Thursday, October 1, 2009

La Barceloneta

It's windy on the beach in Barceloneta these days. Surfers are replacing sunbathers. And, in anticipation of the opening of the W Hotel Barcelona (Hotel Vela) today, locals have taken to protest rafts.

Here's the article I wrote for the Globe about the recent development around La Barceloneta: On the beach in Barcelona. It's a watered down version of the original, which had some mention of local politics. As I've been told, that is travel writing. I'll try to give you a glimpse into some of the inner workings of La Barceloneta, those less suitable for the Travel section, in another post.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Goodbye, La Mercè

Goodbye, Mercè. It's been swell. We laughed, we danced, we overdid it on the cava a little, but that's o.k. in the grand scheme of things. It might have been the fireworks, they tend to inspire thirst...all that throat drying smoke. We'll try to be better next year. Really. We promise with our fingers crossed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wine and Fireworks

The Old Port at night is better than ever during La Mercè. There's a cava and wine tasting (XXIX Mostra de Vins i Caves de Catalunya), complete with generous tapas of the traditional kind. (It's no use reminding yourself that the wine is for sampling not inebriating.) You can see the Barceloneta fireworks competition from the pier. And, schools of tiny sparkling fish put on a show below your dangling feet as they try to escape their determined predators. In other words, there's a whole host of entertainments that I highly recommend.

The cava and wine tasting continues until Sunday. Plan to go early in the evening as it closes down at around 10:00pm nightly, just before things get really raucous; that means that you have to purchase the tickets that you trade in for glasses of wine and tapas before 9:45pm. Once equipped with wine and food, you can spread yourself out on the pier, with blanket or sans, and enjoy to your heart's content. You'll know it's time to go when someone pulls out the bagpipes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

La Mercè

The most patronly, or perhaps matronly, of the patron saints of Barcelona is Santa Maria de la Merced (la Mercè in Catalan, Mercy in English). In medieval Barcelona, her followers dedicated themselves to purchasing the freedom of Christian slaves from the Saracens. And, while most who praise her name today no longer have such lofty goals, she's still celebrated in Barcelona with the Festes de la Mercè, the city's biggest party.

There's music, dancing and general whooping-it-up throughout town this week, but our favourite spot to date has been Ciutadella Park. Decorated with dragons and luminous eggs, it is the site of an enormous jazz stage and the Asia Festival. The combination of crowd pleasing jazz, a comfy (if slightly obstructed) view of the harbour's firework displays and some truly kick-ass samosas is delectable. Bring a blanket if you want to sit on the dewy grass and don't drop your guard; I'm sorry to say that we've seen thieves about, especially after dark.

This weekend, we also intend to drop by the Catalan Wine and Cava Expo in the Old Port (Moll de Fusta), always an excellent mix of local wines and quality tapas at bargain prices.

La Mercè will party on until Sunday. For a full listing of events see For more on the city's other fiestas, check out The Sounder: Fiesta Anyone?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Secluded Coves - El Golfet

Just a few minutes outside of Calella de Palafrugell lies a snug pebble beach half canopied by pines and embraced by golden rock outcroppings, El Golfet.

The loveliest way to reach it is to park at the Hotel Sant Roc and walk the cliffside along the winding Camí de Ronda, part of an ancient series of footpaths along the coast. The paths, which once covered almost the entire length of the Costa Brava, were initially used by watchmen and shepherds and are now a boon to those looking for the most spectacular cliffside views out to sea: pines clinging precariously to rock, small islands of stone battered by foaming waves, lone sailboats coming and going, fishermen casting their lines and white villages unfolding in the distance.

The walk alone is mesmerizing. Arriving to the rugged beauty of El Golfet makes it all the more gratifying.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

El Cremat

I'm loath to stop talking about the sea. Salt slicked as I was for most of last week, I think maybe the sea marinated me in its briny waters a little. I walked away shot through with its peculiar taste.

It's a taste that, on the Costa Brava at least, mingles easily with that of rum, the kind that Catalan sailors would once bring back from Cuba. At night, by the sea, the sailors would sing songs about the loves they left behind in Havana and drink a flaming beverage called the Cremat. Even though the sheen has worn well off the sailors and Spain's colonial empire, the Cremat is still all good. So are the songs (Havaneres), which have become a popular part of Catalan tradition.

We tried the Cremat on the terrace of Can Gelpí with our friend Guillermo, the waves crashing around us, just as it was meant to be tasted.

At Can Gelpí, which is famed for its Cremat, no part of the experience was a disappointment. The Cremat arrived on our table in a large clay bowl engulfed in bluish flame. It was set down with a single cup of cafe solo (espresso), three espresso cups and a ladle. We were then left to our own devices. We waited and waited for the flames to abate, but they burned on. The minutes passed and the flames soared. We were aware of the alcohol, of course, and reluctant to lose all of its bite. Eventually, thinking that the spectacle had gone on for far too long, Felipe blew out the flame. I think we were just shy of the 10 minutes that the Cremat is supposed to burn. Little did we know. We shared the coffee between the three cups and ladled out the alcohol. We were completely wrong about the procedures that accompany the Cremat, needless to say, but the result was not at all unpleasant. Quite pleasant it was. Indeed, indeed.

I've since learned the ways of the Cremat and cobbled together a recipe from our boisterous night at Can Gelpí and the few internet recipes that I've seen (virtually all in Catalan). Please forgive any imperfections.

Recipe for 6 generous servings of Cremat:

1/2 a bottle (325 mls) of dark Cuban rum
1/2 a bottle (325 mls) of aguardiente de caña (replace it with an equal amount of rum in a pinch)
A cup of cognac or two (optional)
About 75-100 grams of sugar (feel free to add more or less to taste)
The peel of one or two lemons (in long, elegant strips)
One or two sticks of cinnamon (absolutely no powder)
5 or 6 coffee beans (optional)
About 1/2 cup of brewed espresso coffee

Allow night to fall. This is not a daytime drink. Then, in a heatproof earthenware bowl, mix everything but the cup of coffee and set aflame. Let it burn. And, oh, it will burn. For a very long time. You will begin to think, "Should it really be burning this long?" It should. About 10 minutes they say, until the flavours are well blended. Don't worry, let it sit burning on the table to impress your friends.

When you think it's ready, or when there is sufficient general panic that all the alcohol has been consumed by flame (as in our case), pour in the espresso and cover with a lid to extinguish (or just blow on it as Felipe did). Spoon into espresso cups with a ladle and break into song about your lost Cuban love. You might even shed a tear. Who knows. The ways of the Cremat are a little unpredictable.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sea, the Sea

It's nearly fall...or maybe it's fall already. Time has been slipping by with alarming speed, as always in the last moments of summer. Wandering around Barceloneta and its beaches with a lump in my throat, I had been feeling the pull of the sea, the sea...the sea at summer's end.

So, Felipe and I gave in and went for a heady final romp along the coast last week, floating, swimming and somersaulting in the heaving, roiling, galloping sea of an Iris Murdoch novel. And now we're spent and content and ready for fall. Well, as ready as one can ever be.

We found the Costa Brava, where we frittered away last week, a long string of contradictions--rugged cliffs, quaint fishing villages and out of control development. To many, this part of the coast, which starts some kilometers north of Barcelona, is a stomach churning mess of package hotels and mass tourism.

This August, my poor Polish cousins, who thought they would spend their hard earned money on a week of vacation bliss in Spain, ended up in the hotel jungle in the down at the heels Malgrat de Mar, just to the South of Blanes. By the time we got to them, they were very nearly in the depths of depression.

What makes my cousins' experience all the more sad is that there are still beautiful spots along the Costa Brava. To be sure, they're best enjoyed in June and September rather than July or August. In the still warm off-season, you are very likely to find yourself all but alone in the lulling waves of the Mediterranean, particularly if you're up for a little stroll along the cliffs. I'll tell you all about the Camí de Ronda, a footpath along the coast, in another post.

On the recommendation of our friend Louise, who once frolicked on the coast in a billowy yellow skirt, we spent last week in Calella de Palafrugell on the other Costa Brava, the one right out of a Merchant and Ivory film. Calella de Palafrugell, about an hour and a half outside of Barcelona, is a pretty fishing village, which retains all the romance of the coast as it once must have been: colourful sail boats pulled up onto the shore, pristine beaches of polished pebbles, merrily painted houses and charming restaurants lining the boardwalk. It's a tourist town through and through, but one of genteel tourism, the kind that brings back all your best memories of holidays by the seaside.

We stayed at the stately Hotel Sant Roc (, which overlooks the town from a privileged cliff-top location on the outskirts (its terrace is pictured above). It's currently offering a 3 nights for the price of 2 deal, which is truly fantastic given that prices are already at low season rates. As for restaurants, we opted for Can Gelpí (C/ les Voltes 11, tel. 97 261 4572) and Tragamar (Playa De Canadell, tel. 97 261 5189), both of which serve very respectable seafood accompanied by spectacular views out to sea and the music of crashing waves.