At the beginning of this year long journey we decided not to plan too much ahead of time. This leaves us the flexibility to stay longer in places we love and swerve off track when someone gives us an interesting local recommendation. The approach has steered us to a few dodgy spots. It has also pole vaulted us into some magical situations…like late night cooking with the Spanish Kramer.
Barcelona is just three hours by fast TGV train from Carcassonne where we had been living for the month studying French. We decided to zip down for a few days and explore Gaudi’s architecture, the Picasso Museum and munch on a few tapas. Not knowing Barcelona’s different areas well and having a fairly tight accommodation budget we booked an AirBnB in the El Raval section of town. As soon as we got off the metro and started trying to find our apartment we realized that perhaps this was not the best location for family accommodation. I’m all for cool rustic spots but this area had the vibe (and smell) of real poverty, petty crime and inner-city grit. Once we located the apartment and met our host, Melisa the sax player, we felt a little better. She told us the pick-pockets were graceful but not violent. “Don’t leave your mobile phone on the table at restaurants and just hold your purse like a baby and you’ll be fine”. The third floor walk-up had been refurbished (inside not out), was very clean and had an enormous double bolting lock on the door. The family below us had 7 children in a similar small two bedroom apartment. I know this because I could hear them yelling at each other through the paper thin walls.
After living in the quiet countryside the throb of the concrete jungle was an assault on our senses. But it’s amazing how fast we got used to the all hours clatter and shake of our hood. By day two it didn’t bother us at all. We had grown quite fond of the multi-cultural immigrant neighbourhood with more Arabic than Spanish being spoken. Still, I noticed Cam walking very tall behind Lyla and I like our personal body guard. He’s sweet and brave like that. Also, our 11 year old got the swell opportunity to witness two different women relieve themselves in the sidewalk right in front of us so now she really appreciates indoor plumbing. I’m told the area has really improved lately and is not dangerous. We did feel totally safe. Though if you are going with kids, I’d try the Barri Gòtic or La Ribera sections to the east of La Rambla if it fits your budget.
We don’t normally do tours as we’d rather walk and we’re cheap. But with limited time and the ‘serious’ rain, as our guide Monica called it, we booked the Barcelona City Gaudi Tour and it was well worth it. Antoni Gaudi is the Catalan Architect best known for designing his magnum opus La Sagrada Familia. We learned that his astonishing vision also created many other projects. We toured apartments for private clients like the whimsical Casa Batlaó and later his outdoor Parc Güell. These were wonderful and interesting appetizers for Gaudi’s main course.
The Cathedral that takes your breath away is to be completed on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026. The interior is now finished so you can walk with your jaw dragging on the marble floor through the fantasy forest of Gaudi’s imagination. With room for 9,000 inside and spires to reach 170m (8 of 18 are complete) the size and technical innovation are beyond comprehension. His inspiration came from nature. There is not one straight line or symmetrical shape. Gaudi didn’t make drawings because what good are two dimensions when we are building in three? He worked only with models and hands on daily with his team of master craftspeople. The Segrada Familia tells the story of Christ’s life from the joy of his birth at the entrance to the somber death facade at the exit and the vibrant glory of his resurrection between. It also reflects a perfect day with the sun rising and setting through the different colours of the intricate stained glass and at the same time the passing of a perfect year through the seasons of nature. The whole concept is simply astonishing. In 18 years my husband had never seen me speechless. It was his lucky day.
Later, after an early standing up dinner of spinach tarts, calzone and fresh fruit juices at the colourful Boqueria food market and a stroll down the popular La Rambla we walked back to our apartment to put our feet up and contemplate all we had seen. Barcelona’s pulse quickens around 9pm. “I’m not quite done yet” somebody said. Shall we go out for one little glass of wine? “OK, sure” somebody else said. We walked out our door and nosed our way down the narrow dimly lit streets of El Raval. We saw a smokey light streaming out of a slim doorway with the words Never More painted above. Behind the opaque glass a two people elbowed the bar of the narrow room. We asked if they were open for just a drink? “Sí, Sí, entrar!” So in we stepped to what looked like someone’s home living room with a bar to one side.
We ordered wine and started to chat with the few Spanish words we know. It turns out that this restaurant is normally packed with private parties. It is Alfonso’s home and it’s also a concept place where you can bring friends for a family style intimate dinners. Just tell the chef Alfonso what you would like and he’ll make it for you in one of his eclectically styled rooms. The bar, the kitchen, the upstairs living room, or the dining room which happens to have his freestanding bathtub right in the middle of it. I doubt this would ever pass Canadian restaurant hygiene standards. He also does cooking lessons one night a week, each Tuesday. This was Tuesday and his students had just left. He stood behind the bar peeling long green celery-esque vegetables for tomorrow. I reached over grabbed another knife and began to help him. “We should do a cooking lesson tomorrow, that would be fun” I suggested. “No lessons tomorrow, only Tuesday. We do it now?” “Uh, it’s 10:30pm, really?” “Sí, 10 euros each, drinks extra” I looked at Cam and he shrugged the way his Dad used to. “Why not, when the hell will we ever be back here again?” We all grabbed our glasses and were whisked into the back kitchen.
We snuggled up to the rustic wooden island and the Spanish Kramer started taking out ingredients to prepare our second dinner of the night. The cardoni (a bitter type of celery from the mediterranean area that ripens in fall) we had been peeling was plopped into the pressure cooker and the potatoes were peeled. He deboned five fresh pink brook trout and stuffed them with red onion, tomatoes, prosciutto and olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs. While this was cooking we had a tour of the crazy warren of rooms in the home/resto all decorated by a local avant garde artist. We had to step by a urinal to get to the loft seating area. Weird + wonderful.
Course one was bitter and creamy at the same time. Very interesting. As we sipped a local vino tinto and chatted we found out that the lovely woman who was the server was originally a lawyer from Rome named Domitilla Petriaggi who had just written a girlie insider’s guide to visiting the Italian capital called “My Secret Rome”. We agreed to buy an english copy of her book the next day.
When course two came out of the oven and the savoury aroma reached our noses we all smiled at each other and used the international symbol for delicious. Pinch all of your fingers together and kiss them. Then explode them like a firework. Muah! The trout was mouthwatering and tender. Even Lyla loved it and she rarely likes fish. Course three was being prepped. Out of the fridge, decorated with a dangling yellow rubber chicken, came a large cast iron pot lined with hardened dark chocolate. Alfonso added cream and slowly melted this mixture over the gas flame then dribbled it over fresh baked caramelized apples. Boom!
Though it wasn’t actually a cooking lesson as we didn’t do any cooking it was a delightfully surprising and delicious experience. One that would never have happened if we hadn’t been open to ‘come what the heck may’. Though the control freak in me struggles with not making plans, when things like this happen it makes me realize we couldn’t have planned an experience like this if we tried.
Planning to not plan more often…
x ~ Tara