In Barcelona, hip young lovers kiss openly on the streets. The organic wavey shapes and glittering mosaic of Gaudi façades catch you by surprise as you whizz through main drags in a taxi. Visible from almost every vantage point are the legendary spires of the La Sagrada Familia Cathedral.
The Ramblas is the long and wide pedestrian mall, which runs through the centre of the city. It’s always buzzing with tourists, and lined with overpriced restaurants flogging paella and sangria to those who are willing to lap it up. But if you’re looking for authenticity you don’t have to venture far off this beaten track. Born is the suburb of subdued style and inventive Ferran Adriá-inspired New Wave tapas. Skateboards on tarmac are the sound of The Raval – the upcoming, arty, but still slightly grungy area for cosy bars and design-on-a-shoestring restaurants.
La Boqueria Market, literally just a left turn as you head up The Ramblas, has to be your starting point to understand local ingredients and the pervading open-mindedness towards food. The proprietor of this La Boqueria institution is a much-loved local personality who serves up tapas at pace beneath the hanging Pinocchio marionettes. No one minds forgoing a seat or standing in line for the seafood and other staples on offer, and there is not a squeamish attitude in sight. At one table an elderly couple perches on two stools, orders two glasses of cava (sparkling wine), and lunches on a row of sardines. At another, a single 20-something orders a heap of snails, which she eats with a toothpick and a great deal of poise. Tapas plates are passed overhead from the bar counter.
Ever-so slightly- sweet garbanzo beans come hot with lashings of premium olive oil, crumbled butifarra sausage and the odd surprise sultana, raisin and pine nut. Another plate carries curls of baby octopus on haricot beans. And mussels that clatter like castanets when tossed aside after eating come with a round of soft bread for soaking up the sherry-vinegar juices.
But you can’t leave without ordering a plate of pimento de padron – small green peppers in deep-fried piles with Russian roulette implications. Mostly they are sweet but every fifth one is hot and depending on which bar you’re sitting in, if you exclaim that you’ve landed the chilli pepper you’re buying the next round!
Pa amb tomaquet or tomato bread is another prerequisite. It is a halfpiece of country or peasant bread (that looks like a baguette), toasted and smeared with a halved tomato so that all the red, juicy pulpiness gets ingrained in the bread. Olive oil is dribbled over it and salt and pepper added for a genius tapas accompaniment or the breakfast equivalent of buttered toast. It is often topped with a shaving of jamón Iberico de Bellota, that breathtaking ham famed for (and named after) the Iberian acorn-fed pig from which it is made.
A constant and rather charming reminder that you are in Spain is the bowl of used tomato halves at the breakfast buffet at hotels and hostels – whether two-star or fivestar, everyone has their own take on it. And the closed baguette version makes an excellent pick-up lunch wrapped in paper and usually filled with jamón Serrano (a less refined everyday ham that is still deliciously salty). The whole baguette can range from those basics to a toastie version with additions of mango and Camembert. Depending on how exotic you go these can range from about R40.
While the people in Barcelona are free-spirited they are just as staunch about their siestas as they are about their Catholicism. Not only does the city go dead between 3pm and 5pm, but absolutely everything shuts down on a Sunday except for some sights. Another cultural idiosyncrasy has geographical roots. Barcelona is situated in the province of Catalonia and being Catalan is something to be very proud of while the label of “Spanish” is shunned. The Catalan symbol of a silhouetted donkey appears on the back of trucks, Vespas and cars, and far outnumbers bumper stickers of the Spanish bull.
Walking through the city you’ll see the yellow and red stripes of the Catalan flag strung proudly off apartment balconies and even little paper versions stake their claim in mounds of crème Catalan flavoured ice cream. Crème Catalan is another box you just have to tick. A creamy custard dessert, it is served in a shallow terracotta dish with a burnt sugary topping very much like a crème brûlée. Finish with a cortado, a minute glass of espresso with steamed milk that is served with an equally petit biscuit or chocolate on the side. Follow these up with a nap and head out for a restaurant dinner at about 9:30pm or 10pm.
TWO RESTAURANT HIGHLIGHTS WORTH SAVING FOR:
We all know people who throw dinner parties with flair and after a few glasses their guests are emphatic that they open a restaurant. Not many hosts follow through on that. Even fewer do it in a foreign country and make as much of an impression as the Artal family. Canadian Jordi Artal and his sister Amelia (both of A traditional patisserie on The Ramblas the enviable dinner parties) opened Cinc Sentits (Five Senses) with their mother Rosa.
And they’re causing a stir on Barcelona’s restaurant circuit. Jordi is the ex-dot-commer turned analytical and dedicated chef and Amelia is the warm and knowledgeable presence at the front of house. They are both consummate professionals but the experience they offer is very personal.
First up, a shot of nostalgia and a throwback to their dinner-party successes; warm maple syrup topped with cream and cava sabayon that ends in a fleeting crunchy flourish of salt flakes. Then poached quail egg with Parmigiana cream and candied lemon peel – a delicate study in indulgence.
But the dish that must get all the shine is the Iberian suckling pig that is prepared with such care. The “after-school treat” is another helping of tastes from their past: brioche, buttercream frosting and caramel. Don’t do anything less than the Omakase tasting menu and then walk it off with a stroll to Gaudi’s Casa Batlo around the corner. Cinc Sentits, Aribau 58, Barcelona, 08011 0934 (93) 323 94 90
MOO (AT HOTEL OMM)
Towards the end of last year Moo earned its first Michelin star, but then the menu is the vision of a modest trio of brothers who are no strangers to favourable Michelin ratings. Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca of the two-star El Celler de Can Roca have conceptualised a menu where dishes exist to enhance the expertly chosen wines.
Executed by Felip Llufriu, the dishes are almost fragile in appearance but so brave in simplicity. A morsel of tuna seasoned with a dab of mustard partners a La Goudie 2004 rosé the colour of rubies. Juicy, juicy Dublin Bay prawns with a whip of curry, rose and liquorice cream draws out a Coma Blanca 2003. Salty crusted cabrit (kid goat) splays out off the bone onto the babiest ceps, little flowers and Greek yoghurt all for the Paisajes VII 2001. With each sip of wine the dance of flavours plays out in this suitably styleconscious setting. Hotel Omm’s lauded design and innovation also extend to the tables with sculpture replacing floral arrangements and plates used as practical art. Moo, Rossello 265, Barcelona, 08008 0934 (93) 445 4000
WHERE TO STAY:
Slip your feet into a pair of soft rubber Wabi slippers, sink into the cool of the contemporary red and wood rooms and meditate on a facing wall full of geometrically arranged aspidistras. This design hotel taps into the traveller’s unattainable luxury – the relief of coming home. Awkward hotel clichés are stripped away: bedrooms are lined with a multitude of hooks for hanging stuff, your lounge for relaxing (with hammock) is separate and across the hall, there’s no tipping allowed and the 24-hour help-yourself-fridge filled with healthy yummy things is free (better than home in fact!). Casa Camper, Elisabets 9, Entlo. 1a, Barcelona, 08001 0934 (93) 342 6280
GRAN HOTEL LA FLORIDA
This is where you come to seek refuge after the bustle of the city. Retire to your turret of a room to survey the cityscape through the tall arched windows from under a golden throw. If you tire of that vantage point, slink downstairs to see the Barcelona lights while paddling in the indoor/outdoor pool. Follow it with a Jacuzzi, cava on the terrace and some slices of purest Jamón Iberico de Bellota for breakfast. Gran Hotel la Florida, Ctra. Vallvidrera al Tibidabo 83 – 89, Barcelona, 08035 0934 (93) 259 3000
HOTEL ARTS BARCELONA
This vast hotel mixes business and pleasure, corporate with glamour. Suits and beauties spill in and out but foodies should earmark this one for the resident tapas restaurant Arola. Excruciatingly trendy white ceramic water glasses, white leather bucket chairs and chiffon-lined booths set the scene but the food stands out over decor. Poolside on the sun loungers (alongside the signature sculpted golden fish) is the place to be by day. Hotel Arts, Carrer de la Marina 19 – 21, Barcelona, 08005. 0934 (93) 221 1000
• Air Iberia flies direct from Johannesburg to Madrid with connecting flights to Barcelona.
• Barcelona closes down during August as it is just too hot to operate. September is a good time to visit as, although it is sunny and very warm it is still bearable. May to July is also recommended.
• Time Out Barcelona is indispensable and the best guide to cover everything from phrases and cultural nuances to top 10 lists of sights and things to do.
• It’s worth brushing up on some Catalan phrases for ordering in restaurants and tapas bars, as English-speaking staff aren’t that common in the more character-filled spots frequented by locals.
• An average meal in a restaurant will set you back about R200 and while it is possible to book at more top-end establishments, don’t bother when it comes to tapas bars – over the telephone the language barrier becomes even more pronounced and the nature of them is that you just show up.