Monday, April 21, 2014

Incredible Barcelona

One of the many gobsmacking fruit
displays at La Boqueria
"When you're in Barcelona," my assistant at work emphasized, having been there herself, "you have to go to La Boqueria, and you have to go twice."

Well let me tell you, friends and neighbors, she was right. She was right about Barcelona being an amazing city in general, and she was spot-on about La Boqueria. It's an immense market in the heart of the city, ranked by CNN as one of the top 10 markets on the planet, and on an initial visit, it's sheer sensory overload. The sights, the sounds, the smells... I just pointed my Nikon and clicked indiscriminately, probably with my mouth hanging slightly agape the whole time. I was incapable of anything more than the most basic of reconnaissance on the first visit. More on La Boqueria later, though.

Barcelona was the companion destination on my European escape which began in Paris. (Or perhaps it should be the other way around, as I spent more time in Barcelona than in Paris!) I booked travel on the high-speed French TGV train from Paris, a service which just began in December 2013, and arrived at Barcelona-Sants station just six comfortable hours later. There, I made my way to what was a very nice "home away from home" for the next five nights. I was most fortunate to be offered a corporate-owned luxury apartment in which to stay. At some 1,800 sq ft, it was of course much too big for just one person, but it was oh-so-comfortable nonetheless. It was particularly beguiling in the mornings, as I would cook my breakfast, make a cup of coffee with the French press, and look out over the adjacent park at sunrise. The apartment was in easy walking distance to the park, the zoo, the whole of the Born District, the harbor and beach of the Mediterranean, and much more, including La Rambla, the most famous street in the city.

My kitchen for a week! Nice, right?

Here's the dining area and the living room

The master bedroom... probably the only
thing I didn't care for was the rather
out-of-place animal pelt on the floor

Exposed brick, big timbers, and
top-quality fixtures and fittings...
loved the master bathroom!

This was the bedroom I didn't use...
just walked in, snapped a picture,
and that was that!

A truly beautiful, comfortable place to have as my base

This was the fiery sunrise over the park one
morning, snapped from the apartment's kitchen

And this was my morning ritual...
Really a nice way to start the day!

I was quite unaware of Barcelona's incredibly rich historical tapestry, going all the way back to the third century (and even further back, really), encompassing Catalonia and Iberia, and sweeping in such well-known names as Christopher Columbus and Antoni Gaudí along the way. I took a fascinating walking tour (Sandeman's New Europe tour) on a perfect sunny day with a sky so blue it almost defied belief, had an outstanding guide, met some great new people, and learned tons, most of which, unfortunately, was promptly forgotten. A particularly astute historian, I am not. I also made a booking for their excellent tapas tour, which took place later during my stay. One treat was seeing a couple of impromptu circle dances in front of a beautiful cathedral. The dance is called the sardana and it's deceptively complex, employing a highly structured pattern of moves and rhythms, set to a particular style of music played by a small 12-piece ensemble called a cobla, comprising 10 wind instruments, a double bass, and a small drum called a tamborí. The 12 instruments are collectively played by only 11 musicians, so I'm not sure who ends up doing double duty, but it was a remarkable cultural moment to happen upon. I do think the ensemble on hand for what we saw was more of a mini-orchestra, however, as they had brass instruments, and I don't believe a traditional cobla has these.

The cathedral in front of which all this was taking place is gorgeous, a 14th-century gem built in honor of the co-patron saint of Barcelona, a young virgin named Eulalia who was martyred in the 4th century, but whose absurd tale didn't manage to get dreamed up and recorded until some 800 years later. The story, certainly fictional, goes that this 12-year-old girl was subjected to 13 separate tortures for her steadfast refusal to renounce her Christianity, including being flogged, placed in a barrel with knives and/or glass and rolled down a hill, doused with boiling oil, covered in molten lead, and several even more gruesome acts. In a medical miracle, the young girl survived all of this and was thrown into prison, where she was (of course) later freed by an angel. If all this doesn't suggest that the story is at least partly fanciful, consider the fact that it's almost identical to another patron saint, this one of Mérida, and in both stories, a dove was involved. In the Barcelona tale, the dove emerged and flew from the girl's neck upon her decapitation, which of course took place after her crucifixion (which she apparently survived, as well). In the Mérida tale, the dove flew out of the girl's mouth at the moment of her death. Macabre, right? Amazing what you can learn on these walking tours! Anyway, we all had a bit of a chuckle (apparently no devout Catholics in our group), enjoyed the genuinely incredible architecture, and left it at that!

Barcelona's stunning Cathedral
of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia,
built primarily in the 13th and 14th
centuries with a neo-Gothic façade 

A small orchestra called a cobla was playing
traditional Catalan dance music
on the day of our tour

A traditional (and complex) Catalan circle dance called
the sardana. Why does the woman facing the camera
look so miserable, though? Maybe she's struggling
to remember all the steps correctly!

This was interesting: graffiti in the city was virtually
always limited only to the shutters of shops, never on the
adjacent buildings themselves

I wasn't kidding about the blue sky!

A typical apartment building in the
Born District

The 1884 statue of Antonio
Lopez y Lopez, the first Marquis
of Comillas

Our knowledgeable and riotously funny guide Leon, far right,
regales us with a lengthy and humorous poem of his
own composition at the conclusion of our walking tour

The weather in Barcelona was markedly different from what I had experienced in Paris. Though the temperature wasn't all that much higher (usually low to mid-50s, or around 10-12°C), there was plenty of bright sunshine and an abundance of clear blue skies, which made it much more enjoyable. In fact, it only rained one day out of the six I was there. One day, about midway through my stay and after I had developed enough confidence in my ability to navigate the neighborhood successfully, I made my way to the beach nearby and enjoyed strolling along the Mediterranean under a brilliant blue sky lashed with cirrus clouds. Mind you, it was still nowhere near "warm" in early February, and most of the trees were bereft of any foliage, but a blue sky and a sunny day makes everything better, and even with a jacket and scarf on, it was good to be on the beach! Later, on the walk back to the apartment, I stopped by a Greek restaurant (of all things) and had some great food... flavor-packed lamb and beef gyros, a bit of souvlaki, some pita bread, and a short pint of crisp Mythos, a pretty decent Hellenic pale lager from Greece's second-largest brewery, you know... just across the Med!

The zoology museum of Barcelona,
called the Castel dels Tres Dragons
in the Parc de la Ciutadella

Another building at the park... really no idea what this
one is and cannot seem to find any information on it

Barcelona's immensely popular and
successful bicycling initiative, sadly
for residents only

The Barcelona Arc de Triomf, built for the
1888 Universal Exhibition

Street scene, with people enjoying
the mild midwinter day

Note the tree laden with oranges

No idea what building this is, but
I loved the architecture

The park is home to many hundreds of these Monk parakeets

Angry Birds! The population of feral
Monk parakeets is thought to
number about 2,500 in Barcelona

The park's large fountain, Cascada, designed by Josep Fontserè and his
young, then-unknown student Antoni Gaudí

A café in the Gothic District all
ready for evening diners

The entrance to the apartment
building where I stayed

Emblazoned on the tapas bar's window seems to be
the key to Barcelona's immense appeal: Drink. Food. Life.

This one was nice... not far from the apartment
and great happy hour specials. On the sign
to the left of the door: Todo hecho casero
y con mucho amor
, basically saying everything
here is homemade with love.

Again, not really clear who this is, but I liked the
photo op. Fun fact: the popular belief that the pose of
the horse indicates how its rider died is, in fact, false

Another appealing café in the
neighborhood, readying itself for
evening business

The attractive Port Vell (which means "Old Harbor"), little more than
a derelict railroad warehouse area before an urban renewal program
in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics gave it new life

A stand-up paddle boarder (yes, it's a thing)
meanders by on the blue waters of the Med

Artistic clouds lace the sky over
the boardwalk by the sea

A funky blend of luxury, heritage, design, and color at Port Vell

Hola! The incomparable jamón Ibérico
Which brings us, naturally, to the culinary portion of the entry! Much like Paris, a highlight of any trip to Barcelona is the incredible food, highlighted by one of the world's true delicacies and quite possibly among the greatest foods in the world, jamón Ibérico de bellota, considered the pride of Spain. If everything else about Barcelona was merely average, this stupendous ham alone would salvage the trip and make it worthwhile. Happily, Barcelona pleases on nearly every level, so the exquisite jamón Ibérico de bellota was just the crowning indulgence. This particular ham is special for a number of reasons. First, the breed of pig, the noble black Ibérico pig, is stringently specified and regulated, as distinct from the more common white pig used for the massively popular Serrano ham of Spain, certainly no slouch itself.

Second, the animal is allowed to spend the last few months of its life grazing on an open plain punctuated by oak trees, a field called the dehesa. The Ibérico pig loves acorns and can eat some 20 pounds a day running around and foraging in the dehesa, so in just three to four months before being slaughtered, the pig can double its weight, adding some two pounds of fat per day. The acorn-rich diet of the pig's last few months is second only in importance to the specific breed of the pig for the resultant magic of the finished product.

Third, there is an exceptionally long curing process in which the fatty legs are packed in a volume of sea salt determined by the leg's weight, allowed to rest in the salt for a few weeks, then hung to dry in the cool mountain air, typically for two to four years. During the long curing period, the legs lose about half their weight as the fat slowly drips away. Because of the salt and the antioxidant quality of the pig's diet of acorns (the acorn is the bellota referenced in the name of the final product), bacteria cannot attack and spoil the ham. The fats break down and recombine several times over, the ham dries ever so slowly, and a symphony of uniquely complex flavors develops.

Once the process is finally complete, the result is a deep red ham with wonderful marbling that literally melts in your mouth. In fact, because of the extraordinarily high content of fat marbling in the ham (surprisingly, most of which is monounsaturated), it will melt a bit at any temperature above about 75-78°F, so the fat melts away as the thin slices of ham rest on your tongue and the exquisite flavor of the cured meat develops, mingling with the rich flavor of the fat. For porcine aficionados, there is nothing like it, and as you might expect, Ibérico de bellota doesn't come cheap. Ham from those acorn-fed pigs is usually at least twice as expensive as a normal Ibérico ham, and exceptional strains which have been aged longer, classed as "reserva" or "gran reserva" (much like Spanish Rioja wine), can cost even more (think $70-100 per pound if you're buying the whole leg, which is usually 12-15 pounds). But like the finest Kobe beef or Beluga caviar, this is a delicacy that, if afforded the opportunity, you should sample at least once – being well aware that even a few thin slices can set you back a handful of euros!

How much is that piggy in the window? Well, that depends on whether
it's a white-pig Serrano, a black-pig Ibérico fed on corn, or a black-pig
Ibérico de bellota fed on corn and acorns... get your wallet ready!

With apologies for the garish color of the
display lights in the case, this is a fine
way to sample Spanish hams

So when I wasn't eating SerranoIbérico or my other favorite, the smoky, spicy chorizo (which is altogether different than Mexican chorizo, by the way), I was wandering the streets of the Born District and neighboring Gothic District, never getting too far from the apartment, but in all honesty, never needing to. I have found that, at least for me, when traveling, it's preferable to explore one area with more depth and fullness than to see a lot of places, but truly experience none of them. Each philosophy has its own appeal and merits, but Barcelona needs to be embraced, not just skated over. I spent time in the outstanding 70-acre park next to the apartment (Parc de la Ciutadella), met plenty of people (locals and visitors alike), and despaired over my mediocre abilities in conversational Spanish going largely for naught, as everyone in Barcelona tends to speak Catalan. I had been looking forward to being able to decipher signs and such, but most of those are in Catalan, too.

So basic, yet so awesome: a fresh baguette
layered with slices of Serrano ham, drizzled
with Spanish olive oil, and served with a
generous glass of Spanish tempranillo...
just €4 at Enrique Tomas café

A similar dish recreated at the
apartment, yet looking very much
like something at a café... except
the entire bottle of wine was only
half the cost of the meal in
the previous photo!

I stumbled onto La Boqueria the first time almost by accident. I made my way to La Rambla, and as it was the only rainy day on the trip, found myself briskly walking from store to store in an attempt to avail myself the brief use of their canopies and overhangs. It was a fine, misting sort of rain, and I had an umbrella with me, but apart from a few moments of actual light rain, the drizzle didn't really demand an umbrella. And suddenly, I looked up and, across the street, there it was, somewhat unassuming under a fairly unexceptional signed archway: Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. I wandered in and was, in short order, in full sensory meltdown. There aren't sufficient words to really describe this market, so just look at the photos. It's an absolute orgy of flavors, smells, and colors... a veritable beehive of food-focused activity. I've been to some pretty amazing markets, but nothing like this. From fruit to meats to chocolates to nuts to marzipan to cheeses to vegetables, La Boqueria has more food that you can imagine. Fresh food, prepared food, baskets of food, artistically arranged piles of food... wines and beers, fresh juices, sparkling cavas, all complementing plates of Spanish olives, marinated mushrooms, chorizo, and jamón. I've never seen its equal. If you go to Barcelona, quite plainly, you will be genuinely missing out if you don't see (and experience) La Boqueria.

Biggest strawberries I've ever seen were at La Boqueria

A blizzard of nuts... roasted, candied,
salted, flavored, you name it

What fun! Fresh food, including yummy salchichón (Spanish sausages),
and plenty of beer and wine

The vegan's nightmare continues

Colorful marzipan and choco-goodies

Mustn't forget your veggies...

Grab a cup of fruit for some power noshing while you shop!

Salchichón, chorizo, jamón Serrano, jamón Ibérico... it's porkapalooza!!

Another great way to sample a selection of Spanish meats

Do I really have to just settle for one??

A marvelous mélange of peppers

What the hell is all this? Who knows? Dried mushrooms, infused
oils, what looks like nonpareils... just anything and everything

Fruits, chilies, and spicy sauces, including the
pride of Avery Island, Louisiana... Tabasco!

Bring your own insulin

Do I buy stuff here or just marvel at how beautifully it's all arranged!?

Great café. Note Ms. Pink Hair inside!
My time in Barcelona flew by, a testament to how much I was enjoying the city. Near the end of my stay, on the first attempt of the tapas tour, only two of us showed up, diminishing the "fun" factor of a slightly larger group, so it was rescheduled for the following night. Nevertheless, the tour host took the two of us that night to a couple of small cafés and funky bars for cheap beer, distinctly local grub, and an amazing hamburger that still makes my mouth water at the mere memory. On top of all the drinking, eating, and general shenanigans of the evening, there was a little game called the Super Bowl about to be staged back home very, very late that night Barcelona time, and after bidding my erstwhile bar-hopping friends adieu around midnight, I considered popping into one of the neighborhood sports pubs to watch it. But with a big high-def flatscreen, satellite TV, and a supremely comfy couch at the apartment, I ultimately just headed back there and struggled to stay awake to watch the Super Bowl, which devolved rapidly into a crapfest that, as a Denver Broncos fan, I'd have been just as well-advised to sleep through entirely. What a nightmare. As it turns out, watching it in my bleary state of fatigued (and buzzed) semi-consciousness made the 43-8 blowout loss significantly less painful to endure. And to think, I had actually very seriously considered cutting short my time in Barcelona and flying over to Denver for a couple of days so I could watch the big game with friends and fellow fans, then flying from there back to Paris to catch my return flight to KL. It goes without saying that, had I done that – and shelled out the $800 or so necessary for the additional flights – just to bear witness to that diabolical embarrassment of a game, I'd still be cursing myself. Oftentimes in life, we look back and regret the things we didn't do. Indeed, this was not at all one of those times.

Ah, the sign of "there was still hope"

A decidedly local grunge bar serving up
cheap San Miguel beer and...

A truly splendid burger whose true glory isn't at all
well-captured in this hasty camera-phone snap

The next night, we gave the tapas tour another go and this time, a fair few of us showed up, including people from Australia, the US (besides me), New Caledonia, Mexico, South Africa, and continental Europe. It was great. We bounced from tapas bar to tapas bar, sampling a myriad of dishes, drinking wines and beers, and sharing stories and getting acquainted. One particular place saw our guide instructing us in the use of the porró, a glass wine pitcher in Spain, though we had one – or maybe two – filled with beer, too, accompanying the two holding wine. The porró looks like a glass watering can with a very narrow spout, tapering to almost nothing. The idea is that you can fill the pitcher with a wine (a full bottle), then pass it around in a group, as you can drink from the thing without the spout coming in direct contact with your mouth. We all tried it, with varying degrees of success and errant dribbles here and there, and by the time we got to our fifth venue and started swimming around in their large and excellent mojitos, we were all well and truly feeling no pain. It was a fun night, and for me, the only downside was that it was indeed my last night in Barcelona, so I had to get back to the apartment and pack everything up for an early departure the next morning, so I didn't get to close down the bars with the rest of the gang, but did manage to hang around until nearly midnight.

The tapas tour begins!

Crazy eights! Sober and reserved at tapas bar #1... but it was a rather
different tale a few hours later!

Brave potatoes! The ubiquitous patatas bravas, perhaps
the quintessential Spanish tapa. And no, it doesn't really
mean "brave potatoes"!

I think this was venue #3, and with three or four full porrós of wines
and beers to share, the fun really began in earnest here

Our fearless off-duty Catalan guide seizes a
porró and shows us how it's done

Nine people collectively representing five continents; by midway
through the evening, we had all gotten plenty chummy!

I woke up early the next morning, showered, had a small "eat on the go" brekkie, and put the finishing touches on my packing. I made my way to the nearby Metro station, bags in tow, and took the train to Barcelona-Sants to kick off the first leg of the trip back to KL. In actual fact, the journey back was really a great part of the overall vacation. Again, I took the high-speed train, this time in the first-class car back to Paris (not as impressive as it sounds; it was only like €10 more than the regular car), and the weather was excellent, so I enjoyed great views of the Pyrenees mountain range and the picturesque towns and farms of Spain and France along the way. Of course, I grabbed a fresh baguette, a bottle of cheap Catalonian wine, and some delicious Serrano ham before leaving Barcelona and once again had a very nice meal on board the speedy train as the scenery whizzed by. I don't know what most of the towns and buildings are in the photos I snapped, so just enjoy the relatively information-free scenics!

Various meats and cheeses... the entire
contents of that pack of Serrano ham ended
up in the middle of the baguette :)

Stuffed to the gills! There may or may not have been
a half dozen bottles of various French and
Spanish wines ensconced in my bag

The upper deck of the first-class car on the TGV

The Pyrenees Range in northeastern Spain

Farmland in the valley

A Spanish town near the French border

Looking vaguely Pikes Peak-ish, Mt. Canigou forms an impressive backdrop

Mt. Canigou, 2,784 m/9,134 ft.

And this is where that Serrano ham
found a home... so yummy!

This is a pretty picturesque town, right? Not a bad place to hang your hat

Pastoral countryside in the south of France

How I got a shot like this through a window while
traveling at nearly 200 mph is a mystery to me

The mountains give way to gently rolling pasture in France

And one of my favorites, a patchwork of deciduous and evergreen
forests, intermixed with different shades of green fields

Once I arrived in Paris, I made my way from the city out to the airport and checked in for my flight back to KL. I was very fortunate to be flying business class on Etihad Airways, so this promised to be a most enjoyable way to conclude the vacation! And indeed it was so. They're amazing... once I had settled into my comfy seat for the Paris-Abu Dhabi leg of the trip, I was marveling at the caliber of wines they had on their wine list, so the flight attendant offered to do a little tasting for me once we got up to cruise altitude, bringing me a lovely cheese platter and a procession of the wines. Truly incredible service, and the food throughout the flight was terrific (save for a challenging risotto dish that was perhaps a bit too ambitious for an in-flight meal, yet still quite tasty), and also served to order... just whenever I felt hungry, rather than at pre-set serving times. The flight from Abu Dhabi to KL was on a different aircraft and that one was even better, owing to the way the seats were arranged in a sort of herringbone pattern, plus the fact they were fully 180° lie-flat seats. I've been lucky enough to experience business or first class on a number of airlines (usually the result of a complimentary upgrade), and this was quite possibly at the top of the heap on account of the excellent product and superb in-flight service.

The first glass in my personal airborne wine tasting!

A decent effort at a mushroom and wilted spinach risotto, served
with a splendid glass of premier cru Chablis

The battery on my Nikon actually died after
the risotto shot, so I was relegated to using
my phone to snap this shot of the
herringbone seat layout of
Etihad's Abu Dhabi–KL flight

On departure from Abu Dhabi, it's hard not
to notice the enormous Ferrari World
theme park, all under a vast 2.1 million sq ft roof

Smoked duck breast? For me? How kind!

So that concluded my somewhat whirlwind nine-day vacation to Paris and Barcelona. I assumed this would wrap up my long-haul travel adventures for at least a little while, but I was wrong. Shortly after getting back to work in early February, I was offered the work-related chance to visit New Zealand in April... and who could pass up a great opportunity like that? Not me, that's for sure. Stay tuned... that's the next entry!