7 days in Spain (Madrid and Barcelona)
09.24.2014 - 10.01.2014 65 °F
We've just spent the last 5 days in Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona is an amazing mix of traditional and new, both in style, architecture and in cuisine. It has trendy modern shops, organic food everywhere, and people stay out dancing until the sun comes up (not this blogger though). Along one border is sandy beaches where the city meets the Mediterranean. We both agreed that this was our favorite city so far and are hoping to come back for a more thorough inspection some day.
We met Shawna's friends, Bernardo and Mari Carmen at the train station in Barcelona on the first day. They are native Spaniards and had taken the train in from Alicante the same day that we arrived. From the moment we met them, they proceeded to lead us to authentic cuisine, through the winding streets of the Gothic quarter and to a hidden little tapas restaurant which we would not likely have found on our own. They were the perfect hosts and made this the most memorable portion of our trip to date.
Around 3pm our hosts took us to a wonderful seafood restaurant down on the water in Barceloneta overlooking the ocean. Shawna and I got our first taste of real paella after an unfortunate miss in Madrid. It seems the Spanish aren't as well known for their cuisine as the French or the Italians but, in my opinion, the best food we've found was in Spain. At about 5 or 5:30, with the sun still high in the sky, we finished up lunch and proceeded to stroll the Gothic quarter. The Gothic quarter dates back to the Medieval and even Roman times. One could amble about these narrow winding alley ways for hours. At some point Bernardo asked if he should make dinner reservations and would 10:30 be ok. Shawna and I both agreed; any earlier would not be Spanish custom. We continued to explore the Gothic and Borne neighborhoods, stopping for a cerveza/mojito along the way.
Dinner was on a dark, narrow alley, in a dimly lit hole in the wall called "La Vinateria de la call" which looked as if it had been open for as long as the Gothic quarter had been in existence. We were brought plate after plate of delicious tapas: jamon, dry salami, assortments of cheeses, anchovies, fried croquets and of course red wine. Shawna and I weren't in our beds until well after 2am.
We woke to pouring rain and Bernardo and Mari Carmen had to catch the train back to Alicante that day. Since it was raining cats and dogs outside, we decided to enjoy the Spanish national pastime, eating! We weren't sure where to go so we wandered around Plaça de Catalunya in search of a bite. Shawna and I tried to steer the group out of the rain and into some touristy little pubs but Bernardo would have none of it. He let us in on a secret to finding good tapas in Spain, "always find the restaurant with the most people in it". In Spain people will always flock to best tapas bars no matter how crowded, as long as the food is the best. Lo and behold, we turned a corner and found an overly crowded tapas bar with a line going out the door. The four of us squeezed into a little corner of the bar and ate standing up. It was a snug fit but well worth it. Trusting Bernardos knowledge of tapas, we allowed him to handle the ordering. We received all sorts of interesting plates. Flavorful octopus, salty fried sardines, traditional potatoes and jamon. Each one unique and full of flavor. In typical style, lunch lasted until 4pm when our 2 friends had to catch their train. It was hard to see them go, especially for Shawna who hadn't seen Bernardo in over a decade, making it a gloomy walk home in the rain. To perk our spirits, we decided to order room service while watching spanish Simpsons and listen to the rain fall outside.
The Spanish take their dining very seriously. "Lunch" starts around 2pm and can last 2 or more hours and is the biggest meal of the day. Most people don't go out to dinner before 9 or 10pm and again it can take 2 or 3 hours to complete. I thought I was familiar with tapas; after all I had been to Cha Cha Cha over 3 times. I was wrong. If you are lucky enough to find a really good tapas bar, you are in for a variety of tasty treats. Tapas are small plates of food (think appetizers) meant to be shared with a group and can be anything from sliders to cheese plates to calamari to lentil soup. Everyone sits or stands at the bar and orders rounds of tapas and sips cerveza until everyone is satiated. Most tapas restaurants have 15 to 20 different tapas in addition to the daily tapas so its a great way to try a little bit of everything. One of the most popular tapas is thin sliced jamon.
I think Bernardo best sums up the sentiments of his nation when he says "I love Jamon". Jamon is thin sliced ham similar to proscuitto but drier. It is always carved on site from a cured full leg of pork (hoof included) and is found everywhere. Every bar and restaurant that we went to in Madrid or Barcelona had a partially carved leg of pork waiting to be sliced on demand. There are not one, but many "Museo de jamon”s in Madrid. It can cost over $200/kg for Jamon Iberico, that is jamon fed solely a diet of acorns, not to be confused with Jamon serrano or other types. You can take courses on proper slicing of the thin delicacy. You learn a great deal about jamon if you spend any time in Spain.
We spent our last two days exploring Barcelona on our own. We devoted one rainy morning to a cooking class making paella. We started with a tour of the large market off of Las Ramblas, la Boqueria. I’ve never seen so much variety in my life. One can buy 30 different varieties of olives, ostrich eggs, any particular part of a sheep or cow one desires to eat, vegetables from across the globe and fish, more fish than I’ve ever seen. As it turned out, our cooking class was making a seafood paella. This was fine, we had been enjoying seafood the entire time we were in Barcelona. Unfortunately, when you cook seafood paella for 3 hours, you smell like seafood paella, your clothes smell like seafood paella, your hair smells like seafood paella, my socks smelled like seafood paella. Shawna and I walked around smelling like low tide for the rest of the day which was an unpleasant experience.
Later that day I got my first European haircut. It looks very…European. Try as we might, we couldn’t acclimate ourselves to the late night dining experience. We would try to stay up until the traditional dinner hour but ended up ordering room service two nights in a row (our excuse is that is was raining ok?). On our last night we followed Bernardo’s advice and found the most crowded tapas bar we could find. It was fusion tapas with all sorts of interesting options that we hadn’t seen in other places. All extremely delicious.
Prior to Barcelona, we were in Madrid for 2 days. Madrid is also a beautiful city; more traditional than Barcelona. Unfortunately, I was still feeling the aftereffects from Oktoberfest. I guess the hallmark of turning 35 is a 2 day hangover. The night we arrived, we poked around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor (the site of many grizzly Inquisition executions) areas. That night we had a wonderful candle lit tapas dinner in the Plaza Santa Ana.
We spent the next day wandering around the Reina Sofia and then headed over to Retiro Park. Retiro Park is an enormous (300 acres!) park in the center of Madrid. It was the perfect way to cure my 5 stein ailment. We sat and read books in the sun and then rowed rowboats around the pond in the center of the park. Shawna's rowboating skills are only mildly better than her kayaking skills as it turns out. For dinner, we took ourselves on a tapas bar hopping excursion. We would find an interesting looking tapas bar, grab a glass of wine and try whatever tapas seemed interesting or adventurous. Rinse, repeat until you can’t eat another bite.
Our last day in Madrid was spent on one of Rick Steve’s walking tours (Rick Steve is the author of our guide book and has been leading us through Europe thus far). Spain is the last entry in our guide book so we’re going to have to say good bye to Rick when we head to Turkey. For our final night in Madrid and for our five year date-aversary we decided to see some Flamenco dancing. We started with tapas in the Mercado San Miguel, an iron and glass market built in 1916. The market consists of 10 or so different standup tapas bars, each specializing in one type of tapa (cured meats, cheeses, pickled things, etc). You can buy a glass of wine and wander around from bar to bar, sampling as you go.
Its amazing how much your current mindset can affect your impressions of a city. I was exhausted by Munich and so was a little overwhelmed by Madrid but enjoyed Barcelona very much. When Shawna was traveling many years ago she really enjoyed Madrid but didn’t like Barcelona. This time she enjoyed Barcelona as much as I did.
All in all, Spain was a pleasant surprise for me. Shawna had spent a lot of time here in the past and had enjoyed it but I didn’t know much about it. The climate is warm and dry, much like California, the food varied and delicious and the art and architecture rival any other major European country. I think of all the places we’ve visited so far Spain (and Switzerland) are the 2 places I’d like to come back to soon. Spain is the last country on our itinerary that Shawna and I have ever visited.
PS - Shawna would like everyone to know that we are exactly $45.72 under her forecasted budget after one month into our trip and that we are tracking nicely. She’s very talented.
Shopping in the Boqueria Market:
Goat heads, brains, and male organs if you'd like: