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


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, 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, - 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:

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).