Thursday, May 28, 2015

Barcelona: The Emily Style Guide What to See, Eat, Explore and Drink in Catalonia

Barcelona isn't as much a city as a lifestyle. It's slow mornings with a cafe con leche and a croissant (and quite often a beer), followed by slow three course lunches with a glass of wine. A siesta where you take a break from eating to rest up for a pre-dinner vermut and tapas before another multi-hour meal. Eating is the national pastime in Barcelona and access to open air cafes is practically constitutionally guaranteed. Two weeks in Barcelona will remind you how to put down your phone and have a conversation, and will double the amount of cured pork products you'll eat in your lifetime.
Where to Stay in Barcelona: 
We had three apartments during our time in Barcelona city, starting with a gorgeous top floor flat in Sant Antoni.  This neighborhood is residential, with easy walking access to the castle and the old city downtown. Lots of locals and grocery stores. We then spent a night in El Raval, at a yoga retreat studio in a modernist building from 1890. This is a great neighborhood to go out in, but too noisy and crowded with tourists to stay in. 

Finally, our favorite neighborhood! Vila Gracia is north of downtown and near the Sagrada Familia and a lovely mix of everything great in Barcelona.  Historic buildings tucked away on quiet streets, just a few steps from plazas bustling with families and quirky bodegas for a quick bite.
What to See in Barcelona:
As you can imagine, eating and siesta takes up a the majority of your day in Barcelona. Here are my favorite things to do in between: 
  • Rent a bike (or e-bike) to get your bearings by riding across the small city or up into the mountains to see Park Guell and Tibidabo. There are lots of really safe bike lanes. 
  • Or, if biking isn't your thing, do a walking loop around the old city walls, through the parks and out to Barceloneta where you can swim in the mediterranean before returning home. 
  • Have a delicious lunch with the locals at the Maritime Museum and oogle a 16th century galley ship. Museum entrance also gets you access to a schooner parked in the neighboring harbor. 
  • Do a bit of shopping and architecture sight-seeing on Passeig de Gràcia. 
  • Throw a dinner party for friends by shopping for cheeses, meats, breads, olives, wines and other local delights in one of the "boqueria" markets. 
  • The National Museum is a fun place to explore Spanish art and surrounded by lovely gardens.
What to Eat in Barcelona: 
  • Drinking is a big part of eating. Homemade vermut served with an ice cube, slice of orange and an anchovy olive is a great place to start. Look for any place that offers "vermut de la casa" or try Morro Fi.  Glasses of sparkling cava, any local wine, cold Moritz or Estrella beer, "claras" that cut the beer with lemon soda are all good. 
  • Eat all the seafood: grilled octopus, sardines, squid, anchovies, fish carpaccio, mussels. Eat all the meats: tiny chorizos served warm, jamon, lomo and dried meats of all kinds, slow roasted cuts of lamb, wild boar and goat, snails. Add to that olives, cheeses, tomato bread, patatas bravas, paella, pan fried piquillo peppers. We at almost all of that in one sitting at Bodega Quimet one night. 
Where to Road Trip Outside Barcelona: 
We arranged a three night, four day route in the Catalan countryside that supported Matt and Rob riding 300km on mountain bike trails city to city. Each place would be a good choice for a couple days visit on it's own easily.

  • Montserrat can be reached directly by train from Barcelona, including the nature preserve and hilltop monastery. But if you take a car, you can stop to wine taste in Penedes, hike around the valley and explore Manresa to the north. 
  • Caldes de Montbui has been a hot spring tourist destination since at least Roman times. The tiny streets are packed with history and staying at a hot spring hotel will have you feeling straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. Plus, great hiking and biking trails. 
  • Montseny was my absolute favorite though. This quiet equestrian valley is dotted with castles and surrounded by green hills of a nature preserve. A great place to get a look at the elegant Spanish country culture and to meet friendly locals. 
  • Perpignan is the sister Catalonia city to Barcelona, just over the French border a 2 hour drive from the city. It's wild to see how much the culture changes in just over 100 miles. Load up on French food and pastries. No border check is required in between, making it extra fast. 

What to Wear:  
Barcelona is a stylish city, but still beach casual to its core. Business people wear suits, everyone else is in light tops and pants with comfortable sandals for walking all over. Pick up floaty blouses from H&M and Zara and comfortable pants to fit right in. Bring a bathing suit and plenty of sunblock. In May, there were also a few days that were more rainy and cold requiring real shoes and sweaters. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Taking a Day Trip from Spain to Perpignan, France

We had a lovely night at our equestrian estate in the Montseny valley. Our host at Rural Can Vila took a pre-breakfast photo of the whole gang.
Big spread of pastries, cereals, hams, cheese, cornbread, jams, yogurt and fruit along with lots of cafe con leche for breakfast in the dining room.
The boys took off for their last day of biking. We watched the horses run about for a bit and then loaded into the car to head to France for the day. Shane had never been to the country - so it seemed like a fun adventure to end his European trip.
It's just about 90 minutes to drive to Perpignan across the border - with no passport checks. Adorable villages dot the hillsides along the way.  It's amazing that just 100 miles away from Barcelona the border towns in France are so completely French! Those are the snow covered Pyrenees in the distance, I think.
We made our first stop to the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca. The town has turned the castle into a combination museum and arts venue.
The chapels here had a strong Moorish influence, good for our transition to Morocco this week.
We popped into a cozy Breton cafe for lunch of cidre and massive buckwheat crepes filled with "stinky" cheese. So French!
We wandered around the town a bit after lunch. It has a pretty canal running through the middle and a mix of swanky shops. A few places still observe siesta here and the street signs are in both French and Catalan.
Shane even saw his first authentic French protest.
We stopped into the main cathedral in town - which was all gilt and crystal chandeliers. So French!
The three of us walked around a bit more and picked up a big box of treats from a patisserie on our way out of town. The quick drive back into Barcelona confirmed just how much we like this city - it felt like returning home!

A bit of logistics once back in Barcelona. I deposited Lauren, Shane and our huge stack of luggage at a local cafe near our new apartment. The bartender was extremely nice about it! Then, returned the slightly damaged rental car and walked back to our new neighborhood of Vila Gracia. The bike riders had arrived at the cafe and we quickly met our new apartment host and checked in. He shared a glass of wine with us and recommended a neighborhood bodega for dinner. We walked through busy plazas and kids filling squirt guns from ancient fountains to find the spot. Loaded up on rounds of vermut and Moritz beer along with dishes of olives, sardines, clams, ham, chorizo, roasted peppers and grilled octopus.

From the hot springs of Caldes de Montbui to the horse ranches of Montseny, Spain

Day 3 of our bike + drive adventure in the Catalan country outside Barcelona! The boys headed off after a breakfast together in the main plaza of Caldes de Montbui.
When the helpful staff at the Hotel Thermes Victoria spotted our bikes the day before, they offered to arrange for the non-riders to use the hotel's bikes the next day. So, without any plan or preparation - Lauren, Shane and I decided to ride to the next town over, called Sentmenat.
Despite several assurances in Catalan from the locals that it was so easy and would only take 15 minutes, we managed to get lost several times. Between our three mountain bikes, we had only two sets of gears, two sets of breaks and one suspension fork.
Where better to get lost though than among beautiful olive orchards, wheat fields and historic castles?
We stopped for a Fanta in Sentmenat and Shane made a new friend in this tabac shop. They had a 20 minute conversation about the upcoming Catalan independence vote - neither speaking the other's language really at all.
The ride back to Caldes de Montbui was much faster and we set off in the car for our next destination about 1:00.
We stopped in Santa Maria de Palautordera on our way to the Montseny valley to buy new brake pads for Matt's rental bike and lunch. Stumbled into a small garden cafe called Masia Restaurant Can Bonamic, at a property that has been a restaurant for over 100 years. "Bonamic" translates to good friends in Catalan - which was very appropriate because our host quickly became one of our favorite people in Spain.

For $12 each, we had a three course meal with a bottle of local rose, interspersed with our attempts at a Catalan conversation about the San Francisco "gigantes" baseball team, our upcoming birthdays, the sights in the town and the food we were eating. Lauren had sardines, Shane had squid in tomato sauce and I had barbecued pork cheek for our main dishes. 
Next to us, a reserved table for an older gentleman who appears to come everyday via scooter. That's "Boni" the restaurant dog sitting with him. Because the wine is so inexpensive here, most people get a whole bottle for their table, even if they'll only drink a glass or two. 
The host filled us up with dessert and coffee while drawing maps to all his favorite places in the valley. A wonderful experience! Just a short drive up the valley to our new rooms at the Hotel Rural Can Vila, a historic equestrian estate adjacent to a working 40-horse breeding stable. 
The view from our suite included several yearlings and lots of bustling ranch workers. 
Shane, Lauren and I grabbed a bottle of wine from the Torres vineyard tour and the capers we bought in Manresa and went straight to the pool. There's a view of the Montseny mountains in the back and the ruins of a castle to the right. 
The pool felt ice cold at first, but the hot sun had us splashing in the water in just a few minutes. 
Our bike riders arrived at 6:00 and we all shared had another bottle of the Torres wine in the comfortable library outside our rooms. The bookscase is packed with equestrian trophies that the family had won. 
We drove down the road for a casual dinner with the locals at the cafe in the tiny village of Les Margarides.  Rob and Matt were exhausted! Assorted grilled meats, patatas and claras all around. 
Of all the places we visted on our Catalan countryside tour - Montseny and the Palautordera valley were my absolute favorite. Such a beautiful. elegant and peaceful part of Spain. Let's come back next year to stay in a country house, hike, swim and ride horses for a whole week! 

Sunday in Spain with the Churches of Montserrat and Manresa

After the long day of wine tasting in Penedes, we had a quiet night at the Hotel Guilleumes in Monistrol de Montserrat and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Rob and Matt set off for another big day of mountain biking across the countryside while Lauren, Shane and I took the cremallera train up to the monastery.
A fun mix of cyclists, rock climbers, Japanese tourists and local family-units from the valley up for Sunday mass at the summit.
The views down to the rocky terraced valley are really breathtaking.
We purchased a half a wheel of herbed sheep cheese, rosemary honey and fig pie from the farmer's stands running along the entrance. The same delicious trio that Rob and I loved to eat in Greece and Croatia last spring.
Lots and lots of bell ringing - echoing around the rocks - told us we should slip into the main church to watch the start of mass and to hear the famous boys choir singing hymns.
We ducked out early to explore the art museum included in our train ticket passes. A bit of a "trail mix" collection donated by various patrons - everything from an Egyptian mummy to a Monet to 1980's macrame art. Here's a painting that gives you a sense of the landscape on Montserrat.
Wandered around the hillside for a bit longer, stopping to eat the cheese and honey on the church steps and step into the tiny reading room in the cloisters before taking the train back down to drive to neighboring Manresa.
Manresa is a small city with important Jesuit ties, a history as a Jewish community and a wealthy past in the textile and glass industries. It has a very large Gothic cathedral in the center, the Santa Maria de Manresa.
Love those vaulted ceilings.
We had just 20 minutes to walk through the cathedral and visit the different chapels before siesta began and we needed to find lunch.
A nice woman at the tourist information office directed us to a local favorite for Sunday lunch: a white tablecloth, dessert cart kind of place called La Cuina that was the favorite of every grandparent in the village. Excellent service and food. They started us with saucers of cava and croquettes. I had fisherman soup served from a big tureen. Lauren had a squid ink pasta and Shane had a roasted leg of kid goat.
After the very long lunch, the street fair in town was just starting to wake up. We browsed various stalls selling handcrafts, meats and promoting the local universities. I made a new best friend in this adorable olive farmer with bushy eyebrows who informed us he was Catalan to the very core - and had the traditional beanie to prove it.
The town's jewel of a modernist casino has been turned into a lovely, if also needing a new coat of paint, public library.
Now, it was time to drive to our new city: Caldes de Montbui for the night. We had a quick journey followed by a bit of mayhem when Google maps took us the wrong way down the town's tiny medieval streets. We got lost several times and caused a bit of a dent on the car before checking in to the Hotel Victoria Thermes. Straight out of Grand Budapest Hotel - this "sanitarium" had a large dining room, piano parlor, card room, library and courtyard. I was shaken from the drive and drank brandy while swimming in the warm outdoor pool until the boys arrived from their ride. We all went for very good pizza in the village and then walked through the old roman bath and hot sulfur fountains.
It was election night in Spain. City hall was busy with vote counters and the local party was out celebrating their victory.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Eating, Biking and Wine Tasting in Penedès, Spain

Shoot! I'm falling behind on my reports from Spain. On Friday, we picked two more friends before setting off to explore the Catalan countryside: Lauren and Matt. With driving a rental car, logistics for five and a required minimum of four hours of eating a day (it's the Spanish national occupation), I've had barely a few minutes to look at the photos from our weekend adventures. I'm writing this tonight from an very elegant equestrian estate way up in the mountains toward the French border.

The whole idea with this route is that Matt and Rob bicycle for four days along the BCN 300 - a series of connected mountain bike trails in the small towns behind Barcelona - while the other three of us explore and then meet them in the new city for dinner each night. Our loop is Barcelona > Montserrat > Caldes de MonbuiSant Esteve de Palautordera > Barcelona.  So, on Saturday - the guys headed off by bike and we went wine tasting in the Penedes region. We stopped for a coffee in Vilafranca del Penedès and then went to meet our 11:30 tour at the Torres Winery.
First, there was a 15 minute movie about the Torres family. Then, we walked the vineyard with a handful of Japanese tourists and an enthusiastic young guide and who instructed on the intricate details of different vine cutting techniques. Probably almost an hour of walking at talking about viticulture techniques, the architecture of the facilities and visiting the cellars.
All while wearing very attractive neon green safety vests!
We had two tastings as part of our tour in a modern event facility as part of the Torres estate.
Downstairs, the most fragrant courtyard with trailing star jasmine providing shade around a fountain.
We took a solar-powered tram around the rest of the aging and bottling facility and finally ended with a family museum. An extensive tour, to say the least! By the time we finished our second wine tasting, we had been at the winery for more than three hours and it was getting late for lunch, even by Spanish standards.
Luckily, we were recommended to eat at a restaurant tucked away in a riding stable right across the street called Cal Cassoles.
We sat at a table overlooking another vineyard and ate a massive meal of red pepper hummus, cod carpaccio, grilled octopus, slow-roasted lamb shoulder, and crema castalan. All accompanied by two bottles of wine. The wine is so inexpensive here, Shana and Lauren thought they were ordering glasses - oops!
We watched the afternoon clouds roll-in over the Penedes countryside while eating and finally finishing with espressos.
Lunch finally ended and I drove the car (sober since I had only been sipping the wine here and there) up the road to Sant Marti Sorroca and the Ermita de Sant Joan de Lledó hilltop church.
Amazing views from us here of the whole valley between us and Montserrat. So green, it reminded me of being on the hillside in Maui...but with a lot more castles.
A quick drive over to Monistrol de Monserrat - a small "base camp" town below the famous monastery, where we reunited with our bikers after their long day of riding and had dinner together to de-brief on our big adventure days.