Citius, altius, fortius
Part 2 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue
by Thor Iverson
So much for an early start.
It’s one in the afternoon before we finally leave our hotel. True, there’s jetlag involved for me, and post-conference decompression for Theresa, but the abandonment of an entire morning is not exactly what we have in mind for this vacation. It is, however, made much more likely by the particular rhythms of this city. Depending on who one listens to, there’s rumor of morning coffee, mid-morning pastries, late-morning beer, mid-afternoon lunch, late-afternoon drinks, early-evening tapas, late-evening dining, and early-morning drinks. And while a city that apparently lives to eat and drink should be right up our culinary alley, the fact is that it kinda interferes with the tourist urge. Though we wonder: how do the natives cope? Do they skip sleep, work, or both?
Parc de Joan Miró – A zigzagging walk through the peaceful streets of the Eixample brings us to this slightly gritty urban park, which is mostly torn up and fenced off for a reconstruction that doesn’t look like it’s particularly ongoing. It’s almost like being in Paris. At any rate, its signature sculpture – Dona i Ocell by the park’s namesake – still rises in multicolored…um…whatever to the sky. I look at it from all angles, decide I’ve had enough, and move on.
Plaça d’Espanya – A few blocks away, we’re in a busy traffic circle around an elaborate fountain. To one side stands an arena – no longer used for bullfighting, and thus looking somewhat forlorn – and on the other, the Venetian-style campaniles that mark the grand entrance to Montjuïc. On the hill above, the majestic Palau Nacional (hosting the National Museum of Catalan Art) sits in ornate serenity, gazing over the city. It’s an inspiring site, and were the weather a little less flawless, we’d be exploring its collection in some depth. As it is, however, we’re getting hungry. Certainly it must be some sort of mealtime in Barcelona…
Bar Anduriña (Creu Coberta, 38) – Despite a sheaf of information that includes hundreds of restaurants recommendations, I’ve got nothing in our immediate area. So we wing it, which usually leads to fairly mediocre meals. This isn’t much of an exception, though we’re finding that even mediocre food in Barcelona is a touch more interesting than elsewhere. We start with a small plate of cured anchovies and a mixed platter of cheese and various forms of ibérico ham, both served with the ubiquitous pan amb tomaquet. Theresa continues with the ham while I opt for a plate of ibérico-based pinchos in a spicy sauce, washed down by a bland but thirst-quenching Estrella Galicia. It’s fortifying, if not inspiring, food, served by a waitress with more sour in her than your average lemon. But it does possess the virtue of being cheap.
Montjuïc – The combination of outdoor escalators and stairs up to the Palau Nacional works off part of lunch, though when we arrive at the top we make sure to sit and enjoy the terrific view, pointing out the sights in the distance. It’s a stunning day…warm, sunny and blue…and the city seems peaceful from this elevation. We can’t see the ocean from this spot, but Tibidabo and rest of the hills that encircle the city are stark and clear.
We take a meandering road up and around the museum, headed for the Olympic stadium just over the crest of the hill. Unfortunately, it’s completely surrounded by scaffolding, and there are no signs to indicate that it’s not open for any sort of tourism…though it takes us the very long walk around its circumference to realize this. Disappointing. We do get to see the still-impressive forms of the Palau Sant Jordi and the Calatrava-designed communications tower, but that’s it.
El Poble Espanyol – A peaceful and curving stretch of road back down the slope of the park is restorative and quiet, but near the bottom of the hill we’re once more on streets thick with tourists. They’re here to see all of Spain in just twenty minutes (or so), at this half-tacky, half-interesting collection of architectural replicas that claim to represent each region’s traditional style. Most buildings contains artisan shops – an unfortunate number of which have nothing to do with their region of origin – and the whole thing is a little more Disneyesque than one might prefer. However, some of the architecture is quite fascinating nonetheless, and there are enough diversions to keep just about anyone interested for a measure of time.
Escribà – Seeking an alternative path back to the hotel, we end up strolling through what would be called a lively but “transitional” neighborhood back home, and soon find ourselves deposited on the Gran Via, a majestic grand avenue with soaring iron balconies and wide vistas. Also here is this notable chocolate/pastry purveyor, into which we simply must divert for a little snack. The chocolate is tremendous – dark, spicy and flavorful – though the coffee served with it is bitter and hollow. And despite plenty of prepared food and tables at which to sit, they seem confused by our desire to combine the two; most people are choosing to export their purchases. Maybe we have, in fact, found the one time of day at which Barcelona’s residents do not eat. It’s almost shocking.
From Escribà, the jaunt to our hotel is a quick one, and we rest our feet for a while, letting the anticipation for dinner build as the chocolate settles.
Hisop – Wow. Another four-language dinner, this time in slightly more cramped surroundings than Cinc Sentits– though aside from that, the restaurants feel much the same – but a clear step above in quality. Like so much in this city, the interior is stylish and modern, and the métier is pure excellence. In lieu of cava (though Theresa chooses a glass from the same producer we drank last night, I decide to make up for a lack of true pre-dinner tapas with a little Sherry.
Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla (Jerez) – Salty, dry and balanced, with a pure, lively aspect. Uplifting…and as many have long insisted, a discernable bit better in a fresher, closer-to-the-source state.
Following a tasting menu, we start with sardines dressed with bitter orange and pumpkin, a lively and adventurous flavor combination that truly sets the palate alight. Next is an ice cream of foie gras and ceps (the second mushroom-based ice cream I’ve had this year), which is some sort of mad genius; a mélange of baritone richness almost beyond description.
The wine list isn’t overly long, but it doesn’t need to be, because the options are largely excellent. It turns out that I order the last bottle of a particular wine, and though she brings it to the table, our sommelière seems profoundly reluctant to open it. I offer her a farewell taste to compensate, but she declines.
Barbier “Clos Mogador” 2002 Priorat (Cataluña) – Elegant and plush, with the leather-and-graphite texture of a top Bordeaux, though with brighter acidity and a more mineral-driven aroma. Stones dominate, though there’s a hint of bubblegum (from the garnacha, though it’s important to note that it’s neither unpleasant nor candied in this context), and the elegance turns to graceful strength on the finish. This is one of the small collection of Priorats that I actually like (most are, for me, far too overworked), and it’s a true beauty.
Dinner continues with a tripartite riff on octopus – steamed, grilled and resting in a stock made from dried – with smoky seed/fruit morsels of which we can’t quite catch the name. After that, another set of variations on a theme: pigeon with star anise, iced anise and an anise syrup. The additions are interesting, but the pigeon itself is extraordinary…the best I’ve ever tasted. The finalé is a beautiful array of Spanish cheese, followed by a dessert that I have unfortunately lost to blissful memory.
Service is, once again, flawless. I ask our sommelière to recommend something in the digestivo category, and she comes up with an interesting choice.
Valmiñor Licor de Hierbas (Rías Baixas) – An albariño distillate infused with herbs and sweetened…I think with albariño must, but I’m unclear on this point. It’s entirely herbal on the nose, but the palate is dominated by sweet white chocolate. What’s more striking is how it manages to be almost entirely free of heat. It’s very interesting, and were we not pressed for space, I’d probably find a bottle to bring home.
Home is a short walk, and after a little journal scribbling, we collapse into a deep slumber. It is, once again, well past midnight. Will we be able to get an earlier start tomorrow, or will our tourist days in Barcelona all be afternoons? More importantly: in the face of such amazing food and drink, will we care?
Copyright © Thor Iverson.