My experience with the food and sights in Barcelona and Nerja, Spain!
Part I: Barcelona | Part II: Nerja
Part I: Barcelona
August 28, 2013 – September 2, 2013
Although I wasn’t wild about being delayed an hour before I started, I must say it was fascinating to watch just how many men it took to change the tire of the Iberia plane at Logan (Boston) airport. The flight to Madrid was uneventful, until I had to get from Terminal 4 to Terminal 4S to continue to Barcelona. It doesn’t seem like a long way away, but the Madrid airport is HUGE. What’s nice is that they have signs to all gates marked with an estimated “how many minutes” it will take you by walking, getting on escalators, hauling ass, riding trams, etc. (Note that signs to continue straight on actually point down, so don’t get confused by that!) I made a valiant effort to get to the gate in time, but alas, the plane left in 7 minutes, and the last sign I recalled seeing announced that it was at least 11 minutes to the gate. Sure enough, I missed the flight. Fortunately, my trusty Spanish pocket dictionary helped me find the word for “change” and “flight”, and after a half-English half-Spanish conversation with an Iberia representative, I found the counter within security where I muttered these words and they put me on the very next flight to Barcelona, which was in about a half hour. The funny thing was that the distance from the desk to the gate was almost the exact amount of time!
The flight from Madrid to Barcelona was a little over an hour, so it was pretty easy. I pretty quickly found the taxi stand where I showed the driver the address for El Balcon del Born, a B&B I found through Trip Advisor. Roberto was communicative and kind via email, and his hospitality was no less in person. Not minding my late arrival, he led me up the stairs (sending my luggage in the elevator), showing me around the place, and allowing me to settle in with some breakfast that was moments from being put away. Once I caught my breath, he brought out a map and a thorough document outlining all the best things to see / do in Barcelona, and provided local tips and tricks about getting around. He stored the luggage and since I was too tired to do anything big, I decided on hitting Aquàrium de Barcelona, just a short walk away. The aquarium was my first taste of how rules play little part in Spanish life. There were images up EVERYWHERE about not taking photos (or at minimum, not using the flash)–yet, the very first room was teaming with people taking photos! It was really kind of amazing, and of course, I took lots of photos too. Toward the end, the shark tunnel with the moving walkway aggravated my jet lag, and so after a quick look at a turtle, some lizards and a penguin, I re-emerged into the beautiful, sunny, 80 degree day and collapsed into a nap on the grass outside, until Roberto texted me that my room was ready.
After cleaning up and getting settled in the room (#9, which was at the end of the hallway right next to one of the shared baths), I decided to stay close. Everywhere I looked, the buildings were spectacularly beautiful, so I ended up snapping a lot of photos of random places as I went from place to place. I walked across the street for an early dinner at Ristorante Gravin, which was lovely. One of the tapas dishes I tried was a grilled calamari with truffle mushrooms–I appreciated having calamari that was not fried! Unfortunately due to the tiredness the only other thing I recall is sitting outside in the early evening, people watching, and noting that the woman at the table next to me rolled two of her own cigarettes during the dinner, but that I didn’t really notice anything bad about the smell. Also, I wasn’t the only one walking around with a unique hair color!
I attempted to go to bed early after an early meal) but the night seemed to go on forever, and the sounds in the street had me in a half daze until who-knows-what-time. Everything from kids playing to music, to men talking, to a woman singing the loudest orgasm I’ve ever heard. (I think she was across the street, and I heard her on subsequent nights too.)
Friday I woke up feeling better, and Roberto was kind as he offered breakfast, which included fresh carrot juice with a nice amount of pulp. Over breakfast I looked at the map and decided to start with La Rambla, a large outdoor pedestrian mall. There were street performers (mostly living statues), lots of shops along the strip itself and across a small road on either side, lots of restaurants, and lots of people! At the left side pretty early on, I ducked into La Boqueria Food Market, which was about the most amazing market I’ve ever seen. Roberto had advised me that if I wanted to buy something, I shouldn’t do it from any vendors on the periphery, as they charge tourists more. As I walked around all the different stands, where people were selling meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, eggs, spices, etc., I was just astounded with how much there was to sell, and wondered who would buy it all. However, there were also bar-like restaurants scattered through the market where you could sit and have freshly prepared dishes (presumably using the ingredients).
Returning to La Rambla I walked up and explored Plaça de Catalunya, where there were many interesting statues and beautiful fountains. Each of the statues featured a human, a horse, and then generally some other strange animal. Crossing the street leaving this plaza, there was another gorgeous building–on it’s front door? The Apple logo. Ha. I also passed Casa Batlló, a Gaudi building that Roberto mentioned I could do a tour of…but with so much to see outside and the beautiful weather, I just didn’t feel the need to go in. I came across more statues at Jardins de Salvador Espriu, then rested and people-watched for a time on a bench in another large plaza. There were a few restaurants on the sides, but what I noticed most was the children (around age 3-6) and dogs all running around playing, and large families getting together for long, leisurely lunches. (Most people there ate lunch around 2 pm.)
After the rest I stopped randomly to grab a bite at Samoa, where a burger and Caipirinha called my name. The food was good and I liked sitting outside and continuing to people-watch. Now, for those who are curious, I did try to speak and order things in Spanish, but most people in Barcelona spoke English just fine, and many would reply to me in English. I would have preferred they didn’t, but what can you do? Post-lunch I hit another market as it was closing, then stumbled into Catedral de Barcelona. I’m not one for too much church peeping, but this was gorgeous. One thing that bothered me though is that the candles were electric! When you popped in a coin, you didn’t get to light your own. They also allowed visitors to go up on the roof and take in the view. After descending I made a pit stop at the B&B to freshen up, then headed up Avinguda del Paral·lel toward Font màgica de Montjuïc, where every Thursday-Saturday night there was a light and music show that “could not be missed”. I got there an hour early (at 8 pm rather than 9 pm) so sat on the stairs of Palau Nacional waiting for a long time. Luckily some local boys had brought a guitar and were having a great time entertaining the crowds. Men walked around with water, beer, and soda cans trying to sell them to tourists. Some (and I’d see this all over Spain) had little toys with a light that they would fling up into the air with a rubber band-like end, and watch it use its “wings” to flutter down. I wondered how many might get lost in the fountain. At 9 pm when it was dark, the fountain started up, and in front of me was a vast pile of colored mist that barely looked like water. While playing music like Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” the fountain rose and fell in different configurations and with different lighting schemes. After a few songs the music stopped and the fountain (though on) remained still. Several people went to leave. Then, another song came on and yup, round 2. After a few times through this pattern, I really had to use a ladies room so I began walking back down Avenue Parallel in search of dinner and a place to pee.
With great fortune I stumbled on Ikibana, and parked myself at the counter where I could watch the sushi chefs divided by…yeah, a DJ!…making all manor of glorious maki and desserts. I had a lychee martini (I think), some maki, and then ordered a cappuccino and the chocolate dessert I’d seen the chef on the end make about 100 times (figuring it was the most popular one). I had fun imagining what was going through his mind the time he pulled out a menu and stared at a dessert I’d not seen anyone order–and that he seemed to be a bit unfamiliar with. In the end he spread some raspberry sauce on a plate, pulled something out of a fridge, decorated it with some other things, and voila! It was funny nonetheless (guess you had to be there). After finishing up dinner way too late (in other words, Spain time!) I crashed for the evening.
Saturday morning I headed back up to Montjuïc, where I explored the park (taking the stairs instead of the escalator!), the Olympic facilities, and the botanical garden (mostly to get a better and higher view). Walking around the Olympic facilities was a bit erie–there were hardly any people, and it was such a massive open space. I could imagine it filled with people, and now, it was a ghost town. On the way back down the view was equally fabulous and there was another gorgeous park to go through, although I watched somewhat nervously as sky-ride trolley cars took people up and down the mountain. I stopped into La Llavor dels Orígens for a salad and duck dinner, bought some earrings as gifts for folks back home on La Rambla, then took in a flamenco show at Tablao Cordobes. If you pre-order the tickets online, they have your name, so when you line up on the street they pick you by name out of the line, and seat you (I think) in the order you signed up. They also offer water or sangria–where I discovered that although I actually like sangria, it doesn’t like me! Note that they only allow photos/videos right at the very end, and of course that wasn’t the best part of the show. They alternated singing and the guitar playing with dancing (some singles, some partners, some groups). It was definitely an experience! After the show I stopped into another shop where I purchased a scarf and some fans for friends at home.
On Sunday I skipped the B&B’s breakfast and tried the “American” breakfast (with eggs) at Taverna del Portus, a place I’d seen the night before and thought was cute / hopping. Of course in the morning it was dead, and honestly the food wasn’t all that great. Oh well. After figuring out who “pointing guy” was (and where he was pointing), I headed to the beach! Not having a towel, I stopped into one of the shops and bought a beautiful one with the Spanish flag and a big black bull on it (testicles also prominent), and settled into a spot with lots of topless woman. I was thrilled to have another opportunity to go topless on a beach–I’d foolishly passed up an opportunity in Mykonos several years ago–this time I didn’t hesitate for a moment! It was totally freeing and for the rest of my beach time in Spain I really didn’t want to keep my top on. 🙂 For lunch I stopped into Salamanca, a nearby restaurant recommended as having the best paella. Without remembering my aversion to lobster (again, I love it, it doesn’t love me) I ordered some and ended up eating the rice and other fish/seafood with it. Of course, the waitress gave me some guff when I sent my plate back with the lobster on it, but I would be traveling the next day and didn’t want to risk gastrointestinal upset. As I walked out along the pier I stumbled across what looked like a playground, but was actually a muscle-man gym: lots of men outside in skimpy shorts doing pull ups and that sort of thing. I observed another flagrant ignoring of the rules, as I passed a sign with pictures for no standing, no swimming, and no fishing (and saw all three happening)! After a freshen up at the B&B I headed back to Plaça Reial, a beautiful plaza I’d stumbled upon earlier in my walkings that reminded me of Piazza della Repubblica from my trip to Florence. After some brief looking at the outdoor decor, I settled on La Terrassa, a restaurant that was part of Hotel DO. Here I was tempted by the pisco sour, and after confirming with the bartender (who came OUTSIDE to take and answer my question about the pisco, in English nonetheless), I was treated to the best pisco sour I’ve had since being in Chile! I also had another fabulous tapas dish of grilled calamari, some vegetables, and tuna tartare. In this plaza men were again walking around flinging the glowing toys up into the air, there were many street performers, and of course, men trying to sell roses to couples who were just trying to have dinner. After dinner I couldn’t resist having a small cup of chocolate gelato, and purchasing a coffee mug with “pointing guy” to remember my time here. I loved Barcelona, and wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the next day.
Coffee lovers, one interesting thing to note about coffee in Barcelona, especially if you prefer your coffee black. Whenever I tried to order a black coffee for one, I ended up with an espresso! Also, the one time I ordered what I thought was a plain, black iced coffee, I was horrified to find my cup filled with a sugar-covered snow cone and a bit of coffee on top!
Note: For my full set of photos from Barcelona, please visit my Google Album.
Part II: Nerja
September 2, 2013 – September 7, 2013
On Monday morning I went via taxi back to the Barcelona airport for the short flight to Málaga. After picking up my luggage (which was pretty much the only piece on the belt!) and grabbing a blue Mini Cooper and a wireless device from a friendly, English-speaking Alex at the Hertz/Dollar counter, I began my trek to Nerja. After going almost an hour north toward Córdoba instead of east, I traded the shadows and the mountains for the autovía with a coastline. Passing through something like 5 rotaries I finally came to the Parador de Nerja.
Since I’d had breakfast early and no lunch, I headed straight for the on-site restaurant and had a lovely fish dinner. The olive oil was so spectacular (really at every place), as was the bread. As it got dark I found a “secret” beach within walking distance; I climbed down the stairs and sat on a rock, listening to the beautiful sounds of the ocean.
I began the next day visiting several points of interest: namely, Cueva de Nerja, the Aqueduct of El Aguila, and the Balcón de Europa.
The caves were amazing, and once again I was amazed at all the flagrant rule breaking: no flip flops (oops, I was wearing them!), no flashes (hmmm…everyone taking photos), no touching (yeah OK, I didn’t initially see that sign). Room after room was filled with all kinds of incredible stalactites and stalagmites! Definitely worth the trip. To see the Aqueduct was simple, and you couldn’t miss it on your way to/from the caves. There are places to pull off on both sides. After getting out and taking a few photos though, that’s about all there is to do there. Intending only to scout where Balcón de Europa might be, I found a reasonable parking garage and ascended back into daylight. I found the balcony with little trouble, except that when you’re looking for the photos you see online, you’re actually standing on TOP of it, so it looks nothing like what you think you’re looking for! Still, a truly beautiful view. I got to hear an awesome cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from a street performer with a guitar, and took some photos with a statue of King Alfonso XII. Then it was lunch at Rey Alfonso: garlic soup, tomato salad, and salmon.
After lunch I headed back to Parador and changed into my bathing suit for a first visit to the beach. There were many more tourists here it seemed than in Barcelona, so not too many topless babes. Bummer. I’d gotten somewhat used to taking it off. After soaking up some sun I got a mojito on my way back to the room. Then I changed and went back out to explore the streets of Nerja. I stumbled upon some potential souvenirs for folks (a T-shirt with a bull on it was fitting for some!) as well as some dinner options: first the Buddha bar, and then Sollun. There’s a problem with each of these though, at least when I went. First, every time I passed the Buddha Bar when it was open (and this is multiple days of the week and various times), there was NO ONE in there. It’s definitely very cool looking, but hanging out by myself (no matter how great the cocktail or how Buddhalicious the atmosphere) wasn’t something I could bring myself to do. I literally walked into Sollun three times (again, three different days, times). I even walked all the way inside, up to the top floor–with not a soul to be found. It must be a good restaurant, but I wouldn’t know! Instead I ended up at Oliva. Wow, wow, and more wow. I was really impressed with this place. I ate in their quiet outdoor seating area, initially floored by their presentation of goodies to put on the incredible bread, including (of course) amazing olive oil but also incredible black olive covered butter. I had duck with vanilla rice and since I’ve been home, have started putting splashes of vanilla extract in my rice to try and mimic the flavor. Although I was wanting their chocolate and saffron mousse dessert, I was just too full. I decided that meant I had to come back for it!
On Wednesday morning I woke up early and drove to Granada to participate in a 3 hour tour of Alhambra. It was about an hour ride, fortunately without incident. Because I arrived slightly early, I parked in a lot a bit further away and walked to the front entrance. It wasn’t at all clear where I was supposed to meet my tour, so I after some consideration I called Granada Online (the tour company) and they just told me to hang out where I was. Of course there were many people doing the same thing, and you had no idea which people belonged to which tour. I went into the little cafe and got an espresso (ugh, still just wanted a black coffee) and a fruit cup from a guy who was impatient with my inability to comprehend his Spanish when he asked me whether I wanted a large or small “coffee”. Soon people who looked like tour guides arrived; mine spoke English, German, and Spanish. A few interesting points about the Alhambra tour: 1. After 3 hours of seeing incredibly beautiful buildings, they got…well, boring. “Yeah, here’s another!” 2. The way the place was taken care off was a bit odd. For example, at one point an older woman leaned up against one of the pillars; she was quickly told not to do that. That’s fine, but at another point I was walking in a well-tended garden, and some workers in a 4×4-type vehicle were pretty close behind our little group. When I got to the slightly crumbling brick stairs to see the next level of the garden, I figured I no longer had to worry about being chased by the vehicle. No such luck–it just drove right up over the beautiful stairs!
A short drive later I was in “downtown” Granada, where I found a parking garage to put the car. It wasn’t until I walked out that I realized it appeared as though I came “in” the “out” door. Oops! I stopped at Centro de Granada for lunch because they had a nice outdoor seating area. I had a tropical (fruit) salad and salt-baked sea bass, which was amazing to watch them unwrap. The fish was nice, but the rest of the place was just “meh.” In fact, two funny things happened there: 1. When I first picked up my glass to take a sip of water, the bottom nicely remained on the table cloth, spilling water everywhere (defective!) 2. I went to use the ladies room but it was a single, and since there wasn’t anyone around I went into the men’s room. While I was in there, the automatic lights went off, and it was pitch black! Yes, obviously I fumbled my way to daylight once again. 🙂 After lunch I walked around the city a bit. There was a really neat but non-operational carousel with wooden horsies, but all-in-all I felt Granada wasn’t as interesting to me as Barcelona. The vibe seemed more “common” somehow–maybe closer to what I know vs. something different or more exotic. In keeping with the theme set by the Nerja restaurant, I’d wanted to visit La Oliva for olive oil tastings and purchases. After wandering the streets for a bit I found it! Closed! But, I touched the door, so it counts!
I stopped at the Supersol to grab some almonds to have for emergency snack purposes, then descended back to the “garage of death”. I termed it this because on re-entry, I noticed that while I did in fact drive “in” the “out” door, the “in” and “out” door were the same door! This, mind you, as a one-car-fits narrow driveway on a hill that curved. BUT, they were good enough to have a large mirror in the corner so you could almost see if someone were going to come the opposite way and plow into you. On the way back to the hotel I wanted to grab some water. I learned that the “Cash and Carry” was more like a Costo or a BJs here, so I left and went to the Lidl store, where I got my water but was a bit surprised at the fact that there were no shelves used anywhere in the store.Dinner Wednesday night was at La Braseria de Pacomari. Although I sat outside again to people watch, the decor inside was pretty cool–a purple stripped wall. I watched with fascination as a couple with a baby had their dinner. One sat at the table and ate their dinner while the other stood and handled the baby, then they switched. I wondered how long it would be before they could have a meal together again! I had tuna filet of some sort; this place was another “meh”. Definitely not one of the great food days in Spain! On the way back I stopped at Didier Borgeud’s fan shop. This was definitely different than all the cheap fans that I’d seen being sold in souvenir shops across Spain. This guy was super friendly and really was an artist. If I’d had a need for a nice fan, I definitely would have bought one.
Thursday I headed back to the beach, where I started picking up pretty rocks. At one point I was standing up against a very large boulder that was on the beach–because of how the water had been hitting it, you could see that it consisted of thousands of smaller rocks, all polished as if they were in a tumbler but still making the face of this boulder. You think that would have given me a clue, but I was still surprised when a large wave came up and crashed against said boulder. After sucking in some salt water I decided to go sit back down under the sun’s rays. A good looking young man had been standing next to me when this happened. When he got hit, he playfully tossed himself down onto the beach and rolled away from the ocean (“stop, drop, and roll” taken in a new way?). An older woman standing nearby had seen what happened to both of us, and she laughed as he played this up. When I got tired of the beach, I headed back up the elevator that took me to the hotel. Back on hotel grounds, the grass was so thick and soft that I tossed down my bull towel from Barcelona and decided to try a headstand without the safety of a wall. (I’d been just getting into them and it seemed safe to practice.) Of course I misjudged lifting off and rolled all the way over. BUT, that was good because I realized I wouldn’t kill myself if I did roll over. (It’s funny how when you’re older, it’s scarier to try things like that.) So I gave it another go, rolled over again–this time hurting my neck a little bit–so I collected myself and went back up to my room to get ready for lunch.
Where did I go? Back to Oliva! Yup, I decided that trying their tapas for lunch would give me room for that chocolate and saffron mousse as dessert. Once again, I was thrilled with the food (salmon and beets, tuna tartar, parsley sorbet(!), cod), the service, and the atmosphere. Definitely my favorite restaurant in Nerja (so far). After lunch I went and bought the souvenirs I’d been eyeing…I also found a nice little portable bottle of olive oil and some saffron, which I’d been interested in trying to cook with for awhile.
Since it really is all about the food, I’ll skip right to dinner. I went to a nearby restaurant that was a bit fancy, set across from a much busier “family-style” place. Again, outside seating. Fusion Food and Lounge was owned by a Swedish family. Asian steak salad and asparagus gazpacho was excellent, and the first glass of water was free. This place was the runner up to Oliva in my book. The daughter (I think) was my waitress, and she was very careful and shy. Her mother was the hostess, who came out to chat about her and her husband (the chef) and their business. As we were chatting, one of the street peddlers came around to the table trying to sell me, of all things, a fake owl. (Because you know, when you’re having dinner at a restaurant in Nerja, Spain, you really are in need of a fake owl — hoo hoo!). After dinner I walked back to Balcón de Europa, because I hadn’t explored anything that was on the other side. As I walked a handsome man with dark hair and intense eyes grabbed me and started to waltz, as the Hotel Balcón de Europa had a band playing. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to follow waltz and I was in flip flops–so I killed what could have been a pretty romantic moment! On the “other side” I heard flamenco music and a rowdy hall–which I was almost curious enough to want to push my way into. After walking for a longer time I started feeling a bit nervous because it was almost midnight and I was getting into quieter parts of town. So, I doubled back to the room for bed.
Since Friday was my last full day, I walked to the furthest end of the beach where I flung off my top and basked in the sun again. When I was good and tired of that (after hours and hours and hours!), and after I dealt with clearing sunscreen out of a very inflamed eyeball, I decided to go back to Hotel Balcón de Europa to try their food. They had a picture book menu which should have been a clue. I had a light salad and cava only but I wasn’t super impressed. I did end up getting gelato at one of the nearby shops though–a combination of the most amazing mint chocolate chip (just the right shade of green) and Ferrero Rocher! Next, one of the photos I just HAD to take before I left was of the “leg in a bag”, which suvi shops also also sold as magnets. These were EVERYWHERE in Spain, first seen at La Boqueria Food Market in Barcelona. Given the so-so lunch, I got myself psyched up for a final dinner at Oliva. Unfortunately, when I arrived they had NO tables left (it was Friday night, after all). Hmmm…what to do. After walking for a bit I remembered that one of the signs for another restaurant had the same kind of duck dish I’d had at Oliva that first night, so I read their listing again and decided to go inside. And, to my surprise, Calabaza turned out to win the #1 restaurant in Spain award (even including Barcelona)! Like Oliva they had a nice outdoor seating area but it was a bit more enclosed and “garden-y”. The waiter was very funny and pleasant and the strawberry gazpacho and roast leg of lamb were perfect. Then for dessert this lemon grass (or was it ginger?) flan cup that rivaled the chocolate and saffron mousse from Oliva for sure!! And yes, this is me preferring something NON-chocolate over something that WAS chocolate. It was THAT GOOD.
(Sadly) Saturday was a travel day back home. Uneventful flights. Lots of wonderful memories!