Beguiling Barcelona

After many years of postponing travel to Spain (there was always somewhere else to go), I recently felt moved that it was time for Autumn in España. We had just a week, so the focus was on Barcelona and Madrid (stay tuned for that review). As per usual, the first thing I do when planning a trip is to secure the hotel. El Palace Hotel enjoys a fabulous location slightly out of the main hubbub, and is a historically relevant five star hotel (it originally was Ritz, and is the oldest luxury hotel in Barcelona).

I tend to love stately hotels with impressive public spaces and El Palace fits that category (additionally it is in the Virtuoso program so a stay comes with lots of perks), but sadly the accommodations are in need of some TLC. The service was terrific, and the bed happened to be incredibly comfortable, but the decor in our suite needed a major facelift.

We had taken a night flight, and were fortunate that our room was ready when we arrived at about 10am. Our plan was to hit the ground running, so our guide (Cesar) came to meet as at 1:00 for a Tapas and Wine tour; thankfully we weren’t too tired, but we were very hungry. Cesar was energetic with an infectious enthusiasm for all the wonderful Spanish wine and food he was planning to share with us.

Our exploration began at La Boqueria where our senses went on high alert, and then to the small, very local Taverna Onofre whose proprietor was committed to traditional Catalan Tapas and wine. Best of all (for me) was that they had a delicious gluten free version of Pan Con Tomate which I happily devoured alongside the array of traditional Catalan cheeses and blistered peppers. We also polished off a special bottle of Catalonian Priorat (Llum d’Alena 2013) which complemented our nibbles perfectly. We were re-energized to continue our exploration, so it was onward to a gluten free tapas spot called En Ville thoughtfully chosen by Cesar so I could enjoy everything on the menu. The food was quite tasty, especially the Patatas Bravas and Catalan Crème Brulee. We rolled out of there and headed right to Granja La Pallaresa for thick hot chocolate and Churros. We were told that as rich as the chocolate was, there was no dairy in at all, so I felt somewhat virtuous. My husband had no trouble finishing off the churros.

This was a truly fun afternoon- we managed to learn a great deal about Catalan cuisine at the same time as we filled out tummies with delicious bites.

If you are interested in spending a few hours with a delightful food guide, please contact me and I will pass along his information.

Before we hugged Cesar good-bye, we made sure to have him bring us to his favorite spot for Torron- Planelles Donat, specializing in artisanal nougat since 1850. We couldn’t eat another bite, but loaded up on samples to bring back home with us.

Although we were starting to feel the time change we persevered and walked to the El Born district for dinner at Llamber, described as an edgy spot with a creative interpretation of Catalan and Asturian cuisine, the restaurant is known as one of the best in Barcelona.

The hotel made the reservation for us, so I am not sure whether it was at that point that they decided to put us in Siberia or if it was when they saw us. Being seated in the back of the restaurant with other Americans always puts me in a bad mood, and that coupled with the attitude of the staff set my expectations for the meal quite low. I had heard that the service in Barcelona is not of the highest caliber, and this situation seemed to validate that sentiment.

In any case we ordered a good sampling of the menu and the food was quite tasty. Having to ask for our drinks several times before they were delivered detracted from our enjoyment, but overall the food was satisfying, but not excellent. The black rice with red prawns was the clear winner of the evening.

We walked back to the Hotel at close to midnight, and thanks to the aforementioned comfy beds we went right to sleep until 8 am the next morning. The breakfast buffet at The Palace was impressive, especially the pots of Nutella to dip the churros in.

Our first full day in Barcelona was planned with a guide and driver who had mapped out a far reaching itinerary for us. We started the day at Montjuïc, a hilltop in Barcelona that overlooks the city and is home to the remains of a Jewish Cemetery dating back to medieval times. Not only are the views pretty great, but the stonework on the ground is pretty impressive as well. We enjoyed a nice overview of the waterfront including Frank Gehry’s Golden Fish Sculpture El Peix as well as Ricardo Bofill’s Four Bars of the Catalan Flag. Our last stop in the area was the Olympic Stadium which unequivocally marked the turning point for tourism in Barcelona (at least according to all of our guides and drivers). The pride in the transformation of the city leading up to the games has been a lasting legacy.

Next up on our agenda was an exploration of the genius of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. If you could name an Architect as your spirit animal, Gaudi was absolutely be mine. We would return later in the day to visit Casa Batlló, but it was La Sagrada Familia that would capture our imagination first. We have been fortunate to visit houses or worship all over the world, but La Sagrada Familia is like no other. Construction of the church began in 1882, and it is still underway, with Spanish architect Jordi Fauli at the helm. The hope is that it will finally be finished in 2026, 100 years after Gaudi’s death. The pictures below can give you an idea of the beauty and the light, but seeing it in person is a whole other experience.

Following our time marveling at Sagrada Familia, we found we had built up quite an appetite. We had heard about a Masquerías (shellfish bar) called Puertecillo in close proximity to the Cathedral, and the line outside assured us we were in the right place. Once inside we ordered (a lot of pointing as there are endless varieties on offer) and specified the cooking method, and then settled in to the simple space to wait for our food. The fish was fresh as can be, tasty, and was served without fanfare We were scheduled for an elaborate seafood feast for dinner, so simple was good.

Following lunch we made our way to the Picasso Museum (which happens to be the only Picasso museum created while the artist was still alive). The collection in Barcelona focuses mainly on Picasso’s early years, and is housed in 5 adjoining Palaces. It is most certainly worth a stop, as Picasso had a special relationship with Barcelona, and it is fascinating to see his early works, especially all the studies for Las Meninas, his interpretation of Velázquez’ iconic masterpiece (which we would soon visit in the Prado).

My intention following our visit to the Picasso museum was to grab a drink at Paradiso, the newly crowned Number 1 bar in the world, but it seemed as though about 150 other people had the same idea at 5pm on a Sunday! I insisted we wait on line for a while (45 minutes) but after it didn’t move an inch my husband made me leave. Hidden away behind the meat locker in a Delicatessen I am sure it is fabulous. If anyone has had first hand experience, please let me know!

Our dinner that evening was booked at Botafumeiro , a traditional, formal restaurant where seafood plays a starring role. Botafumeiro is an “old-school” restaurant with waiters in dinner jackets and and a grown-up vibe. Like the evening prior at Llamber, we were directly to the very back of the restaurant with the rest of the Americans, but to add insult to inujry we were seated the middle of an active doorway which meant my husband was bumped each time a server came through.

The restaurant was full (it was 9:45, we weren’t even eating at the American hour) so as much as I cajoled the manager he insisted there was nowhere to move us. I am once again chalking this up to the hotel making the reservation for us rather than our appearance , as I have to say we were dressed quite fashionably. The manager did state, and our waitress concurred that you can specify what room you would like to dine in when you book. Word to the wise: pick anywhere but Siberia!

The food itself was very good. We decided to indulge in the Seafood platter, but specified that the clams needed to be put on the side as my husband is allergic. The amount of food was quite eye-popping, but we forged ahead and made a major dent. The calamari starter was a real winner, and the shellfish platter was delicious.

Once we resigned ourselves to our terrible table we found the service was very solicitous, especially the busboy who earned his own tip for being so gracious and helpful.

Stuffed to the gills we cabbed it back to our hotel in order to get some rest before the next days main event, a Culinary Backstreets tour. If you follow my blog you know I am a huge fan of these tours, and have done several. These small organized tours are the perfect way to sample an amazing array of local delicacies while you learn the culinary history of the city you are visiting.

I had booked a group tour on line, but we found ourselves being the only participants in our guide Senem’s tour. Senem is originally from Turkey, but has lived in her adopted hometown of Barcelona for years. She is as passionate about food as she is knowledgeable (she also was a great sport, because I had misread the starting time, and we showed up about 25 minutes late). Lucky we were her only guests!

We started our tour at the Mercat de la Libertad, a local market dating back to 1888. We enjoyed cheese and sausages as well as my favorite dark chocolate covered oranges. All the foods we tasted were hyper-local to the region.

We ate so much, it was really all a blur! The highlight for my husband was sampling incredible Jamon Bellota at La Cava. After tasting three different Jamons, he has determined the 100% acorn fed one is the way to go (the specific brand is Moniberic). We contemplated bringing a Jamon home in our suitcase, but then thought better of it.

The next stop was improvised as we passed by a gluten free bakery Forn Fortino which featured banana chocolate chip cookies that were out of this world.

Fortified by our flourless treats from Fortino we were ready to try what appears to be the “official” drink of Barcelona, Vermouth. We headed to the most adorable authentic and inviting hole in the wall, Bodega Marin which dates back over 120 years. This is a real neighborhood spot where folks young and old drop by throughout the day for a refreshing glass of Vermouth and perhaps some Boquerón (pickled anchovies). Not only is there Vermouth, but there is literally local wine on tap- this place was the real deal!

While we easily could have whiled away the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere, and the drinks, it was time to head to our actual lunch at a very typical Catalan restaurant, Cal Boter. We especially loved this spot because we were the only Americans, everyone else (the restaurant was jammed by the time we left) was a local. Here Senem ordered some traditional dishes for us including Calamares Cebollada (amazing), Bacalao de Aioli (cod with garlic sauce) and Escargots a Llacuna (forest snails). Most fun was the Granache wine that was served to us in a Porron a small vessel that allows members of your party to pour the wine directly into their mouths rather than a glass. This was quite hilarious until we got the hang of it. Lunch was delicious, and the atmosphere was completely authentic. Let me reiterate again how much I love these Culinary Backstreet tours- the nicest and most knowledgable guides, incredible food in places you would most likely not find on your own, all for a very reasonable price.

Our time with Senem was drawing to a close, but we had one more stop to make- her favorite Chocolate and Churro spot Churreria J. Balcells, a literal hole in the wall with a big following. We were treated with big smiles and enthusiasm as we contentedly devoured our dessert. My husband and I are the perfect pair- I drink the chocolate and he eats the churros.

We both were fully sated and so glad we booked our excursion with Culinary Backstreets. A nap was calling, but we had booked tickets to visit Gaudi’s Casa Batlló for just one more taste of architectural folly. The tour was interactive, and interesting, but the photos I was able to capture don’t do it justice. The fact that a family actually lived in this astonishing building is just remarkable.

Following our tour it was time to return to the hotel and take a small nap (and pack, my most dreaded task) before our much anticipated dinner reservation at Albert Adrià’s highly regarded Barcelona restaurant, Enigma. Albert Adrià and his brother Ferran (of El Bulli fame) are literal rockstars in the food world. Currently, Enigma is the only Albert Adrià project open in Spain. The process to reserve and the communications leading up to dinner were quite complex and a bit time consuming. Finally we were confirmed and had ordered a car to pick us up and deliver us to our 9:45 reservation.

The restaurant is visually stunning, like being inside a cloud. Although small, every table was filled, and as a bonus Adrià himself was very present, presiding over the operations like the captain of a ship. We were seated at the bar, and after the initial ordering of cocktails we began to get a sense there was something amiss.

We nursed our drinks for a while, and the server began to bring some treats over, as gestures from the kitchen. By this time it was about 10:30, and while we fancy ourselves rather Continental, we were hungry and tired. When asked, the staff let us know there was a problem with our table earlier in the day and they were trying their best to fix it. That seemed a bit curious, but they reassured us that they would keep sending us tastes until they were able to make it right.

As hard as we tried to remain grumpy about being seated at the bar, we couldn’t help but smile at the very delicious bites being sent our way. FINALLY the good news arrived that our table was ready for us. The server confided that something on the base had broken earlier in the day and they were struggling to make it right. In any case, as we were led to our table we received a very friendly greeting from the Chef, leaving us excited for the remainder of the meal to unfold.

All of the staff exhibited a playful spirit throughout the meal, making the entire experience very fun. While there is a menu at Enigma, we asked that they create a personalized dining event tailored just for us, keeping our dietary restrictions in mind. The end result was pretty terrific.

Fig reconstruction in 3 textures, raspberry soup with sansho and kombu

At about 12:30 we left the restaurant, happily surprised at all they had comped us due to the table mishap. Even if we had been paying for the entire meal, the prices seemed quite reasonable, but perhaps the strong dollar had something to do with it. In any case, Enigma was a winner, and I would most certainly recommend it.

After packing the last few items in our suitcases in anticipation of our early departure , we quickly fell asleep dreaming about what we would be seeing in Madrid. We really enjoyed Barcelona, especially the iconic architecture, fabulous seafood and friendly people; we regret not visiting sooner!


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