First of all, thanks to everyone who has posted in the past - I spent a lot of time doing my research and your reports definitely helped. John and I have done a lot of travelling, but this was our first trip to Spain. Barcelona has been on our list for a while now, and with Air Transat offering direct flights to Madrid and Barcelona, it seemed perfect. We booked our flights and even booked our seats in advance – I’m not tall, but I do have knee problems and I wanted to make sure we had good seats. Here goes:
Loved Spain! I’m so glad that we saw both cities – they are quite different from one another, and I’m not sure which one I liked best. Madrid was a revelation – so lively and so much culture. Prices overall were very reasonable in both cities and the quality of the food was excellent. Good food is important to us and both cities did not disappoint. John doesn’t drink, so he usually had mineral water but I usually had at least one or two glasses of wine (red, white, cava, I don’t discriminate) or beer. We usually paid with Visa when we could. We walked our feet off, but the metros in both cities are also excellent – so convenient. There seemed to be a lot more tourists in Barcelona than in Madrid, which I guess I expected, but at times it is a bit too much, if you know what I mean. My impression was that people dressed a little better (or maybe I should say more formally) in Madrid. We saw a lot more people wearing shorts (and not necessarily nice shorts) in Barcelona – maybe it was because it’s on the coast and it was hot and humid there. (It didn’t do much for my hair – I definitely looked better in Madrid.) We had no problems with late dinner reservations – eating dinner at 10 PM was fine, although I’m glad I didn’t have to get up to go to work in the morning. I do speak a very little Spanish (Castilian) but we could get by without it. Catalan is really different from Castilian and I think it might be more difficult to learn! The recession has hit both cities and you can’t help but feel badly for the people. Even with the bad economy, though, the people are still out enjoying themselves. The tapas bars are packed – someone told us that before the economy tanked, we wouldn’t have been able to get in to many of the places. I could have gone nuts shopping – I’m not interested in the stores that we have here in Canada (like Zara), but all the little independent stores were wonderful. However, budget concerns kept my shopping to a minimum :). Most of what I did buy was handmade in Spain.
At the end of the trip, we agreed that there was still a lot to do and see in both cities but we’re happy with what we did do. City vacations are exhausting!
We left Toronto on a Sunday night and go into Madrid around 11:30 AM Spanish time. We had booked an attic studio through AirBnB (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/196336). We took the Aeroport Express to Atocha Renfe where we then caught the Metro to Tirso de Molina. La Latina stop is closer, but it would have meant more transfers (and stairs) and Jose, the owner of the apartment, thought that Tirso de Molina was a better option for us with our suitcases. Since it was too early to go to our apartment, we had a drink and shared a pizza in the square. The waitress wasn’t able to tell us where our street was, and in fact, sent us in the wrong direction, but eventually we found it by asking if people could direct us to La Latina metro station. The apartment is wonderful – just as pictured – modern, clean and perfect for the 2 of us in an old building. Jose’s wife was there to meet us and later he and his wife came by to orient us to the neighbourhood. We realized how perfect the location was for us. The street runs parallel to Cava Baja with all of its tapas bars, but the actual apartment is on the 4th floor (or 5th floor, depending on your perspective) with good windows, so noise was never a problem. There is also a lift in the building – important after walking all day. We loved this apartment. The kitchen is well equipped, the water pressure in the bathroom is great and it’s really an interesting architectural space, with the sloping ceilings and beams. Jose and Almedena are really nice people and great hosts.
Our ‘blow out’ meal in Madrid was Club Allard, a 2 star Michelin restaurant. I had booked it by email before we left Toronto. This was officially John’s birthday dinner (he turned 65 in late September) and it was amazing. It wasn’t easy to find – we were running late and arrived somewhat breathless. Fortunately we had read that it was on a corner, behind an iron door and up some stairs. The restaurant is a group of small rooms, somewhat formal looking. The chef, Diego Guerrero, comes out and meets with every guest and basically takes your order. He’s very personable and we were thrilled to meet him. They offer 3 tasting menus and we chose the “Seduction” menu. It was 12 small courses, each one amazing (3 snacks, 3 starters, 1 fish, 1 meat, 1 dessert appetizers, 2 desserts, coffee and petit fours). The server explained each course and how to eat it. I had a glass of champagne (not cava), 2 glasses of white wine (different whites) and then a cava. We finished with coffee. It was an incredible experience and well worth the approximately 228 euros bill. John took pictures of every course. Every course was small and interesting - you just have to go with the experience.
We went to Casa Lucas on Cava Baja on our first and last nights. First night, we were able to get a table, last night we got stools at the bar. Over the 2 visits, we had the Madrid (blood sausage i.e., “morcilla”, egg, tomato confit on bread), ham croquettes, tataki (tuna with onion and soy sauce over apple sauce), the calamari (a massive plate of calamari wrapped in bacon and tossed in squid ink) and a puff pastry with more morcilla. All were very good. Both meals came to about 38 or 39 euros. We both really enjoyed Casa Lucas. Very friendly atmosphere, both the servers and the other customers.
In Chueca, we had drinks at the rooftop restaurant of the Mercado San Anton and then lunch at El Cisne Azul. I loved this restaurant. We shared a salad of arugula, grilled goat cheese and tomatoes. Really really good, then had a mushroom ‘sampler’ (several different types of mushrooms sautéed), finished with the boletus topped with a fried egg (sunnyside up). (We tried to order the trumpet of death mushrooms but they weren’t available.) With a coffee and a bottle of mineral water, it came to 43 euros. Not cheap, but so delicious and one of my favourite meals. This was a very ‘local’ restaurant – I don’t think there were any tourists there. (They also don’t take credit cards.)
We also had lunch at a place called Taberna el Rincon de Jose. We hadn’t set out for that restaurant, just happened to come upon it. As the waiter brought out the dishes to other diners, he would show us what it was, so it gave us an idea of what to order. We ordered a huge house salad (great tomatoes, tuna, olives, etc.) and the belota ham plate, as well as beer and mineral water. I think it came to about 35 euros and they take credit cards.
One place that didn’t take Visa is Juana la Loca. It’s close to the apartment and we had more tapas there - mushroom croquettes, fried artichokes and mushrooms of some kind, millefeuille (can’t remember the Spanish name) for dessert with ice cream and dulce de leche. The bill was similar to Casa Lucas, and the food was good, although I think Casa Lucas is more interesting.
The Mercado near Plaza Major has an incredible selection of tapas and we went there twice. Once to eat lunch, the second time for dessert after our last meal at Casa Lucas. We focused more on seafood and cheese tapas there the first time – excellent choices and cost will depend on how hungry you are. At night, the market was packed with people – just a crazy environment!
We had lunch nearby the Prado one day at a place called La Plateria – spinach salad with chickpeas and duck ‘bacon’ (quite good actually – I’m a big chickpea lover) and patatas bravas (ok, but nothing special). With a beer, bottle of mineral water and a coffee, the bill came to just over 20 euros, so quite reasonable given the locale. (We weren’t looking for it, we just happened to come upon it.)
A good place for coffee in Madrid is Faborit – very good coffee and WIFI. It’s not far from the Prado and a pleasant spot to take a break.
We spent a lot of time walking and exploring neighbourhoods. Free sightseeing included Plaza Major, the Templo de Debol (amazing place for the views of the sunset), Sabatini Gardens, Gran Via, etc. We also went to the CaixaForum for the William Blake display. Loved the living wall as well.
We made it to the Prado near the end of the trip. It’s 12 euros for the general entry (6 euros for John since he’s 65). The place is overwhelming. I had brought along some information on what to see – of course I realized when I got there that I had forgotten it in the apartment. We decided to go it on our own rather than hiring a guide, and I’m quite happy with what we saw. Learned a lot about various artists and saw some marvelous art, but as I said, the museum is almost too much to absorb. Fortunately we were able to take a break for a cappuccino and sit when we wanted or needed to. It was busy, but not overly crowded. I bought a Prado calendar, also a shoe bag with Goya shoes on it. (Also loved the red lacquered walls in some of the rooms.) There was absolutely no lineup to get in the day we went, so it wasn’t overcrowded.
The same day that we went to the Prado, we also went to the Botanical Gardens – 3 euros for me, free for John. There are probably a few feral cat colonies living there and a woman was feeding one of the colonies just outside the gardens. They look healthy and seem pretty mellow. The gardens are a nice quiet spot in the city.
On our final day, we walked through Retiro park. It was a lovely day and of course all the locals were out in full force. Bike tours, kids, everyone. We eventually ended up at the Reina Sofia. On Saturdays, after 2:30 PM, entrance is free. After tramping around the second floor, I had to have lunch, so we ducked out and went to a nearby restaurant for a pizza. We then went back into the museum and went through the fourth floor. The museum was busy, but not overly crowded.
One evening, we went to Café Central, a bar that features excellent jazz on Plaza del Angel. The cover charge was 14 euros and the band that night was the Fernando Egozcue Quintet, a wonderful group from Argentina. I ordered a mojito and thought I was drinking sea water – very very salty. I took it back to the bar and the guy brought me a bottle of water and a new drink – turned out he had mixed the salt up with the sugar, so instead of sugar, my drink was made with salt. The second one was very good and I even ordered another. Prices for the drinks were reasonable and came with a bowl of chips (first drink) and a bowl of olives (second drink).
One day, we took the bus to Segovia. It was a toss-up on whether to go to Segovia or Toledo, but the thought of suckling pig won us over. After not sleeping well, I was tempted to just stay in bed, but I had already made a lunch reservation at Jose Maria for 2 PM. Getting to Segovia was easy – we took the Sepulveda bus and that took us right into the city. The city itself is lovely and small, perfect for wandering. We toured the Alcazar, including climbing the tower, which gave us a great view of the city. The Jose Maria restaurant was bustling and we really enjoyed our meal there. John had the suckling pig and I had the lamb (which was on the seasonal menu). Both were excellent. To start, they gave us a sizzling dish of livers – really tasty. We ordered the grilled vegetable plate – carrot, cabbage, eggplant, zucchini, onion, tomato, all delicious with lovely oil and a bit of local honey on them. Good to have before all the meat! The pork was perfectly done, nice crisp skin. I couldn’t eat all the lamb – it was a huge portion in a delicious sauce, with some crispy matchstick potatoes on it. (Fortunately I can usually count on John to help me out.) We also ordered the ponche de Segovia for dessert – while it was good, the dessert highlight for both of us was the lemon sorbet in a sparkling wine – fabulous. With a beer and a glass of wine, our bill came to 91 euros. No need for dinner that night – we were stuffed. Apart from sightseeing, we bought a small numbered print in Segovia – it’s a print of the textured tiles you see all over the city and was done by a local artist who is now based in Bilbao.
Arrival in Barcelona was easy enough. We took the airport express bus to Cataluna and got off a couple of stops before there (Gran Via and Urgell). From there, it was 5 short blocks to our apartment.
We had booked a studio through VRBO (http://www.vrbo.com/340398). Our host Mar met us right at the front door and helped us bring our bags up to the first floor of the building. The studio is lovely – newly renovated, polished concrete floors, white furniture, white cabinets, gorgeous bathroom with great water pressure, WIFI, even a phone for local calls. The building is very old, and the studio is very new and comfortably renovated. One wall is red, all the others are white and there is a tiny balcony big enough for 2 chairs. Good lights for reading. I’d highly recommend it. Mar provides everything – there’s a washer and dryer, hair dryer, umbrella, everything that you need. It’s an easy walk to at least 3 metro stops. It’s directly across from the Sant Antoni market. The market was being restored when they found a Roman wall – now, of course, restoration has slowed to a crawl. Mar has started a business, making lamps and we bought one of them. I think that we are the first in Canada to have one, although someone else sells them in Chicago! The lamp isn’t a souvenir – it’s a piece of art that will remind me of our wonderful trip. Mar is very creative and a wonderful host, the kind of person I could easily see as a friend.
After our arrival in Barcelona, for some bizarre reason, we were exhausted – maybe a combination of a late night in Madrid, getting up early to make sure we made it to the airport, etc. We staggered off to a great restaurant nearby – Terra Mar – where I had a dish I had been craving – fried potatoes (like thick French fries), scrambled egg and more morcilla. Delicious! We also ordered the cod fritters, also very good, and crème Catalan for dessert. Inexpensive and tasty. It was a local place and I had to laugh – they had a TV on, playing music videos. One of them was Canada’s own Carly Rae Jepson and the waitress was singing along to it. Bill came to 26 euros.
I had read that Sunday night is not a good night to find a restaurant in Barcelona because many of them are closed in the evening. I called Paco Meralgo and we couldn’t get a table. Neither of us was up to standing at the bar, so we made a reservation for later in the week. Instead we ended up going to a pizza place nearby (La Tarantella) for a pizza (very good, with a thin crust which I like) and a squid ink pasta with small clams (also pretty good) – 43 euros in total. The Barcelona / Real Madrid game was on, and people were pretty excited. We heard fire crackers going off and lots of cheering, but apparently the end result was a tie.
Our blow out meal in Barcelona was at Tickets. I had booked 2 months in advance and was thrilled that we could get a reservation. It’s only 4 blocks from the studio, so an easy walk. I can’t even begin to describe all the dishes. We asked the server to choose for us, with only 1 stipulation – we wanted to have the ‘olives’. Well, actually we had 2 stipulations – I said that our budget was 150 euros. (The final tally came to 153 euros.) We were seated at a bar, overlooking the food prep area, specifically the oyster shucking station, and it was a lot of fun to watch. What a job! I was very impressed by that chef – we watched her crack the oyster open, slide in the knife and then smell it. The crowd was all ages, and many of them weren’t speaking English. Again, John took pictures of every course. Really a wonderful meal and a fabulous show!
One day, we made a quick stop for lunch at Quim in the Boqueria. Wow! Food is excellent. We shared a plate of meatballs, an order of patatas bravas (so much better than the other ones I had eaten in Madrid) and an order of artichokes ‘chips’. I ordered 2 glasses of cava and when the bill came, there was only 1 on there. We told the waiter and he just waved that it was ok. Cost came to under 28 euros for definitely a terrific lunch. It’s busy and difficult to get a stool at the bar, but so worth it. We got into a nice conversation with a couple from Colorado and also ran into Calvin and Michelle, a couple of newlyweds from Texas who had been at our cooking class (more about that later). A couple of local women had a big bowl of padrones peppers and insisted we try them – hot hot hot!
As mentioned earlier, we had made a reservation at Paco Meralgo one evening. Of course we didn’t allow ourselves enough time to get there and it was a big rush because we didn’t want to lose our 10:15 reservation. (We underestimated our time to get somewhere a couple of times.) We started with tomato bread and padrones peppers. Then we had 4 little baked scallops, 2 montaditos with cheese & smoked salmon, octopus with caramelized onions, and John’s favourite – foie montaditos. The foie, I admit, was amazing. For dessert, we ordered 2 frozen chocolate truffles, lemon sorbet and figs with cream. The figs were my favourite of the desserts – so simple and delicious. All of this, plus 1 glass of cava, 1 beer and 1 mineral water, came to 62 euros. I highly recommend this restaurant.
We tried (with no success) to find a bar/restaurant called Rubi that John had read about in the Gothic quarter. Looked like a great place for lunch, but it appears that Tripadvisor has wrong information. We walked for probably 1 ½ hours to try to find it, eventually conceding defeat. (We did run across it at the end of our trip, it’s right around the corner from MEAM and the Picasso museum.) We finally ended up eating at Cuina Santa Catarina – at that point, I was ready to eat just about anywhere that had an empty table. I wouldn’t necessarily seek it out, but it was pretty good. We ordered melted manchego cheese and bread and an order of black rice. It came with tender squid and artichokes, quite tasty. With beer, mineral water and coffee, it was about 37 euros for the 2 of us.
One of our lunches was at a local restaurant called La Perla (near Montjuic). I don’t know if they even had a menu other than the Catalan one we looked at, but the waiter did speak a little bit of English. The food was great – we had the pan con tomate and chorizo, a big salad with tuna, olives, tomatoes, etc. and macaroni and cheese with meat in it. With a couple of beer and mineral water, it came to 47 euros. It was definitely too much food, but delicious basic food.
Hard to believe it, but after so many meals of tapas, we did start to want something that was more like a meal. Toronto friends had recommended Embat, on Mallorca, for dinner. We made reservations there, since it’s not a large restaurant. It was excellent and I’d definitely recommend it. As well as ordering from the menu, they had a choice of 2 tasting menus and we chose the less expensive one. We had a sort of bread stick that tasted of anise, a delicious mousse with peas and peanuts, wonderful truffled duck cannelloni, halibut that was amazing with white beans and green beans, and finally suckling lamb shoulder with couscous and carrots. Dessert was a cake with yogurt and mango sorbet. With a cava, 2 glasses of red and 1 bottle of mineral water, it came to 82 euros. Excellent food, and good service.
Another meal was at Gut restaurant. The name of the restaurant doesn’t sound all that appealing, but John had read good reviews and we ended up there on our last night. We made an early reservation (9 PM) because we had to pack that night and we were leaving early the next morning. The restaurant did not look the way I expected it to look – it is all neutrals and clean looking and very pleasant. The food was very good. They have a number of vegetarian (even vegan) choices, which makes for a nice change. We shared fish croquettas and a really delicious salad with fried tofu coated with sesame seeds and a delicious Asian dressing. (The salad was so good, I almost wished that I had ordered the fried tofu and noodles for my main). I had the cod for my main, which was delicious, and John had a giant ‘ravioli stuffed with seafood’. We shared an incredibly rich chocolate dessert. Along with that, I had a cava and a glass of white wine. Bill came to about 62 euros. The restaurant is small, so I’d recommend reservations – we saw at least 1 group turned away.
Tuesday morning we had booked a class at Cook & Taste, a cooking school (http://www.cookandtaste.net/). I guess this falls in both the food and activity categories. This was something I booked a few days before our trip and I’m so glad we did it. We’re fairly experienced cooks, but the experience was just so much fun. There were 14 of us – 6 Americans, 6 Canadians (all of us from Toronto area) and 2 Aussies. We met at 9:45 AM for a tour of La Boqueria market, where Quim (our chef) bought a number of ingredients for our class. The market was fun and Quim clearly knows his way around. We then went back to the cooking school and settled around an enormous island where we drank wine, assisted with chopping or stirring or whatever and cooked our meal. We had a couple of small apps (pan con tomate, olives and other pickles, as well as figs wrapped with iberico ham). All of the dishes were made by members of the class. We started with a delicious romesco sauce with asparagus and zucchini. (John and I helped with that dish.) Second course was a red pepper soup with salt cod. Third course was seafood paella, with prawns, cuttlefish, clams and mussels. Dessert was a cream Catalan. All of the dishes were wonderful and I was so impressed with the class. Everyone participated and it was a lot of fun. Cost of the class was 65 euros each with 13 euros for the optional tour of the market. Again, this was a long day and we had no need for dinner that night! I also now realize why my attempts at making paella at home have not been 100% successful. I will definitely try it again at home.
We also ate very well at our apartment. There was a bakery around the corner and a very good cheese shop nearby. We bought bread or pastry for breakfast, cheeses, sausages and so on. If we were going to be there for any length of time, we could easily eat very well around there.
The first morning there, we did the Runner Bean tour of the old city, which meets at 10:30 AM. We managed to find our way there after having a coffee and pastry in the apartment. (We stupidly hadn’t bought milk, but we did have coffee and pastry.) The tour was excellent – the guide (Laura) very informative and engaging. There were 30 people on the tour, which is their maximum. The tour takes about 2 ½ hours so we finished about 1:30. There was a terrific trio playing in one of the square and we bought one of their CDs.
We spent 1 day doing our own Gaudi tour. We first headed to Park Guell. As recommended by a few people, we wisely started at the top and worked our way down. We were able to use the escalators up to the top which definitely helped. Also the front entrance was packed, so I was glad we left that way rather than going in that way. We then took the subway over the Sagrada Familia. Like everyone says, the lineup went around the block so we didn’t go inside. (We thought we might buy tickets over the web and go later in the week, but we never got around to it.) We then walked to La Pedrera – pricey to get in (about 33 euros for the 2 of us to get in without the audioguides), but interesting. I was surprised by the apartment – it’s very old fashioned looking – somehow I expected something more nouveau. Our final stop was Casa Batllo – that was probably my favourite. Entrance (about 37 euros for the 2 of us) includes the audioguide and it’s really much more personal and interesting than the other locations. I have to say that I enjoyed the day, but that was really enough Gaudi for me. Weather was ok that day – more overcast than sunny, which was good since we did so much walking. There were no lineups to speak of for La Pedrera or Casa Batllo, so no need to buy tickets in advance.
Another day we headed for Montjuic park. It was an easy trip there but as soon as we got there, the sky opened and it started to pour. I had a small umbrella with me, but John didn’t. (We should have brought the big one from our apartment.) While I scouted the area to see if there was a place nearby where we could take shelter, some enterprising guy came around selling umbrellas and John bought one for 5 euros. We were then able to walk over to the Joan Miro museum and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours there. Admission was 25 euros for the 2 of us, including the headsets. (I think John got a 65+ discount.) The museum is quite interesting and the building is lovely, and there are a lot of benches to sit on. The whole park is gorgeous and when the rain stopped, we wandered around for a while through the gardens. I definitely recommend the park – such a nice refuge from the crowds of tourists. Eventually we found the Mies van der Rohe museum, which is definitely a case of “less is more” – 4.5 euros each to get in and it’s basically some fabulous ‘modern’ architecture and 2 original Barcelona chairs (with a sign that you can’t sit on the chairs).
One evening, we went to a classical Spanish guitar concert at Basilica Santa Maria del Pi, which actually was on one of the squares that we had passed during our tour, so we knew where to go! I booked the tickets through Classictix, and we picked them up at the church around 8:15 PM for the 9 PM concert. The concert itself was amazing and very worthwhile! Manuel Gonzalez is a master and he played straight for about an hour. We were in the third row so could see his finger work. The date was Canadian Thanksgiving, and during one of the songs, I actually felt quite emotional. We bought one of his CDs.
One afternoon, we ended up at La Rambla for coffee and sweets at Arista. Most places have fairly good coffee in Spain, but theirs is wonderful, plus they have WIFI. (The Starbucks nearby was like Starbucks anywhere, but not particularly clean and the sink outside the washrooms didn’t work – ugh.) We knew we were heading to Jaume I to find the Museu of Modern European Art. Up to that point, we had been walking or taking the Metro everywhere, but my knee was really hurting and I suggested a cab. I’m so glad we did that. The driver took us fairly close to where we were going, and pointed us in the right direction. Of course we still had to ask someone else, but we did find it quickly. The art was very realistic and I love the venue – an 18 Century palace that was restored in 2011 and turned into a modern art museum. We had tickets to a blues concert – while the music was only so so (kind of like subway buskers who aren’t very good), but for 10 euros (including entrance to the museum and a glass of cava), it was ok. Our hostess Mar has a cousin who has work displayed there so that was cool to see.
Friday was a bank holiday in Barcelona and our neighbourhood was quiet with a lot of businesses closed. Thursday night had definitely been party time. On our way back from Paco Meralgo, the subway car was filled with a crowd of drunken young men. They were all chanting something in Catalan and as we got up to get off at our stop, one of them threw his arms around us and urged us to chant too – something about independencia for Catalonia. I’m sure they were all suffering the next day! (They were not, btw, threatening at all – just drunk and in high spirits – and we found it more amusing than anything else.)
Saturday we decided to head outside of central Barcelona to a neighbourhood called Sarria. We took the metro to the Maria Cristina stop and then walked about 20 minutes. The weather had improved and the Castellers de Barcelona were performing. We had first heard of castellers at our Runner Bean tour. Because of weather concerns, we had doubts about going, but with encouragement from Tripadvisor posters, we did it and are glad we did. It was a local fair for the neighbourhood and I would be very surprised if there were any other tourists there. The castellers were incredible. The little kids at the top – it was almost painful to watch them! So brave! They performed for about an hour and this was one of the highpoints of our trip. By the time they were finished, the sun was shining. We both decided that we liked Sarria – it seemed a very pleasant, liveable neighbourhood. (Great bakery there, too, recommended by GiGi's mother.)
So that was our trip – we totally enjoyed ourselves and look forward to going back to Spain. Not sure when that will happen since I’m keen on the idea of Iceland right now – but you never know!