Everybody loves Barcelona, or so it seems. I first visited some years ago. We stayed at the impressive, rather smart Arts Hotel right on the beach, had drinks in the funky bar of the W Hotel just a little way further along, and ate well at a cute little cellar tapas bar called Bastaix, just off Las Ramblas in the centre of the city. (Bastaix, Plaza Fossar de les Moreres, 08003 Barcelona, +34 931 15 99 08, www.bastaix.com). We queued for the wonderful Picasso Museum and hired a scooter to do a sat nav led sightseeing tour during which we took in all the most famous landmarks. I enjoyed every moment of our stay but, on that occasion, Barcelona, interesting as it was, failed to warm the cockles of my heart. I was glad I’d experienced it but didn’t think I’d ever need or want to return. It was no more than a tick on my bucket list. Seen that, done that, didn’t bother with the t-shirt.
A couple or so years later, living as an expat in Baku, Azerbaijan, I met a Geordie girl and made fast friends with her. This woman, an interesting individual and intrepid traveller, a single mother of an adult son, sparkly, intelligent, big hearted and tremendous fun, had left her home in Edinburgh a decade earlier, following the far too early death of her handsome sea captain husband, and had set up a new life in the Catalan capital. Once our stint abroad had come to an end and she too, had returned back home, we promised to stay in touch.
Like almost everyone else, I have lived through kaleidoscopic ups and downs in my life, in the process of which I have learnt the immeasurable value of friendships, and these must be nurtured. Like a game of ping pong, they can only thrive and develop by making the effort to engage in an active back and forth of communication and exchange. The time had come for me to gather my accumulated Avios points, throw a change of clothes into my little overnight bag and book a flight to Barcelona to see my new friend. Hey presto, off I was on a three day adventure under the Spanish sun.
When I travel with the Lovely Husband, we like to go for the finer things in life, stay at the nicest boutique hotels, treat ourselves to exquisite meals but when I travel solo, I revert back to my student existence; I count the pennies, dispense with all unnecessary klimbim and positively take pride in shoestring budgeting. Couch surfing is, perhaps for me, taking things a bit too far, especially since I don’t much like talking before breakfast, but AirBnB, now there’s a thing! After much careful research, I’d winkled out a room in young jewellery designer Dalia’s tiny, pretty flat in Poblenou, the same area, previously blue collar, now edgy and trendy, just along the beach from the Olympic Village, where my friend has also made her home. My pernickety scrutiny of the accommodation website had paid off, my room was small but perfectly formed, the apartment immaculately clean and tidy, the bathroom fit for purpose and my hostess charming with a great taste in music. I could not have wished for better and all that for £15 a night! Despite my arrival after midnight, I received a warm welcome and, because my room had no exterior window, I slept as soundly as a baby, even in this busy colourful neighbourhood. It was all good!
Dalia Jurado, Poblenou, Barcelona 08005 +34 64 603 4737 or www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/5466650
Oh the joy of sitting in the warm sunshine with a good coffee and a homemade pastry for breakfast at one of the many little pavement cafes in the area and watching the world and his dog pass by! It was like being at Crufts, honestly! I became painfully aware of my ghostly white feet sticking out of the bottom of my jeans; everyone around me had that healthy Mediterranean sunkissed glow and tanned legs as they were strolling by on their morning errands, stopping for a chat to friends, waving at friendly shopkeepers and generally going about their business. Spanish children are, of course, just the cutest, like their parents already effortlessly casually cool, they almost dance along rather than walk, giving you their big brown eyed smiles. Stout matrons with shopping baskets full of fresh produce from the fantastic local market were gossiping animatedly on street corners, business owners winding down their awnings in anticipation of a sunny day, handsome, tousle-haired young men sipping their café solo while reading their newspapers and occasionally giving discreet appreciative glances to the young and slender Penelope Cruz lookalikes walking by, the entire tableau framed by balconied fin-de-siècle architecture. Poblenou certainly has the vibe!
A short stroll towards the beach took me to the bus stop into town. I’d seen all the sights on my previous trip but nonetheless, I spent a leisurely afternoon on the hop-on hop-off tourist bus, catching a sight here and drinking a coffee there, exploring the Corte Ingles department store and generally having an excellent time.
Arguably Catalonia’s most famous son is modernist architect Antoni Gaudi. (1852-1926, pronounced, as I learnt, not Gowdy but GowDEE, with an emphasis on the second syllable). Here’s where I let you into a shameful secret, art historian that I supposedly am, I cannot abide his architecture. Its quirky voluptuousness grates on my eye, which is given to neat and tidy lines but, of course, I appreciate his influence on Salvador Dali and the art movements that followed. The Sagrada Familia is not for me but Barcelona is bursting with plenty of other visual feasts, which appeal to me much more, from stunning historic buildings like the Palau Nacional to the astounding work exhibited at the Joan Miro Foundation.
Back in Poblenou, I met my friend for dinner at the Catalan formatgeria Recasens, right on the Rambla de Poblenou, which is now being run by Jaume, 5th generation heir to the family of the same name, who first established it in 1906. A series of cosy rooms, decorated with fairy lights and an abundance of harvest produce, make for a very inviting ambience. It’s the perfect place to while away an evening over a few glasses of wine, catch up on news and put the world to rights. We shared a Torrada Escalivada Tonyina, almost a kind of toasted pizza with a tasty vegetable and tuna topping and an Amanida Tibia, a warm goats cheese salad. Along with three glasses of wine and some water, this came to a total of €24.10. Fantastic value indeed and very enjoyable!
Recasens, Rambla del Poblenou, 102, 08005 Barcelona +34 933 00 81 23, www.canrecasens.com
My very favourite pastime, aside from hanging out in cafes and watching people (and yes, you guessed it, eating cakes and pastries), is meandering around flea markets, the bigger and more diverse, the better. They pique my imagination, telling stories, as they do, of individual people’s lives, past and present, via their detritus and cast offs. Whether Portobello and Camden Lock in London, Clignancourt in Paris, the Oxford Street Market in Sydney or the Dry Bridge bazaar in Tbilisi, I am in my element. The character and patina of the pre-loved enchants me so much more than low quality shiny new items, cheaply manufactured in China. Where better then to indulge myself in Barcelona than at the huge indoor Els Encants market in Poblenou? Stuffed to the rafters with bric-a-brac, vintage dolls, early radios, second hand clothes, sepia photographs, paste jewellery, the odd antique and all manner of curios, this is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of opportunity. Even better, it boasts food stalls which offer up every conceivable homemade Catalan delicacy to eat on the hoof. The atmosphere is pregnant with locals, selling, buying, perusing, bargaining, and if, like me, you are a fleamarket aficionado, your heart will sing with the utmost pleasure. You can keep your Sagrada Familia, this is a fascinating sight to behold!
Els Encants, Carrer de Castillejos, 158, 08013 Barcelona +34 932 46 30 30, www.encantsbcn.com
Another interesting outing took us to the Poble Espanyol. This is a full sized village museum over 49.000 sqm, displaying rather prettily 117 replicas of the different building styles of the Iberian peninsula in a genuine village arrangement, with small cobbled streets and leafy squares, fountains, clock towers, shops and restaurants, each specific to a particular Spanish region.It is also often used to stage concerts. Touristy it may be, but on the day we went, it was quiet and rather charming as well as, of course, educational.
Poble Espanyol, Av Francesc Ferrer i Guardia, 13, 08038 Barcelona,+34 935 08 63 00, www.poble-espanyol.com
The Palau Nacional (or National Palace) in Montjuic is, in fact, not really a palace at all but, built in the early 20th century as the main site for the International Exhibition of 1929, it is a Renaissance inspired building which now houses the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Still, looking at it, beautifully and imposingly towering over the city, it brings to mind every fairy story of princes and princesses of times gone by. You can almost hear silks and taffetas rustling, hooves clop clopping along cobbles, carriages drawing to a halt and the whispers of romantic trysts by the waterfalls.
The culinary highlight of this trip was our final dinner at chic Martinez on Montjuic, just a few steps from the Joan Miro Foundation. Well hello, what an outstanding treat this was! It was a mellow evening, so we took our aperitifs on the gorgeous terrace with the city lights twinkling below us, but moved inside for our meal. There, on a bar height table, we sat side by side, with the incredible view ahead of us through a massive picture window, candles flickering throughout the contemporary styled restaurant, and enjoyed first a delicious Salmorejo, a cold creamy tomato soup, vaguely similar to but thicker in consistency than gazpacho, followed by a ‘Socarrat’ rice dish, a kind of paella with rabbit loin and lobster, presented in a huge pan with a wooden scraper. It was super tasty, juicy and flavoursome, and altogether quite sensational. The Crema Catalana for dessert, like it’s cousin the Crème Brulee, had a fabulous hard caramelised topping which broke into sweet crunchy shards over a soft vanilla cream. Simply to die for! At €107 including wine, water and coffee, this was by no means a cheap meal but worth every last cent. Ambience, service and food could not have been bettered.
Martinez, Ctra. de Miramar, 38, 08038 Barcelona, Spain +34 931 06 60 52, www.martinezbarcelona.com
So here I am, back in my London home, replete with happy reminiscences. Barcelona, this time with an insider’s guidance, has been a quite magical experience and I completely get it now, the love for this vibrant city by the sea. There’s absolutely no doubt that I will return. Hasta la vista, Barcelona, a reveure!