“We now look to the sea,” says Carme Ruscalleda, as we walk down La Rambla. “But we used to turn away from it.”Gesturing towards the Columbus Monument at the end of Barcelona’s most famous boulevard, with its towering statue of the great explorer pointing out across the Med, the only woman in the culinary world to have ever been awarded seven Michelin stars is explaining how her home city has become what is effectively a beach town.“
We used to just think of ourselves as a city near the coast,” she says. “Now we embrace [the sea].”
Because that’s the thing about Barcelona. With some of the most beautiful architecture in the world, an eye for design and a taste for cutting-edge cooking, it’s a city that truly epitomises smart urban living; but because of its geography there’s another side to it as well – within 10 minutes you can be lazing at the beach, or just hanging out in style, perhaps at the beguiling and recently opened Little Beach House Barcelona.
Urbane and buzzy on the one hand, relaxed and affable on the other, no wonder the Catalan capital is such a beguiling place to visit, but how best to experience those two sides? That was the challenge my editor set me and it is exactly what I was about to find out, with the help of two locals who were on hand to provide a very special guided tour.
Morning in the markets
Carme Ruscalleda is the biggest superstar of Catalan cuisine, so food is never far from the agenda with her. We begin our time together at the Mandarin Oriental, where she is responsible for two of the dining rooms, Blanc and Moments. Ever since it opened in 2009, this has been one of my favourite hotels anywhere, thanks to Patricia Urquiola’s playful modern design. The food here is equally inventive. The current 13-course, opera-themed menu at Moments is all about fun as much as flavour, with extraordinary presentation – the Madame Butterfly dish, for example, with umeboshi (pickled plums), looks like a Japanese painting of cherry blossom – but it being the morning, we make do with strong coffee before heading out.
Ruscalleda cuts an eccentric figure in her silver trainers and ruffled tailored plaid jacket, as we make our way through the flocks of pigeons of Plaça de Catalunya. She looks like the food she cooks – spirited, exuberant, individual. As she points out bunches of increasingly rare Picapolls grapes around the Mercat de la Boqueria, where people perch eating oysters, locals come up to ask for a selfie. “This area has changed so much,” she tells me, “but it still has an authentic spirit.” Indeed, La Boqueria remains the centre of foodie culture here in Barcelona. Locals have been visiting a market on this site since the 13th century. What they would have made of the hanging meats and smart seafood stands alongside the fresh fruits and vegetables is hard to guess, but the tradition is still clearly going strong.
Indeed, this is a city where tradition exists at every turn, as a visit to Casa Beethoven proves. This old-school sheet-music shop has been a family business through two world wars and one civil conflict, and it’s still thriving. As we enter, the owner is playing on the piano – a Catalonian song about a woman who gives herself, heartbroken, to the sea. It’s a quietly intimate moment after the buzz outside. Next, we walk around Plaça Reial, which looks like a mini St Mark’s Square with its elaborate lamps. “This used to be so dangerous here, just a few years ago,” explains my guide. “Now at night, it’s all lit up, with hundreds of people dining outside.”
Ruscalleda used to come to La Rambla at 3am, waiting for the newspapers to arrive at the kiosks when she knew they were running a story about her work. Today, the area has changed radically – the kiosks are full of tourist souvenirs. But there are other areas that she returns to time and time again, that few weekend visitors know about.
A classic Barcelona long lunch
After walking down to the water and the Columbus Monument, we jump into a taxi and head a few minutes along the coast for lunch at Els Pescadors. “Some friends of mine told me about this place years ago, and I come here all the time now with my husband,” she says, as we walk in, shaking the owner’s hand on our way to her usual corner table. We eat salt cod, and a fish stew with turbot, monkfish and gurnard with a silky stock and potatoes that we mash together into a creamy sauce to complement the white flesh of the fish. The room is accidentally extraordinarily chic, like a fancified fisherman’s bar, with wood panelling. Large family groups sit around devouring small plates, getting stuck into what will be a long, long lunch. “I always say,” says Ruscalleda, “there are only two kinds of cuisine – the bad and the best.” For her, this simple seafood is an example of the latter.
Afternoon in the city
If Ruscalleda is the queen of Catalonian food, then Chilean-born Jaime Beriestain is Barcelona’s king of design – and he is my second guide to the Catalan capital, picking up the reins in the afternoon. Beriestain is to Barcelona as Starck is to Paris – responsible for an aesthetic that can be found throughout his hometown and far beyond. Recently, he has entered what might be seen in the future as his golden age: The One and the Almanac are two of the newest and most luxurious hotels in the city, and both show just what their designer can do with a flair for beige, brown, gold and marble, and an eye that mixes retro 70s flourishes with futurism. Sitting in his living room, surrounded by bright and bold graphics and luxurious textiles, he tells me what he thinks he has brought to the city: “Since I was a child, I’ve always had a great imagination and wanted to create things that didn’t exist,” he says. “I think my work has an international aspect; it’s warm, light and timeless.”
Both hotels have become focal points of life in the city for visitors and locals alike. And both have great rooftop hangouts, particularly The One, which starts to fill as lunchtime makes way for the afternoon crowds, who head up into the clouds for a civilised glass of wine in the sunshine.
But, I’m not just here to indulge in Barcelona’s libatory pleasures, at least not just yet. To get a real flavour of the cutting-edge design culture in Barcelona, Beriestain recommends a visit to some of his favourite stores. Working in the Red Woods is full of unique artisanal ceramics with a touch of Japanese wabi-sabi, while Bramby Supply Co is a terrific example of the city’s burgeoning scene of independent craftsmen. “They do a fantastic denim apron!” he says of the artisan apron maker. And indeed they do.
While small independent retail is a relatively new draw for the city, it will never outdo the landmark institutions for wow factor. Beriestain has always been enchanted by the interior of the Palau de la Música, a masterpiece of Catalan modernism with its early-20th century curves and cartoon colours. “I also love the Joan Miró Foundation,” he says. “The views you get over Barcelona are stunning.”
He’s not wrong. The Miró artwork and the famous mercury-filled sculptural fountain by Alexander Calder inside are truly amazing, but walking around the white-walled terraces, looking out across the landscape after settling into a red deck chair, is one of the most enjoyable things you can do in the whole of Spain. Galeria Senda is another great contemporary gallery, while Casa Vicens pictured on our opening spread), the very first Gaudí-built home in the city, is a must as the afternoon draws on.
It only opened to the public for the first time recently, and its graphic sensibilities – with a touch of late 19th century orientalism and a total absence of the organic curves the architect later became known for – are compelling. As it fills the frame of the end of the narrow Carrer d’Aulèstia i Pijoan, it looks utterly peculiar and crazed – more 1980s postmodern than 1880s.
It also seems like a paradigm of modern Barcelona – unexpected and inspiring. In a world of identikit theme pubs and luxury chain stores, you won’t find Barcelona style anywhere else.
An evening stroll
Barcelona is surely one of the most rewarding cities in the world to explore on foot – especially during the hour just before dusk when the light bathes its vast boulevards in golden hues lending an almost hallucinatory glow to the gothic and modernist architecture. This is also a great time to seek out warren-like neighbourhoods such as trendy El Born, where you’ll find boutiques and little bars at every turn, all starting to ramp up for the evening.
And believe me, the evening is the time when the city comes alive. For every low-key tapas dive, there’s a historic cafe that looks like a madly ornate jewellery box or a new swanky hotel opening with a talked-about bar filling up with patrons looking to cut loose. The two Soho Houses that have opened recently make for another couple of great places for a late-night drink. As are Beriestain’s hotels, and the club he designed at another hotel – ZUU at the Sofia, which is a current hotspot among the city’s more refined party animals.
But one of my favourite places to spend a Friday night is surely Jaime Beriestain’s own cafe, next to his design store on Carrer de Pau Claris. It’s much more than a place to have coffee – it’s somewhere you go to sidle into a velvet- backed booth, surrounded by giant pot plants, giant expressive paintings and sculptural light fittings, where you eat truffled ravioli and drink Champagne while a DJ plays lounge music with Arabic overtones in the corner. “I wanted a place that always felt open to you, like a friend’s house,” explains Beriestain. Having spent time at both the designer’s home and cafe, I can confirm that the two venues share the same ambience. And like a visit to a friend’s house, it’s possible to forget the time and stay up far too late.
This is Catalan hospitality at its best. And it’s so much easier to enjoy a night on the tiles in the city when you know there’s a lazy day at the beach waiting for you when you wake up.