Tapas. Sangria. Jamon.
This is my favourite way to travel across Spain.
Do you remember my trip last year to Bulgaria? The organisers of that famil were happy to fly me home from anywhere in Europe, so considering I was already halfway around the world, I stumped up for a cheap flight from Sofia to Barcelona. My mission? To eat as much jamon as I could.
Bar Pinotxo at La Boqueria Market, Barcelona
As luck would have it, the now UK-based Minh was also in Barcelona for the weekend. Hurrah! We arranged to meet at Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria Market for brunch.
To call Bar Pinotxo an institution is an understatement. This tiny 14-seater tapas bar has been trading for more than 50 years, serving up Catalan cuisine for hordes of hungry locals and tourists. There's never a quiet moment and rarely an empty seat. You'll have to hover behind patrons like a desperate seagull to be seated. There are usually mere milliseconds between one person vacating their stool and another person sliding in as a replacement.
At the helm of this iconic eatery is Juanita Bayen. Bayen, pictured above, is the owner and face of Bar Pinotxo. He's always behind the counter, always smiling and impressively efficient, taking orders, distributing plates and manning the coffee machine without raising a sweat.
The 14-seat counter
Bayen's nephew, Albert Asin, is the chef manning the stoves in the narrow kitchen. The kitchen runs about two-thirds the length of the counter. Diners get to watch all of the action from their stools.
There's no printed menu here. Everything is prepared depending on what's fresh and seasonal. Ask for a recommendation or do what we did, and point at what other people are having!
We start with croquettes, crazy hot and crunchy from the deep-fryer, holding three different fillings: olives; potato with jamon; and chicken.
Chipirones con Judias
Squid with haricot beans
The guy sitting next to us was digging into this picturesque dish, so we immediately ordered one for ourselves. It is just as amazing as it looks, a huddle of plump tender haricot beans jumbled with the tenderest baby squid you could imagine.
Xuxos de crema Catalan pastry with custard
A couple of coffees and a xuxos de la crema tide us over until lunch. Xuxos would become a new obsession. It's a Catalan pastry, made from viennoiserie pastry that is filled with crema catalana, deep-fried and then rolled in sugar. Imagine a deep-fried flaky croissant stuffed with creme brulee custard and you're practically there. Glorious.
La Boqueria is the most visited attraction in Barcelona and with good reason. The covered market is a riot of colour and noise, filled with fresh produce, animated owners and plenty of hungry shoppers. The existing market was built in 1840 although various markets have existed on this site since 1217.
Bacalhau dried and salted cod fillets
Menacing sharp-toothed fish
Crepe stand including Nutella crepes and jamon fillings
Tapas and cava at El Xampanyet
This was my third visit to Barcelona but my first visit to El Xampanyet. This cosy tapas bar has been around since 1929, found in a small street not far from the Picasso Museum.
Entrance to El Xampanyet
We arrive exactly at midday - their advertised opening time - but the doors don't creak open until ten minutes later. By the time 12.30 hits, the place is heaving. The atmosphere is the best thing about this place - it feels like 10pm on a Saturday night inside with the happy chatter of people, clinking glasses and sprinkles of laughter.
Pintxos at the bar
There's no menu here either but you can have a look at some of the pre-made pintxos sitting at the bar. Our friendly waiter was also happy to provide guidance.
Cava Spanish sparkling wine
Potatoes with red peppers
Roasted red peppers with olives on bread
Tortilla Española potato omelette
Not phallic at all.
He doesn't bite
After a few hours on Barceloneta Beach (only a 25-minute walk from La Boqueria) we find room for more tapas. We settle into outdoor chairs with sandy bodies, windswept hair and thongs on our feet and knew that really, life doesn't get much better than this.
Pimientos de Padron fried green peppers €6.25
Padron peppers are amazing, like a young green capsicum kissed on a smoky grill. Occasionally you'll encounter a super hot one but we didn't come across any.
Chipirones fried baby squid €7.50
Chipirones, or baby squid, are coated in a thin delicate batter and then deep-fried until crunchy. A squeeze of lemon adds extra zing.
Calamares bocadillos €6.50
Fried calamari sandwich
And seriously this was the best calamari sandwich I'd find on my trip: tender rings of calamari in crisp batter, a squiggle of mayonnaise and a baguette that combines the right ratio of crusty shell with fluffy interior.
Narrow alleyways and tall buildings
Barcelona is a gorgeous city. Grand architecture mingle with narrow alleyways and there are barely any chain restaurants or fast food eateries to be seen. The main streets are wide and grand and I was deeply envious of all the bicycle lanes around the city too.
Freshly carved jamon with paprika and olive oil at an outdoor stall
Outdoor barber at the Lost & Found Fashion Market on Barceloneta Beach
Browsing through records at the Lost & Found Fashion Market on Barceloneta Beach
Jug of white sangria €19.65
Post-beach refreshment at Xup Xup Restaurant right on Barceloneta Beach
Fresh fried churros at the street stall in Barceloneta
Pasteleria La Colmena
Tapas has to be balanced with dessert. I stumbled upon La Colmena Pasteleria and was immediately taken by its quaint shopfront. When a tour guide stopped here and gave a spiel, I realised it had to be of significance. La Colmena, I would discover, is one of the oldest patisseries in Barcelona, established in 1864.
Biscuits and meringues
Everything is old skool here, from the array of biscuits, meringues and pastries out the front, to the wonderfully wizened shop assistants inside.
Merenga de cafe €2
I went straight for the lemon meringue, piped into a patty pan and much like a pavlova in texture and lightness. The marshmallow core was as soft as a pillow.
Merenga de limon €2
Parade of Fire Breathing Dragons & Beasts
Passejada de dracs i bèsties de foc
Our visit serendipitously coincided with La Mercè, Barcelona's largest street festival held every year in late September. The festival honours the Virgin of Grace (Mare de Déu de la Mercè), the patron saint of Barcelona who is said to have helped Barcelona rid itself of a locust plague in 1687.
The Parade of Fire Breathing Dragons is one of the bigger events in the festival calendar. The streets are packed tight with families who watch the procession unfurl. Floats were interspersed with marching bands of drummers who created a carnival atmosphere with their infectious drumming and whistles. I was expecting perhaps a dozen floats at most but there must have been about 30 different animals, each huge in size, and lit with blazing butane flames.
It was a wild mobile party through the streets. Click on the Instavid for a brief video capture.
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Navajas a la plancha €3.50
Grilled razor clams
The next morning, we had... tapas. We chose Can Eusebio randomly when we brokenheartedly discovered that our intended target, Quimet y Quimet, was closed. But you know what? As long as the place isn't shamelessly targeted at tourists, it's hard to find a bad meal in Barcelona.
The razor clams are superb, barely cooked and garnished simply with shallots and garlic. Morcilla blood sausage is intensely earthy, and although the fideua Valencian noodle paella isn't exactly my cuppa tea, it's an interesting variation on the usual rice paella. Two cups of cortado, an espresso shot cut with milk (cortado means cut) provide all the fuel we need to face the rest of the day.
Tortilla espanola €3.50
Potato omelette with tomato bread
Albondigas tomate y patatas €4.90
Meatballs with tomato and fried potato
Calamares la romana €3.90
Valencian noodle paella
Sardina plancha €3.50
Self-serve pintxos at Lizarran
When Minh and her mates headed back to Ol' Blighty I kicked around town on my own for another night. Lizarran is one of the few chain tapas bars you'll find in Barcelona. This successful franchise operation can now be found in North America, South America, China and Russia.
In any case, the bar wasn't intimidating for a solo diner, the food tasted okay, and I liked the easy pricing system here: €1.40 each for pintxos with a short toothpick, and €1.90 for anything with a long skewer. Dinner. Sorted.
Octopus with potato €1.90
Jamon and croquetas pintxos €1.40 each
Tortilla espanola with jamon €1.40
Forn Pastisseria in L'eixample
On my last morning in Barcelona I hunted down one more xuxos for breakfast. Google research led me to Forn Patisseria, handily close to my hotel. There are three outlets across the city.
Xuxos Catalan custard pastry
The smell of butter and sugar hits you as soon you step through the doorway. I cradled the xuxos like a precious newborn to take back to my hotel. The pastry was flaky but soft, like a freshly baked croissant, and there was a generous piping of custard in the middle. Sugary lips were half the fun.
And I couldn't resist an ensaimada either. This soft fluffy bun originated in Majorca but is now popular across Latin America and the Philippines. Traditionally this is made using a mother dough, flour, water, sugar, eggs and pork lard. The bun was as light as a pillow and faintly sweet from the snowstorm of icing sugar.
La Mercè 2013
Correfoc Fire Run
The night before I hung out to watch Correfoc or the Fire Run, one of the biggest drawcards at La Mercè.
I was early enough to catch the floats being wheeled into position before I staked a prime spot which necessitated standing for two hours until the event began at dusk.
Correfocs or fire runs are a key feature of Catalan festivals. Primarily they involve individuals dressed as devils who then light fireworks and run through the streets. The fireworks are set off from stakes held by people, or the animal floats which are spun around at great speed.
These are live fireworks, and often the spray of explosives will cascade onto the public. Apart from the start of the parade, there are no barricades to hold back the crowds. Festival guides encourage you to "wear old clothes in case falling cinders burn you" and "bring ear plugs for the noise". There is no way this event would happen in Australia or the US but I love that Spaniards uphold tradition and spectacle above nannying of the public.
It was wild, terrifying at times and definitely a night to remember. The Spanish really know how to party!
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La Mercè is held every year in Barcelona in late September. September 24 is always a public holiday in Barcelona in honour of the city's patron saint La Mercè.
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Parades 466, Mercat de la Boqueria, Rambla, 91, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 933 171 731
Open Monday to Saturday 6am-5pm
Vila i Vilà, 84, Poble-sec, 08004 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 934 420 307
Open Monday to Thursday 7am-12am, Friday and Saturday 7am-1.30am
Carrer de Montcada, 22, 08003 Bareclona, Spain
Tel: +34 933 197 003
Open Tuesday to Saturday 12pm-3.30pm and 7pm-11.30pm; Sunday 12pm-4pm
Forn de Pa Pastisseria
Carrer de Girona, 73, L'Eixample, 08009 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 934 874 390
Open Monday to Friday 7am-8.30pm, Saturday ad Sunday 8.30am-3pm
Rambla, 91, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 933 182 584
Open Monday to Saturday 8am-8.30pm
Carrer de Mallorca, 257, L'Eixample, 08008 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 934 872 602
Carrer de l'Almirall Churruca, 5, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 688 379 864
Pasteleria La Colmena
Plaça de l'Àngel, 12, Barri Gòtic, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 933 151 356
Open 7 days 9am-9pm
Restaurant Xup Xup
Paseo Marítimo de la Barceloneta, s/n, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 932 240 353
Open 7 days 1pm-11.30pm
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1/22/2014 10:30:00 p.m.