I arrived at the Barcelona airport at 3:15, noting that somehow in the past ten years it had changed from a major construction zone to a cool spacious avenue of glass shops, passed quickly through customs (since my flight had originated from Frankfurt, within the Schengen border zone), hiked across the parking lot to the train station (missing the signs to the enclosed bridge with people mover), and took the regional commuter train into town for a miserly 310 pesetas (the Canadian dollar was worth about 100 pesetas at this point). The train had not even started before the first cell phone appeared; they were not as much of a fetish as they had been in Paris the previous summer (paradoxically, they seem to have succeeded much faster in the southern Mediterranean countries, where traditional phone lines are so much harder to get) but still ubiquitous. The industrial zone around the airport eventually gave way to suburban apartment buildings, and then suddenly we plunged into a tunnel and fetched up at a platform beneath Sants station.
Up in the lobby, I noticed an information desk for municipal transit, and bought a T-1 ticket (good for ten bus/metro rides) for 795 ptas. Following the directions of D&M, the people I was visiting, I walked up a small street to the left of the station. I glanced at Pl. Paisos Catalans in front of the station, an overdesigned concrete wasteland which N and I had wandered in July heat a decade ago, and saw clearly what I had not seen then: that it was made for skateboarders.
At the top of the small street, I waited for the 215 bus, which on arrival proved to be tiny: four single seats on either side and I could almost reach across the bus with both arms. "Bom dia," I said to the bus driver as I entered, and he looked at me funny; I was inadvertently speaking Portuguese, but I was only one letter off from the Catala "Bon dia" and some distance from the Castilian "Buenos dias".
We rode a crooked path through the Sants district; engrossed in the street scenes, I had to remember to watch street signs. I got off just after the bus left Carrer (C/ for short) Constitucio, near the end of its short route, on the west edge of the city. The apartment building had a high, gloomy lobby and a tiny lift with a partly manual door. Up to D&M's apartment 7o-4o (7th apartment, fourth of four doors). D, a Greek computer scientist who had been a postdoctoral fellow with N and I last year, was there and greeted me effusively. M, his wife, who had grown up in Barcelona, arrived shortly with wine and cheese. I was their first visitor since they moved back to Barcelona in September. The cheese was ordinary supermarket queso manchego and the wine a Rioja tempranillo from a well-known producer, but it tasted mighty fine to me, especially after five days at a rural German research monastery. We sat and talked for a while, but it was not even five, still early, and time to go out.
We walked a bit along C/ Constitucio and caught a bus (a larger one) which made its way along Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes, dipping slightly south and up to Placa Universitat, and then diagonally down to Placa de Catalunya, the start of the long central pedestrian boulevards collectively called Las Ramblas.
Out of the bus, across the narrow vehicle streets to the side, onto the wide sidewalk in the middle, and down the Ramblas, past T-shirt kiosks (M worked at one once, "What a Mafia!", she exclaimed), human statues (better than the ones that frightened Z around Sacre-Coeur in Paris). There were lots of strollers but it was not overly crowded or unpleasant. "You cannot imagine, until a few weeks ago there were rivers of people here," said M.
We took an impromptu detour into the Mercat de Sant Josep, better known as La Boqueria. Though we plannned to come here the next day, we could not resist, and wandered among the stalls of dried fruits and nuts, fishmongers, greengrocers, and charcuteriees, exchanging English, French, Spanish, Catala and Italian words for various fish, meats, mushrooms, and vegetables.
Back to the center of the Ramblas, past the newly opened Liceu (the opera house, which burned to the ground six years ago, and had been open for two weeks, sporting inconguous electronic ticket machines like in a subway in the middle of restored 19th-century decor), into Placa Reial, the rectangular plaza just off to the west lined with stately palm trees and slighly seedy denizens, down into the low-rent regions near Drassanes, around the absurd Colom monument (Christopher Columbus, a Genovese whom the Catalans claim, faces towards Libya) and into the harbour region.
Abruptly all this was new to me: two years before the 1992 Olympics, it was all under construction. We walked across a wooden swing bridge with undulating forms on poles overhead, and onto a big new development on the Moll d'Espanya spit with restaurants, an IMAX theatre, a large aquarium, and an urban park at the far end. It was not to D&M's taste, and to mee seemed too oriented to tourists, though they said that locals also came down here for excitement.
We walked around back of the complex rather than through it, the lights of Barceloneta visible across the water. Rejoining the mainland, we walked past the large Museu d'Historia de Catalunya (with somewhat more sympatico-looking restaurants built into its base) and into Barceloneta, the little working-class harbour neighbourhood.It was brighter than I remembered (the density of overhead street lights seemed to have doubled), and there was more street life. We strolled through little Place Barceloneta, then the bigger Placa de le Font (with a Mercat, and a big banner announcing a botifarra [sausage] fair, unfortunately a month past), into the back streets, to the larger C/ Almirall Cervera, and towards the water. I recognized a little no-name tapas place we ate at in 1990, and was glad to see it had survived the subsequent developments, but just beyond it the landscape had changed: where there had been a rather disheveled and thin strip of sand, there was the beginning of a wide concrete promenade, overlooking a manicured beach.
It was a long, slow walk along Passeig Maritim and into the Vila Olimpica, another construction zone in 1990. We passed trendy-looking restaurants (Tex-Mex, for example), two 30-story towers, the Gran Casino, and finally a marina area with further low-rise development of bars and restaurants. Here, for the first time since before Placa Reial, there were some street traders, selling counterfeit bags and printed shawls.
M looked at some bags (one she liked was only 1000 ptas but D was not impressed), and we decided that instead of continuing past the remaining harbour development we would walk inland and back to the Ciutadella metro station. We took the yellow line two stops and got off at Jaume I, in the heart of the Ciutat Vella (old city). Down C/ Princesa, then south on C/Montcada past the Museu Picasso (just closing), to a little champagne bar I had read about called El Xampanyet.
It was not what I had expected: not so much posh as homey, with a little bar and a few tapas on display, a few tables on the other side of the small room (which was mostly empty to allow standers), collections of old money and cigarette packets on walls, shelves with porrons (traditional wine jugs) and various alcohol paraphernalia. We seized a table when it vacated, and started with Asturian cider (in a 70ml bottle, fitted with a special stopper, and poured from a great height) and a plate of cheese, then pa amb tomaquet (bread rubbed with tomato and drizzled with olive oil), anchovies (unfortunately prepared in vinegar, a somewhat offputting taste), a plate of charcuterie (llonganisa, llomb, bull [which appeared to be a smoked tripe sausage], and of course xorico).
When the cider was finished, I suggested cava (Catalan sparkling wine, prevented from being called champagne by EU regulations). We were told that the shallow glasses people were drinking just contained bulk sparkling wine, not methode champenoise, so we ordered a bottle (Agusti Torello Mata Gran Reserva Brut Nature). It was good lubricant for an extensive discussion of European and North American politics. The bill was about 5700 ptas; a bit high for what we had, but it was hard to put a price on the atmosphere.
We continued walking through Ciutat Vella, past the church of Santa Maria del Mar (the Gothic church of sailors and harbour merchants), up C/Argenteria and across Via Laietana (the route of the old Roman road), then a bit west to the plaza where the Generalitat (regional government) and Ajuntament (city government) faced each other, down the side of the Ajuntament (whose rear contrasted with its modern facade), and through small streets coming out at Passeig d'Isabel II, one of the series of wide streets running east from the harbour.
A bit farther east, we found Txankolin, a Basque tapas bar, in front of Estacio Franca. It was about 10:00. On the main floor was a long U-shaped bar in the centre of a brightly lit room, with tapas on the bar sides, barely visible through throngs of young people chowing down. It looked hopeless, but there were seats downstairs in the more formal restaurant.
Here the servers were very friendly and chatty. We had a bottle of the house white wine, which was surprisingly good. For starters we shared a plate of orange rovello mushrooms (then just in season), and one of almejas (clams), both cooked in olive oil with lots of garlic and parsley. My main course was rape sobre purrusalda de bacalao con sus raviolis (monkfish with yellow pepper sauce and fried salt cod dumplings); D had some sort of beef roulade, and M medallions of merluza. These dishes were good but not exceptional. Dessert redeemed the place: squares of cool anise pudding with chocolate sauce and garnished with berries, then peach schnapps (Granpecher) served at the bottom of tall glasses with a single ice cube, and finally complimentary Frangelico, because the server said we were "muy simpatico". The bill was about 18000 ptas. Upstairs was deserted, napkins and toothpicks almost covering the floor, with the tired waiters congregated at the far end of the bar, sipping water and trading barbs. Next time we will brave the crowds.
We walked to the Barceloneta subway stop, changed at Urquinaona, red line to Mercat Nou, and through quiet back streets to the apartment about 1 am.
I woke up about seven-thirty, typed travel notes on my Newton, and read my guidebook. D&M rose about nine. I went downstairs with M for coffee and to fetch baked goods. Coffee was to be had in a small nondescript bar (bodega) across the street, with several old men smoking inside. The proprietor greeted M effusively and they fell to talking. The coffee was served in a small glass, which we drank standing up at the bar; M had hers "cortado", topped up with steamed milk. It had good crema but a rather flat finish. A man at the side was playing on a fruit machine, a sort of low-rent slot machine; others were talking football. I studied the bottles of wine and liquors ranged above the bar (one bore the logo of Barca, the Barcelona football team) and the rather dustier ones for sale on the opposite wall. It was a perfect "tipico" moment.
At the "Forn del Pa" on corner we bought country bread for dinner, and croissants glazed with sweet syrup, which we took back to the apartment to eat for breakfast.
We headed out about 10:15, took the 91 bus again to Las Ramblas, and walked down to La Boqueria. It was crowded but not insanely so, though the people wheeling wire grocery haulers (like carryon luggage with wheels) were a bit of a problem. At first we just wandered, comparing and making plans. Then we started buying: at a grand delicatessen counter at the back (La Masia de la Boqueria) we bought persil bodega (a raw ham, which ranged in grade from 1600 ptas/kilo to ten times that), two botifarras (amb bolets y amb escalivadas), some blue Cabrales cheese, and some llonganisa with pepper.
To the fish counters; M confessed she knew nothing, so I spent some time looking. Chiperons (tiny squid) looked very nice but the seller suggested deep-frying them which I didn't want to do on an unknown stove; angulas (tiny baby eels) were very tempting, but only about 36000 ptas/kg. Shellfish were in general too much trouble. So I settled for boquerones, small fresh anchovis, which I'd cooked in Venice. Then mushrooms, rovellos of course, which were all over several stalls and in several grades (the smallest and choicest about 1100 ptas/kg), figs (which were 199 ptas/kilo, about what we'd pay for two at home), and tomatoes.
I wanted to have xeres (sherry) with lunch, but the couple of stalls at the market which sold wines had only ordinary ones, so we walked up the Ramblas to Pl. Catalunya and the big El Corte Ingles department store. I knew they had a "gourmet section" in the basement. It was typically pretentious, but they did have a bottle of Lustau Reserva Solera Don Nuno Dry Oloroso, exactly what I was looking for. We also bought a round of "pa del higos", basically pressed figs and almonds.
Home, then, to cook, and to eat the meal out on the terrace in the sunshine, perhaps 21 degrees. D&M had a small kitchen, a decrepit three-burner gas stove, and almost no equipment: I cut with a table knife on a plastic serving tray, cooked in a nonstick pan with a wooden spoon and some table silverware for utensils. THe easiest to prepare were rovello mushrooms, which M washed and I chopped into bite-sized pieces (quarters) and cooked with minced garlic in olive oil, sprinkled at the end with parsley. With this we had bread and the xarcuteri. The sherry was stunning; a rich brown colour, and redolent on the tongue.
I quartered the figs and cooked them in red tempranillo wine with a touch of sugar and nutmeg. Then for the sardines. Fortunately, I had watched Venetian fishmongers cleaning them: cut or break off the head, use a thumb to split the belly open as far as the spine and clean out the guts, then lift the spine out, flatten the fillet, dust with flour, and panfry. The Venetians could do it with one hand and without getting their hands dirty past the first knuckle; I wasn't so neat, but I was reasonably fast. I fried them in three batches and we ate them with a touch of lemon. We decided there was no room for the botifarra, or the figs. After lunch, I called home on their portable (a wireless, not a mobile); the line flattened out the kids voices but it was still a thrill to connect at that point.
D&M wanted to take a siesta; I was tired, but decided I could sleep when I was back home. I took M's keys and left, heading for Placa del Sants. This was a more oblique route than to or from the Metro, and I somehow ended up climbing through fountain in the Parc de l'Espanya Industrial, just south of the station, in order to reach it. Down into the Metro, across to the Sagrada Familia stop.
Here were the tourists, their buses lined up on the street, they themselves lined up to get in. The church itself, left unfinished by Gaudi at his death in 1926, and resumed by modern architects free to improvise after the Republicans destroyed Gaudi's plans during the Civil War, was as always a maze of scaffolding, but there had been visible progress in nine years; the nave walls were about completed. After contemplating the newer west facade, with its Roman soldiers looking like Darth Vader, I walked through to the old part, studied Gaudi's hallucinatory west facade, and climbed the narrow stone spiral stairs sixty metres up one of the spires, for good views of the "organic" ornamentation, the new towers, and the city around.
Down and west through the streets of the Eixample. Parched after the climb, I stopped and bought a 1.5 litre bottle of water in a small supermarket for a ridiculous 35 ptas, probably the cheapest water I have ever purchased. I was headed for a concentration of modernista (art nouveau) buildings in what was then (and probably remains) a bourgeois suburb: Casa de les Punxes, Casa Thomas, Palau Montaner, and then I emerged onto the broad avenue Passeig de Gracia and walked a few blocks north to look at the best of them all, Gaudi's undulating La Pedrera.
A bank seemed to have taken over the second floor, and there were signs and displays for some sort of millenial countdown. It was about five-thirty, the sun was down, and streets were busy with people and cars. I headed south on Passeig de Gracia to the wonderous concentration of the Manzana de la Discordia: Casa Batllo, with Gaudi's masked balconies, next door to the ceramic facade of Casa Amatller, on the south corner the more conventional Casa Lleo Morera, and a quick peek around the north corner at the Fundacio Tapies topped with its huge spaghetti tangle of aluminum tubing.
I walked up the avenue, examining the cavernous main-floor fast-food and theme restaurants that had sprouted like weeds since I was here last, including a German sausage-and-beer place and a Basque tapas bar. I stopped in at one of them, called El Caffe di Roma, to try their advertised ristretto, but it was thin and bitter, pulled by a harried teenage waitress who simply pushed a button on the electronic controls. There seemed to be several chains of these types of places around the city, all with similar menus (for example, alleged cups of Jamaican Blue Mountain for 3-400 ptas).
I met D&M in front of La Pedrera at 6:30 as planned (though they had been delayed somehow, and forced to take a taxi), and we continued up and into the little streets of the Gracia neighbourhood, talking. Somehow I had gotten the impression, on my past visit, that this was an upscale and insular neighbourhood, but I was wrong; it was cozier than any I had seen so far, with the possible exception of Sants. We washed up about an hour later in Placa Rius i Taulet, sitting at an outdoor cafe table on the square, nursing a glass of white wine (an absurd 175 ptas rent for ninety minutes). The whole place had a familial atmosphere; a waiter at an adjacent pizzeria seemed simultaneously to be clearing beer glasses, tending his energetic three-year-old, and smooching with his wife who stood nearby talking to her sister. The temperature came slowly down; I had left my jacket in the apartment.
The restaurant I had chosen for our blowout meal, e-mailing D to ask M to make reservations, was called Ot, and it was nearby. It was small (space for at most thirty diners), with good art on its walls, a casual air, and friendly and voluble service. We had the place to ourselves for a while, sipping glasses of Ferret Brut cava, looking at the small eclectic collection of books on food, and listening to the shouts from the kitchen staff watching a football match. Suddenly about quarter to ten all the other diners appeared.
The waiter came and explained (in lisping Castilian, with minimal translation from M) that the restaurant served a set menu which changed every three weeks, and each course was to be a surprise to us.
I looked through the wine list, trying to quickly correlate with the copy of Hugh Johnson's Encyclopedia of Wine I had given D just before he left Canada, and chose a wine from Priorat - Usatges 1997 from Siurana, which was also the origin of the excellent olive oil on the table. Priorat was supposed to be a black wine, but this was milder, reminiscent of Chianti, made from the garnatxe (grenache) grape.
The first course arrived: a small croquette of beef and cheese with raspberry/ cinnamon sauce served over baby mizuna. This was more of an amuse-gueule.
Next was an update on the classical Catalan mar i muntanya combinatin: small pieces of chicken and lightly cooked shrimp over escalivada (roasted peppers) on a crisp filo rectangle dusted with sesame seeds and moistened with a reduction.
Then came some small shellfish (like clams, shelled) and a particular kind of denominacion d'origen white beans cooked with shredded botifarra and salvia (sage). Each dish was successively better than the last.
The fourth was a real treat: tripas de bacalao, the expensive and rare innards of salt cod, served over a bed of steamed spinach on a potato cake garnished with pistachio and dates and finished with pepper salsa.
Then came slices of seared ostrich on a thin rectangle of bread with a reduction of fruta de bosco (wild fruits, of which I recognized fragolino, the wild strawberry).
We were asked if we wanted a cheese plate, and D and I tried it. The server said they could not find Spanish cheeses they liked at this tie, so they were French: Laguiole, some cabras (since it was French, it should be called chevre), Camembert, and a small red cube of membranillo, not a cheese but a dense quince puree. (M whispered that probably the Spanish cheeses were just too expensive; that Cabrales, for example, could easily have competed).
Dessert was an explosion of flavours: a small cheesecake with raisins, topped with shredded carrot halvah, with creme anglaise and an oval scoop of smooth mint sorbet. It was over the top, but nonetheless enjoyable.
D & M had an infusion of chamomile, and we were all served petits-fours: small whiskey-flavoured truffles rolled in cocoa, tiny madeleines baked in foil candy wrappers, thin clear sugar crisps with sesame seeds. The bill was about 24000 ptas. It was a most pleasant, relaxing, and satisfying experience.
It was about 11:30 when we left; we walked down to Pl. Catalunya, and took the Metro to Mercat Nou and home. I sent e-mail to the kids, but the connection fell down shortly after I had completed a brief message, and I went to bed around quarter to one.
Woke at eight; got dressed, went downstairs to have coffee. The little bodega across the street was closed, but down the block there was a panadaria, with a few tables; I sat at the bar and had a cafe solo (in an espresso cup) and a croissant. Then back to the apartment to shower and type up travel notes.
I had no idea when D&M would wake up, and in fact it was nearly eleven before they rose. It was another stunning day, sunny and warm. I sat out on the terrace just savouring the weather. I had planned to go to MACBA, the new Museum of Contemporary Art in the Barri Xines, but it seemed like too nice a day to spend indoors. So I cut my museum plans back to one, the Fundacio Miro, which I would visit in the late afternoon.
M decided to stay at home and relax, so D and I caught the subway at Mercat Nou. As we came up to the Metro station, D pointed out the signs printed on bedsheets and hung out of windows facing the train line. They were complaining about noise and vibration, and begging for peace and quiet. "They want them to roof the lines, or something," D said. "You see these signs everywhere. It's a complaining culture."
We changed at Espanya, and took the green line up as far as Vallcarca, heading towards Parc Guell. He had not been this way before (M had brought him in the south entrance on a motorbike a couple of years ago) so he had not seen the series of outdoor escalators that take one up to the western entrance.
We climbed to the highest point in the park, a knoll with a cross on it (rather an ordinary one, with little of Gaudi about it) for the great view of the whole city, from the mountain at Tibidabo with its communication tower across to Montjuic and the tower of the Olympic stadium, the Eixample and the Ciutat Vella, and the spires of the Sagrada Familia. Then we wandered down through the underside of the raised walkways, with their tilted and twisted pillars, to the terrace lined with old ceramics and undulating benches, and down the steps with the lizard fountain to the small quirky pavilions at the south entrance. We worked our way along the shaded paths on the west side of the park, heading back the way we had entered. The park was full of people, but not overcrowded; many were tourists, but there were a lot speaking Castilian and Catalan as well. It was possibly the last good weather of the year, and this was an obvious destination.
The escalators only went up, but there were stairs parallelling them, and we descended quickly and regained the metro. Back in D&M's apartment, I started preparing the botifarras we did not have space to eat the day before. They were so long I had to curve them around the frying pan to fit them in. M peeled apples for a quick puree on the side, and we took out the rest of the persil and Cabrales. The sherry had lost some of its savour, but it was still good, and I sipped some while the sausages fried. We toasted the rest of the bread in the oven, and M grated a tomato and mixed in some olive oil for pa amb tomaquet. We ate outside on the terrace; the sausages were excellent, both kinds. For dessert there were the figs I had cooked in wine, and also some pa con higos.
It was about three when I left the apartment, heading for the Fundacio Miro. I walked up towards the Estacio Sants, then down along C/ Sants. Most shops were closed, but many had window displays, and bakeries and small bodegas appeared open. Coming into the monumental Placa d'Espanya, the small red oval of the Arena (bullring) was on the left, and the towers framing the approach to Montjuic were diminished slightly by the huge posters for the latest congress taking place in the palaces lining the avenida going up to the Palacio Nacional.
Instead of climbing Montjuic (there were escalators here as well, but a longer horizontal distance to cover), I took the 50 bus, which curved up and around the hill, past the Olympic site. But the Fundacio Miro, when I reached it, turned out to have closed at 2:30 (it was closer to four o'clock). I knew MACBA had closed at three. So it appeared that I had manoeuvred myself out of seeing any indoor art.
The city streets were still open, however. I descended a series of staircases that brought me to the edge of the Poble Sec neighbourhood, a cluster of irregular streets at the foot of Montjuic. Crossing Avda Parallel (which does not appear to be parallel to anything, angling as it does down from the northwest to the port), I briefly regained the regular streets of the Eixample, and marvelled once again, as I did each time I entered the zone, at the sensible arrangement of cutting the diagonals off the city blocks, allowing for perpendicular parking as well as opening up the intersections psychologically for pedestrians.
I walked up to the Mercat de Sant Antoni, which was not only closed, but was littered with the remnants of the used book fair that had taken place over lunchtime. A few bedraggled vendors showed a motley collection of items on blankets; it looked as if they had just emptied some of their drawers or closets into boxes to bring there.
I continued into the Barri Xines, and the streets changed abruptly. Now they were narrow, the sun crowded out by the buildings. Laundry was out on lines and over balconies crammed with plants, bicycles, and other paraphenalia. But for the curbs indicating the possibility of cars (though I saw none), I could have been in the back streets of Venice or Florence. Pausing for a moment, I could hear the murmur of a hundred voices coming from post-siesta conversations in the apartments above me.
But no one was on the street; there were no plazas in which people could congregate. Then suddenly I came across one, in an unexpected fashion. A severe white building loomed ahead: it was MACBA, designed by Richard Meier. The open space in front of the museum, which Mike Davis would have called "exclusionary architecture" intended to make the dispossessed feel ashamed and out of place, had instead been colonized by the locals. Couples sat and talked while their children ran around or rode bicycles; twenty-somethings tried out skateboards or sat and smoked. I wondered, though, how long the apartments would resist the imperatives of the urban planners.
The Barri Xines is reputed to be dangerous at times, but certainly not on a sunny day. As I approached the Ramblas, there were signs of life: snack bars, bakeries. I came out near the Liceu; the Ramblas was filled with strollers. D&M were supposed to meet me at seven, here, at the Cafe de l'Opera, but that meant I had nearly two hours to stroll.
I wandered through the streets of the Ciutat Vella, down as far as Placa Reial, along the curved streets to the east with fragments of the original Roman city walls, and up to the plaza in front of La Seu, the cathedral. This plaza had been under construction in 1990, and I don't think we even entered the cathedral.
Now I went in, and was surprised at how small it looked compared to the grand French cathedrals. A mass was about to begin, but I was not intruding; people were sitting patiently while the priest fussed about near the altar, and tourists were circulating along the sides. I could admire the vaults and columns, but I couldn't get near the carved wood choir. I didn't know much about the art, but it seemed undistinguished to me, and I somehow forgot completely about visiting the cloister.
At about five minutes to six, I was walking through the Placa between the Generalitat and the Ajuntament, and spotted a band of older men in grey suits sitting on folding chairs and tuning up, being watched expressionlessly by the uniformed guards protecting the government buildings. At six lights on the top of the building illuminated the square, the band started to play a simple and repetitive tune, and some of the groups of people who had gathered in the square put their coats and bags in a pile, held hands to form a ring around them, raised their arms, and started to dance in a particular pattern. This was the sardana, the national folk dance of Catalonia. The dancers clearly knew each other and had rendezvoused here; most were middle-aged or older, but there were some younger people as well, and what appeared to be one tour group. The band played the tune continuously for about fifteen minutes, then finished with a flourish; everyone cheered and clapped, then broke into a chatting disarray.
I continued to wander, and came across an artisanal market in Placa del Pi, just north of Santa Maria del Pi. Two lines of wooden tables under tents held sellers of honey, cheese, spices, bread, and chocolate; I walked along looking at labels and denomiacions d'origen and tasting samples. The cheeses were tempting, but I didn't have smuggling supplies (Ziploc bags and aluminum foil).
At seven I was standing just to the side of the Cafe de l'Opera, watching the human parade on the Ramblas, the singers and beggars, the human statues, and a steady stream of people meeting in front of the Cafe and either walking off or going into what seemed a total crowd. I did note that there seemed to be as many people leaving as entering, and that the crowd was quite mixed, from teenagers up through people who were on the verge of being senior citizens.
D&M appeared, fashionably late (due more to the vagaries of the Metro schedule than trendiness), and we plunged into the cafe. Every table was full, but to my surprise there were three adjacent seats free at the end of the bar, from which we could observe the comings and goings, or swivel to survey the crowd in the back room. Shortly after we gained these seats, a number of people washed up against our backs, shouting orders over our heads.
Being perched in front of the bar taps, I noticed that they had an Abbaye de Leffe beer on tap, and ordered that. M had cafe cortado; D his usual suc de melocoton (peach juice). M had a sip of my beer and ordered one for herself. I went around the front of the bar to watch the coffee machine, an old pre-electronic La Cimbali, and noticed a printed sign saying "Orxada de Xufa". This is the milky white drink made with variations throughout the Spanish-speaking world; here it is made with tiger nuts, a particular kind of tuber.
I reported this to D&M, and M asked the bartender whose station was nearest us (who appeared to be the jefe, or boss, as he seemed to be giving more orders than he was taking) if it was fresh. Yes, he responded, and it was the last week they were offering it; I had been looking for it all over the Barri Xines, without luck.
We ordered two: one for me, and one for D&M to share. D took one sip and ordered one for himself. "No more melocoton for me," he said. It really was very nice; similar to, but almost in a different dimension from the horchata we had had in California or the Latino restaurants in Toronto.
While D was sipping, I had one more treat to sample: a small machine behind the bar had a glass carafe with a metal bar constantly stirring a thick brown sludge. From time to time the bartender would put a small cup under the spigot and pour out a ration of xocolada caliente (hot chocolate). I ordered one; it was like drinking thin chocolate pudding. It was clear why the metal stirrer was necessary; it started to seize up in my cup, and the last half-centimeter stayed in when I turned the cup upside down.
We gave up our seats to the grateful throng, crossed the Ramblas, and plunged into the Barri Xines again. "This will all be gone next time you come," predicted M, and to confirm it, she took us down behind the Liceu. Again the streets grew dark and narrow; bedsheet signs on the windows overlooking the streets exhorted people not to rob tourists. Suddenly the street widened into a plaza with a circle of palm trees, but surrounded by safety fencing, and with ruins visible to the north. This was the new Raval development, a scheme similar to the Haussman developments in Paris. About three-quarters of a long promenade had been cleared, though only the oval plaza at the south was open; we could walk along the sides, past the ruins and a couple of buildings still standing forlorn, with faded signs for shoe repair places and other humble establishments, one bearing the date 1887. A few months ago this had been a dense collection of apartment buildings like the one I had walked through earlier; now it was most of the way to a tourist-friendly boulevard. Where had the people gone?
I was by this time, unfortunately, in the throes of an allergic reaction to the orxata. I have mild allergies to many foods, including many nuts and fruits with pits, which only need be cooked lightly to render them safe. I had had orxata before, but none as fresh and authentic. The reaction I was experiencing was unprecedented: I was probably in mild anaphylatic shock. My face was flushed, my eyes brightly bloodshot, phlegm thickened my throat, and I felt dizzy and nauseous. Finally I stopped us in a small square with benches, and was as discreetly sick as I could manage against a tree. M ran off to a nearby pharmacy and got me some medicine to calm my stomach.
I started to feel marginally better after that, but it was clear that I could not manage our evening dinner reservations, which I had asked M to make at a modest restaurant in Barceloneta specializing in arros negre (rice and squid cooked in its own ink). D&M loaded me into a taxi and we all headed for home; M, ever chipper, talked up the cabbie about his home town and the culture there.
At home I lay down to rest, shivering, while M prepared me a complementary dish: sort of an arroz blanco, a mild and brothy rice preparation. D and I surfed through the six hundred channels on his satellite TV receiver, seeing nothing of value. I went to bed around ten.
I was up at seven-thirty, feeling much better, and did a bit of packing. D was up at eight, but he had to leave almost immediately for his Catala lesson. I went downstairs with him, shook hands and thanked him on the street corner, then he walked quickly towards the metro while I headed down to a nearby bar for an Illy caffe ristretto doble. At the bakery on the corner I bought some croissants and an apple turnover, which I ate at the table in D&M's apartment while trying to make sense of the Castilian Sunday paper La Vanguardia.
I wrote M a quick note to say I'd be back at ten, took her keys, and went for a walk around the neighbourhood. The only shop open was a small supermarket, which I wandered around for a while, noting prices of wines and tinned seafood, and selection. Various cafes and bodegas were also open, and other businesses had their shutters partly up to indicate intent. A mixture of people walked along: youngsters with backpacks, workers with briefcases heading for jobs, older people taking measured steps.
I returned to the apartment, finished the last of my packing, said thanks and goodbye to M, shouldered my pack, and took the elevator down to the street, heading for Estacio Sants, where I would catch the train to the airport, and fly back through Frankfurt to arrive in Toronto twelve hours later. One thing was clear: I would not wait another nine years to return to Barcelona. More like nine months, if I can manage it, and with the family next time.