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Catedral de la Seu
Catedral de la Seu Review
Barcelona's cathedral (named for La Seu, or See, the seat of the bishopric) is impressively filled with many centuries of city history and legend, even if it does fall short as a memorable work of architecture. This imposing Gothic monument was built between 1298 and 1450, with the spire and neo-Gothic facade added in 1892—and even these not completed until 1913. Historians are not sure about the cathedral architect—one name much bandied about is Jaume Fabre, a native of Majorca. The plan of the church is cruciform, with transepts standing in as bases for the great tower—a design also seen in England's Exeter Cathedral. Floodlighted in striking yellow beams at night with the stained-glass windows backlighted from inside and ghostly seagulls soaring over the spiky Gothic spires, Barcelona's main religious building is only a bronze medalist behind the Mediterranean Gothic Santa Maria del Mar and Gaudí's Moderniste La Sagrada Família.
This is reputedly the darkest of all the world's great cathedrals—even at high noon the nave is enveloped by shadows, which give it magically much larger dimensions than it actually has—so it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the rich, velvety pitch of the cathedral. Among the many sights worth seeking out are the beautifully carved choir stalls of the Knights of the Golden Fleece; the intricately and elaborately sculpted organ loft over the door out to Plaça Sant Iu (complete with a celebrated Saracen's Head sculpture); the series of 60-odd wood sculptures of men and women along the exterior lateral walls of the choir in a nearly animated succession of evangelistic poses; the famous cloister; and, in the crypt, Santa Eulàlia's tomb.
St. Eulàlia, originally interred at Santa Maria del Mar—then known as Santa Maria de les Arenes (St. Mary of the Sands)—was moved to the cathedral in 1339, and is the undisputed heroine and patron of the Barcelona cathedral. Eulalistas (St. Eulàlia devotees, as opposed to followers of La Mercé, or Our Lady of Mercy, Barcelona's official patron) celebrate the fiesta of La Laia (the nickname for Eulàlia) February 9-15, and they would prefer that the cathedral be named for their favorite martyr. For the moment, the cathedral remains a virtual no-name cathedral, known universally as La Catedral and more rarely as La Seu.
Appropriately, once you enter the front door (there are also lateral entrances through the cloister and from Carrer Comtes down the left side of the apse), the first thing you see are the high-relief sculptures of the story of St. Eulàlia, on the near side of the choir stalls. The first scene, on the left, shows St. Eulàlia in front of Roman Consul Decius with her left hand on her heart and her outstretched right hand pointing at a cross in the distance. In the next scene to the right, Eulàlia is tied to a column and being whipped by Decius-directed thugs. To the right of the door into the choir the unconscious Eulàlia is being hauled away, and in the final scene on the right she is being lashed to the X-shape cross upon which she was crucified in mid-February in the year 303. To the right of this high relief is a sculpture of St. Eulàlia, standing with her emblematic X-shape cross, resurrected as a living saint.
Among the two-dozen ornate and gilded chapels dedicated to all the relevant saints of Barcelona and beyond, one chapel to seek out is the Capilla de Lepanto, in the far right corner as you enter through the front door. The main attraction here is the Santo Cristo de Lepanto. This 15th-century polychrome wood sculpture of a somewhat battle-scarred, dark-skinned Christ, visible on the altar of this 100-seat chapel behind a black-clad Mare de Deu dels Dolors (Our Lady of Sorrow), was, according to oral legend, the bowsprit of the commanding Spanish galley at the battle fought between Christian and Ottoman fleets on October 7, 1571.
Note that the explanatory plaque next to the alms box at the right front of the chapel states that, though John of Austria was the commander-in-chief of the Holy League's fleet, the fleet captain and main battle commander was Lluís de Requesens (1528-76), a local Catalan aristocrat and prominent Spanish general during the reign of Felipe II.
Outside the main nave of the cathedral to the right you'll find the leafy, palm tree-shaded cloister surrounding a tropical garden and pool filled with 13 snow-white geese, one for each of the tortures inflicted upon St. Eulàlia in an effort to break her faith. Legend has it that they are descendants of the flock of geese from Rome's Capitoline Hill, whose honking alarms roused the city to ward off invaders during the ancient days of the Roman Republic. Don't miss the fountain with the bronze sculpture of an equestrian St. George hacking away at his perennial sidekick, the dragon, on the eastern corner of the cloister. On the day of Corpus Christi this fountain is one of the more spectacular floral displays, featuring l'ou com balla (the dancing egg). The intimate Santa Llúcia chapel is at the front right corner of the block (reached by a separate entrance or from the cloister). Another Decius victim, St. Llúcia allegedly plucked out her eyes to dampen the Roman consul's ardor, whereupon new ones were miraculously generated. Patron saint of seamstresses, of the blind, and of the light of human understanding, St. Lucía is portrayed over the altar in the act of presenting her plucked-out eyes, sunny-side-up on a plate, to an impassive Decius.
In front of the cathedral is the grand square of the Plaça de la Seu, where on Saturday from 6 pm to 8 pm, Sunday morning, and occasional evenings, Barcelona folk gather to dance the sardana, the somewhat dainty and understated circular dance, a great symbol of Catalan identity. Watch carefully: mixed in with heroic septuagenarians bouncing demurely are some young esbarts (dance troupes) with very serious coaches working on every aspect of their performance, from posture to the angle of arms to the smooth, cat's paw-like footwork. The rings of dancers deep in concentration repeat the surprisingly athletic movements and steps that represent a thousand years of tradition. Also check out the listings for the annual series of evening organ concerts held inside the cathedral.
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