When Tom and I sprinted through Spain the summer of 2008, we left wanting to return, but next time with a salt shaker. We’d hoped to taste in Spanish food whatever influence it had on the Mexican food we lived off of in San Diego (and have since craved on the East Coast and in Japan). Instead, we found the food too fishy or flavorless or scary, with eyes that stared back. The shrimp appeared to be merely sleeping, capable of crawling up your throat if you didn’t peel them well enough.
I was willing to be daring with seafood, Tom with meat. We’d stare at tapas menus, unable to compromise, much less understand what we were reading except random words that I thought I remembered from studying Spanish in high school: I think that means shrimp…or maybe mushroom? I didn’t blame Tom for not trusting me beyond ham and onion.
Our go-to quickly became tortillas (not the flat, flexible homes for burritos and tacos but a savory potato omelette) and sangria, saving usually lackluster meals with a grand finale of juicy Valencia oranges and creamy café con leches.
My friend Jorge, the Spanish teacher onboard Peace Boat, talked dreamily of all the food he looked forward to eating when we finally made it to Spain, especially fresh churros dipped in chocolate, a treat he’d treasured throughout his childhood. This was perfect! Surely, with a food lover, and a local at that, I too could fall in love with the tastes he grew up with and missed so dearly now that he lives and teaches in Detroit. Unfortunately, Jorge and our other Spanish-speaking teacher friend, Ryan, were working the Barcelona GET Challenge tour.
I was on my own. The rest of my friends were willing to wait however long it took to get into the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, sending a few off in search of the legendary churros to snack on as they inched their way around Antoni Gaudi’s most famous, yet still unfinished, masterpiece. Gaudi’s imaginative creations were the first to spark my interest in architecture. I was tempted to stay in line, to stare up again into the steeples held up by tree-like limbs, taking on the kaleidoscope of colors reflecting from stained glass windows.
Instead, my eyes took in the story the exterior carvings told of Jesus’ life, climbing up the steeples toward his ascension. Outside, I peered up through the tall black iron gates until my neck ached, then just as painfully walked away, looking back one more time before heading down into the metro.
If I couldn’t get an insider’s taste of tapas, I hoped to find another gem Jorge had gushed about – Gaudi’s Park Güell. As I set out alone to find it, my friends’ parting words – Please, be careful! – echoed in my head. Already they knew me so well. Even when I have access to Googlemaps, I’m likely to get lost. But my phone doesn’t work overseas and Gaudis’ outdoor wonderland – located somewhere outside the touristy zone — was not marked on my paper map, save for a little dot a local drew in while giving me directions. A spot floating among the maze of colorful metro lines. Somehow he understood through my garbled Spanish where I wanted to go, and I hoped I understood the directions he gave, as slowly as he could, in Spanish. (The link above gives directions and a map for anyone looking to explore the park.)
Outside the train station he directed me to, I spotted a French family eyeing the big city map with their guide book in hand, open to the page for the park. Staying a few steps behind, I followed the family until I spotted tourist information signs, whose reassuring arrows — yes, keep walking this way — guided me the rest of the way (and freed me from feeling like a creeper).
Many blocks and a steep hill later, I spotted a tall black gate, the iron curved in exaggerated Gaudi-style. Just beyond the gate, watermelon-sized bubbles floated from the handmade contraption of a dreadlocked park-goer. So fitting.
I wandered under a tunnel seemingly made of the same earth I walked on — the walls, ceiling and curvy columns formed from stones that appeared more like smoothed handclumps of mud. Roaming Gaudi’s park felt like walking into the fantastical worlds of Dr. Suess books, made all the more whimsical by the twinkling an oversized xylophone, each note danced through the air. I fought the urge to chase bubbles and skip and twirl.
Rarely do I feel this way – gleefully triumphant. Beaming with pride. If only Jorge could see me! I — Breawna Power Eaton — actually found the park that (I repeat) was not marked on my map! As I’d walked here, I worried my attempt would be in vain, that I would regret not revisiting La Sagrada, and worse, that I would get so lost that I failed to return to the boat before it set off for Malaga. But now, being in this magical place, I was happy I took the risk. Moreso, I wished I had someone to share the memory with.
I walked along a colorful mosaic bench that snaked along an overhang, crowded with people snapping photos of the view, where in the distance rose the steeples of La Sagrada, the cranes still at work. My stomach’s grumbling forced me to finally turn around to leave.
And there they were, Jorge and Ryan! Let off early from their tour, they’d hurried to the park and had yet to eat. Somehow, my perfect day was getting even better.
A Feast of Second Chances
We only had a few hours before we had to return to the boat, so we set off for the Gothic Quarter, wandering the back alleys in search of a tapas bar for a quick bite to eat. Choosing wasn’t easy, but we finally decided on Tapas Bona Sort . We avoided the front entry and instead walked under a stone arch that opened up to a back patio, the high ceilings giving it the feeling of a secret al fresco alcove.
Soon beers arrived for the boys and a cava for me, matching my effervescent mood, which only succeeded to become more bubbly as the small plates arrived, actually much larger than we’d anticipated.
First, baguette slices slick with tomato sauce, topped with a glistening sardine. Sighting the scales, I hesitated, but went for it after my friends’ mmmmmmms and mini-table-dance-celebrations after the first bite. Far from flavorless, nor overly fishy, the sardine snack surprised me – I actually liked it. But not as much as the manchego and iberco cheese on the jamon plate or the garlic and olive oil soaked artichokes, grilled to perfection, sprinkled with crisp, salty bacon. I nibbled on the bacon and a few of the sliced meats, but saved room instead for our second helping of my favorite – the roasted eggplant and cheese salad we slathered on toasts drizzled with curry oil.
There was nothing lackluster about this meal. The only similarity to my previous mealtime experiences in Spain was sipping a creamy café con leche for the finale.
Though satisfied, we craved an encore. How could we leave without finding Jorge’s favorite childhood treat? Surely the churros were sold out by late morning, he warned as we eyed the cafes we walked by.We found a last order at an ice cream shop, but – the woman apologized – the melted chocolate sides were all gone. Instead, we dipped the sugary sticks into nutella and hazenut ice cream as we weaved our way through the maze of cobblestones streets and squares of the Gothic Quarter, laughing and clicking our heels along the way.
It wasn’t that Spanish food just tasted better than I remembered, but that Tom and I ate SO wrong the first time. While I missed him, I did not miss our meager meals of tortilla, though I bet they too would have tasted better this time – a starchy break for my tastebuds, tickled by every other delight brought to our table. As Tom’s loving wife, I feel it is my responsibility to take him back to Spain so he too can learn the wonders of the food that I, like my dear Spanish friend, long to eat again.
If you’d like to taste a bit of Spain, check out this Afar magazine feature and recipe for chocolate a la taza (or do what we did and dip your churros in ice cream)!