Barcelona is a cosmopolitan metropolis on Spain’s east coast. Voted by National Geographic as the best beach city in the world, it is a very attractive holiday destination. Each year 8 million people visit Barcelona, making it Europe’s third most visited city.
This was my first visit to the Catalan capital, which meant I made some basic errors; I queued for hours, ate poor tapas and spent too long warding off street vendors on the beach front and on Las Ramblas. I made these mistakes, so you don’t have to. If, like me, the thought of elderly Americans shuffling through foreign streets, gazing at historic scenes through their camera lenses makes your skin crawl, my guide to Barcelona should help you to avoid the torturous crowds.
A major tourist attraction, the gardens, designed by Antoní Gaudí, offer tremendous aerial views of Barcelona’s city scape. Although many people flood here to see the Catalan artist’s melting architecture, Güell, being a park, presents those with a phobia of crowds the opportunity to absorb the awe-inspiring views in solitude. Like most major tourist attractions around the world, entrance to the centre of the park – the area which encloses the majority of the art nouveau buildings – incurs a fee. Personally, I believe it is ridiculous; paying to stare at a building’s façade. Thus, I did not enter. There are plenty of structures around Güell which enable you to gain an understanding of Gaudí’s style without paying for the privilege of using your eyes.
Alternatively, if you really despise other people, Parc del Guinardό, a small walk east of Güell, houses the greatest view of Barcelona, superior to the sight at Gaudí’s park. Just look for the sign-posted Gran Vista. Cockatoos, pigeons, parrots and lizards live harmoniously in this four tiered park which is frequented only by locals, a true escape from Barcelona’s throbbing throngs of tourists.
Intrigued by Gaudí’s unusual style at Parc Güell, our curiosity led us to Casa Batllό. Gaudí’s architectural jewel stands audaciously on Passeig de Gracia, strikingly different from its neighbouring facades. Regardless of the fact it is infested with tourists, it would be blasphemous not to visit. I was astounded by the combination of beauty, ergonomics and unique design. Particularly impressive were the brass door handles, which Gaudí himself moulded from clay to fit perfectly in the hand. Admittedly, we spent over an hour in the queue but Casa Batllό is like no other museum I have visited; the guided audio tour was informative and the whole experience was invitingly interactive, which is important in understanding the artists thought processes and influences. If you can suppress your social anxiety for a few hours, give Batllό a go.
The Catalan region is famed for producing cava. If you would like to drink some excellent sparkle without paying tourist prices, La Xampaneria, located near Barceloneta metro station and the Gothic Quarter, is a great place for doing just that. For just €7 you can buy a bottle of Can Paixano, a sweet, pink cava which is extremely quaffable. There is also a great selection of small bites to accompany the booze. The croquettes, of which we ordered numerous plates, were delicious, especially when dipped in the bar’s homemade honey mustard sauce. The boquerones – anchovies – a new favourite bar snack of mine, are served swimming in paprika and olive oil. We struggled to move through the jolly mass of people and constantly clashed elbows when guiding cava to our mouths. There were, however, very few tourists here, Spanish was the only language we heard spoken.
Salamanca has stood on the Barcelona seafront for over 40 years, you would therefore assume they could produce a faultless seafood paella. We decided to dine at Salamanca after a friend, who had worked in the city, recommended it. The dining space is a vast, carpeted marquee, not an architectural masterpiece but it does enable a view of the sea. The sun had been shining all day and there was a salty sea breeze in the air, paella was an easy choice. It arrived, without a smile, and in typical style the pan engulfed the table. The rice was perfectly cooked, the mussels were tender not oversentimental and the prawns were plentiful. Depressingly, however, my favourite element of a paella – the clams – were undercooked and not one had even opened. When we relayed this sad information to the surly waiting staff they just shrugged apathetically. The food and wine are reasonably priced at Salamanca and the view is very pleasant but the experience, as a whole, lacked panache. Their website claims their paella is famous, perhaps, once upon a time. I am sure you could find a better version elsewhere in the city.
Unlike Salamanca, I don’t have a bad word to say about Mont Bar. Here, they offer a finely selected menu of tapas and plates which walk the line between tradition and the avant-garde. Clearly propelled by a young, innovative kitchen team Mont Bar was my favourite Barcelona eating experience. We started our meal with jamόn croquettes, a mandatory amuse-bouche in Spain, it seems. The list of starters is dominated by fish options, from these I strongly suggest you order the squid ink crisp and the scallop nigiri. Aesthetically, the crisp was a sight to behold. Vibrant cubes of mango and smoked sardine sat nestled in a paper-thin black crisp. The smoky fish, the sweet mango and the slightly salty crisp balanced beautifully making this more than just a visual spectacle. The nigiri, although not as striking, was an enlightening eating experience. Finely chopped raw scallop clung together in a tight ball which was topped with a slither of smoked eel, when dipped in the sesame soy sauce I momentarily left this earth. As for meat, Mont Bar are just as well versed. Suckling lamb served with yoghurt gnocchi and aubergine was mesmeric. The lamb was tender, of course, and combined with the mint pesto was a welcome taste of home. The food at Mont Bar set the precedent for the entire experience; we had an almost flirtatious relationship with our waiter, the wine we drank was inexpensive for the quality and the ambience was informal and relaxed. If there is any establishment I urge you to visit, it is here. Away from the crowds and blissfully elegant, Mont Bar is Barcelona’s best kept secret, well, from the tourists anyway.