The next stage of Bill's holiday was a high-end rail/river tour of the highlights of Northern Spain and Portugal, so he was booked into their hotel choice - a fantastic (and expensive) pile called Casa Fuster above Diagonal on the Passeig de Gracia. I'd originally intended to stay there too, but lucked upon an old mansion 50m away that's been converted into apartments. As I couldn't check in until after 1:30, Bill's hotel offered to store my luggage and we found a nice little restaurant around the corner for a light lunch - a small herbaceous hamburger oozing with cheese and sided with yummy grilled tomatoes and onions, plus a glass of verdejo.
I was a tad miffed when I did check in - the manager informed me that I'd been 'upgraded' (no extra charge) to a three-bedroom apartment instead of the 1-bedroom apartment with two little balconies (overlooking the Passeig de Gracia with its central plantation of plane trees) because the Spaniards who were due to vacate my apartment wanted to stay longer and refused to move - this despite the fact I'd paid my deposit six months ago! Welcome to Catalunya.
However, the apartment is excellent - clean as a whistle, well decorated and everything of high quality, well kitted-out kitchen, all mod cons and they all work! steal at €105/ night.
Late afternoon we took a cab to Bouqueria market - it was jumping with tourists and pickpockets so a quick scoot around to take in the atmosphere and check out the produce sufficed before I snaffled a couple of tubs of prepared fruit combos and 100g of the finest Iberico jamon (€159/ kilo) from the vendor who sells only hams - sufficient for (coeliac) breakfast for the next four days, along some cream cheese and grape tomatoes (and my rice crackers). Hardly the food of champions, but perfect for me, along with another find from France, Russian Earl Grey tea in pyramidal bags - my favourite tea plus dried orange and a couple of spices.
Our taxi to 41' Experience (the Adria brothers post-El Bulli sensory temple) took forever, but we needn't have worried - our table was ready and waiting, and so were the staff, to put us through our 41 'courses' ('tastes' for the most part) over four hours. Marvellous in every sense of the word (I'd gone online with zero expectation and managed to snaffle a table - with 16 diners and 16 staff, it's reputedly the hardest table in the world to secure, and Bill's concierge was astonished when I told her we had a reservation). PS: see separate post - 41 Degrees Experience.
Sunday morning (11:55am) we set off down Passeig de Gracia to explore Barcelona. By the time we reached Casa Battlo (a Gaudi masterpiece), we spotted the hop-on/hop-off City Tour bus so bought a (Senior's) ticket for two days, and completed the first circuit zipping around the cathedral, seafront, Christopher Columbus column, Miro museum, Olympic Park, Museum of Art and the bullring. Save some for later (or not). Then it was back to Bill's beautiful hotel for patatas bravas (me) and jamon croquettes (him) for a light lunch.
We'd intended to check out the cathedral but when we alighted at the bus stop, there was a 'Mercat de Marcato' in full swing, with all manner of Catalunyan regional producers flogging wine, cheese, fruit and veg., honey, beer, cider, smallgoods, whatever. It was fun (especially for pickpockets) and a €2 glass of light Sangria was a delightful quencher on a warm afternoon.
La Botaferia is a highly regarded fish restaurant, staggering distance from Bill's hotel. It would need to be, as I reckon most people leave in the early stages of salmonella poisoning. This place is putrid. No excuse, they draw crowds every day of the year. I ordered Galician soup (ees clear soup, very tasty). Ees not! The only clear thing about it was the centimetre of fat swimming on the top. The sludge lolling in the cesspool underneath was putrifying cabbage sporting globs of pork fat.
Bill had a prawn and avocado salad that was anything but. For his main, he'd ordered sea bass. Manuel ('e's from Barcelona) had asked - 'you like weeth sores', to which Bill had replied 'Hokay'. Botaferia uses that early C20th technique of transferring food in the kitchen to copper pots, with the waiters then plating the outcome in the general vicinity of the diner. Apparently this is professional service. Fine, if the wait-staff is silver-service and presentation trained. But it's disgusting if they then slop food onto a cold plate and slam it down on the table. So Bill's (actually well cooked and perfectly fresh) sea bass came on a plate splattered with mushrooms and onions, and no sauce.
The gold epaulets don't make up for slovenly service. With full knowledge of the risks, but determined to give a lauded fish restaurant a chance, I'd ordered paella ('ees recommended seafood paella, all peel-ed, no work for you). A plata of black sludge with red bits of prawn carcasses and sneering, curled-lipped mussels appeared. The rice was fine, but I demurred on the assorted long-dead fruits of the sea, which was just as well, because I spent most of the night in the dunny regardless. No dessert thanks, Manuel. AND, he had the gall to tell Bill "you put teep here" when he presented the humungeous account, then crashed a plate down when we exited because Bill gave what the service was worth - zero.
Two days dining in Barcelona - average score 5/10.
Monday. And time to 'do' the green city bus route. We walked to Sagrada Familia - about a kilometre. Bill went to join the queue for entry. I walked around the periphery, only to find the queue extended almost to the back of the enormous cathedral square. Bill had seen likewise from the other direction, so we decided to cut our losses and run to the next attraction on the route - Gaudi's Park Guell. Ridiculous, nonsensical, fantastic, fun, and steep, so it was quite a hike. Not surprisingly, we didn't hop off to check out Barca's football stadium.
Bill had read a review about a local Michelin-starred chef who'd opened a tapas bar, so we headed to Tapas 24, just off Passeig de Gracia. It was grand sitting at the bar watching all the action in a tiny working space - smashed eggs with fried potatoes and jamon, spiced lamb kebab, escabeche sardines - all delicious and Bill topped off with a brilliant chicken croquette and 'bikini' fried sandwiches (jamon, cheese and truffles).
A lazy stroll down to Placa Catalunya took us past some lovely shops and we spent some time in the Bel e Cie establishments where Bill narrowly avoided a superb (and superbly priced) cashmere jacket and I agonised over a woollen vest that I thought matched my Cannes purchases. But we resisted temptation and checked out Corte Inglese department store before heading home for coffee.
Early evening we toddled downhill to La Pedresa (aka Casa Mila) - Gaudi's apartment building - then, on the way home, spotted an exhibition on Ferran Adria and El Bulli. It was a) free and b) absolutely marvellous, with thirty years of memorabilia, experimental evolution and video of his rise to be the chef who changed the language of food.
Worn out, we settled for a light meal in the fantastic bar-lounge at Bill's Art Nouveau- Moorish-Gaudi-esque pile. Built as a private mansion by Senor Fuster in about 1911, the entrance foyer was originally the carriageway. Senor Fuster had run out of cash by 1924, so it was sold, put to various crappy uses and bought by a consortium to be demolished, but there was such a public outcry that it was eventually turned into a luxury hotel in the late '90s.
The intermittent rain and thunderstorms had cleared to a beautiful day by Tuesday. We had a wasted trip to the Museo Maritimo, which is closed for major renovation until 2014, but Gaudi's first domestic commission, for his patron Senor Guell, was open and we rambled around the architectural genius and decorative delights for a goodly time before heading over to the cathedral (five minutes in the cloisters), the Mercat Santa Caterina (so much nicer than Bouqueria) and on to El Born for a tapas lunch of Greek salad, grilled prawns and fried potatoes with allioli. Next stop - the Picasso museum - full of his early and mostly normal works, then back to Bel e Cie because I'd put up a fine effort but couldn't resist that woollen vest (and it did match perfectly) before rounding out the day with a final Gaudi treat at Casa Battlo. We'd walked half the city.
A mini-41' treat was in store at Tickets - Albert Adria's tapas bar which serves some of the 41' items and others in simplified form. Oh joy. (Albert is actually the creative genius behind El Bulli.) We had a jar (3 each) of olive bubbles, air baguettes with jamon, Peruvian sea bass ceviche, croquettes, avocado roulade stuffed with crab, oyster with its own pearl in sea lettuce water, tepid oyster with chicken jus, spiced grilled lobster, marinated quail, crispy fried fish, blueberry meringues filled with yoghurt ice-cream and Bill also had some yummy toffeed pasty thing with light-as-air mango custard. A glass of cava and a bottle of Albarino rounded out a delicious feast.
I was hoping for a good night's sleep before my flight to New York, so packed whilst vaguely watching the Barca-Celtic match (Barca won 2:1 in time on). But at 4 am all hell broke loose with the arrival of a bunch of Celtic fans who unfortunately were staying in the apartment next to mine. They obviously had a full load aboard, but things quietened down after a while. I was just about back to sleep when a tardy member of their mob arrived home and couldn't find his front door so set about blasting my doorbell. I'm glad they lost.