Barcelona! – Day 1: The Beginning

Technically this was not my first visit to Barcelona. I have been here before. Once. For work. Which is almost as good as never having been there at all…

True, the job got me travelling. And took me to places I would have never seen otherwise. But travel for work comes with a price. “Living out of your suitcase” does not quite sum it up… You wake up at weird un-Godly hours, and when you do get to sleep, you do so on a plane, on a bench at an airport, or standing up in a check-in line, and master 10-minute power-naps between meetings. And most of all – you go to all those amazing places, but you never ever get to see them. You become fluent in hotel speak, and airport speak, you see an occasional convention center or a restaurant, but that’s pretty much it. Despite all this, however, you still get to go places.  And for freaks like me – this is what counts!

My first trip to Barcelona barely put a spot on my already superficially extensive travel map. But it did leave some nice, if only vague memories, and when we started thinking where on earth we could spend the long Easter weekend at, Barcelona quietly sneaked onto the top of the list. Before we realized it ourselves, the tickets were bought, the hotel booked, and we were ready to go. Barcelona, here we come!

Not as fast as we thought, though. The flight was delayed, but we were on vacation, and weren’t really in a hurry. With enough skill, an airport wait can be turned into a fun and relaxing pastime – it’s all in the attitude, and much better than sitting in an office anyway. The wine from the lounge helped as well…

Barcelona greeted us with sunshine and that very special light and ambiance, that distinguishes a truly southern city from everywhere above the 45th parallel. That only confirmed our good intentions and sealed the holiday mood.

The aptly named Aerobus, connecting the Barcelona airport with the city center, promptly delivered us downtown, and without much wandering around we found the way to our hotel. Booked on the Internet for purely co-incidental reasons, Hotel Curious could boast exceptional location on one of the many side streets off La Rambla, Barcelona‘s main pedestrian thoroughfare. Housed in an old, but completely renovated building, it had nice modern facilities, the friendliest staff you could imagine, and the slowest lift on the planet.

We did not come to Barcelona to spend time indoors, though. Having thrown our carry-on into the room, we set off exploring the neighborhood. The list of sights with addresses, directions, and other useful information carefully prepared before the trip, kept lying on the table in our Munich apartment, so we had to rely on memories and the Lonely Planet. We had two full days ahead, and we ready to gather our bearings and reconstruct the plan, figuring out that the best way to do this will be out in the sun, ideally supported by a refreshing drink of mild alcoholic content. Beginners’ luck was on our side – within 5 minutes of randomly strolling around in search of a place to land, we stumbled upon one of the main sights that topped the list forgotten at home: Mercat de la Boqueria – the famous Barcelona Food Market! Turned out, our hotel was right next door to it. Well done, us!

La Mercat de la Bouqeria

Now, the guidebooks did mention that it was fabulous. Many went as far as putting it on a must-see list for visitors to the city. What they all forgot to mention, or simply could not convey in words, was just HOW fabulous the place actually was! The abundance and variety of colors, the tempting smells, the hectic yet relaxed atmosphere – any photos or words won’t really do the place justice. You simply must experience it in person! We weren’t going to wait for any special invitations, and took to the happy market ambiance like regulars.

Having grabbed a quick hamon snack on the way, we quickly located a landing point: a seafood bar/restaurant with an open kitchen, tall stools around a stylish bar, and a fantastic display of fish and shell food. Our local swagger did not last long – the first thing we did was offer two sangrias: a totally touristy drink that none of the regulars on the market would be seen dead drinking, but what the hell?!… We were tourists, and sangria is exactly what idiots like us associate Spain with!

A quick hamon snack

The next touristy thing on the menu was tapas. Here we actually restrained ourselves, and avoided ordering anything that screamed “I am a stupid tourist” off the extensive menu, and took things slowly by observing the locals. Struggling with our sangrias and munching on tomato bread (a simpler version of an Italian bruschetta) that the girl behind the bar insisted to throw in with the drinks, we we’re savoring the afternoon sun. A family of four with a little girl and a slightly older boy, sitting across the corner of the bar from us looked like they knew what they were doing (which was easy to spot, for they did NOT order anything even remotely resembling sangria), so we followed their example. The grilled seafood tapas platter that we ordered was filled with the freshest and the most aromatic water creatures you could imagine, and unlike the purely touristy tapas I vaguely remembered from my first visit to the city, did not contain any huge chunks of stale bread.

Sangria! (Tourists, beware – it looks way better than it tastes…)

We followed our choice in dishes by observing the little girl, who was trying everything her parents were ordering – curiosity, approval and disgust clearly registering on her face throughout the process. It was her we have to thank for one important culinary discovery of the trip – Padrón peppers. Tiny little green things – not exactly of the sweet bell pepper variety, but not quite the spicy chilies either, they were lightly grilled, and served seasoned with rock sea salt. A total and utter taste buds delight! I was immediately hooked. How so much flavor, scent and color could be contained in such tiny little thingies was beyond me, but they were absolutely mindbogglingly delicious! Nic gave up on his sangria and ordered a beer, but I stuck to my guns, and finished both (even if I had to regret it later).

Having enjoyed a couple of hours of seafood and peppers at the market (our initial plans of figuring out the itinerary totally forgotten), we finally had to tear ourselves away from the bar in an attempt to experience the rest of the market. It was definitely worth the effort and sure was a sight to see – piles of spices, rows of hamon, fruits of all shapes, colors and sizes, colorful sweets and pastries were filling every corner and stall of the market. Highlighted by the rays of sunshine sneaking their way through the roof of the market, they presented an utter delight to the senses and a temptation hard to resist…

We could easily roam the market for hours and hours till its closing time, but had an appointment to keep. When reading up on things to do in Barcelona in preparation to the trip, and remembering the fantastic food walk Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads did for us in Saigon, we booked a tapas walking tour online.

Excited about getting insider information on the city, and tasting some great food on the way, we arrived at a meeting place, where our guide and another 7 or so participants were already gathered. The walk turned out to be rather disappointing (we definitely were spoiled by Jodi!), and the food was not much to write home about – it only confirmed my initial suspicions about tapas being little sandwiches, but you can’t get it all, can you?… We met some nice people on the way, and happy and tipsy turned in for the night, full of anticipations for discovering Barcelona further.

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