It’s early morning in Barcelona. Without looking out the hotel window I can tell by the sound of cars sloshing through puddles 3 floors below on Via Laietana that it rained again last night,
We’re staying in the Hotel H10 Cubik in Barrio Gótico, just around a long corner from La Rambla. Like its name suggests, the Cubik’s decor and brutalist architecture plays with geometric shapes, and, in the lobby, plenty of mirrors. There’s also a vast library in the lobby that is more for show than for guests to actually select books from to read. I mean, you’re in a four star hotel in Barcelona and you’re sitting in the lobby reading? The lobby is also dotted with glass vessels that contain gummi candies. During our first two Barcelona mornings, before Cora gets up, I’ve been going down to the lobby to have coffee, rob the glass jars of handfuls of candy and read. So there you have it. I’m staying in a four star hotel in Barcelona and I’m having coffee and candy and reading in the lobby. Loser.
Beginning on the third morning the serve yourself coffeemaker has disappeared from the lobby. That’s a problem because I’ve found that in Spain it can be hard to score an early morning cup of coffee. True, early morning can be a relative thing, but my morning clock is clearly at odds with Spain’s morning clock. For me, early is 4:00, 4:30 is tolerable, 5:30 is just about right and if I’m rising at 7, well, I’ve overslept. Unless you’ve got a personal coffeemaker, 6 AM coffee in Spain is as hard to find as a bologna on white bread sandwich (not that I’ve had occasion to seek out the latter). This morning, I’ve gone beyond oversleeping. It’s 7:20 and Google tells me that there’s a Starbucks that opens at 7:30 and just a few minute’s walk from the hotel (Yes, not satisfied with exporting the king, the clown and the chicken colonel, America has also exported the siren).
The skies are clear as I step out onto the sidewalk. It’s been intermittent rain for all four days that we’ve been in Barcelona and the forecast is for rain later in the afternoon. Still I’m hoping, but not too confident, that the day will be free of rain. I’m also hoping, but not too confident, that Google Girl will actually lead me to Starbucks. It should be easy an easy shot, just up Via Laietana and across Ronda de Sant Pere, but Google Girl can turn easy into impossibly lost, within the space of half a block. I’ve dutifully, and foolishly followed her instructions and right in the middle of a dark block, Google Girl announces, “You have arrived.”
“Google, you’re such a dumbass.”
I do a reset and run another fool’s errand that takes me to another mysterious corner of Via Laietana. One or two more runs at it and once again I’ve proven that old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Bag the coffee.
By the time I’m back to the room, Cora is up and ready to go.
Go where? That’s the question.
From the start, months ago, when I was laying out an itinerary, this last day in Spain would be an open, let’s just do something on the fly, kind of day. And it still is.
I thought about visiting Camp Nou, the giant soccer stadium on the other side of town. There’s a pretty cool comprehensive tour but I can’t see myself spending the hundred euros to tour a stadium – especially since my credit card is straining at its credit limit seams. I suggest to Cora that maybe we can explore the waterfront, check out the old port and take in the Maritime Museum.
She’s up for a walk to the waterfront but the first thing on her mind is coffee. I’ve been up long enough that my coffee jones has subsided for the day. That said, if we find a place along the way, I won’t turn down a café con leche.
Café con leche. That’s coffee in Spain. Even at a Spanish Starbucks you can’t just order a grande coffee. Starbucks in Spain adheres to the coffee culture which prescribes a coffee drink to be espresso based, meaning that the closest you get to a cuppa Joe is an Americano, espresso extended with some hot water. I usually take my coffee black; no cream, so sugar, no extra glop. My rationale is, I like the taste of my coffee. That said, I’ve come to enjoy café con leche. Maybe it’s just because café con leche is just so – you know – European.
I agree to a stop for breakfast but it’s on the condition that we go to a pastry shop. Not a bar or a restaurant that sells pastry, but a place with actual ovens in the back that turn out the rich, the flaky, the exquisite pastries that I’ve become accustomed to.
It’s a straight shot down Via Laietana to the waterfront where we run into Passeig d’Isabel, the broad avenue that parallels the shoreline. We’re fairly close to the cruise ship terminals and the restaurants here are already packed with tourists decked out in aloha shirts and bright, flowery, summer dresses.
We stop at the first restaurant we see. It’s not a bakery but I feel like I’m going to have to lower my standards because Cora’s getting hungry. I’ll have to settle. At this restaurant, it seems that Spanish/Catalan is a second language; British, Germans, Americans and French. Eggs Benedict runs 15 euros and a simple omelet 12 euros. I can smell a large side order of tourist trap, prepared by the joint’s accountant, wafting out of the kitchen. We pass. We stop at a few more restaurants. All have similar offerings, at similar prices and cater to the same crowds of tourists.
Why am I avoiding tourists? Simple. I came to Spain to experience Spain and gathering with the British, the French, the Germans and the Americans, especially the Americans, runs counter to that goal. I didn’t spend thousands in coin of the realm to sit next to some good ol’ boy wearing an American flag t-shirt bearing the slogan, ‘These colors don’t run.’
Sandwiched between Placa del Poeta Bosca and the, closed on Sunday, Mercat de la Barceloneta is Restaurante Marisma Barceloneta. As we pause at the fringe of the large outdoor seating area and scan the menu, which offers desayuno at decent prices, we pick up the conversations coming from the tables and they’re all in Catalan. No French, no English and no German. The place seems tourist free. To paraphrase Google Girl, ‘We have arrived.’
As the waitress hustles past, I manage to catch her eye just enough, “Dos, a fuera, por favor?”
She nods towards a table and we sit down near three matrons who are deep in gossip and cigarettes. It’s not ideal but we’ve come to accept the idea that smoking is often allowed a fuera, either officially or through a blind eye.
In a few moments the waitress hands us a pair of menus and rushes off to another table. She’s solo ride and the outdoor tables are llenas (full).
The cost of our two omelets comes to less than one order of eggs Benedict at the tourist trap a few blocks away.
There is that unfortunate extra cost of a side order of secondhand smoke coming from the matrons. One finishes up a shmag and then immediately fires up another. “I hope she has a good oncologist,” I remark to Cora.
I can tell that the three women have been there a while. They were done eating long ago and now they’re nursing their café con leche as they sit and jabber, cocooned in a gray fog of cigarette smoke. Every now and then they holler at an acquaintance passing by, who stops to join the conversation before moving on. That’s the way it is here in Spain. No apparent hurry to turn tables at the restaurants. Over three weeks I can’t remember when a server has given anybody loitering at a table the bum’s rush. Even when the restaurant is bursting with diners who have long finished eating, the server often won’t bring the check until the customer holds up a hand and asks for it. Eating out isn’t just an occasion for the purpose of ingesting food and leaving to go about your business. Here, it’s a social occasion, a time for enjoying a leisurely meal, a few glasses of wine and the company you’re keeping. The main course is communion with friends.
If you’re an American used to the custom of eating and running, you’d better get used to the idea that the servers aren’t necessarily in a rush to dote on you. They’re busy, especially if the place specializes in those delightful small plates known as tapas, where the server has to keep going back and forth between the kitchen, the bar (refill the wine or beer or vermouth cocktail) and the tables. You don’t order all of your tapas all at once. It’s a process of grazing and ordering as you go and feeding off the conversation long after the food is gone.
Before the meal, before even the first order is placed, the Spanish server doesn’t approach the table all perky, and, in a sing-song voice recite the annoying American server standard, “Hi my name is Kristy with a ‘y’ and I’ll be your server tonight. Can I start you off with a drink?”
More often than not, the server comes to our table in his/her own sweet time and simply says, ‘Diga,’ ‘Diga,’ translates to ‘speak,’ but in a busy restaurant can politely mean, ‘Speak up or I’m going to leave and tend to others who know what the fuck they want and then I’ll come back to you when it looks like you’ve got your shit together.’ We place our order and the server responds, ‘vale,’ which means, ‘got it.’ This isn’t to say that servers have an attitude. They don’t. Attitude seems to be in short supply here. A server might have a raft of full tables but she’s rarely above stopping to engage in conversation. (We experienced the one exception during our first night in Granada. At La Casa Del Abuelo, the server was gruff and impatient. It was probably because he was a one man band, having to divide his time between taking and delivering orders, pouring beer and wine, and slicing razor thin slices of jamon. He suddenly turned jovial once help arrived).
Here at Restaurante Marisma Barceloneta, Cora asks the server if it gets busy in Spain during Holy Week. Our server pauses to explain that it gets ridiculously busy during Holy Week. When Cora adds that it gets busy during Holy Week in her home country, The Philippines, our server says that she’s always wanted to go to The Philippines and visit the beaches.
“Go during the winter months. It’s too hot in the summer,” Cora advises.
“Is it still warm?”
“Oh yeah, you’ll love it.”
More chatting, then ‘la cuenta,’ and we’re on our way.
While Cora stops at the ‘asseo’ (toilet) I go looking for a bakery. Even though I’m full, I need pastry. My mission for this final full day in Spain is to eat the last of some of everything that, over the past three weeks has thrilled my taste buds.
“You’re going to get diarrhea,” Cora warns.
“Fine, it’s going to be worth it.”
Half a block down Carrer de l’Atlàntida is a little bakery called Macxipa. The sign over the door says Des de 1903 (Since 1903). In business for 120 years? Oh hell yes. I walk in and a woman who looks like she might be the original owner steps to the display case. I point out a chocolaty something, “Una de estas, por favor.”
I go back to where I left Cora and tear into the pastry. It’s wonderful. Only later do I find that Macxipa is a chain operation. What the hell, if it’s been around since 1903 they must be doing something right, I did see ovens in the back, and that pastry was a damn sight better than anything I’ll get at the Safeway bakery department back home.
Once at the beach we stroll along the promenade that follows the shoreline. The Mediterranean is a sparkling azure under a sky that’s a mix of blinding blue and puffy clouds. People have already staked out spots on the beach. Sure, rain is in the afternoon forecast but if the skies are clear the sun worshippers won’t be denied. At beachfront bars, bartenders are busy drawing beers and mixing cool summer cocktails. The promenade is dotted with “entrepreneurs” who are hawking multicolored, wafer thin blankets which I assume are for laying out on the beach. The aggressive ones almost refuse to be denied, blocking your way, even when you, just as aggressively, wave them off.
We’ve left the beach and we’re strolling down a narrow, shady street when I’m struck by the Sunday quiet. We’re in La Barceloneta, a small, sedate neighborhood tucked between the vibrant lively beach and the bustling city.
The balconies above are decorated with the vivid colors of Sunday laundry flickering alongside the many Catalan independence flags.
Down here on the ground, neighbors out for a walk on their dia de descanso, stop to exchange gossip. Occasionally the conversation is a shouted one between balconies.
I stop for a moment and it comes to mind that taking in this Sunday quiet, tourist free Spanish neighborhood is as pleasing as visiting any cathedral or monument.
“What?” asks Cora
“I love this. Let’s just walk up and down the blocks here and take this in. Is that okay?”
We weave up and down the blocks. Two bakeries, a few store fronts apart. Really? Are you kidding me? Back home I have to drive miles, MILES, to find a single, bona fide, we didn’t get it from a mass producer, bakery. There’s three ferreterias (hardware stores) in a single block and each one is jammed full of gizmos and gadgets, reminiscent of the old school hardware stores back home. A corner bodega, a tiny bar that’s half open.
A dog sits on the sidewalk patiently watching his human apply a coat of varnish to the front door. A parakeet is chirping in a cage sitting on the sill of an open window. A block over, a dog sits on a balcony. He looks out on the world passing by and occasionally barks out his opinion.
After covering the few blocks of La Barceloneta, we decide to walk to the Picasso Museum on the way back to the hotel.
Crossing over Passeig d’Isabel is to cross the line back to the commotion of Barcelona. It’s a short walk to the Iglesia De Santa Maria del Mar. Sunday mass and the tourists are mixing in with the devout. As we walk in, I bag my camera. There are people here who are on a spiritual journey and while I might not share their beliefs I have to respect them.
Cora slides into one of the pews. We’ve been to more than a few churches during the course of three weeks. Sometimes she settles for the tourist routine, a walkaround and some photos, and other times she sits for a while to pray. This time she has the chance to take part in a mass. She doesn’t understand the words being spoken, but she knows the language of the ceremony.
“You wanna do mass?” I ask.
“Okay, I’m gonna cruise around. I’ll meet you here.”
An old man sits at the entrance to the church holding out a paper cup while intoning what sounds like a prayer. Yeah, I know, I’ve been told, “beware of the beggars.” Fuck that. I’ve hated the sound of that callous admonition since before we left the States.
I’ve been lugging around a pocketful of spare change for damn near three weeks and there’s no sense in changing it back into enough U.S. coin to buy a small coffee. I pull a fistful of anything, from a one cent to who knows what, and drop it into the old man’s paper cup. He nods, and then continues the utterance that’s been falling mostly on deaf ears. The old man doesn’t grab me by the throat or pick my pocket or call some cronies hiding in a dark corner to jump me. “Beware of the beggars.” For me it isn’t any different than it is back in the States. You need a hand out, fine. Take it spend it wherever brings you comfort and Godspeed to you.
Knowing that Cora is going to want to sit through a fair portion of the mass, I strike out and quickly find another of those mystifying narrow streets that one is able to look down for a few dozen meters before the lane bends into the unknown. I’ve just stumbled into a cobblestone labyrinth known as El Born.
Within this network of cobblestone canyons is an array of shops and galleries. If you’re looking for a cheap souvenir this is not the place for you. The shops here are trendy. No FC Barcelona ball caps or España Is For Lovers coffee mugs here. You might, though, find a hand sewn fedora or some handcrafted pottery.
I’m not interested in shopping. I’ve found something more intriguing. A veritable outdoor art gallery. Most of the urban storefronts are shuttered with a corrugated steel rollup door during closing hours, and most of those doors have been turned into after-hours canvasses by would-be artists, from taggers to accomplished muralists. In an area that encompasses just a few blocks I stop numerous times to admire the vibrant street art of El Born.
After picking up Cora at the church, we fall in line for tickets to the Picasso Museum and then abruptly fall out of the line. Vulgarian that I am, Picasso has never really grabbed me so we wind our way slowly back to the hotel.
After a short rest, Barcelona calls to me one more time. I’m headed to Chocolateria Valor for a final dose of churros and chocolate. On my way I stop to look at “El Petó” de Joan Fontcuberta, an inspiring and sentimental mural in the otherwise unremarkable, Plaça d’Isidre Nonell (I’ve described the mural in a previous post The Sound of a Kiss).
As I leave Plaça d’Isidre Nonell, I’m struck by a profound melancholy. It’s as if my walking away from this moving piece of public art is an allegory for my departure tomorrow morning from Spain. Suddenly chocolate and churros has lost its appeal so I just decide to walk, without any goal in mind, and enjoy my final hours in Barcelona.
11 thoughts on “Spain: Beginning at the End”
Beautifully written as always. Thank you for this vicarious experience of Barcelona. Lots of things to enjoy.
The comparison of the servers — “diga” and “with a y” — brilliant.
Diga. I had to get used to that. At first, it sounded a bit brusque, but after a few days of constantly hearing it I mustered the courage to actually use it when I was trying to figure out how to use the ticket machine at the metro station.
I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Thank you.
You nailed it, Paul – the joy of Europe’s old cities, and probably Spain and Italy in particular – is its quiet corners and its moments of peace. Early morning streets, neighbourhoods where the residents are permanent rather than visiting, finding that quiet cafe or bar where you’re an outsider, but a welcome outsider. Spanish waiters can, as you say, appear rather surly – but the difference between those in a back street and those in the tourist areas is palpable. And it’s easy to empathise with both. Glad you enjoyed Barcelona, look forward to hearing more of your Spanish “fiesta”.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I have to say that your comments are very much appreciated given how extensively you travel.
Since returning, I’ve often been asked, “What was your favorite part?” Given that we traveled for 3 weeks and two of those weeks were on the road it can be a tough question to answer. Invariably my answer includes a description of going for a walk and exploring the narrow streets with no particular goal in mind other than discovery. That was true from giant Madrid and Barcelona to little Zafra.
In your comment, you mention Italy. That is next on the agenda come October.
I think you will love Italy. The ability to wander aimlessly is one of the things which becomes so much easier when and if one is able to indulge in long term travel. Time is different, and so is never wasted when you don’t know what turning the next corner will bring. I highly recommend it!
I already love Italy. My father served in Italy in WWII and spent some time there after the war. My mother was a war bride. From the time I was three until I was 27 I visited every few years and stayed with family in Rome, Padua and Venice. I haven’t been in 30 years now. It’s going to be interesting (shocking?) to see the change.
I much enjoyed Barcelona with you and had to chuckle at a few of your observations of US v European habits. We never stay in Barcelona – way too touristy – preferring to stay in a typically Catalan resort just a train ride away.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I have to say that I much prefer the European habits. I hadn’t been to Europe in 30 years and returning was a joy. I hadn’t realized how much I missed Europe. In fact, I hadn’t realized that I DID miss Europe.
Barcelona wasn’t in my original plans but after being told that we couldn’t properly do Spain without Barcelona I changed my mind. And I’m glad that I did.
We did stay one day/night in Sitges, just south of Barcelona. It was planned as a last stop before hitting the touristy city but I found Sitges to have a huge density of tourists. I suppose that I should have researched that part a little more thoroughly.
You can never do too much planning and preparation Paul. Frankly it’s half the fun for me and I’m glad you enjoyed your return to Europe.
This is a beautiful description of an old European city at its best. A leisurely drink or meal at a pavement cafe (even in so-called surly Paris we are almost never rushed to free up a table!), a stroll through back streets where locals out-number the visitors and where shops seem unchanged for decades, a good cup of coffee (please not Starbucks though, it’s awful stuff!) and a flaky pastry, some street art (I do hope there are photos to follow?) and a generous dose of aimless wandering 😀
” … a generous dose of aimless wandering.” That says it! Whenever Cora and I were done with the itinerary and she wanted to relax in the hotel room, I saw that as my time to do some aimless wandering. The aimless wandering was a highlight of the entire trip. Yes, photos will follow.
Thank you for reading and commenting.