Barcelona’s old town is a dark cluster of passageways where little light filters down. Designed to protect the tiny Medieval city from the merciless summer sun, it is a labyrinth where it’s all too easy to get lost.
Each twisty-turny alleyway seems like the one before, with the same buildings at uncanny angles, the same shuttered doorways, identical hipster cafés, and hat shops. There are always puddles of some mysterious liquid too, which only ever disappears in midsummer when it’s so hot that dogs collapse and die if they make the mistake of going outdoors.
But one street is very special.
Few of the visitors who wander about Plaça Sant Jaume in front of the city’s Town Hall know that they are strolling over what was once the Roman forum in the former Iberian colony of Barcino.
Extraordinary Roman remains lie just a short walk away from this square. Head north towards the cathedral, dodge the buskers, eavesdrop on a tour guide carrying a flag on top of an umbrella, and you will find yourself in Carrer Paradis (Paradise Street or Paradise Lane).
Let’s look closer. The alley is dark, nondescript, going nowhere. But see that doorway on your left? I’ll take you there.
Here it is, an open entrance to a local excursionist club.
In the nineteenth century, Catalan hikers used trips to the Pyrenees to engender a love of their homeland in the hearts of their fellow citizens. This old building is their centre. You can see the red-and-yellow Catalan flag hanging proudly outside.
Inside, it has an courtyard that is typical of Barcelona’s old town, with an internal stairwell leading up to the first floor.
We’re not going there. See that sign on the right? That’s our destination. There are steps leading down, and now, finally, we’ve arrived.
Hidden away inside this building are the ruins of a Roman temple, completely invisible from the street outside. These four columns and a lone plinth from a pillar are the last fragments of the temple of Augustus.
Perhaps it is because it is a site of worship dedicated to a man that explains why people make so little fuss of these ruins. I can’t believe it would be so ignored if it were dedicated to a cool god like Neptune or some exciting goddess like Venus.
In other places, they would probably have built some huge and expensive visitor centre around it to fleece the public. Personally, I rather like the fact that the temple has escaped the hype.
When I was living in London, I had an Italian student who once told me he had been watching TV the night before and seen something ridiculous.
“These people were digging by the road and they found a piece of stone with Latin writing on,” he explained. “Then they all started jumping around in excitement like they’d won the lottery. But in Rome, we have things like that lying around all over the place. It’s nothing special,” he shrugged.
I suspect he had been watching Time Team, a British archaeology show where people used to scrabble around in the mud for three days in frenzied pursuit of ‘archeology’. They rarely found more than a broken bit of pottery, which would then inspire an artist’s impression of some vast settlement complete with huts, squares, oxen, sundry peasants and a temple or two.
Meanwhile, real Roman temples remain to be found at the end of the lane, in the city centre, right under the noses of unsuspecting tourists.