"This is not Spain," our taxi driver in Barcelona says emphatically. "We are Catalan, we speak a different language and soon we will get our independence," he continues passionately raising a finger to signal impending change. Indeed, he is right - in two days the Catalonian people will decide whether they want to be independent from Spain, a move that the Spanish government is thwarting at every turn. Another Barcelonian says, "This is different from the rest of Spain, the attitude is more relaxed. There are more people from other cultures here," and then as if reading my mind he adds that this is why Australians gravitate here.
I'm willing to bet that almost every Australian at one stage has become rather smitten with Barcelona after their first visit. There's that moment when you think about whether you could change your job to work here and how you can bring your whole family and friends to live here.
We have just arrived in Barcelona for our cruise on Azamara Journey across the Mediterranean and we added a couple of nights on beforehand to explore Barcelona. We are winging our way to our hotel, the Pullman Barcelona Skipper a new waterfront hotel built in the Olympic Port which has become quite an entertainment area and sits adjacent to the Gothic Quarter. The lobby looks sleek and businessy and we are shown to our room upstairs. Suite #522 our bellhop tells us is decorated slightly differently and it is a corner room decked out with a sleek black leather day beds with a large balcony that spans across the living and bedrooms. There is a full sized work desk and wifi is free for an unlimited amount of devices.
The king sized bed is comfortable with extra long pillows but if this doesn't suffice, there is also a pillow menu. There is plenty of closet space with two mini bars, one near the entrance and one in the bedroom. There are also two toilets, one near the front door for suite guests.
My favourite room is always the bathroom and our bellhop tells me that I am in for a treat. I follow him to the left of the bedroom where there is an open plan bathroom that can be closed off for privacy. There are two sinks and a generous range of amenities by New York brand CO Bigelow including shampoo, condition, body lotion, shower gel, a full sized soap, scented candle, large size sun cream and after sun lotion and a Globetrotter Kit with four mini creams to help undo the damage of a long haul flight in a divine lavander and peppermint fragrance.
And if you need any extra TLC there is also a bath a la carte menu featuring four different types of baths that can be drawn for you from refreshing, relaxing, kids and passion. Or you can draw your own spa bath or use the two head shower.
Our first meal in Barcelona is at Sensi located in Barrio Gothic or the Gothic Neighbourhood. The streets are narrow and there is a mix up with our cab driver who thought that the hotel clerk was speaking Catalan over Spanish so we've been all around town our taxi racking up €20 for a €5 ride. We alight at Carrer de Regomir and Sensi glows an inviting red. We had been told that from 8:30pm-10:30pm is when visitors eat while the Spanish eat from 10:30-midnight. Many restaurants don't open until 8:30pm.
Sensi is a fusion tapas place recommended to me by Cyra of Gastronomic Nomad. I was particularly interested in trying her recommendation of Catalan cheese. Catalan cuisine is of course particular to this region influenced by Greek, Roman, Arab, and Jewish people and is said to go back to as early as 1314. The first Catalan cookbook El Llibre del Coch was published in 1520 but the recipes back then bear little resemblance to Catalan cuisine today as each of the four influencing cuisines played a part. For example, the Arabs added rice, artichokes, sugar and cinnamon.
We are terribly late for our reservation but the young, all male, easy going staff are friendly and offer us a spot for two on a share table. We're next to an American couple and three Dutchmen here on business. It looks like they are right with many tourists here at this early hour (8:45pm, Sensi opens early for Barcelona standards at 6:30pm) and as the night goes on, we will all be replaced with native Barcelonians.
There is plenty of wine from the Catalan region as well as Spanish and French wine on offer. Mr NQN tries a glass of Tempranillo that he really enjoys.
The charcuterie platter is substantial and includes five of types of charcuterie: Serrano ham plate of “Jaelca”, Pagès salsichon (Catalunya), Peppery salsichon sausage (Catalunya), Iberic lomo ham, and Iberic chorizo (Huelva). We particularly like the Iberic chorizo and the thin shavings of Jaelca while the Pagès salsichon has a mild but waxy flavour to it.
All of the cheeses are from small producers and there is choice of a Catalan cheese plate as well as a Spanish cheese plate. We go for the Catalan cheese that includes an ewe “Serra del Tormo” (Tarragona), goat “Marbrat del Bages”, organic goat “Tabollet” (Lleida), and cow “Tou Roi” (Pallars Sobirà) cheese. It's an extremely generous size and for a moment I wonder if they've given us double the cheese platter (they haven't)! The goat's cheese is particularly good although they're all delicious.
The ravioli is lightly scented in truffle and rich in parmesan cream. It's comforting and rich and I have to stop myself at two. Okay, maybe three pieces.
The signature dish here is one that we see being ordered at many tables. It is a shredded duck timbale mixed with mashed potatoes and topped with parmesan and Pedro Ximénez reduction. It's rich and flavoursome with the topping giving the soft mixture crunch and sweetness.
The dish that I really loved was the cod confit where the cod is buttery soft and melting that it reminds me of sablefish or black cod. It is served on a crumbed slice of eggplant as well as a smokey speckled grey and black creamy eggplant dip. On top is a sweet garlic sauce and the whole thing melts on the tongue with a cloud of smoke.
For the road, they offer us two shots of peach liqueur. Thankfully the ride back to the hotel is less eventful than the one to the restaurant.
The next day we start the day off in the nearby La Barceloneta area in the Ciutat Vella district. About ten minute's walk from the Olympic Port area, it's an easy stroll that will take you through 18th century buildings with tiny balconies on which a person can barely fit.
Shops offer haircuts and second hand clothing and a giant octopus sculpture clings to the side of another building. Here you can find what is said to be Barcelona's best bakeries: Baluard. It's not fancy by any means but people queue for the bread. We buy a loaf of pa de tomaquet with herbs provencal, mozzarella as well as white chocolate croissant.
There are also many small bars and restaurants and on our way to the beach we stop at the colourful "La Heladeria Mexicana" where we try a tequila gelato (combined with raspberry, it's delicious) as well as a spicy mango that reminds us of the sweet, sour and spicy properties of a raspado.
The neighbourhood ends at the beach where sun lovers enjoy the last two weeks of perfect summer weather. We've lucked out-the weather is warm but is tempered by a cool breeze.
Mid morning we arrive by taxi at La Rambla, the famous tourist strip where Mercat de La Boqueria or "La Boqueria" is located. Nowadays there isn't much to La Rambla unless you count lots of other tourists and outdoor coffee shops and flower shops. It's essentially a long pedestrian mall where pickpockets are said to run rife because of the number of tourists. Barcelona is generally a safe city with little knife or gun crime but pick pocketing is common particular on La Rambla and in the Gothic Quarter.
La Boqueria is also popular with tourists and sells a wide range of food stuffs. The market itself dates back to 1217. There are plenty of stalls selling jamon - pigs should certainly feel nervous in Spain such is their love for pork. Legs of jamon hang ready to be sliced to order with the prized jamon iberico de bellota clearly designated.
Our first stop is at Bar Pinotxo (aka Pinnochio) right near the entrance. At 11am there are already crowds waiting to nab a seat at the bar for brunch or a mid morning snack. You simply wait behind a seat and when it frees up, you take a seat.
And this my dear friends is where we meet the xuixo (pronounced choocho). I watch another woman point at a pastry and the gentleman behind the counter takes a pair of metal scissors to cut it in half. She and her husband take a bite and order another immediately.
A xuixo is Catalan specialty - croissant dough deep fried and then filled with crema catalana and rolled in sugar. It's a cousin of the Cronut and immensely delicious, if not light on the calories. We pair our own xuixo with a glass of coffee.
"You have empanadas?" another customer asks. "Morcilla, jamon?" he adds. The man behind the counter shakes his head. "No." Then after a pause he reels off a list of what they do have including mushrooms, lobster, prawns and chickpeas. Although it is a spot that is popular with tourists because of its location, there are locals that stop by for their home style food. It is however on the expensive side for Barcelona.
The mushrooms come recommended to us and we try two small serves of these. One is simply cooked in olive oil and garlic while the other mushroom medley is made up of five types of mushrooms fried with pork and onion. That's my favourite of the two.
We try the prawns as they look fresh and the coastline provides plenty of fresh seafood. The prawns are served with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. The prawns ease out of the shells easily and they're wonderfully tender and juicy. At €17 for four they're not inexpensive but they are perfectly cooked.
They also recommend the squid with white beans with a Pedro Ximinez dressing. Both the beans are squid are beautifully creamy and seasoned with olive oil, salt and parsley with that hit of sweetness from the PX reduction.
We wander around the market more and marvel at the range and price of fruit. A tub of three small black figs is €1 while there are plenty of stalls that sell fresh juices in myriad combinations. Mr NQN buys a raspberry juice and that is sweetened but still has the tartness of raspberry. Cheese is big business here and there are plenty to choose from along with ruby red tomatoes and more jamon. Exploring further in brings us to the seafood section where there are large octopus, scampi, sea urchin, whelks and plenty of salted fish on offer.
Leaving La Boqueria, we head towards the other market Mercato de Santa Caterina on foot. The Labyrinthian street pattern gives rise to plenty of lane ways and alleys that hold a wide range of shops from antiques to fast food to boutiques. We pass by the enormous Barcelona Cathedral and it's an easy 10 minute stroll across town to the markets-the colourful roof in a wave pattern catches your eye from afar.
These markets are different from La Boqueria. The Santa Caterina market was originally opened in 1845 to cater for blue collar market but now the stalls are much more upmarket. Gleaming produce is beautifully displayed. Tomatoes in every shape, size and colour are on offer.
The ever present jamon, poultry and fish are sold here as well as some intriguing croissants sold unbaked but layered with jamon and herb pesto. We walk a little further down these streets, some lined with colourful flags and emerge from the shadows to the sun drenched Passeig Isabel II.
We have one thing in mind: paella.
To be continued...
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever lived in another country from where you were born? And have you ever visited Spain or Barcelona?
NQN travelled as a guest of Azamara Cruises and stayed at the Pullman Skipper as their guest. All meals outside of the ship were independently paid for.
Pullman Barcelona Skipper
Avinguda del Litoral, 10, 08005 Barcelona, Spain
Phone:+34 932 21 65 65 www.pullmanhotels.com/Barcelona
Carrer Regomir 4, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Phone:+34 931 79 95 45
Carrer del Baluart, 38, 08003 , Barceloneta, Barcelona, Spain
Phone:+34 932 21 12 08
La Heladeria Mexicana
Carrer de la Mestrança, 49, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Phone:+34 931 74 34 98
Sunday to Saturday 12:00-9:00 pm
La Rambla, 91, 08001 Barcelona, B, Spain
Phone:+34 933 18 25 84
http://www.boqueria.info/index.php?lang=en Open: Monday to Saturday from 08:00 - 20:30pm
Santa Caterina Market
Avinguda de Francesc Cambó, 16, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Phone:+34 933 19 57 40
Open: Monday: 7.30am to 2pm, Tuesday, Wenesday & Saturday: 7.30am to 3.30pm, Thursday & Friday: 7.30am to 8.30pm