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 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 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 ( 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.