Barcelona Part 1
I have this dream of one day showing up in a foreign country and being alert and ready to tackle the day–you know, take note of the architecture, the smells, people watch. Instead I generally collapse in a heap in a taxi and pray I make it to the hotel so I can nap.
I know, that’s so not what I’m supposed to do.
But let’s just say it had a little something to do with not sleeping on the plane. Drinking on the plane, though, well, I’ve got that one down pat. Seriously–the free all-you-can-drink wine is the one thing that keeps me alive on transAtlantic flights.
In-flight food? Not so much. I mean, I’m grateful that they offer vegetarian options because, hello, who wants to eat mystery meat at 30,000 feet up? Let’s just say Delta’s tortellini isn’t…the best. And that cold roll. Don’t get me started. How hard would it honestly be to heat up the rolls?
Thankfully before the flight, G & I grabbed an Atlanta classic now available at the airport–the Varsity’s chili burgers, fries & a PC. Other than astronomical prices, the food was actually better than what I remember chowing down on as a middle schooler on field trips downtown. And a PC is still truly the way to my heart–think super rich chocolate milk. Everyone needs a little HFCS before flying, right? Totally made my day to get a trip down memory lane in the airport. Keep it coming, ATL.
Once on Spanish soil, though, things didn’t go quite my way. No sleep + a hangover in customs + hunger meant I was incredibly crabby when we got to our hotel–Barcelo Atenea Mar. We picked the hotel on Travelocity simply for how good the discount was and how close it was to the reason we were in Barcelona in the first place, Primavera Sound. Less than a mile away from the festival and facing the Mediterranean, I figured it had to be a good idea.
We weren’t able to check in on arrival due to a computer failure, but once we did find the room, I was more than pleased with it. We were upgraded to an ocean-front room with fantastic views of the Mediterranean–look, just look!, at that water!–and you can’t beat a king size bed in Europe. The pillows left a little to be desired for, but in general, a totally comfortable space to serve as our home base for the next nine days.
Before checking in, our first order of business was food. We hopped on the Metro and thought about eating in the famed La Boqueria, but after a quick run-through the giant market, I just couldn’t handle the noise and crowds on the late Saturday morning. I have noise-light-crowd sensitivity and working on no sleep, no food, and general anxiety about being in a culture in which I spoke none of the language, I just wanted somewhere quiet to eat.
We ended up getting the last table available at Federal Cafe, a sort of Brooklynish feeling cafe that I’d read about. The food was fine–I ordered a sandwich with ham and cheese and a fried egg on top with organic apple juice–but the service was abysmal. It was crowded, there weren’t enough servers…but still. We waited almost 20 minutes to get a menu. And then another 15 to order food. I was about ready to start bawling in public. But, food came. So that was good. I guess I’d recommend trying the cafe not on a Saturday morning. I did really like the space and the menu seemed great.
Post-Federal, we wandered around the Gothic Quarter, meandered in a few churches, and I didn’t take any photos. Seriously, the first day in any city after an 8+ hour flight for me is a total wash. Shameful, I know. We ended up heading back to the hotel and napping until it was late enough (7 pm–still early, but I was seriously hungry) for dinner. We weren’t in the mood to go far from the hotel, so we wandered down the beach to Xiringuito Escriba–a restaurant I’d read about that apparently served good paella and a thing called a ham airbag. Ham airbags are a must. A total must.
It was a bit chillier than I expected Barcelona to be–maybe low 60s in the evening, but the restaurant still had their patio area open, just plasticed in to keep it warmer. We sat out in that patio area, ordered a bottle of white wine (the wine list was all in Spanish so I think I ordered the 2nd cheapest wine…classy, right?), and immediately settled on the infamous ham airbag and the land and sea paella.
Let’s talk for a minute about the ham airbag. Basically it’s a 8″x6″ rectangle of a puffed out thick cracker layered with jamon iberico “Gran Reserva.” I.e. crack ham. The really good, fatty, rich jamon iberico. It might seem outrageous for 20 euro (I think that’s what the price was), but it’s well worth it. (Back story: it was also my goal to eat as much iberico ham as humanly possible during this trip).
The paella, while not incredibly photogenic, was also incredibly delicious. It was the perfect amount for the two of us and featured clams, shrimp, mussels, rabbit, chicken, sausage, pork chop, asparagus, mushrooms and onions. Just a bite or two of each protein for each of us, but more than enough with the rice. There was a strong umami flavor on everything–maybe soy sauce?–but the sausages were snappy and sweet, the rabbit rich, mussels fresh, and the mushrooms the most awesome chewy texture. I would have killed for a mushroom risotto, actually.
It was the perfect meal for the evening–quiet, delicious, and with a view of the moon over the Mediterranean. I also loved that it felt like mostly locals frequented the restaurant–there was even a bachelorette party at one table! We were on the early side at 7:30 when we arrived, but the restaurant did quickly fill, so I’d recommend making a reservation or getting there early like we did.
The next morning we slept in and decided to start working on our late night hours that day (Primavera Sound’s shows were to be from 6 pm to 6 am every day–ouch). We went back down to the Gothic Quarter to get our first tapas of the trip at the well-known Taller de Tapas in Placa Sant Joseph. The first location of Taller de Tapas, there is seating in a lovely plaza, but all those tables were taken at the height of lunch, so we settled with the dark, cool interior dining room.
A starter of Pan de Tomat, of course, and no complaints there with simple toasted bread rubbed with tomatoes and olive oil. It’s the simple food that sets Spanish cuisine apart is what I soon learned. Pan de Tomat quickly followed by a simple dish of mussels in white wine broth with herbs. The mussels were much more “ocean-y” than I’m used to–very briny with a more fishy taste. Not bad, just different. I loved that the shells weren’t scrubbed free of all the barnacles and such–some visual texture.
Next up a dish of Spinach, Pancetta, and Chickpeas and some Salt Cod Fritters. The spinach was a little bland, could have really used some salt or at least more pancetta, but the cod fritters were light and fluffy, perfectly fried. Pretty much everything I hoped a cod fritter would be.
And finally, farm sausage with white beans. Again, simple and the beans were a little bland, but the sausage itself was excellent! Lightly spiced, it was juicy and a really good end to the meal. Loved that little cast iron pan it was served in too.
Taller de Tapas wasn’t mindblowing food, but it was pretty good and a good bet if you’re in the area. Plus the menu is in Spanish, Catalan, and English, so it’s great for English speaking travelers. Verdict: not particularly adventurous, but good food and a good introduction to Spanish cuisine.
Sated and with perfect sunny, 70+ degree weather, we headed over to Park Guell to explore. It seemed like half of Barcelona had the same idea, but it was still the perfect way to spend the afternoon. Besides the epic Guadi architecture, the park was beautifully landscaped with walking trails crisscrossing the property and offered amazing views of Barcelona out to the sea.
George hadn’t been to Park Guell before, so it was fun to explore it with him–and the little museum in Gaudi’s house made for the perfect escape during a rainstorm. A lot of the more famous areas of the Park were so overrun with tourists that I couldn’t get a very good picture of them, but there were more than enough nooks and crannies of mosaics and funky sculptures and the like. It’s pretty crazy to think about someone building something this fantastical almost 100 years ago. Architecture has definitely both gone forward from Gaudi’s contributions but also largely regressed.
It started raining really hard with no sign of letting up, so we fled the park and ran to the Metro to head back into town. Totally drenched, we ducked into the Frederic Mares Museum (MFM) since it didn’t have a line stretching around the block (cough, couch Picasso Museum, cough). I, for some reason, thought it was a modern art museum, but it’s actually a sculpture museum featuring 12th century – modern sculpture housed in a what was one of the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition (creeepy, right?). I think we missed the basement which supposedly contains some cool church-related sculpture, but the rest of the museum was pretty interesting. Plus there were only maybe five people in the entire museum! So, gorgeous art with no line and no issues seeing anything? Totally a good thing in my book.
After FMM, we settled in super early (6 pm or so) at Bar del Pla, the tapas extension of Pla, a highly rated restaurant that we were in no manner dressed appropriately for. Thankfully, the servers at the tapas bar didn’t mind our wet and bedraggled state and we gladly slouched into the exposed brick walls and cozy, den-like atmosphere. A bottle of red wine and an early dinner and we were good to go.
Ham, did someone say ham? You know we ordered it. Salty, fatty, perfect. I also love love loved the Gorgonzola croquettes that came at the same time–strong and stinky with that whole warm-fried croquett element, I could eat them in every rain storm. Seriously, it’s raining right now, please pass me a plate.
Next up, the hilariously (to me, at least) named Octopus Bombs!! (exclamation point theirs, not mine) with padron peppers. Another croquette, but this time filled with octopus and cheese (I think…?) and topped with a spicy aioli. Seriously, though, anything fried made my night at this point. Same with the padron peppers which were grilled and served with blistered skin. A little hot with that nice charcoal hint from the grill, they were easy to snack on.
The final dish I really wanted to like but just didn’t. A dish of the day, the Trotters Casserole seemed perfect for the decidedly autumnal chill and rain–slow braised fatty trotters–but they were just that–fatty with only a little meat to pick out. The pine nuts and cherry tomatoes did add a nice crunch and tang to the dish though. It wasn’t a bad dish, per se, just not my personal favorite.
I could have stayed there all night drinking, but it was time to move on, so we slunk back out into the rainy night and ran, bam!, into one of the top museums on my list–Museo del Mamut! It was tiny–one stuffed mammoth on display along with a saber tooth tiger and a few awkward looking dummies of our ancestors–but I loved how cheesy, cute it was. Plus we had the museum to ourselves–win! If you happen to be around it, stop in, it’s a fun little gem of a museum.
By the time I’d posed with a mammoth, though, my feet were starting to complain, so we trekked back to the hotel with a bottle of wine and a bag of chips we bought as a joke…and they turned out to be no joke but a pure-honest-to-god addiction we’ve now got. Jamon chips are where it’s at you guys. Salty, smokey, and full of crack, I’m sure, but dang. It was the perfect way to end a fully day of eating and touristing.
Bar del Pla
Carrer de Montcada, 2
Neighborhood: Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera-Born
932 683 003
Carrer del Parlament, 39
931 873 607
Taller de Tapas – Sant Joseph Oriol
Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol, 9
Neighborhood: Barri Gòtic
933 018 020
The Varsity–Atlanta Airport
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
Litoral Mar, 42,
08005 Barcelona, Spain
Neighborhood: La Vila Olimpica del Poblenou
93 221 07 29