Europe Trip Part 1: Barcelona

COur Europe trip in May was a truly epic experience. We visited five cities in three countries over two weeks, and took 4 plane rides, 2 train trips, plus many taxis, city buses, subways, and water buses. Not to mention the walking! Here’s a pic of Lisa’s step-tracker on a typical day.Yeah, we walked. A lot. We told ourselves about 2 or 3 days into the trip (when we felt we had been there for days and days and done so much already) that we had better pace ourselves! We thought we had the jet lag beat on day 2, but we were mistaken; neither of us ever really settled into the new time for some reason. Despite some sleepless evenings and sleepy mornings, we persevered and wrung as much out of the trip as we could. Fortunately, we both stayed healthy and suffered nothing more than tired feet and a blister or two.

We started in Barcelona, the place we knew the least about and were most intrigued by (especially from what we’d heard about the food). It turned out to be a fascinating, although somewhat exhausting place, and we did have some unforgettable food experiences. And visiting the famous La Sagrada Familia cathedral was an experience we’ll never forget.

Here’s a taste of what made Barcelona a special start to the trip…

Barcelona: Friendly People, Amazing Italian(!) Food, Unbelievable Architecture

After checking in to our hotel, we took our jet lagged selves right away to the food destination we had anticipated the most, the famous market in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, El Mercat de la Boqueria, or just La Boqueria. After a bit of a snag getting on the subway (the station near our hotel was under renovation), we arrived at the beginning of La Rambla, a bustling pedestrian street that would take us to the market. It was a beautiful day, and while touristy, the sights and sounds made for a pleasant start to our adventure.

La Boqueria: World-Class Food Market

We soon arrived at La Boqueria, which is under a large open-air pavilion, and were soon gaping slack-jawed and starving at the dazzling display of meats, seafood, produce, and prepared foods. Everywhere we turned there was something beautiful to look at. We had to eat most of it with our eyes, but for us, it was better than going to any museum. We also soon were introduced to the genuinely friendly people of Barcelona. The merchants all greeted us with a smile and a sincere “Hola!” at every turn. Here are some of the sights that greeted us (the picture of us features Lisa and what we called her “food face”!). Click for a larger image.

The juices were inexpensive (1 or 2 Euros at most) and were a great pick-me-up. We were so impressed with the quality and variety of food on offer here. Especially notable was the abundant and varied selection of every kind of fish and seafood–all on open display over ice without any hint of fishy smell. You truly could only smell the ocean. Makes you wonder how fish counters in modern US grocery stores manage to have such stinky fish!

There were market stands along with full-service restaurant counters with some of the most beautiful food on display. This is the “one that got away”. Bar Central was a place we had seen reviewed online and on TV, but the wait for a coveted seat at the counter proved more than we wanted to endure.

Instead, we nibbled our way around the market, eyes bulging and wishing we could eat it all. Many varieties of the famous Spanish ham, or jamon, was everywhere–in portable serving cups along with cheese or other goodies, hanging on display or being carved up to order. The most prized, the Iberico ham, comes from black-footed pigs fed a diet of only acorns! Crazy right?? You can see the black foot on one of the hams in the gallery above. This stuff is rich, fatty, and similar to prosciutto, but with a flavor like nothing else. It really is nutty (the pigs are what they eat!) and just melts in your mouth.

The story we probably will always remember from this market experience was about our first bite of food from the market. It was of this amazing sausage (similar to chorizo) that was pan-seared to order and served with crunchy dried onions on top. Here it is:

We agreed that it had a flavor like nothing we’d ever tried–tangy, sweet, and complex. It was one of those weak-in-the knees food moments. So of course, when we returned to the market the next day to experience it all over again, we agreed we needed more of this goodness–and we weren’t going to share a cup this time! We only discussed it later, but we both had the same reaction the second time around–it wasn’t the same! We may never figure out why (the jet lag made it taste better? a different but similar kind of sausage? a bad batch?), but we both wished we had let the first taste be the only taste. For two food-obsessed travelers, it was a rather sad moment. Fortunately, Barcelona (and the rest of the trip) had many more food moments in store for us!

Beautiful Streets and Architecture

Lisa is fascinated with architecture, and also loves doors. The Gothic Quarter near the market, where we spent most of our time wandering when we weren’t eating, provided some great shots of narrow medieval streets and some striking doors and store fronts. She took pictures of doors throughout the trip, and I think we could publish a coffee-table book called “The Doors of Europe”! Here’s just a sampling. Click for a larger image.

Elegant Pastries and A Cozy Vegan Place

Close to La Boqueria, we stumbled upon an old pastry shop right when we both needed the reliable boost from sugar and caffeine! It’s called Patisseria Escriba and is considered the most famous pastry shop in Barcelona, opening back at the turn of the 20th century. The building itself was photo-worthy, and the display of pastries was stunning. We had delicious espresso, and tried a fried, sugar-coated, cream-filled croissant(!) and a sacher torte. The torte had a small pipette of apricot jam to inject into the dessert. Quite fancy. Click for a larger image.

Lisa wanted to try a vegan/vegetarian restaurant she had read about. It turned out to be a tiny but welcoming and cozy place and offered a quiet respite from the busy streets of Barcelona. It’s called Quinoa Bar Vegetaria. We had fresh squeezed juices to start, and then ordered a veggie burger and the quiche of the day. The juices were delicious (carrot/apple/ginger and avocado/lime/apple), and the food was tasty, but not amazing, unfortunately. However, the dessert, a vegan carrot cake, turned out to be the best carrot cake either of us had ever eaten! Not kidding.

I think I can still taste it just by looking at the picture. Hard to describe, but it was everything a carrot cake should be, without the too-sweet and heavy cream cheese icing onslaught. And to top it off, our friendly waitress (who endured my embarrassing attempt at asking for the check in Catalan–thanks, Google translate!!) gave us an equally amazing piece of banana bread to take with us as a parting gift! We really enjoyed our time there–it provided a needed oasis from the bustling streets and market.

A Spanish Cathedral and an Italian Meal

The visual highlight of Barcelona was most certainly our evening tour of La Sagrada Familia, the architectural gem of the city, designed by Antoni Gaudi and under nearly continuous construction (still not finished!) since the 1880’s. Gaudi’s architectural designs are truly unique, and the best way I can describe his style is organic. My impression after seeing both the outside and inside of the mammoth structure was that this would be the result if the elves of Middle Earth decided to build a cathedral!

In exterior pictures, the older and newer areas of construction are clearly defined, with the older parts showing signs of age and accumulated city grime. The garden and pond across the street provided some lovely views as the sun set. The exterior is a dizzying collection of spires, turrets, carved figures and plant-like details. And inside…the most breathtaking stained glass we had ever seen. We came at a perfect time with late afternoon sun streaming inside. The way the glass and sto

ne interact made it look as if the air inside was on fire. It was truly magical. Here are just a few images that capture the cathedral’s essence.

Click the pictures below for a larger image.

We wandered out dazed and headed back to a restaurant we had discovered before the tour, called Tuscania Food and Wine. Yes, it was an Italian (and Spanish) restaurant! We had actually had some authentic Spanish tapas before the tour (small shrimp, beef rolls, potato cake, and amazing bread and olive oil), but decided to return for a full meal afterwards. Here’s what we ate. Click for a larger image.

Our waiter was Italian, and recommended that we have the lasagne, which the chef had just made for the evening. Let’s just say that we will never forget this meal. It was truly the best lasagne (and some of the best food. period.) we had ever eaten. It was a dish that caused both great joy with every bite, but immense sorrow because you knew you were one bite closer to it being gone…it was THAT good. The noodles, sauce, beef and cheese were all the perfect versions of themselves and melded together just as they should. OK, it was just lasagne, but no, it really wasn’t.  A picture only hints of its awesomeness, but it’s all we have  left!!! Life is so unfair!!! (We did learn our lesson from the sausage experience, and refrained from going again the next night, out of fear that it had all been a dream…)

Finally, Lisa was really taken with this sparkling water, and we bought bottles to take back to the hotel during the rest of our time in Barcelona. We haven’t found a way to buy it here in the U.S., but it was really delicious and smooth.

Mind-Boggling Tapas to End our Spanish Experience

We had our last meal at a place very close to our hotel that had gotten great reviews online and from the hotel staff. We probably ate more that night than at any meal on the trip, but it was worth every bite. We started with a pear and arugula salad, with a parmesan crispy disk of goodness on top. It was really delicious and fresh.

Then we got calamari (sadly, I think we were too in awe to photograph it) that can best be described as squid beignets! They were the biggest, most tender rings of calamari we’d ever eaten, and coated in a thick, donut-like batter. They were heavenly. I (Chris) got these little fried whole fish (sardines or something similar) that you ate, melting little bones and all. Squirted with lemon, they were like fish popcorn. 

The most memorable tapas offering was the patates braves (I called them brave potatoes, but I’m sure that’s not the translation). How do we even describe these? It was a stack of sliced potatoes, similar to a gratin, but infused with the oil and piggy essence of the best Spanish jamon. The flavor was right through to the last molecule of potato–salty, meaty and sweet. And covering it all was the creamiest cloud of whipped butter & bits of jamon. Yeah. So wrong. I think this was the most unbelievable thing we ate on the trip. I think I made my best “I-can’t-believe-that-actually-exists” face for the waiter at the end of the meal. It looks like a dessert,  but trust us, this is one of the most delectable savory dishes on the planet.

And once we were stuffed and our heads were trying to figure out what just happened with those potatoes, we ate the special of the night–a whole steamed fish stuffed with aromatic vegetables. I won’t lie–it was hard to push through and eat it all. But we somehow made it.

Wow. Quite a send-off from Barcelona. And to think we really didn’t even go to some of the places that we had dreamed of going and heard so much about before the trip. It was a great start to our European blow-out trip. The heart of the trip was next–a flight to Rome with train trips to Florence and Venice. Italy turned out to be amazing as well, but as much as it might hurt to hear, dear Italia, Spain gave us the pasta dish we’ll always remember.

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