As both Madonna and La Terremoto de Alcorcón said, time goes by, although for them it goes slowly and for me it whizzes by. It’s already late July in Barcelona and there is a heat wave, a calamitous situation best captured by the recently trending 9GAG cartoon,
which perfectly matches my style these days, minus the bikini because, as is well known, I do not acknowledge the existence of Barcelona beaches.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that Catalans (Spaniards) have no concept of what air conditioning is for or how it works. Here, for example, a store’s proud announcement that it will NEVER cool its premises below 26ºC (that is, 79ºF).
That would already be problematic if setting the thermostat and achieving the temperature were one and the same thing, but alas, when you come to Barcelona pay attention to how many businesses with the A/C on have their doors closed: if you get to 1% I’ll be surprised. The most advanced of them have installed something called an air curtain, which presumably blasts a current at a particular angle that prevents cold air from escaping the indoors or warm air from entering them. Do not be fooled; if ever such a thing conceptually worked, it doesn’t in its actual Barcelona applications (I’ve never even encountered a home water heater that doesn’t leak). It only works to deafen your ears to European cackling about how anti-ecological us Amurricans are.
I have managed to escape from the heat on a couple of overnight trips, once to visit Miss N in Girona for a hop from there to Platja d’Aro, where we swam at this cute little cove or cala named La Bella Dona. It’s funny that the National Geographic page to which I just linked extols its “soft sand,” because it’s more like scorching shards of razor-sharp flint (moral: always stop by Decathlon for cheap aquashoes before leaving for the Costa Brava), but they speak the truth about its “clear waters” and beautiful landscape “where pine trees and rocks merge with the sea”:
The really special thing about La Bella Dona is that you can only reach it by going down these long, long steps (and then climbing back up them to leave), which–as you guessed–The People tend not to do! So it’s less crowded than other beaches in the area and you can enjoy the deliciously freezing water in relative isolation. Plus: by diligently going up and down more steps and getting repeatedly buried in sizzling pebbly sand, you too can be rewarded with a pretty nice lunch at the eminently civilized xiringuito:
(as a Caribbean belle, I am endlessly amazed at how sophisticated any old beach shack can be in Europe–which is not to say there are better things in life than alcapurrias in Luquillo).
but it was 99º, at near-sunset!
(and yes, that is my boyfriend Carles Puyol’s torso), so I skipped the romance and went directly to dinner at Miss N’s restaurant, La Vedette, which I’d been meaning to try for quite a while. Its main specialty is galettes bretonnes, a buckwheat flour crepe with any topping/filling you could imagine (also fondues, for which I’m going back as soon as it’s not horribly hot). I had the “Popeye” which is great because although it’s stuffed full of melted cheese (and honey) all the spinach on top makes it feel like you’re eating a salad. And half of being healthy is looking healthy, I say (although paradoxically, I don’t actually look like I’m the healthiest 50-year-old you’ve ever met, which I am).
Unlike any other old crêperie, La Vedette has both architectural allure and a fun story. The architectural allure is that it’s built right on the old Roman wall, which makes for a very pleasant space.
The story refers to María González Vila, onetime prostitute and later madam of the original La Vedette, a famous neighborhood brothel for over thirty years (at the top of its kind during the 1960s and 70s)–for what is now the upscale, touristy Sant Feliu area was once Girona’s red light district. A very interesting entrepreneuse (one of the few who actually owned her establishment) from a time when the “profession” evoked Hollywood glamour (a theme on which the restaurant picks up with its extensive movie memorabilia), she was nevertheless devoted to what she saw as a serious social mission: “I perform a great service for families, because I prevent fights between married couples and infidelities.” You can read a bit of her story, in Catalan, here and in this book (and her portrait is hidden among the many you’ll see on La Vedette’s walls).
My second escape was during a weekend visit from the As (aunt–the Elder, and nephew–the Younger), all the way from Washington DC (and A the Younger’s first time in both Barcelona and Europe!). While I sent them on city tourism mostly on their own–among other things because the prohibitive entrance fees to Antoni Gaudí modernist buildings like Casa Batllo or Casa Milà make it unlikely that, however beautiful they are, one will make repeat visits just for the sake of it–, I did join them on a few ventures, like xurros amb xocolata right off the plane at Granja Dulcinea on Carrer Petritxol (about which I promised to write a few posts ago),
or the always fascinating Museu d’Història de Barcelona with its informative itinerary through the Roman Barcino ruins (and stories about the best-named historical characters anywhere, Guifré el Pilós–Wilfred the Hairy and his ally Carles el Calb–Charles the Bald):
A great dinner at El Pla de la Garsa, a restaurant where I’ve been dining for decades but which seemed particularly fabulous this time around.
And then… there was PORK. Pork, Boig Per Tu, the temple of… pork: every possible part and cut (in many cases from their own farms), in every possible way it can be served: charcuterie, grilled, roasted in their clay oven. They were only missing pork with cracklings, otherwise I would have just moved in (actually, they also don’t seem to have yet discovered bacon sweets, or for that matter bacon itself).
The whole atmosphere was so excessive that it made you feel free to, well, pig out (we’re here for pork!). And I publicly confess that it was so LUSCIOUS we dined there twice, two days apart. (I must also testify to the fact that the second time–perhaps because it was a slow Monday–was not as exceedingly delicious as the first. Guess I’ll have to go a third time to make final judgment.) They also serve some fancy British draft beer, which I didn’t try (I solemnly believe that fatty foods must be accompanied by champagne/cava, plus am not a beer person). I liked the Hitchcockian shadow of the tap handles made from knives, although it does sadly remind you of what they do to their little piggies at the farm. What they do with knives on the placemats… you be the judge (vaguely phallic?).
Aside from Pac-Man eating, we did a lot of (sweaty, sticky) strolling. First, all over Ciutat Vella with its ever-dwindling number of cute classic shops like Sombrerería Obach (established in 1924) which sells, well, hats,
Last but not least, Pastisseria La Colmena, open under one name or another since 1849, where I’d been commissioned with buying nothing other than marshmallow hard candy:
Did you know marshmallows were (originally) made from the root of a plant that is variously medicinal, including throat soothing and cough suppression? I did not.
There was more strolling around Cathedral Square, where I was once again called on to explain castellers to a stunned A the Younger
(that is, the what and how–the why I could never explain, but at least they’re not killing bulls for mere entertainment). Something else I cannot decipher is the need for a behemoth Samsung Galaxy sign, almost as large as the cathedral’s façade, on that very spot.
It was returning home from one of our walks that I ran into my fascinating “neighbor” Perot Lo Lladre,
a legendary XVIIth-century Catalan bandit who somehow made it into Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha: “a good strategist, skillful and bold, feared by soldiers and the authorities, loved by the people [yes, The People], and much hated by his numerous enemies.” Awesome!
But strolling and strolling got way too hot, and we depended on Barcelona’s secret fountains for the occasional cooling down:
These photos do not accurately portray how SWEATY and STICKY we were. Hence the overwhelming need to GET OUT OF TOWN, away, to the beach. Where to go was a complicated matter, as both A the Elder and I are afraid to drive in Spain (we fear getting caught in one of those roundabouts forever, in our own version of Cortázar’s “La autopista del sur“–here in English). Without a car the ideal destination (because of its dramatic Maine-like rocky coast), Costa Brava, can only be reached after a two or more-hour ride on a crappy bus. So it had to be somewhere more quickly reachable, ideally by train. Since I’ve already been to Sitges many times, we took a friend’s suggestion to head toward Sant Pol de Mar, a town on the Maresme (the shore region between Barcelona and Costa Brava) where the coast is just beginning to get costabravaesque jagged.
So there we went (on Rodalies’s train Line R1), after reserving a couple of extremely reasonably-priced rooms at the Hotel Gran Sol, conclusively ranked by TripAdvisor #1 of 1 (!!!) in Sant Pol de Mar. While the hotel was last updated… when it was built (I wish I’d taken a picture of the blow dryer in the bathroom), it was clean, and had full ocean views from every room, and I will say that the ancient air conditioner worked like no other I’ve ever seen in Spain. Icicles in your room: it was BLISS.
The hotel also houses what was the very first hospitality school in the country, and runs an impeccable, superb restaurant that offers a four-course dinner menu for 19.50€. I had these funky fusion spring rolls, a fish first course of (somewhat misshapen but mouthwatering) shrimp ravioli, and a meat second course of tender veal in plum sauce. They have one of those old-style dessert carts with truly tasty morsels.
And the young student-waiters, well, they’re truly tasty morsels too (sorry to be female-sexist–for centuries it was the other way around). The front desk hotel personnel, especially the night manager, are extremely helpful and nice, and only the guy in charge of the bar was rude and unaccommodating (but was fortunately overruled by other staff at every step).
The town itself was pretty… pretty. We had a beachfront lunch at Banys Lluis, an upscale xiringuito serving quite decent seafood, if on the expensive side (the woman owner, or manager, was also tremendously nice, although I couldn’t understand a word of her Catalan):
And, yes, those are completely open premises with a full-blasting air conditioner.
After that, a dip in the smallish cove with delicious water; it wasn’t even characteristically freezing.
And finally a little promenade around the town, curiously split in two by the tracks and the train tunnel, to watch the exciting sardana dancing. Sardanas are possibly the slowest and least interesting folkoric dances on the face of the earth–something else about Catalan culture I cannot explain–and whatever that link I just added shows, I’ve never seen young people engaged in them. The woodwind orchestra music is normally (from my limited point of view) excruciating:
And that was that. The sunset was nice,
but I will be honest: without underestimating its many pleasant aspects, Sant Pol was boring. You should only go there if you bring someone with whom to have sex all night, or your own board games. A the Younger went into an odd lap-swimming trance, back and forth and back again from one end of the pool to the other for hours (we had to bribe hotel staff to let him in there after 8:00pm), while A the Elder and I just drank bad wine all evening, hypnotized by his incessant movement. Then we all returned to Barcelona way earlier than anticipated in the morning.
A the Elder’s partner, the J, who was left all by his own lonely self back in the US, told us that his high school senior trip was to Sant Pol de Mar (he grew up in Marbella!!!!!!). This, of course, could only be explained if the trip chaperone was from Sant Pol and obligated to visit her mother: two birds with one stone. But at least the town is certain not to become eventually overrun and spoiled by tourism! (Lesson: if you don’t have the time or transport means to get at least as far northeast as my dear Calella de Palafrugell, just head in the direction of Sitges.)
And here I am now. Trapped in Barcelona’s sweltering heat, deep in the throes of my love-hate relationship with the city. Visitors are gone once more and I am left again to my own devices, at least some of which are virtuous endeavors: torturously trying to advance with my book, preparing my fall course on lover-writers Emilia Pardo Bazán and Benito Pérez Galdós seen from the points of view of the sociology of literature and the history of the emotions (also: worrying about how that experiment will turn out). But first I must lie down. In front of the A/C.