22 April, 2010

Mediteranean jewel: Barcelona.

Barcelona, perched on the sparkling Mediterranean, is an effervescent sprawl of a city--and the sixth most visited in all of Europe. Small wonder, given its nine World Heritage Sites (as designated and protected by UNESCO), 45+ museums (among which the Picasso Museum), the Port Vell (refurbished for the 1992 Olympics), 4 1/2 kilometers of beaches, and a Gothic Quarter in which you can get wonderfully lost--in turn losing all the other visitors, who numbered 6 1/2 million in 2009 alone...Plus Barcelona averages 330 sunny days per year, according to the Chamber of Commerce. How's that for a bit of vitamin D? (The sun-infused drink above is a sangria made with cava, the Catalan version of Champagne.)

The city is exuberant and bright as its weather, irreverently mixing the very old (Roman, medieval, and so on), the very new, and everything in between. It is the only place I know of where you can see a cathedral under construction.Gaudí's esthetically and technically astonishing Sagrada Familia is expected to be completed in 2030 and really is worth the wait in line (detail of exterior above and part of interior below). There is much more to Barcelona's architecture than Gaudí's fluid, complex structures and modernisme (Catalan Art Nouveau), but you cannot fully grasp the city without experiencing those two essential elements. From the Gràcia district, where I was staying in airy rented apartment, I was within easy reach of some his more famous works, such as the Casa Milà, shown just above. But I was also even closer to the Mercat de l'Abaceria Central...one of the neighborhood food halls. The prospect of still undiscovered delicacies (emu eggs, cod in all its elegant permutations, fish smaller than my pinkie) got me out of bed--at a most bright and early hour--to join diminutive Catalan grandmothers pulling plaid carts on wheels in their common search for the culinary great and good. Having no wheeled cart of my own, I had a hard time balancing my steadily increasing load of purchases and my camera...While the deservedly famous Boqueria market is indeed a high-toned feast for the senses, its location on the Rambla means it is thick with camera-toting onlookers; you can find quality, variety, and actual room to move in the other food halls scattered across Barcelona. The city has posted a handy list and map online of all Barcelona's municipal markets/food halls. Also in my neighborhood was Sureny, a fuss-free but good tapas restaurant (on Plaça de la Revolució 17). Their unhibited, fusiony combinations are sometimes a bit odd, but when they work, it's better than fine. Veal sirloin tataki, tandoori and tosu-zu sauce was an eye-opener (I'll spare you the shamefully underexposed image--the wine was rather nice too!)

The night I ate at Sureny also happened to be the night Barcelona beat Madrid two-nil, on Madrid's home field. This resulted in a night--and morning--full of randomly set fireworks and booming crackers, rousing song, honking cars and wanton flag-waving. Sleep, what's that? El clàssic (the century-old, fullbore Barça-Madrid football rivalry) at its best--by Barcelona standards anyway. Seems Barcelona's star is on the rise...

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