The area known as El Borne, which is part of the medieval quarter of La Ribera, was always a seafaring district. So much so that the noblemen and merchants living in Montcada street -where the Picasso museum is today- financed in 1329 the construcction of the magnificent gothic church of Santa María del Mar (Saint Mary of the Sea), grateful to the Virgin Mary, as they were, for the many deeds received from the sea, their trading and fighting.
The district was in the 10th century an arab population settlement by the beach. Later came jews, sailors and merchants. It was called La Ribera -the Bank- because an important water course crossed the area, bringing water from the nearby river Besos.
In the 13th and 14th centuries Barcelona, in the same way as Genoa, Venice and other Mediterranean cities becomes a comercial emporium. It has its own colonies or "consulates" abroad, scattered all along the Mediterranean sea. This comercial thrive led to the construction of the church of Santa María and the palace-houses in Montcada street. The palace-houses all have a similar structure: an inner courtyard where a staircase runs up to the first floor and a small tower from which the noblemen could see the approach of vessels. Today most of these palaces are museums and art galleries: The Palau Mora, from the 14th, is today the Costume and Textile Museum; The Palau Aguilar -15th century- is the Picasso Museum; the Palau Nadal, 15th century, is the Barbier Mueller Museum of Pre Hispanic American Art; The Casa Cervelló, 15th, is an art gallery...
The church of Santa María del Mar, de 1329, owes its unique beauty to the fact that it was built in only 50 years, which is very unusual for gothic monuments. It has the characteristics of Catalan Gothic: robust and graceful. During centuries the interior was full of model-vessels hanging from the vaults: votive offerings, that the sailors put there, again, to thank the Virgin for coming back safe to land. All these were burnt in a fire during the Civil War. Thank to this misfortune we can now see the bare stone walls of the church, and appreciate the harmonic structure of the building.
Behind the church is the Passeig del Born, which used to be a market place in the Middle Ages and now has animated cafés and terraces. It is the center of the area called El Borne. At the end of the Passeig is the 19th century Mercat del Born, an example of iron architecture, which used to be a market and will house a modern library.
The very narrow streets between Passeig del Born and Princesa street have an intense medieval flavour: there, you may find small charming restaurants, art and design workshops, little specialized shops...On the other side of the Passeig, towards the sea, there is the square De les Olles and the porticoed street Rec, an area of chic commerce and restaurants.
At the plaza Palau is the Llotja: It was the medieval market hall for merchants. Behind its neoclassic fassade it hides an impressive gothig hall, that is not open to the public, but you may give it a glance if the doorman allows you to. The building housed for some time the fine art school where Picasso and Miró studied. In front of the Llotja, there is the Casa Xifré, a building of 1840, built by one of the "indianos" of Barcelona -that is persons who made fortune in America- in the basement there is the famous restaurant Set Portes, which used to be a typical 19th century café.
Sant Pere and Santa Caterina
The area of El Borne is the most touristic one, but the districts of Sant Pere and Santa Caterina, also across the Vía Layetana, have a lot to see too. These areas keep its medieval structure almost intact. Both Sant Pere and Santa Caterina get their names from the monasteries around which the medieval population settlements gathered. The monastery of Santa Caterina doesn't exist any more, the market is on its location. We can visit the church of Sant Pere de les Puelles at the end of the street Sant Pere Mes Alt. Sant Pere's quarter has been for 1000 years the center of the rag trade and industry in Barcelona, there, at the street Sant Pere Mes Alt, is the Palau de la Música Catalana, a splendid modernist building by Domènech i Montaner profusely decorated with tiles, ceramics, stained glass, wrought iron, sculptures....It is a summary of the best Catalan craftmanship, exuberant and impressive, visiting the inside is a must.
The new market of Santa Caterina is also a beautiful piece of architecture -this time contemporary-. Its wavy colourful tiled roof, harmonizes with its sorroundings, and it's a good place to eat too! At the nearby street Corders there is a tiny romanic chapel - En Marcús; this is an inmigration area, where we can try arab specialties, buy african crafts or listen to caribbean music.
The Ciudadela Park
The Ciudadela Park (O-2), owes its name to the fact that it was the site of the military citadel that king Philip V ordered to erect after the Successión war in 1714, demolishing half of the Ribera district. Only the Governor's palace, the chapel and the arsenal -today Catalunya's Parliament seat- are left of those military facilities. The much hated citadel was finally knocked down in 1869, and in 1888, the first of Barcelona's Universal Exhibition was held there, a milestone in Barcelona's path into modernity. For this occasion several distinctive buildings were built: the Arc de Triunf in the Passeig de Lluis Companys, and inside the park: the Umbracle, a bricks and wood greenhouse; the Hivernacle, made with glass and iron, today a pleasant café; the Museum of Geology; and the Museum of Zoology, which was the 1888 Exhibition restaurant and built by the great Lluís Domènech i Muntaner, it's called the "Castle of the three dragons" and considered a forerunning work of Catalan modernism. In the park there is also a monumental fountain designed by Josep Fontseré and a young Gaudí. The Zoo of Barcelona is also in the park's premises, at the entrance you'll see the romantic statue "Woman with an umbrella", which used to be symbol of the city of Barcelona.
The park is a very populated leisure area, as Barcelona has few green areas in the center. People there have picnics, play with children, juggle, dance, do acrobatics, play music, sell crafts...and also pickpockets hang around. In springtime, the Fira de la Terra is celebrated at the park, it is an alternative life festival with activities, workshops, performances and a country market, all related to ecology and sustainability. In the summer, there are music performances in the park.