MND – Barcelona, or what I did over Christmas Vacation

January 16, 2014

intro to barcelona

Last summer my cousin married a nice girl from Barcelona*.  The first email I got from my parents upon their return from the wedding was not about how the wedding went (smoothly), or how lovely the bride looked (although she did), or how proud the father of the groom was (although I assume he was), it was about how Barcelona had just moved into first place as a Christmas 2013 destination contender.

* My mother’s been moving the goal posts on when you graduate from being a girl to being a woman for as long as I can remember – the older she gets, the older you have to be before you graduate from girl to woman – in the interests of confirming her commitment to gender equality this is true of boys & men too.  All of which to say, my cousin and his wife are in their 30s; we’re not talking child bride/bridegroom here.

Accordingly on December 18th I boarded a plane for Barcelona, and for the next 10 days proceeded to do the Gaudi tour of Barcelona, and my level best to eat and drink my way through all the traditional Catalan delicacies on offer.

Somewhere around the third day we were there we started compiling a list of questions we needed to ask my cousin’s wife.  These questions ranged from the prosaic – where are all the ATMs in Barcelona?  To the religious – what is up with pooping boy in the traditional Catalan Creche (more on this later)?  To the gastronomic – does anyone in Barcelona ever eat at home (also, do they ever eat vegetables?)?

Walking through Barcelona is little like walking across the set of Ocean’s 11 if every person you saw was method acting in preparation for playing Rusty (Brad Pitt’s character).  To clarify let me suggest that the next time you watch Ocean’s 11 you play a drinking game.  If you want to remain sober, take a drink if Brad Pitt is on screen and doesn’t have food in his hand.  If you want to get soused, drink every time Brad Pitt is on screen and snacking on something.

The Barcelonese (Barcelonians?) whole-heartedly embrace the philosophy of ‘when in doubt, eat’ – if they aren’t ambling down the Rambla contemplatively spooning up ice cream or eating forkfuls of chocolate drenched waffles, then they’re standing in tapas bars sipping wine and eating from the wide array of small plates on offer.  Every other store front is a tapas bar, and they were all packed, all the time.

As you might expect from a culture where everyone eats all the time, the food was fantastic.  I don’t think we had a bad meal while we were there, whether we were sampling an array of tapas plates – crispy fried artichoke hearts, and skewers of pork with a fig reduction, and small dishes of paella – or eating a Christmas Eve lunch that had us swooning over an artichoke carpaccio, and the best scallops I have ever tasted – or making a valiant (if possibly somewhat foolish) attempt to eat an entire quarter of a roasted lamb* – or partaking in the dizzying variety of sweets involving marzipan and almond paste**.

(* it was really really good lamb / ** there was so much marzipan that it’s possible even I OD’d on almond paste; at least for a few weeks.)

We did our daily shopping at the expansively charming Boqueria Market in the heart of the Barri Gotic, and snacked our way through the crowded aisles, sampling paper thin slices of cured Iberian ham, wedges of local goat cheese, and fruit of every variety and description.

boqueria market

More pictures of the delights of the Boqueria Market are here.

We made a thorough and scientific study of the variety of almond based desserts on offer.  There were enormous displays of intricately molded marzipan fruits.  There was crema catalana which is essentially a rich dense concoction of egg yolks, condensed milk, and ground almonds that’s then pressed and sprinkled with sugar and bruleed.  If you’re ever anywhere that sells it, get it.  There were fifteen kinds of torrone (effectively nougat) with different embellishments and additions.  There were crackling disks of crispy meringues studded with whole almonds and mounted on thin disks of chocolate.  In the rare instance of a non-almond based dessert, there were also whole counters of jewel-like pate de fruits in unusual flavors (like pumpkin, and grand marnier, and lychee).  And then there was The Pig.

We saw The Pig in the window of a bakery one day while we were on our way to a museum.  We paused to admire The Pig, and then to take pictures of The Pig to document the moment, and then continued on our way toward a more culturally edifying destination.  But The Pig stayed with us, we couldn’t stop thinking about it . . . could it really possibly be solid marzipan?  Was it a pastry crust with some kind of almond filling?  Finally we surrendered to our curiosity and bought a Piglet (there was one that was more accurately The Mama Sow, but we thought for the three of us just a Piglet would be plenty).  It was, in fact, essentially solid marzipan.  Or, more accurately, it was a marzipan crust filled with almond paste studded with candied fruit.  Very very very good almond paste and marzipan.  It was as amazing – and as solid – as it looked.

the pig

If you’d like to see the inside of the Piglet, click here.

When we weren’t emulating the Barcelonese and eating at every opportunity, we were playing tourist.  Sorry, engaging in an informed exploration of Catalan history, art, and culture.

Marginal digression here to return to the topic of the traditional pooping boy of the nativity . . . .

traditional caganer

he’s called the Caganer, and Wikipedia has a hilarious entry on all the explanations people have come up with to try and explain his presence in the crèche ranging from the idea that in pooping he represents the equality of all people because everyone defecates, to the idea that he emphasizes the humanity of Christ, to the helpless shrug of ‘it’s traditional’ and ‘people think it’s funny’.  Given that another traditional part of the Catalan Christmas involves encouraging a hollowed out log (the tio de nadal) to shit out sweets, I’m going with its traditional, and people think it’s funny.

tio de nadal

Incidentally, if you think that there was any chance that a caganer did not end up in both my stocking and my father’s stocking, well you have a much higher opinion of my family’s sense of decorum than is merited.  My father also received a small version of a tio de nadal from Santa, because Santa’s good like that.

Okay, back to being educated travelers . . . My father masterfully planned our sojourn so that each day balanced one Gaudi excursion with some other facet of Catalan history and culture.  We visited the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya where we slowly perused their spectacular collection of early medieval (Romanesque) fresco painting which had been rescued from churches across the region and cleverly rehung in the museum to give you the sense of what it had looked like in situ as much as possible.  My mother and I then briefly skimmed through the art deco galleries where we happened up an entire art deco chapel which is something I have never seen before, and was gorgeous.


See more examples of early medieval fresco work here (and a few other museums)

We also went to the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya  where in 2.5 hours we made it from pre-history through the end of Catalan independence in 1714, and then conceded defeat and went to the gift shop.  It was interesting and really well put together, just exhaustive.

The highlight of non-Gaudi architecture has to be the Palau de la Musica Catalana.  Our guide was at pains to impress upon us that the building was not designed by Gaudi, that there were other architects of the period working in Barcelona, that not all art deco architecture is Gaudi, and oh yes, did he mentioned that the Palau was not designed by Gaudi and that Gaudi had nothing to do with it.  We got the picture.  And then I took a lot of pictures of the riot of color and mosaic work and sculpture in the main auditorium, and gasped in astonishment at the huge stained glass light well.  The only downside to the Palau is that I think if I went to a performance there I might be distracted from the music by the building itself (apparently there are musicians who request that the frieze that forms the back of the stage be covered up when they perform – not because they’re worried that the audience will be distracted, but because they themselves get distracted by the sculptures).

palau de la musica

See many many more pictures of the Palau de la Musica here.

On the Gaudi front . . . he totally lives up to the hype.  His architecture is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  Its art deco, but it’s also something else.  His use of light and shadow, and the way he almost redesigned the curve is amazing.  And his attention to every detail from the shading of the tiles in an interior lightwell, to the trencadis work on chimneys that almost nobody would ever see, to the door handles designed to fit the curve of your hand, is remarkable.  It might seem like too much, but it’s worth going to all the different Gaudi sites because they all offer a different perspective on his imagination.

Casa Batllo is possibly the best known – the balconies and the living room are iconic.  (many pictures here)


But, I think Casa Mila, or La Pedrera, was my favorite.  It’s a building that’s still in active use (who do you have to kill to get an apartment there, I wonder), but they have one apartment set up with period furniture to show you what it looked like when it was built, and I was struck by how livable and functionally elegant it seemed.  (many pictures here)


The Park Guell is also amazing.  The trencadis work on the sinuous balustrades and benches is just gorgeous.  (many pictures here)

park guell

The Palau Guell was my least favorite of the Gaudi buildings, but definitely had the best roof art.  The building itself seemed very heavy and dark, but the chimney turrets on the roof charmed me with their whimsy.  Also, I’m a sucker for a lizard.  (many pictures here)

palau guell

The Sagrada Familia is, of course, his master work.  He spent the last 14 years of his life working on it – taking it over from another architect, scrapping those plans and then making it up as he went along.  It’s still under construction, and apparently scheduled to be completed in 2024.  Given that it still has two entire porticos to go, my parents and I were somewhat skeptical that they were going to make this deadline.  I think it would be so neat to live in Barcelona and get to watch the church change and evolve as different architects add their vision to the whole – gives a little bit of what it must have been like to live in the Middle Ages and see all of the great cathedrals being slowly constructed.

The interior of the church is amazing, the sense of light and space manages to be both completely new and unique, but also evoke the sense of majesty and solemnity that I get from gothic cathedrals.  I didn’t love the Gaudi façade (the nativity façade).  Somehow it was too busy, and too intricate, and I had trouble focusing on any one thing amongst the riot of details.  However, I surprised myself by loving the Passion façade.  I don’t tend to be terribly engaged by modern architecture – it’s too heavy and too blocky.  But in this case the starkness worked in its favor and it was incredibly compelling (even if the Roman centurions do look a little like Storm Troopers).

sagrada familia

If you can visit the Sagrada Familia without taking an egregious number of pictures . . . well, you aren’t related to my family – see the gallery here.

We contemplated doing a day trip outside of the city, but in the end none of us seemed all that excited about the options (cava tasting in Freixenet – we opted to just buy a bottle of cava instead, and very tasty it was; visiting the monastary at Montserrat – it looks impressive, but also cold and isolated; visit Girona – it seemed far away for a whim) and so we stayed in Barcelona and spent more time exploring the city.

We didn’t stray terribly far from the Barri Gotic, and by the end of the trip there were actually a few places I could reliably get to and from despite the warren-like maze of streets that make up the neighborhood.  But, getting lost in the Barri Gothic and turning down a street you thought you knew and ending up somewhere completely unexpected and charming was half the fun of it (assuming you weren’t trying to make a museum reservation).

Many more pictures of Barcelona can be found here – the cathedral, some of the many other churches, charming streets in all their iterations, and, finally, the parc ciutadella.

other barcelona

Then I came home, threw a New Year’s Eve Party, reluctantly went back to work, and finally held Dinner again for the first time since 2013.  And this post is far too long already, so click here to see what we’ve eat so far in 2014.


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