By Regina Winkle-Bryan
Sometime there’s an immediate connection upon meeting someone new. Don’t you love it when that happens? Kindred spirits and all that. When I met writer Chris C. at the TBEX event in Girona, Spain, a few years back, she told me, “As an introvert I hate these networking events.” This made me grin. I liked her honesty. We’re supposed to put on our happy, chipper faces for networking functions, but the truth is that they drain, and even scare, some introverts. There are a lot of introverted writers. I’m one of them. I can only do so much chipper before I crack. I need downtime.
Since that meeting we’ve remained friends. We have quite a bit in common. We’re both writers, both from the US (though from different parts), both married to men from Barcelona, both expats, both dabble in art (my art is pretty much on the back burner; how’d that happen? Oh yeah, this blog), and both huge food and wine nerds. Who takes more photos of meals, Chris or me? Hard to say. She writes about recipes and I write about restaurants. And let me not forget, we both love spice, like hot Indian food, Tabasco, and Sriracha.
So when City Wonders invited me along for one of their Wine & Tapas tours, I called up Chris and asked her to come along. She was game, and I knew she would be, because Priorat, historical tidbits, and tapas of potent cheese is our idea of a good way to spend a Thursday evening.
Our tour left from the center of Barcelona at 5:30pm, which is early for locals to be eating dinner, but is probably right for most visitors from countries where dinner is served long before 10:00pm. Our guide, a local with perfect English named Cristian Aguizera, gave us an overview of the old city, complete with maps and diagrams, before leading us away from La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter, and toward the areas of El Raval and Sant Antoni. I appreciated this because we were headed in the opposite direction of the touristy zone. Too much of Barcelona’s travel scene is focused over near La Rambla. Sant Antoni is one of Barcelona’s more up-and-coming ‘hoods and a favorite among residents for vermouth and brunch bars. El Raval is the hipster, rough-around-the-edges ‘hood, with some of the city’s top nightlife options.
The first stop was Fàbrica Moritz, a gastropub and microbrewery serving Moritz beers. I was happy to begin the tour there, though I know the bar well already. Adri and I included Moritz in our book on where to eat out in the metropolis, Eat Guides: Barcelona, and I’ve also written about it for Wine Spectator and several other magazines. Cristian led us away from the beer bar area and into a separate space called Bar à Vins, reserved for wine and light tapas. It’s a strange fact that one of Barcelona’s best wine bars is in a beer factory, but such is the case.
The sommelier came over and explained that we’d sample five wines: two whites and three reds. He was inspired by the cool spring evening and chose wines to match the season. A 2013 ’3 Macabeaus’ was served with Catalan sheep and goat’s cheese. The goat’s cheese was rolled in ash from La Garrotxa, a volcanic area in the North of Catalonia. Then out came the quince jelly, strawberry jam, and walnuts. Throughout the tasting the focus was on locally-produced foods. The next wine was 2012 ‘Tern GB’ from Terra Alta, with hints of white flowers, cut grass, and spring…or at least that’s what I wrote down on my notepad with a smiley face next to it.
Then the reds. A 2012 ’Altaroses’ from my favorite wine region, Montsant. This was a biodynamic wine, so also organic, and was served with sobrassada (a kind of sausage), honey, and toast, and of course a plate of pa amb tomàquet (bread smothered with tomato, olive oil, and salt). Then, a 2010 ‘Cal Pla’ from Porrera in Priorat, and a dish of fuet (more sausage), botifarra, egg sausage, and blood sausage. Our sommelier was not stingy with the wine serving sizes, and by the time the 2012 ‘Castell d’Encus’ came out — a red from Lleida — Chris and I were slightly buzzed. Five glasses of wine is a lot, even if you’re eating at the same time. I didn’t finish each of them. Pace yourself! Or don’t, because hey, you’re on vacation!
We had such a good rapport with Cristian and the sommelier that we could have opened up another bottle of ’Altaroses’ and stayed all night, but it was time to move on to the next bar. Cristian took us through the heart of El Raval, filling us in on interesting factoids as we strolled. I’ve done tours of Gaudí sights and the Gothic Quarter, but I’d never done a tour in El Raval. The ‘hood used to be where crops were grown within the medieval walled city, and later became the go-to area for families immigrating to Barcelona. It still is. We crossed El Raval and zigzagged through La Boqueria, Barcelona’s most famous market.
Making our way over into the Gothic Quarter, our next stop was Orio, a Basque tapas bar on Carrer de Ferran. Basque tapas are called pintxos, and are generally served along a bar on platters, held together by skewers. The drill is the following: you take as many pintxos as you like, and save up all your skewers. At the end of your meal the waiter will count your skewers and charge you accordingly. No funny business: they will know if you try to ‘lose’ some skewers.
The City Wonders tour includes three pintxos and a glass of wine, so Chris and I perused the bar, nabbing tapas, and then ordered two txakolis, a type of sparkling white wine from the North of Spain. True to Basque tradition, waiters at Orio came around every now and then with plate of hot tapas, offering them to diners. Make sure to hold out for some of these, too. As we ate, we gabbed. Cristain told us that whenever he has guests on the tour from the US they always ask him about the plethora of flags hanging from balconies in Barcelona. He then goes on to explain to them the political situation in Catalonia, which is a complex one, because some of the population wants independence from Spain, and others do not. It’s always interesting to hear people’s opinion about independence, an issue which as an American, I am not able to vote on (I’m not able to vote on anything else, in Spain, either).
Chatting away, we lost track of time, and all of a sudden we had to move on to our last stop of the night and dessert. We ended the tour with hot chocolate and xurros, a traditional sweet treat in Barcelona and across Spain. We took our xurros at La Pallaresa, a renowned dessert shop on Carrer de Petritxol (which also happens to be one of our picks in Eat Guides: Barcelona. What can we say? Great minds and all that…).
After dessert, we didn’t want to go home. We offered to take Cristian out for one more drink. This time we were the guides. Chris and I led him to a newish wine bar in El Born which only serves organic wines. Cristian is an adventurous world traveler, and shared with us his experiences living in Japan and Vietnam, and his plans to learn yet another language (Indonesian). It was a fun afternoon turned into an even better night because of good food, excellent wine, a savvy guide who was also a storyteller, and being in kindred company. The three of us, with our love of cuisine, travel, history, and debating controversial subjects, parted ways with two kisses, a slight buzz, and a promise to meet again.
Nothing is ever perfect. Room for improvement on the tour? Three tapas stops could be stretched to four or five to give more variety. However, we had plenty to eat and drink and were constantly running a little late moving from place to place (which was because of Chris and me, not the guide).
The more tours I take, the more I believe that they are the best way to get in touch with the local culture, or at least meet interesting travelers, when on a short trip to any city. Do it. You won’t be disappointed.
Get all the info on booking tours with City Wonders here: http://www.citywonders.com/
*We were guests of City Wonders. All opinions here are my own. We keep it real on The Spain Scoop.*