Sunday, September 27, 2009

Goodbye, La Mercè

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wine and Fireworks

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

La Mercè

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Secluded Coves - El Golfet

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

El Cremat

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe for 6 generous servings of Cremat:

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sea, the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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, 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.