It's fair to say that our tastebuds were more than ready for Spain by the time we touched down in Barcelona on a balmy Saturday evening. Hola Espagna!
I had booked a reasonably priced guesthouse on the internet, which almost seemed too good to be true for the price as its located right in the heart of the city. 'Allys Guesthouse' is just a short walk from such famous landmarks as La Sagrada Familia ('the Sacred Family'), which is the 128 year old 'work in progress' of Spain's most celebrated artist and architect, Gaudi.
Luckily we had booked a car to collect us from the airport as our accommodation is on the 2nd floor of a tall terrace building which looks pretty much like every other terrace building in Barcelona, and so at almost 10pm in the evening by the time we arrived it was a blessing the driver enabled our safe passage.
The guesthouse is very clean and what I would describe as an upmarket backpackers hostel, with two communal bathrooms and a great European style breakfast of fruit, cereal, bread, ham and cheeses and drinkable coffee included. No more baked beans!
Looking out our window is a beautiful streetscape of 'Romeo and Juliet' inspired balconies and gorgeous trees lining the streets. Being so close to town we were worried about the noisy party loving Catalonians, however it is surprisingly quiet. Fate being what it is, as a result Oscar has decided he too is a party loving Catalonian and danced around all evening as if he were at an all night flamenco bar. So we are feeling a little rough to say the least, as is if we are on a twisted sort of Contiki Tour and our tour guide just happens to be a one year old hyped up on bananas and milk instead of beer and red bull...
Onwards and upwards and day one in Barcelona saw us secure Oscar in his ergo backpack and it was time to hit the streets. Neither Oscar or I can speak a word of Spanish (and in Oscar's case English is currently a challenge) so luckily for us Marco has brushed up on his Portuguese so effectively that he can converse with most, as both languages can generally understand each other with several similarities in vocabulary. Contrary to what many believe in this part of the world not everyone can speak English, despite the thousands of tourists Barcelona welcomes each year - so this has been a god send and I have been extremely impressed by his language skills yet again.
So back to Antoni Gaudi. As I said La Sagrada Familia is a 128 year old work in progress which is not nearly complete after Gaudi set out to build one of the most intricate and enormous cathedrals in the world back in 1882 (it's being built to hold over 4000 people, which will make it the world's largest). A few minor setbacks such as the Spanish civil war in 1936 resulted in most of it being burnt down, it's taking a while to get finished and relies largely on donations from the public (as a penance for their sins...or 'God-bribe' as I like to call it) to continue its work.
Still well worth the look this gothic masterpiece in training has some of the most divine stained glass windows in the most vibrant colours I have ever seen. Poor old Gaudi perished after being hit by a tram in 1926 after 40 years of his own life working on it, however his body lies in a crypt underneath the construction so I guess he will get to see the fruits of his labours at some, as I am pretty sure his own penance will grant him a front row seat at the grand unveiling. Looking at the sketches of what the finished cathedral will reveal it's going to be pretty amazing as it already takes up a great proportion of the skyline of the eastern side of the city. I for one would love to see them place the 10 foot Jesus statue on the top of the spire when it's completed sometime in 2587...
We worked out we had been walking for over two hours and been in Barcelona for over 16 hours without visiting one tapas bar which was simply unacceptable, so we headed towards 'La Rumblas' (the main strip in the city) in search of some sustenance. The first bar we picked offered without doubt the best garlic prawns I have ever had based on taste, although the size of the prawns themselves were very poor in comparison to what we are spoilt with in Australia. Never the less Oscar inhaled most of the dish and a good portion of the spicy chorizo before we decided that if we couldn't do a pub crawl with a one year old, a tapas crawl was a pretty good second prize.
The next bar we visited had over 40 tapas displayed along the bar calling our names from the street, we really couldn't resist popping in for a few more prawns and another Estrella Damm beer. I know we have only been in Spain for about 5 minutes and we don't have much to compare it to yet, but this was a serious tapas bar and the only agony was working out how we could escape without eating everything on the menu and blowing our entire week's budget. The maitre de was also very welcoming - if I closed my eyes he had the voice of Antonio Bandaris, but in reality looked more like Rolf Harris, so this wasn't the perfect movie scene but it was pretty darn close. As we were enjoying a plate of chilli prawns we heard behind us 'Antonio' talking to an English family who had just walked in. The mum was enquiring if they had a kids menu as "my family don't like that so' oh food!" (pointing dismissively to the colourful tapas selection). Antonio quite rightly was none too pleased and I almost chocked on my spicy chicken as he very loudly ordered them with a wave of his arm towards the door "..well you can go to McDonalds!" Possibly a 'you had to be there moment' but take it from me the way Antonio put them back in their place was something to be admired for its sheer boldness.
Old Antonio was however not void of all charm. I learnt quickly the Spanish are as charismatic as their Italian brothers, when as soon as Marco walked away to pay our bill, my new friend hurried over to me, took my hand and pulled me close before whispering into my ear 'Senora...you are THE most beauuutiful woman I ever seen in my entire life!' before stealing a quick hug and throwing me a cheeky wink (of course he has never said that before has he?) Ok so he wasn't the real Antonio Bandaras but even Marco might excuse my blushing at being romanced in Barcelona...
The majority of the time we have spent in Barcelona has been completely on foot (who said you can't get your 5-10km a day walk in with a baby in tow?), and has been ruled largely by our greediness for all foods Spanish. Did I mention we like eating? From Tapas bars and seaside restaurants, to continental delis and markets - we have not been disappointed. My favourite cuizinha has included a dish made of roast capsicum and eggplant baked with goat's cheese, warm croquettes of bacalau (salted cod), Spanish hot chocolate, and spicy sausages we bought at an enormous markets just off La Rambla. I say MY favourite foods as while Marco and I agree on many things, bacalau is to Marco what kryptonite is to superman and he shudders' every time it is ordered.
Mastering a fine balance between gluttony and art, we have also visited La Pedrera of Caixa Catalunya which is said to be one of the benchmark cultural spaces in Barcelona. It's a striking building which is apparently gorgeous lit up at night time (not that we would know as we are normally confined to barracks around 8pm...Oscar...).The building is actually two apartment blocks Gaudi built with two independent entrances arranged around two large, interconnecting patios in order to illuminate all the dwellings. The innovative design is functional and ornamental which broke the architectural styles of its time. The facade appears to be carved out of rock and as such the name 'La Pedrera' means stone quarry.
One floor of the centre is dedicated to Gaudi (massive shock); and is a walking history through his career in design and examples of what inspired him. The exhibition presents an overview of his work through plans, models, photographs and videos and I was utterly exhausted just pondering the complexity of his mind in order to produce so much in his 76 years.
From the terrace which is also distinctly Gaudi's style is a 360c view of the city, its colourful rooftops and winding streets, and was well worth braving the gale force winds for a few touristy snaps.
Now I don't profess to be any sort of art or architectural expert however Barcelona literally drips in Gaudi's sweat and even novices like us in a short amount of time can learn to distinguish between the old and the new Barcelona.
Our last day in this great city was spent at a cooking class which we had been eagerly looking forward to. After managing to get ourselves and Oscar successfully to the school's location in an older area of Barcelona down one of the rambling cobble stone streets, we were excited to see that not only were we cooking five dishes which we could then eat, but that wine was included and it was an open bar!
There were 12 and a half of us in the class (including Oscar of course) and somehow we managed to get through the four hours with Marco and I taking turn looking after the now running one year old, and the other one either taking notes or having a go at the cooking. Unfortunately the kitchen was not geared to everyone having a go at cooking at the one time, it was more of a demonstration kitchen and everyone had to take turns up the front.
Our chef was a skinny, bearded looking Catalonian who the girl next to me described aptly in her strong American accent 'he looks like a pirate' with a bandana wrapped around his greasy hair. So if you haven't picked up on the subtlety in my writing...the man was...and I apologise in advance for my language as I can use not other description...'a bit of a d*** head.' I didn't even bother catching his name but for the purposes of this piece let's call him 'Dante the Dick'.
Now Dante and I didn't get off on the best foot when in the middle of cooking the first dish Catalonian Creme (similar to a crème brule), I dared question as to why the recipes we had been given to guide us were not exactly as he was cooking the dish and I needed some clarification. Mental note - even if you are paying 60Euro for a cooking class that you can't even cook in, don't you dare ask for any sort of assistance in understanding what the hell is going on! My American friend to my right's husband was falling asleep watching others chop onions and so she asked Dante if it would be possible to get him an espresso instead of a wine to liven him up. This did not go down too well either and so we were both blacklisted for the remainder of the day.
So we persevered, and somehow made it to the end of the third hour when it was time to cook the jewel in the crown of the day - Seafood Paella! As I said, this was a demonstration kitchen only and they had organised the day so that each of the 12 students had a turn at cooking part of one of the dishes, the grand finale being the Paella. It was therefore no coincidence that when all the preceding dishes were being cooked I took it upon myself to disappear with Oscar so someone else could instead make the tomato bread (please!), so when it came down to the Paella...sorry Dante, you're stuck with me! (Sal 1: Dante 0)
He clearly wasn't overly impressed with his students for this dish (me and the chick who called him a pirate), and even less so when he asked everyone his favourite trick question of why oh why do you not stir the paella? Marco was chuckling when I came up with the correct answer that it's because you don't want the starch to be released from the short grained rice and so Dante just grinned a 'well done' through gritted teeth while I poured myself another glass of vino tinto. (Sal 2: Dante 0)
Now if you are thinking I might be a little harsh on Dante, another example of his less than appealing manner came when some of the students asked with great expectation what his favourite restaurants in Barcelona were. I mean come on! You're in Barcelona, cooking with a chef (even though he looks more like long john silver than a cuizina professional) - this is the time to ask?
And what does Dante do? c*** his little black eyebrow, waves a skeletal little finger across the kitchen table at everyone and spits out "NO! I do not eat out at restaurants ever...ever ever ever..even where I live? No, this is not what I do."
Nice one Dante I guess we are all coming to your place for dinner?
On an upside the meal was lovely - cold tomato soup with a pesto of parsley, macadamias and smokey cheese (like a gazpaucho), potato tortillas and a traditional Spanish tomato bread (which Marco made, they were fantastic!), MY Seafood Paella and the Catalan Creme (which may or may not use 1 litre of milk, I never did get the correct answer I was looking for from Dante). Marco's favourite dish was the new Spanish Red he has discovered Gran Feudo which he equates to 'an average but not spectacular South Australian red'. But that didn't stop him drinking a few bottles worth.
Our stomachs bulging from a lovely meal, that's pretty much our Barcelona experience before we start loosening our belt buckles to accommodate our expanding waistlines in preparation for our next stop on this culinary extravaganza...Valencia!