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A Year in The Life of..
by Michael Garry Smout

It was never The Barcelona Review’s intention to enter the world of tourist information or even to draw too much attention to the city unless, like Sant Jordi (World Book Day), it was literary oriented. The name, like the Paris Review (long situated in New York) or Mississippi Review, came about because this is where we live and where it began. But through much of our e-mail - some from those who mistakenly surfed to the site looking for hard-to-find tourist info, but most from readers and subscribers and even some contributors - we have learned that there is a huge interest in the city, with one of the most frequently asked questions being:
"When is the best time to visit?"

Answer: There is not a bad time to visit.

C Colom : Jan 16, 2000



New Year, King's Day
And The Wonder of




Believe it or not Barcelona is not the best place to spend New Year’s Eve unprepared as the bars seem to close just before midnight then re-open at about one o’clock. There doesn’t seem to be the same friendly drunken mayhem as in the rest of the world. I noticed this in Granada, too, so it’s not just so-called Catalan reserve. I like to think that because the Spanish have enough parties throughout the rest of the year they prefer to start, or end, quietly. If you are in the city on this night the Irish theme bars and some trendy hangouts are usually open for the twelve o’clock countdown or, armed with a bottle of cava, you could head to Plaça Catalunya which seems to collect all the lost foreigners - mostly French and Italian - looking for an open bar. Until this year it was almost impossible to know exactly when midnight arrived as there were no bells (the Cathedral mysteriously turned theirs off one year and for all I know they still do). The bells are mega-important as twelve grapes are eaten, one on each of the twelve strokes of midnight, and are meant to represent the twelve months. Failure to eat the grapes will bring bad luck, so play safe and – seeing as it’s got grapes in it - stick to a hearty slug of cava. This celebration takes place more among families and/or close friends. It’s obviously difficult for outsiders to break into the intimate circles so if you want the ‘grape’ experience try a restaurant that has a fixed New Year’s Eve menu. This year’s millennium change brought 20,000 plus people to Plaça Catalunya to join the lost Italians and French and to witness La Fura dels Baus in one of their performances which this time involved a huge metal man filled with humans. A rather intense firework display happened right above our heads which meant we were covered in debris and hit by large bits of plastic as well as cava spray. Way to start…! La Fura dels Baus, by the way, are the Catalan theatre group that put ‘Art’ back into cheesy Olympic Games Openings, making the Barcelona 1992 event something very special that I believe will be difficult to equal. If La Fura dels Baus play your city do not hesitate to see them but do wear non-slip shoes and prepare to be very nervous.
         The evening of the 5th sees the Three Kings’ Parade when the kings arrive by boat and a mini-carnival takes place, usually up Via Laietana, with loads of floats and tons of boiled sweets (hard candy) being hurled, and I mean hurled, into the crowd. It is possibly the only time you will see well-dressed Spanish/Catalans picking something up off the street. The 5th and the 6th, the traditional time to give presents to children, seem to stand on equal footing with Christmas Day and I wonder how the US or the UK came to give it no importance. There is a lot of money pumped into the parade and ‘product placing’ advertising due to the fact it is televised. The parade of 1998 was quite something , very Brazilian in flavour, and included dancing ‘camels’ on stilts. I somehow missed 1999’s and most of this year’s but saw enough to realise that it wasn’t as special (and a bit tacky) with some bizarrely-conceived floats – why was one King in a wingless pre-WWI aeroplane? The next day is a holiday - the last until Easter. This is the longest period in the Catalan year without a break and that means this particular year sees over three months hard-labour. After the stop/go of the four preceding months where fiestas litter the calendar like party minefields, the change of pace … of an actual steady, unbroken routine … is unnerving, and this year’s Carnival, though no holiday, is going to be a more than welcome time to let off steam. The 6th is also when all the decorations come down. The Town Hall supplies special areas for the greenery to be dumped but this being a nation of not-throwing-anything-away-until-it-is-totally-useless means Christmas trees appear next to the trash bins well after January. I have seen one, brown but still very much alive, thrown out in July.

Pl. Pi
Gas heaters and orange trees in Pl. Pi

          The weather is usually quite cold but dry and sunny. I say this while clutching a plank of wood as the weather is totally unpredictable – hell, it snowed in Barcelona last November. Catalans, famed for their money-making, are not going to let Ol’ Mum Nature win the day and deprive outside tables of bums-on-seats so the last few years have seen an increase in tall gas fires that throw the heat down onto the surrounding tables. I was convinced they were a Catalan invention but was gutted to discover they weren't. The oddest thing is most bars leave their doors open making it more uncomfortable to sit indoors than outdoors under a fire.
         Apart from the festivities at the beginning, it is possibly not the greatest month to choose to visit but it is certainly a lot warmer and sunnier than the UK and there are fewer tourists about. There is skiing up the road – unfortunately just a little too far to make the city your base camp - and it’s a good time for the sort of walks that only a fool would attempt in the hot months. If a business or educational trip dictates a January date, don’t hesitate.


lot of construction and cleaning for the new ‘season’ usually starts about now but the last year has seen unprecedented building scrubbing. This is for many reasons, from the most obvious - the state of disrepair of the older buildings which has led to quite a few lumps of stone meeting pedestrians with actual fatalities - to the dodgy few getting rid of their ‘black money’ before the change to the Euro flushes out their hidden wealth.

After, During, Before
Renovation: after, during and before

Whatever the reason though, the spruced-up façades are not only safe but look great. There are still many gems to be found under the grime so please ignore any chaos when you visit. St. Valentine’s day is not really celebrated as the Catalans have Sant Jordi in April, but you’ll find the city in fine fettle for a romantic weekend (it’s on a Sunday this year).
        This is also the time of year for dunking a burnt green onion in a nutty sauce then gently lowering it into your mouth. The onions are called calçots and the sauce should be a special salsa but Romesco or a variation is commonly used. Calçots bear a striking resemblance to fat spring (green) onions due to the fact they are spring onions but grown very differently. They end up sweeter and milder with long white stems from which one presumes they get their name – calça means stocking and calçat, in reference to a horse, means one with white stockings. The onions should be cooked over an open fire until black on the outside then left to sweat in newspaper or something similar. If you get the chance, try to get to a calçotada. This is a communal onion cook’n’eat-in and hundreds of people can turn up, but you’ll find it very rare to find one in the city and the events are not heavily publicised outside a village's own community. The best book written in English on Catalan food is Colman Andrews’ Catalan Cuisine (Harvard Common Press) and he was impressed enough with the onions to attempt to grow them in Southern California. The book has excellent recipes for the sauces, which require ingredients such as hazelnuts, almonds, garlic, red chili, tomatoes, vinegar and of course olive oil, but equally important is how to eat the darn things:

"A calçot is grasped in the left hand by its blackened base and in the right hand by the inner green leaves at its top, then the black part is slipped off and discarded. The glistening white end of the calçot is next dipped into the … spicy nut sauce – formally called salvitjada and now known mostly as salsa per calçots – then lowered into the mouth with one’s head thrown back jauntily, and bitten off about where the green part starts. As might be imagined, this is messy work, and everyone wears bibs at a proper calçotada and retires frequently to a nearby sink or pump to rinse off the soot."

        The Totally Heathen Barcelona Review Version: Ordinary spring onions work fine – the fatter the better. As you are going to burn the outer layers there’s no real need to wash them but you may want to trim them. Then throw them on the ‘barbie’ or burn them in your oven or under a grill, about half an hour before you want to eat them. Wrap them up in paper to sweat – this continues cooking them and helps loosen the burned outer skin. Romesco sauce is a classic and may be found in good Hispanic stores as a liquid or even dehydrated, but it is worth the effort to try to create the salsa per calçots that Colman Andrews gives in his book although he does suggest a whole roasted head of garlic. If that terrifies you, about 7 or 8 cloves of unpeeled garlic, very gently cooked in a covered pan over a low, low flame for about 20 minutes should do the job (squeeze the contents out when cooked). To make a cup: You’ll need a handful (approx. 10 -12) of roasted hazelnuts and an equal amount of almonds. Grind these up together. Add the squeezed roasted garlic, a peeled, seeded and finely chopped tomato and some fresh parsley (flat-leafed is more authentic). Mix all this together well, in a blender or with pestle and mortar, then stir in a teaspoon of red wine vinegar, three tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a pinch (or more) of cayenne. Mix together – don’t use a machine here as the oil will try and do something nasty – and leave to stand for at least two hours. A cup will just about be enough for about 20 - 24 onions and you’ll find that once people find out just how sweet and tasty the onion has become you’ll need at least 6 to 8 per person – maybe even more. Smout Salsa for those who can’t eat nuts: Crush up some garlic (amount up to you – can be roasted) and parsley and mix into something like Hellmans along with some cayenne powder and a spot of virgin olive oil, salt, fresh ground black pepper. Let it stand for a while to bring out the flavour. This will taste nothing like the true salsa as it has more in common with an allioli (salsa of garlic and oil), but it is quick and works fine with the onions.
        I will return to the rather interesting topic of Catalan food in the May/June issue
with a look at arròs negre (black rice).
        Weatherwise, not a bad month: cold but still sunny. It is usually in February that my mother decides to visit having by now had a bellyful of the English winter. I have sunbathed two years running in February and have photos as evidence, but 1999 proved to be quite chilly with a very nasty, as opposed to the usual just plain nasty, wind blowing off the mountains.

Next issue: March & April: Carnival, Easter and Sant Jordi (World book Day)

Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May  Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec

Other tourist info/links in English: The city itself lacks a committed English site but the Town Hall (Ajuntament) has a useful site at www.bcn.es with a great interactive map (can be a bit slow at times) and a 'What's On' that although in Catalan is more or less understandable, very complete and up-to-date. London's 'Time Out' - www.timeout.com/barcelona/  is the best next stop for very good general and tourist background information plus a limited 'What's On'. Just down the road at Sitges www.playafun.com are finding their feet and on a raid last year to Barcelona managed to snap the only known Internet photo of yours truly... but... thank god, you'll have to hunt for it!

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
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navigation:                         Barcelona review #16                       January - February 2000
-Fiction Juan Abreu: Tendernesschip
Guillaume Dustan: Serge the Beauty & Rendezvous
Len Kruger: Hotline
Norman Lock: In the Time of the Comet
Richard Peabody: Essence of Mitchum
-Poetry John Giorno: Three Poems
-Article January and February in Barcelona
-Quiz Federico García Lorca - win a book
Answers to last issue's Samuel Beckett Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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