At the southwestern end of Passeig del Born stands Barcelona’s finest Catalan Gothic church, Santa Maria del Mar (Our Lady of the Sea). Begun in 1329, under the watch of architects Berenguer de Montagut and Ramon Despuig, the church is remarkable for its architectural harmony and simplicity. Famously the parishioners themselves gave up their time to help construct the church, particularly the stevedores from the nearby port.
The pleasing unity of form and symmetry of the central nave and two flanking aisles owe much to the rapidity with which the church was built – a mere, record-breaking 54 years. The slender, octagonal pillars create an enormous sense of lateral space, bathed in the light of stained glass. The walls, side chapels and facades were finished by 1350 and the entire structure was completed in 1383.
Even before anarchists gutted the church in 1909 and again in 1936 (when it famously burned for 11 days straight), Santa Maria always lacked superfluous decoration. Gone are the gilded chapels that weigh heavily over so many Spanish churches, while the splashes of colour high above the nave are subtle – unusually and beautifully so. It all serves to highlight the church’s fine proportions, purity of line and sense of space.
During the construction, the city’s bastaixos (porters) spent a day each week carrying the stone required to build the church across from royal quarries in Montjuïc. Their memory lives on in reliefs of them in the main doors and stone carvings elsewhere in the church, a reminder that this was conceived as a people’s church.
From 1pm to 5pm (and 2pm to 5pm on Sundays), visitors must pay to enter and join a guided tour (€10), which takes in the main church, galleries and crypt. A separate tour zips you up to the towers and rooftop (€8.50).