Written by Karen Ralph
"All kinds of fish were being cooked on a long charcoal grill"
Visiting Barcelona for the first time in 1988 was like entering another world that was both foreign and familiar. Our wooden train, straight out of a Spaghetti Western, crept into the city, stopping sporadically to allow the conductor to slowly walk up and down the tracks. We weren’t sure what he was looking for, but it didn’t instil confidence. Nor did the track-side mountains of garbage on which large rats were scavenging and scampering.
Arriving at the train terminal we took an immaculate, modern subway into the heart of the crowded, Jodorowsky-esque Las Ramblas. My traveling companion immediately stepped in one of the many dog droppings that punctuated the streets but the Spanish had a sixth sense when it came to avoiding this sidewalk hazard, deftly stepping over, around but never into, without seeming to look.
We stopped at a patio for a sidra and were serenaded by a trio of inebriated Mariachieros, one with only three strings left on his guitar. People painted as skeletons, several in a wheelchairs, pushed past, yelling at the musicians who turned and followed them.
This was the summer of the little black dress and beautiful women easily navigated cobbled streets in towering heels. Prostitutes of all ages and genders, some with small children, were lined up outside of brothels, smoking and talking, smiling at the passing tourists.
We were staying at the Kabul Hostel in the palm tree-studded square Plaça Reial, a short walk from the beach and a multitude of markets and museums. Almost every night there was a brawl in the square and the smell of tear gas and the taste of Damm beer defined our evenings. Post Franco, pre-Olympic Barcelona had just started to transform its beachfront with public art and yet Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Família wouldn’t be finished for 24 years. Despite past horror and violence the city was looking forward, vibrating with possibility and passion.
Almost three decades later in 2014, we took the TGV from Narbonne to Barcelona, hoping the raw, electric, weirdness that I remembered hadn’t been lost to cleanliness, efficiency and a global economy. We needn't have worried, the city was still wired and wonderful, exploding with energy.
We were staying in a hotel located at the top of Las Ramblas. We walked the city, stopping in small Cava bars, beach restaurants for cod ceviche, fresh, soft Manchego, anchovy-stuffed olive snacks, glasses of local rosé, paella and mussels. The bars and restaurants were full, the beach was packed with sun- bathers as far as the eye could see, and the prices were still low.
Wandering into the neighbourhood of Gràcia, an area known for bohemians and artists, we were drawn into a small gallery with jewelry and leather bags designed and made by architects. It was an art collective and anyone who was showing in the gallery took a turn working at the front desk. The woman who was working that day made beautiful leather bags, we supported the gallery with several purchases and asked her if there was any place nearby she’d recommend for lunch.
Between our minimal Spanish and her minimal English, we got directions to her favourite restaurant which she described as a casual Catalonian café where people ate “arròs negre” (rice cooked with squid ink) and drank wine. The restaurant was located in a nearby square, but when we got there, we saw nothing that looked like a restaurant. A group of boys were kicking a ball around and a small group of people were smoking beside an unmarked narrow door.
We could smell food, so we walked in. An older couple were behind the front desk, the restaurant raging behind them. The woman nodded to us and waved her hand in the general direction of her partner, who led us to a table, pointed at a chalk board with the daily specials and recommended bottle of tempranillo. We took his wine recommendation and when he returned with the wine he brought a plate of pan con tomate, tomato smeared toast with a hint of garlic, olive oil and salt.
We ordered a plate of Jamón serrano, and some of that black rice. Simple, local and delicious, it was perfect. It was raining when we walked back out into the square, the soccer players and smokers were gone and looking back we weren’t sure which door we had exited from. Barcelona was still as hallucinatory as I’d remembered, effortlessly straddling the medieval and the modern.
Our appetite was whetted for more Spanish adventure, so this past May, Gail Norton of The Cookbook Co. Cooks and I drove from Toulouse, to San Sebastian. Enroute, we spent an afternoon in Lourdes, watched the wheelchair procession, lit a candle, visited The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes and drank the healing water before continuing our trip.
We arrived in San Sebastian in the evening; it was still hot, hazy and humid. We were staying in the old town “Parte Vieja”, close to the Concha beach, and after finding our apartment and dropping off our bags we headed out for an evening of wine and pintxos.
There were more tapas bars within a two block radius then we could have visited in a year so we chose the busiest one, found a seat at the bar and ignored the violently disturbing televised bullfight to focus on the vast and varied selection of pintxos: anchovies rolled around green olives and skewered on crostini, red peppers stuffed with bread crumbs and mayonnaise, sliced sausage and pepper on a small toast and thinly sliced beef rolled around roasted red pepper and pinned to a slice of baguette.
There were eggs as well: fried, hard boiled or formed into custards and cakes; chicken or cod croquettes; fried milk desserts (Leche Frita), churros and custards. After several glasses of Txakoli (the lemony, slightly fizzy local white wine), we paid our shockingly inexpensive tab and went on to the next few bars. The following day, feeling better than we deserved to, we explored markets, more tapas bars and drank glasses of white, rosé and red wine.
Before we had left Calgary, Gail had arranged for Christine, a San Sebastian born and raised local to show us the area. To the untrained eye, the tapas bars looked the same, but she was adamant about eating at some and avoiding others. She took us on a drive down the coast for lunch, the highway signage reflecting the diverse culture of the area with the Basque, Spanish and Catalan spelling for each town.
Stopping in the town of Zarautz, we walked on the tan coloured sand and watched huge waves. Due to the past threat of Basque terrorists, the town had been left alone and instead of a wall of towering beach front condos and restaurants, an elementary school and a few older apartments faced the ocean, and surfers camping in old VW vans were parked on the beach.
A short drive brought us to the small fishing village of Guetaria, located on the Bay of Biscayne. We crossed a parking lot to an old building that housed an anchovy merchant on the main floor and a humid, busy restaurant on the second. All kinds of fish were being grilled on a long charcoal grill, cooks were flipping them from side to side, brushing them with olive oil.
We ordered anchovies, a coal cooked turbot, and a bottle of Txakoli. The anchovies, cooked in olive oil and sliced garlic, were so tender that they almost melted in our mouths. The turbot was expertly grilled and served with boiled potatoes, parsley, fried garlic slices, lemon wedges and olive oil. This was truly catch of the day: fresh, local, and for us, exotic. It was one of those rare experiences when everything on our plate and in our glass tasted specifically of place.
We understood why, despite the economic crisis, the bars and restaurants were packed day and night: why stay home when you can eat and drink this well.
We had one more day in Spain, and we were spending it on art and wine. Leaving the lush, coastal hills and greenery of San Sebastian the landscape became flatter, drier, more sun bleached. Rioja was about 3 hours away but we were taking a detour into Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim Museum. Driving into the industrial city and seeing the Guggenheim at the end of the street with Jeff Koons massive flower covered “Puppy” sitting in front of it was truly spectacular. Jeff Koons was having a retrospective and although we had seen one or two of his pieces in galleries, seeing it all together was powerful, reflected in his shiny surfaces, we all became Narcissus, mesmerized by our own warped image.
Pulling ourselves away, we walked around and into Richard Serra’s gargantuan, steel sculptures. “Torqued Ellipse,” “Workflow” and “The Matter of Time” to name just a few, were all supple fluidity and movement, transcendental, free standing, held and balanced by weight and gravity: the perfect metaphor for the Spain that we had experienced.