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 www.bcn.cat/merce. 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 (www.santroc.com), 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.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Charming Dive

Another well kept secret of Barce-loneta's narrow streets is Can Maño. When Wee and Nuria, our friends from the barrio, told us about it, they begged me not to include it in the article I was writing at the time. It's hard enough to get a table as it is, they say. Locals don't need the extra competition.

I've never been very good at keeping secrets, unfortunately, and I can't help but share Can Maño with you, at least by way of blog. My compromise is that you'll have to find it on your own.

The truth is that Can Maño isn't for everyone, and certainly not for the average tourist. It has the look of a neighbourhood dive, right down to the flourescent lights, peeling tabletops and old school proprietor who moves from table to table at his own rhythm, occasionally with a cigarette dangling from mouth or hand. All this, however, is part of its surprising charm, a charm that emanates largely from the friendly bustle of the place: wine still flows freely from traditional porros at Can Maño; musicians enter to sound a trumpet a foot from your ear; the proprietor's daughter comes out to hand a loaf of bread to the street person at the door; and locals order from memory or from the faded list of platos combinados (mixed plates) posted on the wall.

When we first tried Can Maño, the few tables of tourists present asked for a menu, which was dutifully brought out, but we were so captivated by the dishes sailing by our heads that we ordered on the basis of "we'll have what they're having". The unbelievable oven baked mackerel and tasty grilled squid didn't disappoint. Neither did the price. The sizable mains along with a large plate of french fries, dessert (not their forte), half a bottle of wine, a soda and coffee came to 22 euros. I doubt you could do as well anywhere else in Barcelona, especially for such well prepared seafood. And, it's worth noting that at Can Maño it's not unreasonable to expect to pay considerably less--the squid, at 8 euros, was among the most expensive items on the menu.

There is one enormous drawback to eating at Can Maño, however, and it is the one hinted at by Wee and Nuria when they first told us of the place. That is that the restaurant doesn't take reservations and, at peak hours, the wait (in the street outside) can be considerable. The solution is to arrive early. By 8:30pm the place is full so it's best to go just after 8pm, an ungodly hour at which to dine by Barcelona standards, but given the number of locals in the place even at that time, a reasonable trade off for one of Can Maño's in-demand tables.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bombaaaaaa!

If you're a tourist in Barcelona, you probably know La Barceloneta best for its beach. Packed, lively and somewhat gaudy, it's the beach that's closest to the Old Town and therefore the one most favoured by foreigners staying in the Gotico and Born neighbourhoods, the same foreigners that flood it in scorched pink droves in July and August.

Lately, Felipe and I have been wandering the interior of the barrio, trying to get the feel of the real neighbourhood, that is, the one that doesn't immediately border the beach. It's a special place that, despite the summer tourist invasion, still retains the feel of a close family...a place where, on hot summer nights, life long residents put folding chairs on the sidewalks immediately outside their front doors to escape their cramped apartments, gossip and take in the sea air.

I've been working on an article about La Barceloneta, which I'll post that here when it comes out, but I'm mindful that the article's brevity doesn't lend itself well to sharing all of the barrio's secrets.

Of these, there are many, but one of my absolute favourites is the bomba and the place that claims to have invented it, La Cova Fumada.

La Cova Fumada (c/ Baluard 56, tel. 93 221 4061) is a neighbourhood place de toda la vida. There's sawdust on the floor, barrels of wine on the wall, a sense of decor worthy of the one room apartment of the most hardened bachelor and an open grease spewing kitchen presided over by grandmothers in floral house dresses. That is to say, it's quite fantastic in its own way, as evidenced by the ever present line of tourists and locals at its door.

La Cova Fumada's famed bombas are a mixture of meat and mashed potato, molded into balls, fried and topped with allioli and hot sauce. Actually, La Cova Fumada offers you everything from the mild Señorita (with a dollop of allioli alone, as pictured above) to the fiery Macho (drenched in hot sauce). Felipe and I could not limit ourselves to sample just one and could have gone through a plateful each had we not just finished a filling meal of La Cova Fumada's inexpensive seafood offerings.

Besides the bombas, the restaurant serves some excellent bacalao (salt cod), respectable sardines and perfectly prepared calamares a la plancha (grilled squid). In fact, of the wide selection of dishes we sampled, only the mussels weren't up to the snuff. To order, check out the menu on the wall or ask the waitress to tell you what's up. You won't pay much for the food and you'll feel like you've lived in the barrio your entire life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Barcelona Travel Tips - What to Know

It's the fault of movies like the insipid Vicky Chirstina Barcelona, not to mention our dwindling knowledge of the world outside our own backyards, that most people have no idea that the native language of Barcelona is Catalan and not Spanish (Castilian). In fact, most expect to drink sangria, see bullfights and hear flamenco guitar when they come here--all of these, though occasionally available in Barcelona, are products of the radically different culture of the South of Spain. It's the same kind of geographical and cultural dimness (often ascribed, but by no means exclusive, to North America) that leads people to believe that we Canadians have polar bears living in our backyards and skate to school on permanently frozen rivers. We don't, but I have heard that Australians do ride kangaroos to work.

If you know only a few things before you come to Barcelona, know these. Barcelona is the capital of the region of Catalonia (Catalunya around these parts). It's a cosmopolitan city of about two million on the Mediterranean coast of Northern Spain. Before being incorporated into modern Spain, Catalonia was a separate kingdom and a proud nationalism still courses through the veins of most Catalans. While a minority are separatists, contrary to the unfortunate reality of the Basque countries to the north, there's absolutely no messing about with bombs and violence here.

The language, as I've mentioned, is Catalan, but all Barcelonians also speak Castilian Spanish (the Spanish of Latin American and the rest of Spain), often mixing Catalan and Castilian when amongst friends. Tourists can expect a reasonable level of English (and sometimes French or German) in hotels and many restaurants, but, once off the beaten track, may have trouble encountering English speakers. (The last statistics I read placed those Catalans who speak English with some degree of fluency at about 30% of the population.)

While Barcelona has gained a relatively liberal reputation, its citizens, particularly the older ones, are a fairly conservative group and are sometimes scandalized by what the tourists get up to--stumbling half naked and piss drunk through the streets as some are wont to do after their days of baking on the beach. The truth is that the attitude of the locals is still largely "live and let live", but recently, tourist excesses, which haven't let locals live very well, have many Barcelonians thoroughly fed up. I'll write more about that and how you shouldn't behave in Barcelona in another post.

For your convenience, here are a few other tidbits that might be of use:

Currency: Euro.

When to Go: The summers are hot and sticky (25-30 C) and much of the city closes down in August for holidays. The best time to come is spring (April/May) or fall (September/October) when the weather is milder (15-23 C). Winter is quiet, rainy and much cooler (5-10 C).

Getting Around: Barcelona's main tourist areas are within easy walking distance of the centre or a short metro or cab ride away. The metro system is extensive, safe and cheap (77 cents a ride if you buy the 10 trip card). It runs until midnight from Sunday to Thursday, until 2am on Fridays and all night on Saturdays. Taxis are reasonably priced as well and cabbies usually aren't inclined to rip you off. Be prepared for small supplemental charges, however, at night, on holidays and when travelling with luggage or to or from the airport or train station. Finally, the city is very bike friendly. Your hotel can help you with rentals and routes. The red and white "Bicing" bikes so prevalent in the streets are for locals who subscribe to the Bicing service. (See the links to transport sites on the left hand side of this page for more information.)

Tipping: Catalans tend to tip very little or not at all. 5% is generally considered adequate in restaurants. It's not expected that you tip in bars or cabs. If you want to tip, any loose change you might have is usually more than enough.

Be Warned: While Barcelona has relatively little violent crime, pickpockets and purse-snatchers abound, particularly in tourist areas. You don't need to outfit yourself with a money belt and personal alarm system, however; just try not to look like a mark. That means dressing for the city and not like a tourist--you wouldn't walk around your town in little more than a bikini top with a knapsack strapped to your chest, for instance. You should also use reasonable precautions like not leaving bags unattended (I always keep my purse on my lap and never hang it on the back of a chair or leave it sitting on the ground), keeping valuables and money you don't need in the hotel safe and being aware of your surroundings. As there are various scam artists about, you should never (and this should be obvious) hand over your passport to anyone on the street, even if they look like a cop. And, as the Simpsons should have taught you, there is no such thing as a wallet inspector.

On the up side, you might be heartened to know that in my more than two years here I've never been robbed (knock on wood) nor have any of my 40 or so visitors. It's just a matter of being ever so slightly on guard, just like in any city of some size.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

El Velódromo Revisited

You might be interested to know that Felipe and I were finally able to get a table at the Velódromo (c/ Muntaner 213, Eixample, see The Sounder: A Cafe to Love) for something more than a morning coffee. We had attempted to brave the dinner line-up on one or two evenings, but had been unable to resign ourselves to the hour-long wait. Recently, however, we happened to be hungry for lunch at the odd hour of 4:30pm on a Saturday (a fairly late lunch, even by Barcelona standards, where it's common to eat between 2 and 4 pm). The availability of a proper meal at this hour is, in fact, part of what's most convenient about the Velódromo, whose kitchen is open (atypically) from 6am to 3am and where lunch and dinner dishes are served from 1pm on.

In the late afternoon on the weekend, the cafe's pace was easy and the mood slightly hushed. While there were other diners, the place was by no means packed. It was, in fact, the perfect atmosphere in which to linger and relax in the gorgeous high ceilinged space.

When we asked for the menu, the table was prettily laid for us with a white tablecloth, virtually towel-sized napkins and pleasantly heavy silverware. The choice of dishes, while small, was interesting, ranging from stewed tripe to pig's feet (manitas de cerdo) to rabbit to Valencian paella for two. All are traditional favourites. We ordered the paella along with ham croquettes from the tapas menu to start and an exceptionally good flan to finish. The paella, which arrived in an enormous cast iron tureen, was just slightly soupy with lovely bits of rabbit, mushrooms and cuttlefish (sepia) and left us thoroughly satisfied.

I should mention that, while the prices of the competently prepared dishes were in themselves reasonable, the bill quickly added up. This was largely because the beverages are more aggressively priced than is usual and easily amounted to the better part of the cost. Our relatively light meal for two with drinks came to about 37 euros. Whether you consider that reasonable will largely depend on the value you put on the pleasure of dining in such a well turned out spot.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Of Princes and Pescados

I have a friend whom I dearly love who is currently imprisoned in a tiny cell in an office tower. I imagine him staring wistfully out the window, awaiting his reverse Rapunzel--the sexy warrior princess who throws up her long flaxen hair so that he can secure it to his filing cabinet and climb down into her waiting arms before his blackberry has a chance to send out a vibrating alarm.

Only a short time ago, our imprisoned prince was in Barcelona, basking in the sun pool-side at the Hotel Omm, sampling tapas, quaffing claras (a uniquely Spanish blend of beer and lemon soda), and generally loving life. But it wasn't long before his dark overlords put a stop to all that free-wheeling fun.

Maybe it will make him feel better to recollect his favourite meal. Or maybe it'll just be pouring salt on the wounds. Either way, it was at El Passadis del Pep and spectacular.

El Passadis del Pep (Pla de Palau 2, Born, tel. 93 310 1021, www.passadis.com) is the fancier cousin of Cal Pep, about which I wrote a few months ago: Tapas Basic - Part 1. I had read about it as the location of choice for one of Bono's dinners in Barcelona, not to mention on the Curious Eater blog, which was instructive in its warnings as to what could potentially go wrong with the El Passadis del Pep dining experience.

Those warnings aside, for the moment, El Passadis is an elegant restaurant serving traditional Catalan food. It specializes in seafood in particular. More importantly, dinner at El Passadis was, by our prince's own account, one of the best of his life and was undoubtedly one of my favourite meals in Barcelona--not for inventiveness or audacity, but for the pure joy of exceptionally fresh ingredients simply yet expertly prepared.

Once we were happily ensconced in the bustling dining room, with its rough stone walls and unpretentious charm, the following appeared on our table in quick succession (and, just as quickly, disappeared): A plate of paper thin slices of jamón iberico served with pan con tomate, succulent clams in a garlic broth, sauteed wild mushrooms so good they almost eclipsed the exquisite seafood dishes, pimientos de padrón (small green peppers, some surprisingly spicy), chipirones (baby squid, fried in batter), pescaito frito (fried whitebait), perfect grilled crayfish, the juiciest prawns, a hearty tripe stew (for Felipe), arroz negro (black rice with sepia) and lubina (sea bass), which we ordered at the prince's request, albeit somewhat unnecessarily, on top of the eight substantial dishes that we had already eaten. We shared a crema catalana (Catalan creme brulee) for dessert.

The food was so good that conversation virtually ceased for the duration of the meal. It resumed in the sleepy after glow, helped along by the complimentary chupitos (shots) brought out by our waiter by way of digestif, a welcome piece of tradition that has all but died out in other Barcelona establishments.

And, while we all rolled out of El Passadis drunk, happy and at peace with the bill, I do have a few words of advice that you should heed to avoid the pitfalls of the place (see Curious Eater's summary of those). What you need to know boils down to this: The place has no sign out front so be sure you've found it on a map before venturing out. You will almost certainly need reservations. There is no menu and the waiter will proceed to open a bottle of cava (the first is complimentary) and bring you an eight course meal, all courses emerging in quick succession, before you as much as have a chance to say boo. This is not a scam (I don't think), but it does require virtually instantaneous taking control of the situation if you do not want unwelcome surprises. The waiters, who are very pleasant and speak some English (though it's undoubtedly easier to communicate in Spanish), are very amenable to telling you what's coming and to making changes to the set menu; ours went through the proposed dishes with us in detail. Felipe, who is allergic to shellfish, received divine meat and vegetable dishes to substitute those he could not eat. We were even privy to a table of Israelis ordering a highly complicated, mostly vegetarian meal--why you would do this at El Passadis, whose particular fame is in the world of seafood, is beyond me, but I was impressed that the chef came out to assist with their selections and take note of their restrictions, all this a testament to the aforementioned flexibility.

You should also know that the price is not set and depends on the dishes ultimately selected. You should expect something between 50 and 80 euros per person, depending on the choice of dishes and amount of alcohol you consume. If you need to know in advance precisely what you will be charged, this is not the place for you. If you're lucky, you'll have with you a prince of man, who, with his customary generosity, will insist on picking up the bill.

As for our prince, we wish him many happy dreams of Barcelona and hope that he will be back soon.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Secluded Coves - Cap de Creus

Possibly my favourite spot in all of Spain is the Cap de Creus (about two hours north of Barcelona by car). Windswept, jagged and wild, the area has some stunning coves with idyllic pebble beaches. Here's a tiny snippet I wrote about one of those beaches, the Platja de Sant Lluís, for The Guardian's on-line Travel section: Top Ten European Beaches by Foot. It's the same spot that I mention in The Sounder: Surrealism Meets Nudism. In the photo above, you can just glimpse the beach between the trees at the bottom of the cliff.

Even in August, when small boats are anchored off-shore, the beach is peaceful and the water absolutely sublime. Off season, when the crowds and pleasure boats of July and August disappear, it's even more delicious.

If you have time to ramble, the same path that leads you to Platja de Sant Lluís continues to the very point of the Cape, branching off to two other rocky coves along the way: the Cala Guillola and the Cala Jugadora.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inducing Cardiac Arrest

Before I share this week's secrets for bringing on massive heart failure, I feel the need to disclose a conversation that I had with my parents last week (loosely translated from the original Polish):

"Does the F in your last article mean what we think it means?" (See What the F Do I Do in August?)

"I don't know. What do you think it means?"

"We think we'd better not say, but I don't know if we're going to read your blog anymore."

"Well, I can't pretend that that might not be for the best."

Huff. (I think only partially serious, but you never know.)

To be honest, given the occasional tongue-in-cheek sexual references in my posts, I had thought my parents would have raised a fuss a while ago. This is the couple for whom the "Love Boat" was so racy that my sister and I were banished to our rooms whenever it came on. Who would have figured they would draw a line in the sand over the letter F.

Mom and dad, if you're still secretly reading, you know that I kid. And I'm not just saying that to avoid another huff.

We all have our crosses to bear, I suppose. Parents and finding a place to eat in August are only a small drop in the cross bucket.

By the way, Cinc Sentits and Gaig are reopening this week after their respective August breaks, in case you need a nice place to go before the reopening of all and sundry in September. However, I don't know how easy it will be to get a table anywhere this weekend as some 25,000 cardiologists descend on the city and, despite all the hoo-ha about heart health, I've heard that they're a group that likes to eat well.

On the up side, if you were planning a cardiac arrest (infarto), this is the weekend for it. So, go ahead, load up on the McFoie burgers at Carles Abellan's Tapaç24. You might also try La Bodegueta's (Rambla de Catalunya 100) giant plate of delectably runny "smashed" eggs (their translation of huevos estrellados, not mine), served over french fried potatoes. Consider Bar Boquería if you like options when it comes to artery clogging: start with a plateful of succulent short ribs smothered in a meaty sauce; then get the exquisite albóndigas (meatballs), also nestled in their own sauce, this time tomato; follow that up with a thick butifarra sausage or a fragrant morcilla; and, for good measure, order the choricitos (small spicy sausages flavoured with paprika) in cider and tell the waiter to keep them coming. Roll out of there and up to the Festa Major de Sants where, if you're really, really lucky, you'll come across street meat of the type pictured above.

I know, I know, I haven't given the deep fried its due. Well, I reckon you could go for as many ham croquetas as you can swallow at Inopia or the patatas bravas with their twin sauces of "hot" and "mayo" at Bar Tomás (c/ Major de Sarriá 49), reputedly the best bravas in Barcelona. My sweet tooth, however, tells me that the sugar-sprinkled, straight-out-of-the-hot-oil churros at the Xurreria (c/Banys Nous 4, more or less) or the cream filled xuxos at the Forn de Sant Jaume (Rambla de Catalunya 50) are by far the most satisfying bets.

So, there you have it, a uniquely Barcelonian recipe for an infarto. Cardiologists, stand by. Let the keeling over begin!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Sounder: Fiesta Anyone?

Gràcia is alive with the sound of music, merrymaking and squeals of delight these days as the Festa Major fills its narrow streets. It's just the first of August and September's many neighbourhood parties. Read all about it in the Sounder: Fiesta Anyone?

And, while I have your attention, allow me to quell any fears that my thoughts have forever drifted from my beloved pastime of eating. In fact, I promise to return to writing about food and all its pleasures shortly. We've been sampling new restaurants aplenty with our various visitors this summer and it will be my pleasure to tell you all about them. Just not right at this moment. But soon. Very soon.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What the F Do I Do in August?

You might have seen the signs: "Tancat per vacances" or "Cerrado por vac-aciones" (Closed for vacation). They're on every second store and restaurant front in Barcelona in August. The city shuts down almost entirely this month as its overworked denizens take their holidays en masse.

It might seem like a terrible time to visit the city and, in some ways, it is. Those who describe themselves as foodies, for example, will find many of their A-list restaurants closed (Gaig and Cinc Sentits until Aug. 24/25; Alkimia, Moo, Cal Pep and Quimet y Quimet until Sep.; or so I believe, please double check). In addition, a smaller selection of shops is open in city markets.

On the other hand, August is also absolutely perfect. Generally, the city is quieter, less bustling and finding a spot on a patio isn't as challenging as it is in July. While the days may be a little sweaty, the warm evenings are absolutely delicious. What's more, all the museums remain open and, between neighbourhood fiestas and free outdoor activities, there's plenty to keep one occupied.

Here's a glimpse at what's available:

Festa Major de Gracia et al. - starting today and ending next weekend, Gracia streets will be decorated with everything from plastic bottles to CDs in recreations of Wonderland, Japan and God knows what else as the neighbourhood celebrates its popular fiesta. (Last year's decorations are pictured at the top of this post.) Look for musical performances, parades and other fiesta favourites such as castellers (human castles) and gigantes (giants). For details, brush up on your Catalan and check www.festamajordegracia.cat. Note that just as the Festa Major de Gracia ends, the Festa Major de Sants begins (Aug. 22 to 29). Check the schedule here: Festa Major de Sants.

Gandules at the CCCB - As mentioned in a prior post, on Tuesdays, Wednes-days and Thursdays in August, the CCCB offers free movies; this year's theme is Playing Cinema and focuses on the connection between movies and music. Seating is limited so get there early. In fact, I would recommend that you line up before the doors open at 9pm if you are to have any hope of snagging a seat. Here's a link to the schedule: Gandules.

Movies on the beach - The Platja de Sant Sebastia offers movies every Thursday this August (a short followed by a full length feature). The shows start at 9:30pm, I believe. I say this because I wasn't able to find a link that says otherwise. You'll just have to trust me. It goes without saying that you need a blanket and a bottle of wine.

Music at the Caixa Forum - The Caixa Forum offers a free concert series at c/ Marques de Comillas 6-8 on August Wednesdays. Look for Scottish folk on the 19th and Catalan gospel-soul (yes, weird) on the 26th. There are two performances of each (8pm and 10pm). You'll find more information here: CaixaForum Summer Concerts.

Music in Ciutadella Park - While the selection is not as ample as in July, the Music in the Parks concert series continues with jazz on August Fridays at 10pm in Ciutadella Park. Bring a blanket and a picnic dinner. Here is a link to the concert schedule (see second last page; divendres=Friday): Music in the Parks.

Music at La Pedrera - Unlike the other offerings, this one carries a cost of 7 euros a ticket, but it does give you the pleasure of enjoying half an hour of classical music on any given day in August at 7pm, 8pm or 9pm at Gaudi's Pedrera. Tickets can be purchased at the Pedrera ticket office on the day of the concert or at www.telentrada.com. For more information (albeit in Catalan), click here: Mas i Mas.

Restaurants - In terms of restaurants, the Carles Abellán set remains open throughout August--that's Comerç24 (reserve early), Tapaç24 and the newly opened Velódromo. So do most of the restaurants in the Grupo de Tragaluz: Agua, Bar Lobo, and Cuines Santa Caterina have all been reviewed here. Of the tapas joints, the Bar Boquería remains humming, so does the Cerveseria Catalana, Bar Mut, De Tapa Madre and chains like Taller de Tapas and Lonja de Tapas. Also try El Salón (see address and map) for a romantic supper in the depths of the Barrio Gotico (reserve on the patio to soak in an interesting neighbourhood atmosphere that includes everything from surprisingly talented buskers to the harmlessly insane or eat in the charming dining room) and Set Portes (www.7portes.com) in the Old Port for fabulous paella. The restaurants in the Port and along the beach remain open throughout the summer; of these, I like Agua and Merendero de la Mari best.

Oh, and don't forget to picnic and gorge yourself on ice cream. There are absolutely no impediments to either of those activities in August. In fact, I would say that, just this month, they're completely calorie-free.

If you have other thoughts about what to do in the city in August, please, please, please post a comment!

(* The links provided in this article are either to prior posts on the same subject (esp. re restaurants) or to external websites providing more information on a given activity. Let yourself be surprised.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Barcelona Travel Tips - What to See Primer

I have to admit that I always find it stupefying when people ask me what to see in Barcelona. Not in the "we've seen all the major tourist attractions and are now looking for something off the beaten track" sense, but in the "we've heard that there's some famous architecture around here, what and where is it?" sense.

The latter happens more often than you'd imagine. The other day, for example, an American tourist, who started chatting to us on the beach (and who'd already spent two days in Barcelona), asked me about "the Guadi": "We haven't been to the Guadi yet. Where is the Gaudi?" This was pronounced as if Gaudi were some giant monument, cruise ship or highway overpass. Despite my misanthropic inclination to point the fellow to a basic guidebook, I explained that Gaudi is not a thing, but a person (now deceased) and that his architecture is found throughout Barcelona. I then showed him how to get to the Sagrada Familia on the map.

A slightly different manifestation of the same problem is the Philadelphia mother who wrote to me lamenting her visiting 18 year old daughter's inability to purchase meat other than ham in Barcelona. If only the poor girl (undoubtedly protein deprived to the point of near collapse) could just find a can of tuna somewhere, she moaned. I pointed her to a grocery store--any grocery store. But I'm getting off track.

This entry is for my American friend and others like him who need a little primer about what to see in Barcelona. Forgive me if I hit only the highlights.

It's barely debatable that the best way to experience Barcelona is through its architecture (a.k.a. "the Gaudi"). While the city boasts everything from gothic churches to phallic glass towers, it is best known for its art nouveau aesthetic--dubbed "modernista" around these parts,--which is best exemplified by the works of Antoni Gaudi...genius, architect, eccentric.

Gaudi's fairytale buildings capture the inimitable spirit of Barcelona. Dragon scaled Casa Batlló and stone faced Casa Milá (also known as La Pedrera, pictured above at right) vie for attention on the fashionable Passeig de Gracia. The caleidoscope tiles of Parc Guell, Gaudi’s failed garden city come urban playground, beckon from further north. And, after years under renovation, one of Gaudi's first projects, the Palau Guell, is finally open to visitors again (currently, only the basement and main floor can be seen; to compensate, the visit is free).

Gaudi's masterpiece, however, is the Sagrada Familia (pictured at top). The unfinished cathedral is likely to be another century in the making as construction plods along at a snail’s pace—official projections for completion range between 20 and 50 years. Even so, walking inside the spectacular church, with its soaring columns of sunflowers and dappled pools of light, is a revelation, somewhere between entering a living forest and boarding an alien spaceship.

While Gaudi’s contemporaries may never have overtaken him in sheer brilliance of design, Barcelona is richer for their attempts to do so. Domenech i Montaner’s Hospital de Sant Pau (pictured at left), for example, whose tiled maternity and gastroenterology pavilions--topped with patron saints and flowers--continue to function, and his Palau de la Musica Catalana, a music hall lit by an inverse pyramid of multicoloured glass, are brilliant examples of other iconic efforts. The best way to see the latter is to purchase tickets for a concert; if you can't manage that, the one hour tour is worthwhile, but book ahead because popular times, especially for the English language tour, sell out quickly.

Picasso, who lived in Barcelona between 1895 and 1904--his formative years—also left his stamp on the city. A walking tour available through the Barcelona tourist office takes you on a tour of Picasso’s Barcelona, finishing at the Picasso Museum, which is built mainly around works from the artist’s early years. After visiting the museum, take yourself back in time by having lunch at Els Quatre Gats, Picasso’s favourite restaurant. Perhaps the food isn't quite what it used to be, but the lunch menu is reasonably priced and the elaborate high ceilinged interior and stained glass windows (by another of Barcelona's great architects, Puig i Caldefach) remain much as they were in Picasso's time.

If Picasso makes you crave more modern art, Joan Miró and Frederic Tàpies are two Catalan artists with entire museums devoted to them. And, if diversity is what you're seeking, the MACBA, Barcelona's modern art museum, has it in spades, along with a spectacular modern building by Richard Meier, now the city's best loved skateboarding ramp.

More into ancient times? Barcelona's cathedral, a mishmash of architectural styles, is worth a look. Its cloisters, where pretty white geese roam free, are particularly charming. If you're there on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon, you may see Catalans dancing the sardana; please don't join in, they take the dance very seriously and, because the steps are highly complicated, you'll only throw them off in your friendly attempts to be part of the fun. Just behind the cathedral, off the Plaça del Rei where heretics were once burned at the stake, is the History Museum; the museum's below ground display of excavated Roman ruins is awe inspiring. On the other side of Via Laietana, the more somber Santa Maria del Mar gets the most votes for best gothic church.

You shouldn't miss the markets, of course: the Boquería is a favourite with tourists and a must see for the sheer spectacle. But, if you want something more representative of what it's actually like to go shopping as a local, try the Mercat de Santa Caterina, with its distinctive multi-coloured roof and modern interior.

Break up your days by relaxing on Barcelona's man-made beaches (as an alternative to touristy Barceloneta, try Bogatell or Mar Bella, the latter if you want to go fully nude) or forget the beach and lounge in the shade of Ciutadella Park.

And, with one hand on your wallet, don't forget to walk down Las Ramblas to the Old Port where Columbus points to the New World (pictured above at right). Las Ramblas, with its human statutes and stalls selling everything from flowers to roosters, is dirty, garish and packed, but it's also emblematic of Barcelona. You shouldn't leave without seeing it at least once. Just promise me that you will never ever eat in any of its dodgy cafes.

(* Note that the links in this post will take you to the official sites of the tourist attractions mentioned. There you can find the most up to date information about hours, prices and location. Most sites allow you to change the language of the text, usually at the top right hand side of any given page.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sounder: A Café to Love

Early in July, Bar Velódromo (c/ Muntaner 213, Eixample)--in its essence, a café/bar--opened in Barcelona. You could tell by the sheer volume of pre-opening buzz that this was not just any café/bar. Columnists whose regular beats were politics and scandal began writing about the Velódromo, the good old days and the fun on the horizon.

In fact, the Velódromo, a venerable part of Barcelona's history, once home to artists and revolutionaries, did not as much open as re-open. After the retirement of its last owner in 2000, the Velódromo, which first came onto the Barcelona scene in 1933, closed. It was shortly purchased by the Moritz brewery, whose mark can also be seen on Albert Adria's Inopia Bar. Moritz, in collaboration with Carles Abellán, who heads up the delectable Comerç24 and Tapaç24, undertook renovations that, to the dismay of neighbourhood residents, lasted for some six years and only this year began to see their end. The result seems to have been worth it, however, as the renos have added even more luster to the legendary Barcelona establishment.

The new and improved Velódromo is indeed terrific. It is open 365 days a year. It serves up a good cup of tea, which can be tough to get in Barcelona. The eggs are available all day and at the right consistency: that is to say, somewhat runny. And, there's a great selection of Catalan comfort food, which I haven't yet tried because they don't start serving the more substantial dishes until 1pm and we haven't yet seen a dinner hour at the Velódromo where the wait wasn't an hour or more for a table. But this is a small quibble and I'm hoping that things will change when they open the upstairs dining room. [To read about lunch at the Velódromo, see El Velódromo Revisited.]

It's also worth mentioning that the Velódromo is currently virtually tourist-free (if you like that sort of thing) as it has yet to be featured in the latest guides. To read more about it in the Sounder, click here: A Café to Love.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Sounder: Second Best

I have to confess, I've been holding out on you. I ate at El Celler de Can Roca a little over a month ago and I didn't post a thing about it. Girona's Can Roca, just an hour and a half outside of Barcelona, is one of the best restaurants in Spain (it currently holds the number five spot in Restaurant Magazine's list of the world's best restaurants) and is undoubtedly in my personal top five. It deserves a detailed post and you will get one, but for now, click here to take a peek at what I wrote about it for the Sounder: Second Best.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Sounder: Cinema Under the Stars

Summer nights in Barcelona: the heat of the day is just dissipating, you can almost glimpse stars in the city sky and you'd love to kick your feet up and melt into the night. It's the perfect moment for cinema a la fresca and Barcelona has some of the best on offer. Click here to read about this summer's line up in the Sounder: Cinema Under the Stars. And, should you want to bring a picnic (especially to Sala de Montjuic, which is a picnicker's dream), here's a link to one of my prior posts for ideas: A Picnic in Heaven.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saaaaaaaaale!

There is a crazy law here in Spain that you cannot advertise a sale outside of the months of January and July. The law has been much maligned, and this year transgressed, as shop owners vie for the last of the "expendable income" customers in the face of a seemingly never ending financial crisis.

The upside of this antiquated legal regime? Anticipation. Not to mention aggressive competition in the price slashing department, which in the last couple of weeks has translated into discounts of up to 70% on some truly irresistible trifles.

Like any other moderately style conscious girl on a budget, I am a sucker for a sale. Shopping gives me a tingle that even true love can't fully replace. So much so that, when my replacement VISA arrived this year in the giddy first days of sale season, I gave it a grateful little kiss.

Needless to say, despite best efforts to stay on cordial terms with my creditors, I sometimes over do it a little. Not unlike when it comes to eating, really. I am ashamed to say that what is pictured is only a fraction of my sale pirate's booty. It was all 70% off, though, which sort of makes it the fat free ice cream of the retail world. And you can eat all you want of that, right?

In case you too find it hard to resist the siren call of "up to 70% off" in the final days of sale season and aren't sure where to find the best places to shop in Barcelona, here is my "must hit" list. Click on the name of the store for more information and locations.

Coquette - whimsical jewellery, belts and designers like Chloe See and Barbara Bui in a beautiful bonbon of a store
Hoss Intropia - creative handbags, shoes and the loveliest day and evening dresses; designed by Spaniards
Mushi Mushi - pretty tops and bottoms, sassy lingerie and fashionable bike helmets
Sita Murt - elegant day and evening wear as well as a very respectable collection of hand bags designed by the Catalan Sita Murt
Cotelac - ingeniously constructed dresses and layering pieces in reputedly the only Spanish outpost of this French chain
Comptoir des Cotonniers - casual cotton separates with a French flair
TCN - teeny bathing suits and filmy cover ups of Spanish design
Como Agua de Mayo - drool-worthy shoes and accessories as well as a selection of women's separates
Capricho de Muñeca - hand-made wallets and handbags
Jour & Nuit - funky women's clothing in fashion mega-mall, L'Illa

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Sounder: Surrealism Meets Nudism

I recently started writing for the Sounder, an on-line travel magazine put out by the charming folks who run Trufflepig, travel consultants extraordinaire. Here's a link to my first post about exploring the Cape of Creus, just north of Barcelona: Surrealism Meets Nudism.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Barcelona Travel Tips - Where to Stay

The two year anniversary of my time in Barcelona came and went earlier this month with little more than a wayward "hmmm, two years" flitting through my mind. And, just as I'm starting to contemplate a return to Canada, I at last feel capable of giving some reasonably reliable travel tips to the strangers and friends who email me or leave comments requesting advice that's more concrete than the usually random ramblings of my blog.

The Travel Tips series of posts is intended as a compilation of my accumulated wisdom on various Barcelona related topics. Rely on it at your own risk, of course.

Where to Stay

While I've never addressed where to stay on this blog, I have developed some thoughts on the subject. These are largely based on my experience as a resident of Barcelona and user of hotel pools at the invitation of generous friends, rather than as a hotel guest. So, please, take my recommendations with a grain of salt and share your own, if you have any.

My first and best piece of advice is that you studiously avoid Las Ramblas, and the Gotico and Raval areas in general, when arranging for accommodations. With few exceptions (like, say, the Casa Camper and Barceló Raval), the hotels in these areas are below par and have to contend with more challenges to peace and quiet than the average Barcelona residence. The Raval and the Gotico are also where you're most likely to get your pocket picked and step in vomit all in the same 24 hours. That's not to say that you shouldn't visit, just that you may not want to make them your hub.

If I were a tourist, I would stay in the Eixample. It's central, close to restaurants and shopping and riddled with Gaudi masterpieces. Barceloneta and the Ports are nice if you like to be close to the beach, but are a little disconnected from the rest of the city. The Born is a good in-between area--it's still part of the old town and relatively close to the beach, but avoids some of the worst excesses of the Gotico. Other areas (Montjuic, Diagonal Mar, Forum, Sarria) are not central and typically less convenient; lodgings in these areas are usually more appropriate for business travelers or conference and concert goers.

In terms of hotels, in the Eixample, the sleek Omm, with its flash restaurant, Moo, is very nice and its rooftop terrace has a stunning view of Gaudi's Pedrera. The opulent Casa Fuster is an art nouveau masterpiece perched at the top of Paseo de Gracia with a lounge right out of the movies--actually, right out of Woody Allen's "Vicky Christina Barcelona". The Hotel Claris is very comfortable and I've heard good things about the Prestige, the Hotel Pulitzer and the Cram, the latter only if you don't mind small rooms. All of the above are for those whose wallets are thick. On the (slightly) more affordable end of things and nestled a little further off Paseo de Gracia is the quiet Hotel 987.

If you must be on the beach, the soaring Hotel Arts is where the stars stay--U2 and Madonna most recently. It has the best hotel pool in all of central Barcelona, no contest. It is, however, painfully expensive. Rates may fall when the much anticipated W opens on the other end of the Barceloneta boardwalk in October. It is known to the locals, who have been watching construction for several years now, as the Hotel Vela, a reference to its sail-like shape. Just so that you can assure yourselves that it's true, I've included a photo of construction's progress.

A couple of more affordable offerings can be found in the Born. I often recommend Chic & Basic Born (pictured at top) and Banys Orientals, both of which are small boutique hotels that usually have rooms for under 100 euros.

For the more budget conscious traveller, I would suggest the Market Hotel, which has pretty rooms starting at 50-60 euros. It is reasonably well connected to the centre, but is not in a comely part of the city. While the area is not unsafe, it may make those unaccustomed to the seedy a little uncomfortable when walking at night.

Another option for those on a budget is to rent an apartment. Loads are on offer in Barcelona and the recession has made it a renter's market. Quality is variable, however, and you have to be careful about illegal rentals (the majority). These are usually the bane of the existence of many local residents and you may not only be in for a very unwelcoming reception, but end up being cited as part of the reason for the housing crisis that many Barcelona residents are facing. If you do want to try this route, make sure you get all the details first. You can start your search by looking at the short term rentals section of www.loquo.com, a Barcelona Craig's List.

By the way, this summer, Barcelonians have been treated to virtually daily articles about how tourism is down and rates in many of the city's hotels are plummeting; some of the most luxe lodgings have slashed up to 70% off their rack rates. It appears that last minute bookings are a particularly good way to get the best deals.

Coming up next: What to See.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Heart Fountain Cheese

I'd like to be able to say that I'm exclusively a fan of cheese in its edible form. I keep a safe distance from Las Ramblas and its gaudy human statues whenever I can. I never assent to have my caricature sketched for a price, though I will happily accept one gratis from an artistic friend. Nor do I allow others to purchase roses for me in bars; admittedly, that's largely because it's been a while since anyone has offered.

Yet, there is one piece of Barcelona cheese that I readily gobble up, rind and all. The cheese I refer to, of course, is the oozing triple cream of La Fuente Mágica (The Magic Fountain), whose effusive jets dance on summer evenings to the tune of various classical masterpieces blaring at a volume that threatens to wake the dead. As if that weren't enough, the entire spurting, swirling, misting extravaganza is illuminated with coloured lights to the delight of the tourist hordes crowding the steps up to the MNAC on the Plaça Espanya side of Montjuic mountain.

And I, long a lover of ecstatically erupting liquids on hot summer nights, cannot deny that I voyeuristically relish the spectacle.

(From May to September, there are multiple iterations of the show from Thursday to Sunday between roughly 9pm and 11pm. During the rest of the year, the shows are limited to Friday and Saturday between roughly 7pm and 9pm. There is no charge for this guilty pleasure.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ice Cream Days Are Back

I love Sundays in Barcelona. Shops are closed. Streets are hushed. Church bells are ringing. Elderly couples are out walking hand in hand. Families are dining together at home on their terraces. It's as if the city were taking a gentle nap until Monday when it once again assumes its twin mantles of bustle and fiesta.

So, it was unexpected that this particular quiet Sunday brought a momentous revelation. We had just finished reading the paper and licking the last bits of foam off of the spoons of our cafes con leche on the shady terrace of the Bar Virreina (Plaça Virreina), when we decided to stop by one of our usual ice cream haunts, Amorino, for a modest scoop.

As of last year, Amorino was number two on our list of best ice cream shops in Barcelona. Today, however, with the first licks of the crema crocante petals and the amaretto interior of our flower shaped scoop (pictured), it became clear that Amorino had shot ahead of the competition.

I don't know if it was the delicate flavour or the impossible creaminess or the simple loveliness of the shape that convinced us, but Amorino is number one this year, no question. It is still closely followed by Cremería Toscana. And we've brought back La Campana after last summer's boycott, primarily because we've discovered another location, not far from the one on Princesa, where the staff are more amiable and where an outdoor terrace provides the ideal spot for kicking your feet up after a day of shopping in the Born.

If you're keeping track, here are this year's standings:

1. Amorino (Gran de Gracia 53, Gracia), favourite flavours: amaretto, crema crocante
2. Cremería Toscana (c/ Muntaner 161, Eixample, and Canvis Vells 2, hidden near Santa Maria del Mar, Born), favourite flavour: cinnamon
3. Gelaaati! (c/Llibreteria 7, Gotico)
4. La Campana (c/ Princesa 36 and terrace on c/ de Flassaders 15, Born), favourite flavours: cherries with dark chocolate, cookie dough
5. Gelateria Caffetteria Italiana (Plaça Revolució 2, Gracia)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tapas - Different

Difference is a matter of perception, but, in a relatively homo-genous society like Spain, it's pointed out all the time, usually not as a point of favour. Sameness is more comfortable, after all. Comfortable, if a little dull.

The tapas bars in the different category take the baby steps approach to introducing difference into the still relatively closed ranks of Spanish tapas. The plates are still small, the names play on the familiar, and even the ingredients are generally recognizable. The resulting tapas, however, are usually, and in varying degrees, different, introducing new cooking techniques, unusual combinations and a whisper of the international. Here are a handful of spots that manage to do all this more or less successfully, in no particular order:

Samsara (c/ Terol 6, Gracia, tel. 93 285 36 88, open Tuesday to Sunday) - The state of samsara in Hinduism and Buddhism is linked to the concept of reincarnation and refers to a purely corporeal existence in which one is as yet unaware of the true spiritual self and is mired in (or pleasured by, depending on your perspective) the physical world. The restaurant of Samsara, on the other hand, is a place that serves an eclectic mixture of small plates, with deep karmic bows to Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American cuisine, and tries to plug into a casual boho chic atmosphere. The former it does brilliantly with inexpensive stunners like pesto topped sweet potatoes (a variation on traditional patatas bravas) and light salads as well as more ambitious specials like tuna tartar and grilled Argentinian beef. The atmosphere, by contrast, falls a little short in terms of both appearance and comfort--I suppose as a reminder of our worldly suffering--and, whereas I don't mind the boho, the place could use a little more chic. Given it's tiny prices and generally delicious food, however, to take away points for looks is just plain mean. Our last small meal of three satisfying tapas and wine for two ran us about 20 euros. I recommend reserving a table in the evening, particularly Thursday through Saturday.

Sureny (Plaça Revolució De Setembre De 1868 17, Gracia, tel. 93 213 75 56, open Tuesday to Sunday) - Virtually around the corner from Samsara, and a good option if you are turned away from the former for lack of space, is Sureny. I've never seen Sureny full and, really, I'm not sure why that is. The tapas--a few traditional, others more exotic--are always of high quality and the prices are generally reasonable, if not outright cheap. Dinner for four with a bottle of wine, 8 or 9 tapas (including tuna sashimi marinated in soy and ginger, sesame crusted chicken satay, duck breast caneloni, and a sautee of shrimp and wild mushrooms), two desserts and coffees came to about 90 euros last time. Perhaps Sureny is not bursting at the seams with diners because there are better value spots in the immediate vicinity or perhaps because, between its bright lighting and uninspired decor, it's a little low on charm. Its terrace on the kid-friendly Plaça de la Revolución is a good option in the summer, however, and, if you go, I have no doubt you'll like the food.

Ginger (C/ Palma de Sant Just 1, Gotico, open Tuesday to Saturday) - There are good places left to eat and drink in the Gotico. They may be few and far between, but they do exist. Ginger is one of them. Primarily, Ginger, presided over by a sometimes surly Englishwoman who very well could be the eponymous Ginger (I haven't bothered to ask), is a somewhat smoky, extremely atmospheric, retro-chic, old school cocktail bar for young(ish) people. And, if you want to stop at cocktails, no one will think anything of it. However, you will have seriously missed out on Ginger's fantastic tapas. There are a few traditional favourites like pa amb tomaquet/pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato) and embotits/embutidos (cured meats), but the stars are the more elaborate plates, which include butifarra (sausage) flamed in orujo, seared foie gras and wild mushroom ravioli. Prices range from about 4 to 10 euros per tapa.

Santa Maria (C/ Comerç 17, Born, tel. 93 315 12 27, www.santamania.info) - I hesitate to mention Santa Maria in this post because it is the one of the few places in Barcelona in which I've spent a lot and left hungry. The atmosphere is a nice mix of fun and "dimly lit", but the tapas (with strong Asian, especially Japanese, influences), while expertly prepared and attractively plated, are tiny in size and, for that reason, priced a little too ambitiously. I must also admit that we struggled to order enough for a table of three; granted, one of the diners was not a shellfish/raw fish eater, which limited the choices, but still. I suppose the answer would have been to order multiple portions of each plate, but again, we come back to the price. It's not a bad option if you're careless with money, on a diet or stuck for a place to go; however, there are better value choices in the area.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tour de France Now in Spain

The Tour de France blew into Barcelona today for the first time since bringing a little life to the repressed streets of Franco's Spain in 1965. It will cycle right back out tomorrow.

So as to distract you from my lack of tapas posts, here's a shot I took of the leader, David Millar, as the tour entered Barcelona's rain soaked Passeig Sant Joan this afternoon.

To link to information about the Barcelona leg of the tour and tomorrow's schedule, click here: www.bcn.cat/tour.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tapas Menu - Take 3 (Montaditos)

I'm melting, my pretties, meeeelting! A heat wave has yet again taken hold of Barcelona and environs and I'm doing my best to remain corporeally intact while the thermometer grazes 35 degrees Celsius.

Actually, the heat broke a little today and, after a sprinkling of rain, the city once again feels a little less like the surface of the sun and a little more like a planet with an atmosphere that allows for seasons other than hell.

The kind of heat that settles on Spain in the summers calls for minimal cooking and lighter meals than usual. Even Felipe, who can usually put away three times as much as I can, feels a little wan when faced with the prospect of eating a large meal these days. So, we've resorted to montaditos on some of our evenings in.

A staple of most tapas bars, montaditos are small, open-faced sandwiches. Really, they're canapés with a better name, one that doesn't make you feel like you're dining with society matrons.

At a tapas bar, you're likely to be faced with an abundance of choice. Some sell montaditos as pinchos, small tapas skewered with toothpicks that you retain on your plate and count at the end of the night to determine the bill. Others, tired of the boors who conveniently lose toothpicks to benefit their wallets, let you point and choose, but don't leave it to you to keep count.

As delightful as montaditos are to sample in a tapas bar, nothing could be simpler than making your own at home. All you need is a loaf of bread, preferably a baguette, though a small ciabatta will also do, and a variety of toppings. I prefer the bread sliced relatively thinly (about a quarter inch thick) and lightly toasted, but there's no real need to toast if the bread is of good quality and fresh. If you do decide to toast, you can pop the bread slices under your oven's grill for 2 minutes (until slightly golden) and brush with olive oil once you've removed them.

The sky's the limit in terms of toppings. The ones shown in the photo above are a mixture of classics and "lo que hay" (what there is), i.e. what was available based on the contents of our fridge. Clockwise from left:

(1) Fresh goat cheese topped with sweet pepper chutney and walnuts - the sweet pepper chutney can be replaced with a tomato confit, port jelly or honey.

(2) Tuna with lemon, capers and mayonnaise - the tuna should be oil packed and of high quality; I added a tablespoon of mayonnaise to a small (50g) can, a teaspoon of chopped capers, and half a teaspoon of grated lemon rind as well as a teaspoon of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste; you can also toss in a teaspoon of chopped, fresh flat leaf parsley.

(3) Pan con tomate (see The Tapas Episode) topped with sliced embutidos (charcuterie) - in this case, I used fuet (a peppery cured pork sausage), but chorizo, lomo (cured pork loin), and jamón (ibérico or serrano ham) are also popular choices.

(4) Roasted eggplant (see The Charred and the Seedless) with tahini and fresh cilantro - this eggplant was really an impromptu babaganoush; I took a small roasted eggplant, removed the skin and chopped the flesh, added about a teaspoon of lemon (to taste), one and a half tablespoons of tahini, a finely grated small clove of garlic and salt to taste; I topped the eggplant with chopped fresh cilantro.

(5) Roasted peppers (see The Charred and the Seedless) on pan con tomate (see The Tapas Episode), topped with anchovies and green olives - the higher quality the anchovies and olives the better; in particular, you want to stay away from anchovies that are overly salty.

Other ideas, some inspired by my favourite Barcelona bars, are (6) smoked salmon over cream cheese or thick yogurt topped with capers and lemon rind (inspired by Quimet i Quimet, see Tapas - Basic - Part 1); (7) paté or foie gras topped with caramelized onions (Quimet i Quimet, see Tapas - Basic - Part 1); (8) slices of tortilla (see The Tapas Episode) on pan con tomate (see The Tapas Episode) sprinkled with sea salt and finely chopped parsley; (9) sauteed mushrooms (see Tapas Menu - Take 2) with thyme topped with gruyere and broiled in the oven; (10) smoked mackrel or trout topped with a green olive tapenade and quartered cherry tomatoes; (11) white bean dip (see Dipping into White Beans) sprinkled with chopped spring onions; (12) grilled chorizo over thinly sliced green apple drizzled with maple syrup; (13) manchego cheese topped with sliced fresh figs and drizzled with honey; (14) grilled peach quarters or apricot halves wrapped in jamón serrano and drizzled with maple syrup; (15) tomato slices topped with fresh mozarella, salt, a dollop of pesto and a basil leaf; (16) skewers of 2-3 shelled fresh prawns, salted, brushed with oil and grilled (1 minute or so on each side) served over toasted bread smeared with a dollop of allioli (inspired by Cerveseria Catalana, see Tapas - Basic - Part 2).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Postponed

Due to excessive enjoyment of self in northern Catalunya this week, the remainder of the Tapas Month entries will be posted in July. For the next few days, I intend to while away my days skinny-dipping in the rocky coves of the Costa Brava, climbing the Pyrenees, and skulking around cava vineyards.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

San Juan

It was a year and two days ago that I met Felipe at the verbena de San Juan (Sant Joan in Catalan), the all night party prior to the day of San Juan on June 24th. The verbena is a celebration of the shortest night of the year, somewhat belatedly, mind you, as the summer solstice in fact usually occurs on June 21st. In Catalunya, the night is celebrated with street bonfires (hogueras; fogueres in Catalan) and an inebriated beach party complete with DIY pyrotechnics, which every year rob the citizens of Barcelona of some three hundred eyes and fingers.

Like New Year's Eve in North America, la verbena de San Juan is the night on which the past is laid to rest, as symbolized by the burning of old possessions, and a new beginning is ushered in to the booming sound of fireworks. These, unlike in the blithely litigious and highly regulated world across the Atlantic, are randomly set off by the young and the dim witted in every imaginable corner, giving the city the sound and smoke filled look of war torn Bosnia.

It's also a night when sex is in the air and the atmosphere is rife with expectation. Everyone, from the packs of pink British boys to the bronzed American blondes to the scantily clothed Brazilians of both genders, wants some. And, on the night of San Juan, they're likely to get some, particularly if they wait long enough. By 4 or 5am, with the joints smoked and the ecstasy dissolved and the bottles dry, there's little to do in the sand other than kiss. And 6am, when the weary police enter to disperse the crowds and make room for the dutiful clean up crews, is the moment to take your San Juan sweetheart home, bobbing alongside you like the magical, if slightly deflated, balloon your parents tied to your wrist at the town fair so many years ago.

Of course, if you're anything like me, you won't let your new love upstairs after the two hour walk home from the beach, leading the excessively proud gentleman, or lady, as the case may be, to refuse your number and walk off in a huff. If that should happen to you, don't worry. Repentance for actions taken in haste is swift. In other words, you may get your fairy tale ending yet.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tapas - Basic - Part 2

If you're on your way to Barcelona, you'll be happy to know that the heat has broken and the rage-meter is again ticking along at a reasonable level, somewhere between slight misanthropy and grudging contentment. You might also benefit from the remaining recommendations in the basic tapas category.

I wouldn't necessarily think of these spots as the burnished steeds of Barcelona tapas; they're more like the work horses, really--serviceable, hard working and, generally, very busy.

Cerveseria Catalana (C/ Mallorca 236, tel. 932 160 368, Eixample)- I have to confess that--partly because of its convenient location, partly because Felipe and I are now morning regulars and it would be a shame to mess with that relationship--Cerveseria Catalana is my go-to place for inexpensive tapas of reliable quality. It's also the go-to place for half of Barcelona. In the summer, you'll find crowds spilling out onto the side walk. Because of the high turn over, there's nothing stale or sub-par here and the tapas basics, as well as the montaditos, which are put out at around 6pm and priced at a bargain 1.25 euros for the most part, are a thorough survey of the traditional favourites; seafood dishes and daily specials are usually especially tasty. Cerveseria Catalana is also handy because it opens at around 830am (9am on weekends) and stays open right through to midnight; useful if you've missed the usual lunch hour (130pm-400pm) or if you want to eat dinner earlier than the average Spaniard (i.e. before 930pm-10pm). Bar seats are hunt and swoop; for an indoor table, you have to give your name to the hostess, who will call you when your table is ready; there's a separate list for outdoor tables, maintained by one of the men in blue at the door. If you arrive after 9pm, the wait can be as long as an hour for a table, but you can always order a few drinks from the bar while you're waiting. (By the way, Ciudad Condal, a little further down Rambla Catalunya and under the same ownership, has similar tapas offerings and a terrace well suited to people watching, but for some reason, I never seem to end up there.)

Bar Mundial (Plaça de Sant Agusti Vell 1, tel. 933 199 056, Born) - When I took my sister and her boyfriend to Bar Mundial last year, the first few minutes in the low ceilinged back room of this scruffy joint provoked some purse-lipped disapproval. Things changed, however, when the steaming parillada, a mixed seafood grill, came out. The seafood is simply, but exquisitely done and is without a doubt Bar Mundial's specialty; in fact, there's little else to choose from on the menu, so don't go if you have an aversion to the beasts of the sea. Bar Mundial does take reservations and it's worth making some on the weekend as it fills up quickly. If you get claustrophobic in poorly ventilated, windowless spaces, ask to be seated in the front room rather than the dingy back.

El Xampanyet (C/ Montcada 22, tel. 933 197 003, Born) - If you've ever walked down the Born's Calle Montcada at night, you've seen the throngs of people (mostly tourists) spilling out of the tiny space that is El Xampanyet. The tapas, mostly conservas, cheeses and cured meats, are not necessarily anything to write home about, but the atmosphere is fun and the house drink, xampanyet (a poor man's cava), is a euro a glass. For that price, don't expect to sit down.

Mam i Teca (C/ de la Lluna 4, tel. 934 413 335, Raval) - Mam i Teca is a tiny hole in the wall in the Raval with a mostly local clientele, meaning that the expats of the Raval frequent it, rather than the tourists of the Barrio Gotico. In contrast to the three bars above, it's often quiet during the week and on Sunday evenings. And, while the regular menu has some very pedestrian pastas and other dull offerings, the daily specials are always worth the trek into the depths of the Raval.

La Bodegueta (Rambla de Catalunya 100, Eixample) - La Bodegueta has a dusty charm that's not typical of the usually upscale Eixample. In summer, its terrace is normally full, but there's often room in the cozy interior. In addition to serving reasonably priced plates of cured meats and cheeses, La Bodegueta does fabulous patatas bravas (cubed, french fried potatoes topped with spicy and mild sauces) and mouth watering huevos estrellados over fried potatoes ("smashed eggs", as they say).

I might also mention that Taller de Tapas (www.tallerdetapas.com) and Lonja de Tapas/Celler de Tapas (www.lonjadetapas.com), both Barcelona chains, generally offer traditional tapas of solid quality practically around the clock and have useful locations throughout the Old Town and along the Rambla Catalunya, for when your energy is flagging and you're wondering where to go in a pinch. Don't order patatas bravas at Taller de Tapas, though, the last ones I had there were absolutely terrible.