Les Drassanes Reials

Medieval Shipyards housing Barcelona Maritime Museum

Les Drassanes Reials, the medieval shipyards of Barcelona, which now house the Barcelona Maritime Museum are located at the bottom of La Rambla to the right of the Columbus Monument on La Rambla de Santa Mònica and give an idea of how much of its waterfront the city has claimed in the last millenium.

When they were built in the fourteenth century, the slipways that ran the finished galleys into the harbour stood right on the water; today the Drassanes are landlocked, standing a couple of hundred yards back from the water's edge.

The Drassanes is perhaps the most stirring ancient industrial space of any kind and certainly the most complete shipyard that has survived from the Middle Ages.

All the others, such as Messina, Genoa, Sevilla, Brindisi, Istanbul, have either been destroyed or like Venice been remodeled extensively over the centuries, the Drassanes Reials, however, despite renovation over the centuries remain true to their original design.

For this reason, Les Drassanes were declared a Cultural Site of National Interest on 5 May 1976.






A Brief History of Les Drassanes Reials

The origins of the Drassanes Reials are uncertain, but they are mentioned in a document dated 1243 in which the Count of Barcelona and King of Aragón, Jaume I ordered that no house or structure should be built on the coast line between the city walls and "the ataszana, which is to the west".

At this time, the Drassanes stood outside the 13th century city walls, which followed the line of the opposite side of La Rambla.

Later that century, probably around 1285, Jaume I's son Pere II the Great began to build the new Drassanes Reials that would replace those that had previously existed inside the city walls close to where the current Carrer Regomir meets Carrer Ample.

This first building period lasted until around 1328 and then another period began and continued until 1390.

The result was group of squat rectangular Gothic buildings supported by stone diaphragm arches and covered by tiled toofs.

These formed an enormous covered space with plenty of light and room in which to work on the biggest vessels of the Mediterranean.

In effect, Les Drassanes is a virtually open space protected from the weather by the roof, and although not always visible, this structure still forms the heart of the Drassanes Reials today.

In the late, 14th century the Barcelona city walls were extended to enclose El Raval, which was effectively Barcelona's market garden, and so the Drassanes were enclosed as well.

Much of the Drassanes Reials that we see today are actually 16th century and whilst retaining the Gothic style, which had been found to be efficient, are located a few metres inland from the original shipyard.

The reason for their rebuilding was the construction the new Port of Barcelona a century earlier, which had affected the currents and caused severe flooding in the old medieval building.

In 1612, the Catalan government decided to add three more naves to the building, and following the Catalan Revolt known as The Reapers' War from 1640 to 1652 the Spanish government took control of Drassanes and further extended the shipyard both as an arsenal and also as a barracks for troops.

Following The War of the Spanish Succession and the fall of Barcelona to Felpe V's troops in 1714, the importance of Barcelona began to wane.

Shipbuilding for the Spanish fleet was concentrated in Cartagena and the Drassanes Reials were used as a cannon foundry and  barracks for the Spanish troops that were posted in Barcelona to make the Catalans didn't rise again.

By the 20th century the buildings had fallen into disrepair, so in 1935 the Drassanes was given to the Barcelona city hall who decide to use it as a Maritime Museum, which opened in 1941.

The current restoration work began in 1986 and the Museu Maritim de Barcelona opened to the public once again in early 2014.



Les Drassanes Today

Given that the Drassanes were never fully functional from my arrival in Barcelona in 1988 until 2014, I had few opportunities to visit.

My first visit was some time in the mid-1990s and the second was much more recently in February 2013 when, with the restoration work almost complete, the Museu Maritim celebrated a weekend of public open days.

On both occasions, I was overwhelmed by the majestic simplicity of the space and design and have since had the chance to pop in on many occasions.

At present, the permanent exhibition is not fully on display but the centrepiece is certain to be the facsimile of flagship, in which Don Juan of Austria led the Christians to victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.

This enormous vessel occupies one entire bay, its high deck almost scraping the roof - a sleek baroque war machine encrusted with gilt and red lacquer, 195 feet long, displacing 237 tons, with fifty-eight oars as thick as telegraph poles, each worked by ten slaves.

The next bay is occupied by smaller craft, the workhorses of the Catalan coast, a whole family of of old fishing craft, whose main form - unchanged since the sixteenth century is the llaut, from whose Catalan pronunciation we get the word 'yacht'.

This is lateen-rigged broad-beamed little craft with one jib and a sharply forward-raked mast that gives it an air of tubby eagerness is still the traditional form used by fishermen along the Empordà coast today.

These basic craft convey the salty risk of Catalan maritime life.

The bravery of those who go down to the sea in ships is an unshakable component of the traditional Catalan self-image, provoking its writers to long and passionate eulogy.

Joan Amades, in his immense compendium of Catalan folklore - Costumari Català, wrote

"The mariner has a nobility, a marked elevation that makes him highly sympathetic ... to earn his daily bread, he must put his life in constant danger. Whenever he sets out, he casts his body into a bottomless abyss and is delivered to the mood of the elements, which can be kind and gentle with him, or enraged and vicious, when he embarks, he
never knows if he will disembark. The fact that he must constantly gamble with his life, often for nothing, gives him ... a grandeur of soul which puts him far above the society around him."

There are also more modern vessels from the early 20th century and in the courtyard, you'll find one of my favourite exhibits - a replica of the Ictineo, the first manned-submarine, invented by Catalan engineer Narcís Monturiol - a fine example of someone endowed with 'grandeur of soul'.

Ahead of his time, Monturiol never received the necessary financial support for his invention and died in poverty, a broken man.

Until recently, a replica of Monturiol's Ictineo stood at the entrance of Les Drassanes and if we look up we can see Columbus pointing to the Americas.

As you make your way down to the port, it's impossible not to be affected by the Catalans' bitter-sweet romance with the sea.



Les Drassanes Reials - Maritime Museum of Barcelona

Museu Marítim de Barcelona
Avinguda de les Drassanes s/n
08002 Barcelona

Opening Times: 10 am to 8 pm Monday to Sunday

Admission: €7 Adult, €3.5 Child

Website: www.mmb.cat

Getting ThereDrassanes Metro - L3 Green Line



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