Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Blog...is back

Winter has gone on a bit too long in England so it was great to leave the drizzle behind for the Mediterranean warmth of Catalonia. Barcelona was pretty much transformed by the Olympic Games in 1992 and the legacy is one of a modern stylish European city, the second largest in Spain, very nationalistic, very much itself. The astonishing modernist buildings of Gaudí are a total shock, none more so than the amazing Sagrada Familia cathedral, rising like a mountain in the city and with a current completion date of 2030.

The market of La Boqueria, on Las Ramblas, is a jaw dropping must see, one of the greatest markets in the world. The fish stalls at the centre are a poem of piscatorial bounty, the scent is of the sea not the fish, and round about are stalls specialising in offal, chickens, Iberian ham and sausage, fruit, salads, mushrooms, ice cream…all of them with queues of Barcelona housewives buying their daily dish and restaurateurs stocking up on produce.

A little further down Las Ramblas is the Barcelona Opera House, El Gran Teatro del Liceu. Twice consumed by flames and twice reconstructed it offers opera and recitals and some of the best coffee in the city. Catalans don’t eat lunch until at least 2pm, and dinner starts around 10pm, but there are lots of delicious pastries to keep you going.
Round the corner from the market, at Junta de Comerç, 25, is La Biblioteca, a restaurant offering modern Spanish and Catalan cuisine based on the freshest produce. The décor includes a table full of cookery books in several languages for your perusal!

You can’t go to Spain and not have tapas, and one of the hippest tapas joints is Qu Qu, at Passeig de Gracia 24. Expect Catalan sausage – fuét - and their famous three cheese croquettes, as well as Iberian ham and some great matchstick potatoes with allioli.

You will want culture of course, and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, housed in a majestic building called the Palau Nacional which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition, offers amazing Romanesque works from the Catalonia of the eleventh twelfth and thirteenth centuries as well as other classical art from the region and more up to date collections including photography.
The restaurant – Oleum – is elegant and restful with a fabulous view out over the fountain below to the city beyond. The food is inventive and beautifully presented, made from the freshest local ingredients. My starter of quail salad with basmati rice, sultanas and rosewater was particularly memorable. It’s only open at lunchtime, which is a bit of a pity because that view at night must be astonishing.

Don’t eat paella in the tourist parts of town; instead head down to the beach where there are excellent restaurants, including Cal Pinxo at Baluard 24, right by the sand. I felt uncertain about ordering seafood paella until I realised the whole restaurant had ordered the same dish.

We heard from other people that they had had rather poor food in Barcelona; as with any large city full of tourists I think you have to avoid the obvious places and take recommendations – we would never have found La Biblioteca ourselves – but there are lots of helpful sites. I particularly recommend Eat Barcelona because my friend Tim writes it!

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