Walking through the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona one morning, I overheard a tour guide say to her group, “During this tour, if you feel like we’re going in circles, it’s because we are.” I felt so validated.
When we arrived in Barcelona, I had trouble getting my bearings. The area we stayed in is referred to as the old town and is filled with narrow and curving streets and alleys. Some of them connect and some of them don’t. It took at least three weeks for me to feel like I knew where I was going.
On top of the layout of the city, the people are diverse and dynamic, and the city is so complex and dense that it took some work to start to understand the social underpinnings and cultural history that created such a city.
During our visit we took tours and talked to locals. I read The New Spaniards and Homage to Catalonia. And, we sat down with expats who have chosen Barcelona as their home. After six weeks, I felt comfortable in the city and started to understand, at a basic level, what makes Barcelona, Barcelona.
This city is so amazing. It could take months to find the right words to describe how vibrant it is. It’s taken me a long time to put together this post. I’m not an expert and I really care about properly expressing how magical our experience was. In a novice attempt, I’d like to share some of the discoveries that opened up Barcelona to me and helped me to navigate it with more confidence.
Spain and Catalonia
When visiting Barcelona, it’s important to understand the difference between Catalonia and Spain. Catalonia is a region of Spain, known as an autonomous community. Catalonia has some of its own government control, like it’s own police, but it is part of Spain—to many Catalonians chagrin.
Everywhere we went there were yellow banners waving and Catalonia flags flying. Recently, like SUPER recently—October 2017—the Catalan independence referendum was held, and declared a breach of the Spanish Constitution by the Spanish government. Riots ensued. The Catalonian separatist officials that drove the referendum are in prison and actually went on trial during our last week in Barcelona. There were rallies and protests all over the city during the trials. It’s a big deal and an issue that Jonathan and I understood only peripherally before visiting. There are still strikes and marches happening, demanding the release of the government officials and the previous president is currently in exile in Belgium. If you get a chance, watch the documentary Two Catalonias.
Catalonia is different than Spain and if you visit, know that the issue is nuanced and that many of the locals care deeply about this separation. To be called “Spanish” is potentially an insult.
There are also two languages spoken and written—Spanish and Catalan. Often, if you go to a restaurant, these two languages will be on the menu, before you’re ever offered an English option. Catalan has more French influences. One of the most distinct characteristics of Catalan was its use of the “X” which is pronounced like “ch” in champagne. As a related example, one of our favorite places to go for tapas and Cava is Xampanyet—pronounced shampanyet.
It’s helpful to remember that the country was ruled by a fascist dictator up until just 1975. While much of the world was involved in WWII, Spain was in the throws of a Civil War and the fascists won. Spain was led by Francisco Franco, a friend of Mussolini and Hitler, from 1939 to 1975. The country has gone through huge changes and swift modernization since Franco died. It’s insane that Barcelona is as modern and progressive as it is given how short of a time they have been a democracy.
And, they seem to exercise their democratic rights quite regularly. I’m not sure that I can remember a single day while we were there that we didn’t see some kind of protest, strike, or gathering of people in front of the town hall on Plaça Jaume I. All of the strikes and protests we encountered were peaceful. People held signs and chanted phrases.
Over a period of four weeks there were two taxi strikes. The cabs parked in the center of a central avenue and the taxi drivers marched down the Passeig de Gracia. Apparently, this is a regular occurrence. So regular that there is a website with the schedule for the strikes so you can plan around it if, say you’re headed to the airport.
Buying groceries took us a few weeks to get a handle on. There are several ways to shop in Barcelona. Many people visit four or five stores to collect all of their food. There are stores specializing in breads and cakes, meats and cheeses, dry goods and legumes, and a ton of fruit stands. Many people stop by each individual store to get all of their groceries at these specialty stores. These stores are charming and have high-quality, delicious food.
Some of our favorites were: A dry goods store, Casa Gispert around the corner from our place where, on a whim, Jonathan bought sundried tomatoes and the best rice for risotto, Carnaroli. This purchase resulted in us creating a ritual of cooking sun-dried tomato risotto on Tuesdays. It was delicious. Here’s the recipe, I encourage you to make it, but only with Carnaroli. I didn’t know that risotto could get better. I usually use Arborio rice, but Carnaroli is a risotto-making game changer.
We also bought all of our coffee at El Magnifico and had an opportunity to try varieties from all over the world—Ecuador, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, etc. El Magnifico is one of our favorite places we frequented in Barcelona. They take such care in the work they do and we made a special connection with the owner while we were there, joining a Colombian coffee cupping. If you visit Barcelona, please make a stop into El Magnifico. Their coffee is the best and the people that work there are wonderful and talented.
For our cheese, meats, and wine cravings, Vila Viniteca was a regular haunt where we picked up wine, manchego, and chorizo several times. The store is separated into a cellar and a cheese & meat shop. Their selection was tremendous. If you’re looking for Cava and want to buy a bottle, head here, and grab yourself a bottle of Recaredo. Then, pair it with some manchego and chorizo and you’ll have the best picnic on the planet.
If you don’t want to make six stops to get your groceries, you can visit one of the many public markets that house dozens of stands all in one location. Almost every neighborhood has one. In our neighborhood, the Santa Caterina market is the spot.
It’s a fabulous market with an abundance of food stands and restaurants around the perimeter where you can grab a cerveza or an espresso before you shop. These are great places to shop, but they close earlier than expected. Ours closed at 2 pm, which was disappointing when we tried to head there to get goods for dinner at 4 pm.
There are also standard grocery stores like Aldi and Dia. These are akin to a small King Soopers or other. In some cases, depending on the neighborhood, there are small groceries stores that are more locally owned. We discovered one of these after living two blocks from it for three weeks and transitioned from shopping at the Santa Caterina to De Tote—an adorable market with a wine cellar and bakery, and it was open on Sundays. Bonus!
Almost no grocery stores, specialty food stores, or markets are open on Sundays. We were burned by this no fewer than three times before we finally lodged it in our brain and were apt enough to plan our shopping and eating around the Sunday closures.
However, if in a pinch, there are always the Supermercats. These are everywhere. They are similar to the Bodegas in New York, selling drinks, candy, and other dry foods and essentials. Generally, shopping for groceries happens way more frequently in Barcelona. Instead of doing one big shopping trip per week, we found ourselves visiting the store every two or three days for a few things each time. It seemed that many people operated the same way.
Food and Wine
If you know me, you know that I love wine. But I wasn’t prepared for how delicious and accessible Spanish wine was going to be in Barcelona. Holy moly. What a treat! A glass of good wine is no more than 3 euros at any restaurant that you visit and you can buy amazing bottles of Rioja, Tempranillo, and Cava for less than 8 euros at the store. I’m talking good bottles. Wine prices in the states are a crime. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to go back to buying wine in the US.
One of the most hilarious wine experiences we had was drinking out of a porron. This is a traditional glass wine pitcher that holds almost a full bottle of wine. If you want to imagine what it looks like before you go google it, just read this quote from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia:
A porron is a sort of glass bottle with a pointed spout from which a thin jet of wine spurts out whenever you tip it up; you can thus drink from a distance, without touching it with your lips, and it can be passed from hand to hand. I went on strike and demanded a drinking-cup as soon as I saw a porron in use. To my eye the things were altogether too like bed-bottles, especially when they were filled with white wine.
Note- bed-bottles are bed pans. 😂
On one of our excursions, Jonathan and I were served wine in a porron. And we made all of the mistakes. You’re not supposed to touch your lips to the spout, but instead, pour it into your mouth. We must have looked like idiots with our lips wrapped around the porron. We also made the assumption that the porron held about half a bottle and ordered two. A bottle of wine would have been fine over the course of a two-and-a-half hour lunch. However, the porron holds a full bottle. So, we managed to drink two bottles of wine over lunch and were surprised to find ourselves pretty tipsy on our walk home.
The meal we enjoyed while getting drunk was a traditional meal of calçots. What are calçots you ask? Green onions. But! They are green onions that Catalonia loses their shit over during January and February. They are prepared on a fire, served to you in a charred husk that you peel off, and then dip the meat of the calçot into a romesco sauce.
As Jonathan said after indulging on onions, “I didn’t ever think I would say that I made myself sick on vegetables.” These are a huge deal. Specialty restaurants pop up all over the region selling the onions. The restaurant that we went to was a fabulous outing for anyone who makes a visit to Barcelona. Only about 40 minutes outside of town by train, you head to Sant Cugat, where after walking through the town, you arrive at a fabulous trail system that connects Barcelona and Sant Cugat through Collserolla natural park. It’s splendid. We walked about thirty minutes on the trail, along with tons of other hikers and bikers and arrived at Can Borrell. They served us the most gluttonous meal I can remember having in my adult life. Piles of calçots, meat, bread, fries, beans, everything. Just everything. I don’t remember a time I was this full.
In general, eating out in Barcelona was a great experience, but there are some things we had to get acquainted with before we could really eat out properly. Here are some of the basic things we learned along the way.
- Everywhere you go, they will offer you "pan con tomate". This is bread with fresh tomatoes rubbed on it, olive oil dripped across it, and salt. It’s delicious. Sometimes restaurants will serve this to you with just the ingredients. Pieces of bread, whole tomatoes, and a head of garlic. You are to take one clove of garlic and rub sparingly on the perimeter of the bread. Cut the tomato and rub the pulp on the bread, add some olive oil and salt and voila!
- Catalonians love olive oil. Love it. They put it on everything and on multiple occasions we were told, “always more olive oil!"
- A tortilla is not the tortilla you know. Instead it’s an omelette of eggs, onions, and potatoes and it’s delicious.
- Nachos are not the nachos you know. They are corn chips.
- Fuet is a cured meat and it’s amazing. Get it.
- At many restaurants it's hard to get a table if you don’t have a reservation. Be sure to make reservations at the restaurants that you really want to check out. (Recommendations on restaurants to come in a future post)
- Waiters will not bring you the check. They don’t want to rush you and will let you sit at your table chatting for as long as you want. We were told that this is called “sobremesa” the time after the meal when you relax and the conversation really gets started. This is a lovely practice, but as a result it can be difficult to get the check. When you’re ready, get the waiters attention and ask “La cuenta, cuando puedas.” Which translates to “the check, when you get a chance?”
The Rhythm of the City
My heart was so full in this city. This is really where language can't capture the spirit of our experience. It’s so alive. The people are active all hours of the day and there is always something happening. We would turn a corner and a street fair was set up, or a band was playing on the corner, or people were firing muskets, a dance festival was happening, or something was lit on fire.
My favorite experiences during our time were when we set out with minimal objectives and just let the city take us. If you visit Barcelona, do this. Just walk and you will have an adventure.
The Catalonians love a parade. We saw four of them during our six week stay. They also appreciate slowing down, long lunches, wine and beer on plaças in the sun. Do these things. Many people don’t speak much English, but communication happens, and service people appreciate it when you try to speak their language. I would usually start a conversation in Spanish and quickly have to move to English, but just my attempt earned me points.
The day usually starts for people around 8 or 9 am and goes until midnight. You will see restaurants full of people at 11 pm on a Sunday night. It doesn't stop!
This city lives so fully and the rhythm is intoxicating. I can't wait to go back. What a wonderful world we live in.