Saturday, 30 July 2011

Barcelona - Eat. Drink. Dream.

The Renfe train got us to Barcelona Sants under 3 hours. I picked up the keys from the office and was told the apartment was a short walk from Verdaguer station in L’Exiample district. Walks are rarely short in Barcelona; even the metro subways within the same station stretch long distances. The apartment was 5-20mins from the station, depending on the exit we took.

After a good break, we wandered across to Diagonal and down Passeig de Gracia to catch a glimpse of La Pedrera. It’s been 5 years since I visited the Catalan Capital, but the city still felt familiar; wide streets neatly lined with tall trees, nouvelle architecture dotted at the most unlikely places, quirky bars hidden on side streets, busy crowds in all directions; Barcelona was bursting with life.

The original plan was to have dinner at Marisco, a seafood restaurant recommended by many travellers, but its doors remained closed at 9. We resorted to a homely joint called Can Pere near our flat. No, one shouldn’t randomly choose a restaurant, especially if there is a ‘menu of the day’, as if I hadn’t learnt my lesson in Madrid. The food wasn’t appalling; Iberico pork fillet was good, but the ultra salty Roquefort sauce was an overkill; cod was unnecessarily over-seasoned and the calamari must have spent too long in the freezer. On the plus side, black rice was al dente and the waiter spoke English.

The next morning we visited the Sagrada Familia; I visited all the major works of Gaudi in my previous trip, but agree this is the landmark. I explained the significance of the various facades and the history of it all; Dad wasn’t surprised it still had a long way to go given the working hours of the Spaniards.

We headed Las Ramblas next. I hate this street. It’s a mess, and a long one too. What’s worse, the bird-chirpers or the idiots playing (and failing) where-is-the-ball? This is where all the Fabregas look-alikes all disappear. Cliché souvenirs aside, there was a vendor selling rabbits, chicks and hamsters… furry pets under the scorching sun at 36˚C?

I took a break midway at La Boqueria Market, and hunted down El Quim for lunch. So tapas is not a traditional feat in Catalan cuisine, but it doesn’t stop good tapas bars popping up in this gastronomic temple.

Pushing through the crowds at stalls selling fresh juice and fruit platters near the entrance, we came to the Information desk. If like my Brother, who loses all will to live at the sight and smell of wet fish stalls (and whole pig head, skinned rabbit and lamb head with an eyeball popping out), then I suggest going around the peripheral of the market.

El Quim was full; local and tourists all sat on the high stools around the bar with eager (and extremely hungry) diners standing behind them. Getting 4 seats in a row wasn’t easy but the smiley staff managed to direct us to one extended side called El Quim Petit. We were given an English menu to tick our orders.

Grilled Prawns
Massive, (my) palm size prawns beautifully grilled and simply seasoned with rock salt, so fleshy, crunchy and fresh. Dad would prefer to have them deveined, but personally I’m not fussed.

Razor Clams
Absolutely gorgeous tubes of succulent clams, just about cooked to retain its bounciness with minimal seasoning and dressing so the natural sweetness came through uncontaminated.

Iberico Jamon Bellota
Good but still not as good as the ones we bought from a gourmet shop in Madrid.

Steamed Mussels
Relatively weak with skimpy morsels and mild aroma.

Cod croquettas

An open sandwich topped with a heap of sautéed fungi in cream and a white fish fillet with apple chips
Strange, I know, especially the white fish, which tasted like fish belly with its air bladder(?).

With a full stomach, we continued the remaining Ramblas to reach the harbour, where we sat under the Christopher Columbus monument before crossing the footbridge to the magnificent MareMagnum. The sea breeze was much appreciated.
We walked through the shopping centre to the Aquarium, then onto the other side of Port Vell. After a fair bit of people watching from the harbour, we meandered into the Cuitat Vella (Old Town) to hide from the sunset heat and munched on some easy tapas.

After a lip-smacking dinner at Santa Maria, so good it deserved a post on its own, and some heart-pounding moments of a street rat seizing the bag of a British tourist, it was bedtime.

Our ferry to Palma Mallorca is scheduled to depart at 11pm, so we had a full day to kill at the beach in Barceloneta. The weather wasnt great in late morning, sunny intervals with thick clouds and dense, humid air. Nonetheless the long stretch of beach was still half full with sun chasers. By 4pm the sky cleared and the beach was packed. Its not a great beach, and it could be a better one without the army of drinks vendor and masseurs patrolling and chanting incomprehensive murmurs. 

As night fell, we checked in for the ferry 2 hours before departure and were told a bus would pick us up from the office to the ferry in 15mins. 65mins later we were still waiting for the bus. As time ticked on I asked one of the staff if I could walk to ferry instead. She laughed and explained it was a 5km walk, then sympathetically said ‘This is Spain…’. Bus finally arrived at 10:30 as a huge crowd gathered in front of the office. Little did I know the massive coach only picked up 10 people for Palma, the rest of the groaning horde were heading Ibiza, Menorca and the likes. When impatient travellers demanded their transit, the driver helplessly cited, ‘This is Spain.

So glad we didnt walk, the road was a deadlock of heavy lorries and coaches. The bus unloaded us on the ferry, and the 7-hour journey to Palma finally set off at midnight. This is Spain.

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