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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Plaça del Rei in Barcelona

What is Plaça del Rei?

Plaça del Rei is an imposing 14th-century Gothic square in Barcelona that was developed in the reign of Martin of Aragon.

Plaça del Rei

Plaça del Rei History

The Plaça del Rei (or King's Square) is one of Barcelona's most emblematic squares and arguably one of the best examples of Gothic design in the city. Although this picturesque paved area was formerly the courtyard of a royal palace, for three centuries it was also a bustling straw and hay market.

The Plaça del Rei is dominated by the Palau Reial Major (or Grand Royal Palace), with its imposing façade, tall semi-circular arches, and elegant rose windows approached by a shallow flight of steps in one corner of the square. Although the palace was first established in the 10th century, the present structure essentially dates from the late 14th century onwards. Designed in a predominantly Gothic style, the royal palace belonged first to the Counts of Barcelona and then the Kings of Aragon. One of these kings, Ferdinand II, married Queen Isabella I of Castile, thereby beginning a cooperative reign that would unite all of Spain and elevate the nation to a dominant global power. In fact, it’s said that it was here, on the steps of the palace, that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received Christopher Columbus and his crew upon their return from the first successful voyage to the New World in 1493.

The square itself was developed in the reign of Martin of Aragon (also known as Martin the Humane) in the late 14th century, to reflect the palace’s growing significance. The weekly market that had taken place here for centuries was moved and replaced by more suitable spectacles, including tournaments and theatrical performances. Martin also lends his name to the most distinctive architectural feature in the square. Above the palace’s façade rises an unusual structure, the Mirador del Rei Martí (or King Martin’s Watchtower), designed by Antoni Carbonell in the 16th century. This tall rectangular tower with its five superimposed galleries was built with such geometric simplicity that it looks more modern than the surrounding buildings, even though it was constructed around the same time.

It now seems that the Plaça del Rei was always important to the life of the city. 20th-century archaeological work unearthed extensive Roman and Visigothic remains dating back to the 1st century BC. To say that the Plaça del Rei is a collage of Barcelona's history is no overstatement.

Other noteworthy buildings surrounding the square include the 16th-century Palau del Lloctinent, to the southwest, once the residence of the Lloctinent (or Viceroy) of Catalonia, which has a beautiful Renaissance courtyard. Closing off the Plaça del Rei to the southeast is the Casa Padellàs, home of the city's history museum, which encloses the archaeological remains of Roman Barcino. Finally, built on the old Roman city wall and accessed within the Museu d'Història de Barcelona, is the 14th-century Capella de Santa Àgata (or Chapel of Saint Agatha), with its extraordinary ceilings and altarpieces.

Still imbued with the splendour of the Middle Ages, this square remains a fantastic hidden jewel in the heart of the Old City.

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