It makes a discernible difference for a city to be situated on a beach.
Barcelona is in equal parts hippie-mellow and vibrating with all the life its winding back alleys bursting with unexpected music bring. It's a city ancient enough to get lost in, but small and affable enough to always emerge unscathed, with a seemingly undiscovered street or experience to fold away in the recesses of hazy holiday memory. And, most of all, everyone living there seems happy and healthy due to the killer combination of sunshine and siestas. Why naptime doesn't continue after kindergarten I have never known.
This carefree and passionate but balanced attitude towards life translates into their attitude towards food - eat little but often, drink little but often (very often - you're on holiday afterall), and do it all late. I summarily espoused this mentality, even perhaps a bit too enthusiastically - when in España...
I won't describe every step, bite, and sip of the trip, but there were a few memorable meals worth recounting. In Spanish soccer-speak (they're obsessed), this will be less slo-mo replay and more post-match report, covering the highlights. You can't say I'm not considerate.
So strap yourself in, mis niños - here goes.
We stayed in El Born in a flat rented for the weekend, which I would absolutely recommend as it automatically makes you feel more of a native (plus you should have SEEN our propietaria - ayiyi!). The Born is "the cultural hub of the city", which is a cringe-inducing way to say that you can't trip over your espadrilles without landing in a great bar, cool boutique, or charming side street. It is also bookended on the south side by the port/beach and on the east by perhaps my favorite urban park, the Parc de la Ciutadella.
We rambled around, wandering the sun-drenched streets with only the occasional 'cultural' stop. Definitely do all the requisites - the ancient cathedrals and their vibrant surrounding squares, the Picasso and Miro museums, the snaking paths of Parc Güell, Sagrada Família's astounding interior - but Gaudí's city-defining architecture (which some queuing Canadians fittingly kept mispronouncing as "gaudy") is as organic as the city itself and so is entirely integrated. Make it a misson to let go and get washed away in its ebb and flow.
We quickly established traditions in a further effort to integrate ourselves, stopping for a tallat (the Catalan cortado) and a 'Catalan croissant' (a pillowy-light sweet bun dusted with sugar) at great organic bakery Barcelona Reykjavik in the mornings. One morning, recognizing our efforts at attempting to eat them out of shop, the girl insisted on introducing us to a traditional Catalan aniseed flatbread as well as a sugar-sprinkled flatbread filled with mashed banana.
Having brushed the final flurry of sugar from our faces, it was about time to head towards lunch. Now, the "Ramblas" is entirely misnomered as the name conjures a lighthearted "ramble" down a pleasant promenade, but it's worth fighting down the Tourist Superhighway - choked with spectacularly bad caricaturists and 'performance artists' (not that I don't have respect for those who can stand still for hours on end crusted in silver paint) - if only to arrive at the Mercat de la Boqueria. Although seemingly a tourist trap, La Boqueria is rammed with the most stunning stalls, teeming with colorful produce, jewel-box collections of sweets, and curious cuts of meat. Buy one of the neon-fresh juices for enough energy to navigate the labyrith of sensorial assault, and then loop back around to the front for your final destination.
Bar Pinotxo is only a tiny counter, and navigating the politics of getting a seat is an art form in and of itself. My only tip is to sidle up to the corner side, controlled by the owner, a 70+ living legend who sports viciously patterned waistcoats and loves a double thumbs up. Once we had finished a few cervezas in their lunch-friendly small measures, we finally managed to finagle some stools and tuck at whatever plates came flying our way - chipirones (my new favorite word) with white beans, chickpeas with 'meat', a starburst of mussels smothered in salsa, gorgeous coral gambas, and the most moreish fried nuggets of veal.
We finished with a 'tricolore' to give us the strength to Ramblas on. (Sorry - had to).
Other lunch options are endless, but nearby, slick Bar Lobo provides a respite from the chaos of the area with its calm terrace and modern tapas, while La Cova Fumada in Barceloneta is on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you're looking for an authentic family-run hole-in-the-wall, where toothless àvies smile benevolently while their grandchildren weave between your legs, this bodega, the alleged birthplace of bombas, is it. And don't forget to end it all with authentically Italian gelato from Bellamia - go for the mascarpone with fig and their pudding-like extra-dark chocolate.
After (and often because of) lunch comes siesta, and after siesta comes sunset drinks to ease into dinner. From beer poured like the finest champagne on the rooftop of Hotel Condes' Alaire terrace bar, served with a side of Euro slickness, to one on the beach sipped from a sandy can, the Spanish really know how to end the day and start the night.
And with drinks must come nibbles, which the Spanish have also mastered. The pintxo bar model is genius, and Euskal Extea is one of the best of the innumerable in town. By grabbing a txakoli, a slightly sparkling dry white, and a plate, you can work your way through either a few pre-dinner nibbles or make a meal out of the smaller snacks by just grabbing whatever catches your fancy. Always reach for the piping hot plates sporadically paraded through the bar, especially the spicy fried choritzo, crispy bombas, morcilla with a squiggle of aioli, and the stuffed tortilla, all on a sometimes unneccesary bed of bread. Nothing like carbs on carbs.
Bar del Pla is another spot that straddles drinks and dinner with its small plates. Perfect for settling at the bar for a beer or great glass of wine, we had the best pa amb tomàquet of the trip, here made with finely diced tomatoes smashed into the bread instead of traditionally rubbed onto it, as well as some grease-free crispy fried artichokes, excellent patatas bravas, shatteringly delicate bombas filled with squid ink mousse and tender pieces of the creature, and vaguely Scandinavian marinated smoked sardines.
Even among all of this eating, it is still easy to identify the most memorable meal of the trip. El Passadis del Pep, from the same owners as classic Cal Pep, is almost impossible to find but once we ducked through a doorway down the street from the original, we were immediately shown to a table and a bottle of cava was popped, unprompted and promising. Although I'm usually allergic to white table cloth dining, it felt only appropriate to be seated in Spanish formality as course after course arrived at the table without us ever having seen a menu. The ultimate luxury, especially whilst on holiday, is not having to make decisions.
They just kept coming - pa amb tomàquet; nutty jamón ibérico de Bellota; tuna tartare; almejas, or clams; tiny cigales or sea snails nestled in a bed of salt to be picked out one by one; an almost-risotto with chipirones; more gorgeous gambas alla plancha; and langoustines with the sweetest meat; all with a rich Catalan red, Les Terrasses Vinyes Velles.
And after, coffee and bottomless bottles of liqueurs with the most incredible tiramisu, a mountain of coffee cream tasting nothing of its namesake, and lionesas, or cream puffs, in the most bitter chocolate sauce. While "memorable" is a throwaway term, it is the only way to describe such a special meal.
When in need of more drinks (not that we were after those liqueurs), Hemingway's alleged haunt old-school bar Boadas, mixes perfect classic cocktails, while the wine bar La Vinya del Senyor is, though touristy by day, unbeatable for its terrace view of Santa Maria del Mar's Gothic façade. If searching for something different, the Barcelona Pipa Club is an old converted flat cultivating an underground vibe and probably the only decent place to drink on the Plaça Reial, although it isn't quite up to other cities' speakeasy standards.
So there you have it - a weekend in Barcelona.
Go and be prepared to get swept away.
C/ de la Princesa, Born
La Boqueria 466-467, Raval
C/ del Pintor Fortuny 3, Raval
La Cova Fumada
C/ Baluard 56, Barceloneta
C/ Asturies 93, Born
Alaire at Hotel Condes
Paseo de Gracia 73, Eixample
Placeta Montcada 1-3, Born
Bar del Pla
C/ Montcada 2, Born
El Passadis del Pep
Pla de Palau 2, Born
C/ Tallers 1, Raval
La Vinya del Senyor
Plaça Santa Maria 5, Born
Barcelona Pipa Club
Plaça Reial 3, Barrí Gòtic