Day 84 - Barcelona's Free Walking Tour

Today we went on a 3 hour walking tour of Barcelona.  We learned so much about the history of the city, saw sights that we would have otherwise missed, and it was all FREE!

Sandemans New Barcelona Free Walking Tour

We signed up for the tour on Sandemans New Barcelona website about a week ago, thanks to my sister who had heard great reviews and insisted we give it a try.  Today we met a small group of English speaking travelers outside of Hotel Suizio, along with our history buff guide, Max.  The walk mainly took us through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, where we saw some amazing architecture and learned a lot of history about Barcelona during its "hay day" as an independent nation.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this walking tour enough.  I love history, but I love history even more when it's concise, hits all the relevant points, and is delivered in a way that doesn't make me fall asleep... and this tour delivered thanks to our funny and energetic tour guide Max!

I also thought that the tour was very family friendly.  First off, you can walk away from the tour at any point you want.  I wouldn't if I were you, but you can without feeling bad about having wasted money.  Our kids were great at keeping up for a while.  When their little feet got tired of keeping up with the occasional fast pace, we carried them to give them a break.  Thankfully there were some breaks built into the tour, and at a few of the locations we were able to sit in the shade and just listen while relaxing.  There is also a 15-20 minute break near a restaurant to allow people to use the restroom and get a bite to eat (If you want) and it was actually right by a playground!  How perfect is that for a family traveler?!

During the tour, we took some pictures and notes that I just have to share with you.  So, no matter where you are in the world, here's a tour of Barcelona, using our legs to do the walking!

A Tour of Barcelona - From the Comfort of Your Home

The Shit Log

Let's start off with the Catalan Christmas tradition of the Tio de Nadal, meaning Christmas Log, but otherwise known as Caga tió, meaning Shitting log!  Yes, you heard me right, and that is not a typo!  The shitting log brings (or actually shits) communal Christmas presents (such as nuts and candy) for the whole family to share, while the larger presents are actually brought by the 3 wise men.  On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending on the tradition of the household, the log is put half way into the fireplace (with a red blanket covering it) and ordered to "shit".  The kids actually beat the log with sticks and sing a shit song and wait for a grown up to reach under the blanket and pull out the goodies that the log has left everyone.  Before the hitting of the log begins, the children must leave the room to pray elsewhere in the house and ask the log for presents.

Imagine, your children running down the stairs on Christmas morning screaming the shit song in excitement!!  No offense to this Catalan tradition, but I would be horrified!

Catedral de Barcelona

Barcelona's Cathedral was built over 590 years, mainly because they keep running out of money, and by the time they had enough money the architect in charge was either too old or dead.  Also, after 400 years of building the cathedral, it was decided that it is too ugly!  This is when the Catalan Gothic style was changed to Neo-gothic.  The most interesting fact we learned about the construction of the cathedral was that the workers were paid based on the number of stones they laid.  Each worker had a special signature that he would leave on the stone he laid as proof of his work (for pay day)!  The workers had to be conscious of where they left their mark, because if anyone was found leaving their signature on the facade of the cathedral they would be fired, fined, and even possibly sent to jail for a night to serve as an example to the rest.  The first row of stones serve a good example of how the workers were quite careless at first, leaving their signatures on the facade. 

Travel Tip: You can visit the Catedral  de Barcelona for FREE before 12:45 or after 5 PM.

We will return to see the inside of the cathedral another day.

As we walked away from the cathedral and through a literacy festival (which has apparently been going on for weeks), we encountered a band and lots of dancers holding hands in a form of small circles dancing the "Sardana", the national Catalan dance.

If you look closely at the pictures, you can see that almost everyone is wearing the same shoes, called Espardenya.

The Legend of the Flag

Our guide, Max, explaining the legend

Remember our post just a few days ago, about Catalan Day?  Well, today we learned of a legend about the Catalan flag, and why it bares 4 red lines upon a golden background.

Back in 987 AD, there was a war going on between the Moors and the Franks, and the Catalans sided with the Franks.  Wilfred de Hairy, Count of Barcelona, fought alongside and protected the Frankish King, Charles the Bald.  Legend has it that when Wilfred was wounded and dying in the battle field, the King asked if there was anything he could do to return the favor.  Wilfred asked for an independent Catalonia and a flag of their own. The King rewarded Wilfred with a coat of arms and then rubbed four of Wilfred's bloody fingers (no thumb) on his shield, and thus was born the flag of Catalonia!  Is there any evidence to this?  Likely not!

Our guide also explained the variations of the Catalonian flags that we have been seeing on the streets.  The most relevant one being the one carrying the single star meaning, Independence now!

Carrer Petritxol

Otherwise known as the cartoonist street in the Gothic Quarter, Carrer Petritxol has cartoon images on mosaic tiles scattered along both sides of the street.

This street is also home to a famous graffiti by Ramon Casas, and in our guide's opinion, the best place for Churros, Dulcinea.

Catalans don't Celebrate Valentine's Day!

Instead of celebrating Valentine's Day, Catalans celebrate St. George's Day on April 23rd.  On the Palau de la Generalitat, the historic palace which houses the offices of the Presidency of the Generalitat de Catalunya, there is a statue of a man on a horse slaying a dragon.  That is St. George.  Legend has it that a long time ago, there was a dragon that would come to Catalunya and eat the farmers' crops.  The farmers finally made an agreement with the dragon to have food ready for him every week when he came, so he wouldn't destroy the villages and farms while he was trying to get food. The Dragon then got greedy and wanted, in addition to a weekly meal, a weekly girl from the region. The princess at the time volunteered to help her people have more time to think of a solution.  As she was walking away from the village towards the dragon, St. George appeared out of nowhere and slayed the dragon.  The blood of the dragon colored the field of white roses red, and St. George swooped down and grabbed a single rose and presented it to the princess.

This is why on St. George's Day the tradition was the present a single red rose to the lady in your life.  Then a new tradition came about that the lady would get a rose and the man would be presented with a book.  It seems that now the exchanges of roses and books go either way!

While we were in the square, we also got a chance to see 2 gegants walk down the street.

Santa Maria Del Mar

The most interesting facts we learned about Santa Maria Del Mar:

1. Despite its very happening location (not far from the sea where you will find many restaurants), it is actually built in one of the poor neighborhoods of Barcelona.  The church was built from the contributions of the guilds.

2. Do you see the holes along the facade of the building? This is because of a poor architectural model that they followed when building this church.. They actually built the scaffolding first, then they built the building around the scaffolding.  After the scaffolds were removed, the holes were left.

Last bit of fun

The tour ended in Parc de la Ciutadella where we learned even more about the history of Barcelona and Catalonia.  Here are just a few things we learned along the way that I will leave you with:

  • Siesta - Most businesses are open from 9-2 then from 5-9, but government offices and banks are only open from 9-2!
  • Menu del dei - Menu of the day created by the workers who thought eating in Barcelona was getting too expensive.  At restaurants that offer the menu, it includes 3 courses + drinks for 10 Euros, until the restaurant closes (after lunch) or the food runs out

Travel Tip: Per the guide, a great restaurant to try out Menu del dei is El Casa.  But beware, the restaurant is only open 4 days a week and only for 3 hours.  If you show up too late, you will be presented with whatever food is left.

  • In Santa Maria Del Mar, there is a stained glass window with a picture of football (soccer)!  I will try to post a picture of this when we see the inside.
  • In a football (soccer) match, at 17 minutes and 14 seconds, sections of the crowds stand up and shout Independencia!  This goes back to 1714 when Catalonia surrendered to Spain.

Disclaimer: These are far from being the only places we saw and the only things we learned.  We also learned an extensive history of Catalonia, how Catalonia eventually became part of Spain, and how they have been at odds ever since.  What I have shared here were simply some of my favorites during the tour.  If you end up in Barcelona and you have enough time, we strongly recommend that you sign up for a walking tour with Sandemans, and if you like history and a theatrical performance, then Max is your guy!

After the tour

After the tour, we grabbed some food from a Greek restaurant across the street from the park and brought it back to the park for a nice picnic.

We then walked towards Arc de Triomf, and along the way were saw Castell de Tres Dragons (the current function of which I cannot find anywhere on the web) and some beautiful statues.

As per our walking tour earlier on, we had learned that Catalonia has never actually had any military victory.  So why build an Arc de Triomf you ask?  We are not sure, but we do know that it is quite beautiful (despite that ugly truck being parked in the most inconvenient location for our picture).

After the Arc de Triomf, our 8 tired legs headed home for some much needed rest and relaxation!

Interested in reading more about our stay in Barcelona?