Saturday, July 3, 2010

Barcelona: Modernism & Rock n Roll

Barcelona Harbour

Boom. BOOOM... boom. KABOOM. Crackle crackle BOOM crackle… boom BOOM.

Nope. Those are not the lyrics to a Sly and the Family Stone song.

You are also forgiven if you thought this was the sound of the locals celebrating my arrival in Barcelona (I assumed this was the reason for the ruckus too.)

After a memorable adventure in Switzerland, I arrived in this Catalan city on the eve of the Feast of Sant Joan holiday when the entire city was celebrating the summer solstice – the shortest night of the year. This is a major holiday in this region of Spain, where the Catalans see the sun as a symbol of abundance, purity and fertility. On the greatest day of the year for Sun, the people seek to give it strength to sustain itself throughout the year. To “feed” the sun, bonfires are lit in the plazas of the city and along the playas of the waterfront while the never-ending explosion of fireworks constantly shatters the day and night sky. There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air – an electricity that was as welcoming as the explosions were unsettling. Fiestas broke out in the plazas (town squares) while young and old, Spaniard and tourist, gathered from sundown to sunrise to enjoy Nit de Sant Joan and to cleanse their sins by burning offerings to Sun.

Who needs sleep anyhow? After all, a party not joined is a party not enjoyed.

Columbus Pointing the Wrong Way to the New World (a statue near Barcelona harbour.) Not surprising, since at the time of his death he still believed he'd sailed to the east coast of Asia and not America. Barcelona is where Columbus landed on his return to Europe after 'discovering' America.

My arrival in Barcelona for nine nights also coincided with the halfway point of the Great Odyssey. While it is hard to believe that I've been on the road for nearly eight weeks already, Morocco does seem like a long time ago. Everywhere I've visited along the way, people have gushed about how much they loved Barcelona. With expectations set so high, I was thrilled that it didn’t take long to feel at home here. After a few days, I was even feeling more comfortable with my meager Spanish, successfully getting through reasonably challenging conversations with people who only stared with blank faces when I spoke English. It felt particularly good when, after a few days, the shopkeepers started responding in Spanish when I spoke to them in their language (as opposed to responding automatically in English, which pretty much indicates what they thought of my skills in Español). A small victory. The trickiest part is that many Barcelonans speak Catalan, which sounds somewhat like Spanish at times but mentally translates in my English brain as complete gibberish.

Catamaran Sailing on the Costa Brava

If they spoke Spanish in Florence, I think it may have held onto its spot as my favourite city so far. It is a little sleepier than this city though so the honour now passes to Barcelona. It reminds me a lot of Toronto. It’s cosmopolitan, a great sporting city (except Barcelona’s teams win), and similar in size (approx 5.0 MM in the metro area.) It’s also an example of how incredible Toronto could be if it had courage and a little vision. It was already great, but when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympic Games, they leveraged that investment into a revitalized city, a world class, accessible waterfront, and a massive growth in the region’s tourism industry. Toronto’s hapless politicians and the visionless imps that whined, protested and likely caused the failure of Toronto’s last Olympic bid in the name of poverty and other similar causes would do well to look at the prosperity the Olympics brought to this city and invest in some duct tape to cover their mouths next time such an opportunity comes Toronto’s way.

Gaudi's Parc Guell  
(part of a commercially unsuccessful upscale housing development that Gaudi was hired to design)

With the Feast of Saint John the Baptist being an official holiday in Barcelona, most of the shops and businesses were closed or on shorter hours. I used this free day as an opportunity to learn a little more about the work of Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi was an architect and one of Barcelona’s most famous citizens. His buildings, designed in his own unique take on Catalan Modernism, pepper the landscape and are a key part of the character of the city. His is a style where curves are always preferred over straight lines, and most of his ideas directly reflect what he sees in nature (there are few straight lines in nature.)

Parc Guell
While I’m not sure that I love all of Gaudi’s work (some of it is a little too fairy-tale-esque for me), seeing it is like opening your eyes to something completely original (which doesn’t happen that often anymore.) I admire his courage and more so, the courage of his clients to buy such avant-garde ideas. Layer in the fact that he did all this in the Barcelona of a century ago and it becomes even more impressive. I visited his most significant sites in the city, including Parc Güell, Casa Batlló, and the impressive La Sagrada Familia cathedral, which was designed 130 years ago around sculpted facades intended to visually tell the story of Christianity (to communicate with the many who couldn’t read at that time). Barcelona has embraced Gaudi as their favourite son, despite the fact that Sagrada Familia, which he started in 1882 and worked on for 44 years until his death, has still not been completed or hosted a single service. El Pope is coming in November to consecrate the building – they have a long way to go. This explains the flurry of activity on the site, which made getting a good photograph nearly impossible. If all goes well, it will finally be completed by 2026. What's another sixteen years when it's been underway for 128 years already? As Gaudi is famously quoted as saying “my client is not in a hurry.”
La Sagrada Familia

Casa Batllo
A "townhouse" remodelling project undertaken by Gaudi

There is much to see and do in Barcelona, and I took advantage of the many cultural activities that were available, from a visit to the Picasso museum (where I discovered that not ALL of Picasso’s works involve ears painted on foreheads at disturbing angles), to a couple of Flamenco shows, and a Spanish guitar concert at the incredible Palau de la Musica Catalana. I have to admit, I was also missing North America a little bit so I took in a couple of good old-fashioned American classic rock concerts, seeing both Kiss and Aerosmith at Palau Sant Jordi on the Olympic site. I wasn’t sure if Steve Tyler would ever be back with the band so I had to go to see him perform – I Didn’t Want to Miss a Thing.

Palau de le Musica Catalana
(image copyright Josep Renalias) 

Flamenco Dancers



Like any great city, Barcelona has adopted the best traditions of the surrounding regions and country as its own. Every restaurant (and the cooking class I took) features Paella, a rice-based dish originating further south, in Valencia (my next stop.) If you’re looking for a night of entertainment (the g-rated kind), there are several Flamenco shows available, which is an art form native to the Andalucía region of southern Spain. The city was a little late in embracing the Tapas-style of cuisine, which is likely from Madrid but popular all over Spain. Fortunately when they did get in the game, several places did it very well.

Alberto Adria's Inopia

My efforts at finding suitable gastronomic experiences during my journey have not all been successful. I failed in my attempt to rent a Truffle pig during my time in Tuscany. With a two-year waiting list, I also knew it would be futile to even attempt to get into the nearby Catalan restaurant, El Bulli, where Chef Ferran Adria’s €250+/person tasting menu has earned him three Michelin Stars and put his restaurant at the top of the list of the World’s best restaurants. The restaurant is only open for half the year and can accommodate just 8,000 diners a season. They gets more than two million requests. Since I was in Barcelona and El Bulli wasn’t going to happen, I took a stroll over to Adria’s brother’s tapas-style restaurant, Inopia. By 7:00 pm when it opened (Spaniards don’t eat until MUCH later) there was already a line up. It's a lively place, with friendly servers and a slick operation that delivered perfect dishes with exceptional timing, more than living up to my expectations. It was easily the best €50 I spent in Barcelona, and an amazing tapas experience. My only disappointment was that I waited until Saturday night to try it – Sunday and Monday they are closed and I left town on Tuesday so this was my only chance to enjoy it. (BTW, thanks to Michael who I met in Fes, for the great recommendation!)

Tinto de Verano
Trouble in a Glass.

Tasty Spanish Olives

Smoked Salmon with Honey on Yogurt

Oyster with Caviar and Ponzu Sauce

(Half Eaten) Anchovies in Vinegar with Olive Oil

Seared Rare Tuna with Spicy Tomato Sauce

Iberian Ham Potato Croquettes

Mini Hamburguesa

Patatas Bravas con Salsa Mixta

Flan de huevo de la casa

Off to Valencia!


  1. Tell me more about this "trouble in a glass" It sounds as though it may be an adventure of its own.

  2. I was editorializing a little with that "trouble in a glass" descriptor. It's very much like Sangria but they add carbonated fruit juice and rum to the blend. This restaurant made it VERY well. Had I not been on my way to a Spanish Guitar performance I could have gotten into great trouble indeed.