Tapas, Cava, and More Cava - A Week in Barcelona

by Nancy Bestor

It’s 9:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday night in Barcelona, and Bob and I have forced ourselves to wait for dinner until now, the time when most Spaniards dine. Flipping through our Eyewitness Barcelona Guidebook, we spied the following description of a café/bar in the Old town called El Xampanyet. “This tiny, tiled bar is beloved by Barcelona residents for its cheap glasses of the Catalan champagne (cava), as well as its excellent montaditos (little sandwiches) and tapas. Seating room is limited and the bar gets rammed, but no trip to Barcelona is complete without it.” Say no more Eyewitness Guide, you’ve sold us, and off we went.

Although it is tucked away on one of Barcelona's tiny old-town streets, finding El Xampanyet was not difficult. As soon as we rounded the corner onto the alley, we could see people spilling out of the bar and onto the cobbled street; laughing, eating, and yes, drinking cava. Squeezing our way to the bar, we immediately ordered two glasses of the house cava. One of the four men hustling behind the counter set two simple champagne glasses down for us, and quickly spilled them full of cava. And so it began.

Most tapas bars in Barcelona place their various tapas offerings on top of the bar, so if you don't speak Spanish (we do not), you can point to the dishes you want. And point we did. We ate like the king and queen at El Xampanyet, while jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder standing at the bar. Some of our favorites were the mixed fish plate, the mixed salami plate, peppadews filled with goat cheese, artichoke hearts, anchovies.... I could go on and on, because who am I kidding? Every dish we ate became an instant favorite. And we never had to ask for more cava, as whenever our glasses were empty, our attentive bartender came by with the house cava and splashed our glasses full again. After about an hour and a half, and many glasses of cava (Three, four each? It's a little hazy...), combined with a fabulous variety of tapas, we left El Xampanyet. The bill? Surprisingly only 40 euros. Outstanding!

Food was one of the highlights of our weeklong trip to Barcelona. (If you've been a reader of the Travel Essentials News for a long time, I know what you're thinking. Food is always a highlight of our travels.) The other highlight, not surprisingly, was the architecture. Before choosing Barcelona, I'm not sure I could have told anyone who Antoni Gaudi was, or why Barcelona was so famed for its architecture, but after reading up about Gaudi and his fantastic and unusual designs, I couldn't wait to see them. We toured several Gaudi sites, including his most famous - the Sagrada Familia, (13.6 euros). Gaudi began work on this extraordinary church in 1883 and continued until his death in 1926. Construction continues to this day per his vision.

We also visited the popular Casa Mila (La Pedrera) and Casa Batllo (15 and 18 euros each, respectively). These two Gaudi buildings also showcase his wonderful imagination and technique, both inside and outside. As with the Sagrada Familia, they are absolutely unique and unusual, with a seemingly endless number of swoops, curves, waves and so much more. Both sites were well worth the entry fee. We also visted Parc Güell, a 30-acre park with many Gaudi designed structures, including his famous curved benches. Initially we turned up at this free park early in the afternoon, but the crowds were so overwhelming we opted to come back later in the day. Upon our return, just before sunset, we found the park much quieter and perfect for strolling, taking pictures and exploring the pathways, bridges and lanes without throngs of people along with us.

Can I talk a bit more about the food? Another gastronomic highlight was our nearly daily visit to the Mercat de La Boqueria, the popular produce and food market located along La Rambla, Barcelona's most famous avenue. While tourists frequent the market and take pictures of whole hanging pigs and sharks on ice, the locals are doing their real shopping, choosing cuts of meat, contemplating produce, ordering hunks of cheese, and so much more. We stopped in at the market regularly, particularly after we found a delicious food stall that we frequented again and again, Kiosko Universal, best known for its seafood and mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms.

On our initial visit to Kiosko Universal, in the late morning of our first day in Barcelona, we grabbed two seats at the bar and ordered coffee con leche, a bacon sandwich and eggs with bacon (17 euros total). Four young men worked the counter calling out orders, heckling each other and dishing out lots of delicious food. (I surreptitiously took a picture of them for my teenage daughters, who would have appreciated their looks. Really, it was for my teenage daughters. And I will show them the picture any day now.) Our breakfast was outstanding, and we knew we had to come back again for lunch. On another visit we had the fabulous mixed mushroom plate, a side of fries, and calamari atop fries with a delicately wonderful olive oil laced with onion, garlic and parsley. It was fabulous. This time our bill was 26 euros. An excellent deal. On yet another visit we boldly chose the menu of the day. Mine included a mixed veggie plate, along with a fish that I did not know, emparador. Turns out it was a whole swordfish, and turns out it was delicious. Bob had the mixed mushroom plate again, along with the dorado. Our meal, which also included dessert, cost 14 euros each. An amazing deal for outstanding dishes served in generous portions! The stall was always hopping and almost always featured at least a short wait for a spot at the bar or one of the few tables.

If I could talk about the food in Barcelona for one more paragraph, we also treated ourselves one afternoon to xocolata amb xurros (chocolate with churros) at Dulchinea, one of Barcelona's oldest chocolate cafes. The hot chocolate was nearly as thick as pudding, and great for dipping the churros in. Spoons were necessary, and this was like no hot chocolate I have ever tasted. The waiters were in black ties with white shirts and rolled up sleeves, and the dark wood walls and the tables gave the cafe an old world feeling. Dulcinea is hard to find, among the labyrinth of streets in the Old Town, but it's well worth the search.

We walked everywhere in Barcelona, not because there isn't good public transportation, but because it gave us such a good feel for the city. After a few days, we could navigate our way through the Gothic neighborhood's winding alleys and the streets off La Rambla. It's a good thing we walked so much, too, otherwise I'm sure we would have put on several pounds with all the eating and drinking we did.

We stayed at the 5 Rooms, (www.thefiverooms.com), a bed and breakfast with 12 (not five!) rooms in an apartment building, centrally located just off the Plaza Catalunya in the Eixample neighborhood. Our room was lovely and included an excellent breakfast. It didn't come cheap though, at 175 euros per night.

We took the blue aerobus from the airport to downtown Barcelona. This great public bus system costs 5.10 euros each and stops at three different downtown locations in Barcelona. The buses leave from both the airport and downtown Barcelona back to the airport every 5-10 minutes, and the ride takes about 40 minutes.

-Nancy Bestor is the co-owner of Travel Essentials. After seeing Antoni Gaudi's beautiful and modernistic designed buildings, she came home and had a contractor build her a new front door. Baby steps, baby steps.