In Marca Hispanica XVII: hidden temples and empty palaces

For most of the April trip to Catalonia, as you’ve probably taken in, I was in Vic (at the very reasonable Hotel d’Estació del Nord) and Vic is a historic city.1 I’ve put pictures of Vic up here before, of course, but there are definitely parts of the city I hadn’t ever got to, even if some really do have to be visited every time.

Statue of Bishop Oliba and separatist graffito in the Plaça de la Catedral, Vic

Two different social ethics in one square (look behind the metal man with the "Pau i Treva" legend, at his right)

Indeed, I haven’t finished here yet because although I did get into the cathedral this time (where I’m afraid they forbid photography) I didn’t get into the crypt, as so often the oldest bit, because when I was looking around there was actually a service going on in it. So that still has to be done. But the metal bishop never gets old, and given that the building off behind his right shoulder is the Museu Episcopal de Vic, where as said last one of these posts much of the country’s medieval heritage is now in safe care, I’m going to be back here again. That said, this is not the only place in the city with medieval interest. I mean, the whole city is fairly recognisably of a type…

Street in Vic

… and if you don’t believe me, zip back to this post about Siena and see if you can spot the ten differences, sort of thing. But, although the town’s medieval heritage is rich and considerable, it is also largely later than I care about. So these are impressive, for example:

Walls of Peter III, Vic

Walls of King Peter III (1336-1387), Vic, picture mine

Església de la Pietat, Vic

Piety Church, Vic, built circa 1641; picture mine

But I don’t really know much about them. There are plenty of things here I do know about, but some are hardly there at all:

Façade of Sant Sadurní de Vic, now attached to the Església de la Pietat

Façade of Sant Sadurní de Vic, now no more than a façade on one side of the Església de la Pietat, my picture

And some must always have been there in some form or other but just never really get mentioned.

Northern part of the Pont de Queralt, Vic

Northern half of the Pont de Queralt, rebuilt after destruction in the Spanish Civil War, my picture

Southern part of the Pont de Queralt, Vic

Southern, Romanesque half of the Pont de Queralt, my picture

Some things, on the other hand, got deliberately hidden. In the centre of the city stands what’s left of the old castle of the Montcada family.2 They were town nobility who became more or less dominant after the vicecomital family of the area, fed up of vying with the bishop for local influence, moved out to the frontier city of Cardona.

Ruins of the Castell dels Montcada, Vic

Eastern vault of the ground floor of the old Castell dels Montcada

Now, the Montcadas became royal seneschals and generally the new pain in the neck for the bishops, and they built a big fortified house in town, somewhere between a castle and super-sized courtyard. Eventually this place became the city’s magistrate’s court, and by the nineteenth century it was the county prison. When that was closed in the 1882, it was decided that the place really needed to come down so they could build on the site. And this process did indeed begin, as you can see from the state that the ruins now stand in. You will probably be able to observe the remains of a vault there at the right, and parts of the wall at left that clearly once had other things attached to them. This is also detectable on the left-hand side of the site’s frontage:

Ruins of the Castell dels Montcada, Vic

Western vault of the ground floor of the old Castell dels Montcada

So, OK, you may by now be asking why this is still there if the site was supposed to be built on, and the answer is, because of the structure that those vaults used once to attach to. You see, when they took down the exterior of the old entrance hall of the palace, castle, prison, whatever, they found this in it:

Roman temple of Vic

Roman temple of Vic, from Wikimedia Commons whose photo came out better than did mine

… which apparently everyone had forgotten was there.3 I do find this rather hard to imagine, but it was apparently sufficiently hidden by cladding and the roof that the actual second-century Roman structure was no longer visible and had been forgotten. What you see here isn’t quite unrestored: the basic structure and roof is as was, but the porticus and the columns had all gone, though part of one was found during the demolition, allowing the others to be reconstructed. The pediment is basically reimagined, which is why it’s blank. There used to be an altar in the cathedral which turned out to be sitting on a reused chunk of a Roman altar to Diana, which may tell us what the worship was here, but on the other hand I’m sure a city like Ausona (as it then was) held more than one cult in Roman times.4 This temple was restored, anyway, by public subscription, which has the ironic corollary that two successive bishops, who were big contributors to the works, now have their names inscribed on the columns of this site of pagan sacrifice. That said, it is now an art gallery rather than anything religious, but a fairly powerful space to see things in even so. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ve ever met a more remarkable survival story than this temple’s: it was built into a castle and everyone forgot. You would not believe this if someone told it you, would you? I would be surprised if you even believe me.

Belltower of the Catedral de Sant Pere, Vic

Belltower of the Catedral de Sant Pere

The current main site of worship was established by Count Guifré the Hairy somewhere before 885, anyway, and none of it remains as was then. (The cathedral is also so built-around that getting any kind of ensemble photograph is impossible.) The metal guy built the bell-tower you see here and the crypt you (and I) don’t in the 1030s; everything else is later. The cloister, however, contains a few notes to the past, in a couple of different ways:

Funerary inscription in the cloister of the Catedral de Sant Pere, Vic

Funerary inscription in the cloister of the Catedral

Casket of Eduard Junyent i Subirà in the cloister of the Catedral de Sant Pere, Vic

Casket of Eduard Junyent i Subirà in the cloister of the Catedral

The former of these is just a reused memorial; I quite like that they gave it a proud place in the new cloister. But the right-hand one is a bit more contemporary; it houses the mortal remains of Eduard Junyent i Subirà, whom I’ve already cited this post, even, who edited all the cathedral’s earliest charters and whose work, in other words, I’ve used almost daily for most of the last decade. He was a canon of the cathedral, the archivist and an important archæologist, art historian (only lately has any difference emerged between those two occupations in this area) and a founder of the Museu Episcopal. The Museu have a picture of him, but this is, in some sense, actually him, laid to rest in the cloister as if he were an eleventh-century count or bishop. They treat their medieval historians with some respect round here, I tell you.

The Plaça Major, Vic, at dusk

The Plaça Major, Vic, at dusk

Anyway. I like Vic, which is just as well as I doubt I’ve finished with it yet. Its locality is big on pig farming, which does mean you kind of have to acclimatise to the way the place smells, especially if you spend each day climbing out of the valley’s miasma up to where eagles fear to tread, but with that overlooked, it has this charming mix of baroque and modern that doesn’t rush you around or overwhelm but simply gives the eye (and the feet) many pleasant places to rest. And whereas in Barcelona one feels that everyone is shouting, in Vic, actually, someone somewhere’s probably laughing…

Grotesque from the Catedral de Sant Pere, Vic, now in the Museu Episcopal

Grotesque from the Catedral, now in the Museu Episcopal

1. Its early history is most fully told in Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Els orígens històrics de Vic (Vic 1981), but if you can’t find that (not easy) or—horror!—don’t read Catalan, a lot of the same ground is covered quicker by Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online at, last modified 16th August 2000 as of 22nd November 2003. I’ve here actually used mainly Antoni Pladevall i Font, Albert Benet i Clarà & Montserrat Pagès i Paretas, “El marc històric” in Jordi Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 24-45, 49-63, 68-71, 76-77 & 85-104, updated with Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, “Vic: la ciudad en la época carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia (Barcelona 1999), pp. 89-94, transl. as “Vic: the town in the Carolingian age”, ibid., pp. 464-466.

2. On them another US Catalanist has written, that being John C. Shideler with his A Medieval Catalan Noble Family: the Montcadas 1000-1230 (Berkeley 1983), online at, last modified 16 August 2000 as of 31 July 2011.

3. This must, surely, be in the Catalunya Romànica, but I confess that I’m here working from the leaflet they give out at the temple, which does in its favour quote its text from Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Vic i els seus monuments, Estudis històrics: Monografia 2 (Vic 1993).

4 I learn about the altar of Diana from Eduard Junyent, “La consagración de San Julián de Vilatorta en 1050” in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia Vol. 19 (Barcelona 1946), pp. 279-292 at p. 291.

8 responses to “In Marca Hispanica XVII: hidden temples and empty palaces

  1. This is such a cool post. LOVE the lost Roman temple (historian interred in the cloister isn’t bad either). Vic’s just earned a place on the rather long list of places I’d love to visit but likely never will.

    • It’s a fairly easy rail journey from Barcelona, just over an hour. On the other hand, if you have a vehicle, then the road route via Hostalric and Sacalm is only a little bit longer—there is high-speed rail in Spain but not this bit—and the scenery is so bloody incredible that you really need someone else to be driving so that you don’t have to look at the road. The road is such, though, that it really does demand attention: in very good shape but very winding and precipitous.

  2. Cullen Chandler

    I’ve not been to Vic (or anywhere else, sadly, beyond Barcelona and Montserrat). But I don’t get the feeling about Barcelona–that everyone is shouting–that you say you do. I find it a rather laid back place, even with all the tourists bustling about. Except for maybe at la Sagrada Familia…

    • I’m quite conscious that somehow I haven’t made friends with Barcelona. I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong with it. But it certainly seems to me that more people have their own business and are in a hurry to get it done there than elsewhere in Catalonia that I’ve so far seen. I suspect that being driven around it by someone who’d not driven in Spain before didn’t help with that crucial first impression.

  3. highlyeccentric

    Surprise!temple! How cool. :D

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