Tuesday, June 10, 2008

10 Days in Barcelona

It’s been more than eight years since I spent my 10 days in Barcelona, but the city still holds me in its thrall. How can you not fall in love with a city (and environs) that offers architecture, art, shopping, history, natural beauty, good food, entertainment and a vibrant street life? Not to mention reasonably priced sparkling wine and hot chocolate as thick as pudding.

Because I have some friends going to Barcelona in a week or so I thought I would share some of the highlights of my trip. I don’t intend for this to be an all encompassing guide since my trip was so long ago, but I thought it would give a good taste of the city.

My favorite plaza was Placa de Pi. It and the adjacent Placa de Sant Josep Orial were ones we went back to time and again. There were pleasant outdoor cafes, a good restaurant (El Pi Antic) with wonderful grilled vegetables, mussels and crusty bread which was washed down with great cava (Spanish sparkling wine). The placa was in the Barri Gothic (old town) and an easy walk from our hotel. We went back several times enjoying the street performers and later in the week a cheese and honey market and then an art market.

The Barri Gothic was always exciting to walk through. The juxtaposition of those ancient buildings, new street sculptures the city had scattered about and the mix of tourist and traditional stores meant there was a surprise at every turn. This is not a museum district; it is part of the living city. Balconies, cobblestone streets and ancient architectural details made me feel like I had stepped back in time, although the graffiti and overheard cell phone conversations usually snapped be back to the present pretty fast.

La Rambla is a long boulevard connecting the Placa de Catalunya with the waterfront and the monument to Christopher Columbus. A wide green swath with sidewalks is in the middle of it. Each section bears a different street name and features different vendors ranging from magazines and books to birds. Street performers abound. It is colorful and very entertaining. I understand it was once the turf of those who tourists would do well to avoid but was cleaned up for the 1992 Olympics. It was a safe and exciting place filled with locals promenading and visitors snapping pictures of the human statues and the like and the scene there seemed to go on long past midnight.

Walking along La Rambla to Placa de Catalunya you could find a few of my favorite Barcelona stops – Boadas cocktail bar, La Boqueria and El Corte Ingles.

Boadas is a cocktail bar dating from the 1930s. Inside is all dark wood and Art Deco. Each day a different classic cocktail is on special and to watch the bartenders shake, stir and pour your libation is to watch poetry in motion. The cocktails were some of the best I’ve had anywhere.

La Boqueria is Barcelona’s famed public market. It was undergoing renovation when I was there, but even with just half of the market open it was truly awe inspiring. Besides assortments of beautiful fruits and vegetables and the like, the market has lots of prepared food ideal for a take away meal.

El Corte Ingles is my favorite department store in the world. I’ve been to ones in Lisbon, Madrid (several branches, two different trips) and Seville. Besides the excellent department store shopping, it boasts reasonably priced, good quality souvenirs and a wonderful food hall (although with La Boqueria near by, I would make that my food shopping priority in Barcelona).

Getting around Barcelona is fairly easy by metro and bus. It is an easy city to walk. There was also a tourist bus that connected most of the famous sights for a flat fee run by the city. You could buy multi-day tickets and get on and off as much as you liked. Information and tickets were available at the very helpful tourist information storefront near the Placa de Catalunya.

Modernista architecture is one of the qualities that makes Barcelona so special. Gaudi is the most famous of these Art Novueau architects. Casa Mila, Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell are worth a trip to Barcelona on their own, but other architects have left buildings as elaborately decorated as wedding cakes around the city. My favorite of the others is the Palau de la Musica (try to go when you can take a tour inside.) Be sure to seek out the little snack bar at Parc Guell, on top of what was to have been the market place, built into a cave near the undulating mosaic benches. Enjoy an orange bitters soda along with the view.

Barcelona has many fine museums, too many for me, even with my 10-day stay. My favorites were the City Museum with its Roman ruins and the Maritime Museum, with its recreations and Viking ship. I was left unimpressed by the Picasso Museum, although I know plenty of people who claim it as a highlight of their trip. When I was there the exhibits were Picasso’s student works and his late-in-life erotic drawings. The palace the museum is housed in is wonderful and the district around it was filled with interesting shops and boutiques and my favorite cava bar – El Xampanyet. Besides the sparkling wine, the bar also served hard cider and a wonderful assortment of seafood tapas.

Speaking of tapas, there are many places to enjoy them throughout the city. Often the tapas are on display through glass counters which makes it easy to point to what you’d like if you are shy about trying to communicate or uncertain exactly what’s in a dish.

I didn’t have a bad meal in the city. My most impressive was at the beautiful (and expensive) Jean Luc Figueras. This was years before I had even heard of a food blog, so I’m sorry to say there are no photos of the food or even any descriptions of what I ate that night. It was wonderful will have to do. It was also the first place I ever had a chocolate lava-style cake. (Trust me to remember about the dessert.) The restaurant is now known as Kresala and still garners raves for its tasting menu.

I stayed at Le Meriden, right off La Rambla. Walking across La Rambla let me straight into the Barri Gothic. Walking the other way took me into a district that reminded me of New York’s Soho in the 1970s and early 1980s – a gentrifying arts district. I set out in search of a horchatateria (a restaurant featuring horchata, a drink made from almond-tasting roots), but the drink was not in season and I settled for a wonderful milk and lemon fizz. I’m still trying to figure out how that concoction could exist without curdling in the glass or later in my stomach.

There was so much I was impressed with, I couldn’t begin to list them all , but here’s a few things I didn’t find worth the effort: the flea market, the Poble Espanyol (supposedly a collection of Spanish villages from all regions), and the arts and crafts market at the base of La Rambla.

Among the must sees is the weekly performance of the sardana. Every Sunday at noon, locals gather to participate in this folk dance at the base of the cathedral. (I understand there is also a sardana assemblage on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., but I didn’t go then.) An orchestra plays, women tie on espadrilles for the dance and tourists and passersby are encouraged to join the circles of dancers. You can watch from the cathedral steps are you can join in. Either way it gives you a feel for the vibrant connection that people of Catalonia have for their culture and past.

Another way to understand this link is to visit Montserrat which houses the Black Virgin, sacred to most Catalonians. There is a monastery with a boys’ choir, an art museum, a funicular to go to the top of the mountain and wander among the paths of the national park and perhaps visit some of the hermitages scattered through the rocky mountainside. There is a wonderful art museum, a cafeteria, a great bakery featuring “rocs” which are giant meringue cookies filled with hazelnuts, and a large gift store featuring everything from religious items to camping supplies. The site played a significant role in several wars but what held the most power for me were the bins and bins of items donated to the church in honor of promises made to the Black Virgin for her intervention. (There are buses directly to Montserrat, but another option is to take a train to an aerial cable car and get to Montserrat from Barcelona that way.)

Another side trip I would recommend is to the beautiful wine making regions. I went to cava country and toured Codorniu. If you don’t have a car, the train stops right by the Frexienet winery.

I also enjoyed a day trip to the Costa Brava. I was able to take a boat along the coast from Blanes to Tossa de Mar, where I had lunch at the edge of the Mediterranean and bought my beautiful yellow and green traditional mortar and pestle from a local shopkeeper (who was the nly person I came across in Catalonia who seemed to speak exclusively Catalonian). Both Blanes and Tossa de Mar are accessible by train and commercial boat trips are available during the summer along the coast.

I also went to Girona, which I enjoyed, with its riverside old town and shopping district, cathedral and call (Jewish quarter). That same day we went to Figueres to see the Salvador Dali Museum. The museum works best if you think of it almost like an installation of performance art. Is it worth a special trip? I didn’t think so, but if you are going up to Girona anyway and you are a fan of Dali and/or the absurd it is well worth the extra time.

Back in Barcelona, ask your concierge to help you find out about local nightclub shows. Featuring popular songs sung in Catalonian with half-clad showgirls, minimal plots and an audience filled with what appeared to be happy French middle-aged businessmen, it was an evening harkening back to what my vision of the Stork Club and other famous nightclubs must have been like back in the day. I went to the Barcelona City Hall nightclub, but there were a number of others. You don’t need to understand the language to understand what’s going on – it’s a good time, shared by all.
I no longer have the links to the websites I used to plan my trip. But here are a few I found you might find helpful:

I didn’t find an English link to the Barcelona City Hall nightclub, but from what I did run across it might now be a venue for assorted contemporary music concerts. I hope some of the nightclub culture is still there in Barcelona, it really was very special.

There is so much more I would love to share. Maybe I’ll do another post about Barcelona sometime. In the meantime, as always, please feel free to use the comments section to add your suggestions, updates and links.
Photo to come: This trip was pre digital camera; I have to scan some pix in!


Gourmet Traveller said...

Here are a few other suggestions for Barcleona. I had the best tapas ever at TAPAC24.


FJKramer said...

Thanks for the tip/link, GT

I should also add in a link to Cooking with Amy's excellent Barcelona adventures, including an expensive gourmet food walking tour

Here's a link to that post, check out her site for lots more on the city.

FJKramer said...

Just reading this over, the first time in years, and I realized I meant to write the gourmet walking tour was expansive (not necessarily expensive!)