BARCELONA, SPAIN — Just the thought of this country is enough to turn memories into senses. But mention the Catalan capital to an old traveler — and watch their mouth, and sometimes eyes, begin to water. We wanted our taste.
As our last day as European residents grew ever closer, we realized there was a gaping hole in our travel book.
Despite a quick rendezvous in the Canary Islands, which somehow seem more like Africa than their political motherland, we never set foot in Espana proper once over our four years in Europe. That might seem like a blatant traveler’s sin, but I had dreams of several sun-drenched weeks exploring the Iberian peninsula as a final farewell tour of Europe. Then… life got in the way.
Little did we realize the amount of work was in store for our imminent departure, so what started as a lazy exploration in my mind turned into five action-packed September days in Catalonia. Because, after all, if you can only do one thing in Spain, Barcelona is hard to beat.
And arriving on the day of Catalonian National Pride made it all the more magical. As we made our way through the city streets to our rented apartment, residents draped in Catalan flags, drinking from wine jugs flowed everywhere. That night from the balcony of our El Raval flat, you could see fireworks lighting up the sky well into the morning hours.
We’d arrived — and promptly joined the celebration over tapas and wine (and one or two absinthe) at an infamous Hemingway dive in the heart of this colorful, if rough-around-the-edges barri (city district).
Little did we know that our taste buds were just stretching out.
The next day was a somewhat special one — my birthday. So we decided to start off our trip with a culinary bang by visiting the famous El Boqueria market — a massive conglomeration of fish, fruit and meat stalls (plus some of the city’s best tapas bars) located right on the edge of our El Raval barri.
Kilos of fresh monkfish, shrimp, clams, mussels and more in hand, we made our way back along the Rambla to our flat. But not before sampling the epic local paella from one of those most famous bars. Later that night, our fresh haul from the market turned into an amazing Romescada — a take on Catalan fish stew. An epic meal, and one made by the sea and our own two hands!
Culinary travels in Barcelona deliver some expected delights (sangria and paella on the edge of a baking city plaza, fresh Iberico ham from a market stall) — and also some surprises. On one afternoon to meet a travel friend on the beaches of Barceloneta, we stopped in for lunch in a little cafe in the tiny streets of this harbor district.
Jai-Ca, we came to find out, was an infamous drinking hole for salty beach goers heading home — and one hell of a delicious find. Over ice cold Estrella beers, we helped ourselves to heaping plates of grilled octopus, ham croquets, Bacala (cod) fritters — and something called La Bomba — a massive ball of fried potatoes, meat and spices that was insane. Somehow we still made it to the beach, but it was a close call.
It’s no secret that one of our greatest pleasures of travel is exploring each culture through its food. So, when Barcelona was decided as our final European destination as expats, one question came up: how can we close our travels with one of the most epic meals of our lives?
In Spain, chefs are like rock stars. And their is no bigger name on the marquee (sometimes literally) than the Adria brothers, Ferran and Alberto. Ferran opened the now-shuttered El Bulli restaurant, some hours up the coast from Barcelona — long considered the best restaurant in the world until it closed five years ago.
But the world’s loss was Barcelona’s gain, as the brothers set off to open four new restaurants within a single city block in Barca. The most famous of these is Tickets, a literal carnival of culinary delights, very heavy on avantgarde molecular gastronomy. Unfortunately for us, the next possible reservation was over two months out. But luck has a way of finding us in these journeys — as the more-traditional, but no less amazing tapas cousin, Bodega 1900, had room for us right across the street.
Promptly at 5pm, we walked into this immaculately designed tapas den. Everything from the light bulbs to the colorful subway tile to custom made cutlery (Ferran’s name stamped on the back) screamed amazing taste. And then came the food.
We sat down among the El Bulli memorabilia dotting every wall and opened the menu like an ancient tome. Not knowing how to start beyond cold glasses of their house-made Vermouth and infamous “liquefied olives”, we asked our server to just bring us whatever she and the chef recommended.
What unfolded was 16 courses to blow the mind.
The journey took us from the most simple delights — house-cured beef carpaccio that melts on your tongue, Catalan traditional tomato bread and razor thin Iberico ham, whole grilled squid with bursting ink sacks — to unbelievably elegant creations — the fried sea anemone, smoked salmon with greek yogurt and molasses, and a length of perfectly grilled foie gras the size of your forearm.
Everything was simple, clean flavored and insanely delicious. Course after course, our eyes rolled back into our heads and the glasses of vermouth and Cava piled up. When it came to the final lemon sorbet — more luscious and smooth than you could ever believe — we knew we had experienced a meal of a lifetime.
We will never make it to El Bulli. But for now, we can leave Barcelona and Europe knowing that we’ve tasted the best flavors this unforgettable place has to offer.