Tapas Time in Barcelona

Third in a series of travel posts about a recent trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

Arriving at the Europark Hotel, we quickly dressed for dinner and emerged to a brisk breeze on Carrer d’Arago, just as the light faded to lavender. Five blocks down, at the corner of Passeig de Gràcia, we were greeted by the surreal sight of Casa Batlló, Gaudi’s modernist masterpiece. The home’s protruding Barracuda-like balconies cast threatening shadows from the floodlights below.

Casa Batllo

Robert Hughes, in his essay, “Portrait of the City as Genius,” published in Conde Nast’s Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys, Great Writers on Great Places (2007), described the area well:

“Most key buildings of the  Renaixença [the Revivalist movement in Catalan culture and language] stand in the Eixample on or aroundPasseig de Gràcia. The great street, the Champs-Élysées or Park Avenue of Barcelona, begins where Las Ramblas ends, at Plaça Catalunya. Like Las Ramblas themselves, it is consecrated to strolling – even the pavement beneath you has period charm, being made of hexagonal blocks embossed with marine motifs of squid and nautilus designed by none other than Gaudi. The streetlights are Gaudi’s, too… Passeig de Gràcia was the social stage for the high bourgeoisie, as Las Ramblas were for the workingman. It was all grace, furs, sidelong glances, saluting canes – a residential street….”

As we pulled our jackets tightly against the breeze, there they were beneath our feet: those subtly and gorgeously embossed tiles. Light flowed onto them from luxury European retailers that flanked the street: Gucci and Burberry. The wide sidewalks were flush with outdoor pavilions warmed by heaters, although the cafes were lightly populated at this hour of the evening, 8 p.m., too ungodly for the locals. Couples and small groups slid into elegant hotel entrances such as the Mandarin Oriental. The building’s façade, preserved from its former bank tenant, pays homage to the city’s modernist tilt with heroic, bigger-than-life images in relief.

We pushed our way into Ciudad Condal at 8:30 and learned there would be a 50 minute wait. A stool opened up at the packed tapas bar, so we bellied up to sample the wares. A half bottle of Juvé and Camps Brut Reserve cava was quickly opened. Imagine a cross between the Seattle Pike Place Market (“Flying fish!”) and a busy counter at a sushi restaurant. Patrons pointed, and orders were shouted by the white-jacketed servers behind the counter to loudly echoed by the cooks responsible for creating hot items. Hot tapas slid out in fast succession from a foot high slot at eye height: fried sardines, calamar, prawn skewers. We pointed at a bruschetta of thinly sliced ham and requested two. Not like any ham we’ve ever tasted. Better. Then we requested calamar. “Frito?” we were asked. Yes, fried. In minutes out came the small tender rings and squiggly legs: lightly battered, hot, tender, not greasy.

Calamar and cava

About then, “Signora Elizabeth” was announced over the din. In the restaurant, the crowd of internationals was digging into hot and cold tapas everywhere. A waiter tossed a bowl of what looked like shoestring fries with soft boiled eggs on top. Next to us, a largish man attempted to slide gracefully between two tables in close proximity, nearly shoving his butt into the face of the woman at the adjacent table. My eyes connected with hers, and she said, “Kiss my ass!” in a French accent. Indeed.

We ordered another half bottle of cava (our first lesson: order a bottle!), bruschetta llangostinos (prawn skewers), mixto esparragus/champignons (grilled asparagus and mushrooms), a timbale of esclavado (eggplant) with cabra de queso (goat cheese) and red peppers, and the ubiquitous pan tomat (bread grilled with olive olive, rubbed with tomato). We ended with crème catalan (similar to crème brulée but made with milk and heavy cream rather than just heavy cream, and not baked in a water bath).

When we returned it was 11:30 p.m., almost 30 hours after we started traveling. Our heads were soon on the Hotel Europark’s comfortable pillows.

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