Catalan Rhapsody, Barcelona Part I

Catalonia

Barcelona was the last stop of our recent trip to Spain.

Ten days and three cities in Spain didn’t seem to prepare us for Barcelona. For Barcelona is different.

The narrow alleys, quaint lanes, stone houses, cathedrals, and the mosques from a time before that dotted the Spain we visited faded away and in their place in Barcelona were large buildings, elegant, beautiful but more ‘big city’ish’ than Madrid and definitely than Seville, Granada.

Quenta, chiperon, pringa, gracias and all the other Spanish words that we picked up earlier were left in the cold storage. Folks speak more English here. We told a jovial elderly local cab driver, “Your English is very good.

“So is yours,” he replied.

The tapas servings larger here…a tad more expensive. Restaurants in the tourist areas had English menus too. The city, as I said, more multi lingual and multi racial than the rest of Spain with Pakistanis, Phillipinos, Chinese rubbing shoulders with their Spanish colleagues. Often calling out to customers who passed by a la Juhu Beach. “Pagal hain sab” said a Pakistani waiter as an elderly tourist couple waked by without paying heed to him.

Barcelona came across more as a ‘modern world city’ than just a Spanish city.

Then again, as Rahul, a Bengali from Mumbai and a staunch Barca fan told me, “don’t call Barcelona Spanish. It’s Catalan”.

IMG_3116

Discover Walks 

On day one, we checked into our hotel, the very central, modern and chirpy Hotel Jazz, and looked out on to the huge buildings in front of us. Later we went out on a Discover Walk.

Andrea, who was conducting it, took us through the lanes Picasso had grew up in, explained some of his paintings, took us to the shore where it was freezing thanks to the cold wind from Europe, showed us the ‘lane of bad food’ where sailors of yore would come to eat without spending too much, saving their coins for the painted ladies of the nights, and then later pointed out to  flags hanging from buildings all across.

 IMG_2996IMG_3005 IMG_3004

“See those flags? The stars signify that the house belongs to people who support the Catalan movement and believe that it should become an independent state.

On asking, I found out that this is a peaceful movement where people gather in huge numbers in the town squares to express their desire for freedom. There has been a referendum. I will follow this more keenly in the future.

I also found out that Barcelona is not really just about Vicky and Christina.

I asked Andrea what she thought of the film and she said “it’s clichéd. I am a Spanish woman. I am not loud like Penelope in the movie. Nor are all men drunk all the time. But Woody Allen made Barcelona look lovely. It brought in the tourists. We are happy for that.”

After Sevilla and Granada, Discover walks was the third of the tip based ‘free walks’ that we talk. A nice way to feel the pulse of a city.

Gaudi’s Barcelona

I soon realised that Barcelona is not just Vicky and Christina’s city.

It is the city of Gaudi.

Who is Gaudi? Well, if like me, all you had heard of were Picasso and Dali…then read this link on Anton Gaudi…a genius Catalan architect. He had designed Sagrada Familia, a Cathedral which is still work in progress, and can blow even the most Cathedral jaded of minds (Spain is full of them). He has left his mark on the city through many buildings and the Park Guile which is a mix of marble tiled motifs, pillared walk ways and a vantage point from which you can look on to the deep blue seas across the beaches of Barcelona.

IMG_3057

We got a glimpse of a lot of this thanks to the press cards which Barcelona Turisme very kindly gave us when Suprio Bose, who is their director in India kindly put them in touch with us. We even used some of the hop on hop off buses. The succinct, to the point yet comprehensive, audio guides in English on the bus were a big help.

Here’s another thing. While we walked to most places of interest in Madrid, Seville and Granada (except the Alhambra)…Barcelona is big and spread out. We would often have to take cabs or buses.

The intense carvings on the walls of the Sagrada Familia were awe inspiring, as were the stained glass work inside, the high ceilings and the Biblical interpretations and the statue of Christ suspended in the air in the middle. The visions of a very religious man who used his architectural instincts to give shape to his devotion. Again, thanks to our press cards, we breezed in but I am told that buying tickets otherwise can be difficult. Yes, we are kicked about this bit of ‘blogger’s karma’ which led to this wonderful hospitality.

 

 IMG_3033 IMG_3034 IMG_3063

 

Yes, Segrada was magnificent, super human etc etc but there is only that much that such things can hold my attention.

For me, finally it is about the perfectly grilled chiperones or squids in the Cellar da Tapas near Universidad. Or the salty cured tuna with the contrasting taste and textured almonds there, our first taste of Barcelona. And, foremost, the quivering piece grilled foie gras nestled snugly on home made hamburger patty cooked medium rare. That’s the sort of thing that knocks my breath away. Those raciones (portions) were my cathedrals.

cured tuna  grilled chiperonesfoie gras on burger

That’s the thing about Barcelona and a lot of Spain. You have places like Cellar de Tapas doing new age stuff with smart plating coexisting with places like Cidad de Condal  that served more traditional fare like ibereco jamon on bread with green pepper (celestial), grilled razor clams (an acquired taste), anchovies on toast, the blessed ham and cheese croquettes.

As Andrea, who recommended the place, told us,  ‘point at what you like on the counter, look at what others are eating, order’. Her guide to spotting a ‘local’ tapas bar…breadcrumbs on the floor, toothpicks too….and lots of noise.

IMG_3011 razor clams

Barcelona’s Jeff Koehler

On our second day we met Jeff Koehler.

An American who moved into Barcelona in 1996 and now calls the city his own. One of his daughters plays basketball for Barca and on a separate note he keeps a leg of Ibereco ham at home which make him as Catalan as they get. Writer, photographer, cook…passionate, intense, quiet, witty, warm.

Jeff occasionally does food tours for the cream of  international society including the odd Oscar winning Hollywood Studio boss, who as Jeff noticed, didn’t look once at his blackberry as he took in the beauty of Barcelona.

“Not like my nieces who are always on the phone”. Jeff hadn’t seen me in wifi enabled zones thankfully.

We met Jeff at Granja Viader, a dairy shop, famous for its whipped cream, which is now a deli popular with the locals. Chocolate and churro (not made in house unlike in San Gines or Maestro Churrero in Madrid) done we headed to Le Boqueria market down the tourist hub of La Ramblas.

chocolate and churros

Boqueria is one of Barcelona’s 40 odd markets. While most were similar I was told, this is the largest and has tourists dropping in too. Folks who have gone there in summer told me that it gets quite packed then.

Jeff led the two of us through the market…the happiness on our face reflecting that on the faces of loads of Spanish school kids out on a field trip. The ‘stalls’ were actually shops owned by individual families Jeff explained. The central area had sea fish whose variety made even the Sydney fish market which had been to, pale in comparison. Loads of stuff…crabs, prawns, which we realised, were alive. Then there were the meat shop loads of lovely pork, ham, trips, blood sausage, tripe, chicken embryos, sausages…a meat lover’s adults only shop. Chocolate, olive oils….they were all there and restaurants including the legendary Piñata.

We did eat at Boqueria on my birthday the next day. A late lunch at 5 pm Piñata was shut so we went to new kid on the block, so we ate at Casa Gruinard, est. 1895…originally another meat shop at Boqueria.

Finally the Catalan special of ham fried with beans in olive oil and vinegar and buttiferas (?), chopped chorizo fried with caramelised onions..a dish which could have been so at home in Goa... were sample.

Dessert was tiny wild strawberries from the market served with Greek yogurt while K went to La Ramblas and had the most luscious dark chocolate ice cream of a shop on the pavement.

IMG_3069  IMG_3068 IMG_3073

Earlier Jeff had shown us

Jeff showed us some local treasures tucked into the by lanes of the touristy La Ramblas…a shop that specialised in knives, a shop that sold artisanal olive oils…and a little Cafe that served desserts made in local convents.

“Or you can go the El Corte Ingles gourmet store and buy similar stuff” Jeff said.

Yes, we were privileged to spend that morning with Jeff who had taken the time out for us after Robyn of Eating Asia connected us on twitter.

IMG_3013  IMG_3017 IMG_3018

As we were privileged to be hosted by Manel Casonavas, Director of Gastronomy of Turisme de Barcelona, at such short notice, later that afternoon in Cafe Velodroma. And the fantastic cooking class conducted by Alajandra in Claudia & Pep’s Espai Boisa a couple of days later, again courtesy Manel. More about that and some more great food in the next post.

PS: I had taken some fantastic pics of Spain in my Canon DSLR. Then we left the camera behind in the cab while coming home in Mumbai. A Meru cab. We realised this the next day in the midst of our jet lag, called the driver who said there was no camera left behind. We called Meru asking them to check with the driver and the next passenger. All they keep saying is “we take 4 days” without giving any update. The camera is expensive. The photos priceless. Earlier I wondered how I would chose from the pics I took. Now am depending on the few iphone pics left. A lesson learnt. Always backup!

4