Barcelona: City of the the Barcas.


Barcelona's Medieval Cathedral
Barcelona’s Medieval Cathedral

You could go to just about any travel blog, website, or magazine, and you would probably find something about the city of Barcelona. Spain’s second largest city may be less than half the size of Madrid, but there is no comparison as far as tourist traffic goes: Barcelona received upwards of 8 million visitors in 2013,  by far more than Spain’s capital. It is considered one of the most iconic destinations in the entire world. Walking through the city’s bustling center, one hears Spanish only about as often as any other language, indicative of the sheer quantity of foreigners milling through the streets. Home to some of Spain’s most famous monuments, such as Gaudi’s legendary Sagrada Familia, Barcelona is a city that has come to be almost defined by its bustling international community. During this time of the year, the height of the 2014 World Cup season, as chance would have it, one can walk into a sports bar on one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares and find natives of any country rooting for their home team. Thanks to its tourist population, Barcelona is a deeply international city- enlivened as much by its own natives as the countless visitors.

Due to its status as the world’s 10th most popular tourist destination, and thereby its eternally diverse community, one might expect that the natives of Barcelona would be particularly cosmopolitan. However, such is not the case- there is perhaps no city in all of Spain that is possessed of greater local pride than Barcelona. The capital of the northeastern province of Catalonia, a part of the country often at odds with the rest of Spain, Barcelona is fiercely independent and invested in its distinct identity. This regional affinity can be seen throughout the city: from omnipresent banners and advertisements for its legendary local soccer team, FC Barcelona, to signs being transcribed in both Spanish and more localized Catalan, Barcelona is a city entrenched in its Catalan heritage. This spirit infuses many of the things that make it such a popular global destination, from its parties and festivals, to its wildly distinctive arts and architecture scene (as exemplified by its symbolic landmark the audacious ‘Sagrada Familia’) much of what makes Barcelona so popular is its unapologetic drive to break away from the constraining norms that may apply to the rest of Spain, and present itself in a manner that offers something intriguing for virtually any traveler.

However, it is this self-same vibrancy that often causes certain aspects of Barcelona to be overlooked. In the rush to see Gaudi’s architecture or stroll down the famed La Rambla, Barcelona’s roots in antiquity are often left by the wayside. In following Hannibal’s footsteps, we would be remiss to make the same error- particularly in a city that happens to have one of the most remarkable connections to the Barcid Carthaginian dynasty. While Barcelona has many origin stories, perhaps the most common and well known links the metropolis to the most renowned of Carthage’s dynasties: the family of Hannibal himself. Supposedly founded in the third century BC, presumably after the end of the First Punic War, legend holds that the settlement that would one day become Barcelona (known in Roman times as Barcino) was created by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, who named his new town after his family. While it is impossible to verify the authenticity of this story, the etymology of the name Barcino does bear striking resemblance to the Carthaginian Barca- a name which modern scholarship believes to have something to do with a bolt of lightning. Regardless of whether or not this truly was the city of the Barcas, and though it was hardly the metropolis of import that it is today, Barcino was a clear stopping point for Hannibal’s army as it marched northward into Gaul. Furthermore, according to Livy, it would play a significant role in the conflict that would rage between Carthaginian and Roman forces up and down the Iberian peninsula as Hannibal engaged them in Italy.

The Museum dedicated to Barcelona's Regional History, home to its Roman Foundations
The Museum dedicated to Barcelona’s Regional History, home to its Roman Foundations

What is left of Roman Barcelona lies beneath the teeming streets of its historic district, a region more commonly known for its cathedral and medieval sectors than its classical remains. To the careful eye however, there is much still to be found: fragments of an aqueduct stand near the cathedral, intact portions of the ancient wall have been incorporated into other structures, and a few columns of the city”s temple to the deified Augustus still remain upright. Such traces unassumingly dot the surface level, but it is beneath these tourist trodden streets that Roman Barcino comes alive. Within what would appear to be a relatively unremarkable museum dedicated to the city’s history, one can take an elevator to descend a few dozen feet, to find the stunningly intact remains of the ancient towns clearly thriving industrial district. From fish paste makers to wine crafters, the foundations of massive workshops, oftentimes complete with ceramic tools, stretch out all around the city’s underbelly, giving a view into just how busy a community like Barcelona’s was some two millennia ago. While it may not match the imperial splendor of its counterpart Tarragona to the south, Barcelona’s Roman remains are unique by the very virtue of their humble nature: here, almost forgotten underneath the streets of one of the Mediterranean’s most important cities, one can gain insight into the moving parts of how a community would have functioned beyond its grand festivities and religious ceremonies and how an average worker may have gone about their lives.

Roman foundations of commercial and industrial sectors of Barcino sprawl beneath the city's streets.
Roman foundations of commercial and industrial sectors of Barcino sprawl beneath the city’s streets.

Ultimately, we found that Barcelona is a city that lives up to the hype, but perhaps not for the reasons the traditional guidebook may ascribe. Whilst certainly, its atmosphere is distinctive, its food is delightful, and its Modernista structures impressive, it is beneath the streets, out of sight and mind of the average tourist, where some of Barcelona’s most remarkable gems lay. In a way, it is quite fitting for the same city that has almost forgotten the Hannibalic ties that are present in its very name to have some of its most remarkable components hidden away beneath its surface.


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