(CAUTION: Contains graphic language.)
Barcelona is an easy city to visit because you don’t really have to plan anything. You don’t have to do anything except show up. We could have seen a few more landmarks and tourist sites if we’d wanted but found that wandering was the best course. Anyway, you don’t have to wander for very long to see something neat.
The metro system covers the city thoroughly and is easy to use. The 10 or 12 lines are coded both by number and color. It’s 2€ a ride and transfers between lines are free.
TIP: Pay attention to the signs, which will direct you down one passage to go one direction and another passage to get to a different platform. As in Paris, you need to know the name of the end of the line, not just your stop, but there are maps everywhere. Even before you buy a ticket and go through the gate it’s a good idea to make sure you’re in the right place. Calvin and I went into one entrance and discovered that that entrance was only for trains heading in one direction, so we had to go back up to the street and use a different stairway. It was a 4€ mistake.
Taxis are more plentiful than anywhere I’ve visited. With 10,000 cabs in a city of 2 million, you never have to walk if you don’t want to.
We booked our hotel through (Gratuitous Plug Alert) Hotels.com (where you get a free night for every ten nights booked via their Welcome Rewards™ program). The NH Diagonal Center in the Sant Martí area was a gem in a slightly edgy neighborhood of warehouses and industrial-space nightclubs. At a nightly rate of about $75 the price was right, there was no question of safety, it’s only about three blocks to two metro stations, and the hotel itself is ultra modern and spotless. You’re just a couple of blocks from bars and cafes, and about a 30-minute stroll to the harbor.
Barcelona is one of the best dining-out cities I’ve ever visited. In quantity and quality you never have to travel far to find something good to eat, in any price range. At kebab shops (sometimes “kebap”) you’ll have something closer to what we Americans call gyro, and it’s always, always cheap and delicious. You’re never more than spitting distance from pizza, nor from paella, nor from tapas, nor even from less-likely options.
Being in Barcelona was exciting for us on many levels but by far the standout experience was La Champeñeria. On a block-long side street near the harbor and Barceloneta metro stop, you would not know this little dive restaurant even existed until you were right upon it if it weren’t for the mass of humanity overflowing onto the sidewalk.
There is only one beverage on the menu: Cava. In five variations (demi-sec, rosé, brut, etc.), you can have it by the copa or the bottle. Bottles cost around 4€ but you can only order a bottle if you have two plates of food or sandwiches at the same time. On our first visit we had little plates of manchego and ham. 10€ for the works. (They’re open late but only serve bottles until 5pm.)
La Champeñeria is not for the claustrophobic. You will, to a degree approaching carnal knowledge, be pressed against, squeezed and breathed on by a stranger. You will have to wave or yell to get the attention of one of the guys behind the counter. Once you have your bubbly and food you’ll be lucky to have a few inches of counter space on which to set it, but you might just as likely have to balance it all while standing against the wall.
You can get cheese, ham or sausage by themselves. A serving is una ración. But the sandwiches! In countless combinations there is ham (pernil for the dark, cured stuff and York for the pink, boiled variety), sausage, cheese, hamburguesa and more.
Not every combination appealed to us. Sardinas con Roquefort will have to wait for another visit, and possibly a second bottle of cava.
Calvin had chorizo – a beautifully moist and not-too-spicy link on a chewy bun. I chose Sobrassada i foie gras. A cured pork sausage spread and foie gras were a unique, delectable combination. The sandwich was a gooey, unctuous delight.
Part of the entertainment is watching the griddle man. He is an artist, an athlete. He toasts a dozen buns while tending to meat on the grill and in the deep-fryer. Almost everything gets a dip in the hot oil. Sausages receive a dunk before going onto the griddle. We saw slices of cheese dipped briefly in oil before joining their meat and bread. Cheese was also laid directly onto the griddle.
I can’t stress strongly enough that a trip to Barcelona must include a stop at La Champeñeria. They open at 9am, by the way. After you’re through eating and drinking, get the man’s attention again and he’ll give you a bill.
There are plenty of tapas bars but most restaurants also offer a tapas menu. Tapas include a wide range of dishes. Pan con tomate is bread – sometimes fresh, sometimes toasted – lightly smeared with tomato pulp, and it’s ubiquitous. You’ll see olives, marinated or grilled squid or octopus, anchovies and sardines, croquettes (potato, chicken, fish or meat). In el Gótic and el Born we saw (and patronized) several tapas places where you serve yourself. Everything has a toothpick or skewer in it and they count the picks to write your bill.
The Spanish are justifiably proud of their paella and it’s available in a wide range of prices and quality. It comes with sausage or chicken but most often with seafood. You’ll see it with mussels, clams and shrimp (out of the shell costs a little more), or even lobster. We had ours at one of the touristy places (El Hispano) along the harbor in Barceloneta. It was just OK but the folks at the restaurant were friendly and that made up.
There’s a sense of pride in this city even when paella isn’t the best.
This was our Michelin-starred splurge meal. It’s sophisticated but not stuffy. The staff wear black.
Things can get pricey but their weekday lunch menu at 39 euros is a terrific deal for three courses plus dessert or cheese and a glass of wine.
When the waiter came to take our order and we said we wanted the lunch menu, he reached across the table.
“Now I will take your menus, and I need your attention while I explain a few things. You will have three courses, with a choice for each. I will now tell you about the courses.”
And so he did. The meal is worth describing in detail.
First some slightly sweet and very fragile macadamia crisps were delivered to the table.
Then came shot glasses of tomato water, with toasted bread crumbs floating on a thin layer of olive oil. The server suggested that we eat the sausage and follow it with the liquid, which we did. The tomato water, while almost clear, tasted like a bite of the best, ripest heirloom imaginable. The bread crumbs had kept their crunch.
Calvin’s first course was a terrine of wild game, luscious on its own but rendered distinctive by a thin, crispy crackerlike crust of (non-sweet) cocoa on one edge. Celery root remoulade and candied kumquats lent acid and bitterness to the plate. Excellent!
I started with cod with sweet green onions. The delicate fish, served lukewarm, sat atop a rich onion puree and bore little dollops of black garlic paste. A few croutons of the same country bread we’d been eating gave crunch to a phenomenal plate.
We took the same second and third courses. First were delicate local pink shrimp with roasted red peppers and pine nuts. The tender shrimp and mellow peppers came together subtly, like a symphony’s slow second movement.
Our final course was a knockout. Warm duck rillettes with cabbage and an intense duck reduction, accented with dabs of carrot puree and hazelnuts. A very rich dish indeed but in just the right portion size.
Alkimia has a good wine list, both in selection and price. It’s deep in Spain, of course, but there were a surprising number of reasonable French options, especially from Alsace and the Loire. We picked a bottle of Albariño to take us through terrine, cod and shrimp, then followed it with a glass of red (included in the lunch menu) with the duck.
Something to do with chocolate was the dessert option but we went for cheese and weren’t disappointed. Irish blue, aged Gouda and something creamy and French were a sensible assortment and we ate everything.
But that wasn’t all. Two little dishes appeared on the table to wrap things up. The unassuming appearance of lemon sponge cake slices betrayed their range and depth of flavor. Their sprinkle of grated lime zest and dusting of powdered coffee made for something unique. On lollipop sticks were balls of passion fruit sorbet, coated in white chocolate. All at once you eat them and get – risking cliché – an explosion in your mouth.
Alkimia was a big-balled hit.
One evening we ate dinner in – I don’t know the real name of the neighborhood but it’s what we’d refer to at home as Boys’ Town. Restaurant, restaurant, bar, rainbow flag, bar, restaurant, rainbow flag, restaurant, bar, etc.
I don’t remember the name of the restaurant and the food was good but not great, but it was representative of the kind of value you can get in Barcelona if you look around a bit. The three-course dinner menu was 9€90. I added a plate of marinated anchovies with pepper oil. The first course on the menu was steamed pumpkin with shaved dried ham, which gave depth to an otherwise bland vegetable. Calvin had a steak and I took little lamb chops, simply grilled, with potatoes. Dessert was…quaint.
Walking up la Rambla one night we were approached by several young women. At first we expected to be directed to a particular restaurant or club, which happens a lot in Barcelona, but our expectation was dashed when one of them offered her greeting.
“No, thank you.”
(Starts walking closely beside to me) “Where you from?”
(Firmer) “No, thank you.”
“What’s your problem?”
“I said NO!”
(Yelling) “You shut up!”
(Mad, walking away) “YOU shut up!”
(Shouting after us) “You’re GAY!”
I’d like to think she meant the last part as a revelation but I don’t think that was the case.
There is a cable car going across the harbor. I forget the name but you can’t miss it. It’s schlocky but worth the expense (11€) and wait. They’re not very efficient at getting people up the elevator and onto the gondolas but once you’re up there you have great views of the harbor and the Mediterranean. Even better, it takes you to the top of the hill where there’s a very nice restaurant/bar. A beer with a view is hard to beat and it’s an easy walk down the hill to civilization.