The agony and the ecstasy of Barcelona

Australians, at least those reduced to travelling cattle class, must begin any overseas travel adventure with the agony of the air flight. In our case the agony began before we even boarded the flight as we queued in the Customs hall for close to 45 minutes, thanks to the fact that there were only 3 booths open – and one of those was dedicated to Priority customers. Yet another example of how cuts affect service levels.

The pain of the wait was somewhat mollified by the glass of cava and the small selection of very good tapas we enjoyed at the Movida outlet after staggering through the passport check; just to get us in the mood for Barcelona.

We flew Qatar, courtesy of Qantas Frequent Flyer points. Service on the first leg was somewhat perfunctory, however Pete was very relieved to discover that contrary to rumour (I’m looking at you UGGD) Qatar is not a dry airline. I meanwhile coped with it all by donning the eye mask, plugging in the ear plugs and pulling the blanket over my head, mummy style (both to encourage sleep and to reduce the raging gale whistling around my ears, despite turning the air nozzle off). This strategy, combined with a dose of nature’s sleeping pill – valerian – resulted in me dozing on and off for all but the last four hours of the 14 hour overnight flight to Doha.

Quick change of planes at Doha, in a terminal that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, set amidst a sea of dust and sand. Verdict on Qatar – efficient, edible food, terrible inflight entertainment options.

We arrived in Barcelona mid afternoon, with a quick and painless collection of luggage and exit through Passport control. Our home for the next 4 nights was a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment on Diputacio, close to the University, in the L’Exaimple district – excellent location as it was an easy walking distance distance to the sights but far enough away to avoid the tourists.  The apartment was basic but adequate, although could benefit from a good scrub (and a bath mat).

  
    
A quick refresh and we hit the streets, keen to explore the neighbourhood. We head to Tapas 24, a tapas bar frequented by Pete last year, and recommended in the Movida guide to Barcelona – which is to become our bible over the next few days (thank you Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish).  A table on the street to watch the passing parade, a couple of tapas, a cerveza for the boys and a glass of rosado for the girls, the charm of the friendly waiter and the agony of the last 24 hours was erased – so now on to the ecstasy part.

  
  
  
Refreshed and fortified we wander the streets, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the the beautiful buildings in our neighbourhood.

  
   
 
We turn a corner and virtually  stumble into an Alladin’s cave of jamon, presided over by an amiable knife weilding master of the pig, who is more than happy to answer our questions – and more importantly, to give us tastes of his wonderful wares. A generosity we take full advantage of, and how sublime is his jamon.

      
We finished the evening with a simple meal, and a bottle of wine, in a local restaurant before crawling gratefully into bed.

Day Two was a day devoted to all things Gaudi, starting with the Sagrada Familia, which I last visited some 31 years ago so was keen to see what changes had been wrought in the intervening years. Technological advances have greatly helped the speed of construction, nonetheless completion is not expected until 2026, or beyond. The magnificence of Gaudi’s masterpiece is awe inspiring, and the holy grail for all Barcelona tourists (a word of warning – book your tickets beforehand online), who all seem to want a selfie in front of the magnificent facade. Some clever hustler has imported container loads of selfie sticks that are being flogged at all the major tourist attractions. Hopefully the annoying craze for documenting oneself at every location will at least provide some sort of income for the largely immigrant sellers.

It is hard to find the words to adequately describe Gaudi’s vision, with its organic, naturalistic but fantastical style, so I can only let these pictures give you some insight:

            
We easily spend two hours there, so upon emerging into the heat of the day our thoughts naturally turned to lunch. With our Movida guide in hand we chose a restaurant that conveniently sits between the Sagrada and our next Gaudi destination post lunch, La Pedrera (also known as Casa Mila). This is  La Bodegueta Provenca (Provenca, 233):

        

We, like the rest of the almost exclusively local customers, select from the menu de Dias (menu of the day) – 3 courses, plus a glass of wine, plus bread for 15€. I start with a local delicacy, melon soup, which is surprisingly good – light, simple and refreshing. This is followed by Calamari Andalucia, or put more simply, fried calamari. Third course is a choice of coffee or ice cream – I chose white chocolate ice cream but suffer from ice cream envy as I watch Hazel coo over her choice of tangerine, laced with what she thinks is kaffir lime.  All of this is washed down by a glass of rosado. Simple food well cooked, and excellent value.

Fortified, we are ready to inspect two of the Gaudi designed apartment buildings that are open to the public (again, best to prebook your tickets online to avoid the queues). We start with Casa Mila, or La Pedrera:

   
    
 From La Pedrera it is a short walk to the beguiling beauty that is Casa Batllo. This apartment building is privately owned, fortunately by a family that is dedicated to preserving this Gaudi treasure. They have an innovative approach to visitor information – upon entering you are handed a headset and a mini tablet. As you move from room to room you hear not only an explanation about the room but are treated to the room coming to life on your tablet.

We leave full of admiration for the foresight of this man and his cunningly clever designs that are far more than the obvious quirkiness of his aesthetics. 

   
    
   
Back to our own more prosaic apartment for some much needed R&R, albeit internet driven, before heading two blocks down to Raco D’En Cesc for dinner – once more guided by Movida’s recommendation, and an excellent choice it was too (and again, we are the only English speakers in the restaurant). Our eye for value rather than greed drives our choice once more to the set menu, and it was absolutely delicious. Drawing on the enthusiasm of the young sommelier we match the food to two wines we have not experienced before and are more than pleasantly surprised by how how good they both are.

   
   
We continued to be blessed by sunny skies and temperatures in the mid to higher 20s the next day, a day that is devoted to all things gastronomic as we embark on a food walking tour, entitled “Blessed by the Mediterranean: Exploring Barcelona’s Seaside Neighbourhoods” run by Culinary Backstreets  (http://www.culinarybackstreets.com). We meet our lovely young guide, Laia, and our two fellow culinary tourists (two young women from Lebanon – one of whom professes to only liking healthy food, the other soon to be seen wilting from a combination of heat and the need to actually walk on a walking tour!) – outside the Santa Caterina market at 9.30am. Thankfully the tour starts with a much needed coffee and some typical Catalonian snacks (tomato bread and what we would call a Spanish omelette) before a wander around the market, tasting at different stalls along the way.

   
   
From the market we walk on to a small family owned cafe, run by a proud Catalan (he firmly announces himself as Catalonian rather than Spanish when our discussion turns to the upcoming election that could well set Catalonia on the path to secession from Spain). Here we try a variety of different small goods – including a blood pudding and an egg based sausage.

We then wend our way through the narrow streets of El Born, heading towards Barceloneta, a district which abutts the harbour and the city’s beaches. Once the province of lowly workers and fishermen, since the Olympics it has become popular as a tourist base. The locals however are less than impressed with what are often drunken, ill behaved groups of foreigners, and are fighting back. Hand painted signs decrying tourists hang from many balconies, together with the Barceloneta flag.

   
 Our first destination is an unnamed and unpretentious family run cafe, where the 80 year old matriarch can still be seen supervising in the tiny kitchen. The cafe claims to be where the bomba tapas was invented. Whilst that may well be true, I think followers have perfected the recipe as this is not the best example of a bomba I have tasted. However, we also taste a magnificent chargrilled calamari, done simply in garlic, oil and parsley. Tender and flavour full.

   
    
 Next stop is a simple seafood cafe down on the wharf, El Raco del Mariner, where permission to enter the area is required from the maritime gatekeeper. Here we sample fried shrimp and anchovies, as always accompanied by the Catalan speciality of tomato bread – bread that has been spread with the pulp ( or juice) of tomatoes, oil and garlic. Over the course of the tour we come to appreciate that every establishment has its unique version.

Our final destination in Barceloneta is a cafe/bar where the walls are lined with oak barrels of the house wine. Here we sample the local vermouth, a common aperitif in Catalonia, accompanied by olives and marinated anchovies.

   
 We return to the little laneways of El Born and the famous food and wine retailer, Villa Viniteca where we enjoy a glass of cava and three different samples of jamon before moving on to the most divine piece of millefueille I have ever tasted ( courtesy of the bakery over the lane from the store).

   
 We are nearing the end of the tour, and our capacity to eat anything more! We stop briefly into La Campana to drink a cup of some local milky drink, then around the corner to a sister shop to sample Catalan nougat before finishing at a little bakery called Brunels to taste a coques de llardons, which is a weird cross between a sweet & savoury  – crispy  sweet pastry with tiny chips of pork crackle in it. A waste of pork crackle was our verdict.

  
So, the end of the tour. We have walked, and tasted, for just over 5 hours! Not only have we learnt about the local food we have also found out some of the history of the area. Great fun. Thank you Laia.

As we meandered through the streets towards our apartment we spotted a beautiful tiled art nouveau facade. Moving closer to take a photo we discover it is the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is open for guided tours. So, we buy a ticket for the 5pm tour and rest our weary legs in the courtyard while we wait.  The Palau is owned by a choir, the Orfeo Catalan, and is truly stunning. Well worth a visit:

   
   
Our final day in Barcelona dawns sunny once again. Our goal this morning is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (or MNAC), but first we detour via the Saint Antoni market, which unfortunately is closed due to major renovations. It will be a gorgeous spot upon completion of these restoration works:

  
There is a temporary market set up over the road, so we have a wander through and stop for coffee and a small pastry at one of the bars:

   
   
We are ready now for the walk up to the Gallery, and as everyone promised, the view is spectacular:

   
 
We spend a quick hour in their Arte Moderne section before walking to the funicular railway and the trip back down the hill:

  
It is now heading towards 2pm and thirst and hunger is raging. We are on a mission to find one of the paella restaurants recommended by Laia the day before. Through perseverance and a little questioning of the locals we finally find it, back in Barceloneta. Now we can say we have had an authentic paella:

   
 
Finally replete we walk slowly back through the Friday evening crowds, stopping for a quiet drink at the little bar at the corner of our block, where the waiter introduces me to the local digestif:

  
So ends our Barcelona sojourn (at least for now). It is a gracious, clean, urbane city – full of beautiful buildings, friendly people and never ending opportunities for eating. Perfecto.

3 thoughts on “The agony and the ecstasy of Barcelona

  1. Jane

    Hi Deb, what a wonderful snapshot of great things to see, do and eat in Barcelona.
    (Have you thought about writing a travel eating book? I’d buy it!)

    Like

  2. Kate. Kilsby

    your blog on Barcelona left me longing to go back!!. Interested to see you photo of the signage for restaurant barceloneta but looks like you didn’t get to eat there. It was a personal institution when I was there – I was interviewed for my job there and every significant event was celebrated or commiserated there. …… What a long time ago………

    Like

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