BARCELONA HAS MORE than Messi to boast of: Look up, and you’ll see a world of architectural wonders that any other city in the world would be proud to own. Look down and you’ll encounter platters of tapas unmatched anywhere else. It’s a city for gawkers and gourmands.
So, for the next few paragraphs or so, let’s meander aimlessly awhile, see a few sights, sample a few dishes and, probably mix a few metaphors as well. If you’re thinking of visiting this fair place, here are a few highlights you might wish to consider.
This is a port city and perhaps that’s why its many interlocking barrios and winding alleyways don’t really flow from a single gravitational hub. La Rambla, drifting northward from the port area, away from Columbus pointing meaningless at nothing and nowhere in particular, atop his 165ft column, through the Ciutat Vela, the Old City, is probably the closest you’ll get to a centre. It’s essentially a long, tree-lined promenade, fringed by stalls selling trinkets and trash and bounded on both sides by a snarl of traffic. To most people, I would imagine, this would be their first encounter with the city’s tapestry of facades. The area certainly give you an great overall sense of the look of the place. And there are a couple of interesting buildings, such as the Oriente hotel with its curling dragon and swirl of giant ornamental fans – interesting in a bizarre sort of way.
The high point here though is La Boqueria, one of many markets dotted around the city, and a gawking gourmet’s delight. Here you’ll find produce (oh, everything from chocolate truffles to charcuterie to neatly stacked many-cloured fruit seemingly radiating sunlight, to buffets of freshly prepared legumes redolent of the smells of the Mediterranean, to silvery fresh fish and crab still breathing for release, to succulent hunks of pork and beef and platters of poultry). Interestingly, many of the vendors here are women; not usual for a market.
But even more interesting are the many tapas stalls that call out to us weary travellers. We stopped at Bar Pinotxo. It’s a little sliver of a place run by an engagingly active family and offering some of the more tasty treats you’re likely to find anywhere. We stopped here for a cold Cava (Catalunya’s great gift to the world of sparkling wines) and a dish of thyme infused chick peas.
(As you saunter from taps bar to taps bar as we did, you’ll quickly begin to differentiate those that merely offer the same old clichéd tapas – albondigas (meatballs), anchovies in oil, gambas al ajillo, croquettes filled with a variety offerings, morcilla (or boudin noir), jamon Ibero and goat cheeses – to the really imaginative places. Not that I have anything against these treats mind you… but there’s much better to be had. And starting at Bar Pinotxo sets a bar that’s pretty high.)
As your wander to gawk at the city’s best, there are two areas I’d recommend. The first is the spread out Barri Gotic, where you’ll find the extraordinary Catedral de Santa Eulalia. This place has been around in one form or the other since the tenth century, so, you know, it’s old. But what’s interesting is that when you enter its ancient portals, you enter not so much a church, but it seems like a mini village with its own eco zone (there are several trees inside) and, surprisingly, a gaggle of geese. There are thirteen of them – one for every year the martyred St Eulalia lived. Oh these Christians, how charming they are with their many gods, oops, saints and their marvelous narratives.
This area also boasts Pjtarra Restaurant on Carrer d’Avinyo, 56. This old eatery (it’s over a hundred years old) is a converted clock shop (and there are many of them on the walls) that only opens for lunch (how do they stay in business?). It offered us by far the best meal we had on our trip. I had a very slow roasted leg of goat, its meat succulently falling off the bone, and steeped in a rich red wine sauce. And of course, more cava.
Not that far from this area is a barrio called La Ribera and El Born. This has a few interesting sights to look up at. But this is a place best kept for looking down.
Carrer Montcada is the place to find the best tapas in town. In particular, El Xampanyet at No. 22 is a tiny bar where we managed, luckily, to find a seat squashed against a corner. From that – great people-watching – vantage point, and with the help of a friendly waitress, we ordered all manner of delights: chorizo stewed in wine, little squares of tender tuna, charred red peppers etc. What’s great here (and with many of these little bodegas) is that the tapas are all there for you to point at, and, well, hope for the best. El Xtampanyet also offers its own sparkling wine – Xtampanol.
Almost opposite you find the larger establishment – Euskal Etxea – another superb tapas bar. Here you don’t even need a friendly assistant. You simply take whatever dishes suit your fancy and, because all the tapas come with a toothpick in them, at the end your bill is simply the addition of the number of toothpicks you’ve chosen. What could be more efficient (assuming of course that everyone stays honest)?
Time to look up.
By far the most interesting road –visually – is that of Passeig Gracia – from the Passeig to the Diagonal metros. This is the posher part of Barcelona; it’s also in an area called the Eixample (which simply means that unlike the serpentine direction of the streets in the Old City, here there’s some sense of order). This area is a treasure trove of design. The overall look is one of old-monied elegance where low-rise apartments with floor to ceiling shuttered windows offer flashes of bold colour and warmth against their walls of cold stone. The quiet restraint of the classical lines is time and again punctuated by many-storied bow windows, embellished with flounces of tinted glass.
Here and there, suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re likely to encounter some art deco edifice with its shock of self-conscious design, its woodwork seemingly reanimated from its original tree with tendrils that curl wherever fancy takes them.
Look out too for the towers of some of these buildings. As though their architects couldn’t bear to leave the roofs without one further flourish, these magical towers are like gigantic tulips that have burst into flower just the night before.
More than all this, here you’ll find several buildings designed by the protean Gaudi. Casa Batllo is one of a triumvirate of exuberant Modernista buildings called the Illa de la Discordia. Like everything else Gaudi, these stand apart, in a universe distinctly their own. La Pedrera is his central (domestic) masterpiece. This huge eight-storied apartment block, devoid of straight lines, seem to have been carved out of a single massive boulder. On the roof where (for a small sum) you can wander along its undulating walks and stairs, there are massive heads (hiding chimneys), apparently inspired by Medieval knights, but which could easily be the heads of Easter Island reimagined by Darth Vader.
Gaudi’s world-famous, incomplete masterpiece (he was killed by a tram car while the building was under construction) is of course La Sagrada Familia. This looks like some otherworldly stone octopus that had been sucked from the bowels of the earth, lizards, snakes and other reptiles still clinging to its crenelated sides. And within its strange gnarled exterior exists a different dimension. You’re transported magically to the inside of a balloon where thin white spidery legs seem to defy gravity to give the whole place a sensation of floating. It’s less a house of God, more a portal to heaven itself.
But that’s all about looking up as high as you can look. Let’s end with looking down – to the best paella in town (so many places offer paellas which are really risottos with an afterthought of an unpeeled langoustine). Les Set Portes, near the Waterfront is one of those institutions where it seems everybody who’s anybody has eaten at. At our table there was a plaque boasting that Woddy Allen had eaten there (Charlton Heston had eaten there too. But we’ll forgive them that aberration). I hope Woody had eaten the paella. This version of that rice dish has a flavor that’s deep and complex, with the soccorat giving it a nice dark taste. We had the rich man’s version – which meant that the shrimp had been peeled, and there were generous chunks of saffron rich meats for us to dive into.
And of course, as always there was cava.