Exploring Catalonia: A letter to my friend Chris

Dear Chris. I’m hoping we can make it up Barcelona way to take you up on your offer of inviting us out to dinner. Especially since you mentioned that you really feel like doing it up in style! Hold on to your wallet. I know just the place.

It’s not actually in Barcelona but you mentioned you also want to explore Catalonia a bit. While you’re zipping around here and there you might find yourselves in or near Gerona. It’s a great place, a mid-size town that has enough to offer on its own for a pleasant afternoon stroll through the casco antiguo. (Don’t miss the iron bridge by Gustave Eiffel. It looks like his slightly more famous tower, but smaller and red and, obviously, horizontal.) But the outskirts of town are also home to the world-famous, undiscovered Celler de Can Roca. I know that sounds contradictory, but let me ask you this: Have you ever heard of it? Not only is it a three-star Michelin restaurant, last year it was voted number 2 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I thought I’d put dinner at Celler de Can Roca right at the beginning because you have to have your priorities in order. One last thing: make a reservation ASAP. It’s not exactly a secret in Catalonia.

I’m going to jump around here and there because I know you’re a busy guy and plus, you have probably already thumbed through a few guide books, so here are some highlights.

So for now, let’s get back to the big city. I know you mentioned you wanted to walk down the Ramblas. Okay, do that and get it over with. It’s famous, one of those things you have to do, but really it’s not a big deal and the throngs of tourists can sometimes be overwhelming. On your way down to see the statue of Chris Columbus, tick off another classic and explore the Boquería market. If you sharpen up your elbows a little you might be able to get a bite for lunch at the also-classic and very popular Pinotxo Bar. You might even get served by Juanito himself, in which case, don’t bother trying to order anything. He’s the owner, an older gent usually in a bow tie. He’s just going to size you up, and start serving you all sorts of delicious things. The beef stew I’m not that fond of, but the mongetes y chipirones (beans and baby squid) are outstanding. He uses a type of bean called Alubia de Santa Pau, which you can buy at a few stalls in the market. Get some to take home, they are buttery heaven.

Other quick and random things in Barcelona: I don’t have to tell you to go and visit the Sagrada Familia or other Gaudi buildings, because that’s a given. But also leave some time for the slightly less-well known (and not Gaudí but Lluís Domenech i Montaner) Palau de la Música. A masterpiece of modernista architecture and a memorable place to take in a performance. The Born area is an interesting spot for a tapa or some shopping. It used to be a sketchy barrio but now it’s home to ultra-chic stores and bars. Another very cool area you won’t want to miss is the Gracia neighborhood. Lots of great shops and the restaurants range from stand-up Chinese noodle places to muy elegante candle-lit parlors. The heart of the barrio is the pleasant Carrer de Verdi–don’t miss it.

One of Gaudí’s masterpieces, the Casa Batlló, Barcelona.

Eating and drinking: things to try include vermut de Reus, butifarra, escalivada. Place to try them plus a whole lot more is one of my favorite tapas bars, the superb Cervecería Catalana. It’s on the Calle Mallorca, number 236. Be prepared to wait if you get there right at lunch or dinner time. (More on this later.) While the Cervecería Catalana offers outstanding yet simple fare, for food unlike anything you’ve ever eaten, try to get a reservation at Tickets. It’s not easy, though. The Adrià brothers of El Bulli fame serve up their greatest hits from one of the greatest restaurants of all time (now closed, sadly). If you can’t get in, you can always drown you sorrows next door at their swanky cocktail bar 41º, which is a pretty good consolation prize if you ask me.

Barcelona is a big place with lots to see and do, but you don’t have a ton of time so let’s move on to the beaches of the Costa Brava north of Barcelona. You might want to pull out a map or have Google Earth handy because this might see a little confusing.

So. Which would you like first, the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the bad news, I guess. You’re going in August, so it’s going to be crowded. On some beaches, you might not be able to see the actual beach itself, but you’ll know you’re there when you get sand in your shoes. Okay, it’s not that bad, but keep it in mind. The good news is that the Costa Brava is drop-dead stunning and with a little effort you can still find some quiet spots to lay down a towel. A lot of the coastline is studded with rocky, imposing cliffs with villages tucked into small coves. Near the town of Begur, there are hiking trails along the coast that go from one village to the next. They see very little use and even better, many of them lead to small beaches where there is no road access–as in, delightfully secluded.

Two towns a little farther south come to mind in the “must see” category. Tossa de Mar and Calella de Palafrugell. Tossa de Mar is in one of the most spectacular settings imaginable, and the winding mountain road along the coast is a treat for everyone but the driver, who won’t get a lot of chances to look at the scenery. There are some spots to pull off the road and take some pictures, however.

They called it the Costa Brava for a reason.

Smaller and less crowded but also every bit as worthwhile is Calella de Palafrugell. It’s the quintessential Mediterranean fishing village. If you can tear yourself away from there, also visit the nearby town of Pals. It’s not on the beach, but it’s worth the trip. They also have excellent rice there, so plan to take a kilo’s worth back with you. It’s sold in most of the shops.

You mentioned you were thinking of going to Roses. There’s a big beach there, but the town is not particularly interesting in and of itself. But if you want a really big beach, go to Sa Punta. From Sa Punta to L’Estartit, the beach is a nearly ten kilometers long. Even on the busiest days, the sheer size of the beach defeats the crowds. For a cultural break, north of L’Estartit near the town of L’Escala, wander around the impressive Greco-Roman ruins of Empúries.

If you do go to Roses, you might consider a detour to Figueres to see the Dalí Museum.  Walking around the Dalí museum is like a tour of his mind. Decide for yourself whether he was crazy or a genius, but it’s time well spent. On the coast, farther east of Roses, Cadaqués is tempting. All the good things they say about it are true, but keep in mind it’s a torturous mountain road to get there and it will take longer than you think.

Some final thoughts. I promised more on lunch and dinner times. Here’s the thing. In Spain, everyone does stuff at more or less the same time, and that includes eating. My best advice to you is to get on the Spanish program. You won’t be able to eat lunch at any decent place at noon, and you won’t be able to have dinner at seven. Lunch starts at two o’clock and dinner is served from nine until eleven, sometimes later. So have a tapa or two at midday and then sit down for a big, long lunch at two. Most stores close from two to five and it’s too hot to be outside anyway. Then you can work in a nice siesta, do some shopping in the evening before tapas again at eight, and then walk around a bit to work up an appetite for dinner later on.

This is far from a comprehensive list, just places that I like. If anyone else has suggestions for Chris, please share them in the comments. I hope to see you there, amigo. Have a great trip.

P.S. Yesterday’s Photo of the Day was Besalú. Add it to the list!

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4 Responses to Exploring Catalonia: A letter to my friend Chris

  1. julvic July 12, 2012 at 17:33 #

    I was there in most of the places you mention and it was a treat all the way.

    Two restaurants I loved are the Taberna del Pla, not something that you will choose for its appearance, very informal but the food is unique and plenty of wines (bubbly too) by the glass selection freshly opened bottles and its located in a very interesting square. The clientele is mainly epicurian locals. Also at el Glop, everything you eat there is good but we came back for a second round of the mushroom crusty rice (arroz con costra de setas).

    About the Palau de la Música…what an extraordinary building! it is not in a wide street, yet it is so luminous amazing glass staircase railings. I took a tour since there were no tickets for the shows and it is well worth it. Amazing musicians have performed there, Strauss, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson.

    Well.. you can tell I had a great time and you made me reminisce.
    Thank you Mike

    • Mike Randolph July 12, 2012 at 19:24 #

      That’s what I call Karma! I write some travel tips for a friend and I get some in return. Looking forward to trying out Taberna del Pla. Thanks!

  2. Bev R July 12, 2012 at 18:56 #

    The Palau de la Música! Totally spectacular. It´s a destination in itself and well worth any extra effort. Julvic mentions the Taberna del Pla. I was there too and remember wishing I had several more days so that I could eat my way through the entire tapas menu!

    Two thumbs up also for the Cervecería Catalana. That is now engraved in stone as my first port of call anytime I´m in Barcelona!

    I can´t add much to your itinerary. Everything on it appeals to me but if your friend Chris is passing through Palafrugell – which he could easily do since it´s a bit of a crossroads in the Costa Brava area – there is a massive, stunning liquor store there with easily the best selection of tipples I have seen in all my travels. It is called Vins Grau. Service is there guiding principle and they come through in spades. Check it out at http://www.vinsilicorsgrau.es/ and you’ll see what I mean.

    Thanks for stirring up my memories, too! Great pictures, by the way.

    • Mike Randolph July 12, 2012 at 19:25 #

      I’ve seen that store. I thought it was a warehouse–just because it was so big. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

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