I’ve been here before. The tiny bars lining the pedestrian allies of the gothic quarter off La Rambla were a revelation. The food, the people, enchanting. And did I mention the food?
Seven years ago Katy and I were discussing travel. I had never really traveled outside of the country and like most Americans the idea of whisking off to some far exotic place seemed as likely as sipping umbrella drinks on my new yacht. It seemed firmly out of reach to someone like me, a working guy with bills and responsibility. But she said something that would forever change my life:
“All you have to do is buy a ticket.”
It couldn’t be that easy. But it was.
Ok, sure, you need a passport, but that’s easier to get than a driver’s license. Airfare seems steep but if you’re honest, how long does it take to piss away a thousand dollars on stuff you can do without. Every time you get the urge to binge on Amazon to fill that void dug out by a depressing job and obligations, throw the money in a jar instead. Before you know it, ticket!
She told me to just pick a place (a harder question than it seems). My food obsession was just kicking in at that time so I chose a few food porn temples as the object of my lust. Barcelona, top of the list. The food plus the magic of a city filled with Gaudi art was irresistible. Along with San Sebastian and Porto, Portugal. (I’ll admit that Bourdain may have influenced me in this regard but he hasn’t steered me wrong yet.)
A few months later, there I was, nibbling sex-red prosciutto and sardines across the street from some Gaudi architecture I’d been lusting after in art books my whole life. Me. The shy kid from West Virginia who had never been out of the country and spoke only one language. And it made me realize, what the fuck had I been waiting on? Every amazing thing I’d ever seen in books or on tv was just … out there, waiting to greet me, like a soon-to-be lover. All of this magic I had a been keeping from myself.
All you have to do is buy a ticket.
Like the first time, we chose a room right off of La Rambla, the pedestrian thoroughfare right in the heart of the city’s old town. It’s a great jumping off point for adventures. Sure it can be clogged with tourists and the fast food joints tend to cluster there, but turn left or right anywhere and you’re steps away from magical back alley walkways and tiny shops and bars that will not disappoint. I especially love getting more than a little tipsy in the little bars scattered throughout the gothic quarter. It’s thick with friendly faces late into the night as you squeeze into one closet sized mini-world after the next.
The Gothic Quarter
The Gothic Quarter is a tangle of tiny passageways weaving between La Rambla and Via Laietana occasionally opening up into quaint squares. I love getting lost here. Try as I might it’s impossible to capture the feeling. All of my photos feel flat and lackluster. The magic missing. But I keep trying anyway.
If James Bond came to Barcelona the establishing shot would be of the palm dappled Plaça Reial. If you want to pay double for a cappuccino and pose around with the other moneyed tourists, feel free. Not my scene personally but a great spot if you’re a busker looking to fleece tourists. But steps away into the Gothic Quarter you’ll find some of the best spots.
Our first apartment was just behind the square through a passage about 10 o’clock if La Rambla was 6 o’clock. Apparently now this is where you buy drugs because it’s hard to walk through without getting offered cocaine and marijuana (usually in the form of “Coffee shop?” which is where you buy weed in Amsterdam). But at the first intersection you’ll find a tiny bar I’m fond of called Sub Rosa.
If you exit at the back right corner (1:30) and make the first left and walk for a couple blocks you’ll find Plaça de George Orwell which is a great little square to chill out and regroup with a few bars/coffeeshops and one of my favorite spots Bar Oviso. Our host recommended it on our first visit and we came back several times. Great ambiance, food, and beverages.
Leche de Pantera
The first time I was here a sleepy dive bar tender introduced us to Panther’s Milk. He said it was ordered by sailors in on leave. Traditionally a mix of condensed milk, gin, and water which was easily available to soldiers abroad. Today there are a variety of variations depending on the bar, usually using fresh milk and a mix of liquor, but always strong. Too strong. Our first Leche de Pantera was a drink made for four. We could only finish half but after that the evening was a blur of drunken shenanigans that I can barely remember except for flashes of garish debauchery and greasy snacks to keeps us going.
The drink supposedly can be traced back to General José Millán-Astray, the leader and founder of the Spanish Foreign legion looking for a cheap and easy drink that could be made anywhere. He approached Perico Chicote the barman at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid for some help. The winner was a simple cocktail of condensed milk, gin, and water. Easily prepared in the harshest of places. (though this is contested). Other stories suggest in Morocco soldiers also added marijuana with a garnish of gun powder instead of the cinnamon used today.
If you follow the sounds of accordion out our apartment window and down into the street you’ll be lead by sweet melody to a fun alley cafe called Mirinda. We had been up for over 24 hours fighting the jetlag and we needed something in the worst way. The food was great. We opted for the basics: real anchovies, tomato toast,a selection of cured meats, and we both got a salad. New Jersey had left us with a craving for real food. I had the burrata salad and Katy had the tuna. The pint was quite good as well.
Bicnic is a nice little follow up restaurant from chef Víctor Ferrer of Betlem gastropub fame located next door. It’s casual and not too crowded, friendly staff. One side of the space sells quick lunch bites while the other is a sit down tasting menu. We chose the 8 course for 50 euros and 25 euro pairing which was quite nice with several refills (which might have been a smidge too much wine for me). This place is a hidden gem. Every course was delicious and we ate every bite. We left full and happy and I can’t say enough good things about this meal. Recommended.
This little tapas joint was recommended to us by Katy’s friends in NYC. They said if you want a seat show up 30 minutes early and they weren’t kidding. The line on a Tuesday at 7 was down the block for a tiny place with barely 20 seats. But it was our best food in Barcelona so far. They make their own house Cava at 2 euros a glass so we drank a bottle; excellent! I chose a quick selection of bites but I can only assume everything was amazing. My FOMO was really kicking in here. I ordered smoked anchovies, tuna belly, canned razor clams, the tomato bread, cheese stuffed peppers, and braised ribs. But after all that I had the waitress bring us two surprise dishes and she brought the cuddle fish with asparagus (her personal favorite) and a pasta dish that you would punch your grandma for. I wish I could have ordered everything.
Mercado de La Boqueria
And of course for maximum prosciutto porn or just a quick snack the La Boqueria Market is located right off La Rambla, conveniently just a block away from our apartment. They sell handy french fry containers full of strips of local cheese and thin slices of Iberian ham that will make you question every garbage piece of food you’ve eaten in the States. Truly next level snacks. And of course a variety of shops and cafes to eat fresh seafood and meat.
Just past the Gothic Quarter is an amazing neighborhood called La Ribera with similar tight alleys and old buildings but less touristy and the street denizens seem a bit less thick. El Xampanyet was there so we strolled home through this awesome neighborhood.
More pics of us in the city
Barcelona’s graffiti game is on point and I can’t help but collect a hundred pics while I’m here. Last visit I was fascinated by the artist C215 (aka Christian Guémy) that I dedicated a blog post to. Much of his work was gone but I started collecting two artist: Konair, and this great bunny artist that I started seeing everywhere. I haven’t found their name yet but I’ll update when I research more.