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Hidden corners of Barcelona

Placa del Pi

One of this week's visits on our social program took us to see some of the hidden corners of Barcelona. Barcelona is a city with so many secrets to discover that we really needed not two hours but two weeks (make that two years!) to do it any sort of justice, but Montse and Pilar had enough lined up for us to make it a really interesting trip.

Two weeks is in fact what many of our Spanish learners come for - as they take an intensive Spanish course that for many lasts exactly that.

"How much Spanish do you think you learn in two weeks?" we asked Ian Clark, who'd been sent over to do a one-to-one Spanish course by his London-based strategic consultancy firm to start Spanish from scratch, as we headed for the first stop on the tour. "Well, obviously there is a limit," he told us, "but it certainly gives you a taste... and really makes you want to take it up seriously."

We'd come to the Els Quatre Gats [Montsió 3, website], the first destination on our whistle-stop tour. Opened in 1897, the work of Puig i Cadafalch, one of the leading modernista architects, it is a bar and restuarant that was once the place where Barcelona's bohemian intelligentsia hung out.

As we made our way through the Barrio Gótico, the old part of Barcelona, we also talked to Christa Muster, a Swiss language student who has been here for a lot longer - two months so far. Christa says she's been on virtually all the events of the social program (one every day, that is!). She must know all the hidden corners of Barcelona by now, surely? "Well, it's a great way to get to know the city," she told us... in pretty amazing Spanish, we should add!

Next stop was to point out the artisan turrón shop Planelles-Donat, at the foot of the Puerta del Angel [Nº 7 and 25]. Turrón is a typically Spanish, nougat-like sweet sold in chunky bars and consumed particularly at Christmas. Traditionally made of almonds and sold in both hard ("de Alicante") or soft ("de Jijona") varieties, you can now buy turrón all year round in the local supermarket, where you'll find it in all sorts of ghastly flavours. You want the real McCoy, head for the Puerta del Angel...

Just a short distance away, on the corner of Cucurulla and Pí, there's one of the many little stores that make the old part of Barcelona such an amazing place if you like to potter round the shops. Fargas [Carrer del Pí 16], which sells sweets and chocolates, dates back to the early nineteenth century - note the large official plaque on the pavement outside accrediting the fact.

We then stopped off in the Plaza del Pí, a quiet little square with pavement cafés, and home to one of Barcelona's loveliest Catalan Gothic churches - Santa Maria del Pí. On Saturdays and Sundays the Plaza del Pí is also "Barcelona's Montmartre", as Montse put it. You want a painting of Barcelona to hang on your bathroom wall, the Plaza del Pí is your place...

A short detour from the square up Carrer Palla (note the highest concentration of antique shops in Barcelona in this street) brought us to Caelum [Palla 8], a curious little place, half shop, half lovely little tea shop, selling only produce (sweets, jams and honeys, wine...) made by nuns in Spain's monasteries.

Leading off the Plaza del Pí is Carrer Petrixol, which is somehow the real heart of Barcelona. First up from the square is a cute little bookstore Quera [Petrixol, 2] selling the sort of maps and guide books you're looking for if you want to get your trekking boots on and really get off the beaten track in Spain.

Barrio GoticoIf the very idea of walking makes you feel weak at the knees, don't panic! Petrixol is home to some of Barcelona's favourite teashops. Get yourself a table (if you can) at Dulcinea [Petrixol 2] or La Pallersa [Petrixol 11]. "Chocolate con churros"(photo, right) is what the lady at the next table has just ordered... Alternatively you could go for a "granizado" (er, a sort of crushed ice with flavouring?) or "horchata", a very sweet, nutty-flavoured milk-like drink. (Can't I just have a nice hot cup of tea?).

From there Montse took us down the Ramblas, pointing out the Café de la Opera, on the left going down [La Rambla 74] as we went. The Café de la Opera dates back to 1850, and was typically where you went before or after the performance at the Barcelona opera house, the Liceu. We didn't have time to step inside - but do so: the decoration is modernista and worth the price of your coffee. Take a book - it'll make people think you're intellectual, Montse suggested (not that we didn't).

Just off the Ramblas, on Escudellers, is somewhere you'll love if you like pottery shops. Art Escudellers [Escudellers 23-25] sells, er, pottery... from all over Spain. It divides it all up into the different regions of origin, plus the really expensive stuff downstairs. If the wife looks like she's going to buy herself a ton, there's a wine cellar downstairs where you might want to steel yourself... with wines, also from all over Spain.

We ended our trip of Barcelona's hidden corners, exhausted, at the foot of the Ramblas, or just off... at the Bosc de les Fades - Fairies' Wood, if you like - which is a cute little bar right next to the wax museum [Passatge de la Banca].... Camarero!

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