The buzzing square of Santa Maria, in the core of the la Ribera neighborhood, has the honor of being one of the most visited spots in the city of Barcelona. During summer days, the plaça tends to get packed with tourists. Some wander around taking pictures, while others try to hide from the summer heat, sipping a refreshing glass of cold white wine on one of the many terraces. If you get lucky, you might even witness a couple dancing an authentic tango right in front of the entrance of the church. But there is a reason for the bustle on and around the square: its main attraction, La Basílica de Santa María del Mar.
Built in the late Middle Ages, between 1329 and 1383 the gothic church seems a bit sober for a Mediterranean country. Its robust outside without too many frills gives out the impression of being from Germany, England or at least Northern Europe. Nevertheless, over the centuries the church became one of the most emblematic landmarks of Catalonia. Santa María del Mar has played a part in countless novels and books written about the city, the most famous one being Ildefonso Falcones’ historical thriller Cathedral of the Sea, a homage to the church.
A curious historical fact about the sanctuary is that it was destined to be exclusively for the congregations of la Ribera and the harbor area, a zone where poor people used to live. It was these same people that actually built the church from the ground up. From the harbor, the local men carried the massive stones on their backs all the way to the construction site, one by one, day in day out. On the door of the main entrance to the Placa Santa Maria, these so-called bastaixos (porters from the harbor) of la Ribera are paid homage to. At the very same time, the church was being built, another gothic-style house of god was being constructed across Via Laietana: La Catedral de la Santa Cruz y Santa Eulalia de Barcelona, a cathedral associated with the nobility and the monarchy.
Looking at both churches, the differences between the rich and the poor seem evident. So whenever you step into the massive church have a short look around, try to imagine carrying one of the stones you are standing on, on your back.