It’s 8 a.m. and I’m dipping a hot churro into a little white paper cup of rich, thick, gooey chocolate. Crunching away as the chocolate drips down my face, I marvel at a city where such a glorious concoction bears the name “workingman’s breakfast.”
The average Jose starts his day in Barcelona this way? Definitely, as Sinatra warbled, “my kind of town.”
Barcelona’s just-right blend of history and jaunty modernism overwhelms the senses. Waves of scooters maneuver with aplomb through the wide, sycamore-lined streets of Example, the city’s posh district. Stylish people of all ages unhurriedly sip wine at cozy sidewalk bistros in the Gothic Quarter and El Born sections of Old Town while scents of something delicious sizzle somewhere nearby. Lunches stretch for two hours, dinners for three, and you never want to check your phone for email ever again.
Barcelona city life is refreshingly agreeable, glorious sunsets never end, and you find yourself smiling all the time. This is how life should be lived.
That’s how I felt, at least, during my too-brief, three-day stay in the city.
The Gothic Quarter is the place to start — avoid the nearby touristy La Rambla — and where I acquired my chocolate breakfast. Carrer de Petritxol, known as “sweet street,” is lined with bakeries and chocolate shops, suffusing the whole area with an intoxicating aroma. Right around the corner is Fargas, a 200-year-old Barcelona institution, which is still making its own chocolate on site using its original grinding wheel.
Wiping chocolate from my chin, I wandered to the massive 14th-century Barcelona Cathedral. The large plaza in front attracts the faithful and tourists who enjoy the neighborhood’s myriad shops and tapas bars. As they have for centuries, white geese occupy the church’s cloisters and, if you’re lucky, you might hear an occasional ecclesiastical honk.
There, I made a wonderful find — Estampería San José, a tiny shop founded in 1919 and chock-full of Catholic iconography. Admiring the vast selection of crucifixes, statues, icons, rosaries, medals and artwork, I picked up a charming First Communion rosary for my grandson and a more elaborate silver one for myself.
Feeling spiritually refreshed, I strolled to El Born, an area equally as old as the Gothic Quarter and, after grabbing a quick street side cafe sandwich, took in the eye-popping Museu Picasso. Opened in 1963, the museum showcases more than 4,200 works in five adjoining medieval palaces. It was the first museum dedicated to Picasso’s work and the only one created during his lifetime. Starting with an astonishingly lifelike portrait he painted at the age of 15 depicting his sister’s First Communion, the museum lovingly showcases his artistic progression from student to journeyman to genius.
Freelance tour guide Gonzalo Salaya Ventura’s thorough art knowledge (he spent 12 years at Museo Picasso) brought the more esoteric elements of Picasso’s work to life for me. Picasso’s blue period, for example: Was it meant to be morose or did he simply choose blue paint because it cost less than other colors? Discuss.
It was time to head back to home base for a rest. And what a home base it was — the aptly named Majestic Hotel and Spa Barcelona.
Built in 1918, the hotel underwent a $30 million renovation in 2013 that was worth every penny. Marble floors, neoclassical columns, grand staircases and Louis XV chairs in creamy fabrics greet weary travelers, as does the hotel’s signature fragrance, Musc Imperial Cologne Absolue, formulated by French perfumer Atelier Cologne.
Weary from tromping, I opted for dinner at the hotel. Good choice. Michelin chef and native Catalonian Nandu Jubany and his staff run a tight, delicious ship at the Majestic’s two restaurants and two bars. The focus here is on farm-to-table cuisine and honoring fresh, local ingredients. I was able to personally confirm this approach with dinner at the rooftop La Dolce Vitae.
I started with the local specialty, coca bread (toasted flatbread with tomato and olive oil), topped with duck liver and caramelized apples. Then I indulged in anchovy-stuffed olives and avocado and red-tuna tartare cannelloni, followed by a “bikini sandwich” — a Spanish grilled ham and cheese — made with truffles and Joselito ham. (Joselito ham is regarded by many, now including me, as the world’s best.)
It was a great way to close the day, and I was already dreaming of breakfast the next morning.
It was worth the wait. “The Majestic Breakfast Experience” brought an abundance of fresh pastries, juices and jams, Iberian meats and omelets so light I believe they could float, all accompanied by Moët & Chandon Champagne.
Properly fortified, I walked along Passeig de Gràcia boulevard, Barcelona’s most prestigious promenade, in the heart of Eixample. With its art nouveau iron street lamps, carved stone benches and exclusive shops like Dior, Hermès, Stella McCartney and others, it was a fun window-shopping experience.
Eixample is home to famed architect and native son Antoni Gaudí’s most delightfully quirky private residences, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló, as well as his masterpiece, the still-incomplete (but they’re working on it) Sagrada Família basilica.
Casa Milà, locally known as La Pedrera or “open quarry,” refers to its rough-hewn, undulating stone facade and twisting wrought-iron balconies. Casa Batlló is decorated with Gaudí’s broken-tile trencadis mosaics (loathed by many of the citizenry at the time as trash) and the colorfully arched roof resembles scales of the dragon slain by St. George, Catalonia’s patron saint.
Then I hit Sagrada Família. It’s easy to see why it’s the most visited and controversial monument in Spain. One facade is all trippy-drippy Gaudí, while the other represents newer interpretations of his style. Next stop: the fascinating Park Güell, another Gaudí undertaking, which was built as a private housing estate on a hill overlooking the city and harbor. Begun in 1910, the lovely enterprise flopped — Gaudí lived in one of the only two houses ever built there.
I had to see the Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul. Why? For one thing, it’s proof that Gaudí wasn’t the only prominent architect in town. Lluís Domènech i Montaner designed the facility in 1902, and the grounds reflected his belief that fresh air and trees would help patients recuperate more quickly. The exquisite setting proved to be Gaudí’s last stop: He died here in 1926 after a tram accident.
A quick rest at the Majestic and then dinner. For lunch, I had gone back to El Born to Vila Viniteca, a wine shop founded in 1932 that also served hand-carved meats and cheeses, of which I freely availed myself. I enjoyed the best blue cheese I’ve ever had, washed down with an exquisite red wine suggested by my sunny waitress. Crispy chocolate biscuits made for a perfect finish.
All that architecture had made me hungry again, and I headed to Bellavista del Jardín del Norte. It’s a family venture by FC Barcelona soccer star Lionel Messi and his siblings, and it’s designed to look like a traditional Argentinian town. I chose a sampling of various tapas — who knew I liked razor clams? — and enjoyed the view of its 1,000-square-foot garden. Viva Barca!
Gorging once again on the Majestic’s bounteous breakfast, I then cabbed it to the Miró Foundation in Montjuïc, a hill overlooking the harbor that’s home to a dizzying collection of modern art by Joan Miró and other influential artists. I couldn’t stop staring at Alexander Calder’s mercury fountain. The artist created it in 1937, when no one realized just how dangerous liquid mercury could be. Not surprisingly, the fountain now lives behind thick, sealed glass walls.
Ah, lunchtime. One Ocean Club is where the one-percenters park their yachts, enjoy the view and dine on super-fresh sushi and makis along with traditional Catalan cuisine. It was here that I confirmed my new-found fondness for razor clams and savored the roasted scallops with passion fruit and caprese, followed by a puddinglike chocolate cake. Since it’s a private club, you have to know someone to get in, and I’m not saying how I did it, but let’s just say a little name-dropping worked wonders — along with my natural charm, of course.
After a leisurely stroll along the pristine beach (not all five miles of it, but enough), I had a shopping errand to run at Kokua, a local women’s shoe store chain. This 32-year-old family-run business specializes in a kaleidoscopic assortment of handmade ballet flats and handbags in smooth or textured leathers. I procured a pair of red sequined Wizard of Oz shoes for my grown-up daughter (who, upon their presentation, immediately turned into a squealing child).
My final Barcelona dinner, at Monvinic, proved a worthy sendoff. Called one of the five best wine bars in the world by Food & Wine magazine, this upscale spot boasts a 2,000-bottle cellar and a stellar kitchen whipping up dishes like chargrilled duck, cream of carrot soup with ricotta gnocchi, sea urchin consommé with squid and herbs in a lemon-lobster sauce … you get the idea. My waiter suggested impeccable wines for each course, and I wrapped up the festivities with a tangerine sorbet, chocolate ganache, nougatine and cocoa concoction.
Strolling back contentedly to the Majestic for my final evening, I marveled at Barcelona’s civilized approach to life, then settled into a comfy chair on my balcony overlooking the broad expanse of Passeig de Gràcia. Raising a glass of chilled verdejo, I reflected on an action-packed three days and bid comiat — Catelan for farewell — to this vibrant, energetic city.
Brian Melton may not habla much espanol, but he sure speaks fluent fine wine, gourmet dining, haute hotel experiences and admirable architecture.
Where to go
Barcelona Cathedral: www.catedralbcn.org
Estampería San José: www.articulosreligiosos.com/es/
Museu Picasso: www.museupicasso.bcn.cat
Casa Milà (La Pedrera): www.lapedrera.com/ca/home
Casa Batlló: Passeig de Gràcia, 43, 08007 (+34) 932.160.306, www.casabatllo.es/en/
Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family): www.sagradafamilia.org
Park Güell: www.parkguell.cat/en
Hospital of Holy Cross and Saint Paul: www.santpau.cat/en
Miro Foundation: www.fmirobcn.org/en/foundation/
Where to stay
Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona: www.hotelmajestic.es
Where to eat
Vila Viniteca: www.vilaviniteca.es
Bellavista del Jardín del Norte Restaurant: bellavista.barcelona/?lang=en
Good to know: Gonzalo Salaya Ventura’s amusing commentary brings Barcelona’s attractions to life. Contact him at email@example.com