From the New York Times

October 8, 2006

Frugal Traveler

Footloose in Spain's Capital of Style, Barcelona By MATT GROSS

 

HOSTEL, a fellow tourist once warned me, is Dutch for "Bring your own

towel!"

 

Actually, she used stronger language, and her hostility was so raw that I

began to squirm. Her comment came to mind last May, when I began planning a

cheap weekend trip to

Barcelona,

Spain's

capital of sophisticated style and consumption. Visions of design hotels

danced in my head, alongside images of the fantastical science-lab cuisine

and ultrafashionable footwear that I imagined were every Barcelonan's

birthright.

 

But a weekend at, say, Casa Camper, the boutique hotel (215 euros a night,

about $280 at $1.30 to the euro) run by the shoemaker of the same name,

would have gutted my entire weekend budget of $500. And I had to banish any

thought of eating at El Bulli, where the 20-course tasting menu of

black-olive waffles and rose foam (165 euros) has earned its owner, Ferran

Adrià, a reputation as the world's greatest chef (or at least its most

innovative).

 

Worse, every hotel I could afford was booked. Desperate, I posted a plea for

a "hip but cheap" place on Superfuture.com , an

online forum for style hounds. The reply came back quickly: the 24-room

Hostal Gat Raval. I shuddered. A hostel? No, a design hostel. Skeptical, but

enchanted by the price (42 euros a night) and location (right behind the

Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona), I gave it a shot. I would have to

share a bathroom, but that bathroom might very well have Philippe Starck

fixtures — and I wouldn't even have to bring my own towel.

 

So one Friday last May, I found myself hauling my suitcase down a narrow

Barcelona street, into a dim foyer and up two flights of stairs. An

inauspicious start, but Gat Raval turned out to be quite nice: the lobby was

bright (white and Kermit the Frog green), and my room was cheery, with a

sink, full-length mirror and petite balcony facing the sunlit street. After

relaxing for 15 minutes, I left to explore the Raval neighborhood, but not

before examining the hallway bathrooms — no Starck, but functional and

clean. It would do.

 

Raval had been described to me as the equivalent of

Manhattan's

East Village, a bohemian area where young artists, musicians and designers

congregated. And indeed, the people I saw on the streets were all trendily

attractive, with vintage sneakers, designer boots or flip-flops on their

feet. Mesmerized, I spent a good hour observing them on the plaza in front

of the museum, where they sunned themselves on the warm slate while

skateboarders kick-flipped around them.

 

All that people-watching made me hungry, so I popped into Mamacafé, around

the corner on Carrer Doctor Dou. In a sleek dining room painted in sunset

colors, I devoured tart and garlicky gazpacho, a fried egg over patatas

bravas (the spicy Catalan home fries) and lemon sorbet — all made with

ingredients from La Boqueria, the famous marketplace that dates back to the

13th century. A glass of red wine, included in the set menu, and an espresso

brought the bill to 10.55 euros — far less than I'd expected for such a

fresh, filling meal.

 

I waddled back to the Museu d'Art Contemporani, where 6 euros opened the

doors to both the permanent collection (ho-hum Cy Twomblys and Philip

Gustons) and a special exhibition of pop music albums, from Patti Smith's

"Horses" by Robert Mapplethorpe to Raymond Pettibon's covers for Black Flag.

As I stood at a listening station, I realized this was just what I'd hoped

to find — the coolest of pop culture treated as high art.

 

With culture under my belt, I made my obligatory visit to La Rambla, the

parklike pedestrian thoroughfare that leads to the harbor. This was once the

epicenter of Barcelona street life, a place for performers, protestors and,

in the 1970's and 80's, prostitutes and drug addicts. But since the 1992

Summer Olympics, the area has been cleaned up — or, to some, Disneyfied à la

Times Square. People in overly elaborate costumes (witches and knights

figured heavily that day) strolled next to gawking tourists while boisterous

groups of perpetually tipsy bachelorettes who routinely wing in from

Englandon

easyJet and Ryanair snapped up sombreros from street vendors.

Sombreros!

 

Luckily, I was soon rescued by George, an American expatriate I'd met

through a friend. We hurried over to Irati, a narrow tapas bar far enough

from the Rambla to discourage most tourists. The bartender poured us glasses

of Txakoli (pronounced cha-ko-LEE), a dry white wine from the Basque region,

as we sampled the toothpick-skewered tapas piled before us: bread slathered

with goat cheese, anchovy crostini and olives (1.50 euros each).

 

I told George about my frugal mission. He laughed. I was in the wrong place,

he said — the Catalans drive a hard bargain. "Look," he added, as the

bartender counted our used toothpicks to compute the bill (14.10 euros),

"you'll never see that in

Madrid

."

 

As night fell, George led me through El Barri Gòtic, a knotty old

neighborhood of brick alleys and squares fronting medieval churches. Miró

had lived here, as had a teenage

Picasso,

whose second-floor window remains. No sooner was I completely lost than

George announced he had to leave; his wife expected him home for dinner. I

stumbled my way to a main road and caught a taxi to meet Alex, another

friend of a friend.

 

Our plan was to feed off of El Bulli's glamour by eating at Inopia, a

much-cheaper tapas bar run by Mr. Adrià's brother, Albert. But Alex, a

Catalan-speaking local, wanted to make sure I also saw Barcelona's darker

side.

 

He lured me into L'Ovella Negra, a cavernous bar full of foreign students,

all immeasurably drunk on 1.20-euro draft beers (or, as

www.ovellanegra.computs it, "beeeeeeeeer"). Alex explained that, back

in his university days,

this had been his primary haunt. We stayed for a couple of rounds, quietly

mourning our passing youth, when a blotto Irish girl mistook us for

Frenchmen and introduced us to her friends as Pierre and François. It was

our cue to leave.

 

Too bad it hadn't come sooner. By the time we arrived at Inopia, at the

civilized hour of 11:30 p.m., the kitchen was inexplicably and disturbingly

closed. We went across the street to the utterly empty Rossell and ate

uninspiring cheese-and-mushroom fondue (16 euros each). I was back at the

Gat by 1 a.m. and drifted off, pondering the meaning of inopia: clueless.

 

Less than four hours later, my alarm clock screamed. I had a mission: to

watch La Boqueria wake up. Anyone can browse the market's jam-packed stalls

in the day, but I wanted to go behind the scenes to get a vendor's-eye view

of the action. When I arrived at 5, butchers were slicing whole pigs into

pork chops, fishmongers were arraying glistening sheets of crushed ice and

greengrocers were erecting rainbow ziggurats of apples, oranges, tomatoes,

cherries, peppers and pears. Best of all, I was the only tourist.

 

La Boqueria is also a great place to grab a cheap breakfast. After taking a

million photos, I ordered a cortado (a small strong coffee with a small

amount of milk) and croissant (2 euros) at Pinotxo, one of the handful of

tapas bars. By 6, serious shoppers were starting to crowd in, and I was

already exhausted.

 

So I returned to the hostel for a nap; I'd need more sleep and a shower if I

wanted to keep up with late-night Barcelona. But I'd forgotten that

unwritten rule of hostels: last one into the shower is a rotten egg. The

drain was clogged, and the stall was so tiny that I burned my forearm on a

hot water pipe. I emerged feeling dirtier than I did going in.

 

Still, I was glad for the rest. The weather was perfect and the hostel desk

clerk insisted I visit Parc Güell, up in the hills overlooking the city. The

park was designed by Antoni Gaudí, whose avant-garde architecture is evident

everywhere, from the animal-themed fountains to the cracked-tile benches

undulating around the Plaça del Teatre Grec.

 

The park also contains Gaudí's house, now a museum of his designs (admission

is 4 euros). But the greatest work of Barcelona's most famous architect lies

down the hill at La Sagrada Familia, the über-ambitious church he spent 43

years building — without ever finishing. (Other architects have carried on

the work, now projected to be completed in 2022.) Admission was 8 euros, but

by showing my Gaudí museum ticket, I got in for 5. I gaped at the

bifurcating columns, which imitate the natural structure of tree trunks, and

marveled at the postmodern grid of the surrounding scaffolding. The contrast

made my heart soar, but not in the way that Gaudí, a devout and conservative

Catholic, probably intended.

 

For a moment, I considered climbing the stairs to get a view from the

spires, but after walking around all day, my feet hurt. It was time to

replace my beat-up Merrells. A 5-euro taxi ride brought me to El Born, the

SoHo to Raval's East Village, full of chichi boutiques and trendy

restaurants. None, however, carried the shoes I wanted, at least nothing

under 150 euros.

 

By now, the sun was setting, and I wondered where the day had gone. Sure,

I'd spent so little, but I had seen so little, too — I wished I could buy an

extra half day with my remaining wad. So I splurged on a cab and headed back

to Inopia.

 

I arrived to find George, his wife, Lucie, and their friend David standing

at Inopia's sidewalk counter. Inside, the fluorescent-lighted space looked

more like an industrial kitchen than the restaurant of a semifamous chef.

But that's Inopia's point: straightforward tapas, without foams, airs or

mummified mackerels. Over glasses of Sierra Cantabria and bottles of Moritz

pilsner, we nibbled textbook-perfect patatas bravas, a plate of olives that

spanned the flavor spectrum from bitter to sweet to spicy, and a torta

cañarejal — a block of cheese so liquid and rich you could drink it like

buttermilk.

 

But better than this food, better even than the price (somehow, my share

came only to 25 euros), was the clubby atmosphere. Throughout the night,

friends of George and Lucie would swing by and gossip in English, Spanish or

Catalan, and I began to appreciate Barcelona's true attraction. It isn't

necessarily the museums or restaurants, but its cosmopolitan people, vibrant

street life and

Paris

-meets-Miamiarchitecture

that makes the city exciting. The sophistication I'd been

seeking wasn't something I needed to spend a lot of money to find.

 

I awoke the next morning to twin unpleasantries: once again, I was not the

first to the shower, but worse, it was Sunday and all the stores were closed

— no chance to drop my extra euros on a pair of awesome kicks. Instead, I

ate lunch at Origen 99.9%, a minichain of bistros devoted to traditional

Catalan recipes like baby octopus in chocolate sauce and Monserrat tomatoes

stuffed with cheese and anchovies. Lunch was delicious and, at 15.57 euros,

affordable. But despite my epiphany the previous night, I couldn't get past

my failure to find new shoes.

 

Disappointed, I shuffled down to the beach, possibly Barcelona's most

picturesque feature. Right there, at the edge of Barceloneta, a dense urban

neighborhood, was a golden field of sand whose beauty was matched only by

that of the young people sprawled across it. I dropped my bag and towel near

a trio of topless women (I couldn't help it, there were so many), kicked off

my worn-out shoes and walked into the Mediterranean, my pockets full and my

feet bare.

 

TOTAL 341.10 euros, including taxis; two 1.20-euro subway rides; the books

"Gaudí's Barcelona" and Robert Hughes's definitive "Barcelona"; and a

70-euro pair of super-cool Castañer espadrilles, which, alas, I bought in

Italy—

not at the company's shop in Barcelona.

Teja, Shaochun and 8 more people faved this
  • Denna Jones 8y

    very good to have the prices listed in your brilliant B synopsis! Thank you. Next time you're there take the short train trip to Montserrat then the cable car to the Monastery that hangs off the cliff face. It's home to the Black Madonna and thus on the pilgrimage trail. If you go in the off season you can get a room in the hotel v cheaply (at least that was true last time I was there - 3 years ago!). Fabulous 50s hotel with killer views and you can walk on trails to the "top of the world".
  • timewilltell 8y

    Thank you author,
    A well described and entertaining account.
    I lived in Barcelona for a short time, wish that it had been longer,
    like still occurring.
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