Barcelona Maritime

Barcelona maritime museum

The Barcelona Maritime Museum must be one of the best-designed maritime museums in the world. It is presently housed in a Royal Shipyard dating back to the eighth century, together with 14th to 18th century Gothic warehouses and fortifications that grew up around the old shipyard.


  The richly decorated stem (left) and stern of the made-in-Barcelona full-size replica Galeria Real, of Lepanto fame. The original craft was the flagship of a fleet, under John of Austria, that changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean in 1571.

The largest single exhibit by far is the Galeria Real, a full size replica of the galley flagship of John of Austria and the victorious Holy League (Spain, Venice, Genoa, the Papal States and Malta) fleet that defeated the Turks at the famous Battle of Lepanto, in 1571. A heavily decorated “sacred broadsword”, awarded by Pope Pius V to John of Austria after his victory, may be seen in the Madrid Maritime Museum. The Holy League fleet had about 300 galleys together with six larger, slower and more heavily armed galleasses, while the Turkish fleet had about the same number of galleys. The Galeria Real carried a large cannon forward and four smaller weapons aft but it was the galleasses and their heavier guns that chiefly led to the defeat of the Turkish fleet.

Reportedly, the action led to the loss of 25,000 men and the liberation of 15,000 galley slaves. The Galeria Real was huge for her time, nearly 200 feet (61 metres) long and 20 feet (six metres) wide. Crewed by 400, she carried lateen-rig sails on two masts. Her 59 oars were sited in the “scaloccio” fashion, single oars manned by four to eight men (versus the pre-1530 “zenzile” method of grouped oars manned by a single rower). Her 236 oarsmen were slaves chained to their posts where they fed, slept (and defecated). It is said that a galley upwind could be smelled long before it could be seen.

The Battle of Lepanto was important because it ended the Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean and demonstrated the superiority of many heavy long range guns in solid ships over the more nimble galleys. A free audio tour of the vessel, in English, takes about 20 minutes or so. Both the original and the Galeria Real replica were built in the famous Barcelona shipyard.

Voyage to Havana

A number of free-access audio-visual displays educate and entertain throughout the museum. They range from interesting touch-screen single-user stand-alone units to 100-seat theatrette displays. There is also a fascinating and clever audio-guided “voyage to Havana”, with visitors standing on a full-sized simulated foredeck of a 19th century schooner. The passengers sight a Barcelona-class frigate crossing the schooner’s bows, and they later run into stormy weather. The entire foredeck pitches and rolls as realistic lightning flashes and thunder booms.

The collection, first established in 1929, was founded on acquisitions and donations by Catalan shipowners and merchants. In 1941 the directors re-established the museum on its present site, the restored Drassanes of Barcelona. The museum primarily addresses the important contributions of Catalan shipping merchants and shipyards to maritime history, especially during the Catalan maritime golden age 1750-1850.

This 80-cannon shipwright’s model, built in Havana, has an interesting history. It was used as a model between 1749 and 1798 for seven Spanish warships. It was taken to France in 1808, then to the USA and finally returned to Spain in 1985.

This highly-travelled 80-cannon frigate model has an interesting history.

There is a large number of interesting ship models, including a huge shipwright’s model of an 80-cannon warship, constructed in Havana probably in 1740. Brought to Spain, this craft served as an important model for at least seven Ferrol-built Spanish men-of-war. In 1808 the model was captured and taken to France by Napoleonic troops. During WW2 it found its way to the USA. In 1985 the New Bedford Whaling Museum ceded this beautiful and priceless relic to the Barcelona Maritime Museum.

The museum houses excellent exhibitions reminding visitors of the seminal Columbus and Magellan voyages of discovery. Big (2-3 metres) models of the flagships and other vessels serve as centrepieces for well laid-out displays, including huge wall maps based on some of the charts used at that time. Magellan, we are reminded, sailed from Seville in the south of Spain in 1519, with five ships and 250 men. After three years at sea and circumnavigating the world for the first time, only one ship, the Victoria, commanded by Juan Elcano, returned with 18 sailors barely alive. Its cargo of spices was worth more than twice the intrinsic cost of the voyage.

This huge 1:20 Santa Maria model forms the centrepiece of a comprehensive and informative Christopher Columbus display.

HMS Victory

Among the dozens of excellent sailing ship models is a fully rigged HMS Victory. This particular model has her starboard side sectioned to illustrate graphically some of the fine lines, ship construction techniques and cramped conditions of early 19th century men-of-war.

Finally, the museum administrators must be congratulated for their excellent display of Mediterranean fishing boat and sailing boat evolution. Most of the rough-hewn original fishing craft bear distinctive marks of their trade. There is also a number of beautiful ancient and modern sports sailing craft on display in the museum. The first Catalonian regatta was held in 1821 and their first yacht race was run in 1883. In pride of place in the sporting yacht saloon is the 1996 Barcelona Olympic Games gold medal winner of the sleek two-man Flying Dutchman class, won by Spain’s Luis Doreste and Domingo Manrique.

When planning your next visit to Barcelona, set aside at least half a day to visit this excellent maritime museum. The astute will allow more time, because there are dozens of nearby top-rated venues, including La Rambla, the Columbus Column, an aquarium and dozens of modern attractions (reminiscent of Sydney’s Darling Harbour) on the adjacent waterfront. All these are within easy walking distance from the Barcelona Maritime Museum.

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