Friday, August 16, 2013

Barcelona 2013 - Part 2


La Monumental
We start the second part of this blog series at the same departure point (Plaça de Catalunya) but this time hop on the red line.  First couples of stops are identical, then there are stops in Les Corts again, Sants (railway station), but Plaça d'Espanya is where you should get off.  The “square” itself is imposing, with about 7 boulevards coming together in this spot.  The big circular structure right next to it used to be the bullfighting arena (La Monumental) but as of last year bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia.  They consider it a Spanish tradition, and this is yet another measure (if you recall my historical into from the first part of this blog) to break away from the Spanish heritage and make the case for Catalonia as a different “state”.  I can only tell you animal-rights activist are happy!

Take the elevator to the top of the arena for a great perspective of the plaza below, the Palau Nacional (Art Museum), and surrounding area.  


From here, walk up between the Venetian towers, along the Magic Fountain to the top of Montjuïc.  This whole area is grandiose. It was designed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition and vastly improved for the ’92 Olympics.



Another nearby attraction point is Poble Espanyol – a historic village where for about 10 euros you get to experience Spanish style and culture without having to visit the entire country.  We passed, but could be an interesting experience next time…

The double-decker has several stops in this area.  Hop on for another short trip to the Olympic stadium, if interested, or the Telefèric de Montjuïc and the Castle/Old Fort.  The latter offers splendid views of the area below, including the port, beach, and Barceloneta.

From here, back on the bus (unless you chose to take the cable car down to the port) which will drive by the Columbus statue (draped in Barça gear thanks to the new $38M/year Qatar Airlines sponsorship deal that broke a 113 year-old “no kit sponsorship” tradition).  You can get off here, go up La Rambla and start exploring Barri Gòtic on foot, or stay on for the Barceloneta stop.


We’ll get to the Gothic Quarter later.

La Cova Fumada
At the other end of the beach from the W hotel, Barceloneta is both a quaint little working-class neighborhood (somewhat shady in certain areas) and a beachfront “tourist” area full of restaurants, cafes, and clubs.  I was looking specifically for a tapas place called La Cova Fumada, one that the locals swear by; unfortunately, it was closed L.  Other suggestions in the area (which I’ll definitely keep for my “next time” list): Can Costa, Suquet del L’Almirall, Merendero de la Mari, Somorrostro,  Cal Pep, La Flauta and Bilbao-Berria (where apparently you pay by how many toothpicks you ‘consumed’). 


In the end, we settled for Siete Puertas based on a candid recommendation from a Romanian cab driver we met a day earlier.  The restaurant had a very ‘old world’ feel to it, both in architecture and service.  I found out later that it’s been opened since 1836 (and seemed like the threesome seated at the table next to us was just as old)!  The sangria was fantastic.  I thought I made decent sangria, but this was just phenomenal!  I would have ordered a second pitcher if we didn’t have to head out for the game.  The food was great too; however, the paella did not quite meet my [stringent] expectations.  Or maybe I had the bar raised too high!

After the early dinner we took the metro to Camp Nou to watch Barça in action.  Go back to part I of this blog for details on that experience…

Now back to La Rambla.


This tree-lined pedestrian mall is very much a tourist magnet, full of souvenir kiosks and shops, restaurants [none of decent quality] and a cacophony of street vendors peddling everything that would steal a tourists’ eye.  My advice, walk through – for it’s pretty much mandatory when in Barcelona – and stop for a minute around the following attractions (if you’re coming North from the Columbus monument):  Palau Güell (if you need another Gaudí ‘hit’ – on Carreer Nou de la Rambla), Plaça Reial (a nice square, off Carrer de Colom, for a short reprieve from all the walking; typically crowded, though), Liceu – the 1847 Opera House (just half a block up on the opposite side), and especially La Boqueria – a fantastic farmers’ market like I’ve never seen before.

I’ve seen La Boqueria in a couple of Travel Channel shows, and it didn’t disappoint.  It’s been here since around 1840 (with some modifications since) but the market itself dates back to the 12th century in this spot, in one form or another… It’s very crowded (so hold on to your valuables) but definitely worth a walk through.  There’s also a couple excellent tapas places within; we didn’t get to try them this time around, but looked delicious: El Quim de la Boqueria (I hear it’s hit or miss depending on how busy they are, but general reviews are very positive), Bar Pinotxo, Bar Boqueria, or Kiosko Universal.  They are all good, overpriced (this is a prime tourist spot, after all), but offer an authentic on-the-go breakfast/lunch experience.  If you don’t want to sit, grab a jamón cornet from any of the butcher shops, or a refreshing fruit smoothie from the fruit vendors.

 








Oh, forgot to mention… after a couple days at the W (hotel Vela) we moved quarters to Le Meridien, right in the middle of La Rambla, closer to all the “action”.

While we’re here, let me give you a little warning about pickpockets.  Barcelona holds the #1 spot for this uncoveted title.  And Las Rambla (as well as a few other busy tourist spots) is a prime area for these thieves.  Do yourself a favor and read up a little on this topic before you go.  I’m not saying be paranoid, but be prepared.  And know that this ‘occupation’ flourishes here because there’s no real repercussion for those who get caught.  If they are caught stealing less than €400, they only get a small fine – and only if the victim turns up to give evidence, which is why they target tourists.

My wife, wearing a sizable red handbag [that must have had the same effect as a red cape in front of a bull], didn’t make this easy on me (as I was always one step behind her keeping a watchful eye).  And I think she may have been targeted for such an attempt, but I didn’t allow the two suspicious guys that were leaning in to even get near.   Better safe than sorry…

Again, I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, and there’s always an element of this when visiting big cities (especially Barcelona, Rome, Paris, etc.), but be alert.  For Barcelona, there are actual sites dedicated to this topic.  And until the police starts to crack down harder, it will continue to be a problem…

Enough of that.  Armed with this information, let’s venture inside Barri Gòtic.

A labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, bars, restaurants and shops around every corner, quaint little squares in the shade, and vestiges of medieval and even Roman architecture, the Gothic Quarter is a great part of town to kill off a few hours.  There are a few [very old] churches in the area (we visited the Barcelona Cathedral and Santa Maria del Mar (where a marriage ceremony was actually under way).

Santa Maria del Mar (above) and the Cathedral (below)

Mercat de Santa Caterina is another local market in this area, and a great alternative to La Boqueria.  It’s newer, cleaner, not as crowded, and offers the same experience, if not better.  Browse through and check out the Jamón displays (from Serrano to Ibérico) where extremely high-end product can get as expensive as $100/lb.


The last stop in the Gothic Quarter was Palau de la Musica Catalana.  TripAdvisor provided great reviews, and although the building itself was magnificent, we got to enjoy the acoustics as well – bought tickets [front-pit box] to the Manuel González show, a great master of Spanish guitar.  He was amazing.  I didn’t know a simple guitar can sound almost like an entire classical music orchestra!  30 euros well spent.

 

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Notice how I started part I of this series with references to great tapas restaurants, but haven’t [without small exceptions here and there] touched on that topic too much?  I wanted to get all that 'other stuff' out of the way first...

Well, here we go:

The omnipresent jamón
Locals tend to eat late, so if you don’t want to run into crowds, or don’t have reservations, go early.  Yelp, TripAdvisor and a few other good sites provide excellent information about places to try, so my brief research into that space narrowed down to a few notable options:

Aside from the aforementioned [Barceloneta] options, Al Andalus, Bar Cordoba, Etxebarri, Quimet & Quimet, La Pepita and Maitea Taberna caught my eye for authentic tapas.  Casa Delfin (on Paseo del Born,36), Can Majó, Barceloneta, and Siete Puertas for great paella (although for really good paella one has to travel south, to Valencia and beyond).  Just don’t get fooled by any restaurants that advertise paella with picture stands on the sidewalk.  You’ll regret it.

With so many choices (and having already enjoyed Siete Puertas) the choice for tapas was Cerveceria Catalana.  But it was a bit further than we wanted to go (before the Spanish guitar show) so we settled for its sister restaurant [same owner] Ciudad Condal, which came with high recommendations from the hotel concierge.

We got there late afternoon (4:30-5) and scored seats at the bar.  What an experience!  Looking at what others were having we used a combination of Spanish, English and finger-pointing to order some excellent tapas.  All in the 4-7 euros range.  The pescadito frito (very small fried fish, eaten whole) washed down with a cold Estrella were a 10.  So were the grilled baby squid, patatas bravas (oh, that aïoli on top), the cod-filled roasted peppers, and especially the sautéed small green peppers sprinkled with sea salt.  Our ‘neighbors’ (a couple from Sweden) even got in on the act of sharing those.  A very social, casual eating experience, indeed.  So easy to make friends over food!  Definitely a place to try, and clearly you must get a seat at the bar, for the full experience!


And now, for the apogee of the Barcelona culinary experience…

I always wished – and saved enough – to experience dinner at El Bulli, a 3-Michelin star restaurant an hour-and-a-half north of the city, the most innovative haute-cuisine kitchen, led by Ferran Adrià, who is credited with most of the modern molecular gastronomy establishments that have surfaced in recent years.  Yes, Rene Redzepi (Noma), Grant Achatz (Alinea), José Andrés (The Bazaar, Jaleo, Minibar), and Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz) are all El Bulli alumni that have continued Ferran’s tradition and regard for near-perfection in their own restaurants.  And although the place topped the list of best restaurants in the world 6 times between 2002-2009 (came in second in 2010), the menu was €250 (US$325), and it accommodated about 8,000 diners a season (against over 2 million requests), it was a money-losing enterprise!  It closed in July 2011 and plans to reopen in 2014 as an “interdisciplinary creativity center”.  If interested, check out Food Network archives [No reservations, season 7, episode 12] for an Anthony Bourdain perspective.

When I heard that Ferran Adrià and his brother Albert have opened a modernist tapas bar (Tickets) I was giddy with pleasure.  But when I realized how hard it was to book a table, I got a little deflated.  They only take reservations online and you have to plan 60 days out (seats are released at midnight, local time).  Unfortunately, I was past the 60 days window, but ended up making reservations anyway, then contacted the restaurant (also via email, in Catalan – thanks Google Translate) and asked to reschedule due to ‘a change in travel plans’.  It worked, although they offered 7pm, which was absolutely fine with us. In retrospect, if you line up by the door around 6:45 (they open at 7 on weekdays) you’re very likely to get a table, as that’s early for locals.

Did I create enough interest with this so far?  You’re probably saying “hurry up already, let’s hear it! How was it?”

'Cocktail' - sangria-infused watermelon
Well… it was nothing short of spectacular.  Of course, in an attempt to try [almost] every single delicious morsel on the menu we ordered a lot of small plates, but I’d be hard pressed to decide on a favorite.  The service was very attentive, without being burdensome.  You can go with their suggested menu (based on personal preference, not a ‘fixed’ thing) or order individually.  We did that, but they still sequenced the experience so that lighter fare was in the beginning of the meal, and the heavier meats towards the end.
We all enjoyed it tremendously, especially my 11 year old, who’s turning into quite an adventurous eater.  Daddy proud!

Liquid 'olives' - olive puree 
Manchego cheese mini-airbags 





Cod fritters / parsley powder
Mouth-bursting 'surprise' (olives)


Iberian ham confit and Baby squid, chorizo, beans
Mini crab / major taste!
Anchovies
 Smoked mackerel, parsley jus
Beeeeeefff!
Razor clams with lemon "air"
Kitchen staff buzzing about...
Oyster in Caipirinha cocktail
14 euros, but simply divine!


Desert: "newspaper-wrapped fries with ketchup" ice-cream

$300 later (which is not that bad, considering we had about 17 dishes, desert, and a bottle of wine) we all agreed that we just had the best dinner experience ever!  My daughter [actually myself also] would have liked to go back next day, and she’s already asking when we’re going back to Barcelona!?!

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I’ll end on that note with the promise to go back soon, enjoy some of the places we missed, catch another Barça game [this time with Messi and Neymar on the pitch], and maybe explore the south of Spain a bit.  I hear Valencia, Málaga, Córdoba, and Sevilla are bucket-list material!



Adéu Barcelona, fins a la propera vegada!

6 comments:

  1. LOVED everything you shared!!! What a fantastic blog post!

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    1. Thanks! Appreciate the kind words!

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  2. Thank you so much for a wonderful review and photos - exactly what i was looking for before my first trip to Barcelona! Special thanks for your advice on going both to the towers and basilica - I was about to miss out on that one! Photos persuaded me otherwise....

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  3. Brilliant post! I'm off to Barcelona tomorrow and have taken all of your tips and recommendations on board :) Thank you!

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