This fall my wife and I traveled to Barcelona with a contradicting agenda: Relaxation and exploration.
We’re no strangers to Western Europe, but neither us had made it to Spain in our previous travels. We decided to stay in the city for a full week, wanting to sink in and get to know Barcelona. The only items on our agenda were to relax and gain a renewed perspective.
We stayed at a small apartment on the edge of the Eixample and Gracia districts with ceramic tile floors and a vaulted brick ceiling. Heavy wood French doors opened onto a small balcony that had enough room for a cafe table and chairs. The street below buzzed with cars, scooters and pedestrians.
The Eixample was once a middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of the dense Gothic quarter. In recent years, it has become home to high-end retail and trendy dining. The neighborhood scale is defined by large blocks and tree-lined boulevards that terminate in octagonal intersections intended to provide increased openness and ventilation.
In sharp contrast, the Gracia to the north is an energetic, unpredictable neighborhood. Many streets are scaled to fit only pedestrians or scooters. Dense blocks of cafés and markets open up into unexpected plazas with children playing and adults socializing. The Gracia feels like a tight-knit community ̶ a city within a city.
The northern tip of the Gracia is capped by Antoni Guadi’s Park Guell. The park reflects Gaudi’s naturalist style and free-form organic tile mosaics. At first glance, the park resembles a greatest hits album. All of Gaudi’s architectural styles fit neatly into one park. A closer look reveals an artist in his prime experimenting with organic shapes and skewed structural forms.
Later, we found Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion tucked among stately civic buildings. Van der Rohe’s flawless modern details provided a few quiet moments and a lot of inspiration. The pavilion is constructed primarily with steel, stone and marble slabs ̶ heavy materials that paradoxically achieve lightness, texture and a unique warmth.
We explored the city’s culinary scene alongside its architecture and found that both traditions are deeply rooted in history. Tapas and pastries rule the streetscape. Every block of the city seems to boast a beautiful pastry shop and multiple cafes spilling onto the sidewalk, where residents enjoy their ritual late-afternoon beers and salty snack
Just as Gaudi experimented in his work, many local chefs in Barcelona are taking risks by studying food on a molecular level and reassembling tastes and textures into something modern yet familiar. Bodega 1900, located in the Poble Sec neighborhood, presents itself as a classic Vermuteria – a casual gathering place for tapas and Vermouth. Chef Albert Adria, a stalwart in molecular gastronomy, uses modern cooking techniques to recreate classic tapas in unexpected ways. Though many of Adria’s dishes are conceived through the lens of modern technique, they remain soulful and deeply rooted in Barcelona’s culinary history.
Experimentation seems vital to the Catalan capital; Barcelona remains vibrant by respecting its collective history and embracing artists that forge a new path forward.
On our final morning in Barcelona, we embraced the spirit of experimentation by emptying our pockets of all our spare Euros and purchasing enough pastries to cover our small kitchen table.