The Best Bites from the Devour Barcelona Tour

Food in Barcelona has always made me skeptical, despite a rich culinary history and the production of several globally recognized chefs. I’ve been to La Ciutat Comptal half a dozen times, but couldn’t recall being impressed by much, save a seafood paella in Barceloneta before I’d tried the real thing.

The Best Part on the Barcelona Food Tour

So I left it up to the experts – my friends at Devour Barcelona Food Tour. I’d taken their pilot tour in Madrid and knew that founders Lauren, Alejandro and James appreciated not just the food itself, but the person behind the dishes, making the tour a perfect mix of cultural, gastronomical and historical.

Renée met us on a blustery January morning on Passeig de Gràcia. Like me, she’d left the US for a year but found herself in Spain years later. Being the force behind Devour Barcelona is her dream job. She immediately gave us a hand out that detailed what we’d be eating on the four-hour tour, but I preferred to be surprised.

walking tours in Spain

The tour seemed to get off to a slow start. Apart from walking about ten minutes towards the Grácia neighborhood, we began with a pastry. Admittedly delicious, it didn’t tell me much about Spanish cuisine, much less Catalan. And once we reached Gràcia, a neighborhood that feels like a small city itself, our trip to the market yielded two more Spanish staples. 

We hit the 10am mark and Gràcia began to wake up – and we got a real taste for Catalan gastronomy.

Botifarra sausage sandwich with cava

Bar Pagés welcomed us into a shabby chic bar with round wooden tables, comfortable arm chairs and a smashing wine selection. The family behind Casa Pagés, a family restaurant in the same neighborhood, opened this smaller snack bar, which looks like the hybrid of a wine bar and coffee shop.

barcelona cava

Renée told us about cava, the “confused cousin” of champagne. Made mostly in the Penedès region of Catalonia, cava uses grapes native to Spain like Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada. And the reason it’s so cheap? Cava is the region is largely produced by machines! And it’s also a standard morning drink, the way anisette is in Andalucía, so bubbly for breakfast didn’t feel strange.

butifarra and cava on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

After we’d been poured a glass and toast, our second breakfast was served: a simple botifarra sausage sandwich with roasted green pepper and crushed tomatoes. Simple, hearty and crazy delicious. 

Bomba de Barcelona and Pam amb Tomaquet at La Anxoveta

Like many, Carlos and his wife found themselves out of work when the crisis hit. They decided to take over a neighborhood bar called La Anxoveta and breathe life into catalan cuisine staples. Here we’d be sampling two more heavyweights of local gastronomy: pa amb tomàquet and bomba de Barcelona.

Carlos came out with his hands practically talking for him as he rattled off questions to us. He explained the pa amb tomàquet as Renée translated that this simple dish that was once a poor man’s breakfast has become one of the region’s most beloved foods. He cut two slices of pan de cristal, a thin, rustic piece of bread, then showed us how to add the tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt so we could do it on our own.

Next out came the bomba, one of Barcelona’s signature tapas. Born out of a bored cook with a revolutionary streak, María Pla invented the bomba in the 20s as a response to the anarchist violence playing out in the street. The weapon of choice was a cast iron ball with explosives inside that had to be lit with a fuse. Pla’s neighborhood of Barceloneta was a hotbed of activity, and her playful take on food and history has endured.

Bomba de Barcelona Madrid Food Tour

Renée claims the bomba at La Anxoveta is the best in the city – it’s like a glorified croqueta with potato and ground beef, sitting on a bed of spicy tomato sauce and topped with a garlicky alioli sauce. In short, perfect!

Almond pastry at Syrian bakery Príncipe

barcelona storefront

Our walk continued through Gràcia. This part of the city was once a separate village and home to holiday villas; with the industrial revolution, the city’s population surged, and L’Eixample was born. Gràcia was swallowed up by the city, but the barri is like a whole different city surrounded by a city, much like my Triana. 

Gràcia has also opened its arms to foreigners, both domestic and international, and the streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, snack bars and pastry shops with international fare. Mustafa is one of Gràcia’s business owners, a Syrian national who came to Barcelona on holiday and decided to set up shop. He was a man who spoke very little on his visit, but I left wanted to give him a hug.

Baklava in Barcelona

Mustafa’s pastry shops is simple – it is clean, smells faintly of honey and offers only the Syrian pastries to patrons and to Middle Eastern restaurants around the city. We could choose one, and given how perfect each one of them looked, it wasn’t easy. I watched as the other four chose chocolate or honey confections, but I took a small one with almond. Growing up across the street from a Greek family, I’d loved baklava from a young age, and the almonds coated in honey and the flaky pastry layers had me back on Silverthorn Drive.

Vermouth at C’al Pepe with boquerones en vinagre

It’s almost inevitable – at 1pm on a Saturday, my body needs a cerveza. When Renée suggested going for a drink in the sun-drenched Plaza de la Virreina, I knew she’d take us somewhere great. Up the hill towards Gràcia, she confessed that finding C’al Pepe – or Joe’s House – was a totally lucky find. 

Vermout bar on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

Catherine and I were psyched – Joe’s Place is the de facto Old Man Bar of our college town – and C’al Pep did not disappoint. There was no bar, no menu, no other guiris in sight. Rafa had taken over from the original Pep and strove to maintain the bar’s ambience. It truly had the hallmarks of an old man bar: old vermouth posters hung on the walls, yellowing at the edges. Siphones and old Westerns on the TV. We even had the requisite Spanish abuelos at the end of our table.

Devour Barcelona food tour

We were served a glass of sweet vermouth with fuet sausage and pickled anchovies. Between the bar, the company and the snacks, I had fallen in love with Cal’s bar, Gràcia and perhaps even softened my hard feelings for Barcelona’s food scene. 

After one last dessert and a coffee, we did as the Spaniards did – lay down for a nap and let the food coma pass.

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Devour Spain food tours graciously let me chow down for free, but all opinions and calories consumed are my own! I also invited Catherine along as part of the Typical NonSpanish program with Caser Expat.

Have you ever eaten well in Barcelona? Check out my other recommendations for food and a chance to win an eBook from Eat Guides Barcelona!

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Galicia

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collageOh goody! I get to talk about one of my favorite places in Spain this month!

Ever since my friend literally stood over me as I looked for fares, then forced me to buy a ticket to La Coruña that I couldn’t afford, I’ve swooned over the northwesternmost province of Spain. Galicia is acutely Spanish while not being very Spanish at all, thanks to its Celtic roots. It’s a land ruled by superstition, by an aversion to long spans of rain along the coast, by plump seafood and white wine. Where stone churches and hórreos stand guard. Where language is sung, not spoken. Where rivers and mountains and forests abound. Where I’ve had one serendipitous experience after another.

camino de santiago in galicia

I’ve spent more time in Galicia than I have in the city where I studied abroad, Valladolid. Coruña is like a second home to me after five summers teaching there. 

Name: Galicia, or Galiza in local gallego

Population: 2.7 million

Galicia Collage

Provinces: Four; A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, Vigo

When: May 2008, 10th of 17

About Galicia: Galicia is one of those places you’d probably peg as part of Scotland because of its weather and ever-present bagpipes, and the fact that it’s rather isolated – the high-speed trains won’t reach the region until 2017 (or so hey say). I both welcome this and fear it because Galicia is so staunchly suyo, that a boom in tourism may mean losing a little bit of what makes Galicia, Galicia.

mondoñedo galicia camino de santiago

There’s a long version of the story of Galicia, but here’s the short one:

Humans first began inhabiting the northwest corner – mostly north of the Duero River – of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Paleolithic period slowly and eventually the Iron Age and Castro period. These people were of Celtic origin and called Gallaeci. Eventually becoming part of the Roman Empire and then the Visigoth, these kingdoms have left their mark on Galicia’s history and architecture before eventually falling to the Christian Empire in Northern Spain.

The Middle Ages was a time of  prosperity in Galicia, and even though the region was still under the Crown of León, inhabitants were ruled by seven kings in seven kingdoms that were able to retain their culture and language, though there were bloody conflicts between brotherhoods and kingdoms. Like today, the area was untamed and a bit unruly. Galicia was awarded autonomous status in the 16th Century with the Audencia Nacional, and nowadays, there’s a call for becoming an independent kingdom. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Must-sees: I should really start this section off with must-eats, rather than must-sees. Galicia has a wealth of regional dishes and a thriving tapas culture in its larger cities, so I’d wholeheartedly suggest fasting before heading up there. I’m serious.

typical food in galicia

Let’s start with the seafood. Galicia’s home to 1,500km of coastline, so mussels, crabs, octopus and the much-heralded percebes, or goose barnacles, are prominent on menus. Round up some friends and split a mariscada.

Then there’s the cheese. From smoky San Simón from Lugo and the boob-shaped queso de tetilla, you’re likely to skip dessert (unless you get a slice of Tarta de Santiago, an almond-based cake). Pair it with a crisp but sweet albariño wine which also matches nicely with seafood. Don’t miss Galician-raised beef, pimientos del padrón and collared greens.

Galicia

The majority of the region’s big sites are clustered around the coastal areas, particularly Coruña, Vigo and ancient tourist hotspot, Santiago de Compostela. Inland, the population is more sparse, though there are highlights in natural spaces, sacred areas and larger capitals.

Starting with political capital Santiago de Compostela: the ancient stone streets and cathedral where the remains of Saint James are reputedly buried, many tourists come to Santiago for a taste of Galicia. This UNESCO World Heritage City boasts a number of sites, a train station and an international airport, in addition to being the end of the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago (though many pilgrims choose to travel to Finisterre). Read my posts about Santiago here.

A Coruña, nicknamed the Crystal City is nearby and sits on the end of a peninsula. Famous for its beaches and galerías (and, uh, the flagship Zara), it’s a bustling city that merits a day. Visit its beaches, the Torre de Hercules lighthouse and Cerro de San Cristóbal for views of the bay. Read more about Coruña here.

islascies3

Vigo is another large city, situated on one of the rías, is famous for its oysters and is the gateway to the Islas Ciès and Portugal to the south. It’s nearby to the much talked about Islas Ciès and its gorgeous beaches.

Inland, Lugo boasts sweeping farmlands and humble hamlets, and the capital retains its medieval city walls, which can be visited. You can also find the Praia As Catedrais – considered one of the most beautiful in Spain – in this province, just a taxi ride away from Ribadeo. Scattered around the region are celtic ruins, great hiking trails and roadside stone churches and cruceiros. Being a near-perfect marriage of sea and land, your time in Galicia should be spent outdoors (so long as the rain holds off!).

My take: My first taste of Galicia was a milanesa from fabled tapas bar La Bombilla in La Coruña.  We ordered enormous croquetas and juicy hunks of tortilla, served to us on plastic plates by seriously rotund women who had probably spent the better part of their lives in that kitchen. Everyone seemed…happy. Maybe it’s because they were eating and drinking, because I was grinning right along with them. Because, Estrella Galicia.

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I actually credit Galicia with opening up my severely limited taste palate to seafood. I swallowed mussels and octopus at an alarming rate that weekend. The rain held off so we could wade into the frigid waters at the Playa del Orzán, and we sipped gigantic and cheap rum and Fantas at dimly lit alternative bars. I vowed to come back, and soon after, I swapped a teaching position in the islands to return to Galicia. It rained all summer. I loved it.

For five continuous summers I risked the rain for three or four weeks in Coruña, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite cities in Spain. So many of my most treasured Spain memories – watching Spain win the World Cup in 2010, staying out all night at the Saint James Feast in Santiago, walking the Camino – have taken place out here.

Doing the Camino de Santiago through Galicia

Seriously – my ideal Spain is a hybrid between vibrant Andalucia (and its weather) and offbeat Galicia. 

Have you ever been to Galicia? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura

Photo Post: A Visit to the Seville Cathedral Rooftop

There are some things in Seville that don’t need any further explanation – a cotton candy sunset over Triana, Plaza de España’s beautiful tile benches, the dreamy chords and staccato of a flamenco performance.

And then there’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and its stunning minaret. Visiting the rooftop has long been on my to-do list, and even with a guide recounting the history, lore and practicality of the temple, the views of La Hispalense needed no explanation.

Florentino met us at Puerta de San Miguel, adjacent to Avenida de la Constitución. It was a busy Saturday evening, and the streets were clogged with families and street performers. Once we’d stepped inside – our guide with an enormous key and soft feet – we’d get ground rules: watch your step, stay with the group, and don’t touch any wires.

The massive cathedral of Seville

We climbed a winding staircase, worn down by more than 600 years of history. Etched Stars of David, rhombuses and other figures were a testament to the 100 years it took to build the cathedral once the city was reconquered. It was dark and cramped, but we emerged just over the sacristy, affording us views of Plaza de Virgen de los Reyes below.

The Giralda

cathedral in seville

For someone who has climbed the Giralda and visited the cathedral itself two dozen times, I didn’t think the building and anchor any touristic route would hold much mystery. 

Florentino reminded us to watch our step as I nearly tripped over a stone pod on the uneven surface. These devices were used as weights for the reliquia below – statues, paintings and even old altarpieces were hoisted using this archaic system.  So, there, I learned something. He pointed out features in the building process, from the stained glass to the buttresses, navigated a labyrinth of staircases, rooms and small patios.

sunset from the seville cathedral

sunset Seville Spain

When you’ve admired the sprawling cathedral from below, it’s incredible to see the details up close. So close, in fact, that I received a shock from wires designed to keep pigeons away. Oops, broke rule three.

We climbed and climb, retracing the Latin cross as Florentino recounted the 500 chapels below our feet and lore about the construction and consecration of the cathedral. Like everyone else, I gasped when we reached the highest point of the tour.

The Giralda Tower Seville

We were just a few yards from the Giralda, and climbed up the dome of the sacristy to contemplate the tower. Along with the Patio de los Naranjos, the minaret is a trace of the mosque that stood here until the reconquest in the 12th century.

Rooftop tour of the cathedral

Entering the temple shortly after, we walked behind the organ on a small walkway that could only accommodate you if you squeezed by, careful not to trip over the wires that light the naves. I had lost Florentino’s voice by now, but that hardly mattered.

Stained glass at the Seville Cathedral

rosette window in the catedral de sevilla

Once back on the ground, I could truly appreciate the immensity of the cathedral and its importance in Seville lore and history. The church built to inspire all those who see it to think that the architects and commissioners must have been crazy. Crazy, maybe.

If you go: Conocer Sevilla runs weekly visits to the cathedral rooftop – called the Cubertizo de la Catedral. Tours are about 90 minutes, cost 12 per person and it’s recommendable to wear comfortable clothing, as surfaces are unsteady and there is a bit of climbing involved. For more information and reservations, check Conocer Sevilla’s webpage.

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I visited the cathedral as part of the Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat. For more on the project, visit their webpage or find them on twitter.

Tapa Thursdays: Seville’s Newest Gastrocultural Offering, the Mercado Lonja del Barranco

Gourmet Markets in Seville

In a city renowned for tapas culture, more and more foodie-friendly offerings are popping up. From wine tasting packages and jamón cutting courses to ethnic bars and even a midday flamenco show, I’d thought I’d seen it all in Seville when it came to merging food and culture (hello, my favorite parts of blogging).

Then ex-bullfighter Fran Rivera (also the ex-son-in-law of the Patrona of Seville, Cayetana de Alba) pumped money into a gourmet food market in a century-old building. While mercados and plazas de abastos are nothing new to la vida cotidiana in Spain, places like La Boquería and Mercado San Miguel are becoming tourist destinations in other cities, and Rivera and business partner Carlos Herrera are jumping on Spain being a foodie haven (and anyway, people have to eat).

Mercado Lonja del Barranco Sevilla

Mercado Lonja del Barranco opened in late November to crowds, to rain, to runaway success. Housed in a glass and wrought iron building that served as a fish market until 40 years ago, the space has 20 different puestos featuring regional goodies, as well as half a dozen free-standing food carts and a Cruzcampo beer station that allows you to sample recently-brewed beer.

Each puesto has a specialty item, like acorn-fed ham, salmorejo or the mythical Spanish omelette, and there are a few cocktail or wine bars. And much like the Corte Inglés Gourmet Experience, several local restaurants have set up shop.

Mercado Lonja del Barrando creative space

Mercado Lonja del Barranco

The result is a chaotic but bright and lofty space with impeccable decoration, though seating is limited indoors and there is not rhyme or reason to the set up – it feels like a maze, even when empty. It’s less market and more fancy schmancy food hall, but the Mercado de Triana is right across the Puente Isabel II should you need fresh vegetables or a craft beer.

seafood markets in Seville

People at a Spanish market

food offerings at mercado lonja del barranco sevilla

The Novio and I met some friends on a Friday night shortly after the market opened. Even with rain clouds threatening, the place was packed to the (iron) gills. We found a table outside and just ordered a few beers, unwilling to sidle up to anywhere but a beer tap. While the food offerings looked incredible, there were far too many people to really enjoy the experience. As I’ve passed by in subsequent days, the market remains busy but the novelty has worn off a bit – perfect for sampling tapas or ordering sushi to go.

If you go: Mercado Lonja del Barranco is open daily from 10am until midnight; open until 2am on Friday and Saturday. Prices are variable, but expect a minimum of 10€ a head. The market plans to open cultural offerings, such as workshops and theatre, in the future. Check their webpage for more.

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I visited the Mercado Lonja del Barranco as part of the Typical Non Spanish project with Caser Expat. The power the experience, I enjoy and write about it in my own words. All opinions are my own.

What’s your favorite gourmet market in Spain?

Visiting Munich’s Christmas Markets

Exploring Munich's Christmas Markets

I’d long been hoping to visit Germany during Christmas time. After five trips to Deutschland during the coldest months of the year, I finally made it to Oktoberfest, an absolute dream for beer lovers.

But shortly after my trip to the Weis’n, my parents decided to spend Christmas on the Danube River aboard a river boat, leaving from Munich. Glühwein for all!

Christkindlemarkt Munich

After a chaotic trimester, I tacked on a Friday and Saturday onto a weeklong cruise to eat my way around the Bavarian capital. Flight delays dropped me into the city near midnight, and after fumbling around my hostel dorm room to try to change into pajamas, I woke up still fully clothed and running late to meet my cousin, Christyn.

The hostel workers pointed me towards the city center and circled no fewer than ten markets around town, most of which were clumped around Marienplatz. Even before 10am, the streets smelled of seared meat and sweet, candied nuts, but my sensors detected something else: the GLÜHWEIN. 

The delicious gluhwein

But in all seriousness, is there anything so delightful?

I chose a booth right in front of the statue that gives Marienplatz its name, and it seems she had the same idea: as soon as I’d wrapped my paws around the steaming cup, she’d sidled up next to me and ordered one, too.

The oldest Munich Christmas market, then called Nicholausmarkt, dates back to the 14th century, and  the city now has themed stalls all around town, from traditional to children’s to even a medieval markets that sells pelts and wooden swords. We began at Marienplatz, which has traditional offerings like Christmas decorations and food – and slowly worked our way around the periphery markets.

Visit the Munich Christmarkets

Munich Christmas Cookies

Christmas time in the Munich markets

peacocks in Munich

 

Eating brats in Munich

Christmas Time in Europe

Christmas markets and ornaments

How delicious is Gluhwein!

In the end, my money went not to whimsical dolls or ornaments for my fake Christmas tree, but to food and drink to keep me warm! I’d see more markets in Passau, Vienna and Salzburg on that trip, but Munich’s is more magical – even for a Scrooge like me!

Interested in reading more about Munich? Check out my posts on Oktoberfest, on my thoughts on Neuschwanstein and the surprising village of Passau.

Have you ever been to Munich or any Christmas markets?

Walking The Medieval Murallas of Ávila

I’d seen the walls from the highway on the way to Madrid – like something out of a period piece, the red roofs of the historic  center spill down from a shallow hill, corralled by more than 80 stone towers. In this city of stones and saints, it’s what puts Ávila on the map.

On a recent trip to visit the city I studied abroad in, I detoured towards Ávila, a small provincial capital nuzzled up to Madrid. This meant backroads past crumbling castles, farmland and hamlets that are but a blip on a little-traversed highway.

Sigh. I love Castilla y León.

Las Murallas de Avila y su Visita

Ávila is a city of stone churches, small plazas and the birthplace of Saint Theresa the Mystic and Saint John of the Cross, founders of the Descalced Carmelites, though the imposing muralla is what I came for (I did light a candle for my abuela at the Church of Saint Theresa while de paso, though).

Construction began under Alfonso VI at the end of the 11th Century, and nearly a millennia later, the entire city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage City, one of thirteen in Spain.  

Western Walls of Avila

Iglesia Santa Teresa, Avila

Avila CollageThe Cathedral of Avila

More than one kilometer of the city walls can be visited – the short tramo from the Puerta del Alcázar around the plaza and to the cathedral, and from Puerta de las Carnicerías around the western side of the old city to Puerta del Puente, at the lowest point of the city. You can also exit at Puerta del Carmen, right next to the Parador de Turismo. One ticket is valid for the entrances at Puerta del Alcázar and Puerta de las Carnicerías.

Walking the City Walls of Avila

The Cathedral of Avila from the City Walls

Puerta del Carmen Avila

Selfie at the Murallas de Avila

Visting the Medieval Walled City of Avila Spain

Leave 90 minutes or so to visit the walls, and don’t miss the numerous Romanesque and Gothic churches within them. Also of note is the museum, convent and church dedicated to Saint Theresa (or the yolk pastries bearing her name). 

If you go: The walls are open daily from 10am, with guided tours available. Tuesdays from 2 to 4pm free. If you have a Carnet Joven, show it with a photo ID for a discounted ticket. Be sure to bring sturdy shoes, as some parts of the walls are hazardous. Regular admission is 5€, reduced 3.50€. If you want a great photo, walk or drive to Los Cuatro Postes, just across the Adaja River.

If you like walks and hikes and old things, you’ll enjoy: The Dubrovnik City Walls | Climbing Teide, Spain’s highest point | Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Have you been to Ávila? More importantly, have you tried ternera de Ávila?!

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