March 31, 2013

Visiting El Born and Santa Maria del Mar

One last post from Spain... When I travel, I am often reminded how fortunate I have been to be able to visit so many different places around the world. One of those moments was visiting the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona. This church is very old. Construction on it began in 1329 AD; however, mentions of a Santa Maria del Mar in this area date back to 998 AD. Located in the El Born district of the city, this church stands tall next to the medieval buildings that line the streets.

Santa Maria del Mar

We came upon Santa Maria del Mar on our last day in Spain, at the end of a fantastic road trip. Inside the church was illuminated only by light coming through the stained glass windows and the many candles people had lit. There was a calm hush to the atmosphere. I am not a religious person, but there is something about the tranquil mood in this ancient church that I found very comforting. Jonathan went to light a candle and I sat down and gave thanks for having the opportunity to visit Spain, this city, and this church. And I hoped to have the privilege to return someday.

After visiting the church, we spent the afternoon meandering the narrow, crocked streets in the remainder of the El Born and Barrio Gothic districts of the city. These neighborhoods were definitely my favorite parts of Barcelona. They were away from the traffic and wide boulevards of l'Eixample and the other more hectic areas of the city. And even with signs of the modern world slipping in here and there - a parked scooter, a bathroom design store (selling flush toilets and other bathroom items) - walking through this area really feels like stepping back in time.

A narrow street in El Born.

El Barrio Gothic and El Born districts are wonderful places to spend an entire day - walking around; visiting the small shops; and taking the time to stop for a cafe, glass or wine, or a snack. Exploring these neighborhoods was a perfect last day in Barcelona!

March 26, 2013

More from Barcelona - Tapas and Chocolate

There are a two more places to talk about in Barcelona - and they are both food related...

First is a tapas bar where my husband Jonathan and I had one of my favorite meals in Barcelona, Tapaç 24. Located just off Passeig de Gracia, this fashionable tapas bar had a busy, vibrant atmosphere. The night was mild and we were able to get one of the restuarant's sidewalk tables.

Olives and vermouth
Pan con tomate

We ordered a variety of different tapas to share. We began with olives and vermouth. We got two types of olives - simple green ones and others that were stuffed with anchovies. Olives have always been a favorite food of mine. As a child I used to like eating the black pitted ones by putting them on my finger tips. Since then I have grown to enjoy all olives and these were no exception. And like at Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, olives and vermouth were the perfect way to start our meal at Tapaç 24. The only variation here in Barcelona was that we also had pan con tomate. This is a crisp bread rubbed with tomato and served with olive oil and salt and is a speciality of the region.

Grilled shrimp
Arroz negro

To accompany the rest of our meal we ordered a local wine from the Cataluña region. It was served in an unlabeled bottle with the year (2009) handwritten in silver marker. Since Barcelona is located on the Mediterranean Sea, the cuisine here focuses primarily on seafood. Then we got fried sardines. Like when we cooked this type of fish in San Sebastián, these sardines were fresh not preserved. They were light, crispy, and delicious. Next we got grilled shrimp and langoustines served with an orange sauce. Finally, our last dishes were arroz negro (rice cooked in squid ink) and tripe (for Jonathan). The local wine paired well with the food and both were excellent. The seafood was all local and therefore extremely fresh - not frozen or transported in from distant locations. This focus on local and intense attention to detail about all things food related in this city translates to amazing food!

Langoustines with orange sauce
Tripe (for Jonathan)

To finish our meal at Tapaç 24 we shared chocolate mousse served with olive oil, fleur de sel, and baguette crisps. It might sound like an odd combination, but it was wonderful. The chocolate mousse was thick and smooth with a rich milk chocolate flavor. It was placed in three scoops on the plate and sprinkled with fleur de sel. The grassy olive oil and salt complimented the rich chocolate, while the bread was a perfect crunch.

Chocolate mousse 

Next time I'm in Barcelona, I will definitely return to Tapaç 24 for tapas and chocolate mousse.

Continuing on the theme of sweets and chocolate, the last place I want to share is a chocolate shop and patisserie called Bubó. Located on the narrow streets of El Born close to the Church of Santa Maria del Mar, this beautiful little shop and cafe is a required stop of all chocoholics visiting Barcelona. We wandered upon it on our last afternoon in Barcelona and stopped for a snack. Bubó is the cutest shop and the pastries and chocolates look more like works of art than food. The only problem at this place is deciding what to get. There are so many beautiful sweets to choose from - classic pastries, small cakes, macaroons, chocolates, and more. I probably walked around the shop at least a half a dozen times admiring my options before selecting a small chocolate cake. To accompany our beautiful chocolate snack we also ordered two glasses of cava.

Mid-afternoon snack at Bubó - chocolate and cava!

We then took a seat in the shop and waited for our snack. Soon our snack arrived. The cava was served with strawberries floating in it. For the pastry I selected calling it a chocolate cake does not truly describe this delicacy. It was rectangular with crisp wafers on the top and the bottom and chocolate praline and mousse in between. It was crowned with a thin chocolate wafer. It was almost too beautiful to eat, but only almost. After admiring it for a moment, I took a bite. It was lovely - rich, chocolatey, and nutty. This was either the most decadent snack ever or a case of eating dessert before dinner. I savored every bite and enjoyed sharing this perfect afternoon interlude with Jonathan.

Attention chocoholics: next time you're in Barcelona, stop at Bubó for a snack.

March 15, 2013

Tapas and Flamenco in Barcelona

El Xampanyet

Of course, like other cities in Spain, Barcelona is home to many, many tapas bars.

Cava and tapas at El Xampanyet

On our first evening we had dinner in el Barrio Gothic (the Gothic Quarter). Here we began at El Xampanyet, a small tapas bar specializing in cava (Spanish sparkling wine, similar to champagne), anchovies, and other canned seafood. The place was packed, but the staff helped find a small table for us. We ordered two glasses of cava and a variety of anchovies, canned mussels, and other preserved fish with a few sun-dried tomatoes. The seafood was nothing like I expected. Like the anchovies we had in San Sebastián, these were bigger than the variety Americans have become accustomed to hating on pizza and had a delicate pickled flavor. The canned mussels were preserved with pimentón (Spanish paprika), had a more meaty texture than a fresh cooked mussel, and tasted like smoke and sea. There was also some delicious salmon and the sun-dried tomatoes were some of the best I've ever had. And everything went perfectly with the cava.

The second tapas bar we visited, Tapeo.

After eating our small tasting plate, enjoying our cava, and watching the crowd at El Xampanyet, we headed to the next stop on our tapas crawl. While our first stop was planned, the remainder of our evening was serendipitous. As we walked out into the street, Tapeo, another tapas bar across the street and caddy-corner caught our eye. After checking the menu we went inside and took a seat at the bar. This place focused more on gourmet or artisan versions of traditional Spanish tapas.

Vino tinto y pan con tomate
(Red wine and Catalan bread with tomato)

To begin at Tapeo, we ordered glasses of local red wine from the Cataluña region. Next, we got pan con tomate (a traditional Cataluña bread rubbed with tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned with a bit of salt). While in this region of Spain I became accustomed to having this delicious bread with every meal except breakfast! We also ordered asparagus with romesco sauce. This is a sauce made with almonds or hazelnuts, roasted peppers, garlic, olive oil, and sometimes tomato. And, last, Jonathan ordered butifarra, a dish made with white beans and sausage. (The version of this dish here was served with truffle aioli.) The romesco sauce excellent and tasted of rich hazelnuts and sweet peppers with a subtle bit of garlic. It was perfect with the asparagus, wine, and bread. Jonathan thoroughly enjoyed - and ate every bit - of his beans and sausage.

Asparagus with romesco sauce
Butifarra (white beans and sausage)

After our tapas, we headed back out into the maze of streets that is Barcelona's Barrio Gothic. Soon another serendipitous event occurred. A caller at the door of a dimly lit performance space suggested we attend their flamenco show. Seeing this type of music and dance live had been on Jonathan's list of things to do, so we halted our tapas crawl and went to the show.

The theater / performance space (Espai Barroc) was in the courtyard and foyer of building that probably dated from medieval times. Inside the theater, several people were settling into chairs around a small stage. We found two empty seats close to the stage, got a glass of wine that was complementary with our admission, and settled in to await the start of the show. Luckily our timing was perfect and a few minutes later the lights dimmed and the performers emerged on the stage.

Snippets of the flamenco performance.

The musicians - guitar player and percussionist - began to play. Rhythm and melody filled the room. A singer soon joined with the haunting lyrics of the flamenco gypsy ballads. After some time the highlighted performers of the show joined the musicians on stage - the dancers. There was a pause in the music and then the male and female dancer began the sensual steps that make up flamenco. Their movements conveyed energy and emotion. Their focus and precise steps captivated the audience, including me. And their feet became part of the music.

March 10, 2013

Visiting Gaudí in Barcelona

Rarely is a city so defined by one artist or architect. Often there are several monuments or important buildings designed or created by one individual, but these are alongside others, both famous and unknown. However, the city of Barcelona is different. Yes, its streets are lined with buildings by many architects, but the work by one individual dominates that of all others. And the buildings designed by this artist are unlike any others. These houses, churches, and buildings seem more suited to exist in the imagination than a busy urban setting. And, of course, the artist in question is Antón Gaudí.

As I have said previously, I prefer wandering city streets to visiting the hallowed halls of museums. Because of the numerous fairy tale facades created by Antón Gaudí the streets of Barcelona truly have become a museum. Gaudí lived in the beginning of the 20th century and was a prominent member of the Modernista (art nueveau) movement in Spain. The designs of his buildings are very flowing and mimic the patterns of nature.

Casa Batlló or House of Bones

We began our Gaudí tour on Passeig de Gracia a few blocks from our hotel. The first house we came upon was the Casa Batlló or House of Bones. The facade of this building tells the story of Saint George and the Dragon with the windows and balconies representing the bones of the dragon, the colorful tiles its scales, the roof its tail, and the chimneys the sword of Saint George. The inside of this house is open to the public to tour, however, we elected to move on to the next building.

Casa Batlló or House of Bones

Less than a block away is Casa Milà, better know as la Pedrera. This is a large, sand-colored apartment building crowned with chimneys that look like something directly out of a Star Wars movie. Nothing is square or symmetrical in this building and the balconies are adorned with wrought-iron banisters shaped like leaves and vines. Again, there is a portion of this building that the public can visit, but we opted to admire it from the sidewalk.

Casa Milà or la Pedrera

The balconies of la Pedrera.

The next stop on our architecture tour is often referred to as Gaudí's masterpiece, la Sagrada Familia (or the Church of the Sacred Family). Even after seeing Gaudí's other works and photographs of this church, nothing could have prepared to see it in person. This building truly is like no other structure in the world. First, construction continues on it to this day. When he designed it, Gaudí wanted the building of the church to be funded solely by donations and so when it is completed it will have taken over a century to construct. Next, the design of the facades of la Sagrada Familia cannot accurately be described in words, it is best to just see it.

La Sagrada Familia

Construction continues at la Sagrada Familia.

Is it beautiful? Is it gaudy? I will let you judge that for yourself.

A tree with white doves on one of the facades of la Sagrada Familia.

The final stop on our architecture walk around Barcelona was Park Güell. Designed by Gaudí as a gated community that never came to fruition, it is now a city park. Located on a hill above the Eixample neighborhood of the city, it boasts impressive views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea below. The majority of the structures that are located in Park Güell were intended to be community gathering places - park benches, a covered area to house a farmer's market, a school, a church, and more. Everything is covered in bright-colored tile mosaics giving the park a playful, happy atmosphere.

A gingerbread looking building at the entrance to Park Güell.

The day we were at Park Güell was beautiful and sunny. It was filled with people sitting on the benches, wandering about, and enjoying the view. It was a perfect place to pause and reflect. We sat down to relax and be thankful for being able to visit an amazing destination like Barcelona and for having the opportunity to travel around Spain.

The ceiling mosaic in a covered area that was intended to host a farmer's market at Park Güell.

So, what impression did Barcelona's famous architect, the city, and the country of Spain have on me? I can't say I love Gaudí's work; however, I can say I will never forget it. And while there are many other places in the world I have enjoyed visiting or hope to see in the future, I cannot wait to return to Spain.

March 7, 2013

Images of Boqueria Market

In my last post I had a hard time deciding which of the many photos we took at Boqueria Market to include. So, I decided to share more. Here is a larger sample of the bounty of this amazing market in Barcelona!

Candy fruit pâtés
Colorful popsicles

Adorable marzipan fruit

March 3, 2013

Visiting Boqueria Market

St Josep Boqueria (or the Boqueria Market) is located just off La Rambla and is a treasure trove of things to eat. There are stalls selling unprepared ingredients and vendors cooking food at small lunch counters.

Lunchtime at Pinotxo Bar in Boqueria Market.
We arrived at the market at the beginning of lunch hour, so we decided to begin our visit at Pinotxo Bar. This popular cafe is located just inside the entrance to the market. Market workers, locals from the neighborhood, and tourist alike crowd elbow to elbow around this small lunch counter. After waiting a short bit, two seats opened up and we joined the others for lunch. The menu changes daily based on the ingredients available in the market. I ordered a dish of baby squid and white beans with balsamic reduction and Jonathan got breaded fried lamb chops. We looked around and followed what the locals were doing and ordered cañas (or small beers) to accompany our food. Perched on our stools we were able to everything prepared and soon it was on our plates. My food was light and delicious - a perfect lunch! The flavor of the squid dish was a good balance of sweet and salty. Jonathan enjoyed his food as well, and said the lamb chops paired well with the beer.

My lunch at the market.
After lunch it was time to explore the rest of the market. There were vendors selling fresh fruit and juices. Vendors selling vegetables, meats, or seafood. Then there were stalls filled with nuts, dried fruits, and candies. There were stalls selling spices; others selling olives and all things pickled. Others sold cheeses, eggs, and charcuterie. And, of course there were stalls selling turrón (a delicious Spanish nougat candy) and chocolate. The color and variety was beautiful.

Spanish hams at the market.
Sweets made with pine nuts at the market.
We walked up and down every aisle, taking photographs and wishing we could take everything home. Before leaving we bought a few things that we could take home - pimentón (Spanish paprika), chocolate, turrón, and snacks for the flight back to Washington, DC. I just wish I could take the whole market with me!

The grapes, mangos, and other delicious fruit at the market.