On our final morning in Barcelona, as we awaited a taxi to the train station at 5:55 a.m., a fetching young couple sauntered past us. Hand-in-hand, chatting warmly in Spanish — and looking as though their night out was winding down as our day began — they were the very picture of bliss.
“No wonder they’re so happy,” I said to my wife, Sandy, conjecturing, “They get to live here.
Throughout our week in the Catalan capitol, we encountered not only happy residents but also the elements that induce such felicity: endless sunshine, singular architecture and glorious food.
What struck me most was the juxtaposition of centuries. Chi-chi boutiques abut architect Antoni Gaudi’s distinctive late-1800s edifices. Ultra-swank wine bars stand near the Boqueria food market, on ground where goods have been sold since the 1200s. Within three blocks of one another, a trio of disparate museums feature (in chronological order) remains from a Roman settlement called Barcina, early art of Pablo Picasso, and chocolate-shaped “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” characters.
And then there are those exuberant locals, who could cure the dourest of souls. Grim and grumpy don’t play here. To wit: Normally at an outdoor cafe, the dreadlocked dude strumming and singing or the guy peddling roses would be annoyances. But the song (“What a Wonderful World”) and the acceptable price of the flowers (1 euro) dissipated any discontent.
Or maybe it was the fact that we were at the wine bar La Vinya del Senyor sipping fabulous Rioja, scarfing down silky jamon (ham) and sitting on a pedestrian-only plaza facing the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, a paragon of Catalan Gothicism. A magnificent 14th-century church, a poignant mid-20th-century song and a mouth- watering 2012 wine? That’s quintessential Barcelona.
“It’s even more wonderful than I had anticipated,” said Sandy’s son, Fred, who was not easily impressed toward the end of a 10-month around-the-world trip with his wife, Karen, and daughter Zuzu.
A delicious find
We unwound at La Vinya del Senyor three times in seven days. Not because we’re lushes — Zuzu savored the proceedings, especially the jamon and some acrobats, every bit as much as the grown-ups did — but because it was a welcoming respite a few hundred yards from our vacation rental apartment in the cobblestoned El Born neighborhood.
In a decidedly different district, the modernist Eixample, we sipped Cava and verdejo at the tony wine bar/restaurant Monvinic. We soaked in the plush surroundings — muted wood, soft leather and what our female contingent dubbed “the most flattering lighting in town” — in midafternoon, well ahead of the evening crowd. (Barcelonians tend to launch their evening outings around 10 p.m.)
Then, ambling past swank emporiums such as Chanel, Desigual and Nordic Think (!), we headed to the top of one of Europe’s grand avenues, the bustling La Rambla. The 42-foot-wide, pedestrian-only boulevard was laid out in 1776 and culminates at the harbor’s 197-foot monument to Christopher Columbus.
Nothing along this tree-lined thoroughfare invokes history as much as La Boqueria, one of the planet’s great food markets. Morphing for centuries on the south side of La Rambla, it now houses scores of stands selling fruits that are as vivid and variegated as the nearby flowers and candies, all manner of mushrooms fresh and dried, and fruits-of-the-sea.
And nowhere can this remarkably fresh seafood be enjoyed more than at El Quim de La Boqueria, smack dab in the middle of the market. Most of the dishes, from delectable baby squid to red tuna to the best prawns of my life, are topped with eggs that have been fried in 2 inches of olive oil in an iron skillet (don’t try this at home — or do).
It is fortuitous that La Rambla, and the eminently walkable El Gòtic and El Born neighborhoods, are right outside La Boqueria’s entrance. Walking could perhaps counteract all the eating, Karen surmised. “I’m just not sure if there are enough hours in the day to walk off all the fatty delicious stuff you can eat here.”
We certainly did our share of hoofin’ around the city, including a remarkable walking tour. Excited to get up-close and semi-personal with Gaudi, we found Runner Bean Free Walking Tours guide Mark hanging out under a chartreuse umbrella at the Placa Reial one sunny morning.
“Gaudi is regarded as a genius or a madman,” Mark said before our group embarked. “I will show you some of both.”
Certainly the phantasmagorical Casa Batlló, with its dipsy-do curves and splashy tiles and stained glass, showed a genius’ attention to detail and a madman’s sense of contours. Ditto the Modernism icon Casa Milà, which earned the nickname “La Pedrera” (the stone) because of its resemblance to an open quarry; its rooftop chimney covers gave George Lucas the inspiration for Darth Vader and the Imperial soldiers in “Star Wars,” or so Barcelonians say.
The final stop: Gaudi’s most famous work, the unfinished Sagrada Familia. Here Gaudi’s piety is incarnate. Old and New Testament figures dot the facades, and the central spire is one meter shorter than Barcelona’s Montjuïc hill because Gaudi did not want his creation to eclipse God’s.
The architect devoted untold hours to the cathedral’s design — Gothic meets Art Nouveau — and construction, but it was not remotely finished when he died. The aim is to complete it in 2026, the centenary of his death.
As dazzling as the edifice’s multifaceted facade is, the interior is even more breathtaking. The scale is huge. There are so many structural wonders that it’s difficult to focus on just one area. Spirals here, giant amulets depicting the apostles there, a stunning circular “canopy” of lights over the High Altar.
Above all else, Gaudi wanted to mimic and celebrate nature as God created it. “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature,” he said.
Massive columns modeled after redwoods stretch almost endlessly toward the arched ceiling and skylights. There is nary a right angle in sight (just as there are no right angles in nature). Light suffuses the interior, filtered through yellow, green or blue portals, and evokes a sanctity of its own.
For much of our week, we stayed close to “home” — a roomy apartment overlooking a plaza and the stellar restaurant Cal Pep (don’t miss the “monogrammed” creme brulee).
We were in the middle of El Born, a neighborhood of winding streets that was once home to 19th-century aristocracy and has recently been overtaken by hipsters and their requisite bars, shops and restaurants. One of the latter, Mosquito, specializes in dim sum and craft beer, so we had to go.
To pass time before our table was ready — in midafternoon, we had a 45-minute wait — Sandy and Zuzu went to a nearby chocolate museum. Fred, Karen and I found a park bench with a view of bougainvillea and passersby. We met up in the Museu de la Xololata lobby, dissuaded Zuzu from buying a chocolate facsimile of Dumbledore, and headed for our table.
My friend Ryan had told us about Mosquito (“amazing dim sum and local beers; I know, I know, just trust me”), and that epitomized our trip. I home in on places — especially restaurants — recommended by amigos rather than crowdsourced-by-strangers websites.
That is how we determined where to stay. It’s how we knew that the audio guide at Sagrada Famiglia was a must. It’s how we were directed to El Quim, Monvinic, the Runner Bean tour, La Vinya del Senyor, Cap Pep and a slice of jamon heaven called La Teca.
And it’s how we ended up having one of the most memorable meals of our lives. Our friends Ulf and Caroline avidly touted the hard-to-find hole-in-the-wall La Cova Fumada in the Barceloneta area. “This is a true local place with horrible seating, dirty floors and wonderful food, fish straight from the boats,” Caroline said in an e-mail. “Ordering is a roar as the menu is posted on a chalkboard, but changes as the ingredients run out and are replaced by a new dish. Point at what others are having and hope you get some.”
We did as directed, after finally finding the place. We started with the sublime “bomba,” a mashed potato “bomb” stuffed with ground beef and topped with aioli and hot sauce. The grilled baby squid, the insanely fresh prawns and the fried sardines were otherworldly. A waitress sped by with a plate of razor clams, and we ordered that, just before “Almejas de afeitar” was erased from the chalkboard. The world’s best fried (not breaded, just fried) artichokes and pitchers of as-good-as-it-gets sangria entered the mix.
About halfway through our meal, the other group at our 10-person table left, and we were joined by a man celebrating his 82nd birthday with his three offspring. Their English was no better than our Spanish, but somehow over the next hour we bonded.
We ordered some sangria and artichokes for them, and they turned us on to a crazy-good dish we had missed, chickpeas with black sausage.
Later, on our last full day in this extraordinary city, we pondered returning for that stupendous seafood and those swell veggies. We finally decided that, as much as the thought of that food made us salivate, we’d rather retain the utterly indelible memories of Barcelona at its most Barcelonan.
When something is, as Fred put it, “perfect on so many levels,” it seems best to leave well enough alone, to not risk mucking up the memory. Especially in a city with so many other options, old, new and in between.
Bill Ward lives in Hopkins and writes about wine at decant-this.com.