Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Barcelona - Part One

Yes, I know I said this was finished for good. Clearly, since I am writing this that must mean I am a liar, a cad and a bounder in equal measure. But the bald truth is that my integrity must take a back seat when there is a story to tell, and a week in Barcelona was always going to throw up a few tales.

So here we are. It's the end of May and we're at Hotel D'Icaria, predictably situated on Avenue D'Icaria a couple of miles outside Barcelona city centre, and just five minutes walk (I'm not bothering with the push gag, it's old hat, d'oh!) from one of seven beaches running along the city's coastline. Hotel D'Icaria is very business-like. It's not your typical Spanish holiday resort hotel but then Barcelona isn't your typical Spanish holiday resort destination. Ask the locals and they will tell you that they are not even in Spain, but rather in Catalonia. It's complicated and political, not furtile ground for humour. It's a nice enough hotel, but it isn't going to be offering the level of tacky entertainment found on our trip to Benidorm last August. That might be a good thing. This is proper tourism as opposed to holiday-making. We're not playing games.

We take a stroll beach-wards. Taking a stroll around your surroundings is always one of the first priorities when you are staying somewhere new I find. The beach is impressively accessible and clean, I note, as we move on to the pier. It's lined with restaurants stretching out as far as it is possible to travel without swimwear or a boat. Suitably impressed, we look down over the edge of the pier and there is another level of the marina which is similarly restaurant heavy, with one or two bars dotted around also. At this point we are optimistic about the social opportunities of the area. And we haven't even got within two miles of the city, with La Rambla and all of that.

So a few hours later we return to the marina area to examine restaurant options more closely. It's Saturday, so the plan is to relax with a nice meal and a few cheeky wines tonight, hit the beach tomorrow before starting to visit the city's tourist attractions on Monday. Whereupon we hit our first problem. Seafood. Now it seems kind of obvious that a marina area might have a lot of seafood restaurants, but we had assumed that there might be some variety on offer. Not really. Every single establishment looks as if it is run by Bubba Gump, who divides his time between the running of the restaurant and the capture of large, unappealing sea creatures to serve to his customers. We spend a long time, and clock up a lot of miles, looking for seafood alternatives.

We end up at La Taberna Gallega, on the bottom level of the marina which itself is a very picturesque sight. If it wasn't so tightly jam-packed with boats of all sizes then it might be even more idyllic. There's so little space around the boats that you wonder how they ever make it out to sea. We're ushered into La Taberna Gallega on the promise of free glasses of champagne. I don't even like champagne, but at this point I am so tired of pushing around looking for somewhere that doesn't have crabs (please....) that I'll take whatever else is on offer.

What is on offer is something called Grappa. After our meal and our bottle of wine, which is all very civilised in the end with no sign of any crabs, shrimp, squid, seabass or killer whale, the waiter brings out two short glasses containing a curious, lime green liquid. It looks as thick as glue. If it were a more sensible colour you could paint your walls with it.

'For you, from me.' the waiter announces proudly, as if he has just presented us with a bunch of flowers and the champagne that we were falsely promised earlier. Wine affects me less when it is accompanied by a good meal, but I am still tipsy enough to think that the waiter's lime offering might be worth a go. Nobody has been that mistaken since Ashley Cole thought about writing a book. I can barely describe the taste of Grappa. The smell should have been a clue, but once it passes your lips it's like a wonderous and befuddling fusion of vomit and fire. Like eating a hand grenade coated in snakes venom. Shot glasses are not designed to contain large amounts of liquid, so when I tell you that I only managed to digest half of the contents of my glass you will get some idea of just how little Grappa my insides could stand before they might well have exploded all over the Gingham. I'm not exactly sure if it was Gingham, actually.

Either way it was unpleasant. A further nudge to the nads comes when the bill arrives. We have been charged the equivalent of around £3.90 (the real reason I phrase it so is that I don't actually have a Euro sign on my keyboard, imagine that?) for a plate of bread covered in tomato sauce. We haven't ordered it, it has just been placed there by our friendly waiter when we sit down to look at the menus. A lot of restaurants put bread on your table when you sit down to peruse the menu, but they do so on a complimentary basis, or if they intend to charge they enquire as to whether you might like a plate of bread which has been soiled with the devils own juice, otherwise known as tomato sauce. Not here at La Taberna Gallega. So convinced are they that their bread will be greedily snapped up whatever the price they don't even bother to ask. Ok, so it is only four quid, or a bit less. But isn't it just polite to ask first? Dessert is a chocolate cake between us. We had resisted the temptation to order a whiskey tart. We just giggled at it like 12-year-olds reading the Daily Sport. I have never had a whiskey tart, nor even heard of one before tonight. I have had several hundred vodka tarts but that is another story entirely and one probably not fit for public consumption.

From La Taberna Gallega we move on to a strip of bars which run along the marina towards a large ramp which takes you back on to beach level. It still being reasonably early we decide to take in a bar or two on our way back to the hotel. The first of these is on the corner, naturally, as there seems little point in passing a place that sells alcohol if the next one along looks exactly the same. So we go in. It being so non-descript and rather dark and dingy, I can't actually recall the name of the bar, but we go in to find customers sucking on what can only be described as pipes as opposed to straws, beneath which is a bubbling liquid and from the top of which come great puffs of smoke. My initial thought is of the opium den in the opening scene of 'Once Upon A Time In America'. You know the one? De Niro is lying on a bed half-dead, while a telephone rings over and over and over again. Like the one in my house does when you ring me and I'm absolutely determined not to answer it in case you are a recorded voicemail message from Natwest or some mortgate loans company I have never heard of.

It doesn't look like a very pleasant pastime, whatever it is they are consuming. Probably not up there with Grappa in the vomit-inducing stakes, but something to be avoided nonetheless. Emma enquires as to whether I might like to try one of these bongy creations but I decline, settling instead for a dull, old fashioned bottle of beer. There is a small television in the corner of the room showing an international friendly between France and someone, followed by UFC violence which has more than a tinge of homo-eroticism about it. It's not for me. Much like the bongy concoction, which we later discover is some kind of strawberry flavoured tobacco. Fruit fags? The comedic possibilities here are fairly endless, but I fear you would never get to the bottom of the page if I started teeing off on that one.

From where we are now we can see another row of bars which were not visible from outside the bar. We are under cover in a type of tent area facing these hitherto undiscovered drinking establishments. One of these establishments is filling up with guests on someone's hen night. Pink clothing and lots of it, high hair, too much make up, that kind of thing. What I don't expect is for the bride-to-be to be wheeled in on a bed. Another guest enters the bar in similar fashion some time later and it transpires that there is some kind of doctors and nurses-themed event going on. It all sounds a little too kinky for me, particularly in present company.

I do try and enter the bar later just to use the toilet after several botched attempts to use other toilet facilites elewhere. One proprieter tells me that he is very sorry but he needs the disabled toilet to store great big piles of shite that he doesn't use but doesn't want to throw out. They might be my words, not his, but they are no less accurate than what he comes up with. The man at the hen night bar just shakes his head when I ask him about toilets, as if asking for a disabled toilet in a bar is something akin to asking for a tennis court. So you can come in on a bed and play doctors and nurses, but you can't emtpy your bladder if you don't have the capacity to vacate your wheeled vechile to do so. It's not the first toilet fiasco of the night, having been earlier invited to use the ladies by the manager of La Taberna Gallega because there are steps leading up to the mens. Obviously. I mean why would you need wheelchair access if you have a penis? People who use wheelchairs don't have penises. That's just basic, people.

We retire to Hotel D'Icaria for the night feeling all at once optimistic, bemused, but mostly tired from the travelling and the boozing.