A few days in Barcelona and Penedès – Part 2

(Brownie with salted caramel at the Mastinell cava bodega, Villafranca del Penedés)

Day two in Barcelona kicked off with the legendary Vincci breakfast I mentioned before. All extra-excellent days start with a hearty and fun buffet style meal, with all the choice your heart desires. Even though we didn’t have an especially late night, caffeine was calling. Isn’t it always?! I was grateful that as well as a decent coffee machine, there was a selection of takeaway coffee cups too. So clever. So very necessary. 

As it was a birthday present, Iñaki organised a lot of surprises for this trip. He’s got a knack for it, so something good is always in store. We finished up breakfast, I giddily filled up my takeaway cup (it’s the little things) and we hopped into a taxi that took us to Palau de la Música Catalana. I told you he’s got talent, I was impressed straight away. The exterior is beautiful, so many intricate details. We entered the foyer, a lovely open and airy space that leads to the Palau’s elegant marble staircases. The architecture is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the palace is an ornate music box, filled with ironwork and sculptures of famous composers. Other creative sculptures in the concert hall represent various genres of music. There’s so much to take in, and what I loved about it is there is so much to interpret for yourself. Just like a rorschach image, at the Palau, we all see different things.

The best part is the beautiful stained glass throughout, flooding the building with natural light. We waited in the foyer (which I forgot to mention is also a café) until it was time for our tour. We were led by our guide (who was the nicest person, I wish I got her name!) to a small theatre to watch a short (really well made and surprisingly interesting) video about the history of the palau, the architectural inspiration, and many famous singers and dancers spoke about their experiences and performances there.
We were then lead to the area where intermissions take place, just outside the concert hall. In here you can see the sculptures up close through the stained glass, that seem miles away when looking up from the outside. We then entered the concert hall, which is absolutely beautiful and might I add, the perfect size. There are so many details, textures and colours. A true feast for the eyes. Everything is so ornate, yet nothing is excessive. The skylight is my favourite, another stained glass marvel which is supposed to represent the sun. Our tour group had a stroke of luck, as when we entered the main concert hall we caught the start of a swing show with an incredible jazz band performing for a local school. It was the perfect start to our morning. I highly recommend a visit, and I would certainly go back to see a show.

We then did what everyone does on city breaks, we walked around the city. A lot. You know how it goes, walkie-walkie, talkie-talkie and so forth. I didn’t bother taking pictures as we were just relaxing, going in and out of shops and admiring all the architecture. Plus we all know I mostly take pictures of food. Uploading the images to this post, I realised just how much we ate in Barcelona. I did mention it was a food lover’s dream, but my goodness. I blame the 25,000 steps we did that day. That would work up anyone’s appetite.

A colourful little Vietnamese restaurant caught my eye (as did their very cheap cocktail board outside, let’s be real here) when we stopped on a street in the gothic quarter where I was convinced I saw Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. To this day, I will never know if it was him. An eternal mystery. Anyway, we stopped into this little place called Bun Bo simply because we were on holidays and I felt like having a cocktail. I ordered one that’s like a mojito, except nothing at all like a mojito, because the alcohol is gin, the leaves are basil..but you know, whatever. They look similar. It also had ginger, lemon and soda. And it was less than €5. That’s the best part. And it was flagrant. So fragrant. We ended up getting lost in a rabbit hole of conversation until we both got distracted by what our neighbouring table ordered; a very tasty looking dish indeed. We had to copy them. It was the menu degustación (€9.25) with wontons, nems, chicken wings and summer rolls. The perfect mid-afternoon snack. The food was excellent. 100% go here. The décor is quirky too and the staff seem to love their jobs.

Happy and satisfied with our Vietnamese delights, we were off again to explore. This time we were in search of the Mediterranean and walked along the boardwalk before paying a visit to L’Aquarium Barcelona. I hadn’t been there since I was 17, so it felt weird (but nice!) going back. To my surprise, not much has changed. We spent a couple of hours there, watching penguins during feeding time, finding the biggest sharks we could in the oceanarium and discovering that there are actually fish on this earth that have a little happy smiling face like the little guy above. If he doesn’t brighten your day, nothing will.

Eating again? You betcha. LOL is all I can say. Looking at a bunch of fish can make a person hungry. We stopped by El Chigre, a Catalan and Asturian spot in the El Born neighbourhood. We liked the look of the place, the menu, and they serve their own vermouth; something Iñaki is a huge fan of. We ordered chorizo a la sidra (chorizo cooked in cider) my absolute favourite tapa and followed with the grilled octopus and chimichurri, washed down with vermouth and cava. We sat in the window and did some people watching and we were really, truly relaxed. As cities go, Barcelona is one of the most chill. I can’t put my finger on it, but it has the ability to really slow everything down without a sun lounger in sight.
We walked around the city more that evening and stopped by the hotel to change for dinner. More eating? Hell to the yes. We arrived a little bit before our reservation so went for a pre-dinner drink. We found a bar called Old Fashioned, which was a sign, since the night before Iñaki was mad on the old fashioned cocktails at Ocaña.

This place is small, simple and dimly lit, with very fancy cocktails. A total first date place. The barmen are very passionate which is what I like to see. Iñaki obviously ordered an old fashioned which came with a charred stick of cinnamon so the place smelled amazing. I have the burned up stick in my kitchen as a memory. So sanitary. Such a hoarder. I ordered an Oaxaca, because anything with good quality tequila is the only way to go. They were pretty damn delicious and our evening was off to a good start. In fact, our day was pretty much perfect from start to finish. Don’t you love those kinds of days?

Time for dinner! Dinner at Parco. Parco was another excellent recommendation by Joaquín, and despite booking well before the trip, the only available seat was at the bar. A sign of a very popular place. I never mind sitting at the bar though, in fact, I very much enjoy it. You get to see a lot of what goes on and we saw plenty of sushi being made.
We ordered edamame beans (one has to) California rolls, a selection of sashimi (gotta get those omegas) yakisoba and the most incredible tuna nigiri with torched foie (watching the foie being torched and charred and melted into deliciousness was half the fun) The food was outstanding, as were the cocktails. Lychee martinis for me, whiskey sours for Iñaki. We ended our meal with a dessert that would make you weep it’s so good. Little pancakes filled with custard, served with a bowl of thick melted chocolate. Everyone needs Parco in their lives.

Saturday afternoon was cava and Penedès time. We had another super delicious Vincci breakfast and went to Joaquín and Helena’s to borrow their car for the journey to Penedès which was a very kind gesture. Iñaki drove and I looked out at the open road (sounds cheesy but it’s true!) Not even an hour passed and we were at the Freixenet winery. How exciting! When we arrived we could see the place has a sense of humour. There are motorbikes and cars shaped like bottles of cava, with champagne flutes etched into the doors. The building itself is spotless, bright and very elegant, and the lobby smells just like Disneyworld which is always a good thing. You know the smell, that sterilised air smell. You can’t beat it with a stick.
We had a really good tour guide who brought us into a small cinema to watch a video about Freixenet (this must be a Barcelona thing, they’re all about those good quality introductory videos!)

The video was great, really well produced and covered the family history, and how the caves operate today. In case you didn’t know, the word ‘cava’ means caves in Catalan. Cava is made using the same technique as champagne (méthode champenois) but as we all know only sparkling wine produced in Champagne is called champagne, so in Spain, it’s called cava, named after the cellars where it’s produced.
After the video, we learned about the production of cava, the different types of grapes, how the yeast was added in the past (frozen in an ice cube placed at the opening of the bottle and the bottle was rotated slowly every few days) and how they can produce bottles much faster now. We saw all the different types of cava Freixenet produces (some of which I have yet to try) and were shown all the different countries where the cava is produced. We also learned that when the Titanic sank in 1912, it went down with more than a few bottles of Friexenet. These bottles were discovered many years after which I found incredible, this brand has been around a very long time. We then entered the impressive caves, and our guide warned us to stay together as it’s easy to get lost. She wasn’t joking. We stopped to take some pictures and found it hard (especially in the dark!) to find our group again, which our lighthearted very cool guide has obviously witnessed before and found pretty funny.

After meandering the darkest corners of the caves (spooooky!) we got on a little Freixenet tram that took us around an area past the caves that was more like a factory, with plenty of high-tech machinery and boxes and boxes of bottles of Freixenet piled high, ready for shipping. The tram also went on a loop outside for a few brief minutes, where we had great views of the vineyards and it was nice to have a look around and take in some fresh air.

Our guide then took us to the lounge to end the tour. A chic little room with small tables surrounded by couches on the right and left sides of the wall, separated by a long walkway in the middle. We had a glass of Freixenet Reserva with crackers, followed by a glass of rosé cava with chocolate truffles. If you want additional cava (standard reserva and very special rarer types) snacks like cheeses, meats or crisps there’s a little menu, and everything is really well priced, no rip off tourist prices here. We all toasted as a group and thanked her for the tour. I was really blown away by how good the whole thing was from start to finish, and we exited through the fanciest gift shop before moving on to Mastinell for lunch, another wonderful surprise organised by Iñaki.

Mastinell Cava & Hotel is a beautiful 5 star hotel in Vilafranca de Penedès. The architecture is supposed to resemble cava bottles in a wine rack, which is a pretty cool idea. I have found my people. When we walked into the restaurant I was delighted to be greeted by an open kitchen and a huge arrangement of fresh flowers. This place has a lot of style. We had a beautiful table in the window where we could see the vineyards outside, and the place was completely full of well-dressed diners enjoying their Saturday afternoon lunch with a glass of crisp cava in hand. The menu was wrapped up in a scroll adorned with a muselet, a lovely touch. 3 courses cost just €29 per person on the weekends, which includes bread service, water (still or sparkling) and a glass of wine or cava.

We had a little aperitivo of prawn and guacamole before our starters arrived. We both ordered the cannelloni, stuffed with tender juicy beef covered in bechamel sauce and parmesan. Iñaki had roast chicken stuffed with apricots and I had the hake with sautéed vegetables and purple potatoes. What an incredible lunch, with excellent service in a beautiful setting. The weather was heavy; humid and really overcast, which made inside all the more cosy and relaxing.

We both finished with the salted caramel brownie (delicious, but definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back) and between my two glasses of cava at Freixenet and two at Mastinell, I was ready for a little Saturday siesta. We were staying in Vilafranca Penedès so we didn’t have far to go; you could see the town from the window of Mastinell. We stayed in Casa Torner i Güell, the most popular hotel in the town. It was clean and modern but a little oddly designed…it tried to be a little too modern for me without quite hitting the mark. But the bed was comfy and the hotel was peaceful and quiet, which is all you need. I was true to my word and had a dreamy Saturday siesta, took a hot shower and changed for a walk around the town. We didn’t think it had too much beauty to it until we went toward the centre and found the church. Some parts really reminded me of Salamanca.

The town is really charming but we knew nothing about it, and a lot of places seemed to close early. I looked for the best bar in the town on Yelp and we came across Inzolia, which was just the kind of place we were looking for. We had a couple of wines and glasses of cava from the region (of course!) with cheese and the Penedès equivalent of fuet. Simple, tasty snacks. In Inzolia nearly everyone was speaking Catalan, we had to look up words on the snack menu as neither of us had a clue which was pretty funny, but some things you can guess and other words we’ll always remember. It wasn’t long until last orders and we were on the move again, not quite ready to go home yet.

When we headed back toward the hotel we ended up going to a place just across the road called Centric Gastrobar. We ordered foie to share and Tête de Moine (literally meaning monk’s head) which I was really curious to try since we saw it on several menus in Barcelona. It’s a cheese from Switzerland that’s served shaved in thin petal-like slices and I absolutely adore it. It was a great end to our time in Penedès trying something new.

On Sunday we woke up a little late (missing breakfast, oops!) and headed back to the city to see family and return the car. Joaquín, Helena and baby Leo were waiting for us with a delicious lunch of pollo al ast (a traditional Catalan dish of chicken roasted with lemon, rosemary and thyme) potatoes and croquetas. Joaquín and Helena very sweetly dropped me to Barcelona airport where I said goodbye and thank you to everyone, including Iñaki, whose flight to Madrid was later on that evening. I landed in Granada a couple of hours later grateful for our trip to Barcelona, our experiences in Penedès and of course for my Argentinian-Catalan family who made everything that bit more special.

♥ ♥ ♥