Hello, dear friends! Did you miss me? I missed you, although I confess it was tempered by consuming pain au chocolat along the Seine, sipping wine at cafes and watching the endless fashion show that is Paris, shopping for Iberian ham at La Boqueria, spearing bits of salt cod and smoked sardines at Barcelona's favorite tapas and champagne bar, devouring brightly-colored and exotic macarons (cassis! yuzu! genmaicha!), and eating way too much foie gras. (I'll pay for that one in karma, I suspect.)
We returned on Monday, and I've been trying to figure out how to write about the trip without boring you to pieces, while sharing some of the loveliest bits. It was a whirlwind of eating, walking, seeing. The apartments were both great, although the one in Barcelona turned out to be in the seedier side of El Raval and unfortunately close to the Ramblas, which was pretty touristy and junky. But once we got out of our neighborhood, we were amazed by the city's beauty. The apartment in Paris, located in Saint-Germaine-des-Pres, was ideally situated among all kinds of shops and restaurants, very comfortable, and a stone's throw from the river.
We got around both places largely on foot and by metro. Coming from San Francisco, where the subway system is a big piece of garbage, we were amazed by the efficiency and breadth of both systems. In Paris, we saw all the major sites and museums, our favorites of which were Musee d'Orsay and L'Orangerie (where we encountered Stanley Tucci admiring Monet's Water Lilies), but mostly we enjoyed walking along the Seine, taking in the sights, and whiling away hours, yes hours, at cafes, people-watching. (How French women navigate cobblestone streets and ride bicycles in four-inch heels I will never know nor replicate but I surely admired them, as did the husband, naturally.) In Barcelona, we saw as much Gaudi as we could, including Parc Guell, the stunning Casa Batllo, and La Sagrada Familia, which we both found deeply moving and magnetic, in spite of being unreligious. We were also struck, and impressed, by the Catalan pride we encountered at nearly every interaction.
And the food! In Paris, we were in awe of the breads, pastries, and cheeses and were surprised (I don't know why this should be, but we were) by how excellent the fish was. We had wonderful meals at Le Comptoir de Relais (which more than deserves its cultish devotion), Fish la Boissonerie (so good we went twice), L'A.O.C., Les Fines Gueules, and slurped two dozen oysters at Huitrerie Regis. Our most formal meal was lunch at Le Petit Bofinger (we laughed about the name but were not laughing while consuming rillettes of tuna, Norwegian salmon with shaved cucumber, duck and ratatouille, and grilled salmon with, hands-down, the finest mashed potatoes I have ever laid fork to.) We also enjoyed surreptitiously watching the elderly and elegantly-dressed French couple next to us, particularly when the woman slipped her uneaten roll into her purse for later and the man ordered a large beer to go with his chocolate mousse.
While I did not take too many photos of our food, I got a few shots. This was our very first snack in Paris: wine and charcuterie at a little cafe across from Notre Dame. I like how snacks in France simply must involve some kind of cured meat (or two) and a large wine.
Another highlight of our time in Paris was meeting Croque Camille and her husband Nick at Restaurant du Marche in the 15th arrondissement (where I had foie gras to start, then shoulder of lamb, followed by one of the stand-out desserts of the trip: madeleines served with a little jar of lemon curd and a small scoop of heavenly raspberry sorbet), then heading back to their place for cognac. Thank you, Camille, for welcoming us to your beautiful city!
In Barcelona, we had the best seafood of our lives, as well as incredible hams, olives like none I'd ever tasted before, and outstanding wines. We ate endless tapas: salt cod fritters, braised chickpeas with sobrasada and leeks (this was discovered at a small place near our apartment, Bar Raval, and was one of the finest dishes we had on the whole trip), fried sardines with red grapes, and croquettes of all types.
As we also did in Paris, we had a few missteps, including an expensive and stuffy (though admittedly delicious) dinner at Comerc 24 and one or two average lunches. But we also enjoyed an impromptu and delicious lunch at the crowded Bar Central in La Boqueria...
where we had calamari with crispy potatoes, and perfectly grilled vegetables with flakey sea salt.
We had a wonderful dinner at Pla (a cozy restaurant tucked in the back of the smallest, darkest alley) and a leisurely session at Bar Zim, a tiny wine bar we stumbled across in La Barri Gotic, where we ate a bowlful of heavenly olives and inhaled a fabulous cheese plate, explained to us in detail by the bar's cheerful owner. We also pushed our way into El Xampanyet, a local favorite, which in addition to selling cava, makes their own champagne.
We stood at the bar and drank glass after glass of their home brew while eating anchovies, smoked sardines, roasted peppers, cured salmon, and raw salt cod with olives.
One evening, we popped into our neighborhood bar, Bar Aurora. It happened to be the night Barcelona played Madrid in soccer. The crowd went wild when Barcelona sealed the win, cheering and singing. I was hugged by an elated stranger. At that moment, we fell in love with the city and its warm people.
We returned to Bar Aurora the next evening and chatted at length with Claudia, the Italian owner, no small feat given that she speaks Italian, Catalan, and French, but no English. The husband muddled through in Spanish and I bumbled about in French. Not only did we enjoy the company of this lovely woman, she helped arrange for a cab to pick us up before dawn the morning of our departure. Apparently, calling for cabs in advance in Barcelona is very difficult if you don't have a Spanish phone number.
After saying adios to Barcelona, we returned to Paris for one final day, which was a quiet one, being both a Sunday and May Day, a national holiday in France. Many places were closed, but we found a place bustling for lunch--or le brunch, which seems to be a big deal in Paris, based on the crowds. The husband ordered le brunch traditionel which arrived in its outrageous glory:
while I, breaking all Hungry Dog precedent, ordered something with a fried egg: a croque madame. When in Paris...
We spent our last day walking around, taking final stock of this charming city, and wrapped it up with a delightful dinner at Cafe Constant, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Over tartar of salmon, scallops, and oysters, more foie gras, and roast chicken with crispy potatoes and grilled Romaine hearts, we recounted our trip in full bliss. Post apple tart and profiteroles, we rolled homeward, stopping for one last glass of Bordeaux on the way.
These are just snippets of our trip--suffice it to say, we had a wonderful time. There were minor disappointments--we found the Louvre, Sacre Couer, and Parc Guell so jammed with tourists it was impossible to enjoy any of them. But there were infinitely more pleasures. The food, clearly, was outstanding, but more than that, this experience opened our eyes about traveling, languages, art, history, architecture, fashion, and national identities.
While we are pleased to be back in most ways (who can argue with sleeping in your own bed, drinking coffee made exactly the way you want it, and being able to speak without opening a dictionary?) we are already anxious to plan our next trip abroad. And, without a doubt, we plan to return to each of these beautiful cities.
|On the roof of Gaudi's Casa Batllo in Barcelona.|