Barcelona – Gripping a pair of long, lethal-looking tweezers, chef Tristan Lopez is hunched over a plate of pale anchovies, painstakingly applying tiny silver-powder-coated potato paper “scales” to each slender sliver. Beside him, waiter Manel Vehi Mena dispenses “liquid olives”—just one at a time, presented on its own plate. He serves them with such reverence that I sense, even before tasting star chef Albert Adria’s invention, that they aren’t snacks to be absent-mindedly gobbled, but miraculously soft, melt-in-the-mouth bursts of flavour that deserve to be savoured.
Watching the action at prep stations around the restaurant is all part of the “show” at Tickets. One of Barcelona’s most revolutionary tapas bars, it’s the brainchild of Adria’s brother Ferran, head chef at Spain’s legendary El Bulli. With that three-Michelin-starred establishment having closed in 2011, tastemakers turned their attention to the brothers’ Barcelona venture, where reservations are among the hottest tickets in town.
A doorman in a black jacket illuminated with the restaurant’s blinking logo sets the stage. As customers line up on a crimson carpet beneath a box-office-style marquis, he ticks off each name on a list before slipping a red velvet rope free of its moorings and ushering them inside this culinary sanctum.
If it seems like an incredible amount of pomp and ceremony for what is, after all, just a meal, bear in mind that this is Barcelona, whose denizens revere food and style in equal—and perhaps excessive–measures. Tapas bars line the streets, and dinner can eat up three hours or more of your day.
Barcelona also proves a visual feast, of course, serving as a showcase for one of history’s most original architects, Antoni Gaudi. At Casa Batllo on Passeig de Gracia, pilgrims crane their necks toward its wavy roof, representing the dragon slain by Catalonia’s patron saint, St. George. Gradually, their gaze cascades downwards over the broken-tiled mosaic façade, which is punctuated by bone-like columns and balconies reminiscent of empty eye-sockets—an homage to the dragon’s victims.
Down the street, the undulating curtain walls of Gaudi’s La Pedrera recall the rippling waves of the ocean. As Miriam Jover, who works with the Barcelona Guide Bureau explains, “Gaudi said he would learn nothing from books, because they were written by humans, and humans are imperfect. He was always talking about the great book of nature, written by God.”
Gaudi’s organic inclination is evident at his unfinished La Sagrada Familia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and minor basilica consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010. “My client is not in a hurry,” Gaudi supposedly quipped when questioned over the church’s protracted construction, which began in 1882 and continues to this day, overseen by a succession of architects since his death in 1926.
Outside, his handiwork is exemplified by the tapered spires of the Glory façade. Inside, it calls to mind a cathedral as imagined by Walt Disney on acid. Columns stretch upwards like trees, branching out and flowering in leafy medallions. To attend a service here would be akin to worshiping in a forest of whitewashed redwoods, dwarfed and humbled by the spirit of the ultimate architect from whom Gaudi, buried in a crypt below, drew his inspiration.
Still, when the sun shines, as it usually does in Barcelona, I’m loath to spend much time under any roof, even in a temple devoted to nature. I escape to Parc Guell, another of Gaudi’s creations, with its curving mosaic benches and fanciful stone arcades set within a hilltop wilderness. I also take the obligatory stroll down La Rambla, a boulevard flanked by flower stands and kiosks stocked with postcards, weaving between flamboyant street performers and tourists moving at such a slow, tooth-grinding “ramble” that I reckon they have nowhere else to be ‘til Christmas.
It’s just as crowded on the sandy beaches of Barceloneta, where topless tanned women and hard-bodied young men are silhouetted against blindingly blue waters, but the pace on the boardwalk is anything but leisurely. I’m less worried about sunburn and more concerned about getting mowed down by rickshaws, rental bikes, and rogue rollerbladers—especially when the rollerbladers are skating backwards. One man on a skateboard even dares to navigate the masses with a surfboard in his arms.
For a bit of a breather, I duck down a side street, where laundry lines wave like bunting in the persistent sea breeze and a woman with improbably red hair stands on a balcony in her bra and knickers, smoking a cigarette and sipping a glass of red wine, oblivious to the world around her.
More peaceful still are the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gotic district, with its medieval architecture and leafy squares. An accordionist in the Placa del Pi squeezes out the lazy strains of “Summertime,” segueing seamlessly into Hava Nagila. Just off the antiques-laden Carrer Banys Nous, local men have taken refuge beside the bar at El Portalon Tapas, exchanging banter between sips of wine and cervezas.
This hole-in-the-wall establishment would appear to be the antithesis of Tickets. No velvet rope, no crowds, no “molecular gastronomy.” But in a sense, it’s very much the same. As Albert Adria explained earlier to me, Tickets has a simple goal. “Come with friends, laugh, and have fun.” That, summed up in one bumper-sticker-worthy slogan, is the essence of Barcelona.
4 Places to Stay
Hotel Miramar, Pl. Carlos Ibañez 3,www.hotelmiramarbarcelona.es/en/. Tucked into a hillside in Montjuic, this chic hotel isn’t far from the city centre but feels like an oasis with its skyline views and garden pool.
Hotel Claris, Pau Claris 150, www.derbyhotels.com. This converted palace preserves its 19th century façade, but crowns it with a slick addition that includes a rooftop swimming pool and bar. The hotel’s art collection ranges from Egyptian artifacts to lithographs by Andy Warhol.
Mandarin Oriental Barcelona, Passeig de Gracia 38-40, www.mandarinoriental.com. This ultra-hip 98-room hotel boasts a rooftop pool terrace and a Zen-like spa. Stop in the Banker’s Bar for a gin and tonic, Barcelona’s signature cocktail, and dine at the Michelin-starred Moments.
W Barcelona, Plaça de la Rosa del Vents 1 (Final Passeig de Joan de Borbó), www.w-barcelona.com. Billowing like a giant sail at one end of La Barceloneta boardwalk, this 473-room hotel designed by Ricardo Bofill opened in October 2009.
4 Places to Eat
Tickets, Avinguda Paral·lel 164, www.ticketsbar.es. Reservations must be made on-line.
El Bosc De Les Fades, Museo de Cera, Passage de la Banca 5. With its mysterious grottos and drunken Ent trees, this quirky bar is like Timothy Leary’s version of the Hundred Acre Wood.
Mercat de La Boqueria, La Rambla 91, www.boqueria.info. You’ll find everything you need for a picnic lunch at this bustling market. Alternatively, belly up at one of its tapas bars.
Bar del Pla, Calle Montcada 2, www.elpla.cat. Cheap-and-cheerful local tapas bar.
5 Places to Go
La Sagrada Familia, c/Mallorca 401, www.sagradafamilia.org.
Casa Batllo, Passeig de Gracia 43, www.casabatllo.es.
Fundacio Joan Miro, Parc de Montjuic,www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org. Museum dedicated to the Catalan surrealist painter, with a rooftop terrace and sculpture garden.
Museu Picasso, Carrer Montcada 15-23, www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en/. Features the largest collection of Picasso’s work in Spain.
Las Ramblas, a buzzy, tree-lined boulevard flanked by shops and street performers.
Hot spot: Barceloneta’s beach is THE place for the young and beautiful with energy to burn. For a more laidback approach to the outdoors, head to Parc Guell.
Shop spot: Passeig de Gracia is home to some of the city’s most chi-chi boutiques, but for unusual one-of-a-kind shops and galleries, check out Carrer De La Palla in the Barri Gotic.
Tourism info: Turisme de Barcelona