Monday, June 6, 2011

Birthday Browsing in Barcelona

Normally, my birthdays are spent at home, with a cake fresh out of the oven and perhaps some steaks hot off the grill, but this year--turning 29 for the 8th time--I got to enjoy the annual celebration whilst abroad.

Beth and I had had a couple of days to get our bearings in Barcelona, with Beth dusting off her Spanish and me trying to absorb some of the local Catalan.  We'd walked La Rambla, enjoyed each afternoon and evening sitting out on a patio or courtyard somewhere with a glass of cava, a mug of cervesa, and a fair bit of vina blanca.  We'd learned the shortcut to the Metro from our hotel and could navigate the mass transit system like locals (well, almost).  But like so much else of our trip, I'd decided just to play my birthday by ear, with only a rough idea as to what I wanted to do.

After a nice continental breakfast at the hotel, we set out for a bit of shopping.  Beth wanted to track down some Mothers' Day gifts, and I'd seen a photo of a hat shop in one of the many travel guides we consulted prior to the trip which gave me an idea of how to answer Beth's question: "What do you want for your birthday?"  Yes, Sombrereria Obach is something of a tourist staple, but it's also quaint enough that I just had to stop in and see what new headwear I could find.  I ended up with a floppy cotton hat which I can roll up and stick in my pocket and which is a bit smaller than the fedora I often travel in.  Prices at the shop reflected its location just off the big tourist drag (at €55, it's one of the more expensive hats I own), but hey, it was my birthday after all!

Beth shows off her scarf from Barcelona
After a bit more shopping with stops at a scarf shop--where I exchanged the gift favor and got Beth the fashion accessory that seems a necessity amongst Barcelona natives, namely, a frilly scarf--we hopped a train to nearby Montserrat... a topic for a later blog; all I'll say for now is that Mussolini would be proud of the punctuality of the Spanish train system.

Thanks to Barcelona's latitude--somewhere between NYC and Boston despite having a much more Mediterranean climate--even in early May sunset didn't come until 8:30pm or later, leaving us plenty of time to head out on the town for a birthday dinner after getting back from Montserrat.  (Side note: On the train ride back, we shared seats for part of the trip with a woman traveling with her cat in her lap; I cannot believe how calm and laid-back the kitty was on public transportation!)  Beth had been after me to pick a good place to eat, and I spent most the train ride flipping back and forth through the Barcelona city guides we had on hand to try to narrow down our selection.

Let me stop for a moment and point out that Barcelona is considered one of the world's top gastronomic destinations, with the broader metropolitan region claiming what is rated by many critics to be the planet's number-one eatery (ahead of Keller's "French Laundry" and "Per Se" in the US and several Paris restaurants) in El Bulli.  Unfortunately, with Chef Ferran Adrià deciding to close this July, reservations are completely unavailable at El Bulli--but fear not; there are still plenty of fantastic places to grab a bite in Cataluyna.

I ended up picking a little hole-in-the-wall called "Bar Seco" on the hillside of the El Poble Sec neighborhood leading up Montjuïc based on a description in one of our travel guides--as I wanted something not too loud, not too crowded, not requiring reservations (as it was already after 6:00pm!), and which offered a genuine, local experience.  It's not too far from the nearest Metro (Paral-Lel on the L2 and L3 lines), though I will say the neighborhood was certainly more residential than some of the more urban environs we'd spent the past couple of days getting to know.

Bar Seco, street view
Bar Seco became one of the highlights of our trip!  The self-described alimentació (which Google helpfully translates as meaning "feeding" in Catalan) is indeed something of a hole-in-the-wall, with a small set of bar seating supplemented by perhaps four tables for two and in-season about the same amount of terrace tables outside.  The proprietors are proponents of the "slow food" movement, which is a sort of antithesis of our American notion of McDonald's-style fast food joints: slow food emphasizes local ingredients and flavors.  Bar Seco does that throughout their menu and their (non-dry) bar selections.

For a change from all the Cava and other vina we'd enjoyed on our trip so far, Beth and I opted for local cervezas (beer), with the unappetizingly-named "Glops"--an unfiltered dark ale--as our favorite winning out over a Montserrat brewski.  We went with the recommendation of our server on our choice of tapas, with some absolutely fantastic patatas bravas (I apologize for not recalling the local distinction of same--other than that they were the best we had the entire trip) and vegetarian-friendly sandwich fare for Beth (a bocadillo made with local cheese and fruit, along with the best veggie-burger I've ever eaten).

Though not a full dinner spread, we nonetheless filled our bellies.  For the first year in many, I didn't have a cake fresh from a box (some traditions win out over the fully made-from-scratch cooking that generally goes on at Chateau Papillon), and given our scheduled early morning departure to Andalucía, we didn't try to catch a spot of gelato on our way back to the hotel.  Nonetheless, it had been quite a good birthday indeed.

No comments: