cloister stones. Hard, very hard, fossil stones that allowed for the building of those slender, thin columns. Elisenda's burial mound has two faces: One overlooking the cloister where she is dressed up as a nun; the other overlooking the church where she is wearing her queen's robes. Elisenda is a name Catalan mothers like.

As you leave the convent take the Sarrià's train, still not too frequented by commuters, and head toward the center. The aim is to arrive at the Roman wall, in the square of the noble Ramon Berenguer III in order to come face to face for the first time with Barcelona's real character. Its main feature: Cramming. Above the Roman stones stands the palace where kings lived, somehow desperately poised. On the other side, Santa Àgata's bell tower peeks out, a silent marvel. Later ask someone for directions to the cathedral, just a few steps away. Walk in discretely, without raising your head as if you knew where you were headed. Throw the geese some breadcrumbs, if you are that kind of person, as I have always been baffled about their presence in this sacred place. Ask for the lift and head toward the roof. There you will find the best views over Barcelona: A low yet deep vision that presents the fullest display of the crammed city. It is an almost appeasing sight. The low height makes things seem closer. With the cathedral's severe bell towers, almost at hand's reach; or those of nearby del Pi church; and the towers of the Térmica, almost gothic in style, the Barcelonians could play the four corners game. Playing on corners appeases children.

Santa Maria del Mar is just a few, very pleasant steps away from the cathedral. Choose your own route, but try to walk past the eastern facade of Barcelona's city hall, which originally was the building's main façade. Hanging from the wall, above the gothic door, is an angel carved in stone and with forged iron wings. The figure's double chin gives it a delicious human quality, one of warm closeness to earthly matters tempting us to see those times as soberly happy days. Santa Maria has a solemn, frontal entrance but its monumental leanings are immediately checked by the surrounding buildings that strip it from an ample perspective. It is easy, and not at all rhetorical to imagine the sea, already very close by, washing the stone steps. But if it were such, Santa Maria would be a protected Mediterranean cove, with afternoon sun, mature, lustful. It is hard to talk about the building's interior without falling into technicalities. Particularly noteworthy is the symmetry in height of the three naves and the interior buttresses; or the distance between the columns in the central nave, twice the normal distance, and their high concentration around the altar, surely exceeding structural needs. If we add to all of this the fortuitous and fortunate scorch of the ancient choir, it is possible to understand why Santa Maria is a weightless nave in which faith becomes a parameter of beauty.

Directly across from the temple is Barcelona's best ever wine bar. I'm absolutely convinced this also has its effects upon faith and beauty. I'll linger for a while; you, instead, can keep on going for one last stretch. Follow the walls of Santa Maria, watching out for a hook in the wall that could cost you an eye. Continue walking down Rec Street, admiring the porches with semi-Babylonian elevated gardens, currently under restoration. And do me the favor of making it up to the building of La Llotja or the old fish market. The inside of its neoclassic box hides two large rooms, which together with the Ataranzas at the other side of the port, are the best products of civilian gothic architecture in this maritime city.

* Este artículo apareció en la edición impresa del Viernes, 15 de marzo de 2002