My Spanish-Canadian friend Pablo gave me this insider’s advice in preparation for my first trip to Spain. He explains the typical Spanish day — centred around food; oh Spain, I love you! — so that you can try to blend in and plan your own day accordingly. He gives tips about what to eat and what to expect during a visit, including a few tips for Barcelona. I’ve edited it a little for public consumption.
If you’re going to Barcelona, you might find my A first trip to Barcelona: Field notes useful. It lists highlights of the city I planned for, and my reaction to them, after a short trip in February 2015. Updates welcome!
Thanks for the insights, Pablo!
As a general guide I should start off with how the traditional Spanish day unfolds. It is, of course, centred around eating!
Breakfast tends to be a cafe con leche, or what we call a latte, with a piece of toast or light (not too sweet) pastry, such as a madelena (madeleine). That’s it! This is something you have typically on the street at a nearby café on your way to work or other activity.
At 10:30 most people take a break for a café (café is always what we call an espresso; if you want to be stared at, ask for un americano (a watery coffee, a close approximation to North American regular coffee). You might have a sweet roll of some sort.
Between 1:00 and 2:00 is the main meal of the day – lunch. This is the big meal with a starter (generally a soup or appetizer), a course of fish normally (generally no sides), then a meat dish which may be served with rice or potato, then a salad, and finally dessert or coffee – oh, and wine of course!
Whether you are working or not it is then siesta time. You will see that the restaurants and shops will close from 2:30 until 4:00 as everyone is having their siesta at home with family. It is the hottest part of the day so it’s a great time to be in your hotel room and having a solid nap.
Around 5:00 (yes, people have just gotten back to work) it is time for the merienda – in England it is called tea. This is a time for some tapas and a glass of wine (generally the house wine in whatever “bar” you happen to go to). Tapas are supposed to be very small dishes – on many menus you will see tapas and entremeses. A tapa can be as small as three or four olives, a devilled egg, or a piece of bread with a garnish, whereas an entremese is what we think of as tapas in North America, where two or three dishes would be enough for a small meal.
Work ends around 8:00, and this is the period of time that I find the nicest in Spain. People go home, get changed, and then children, parents and friends gather and everyone goes for a paseo (i.e. stroll). People walk about until about 10:00 or 11:00. You will see small kids on the street playing and families doing their thing. People end up in the “bars” to have the last meal of the day which is a light supper. Generally some seafood with bread, or an omelet accompanied with perhaps una caña, a fruit-juice glass size of draft beer. Then return home for sleep to start the next day!
Now if you are going to hit the nightclubs: generally that starts up around midnight and goes until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. If things haven’t changed, should you order a gin and tonic, for example, the waiter will arrive with a tumbler with ice, a bottle of gin and a small bottle of tonic. He will pour the gin until you indicate it is enough and leave it at the table for you to add your tonic. Now this might have changed as they charged the same for a light drink or a stiff drink.
Choosing where to eat
It goes without saying that in terms of restaurants, any place catering to tourists will not be as high quality or authentic. Your discoveries will be off the main streets of large cities. You do not have to go more than a block off the main street or the particular attraction to get good results. You would typically want to reserve for the midday meal. In the winter months evening reservations are more common than in the summer.
For the day-to-day experience, the places you want to eat are the bars, cafés and restaurantes that are open to the street. As an aside, the term bar has nothing to do with the North American definition of a bar. A good place will have a number of Spaniards standing at the bar eating and talking vigorously and a good number of people at the tables. Spaniards talk loudly and over each other. Noisy is good.
Wherever you go, seafood will be good and fresh. In my parents’ time, the reason for building the highway system was to bring fresh fish to the central cities like Madrid on a daily basis. Eggs are eaten as main courses at any meal time. Chicken (pollo), lamb (cordero), and pork are the typical meats – small animals. Beef is not as common in Spain given the amount of rangeland cattle take up which limits supply, however veal is often available, usually served as very thin steaks. You will likely want to have a paella during your travels. Vegetables are very seasonal and I have always remarked that the first thing you want to do when you return to Canada is to have an enormous green salad! Spaniards just are not into veggies.
On a separate note, although you may have read this already and it is common sense: Pickpockets are rampant in Spain. They work in teams often with children used to distract you. Keep your money / wallet in a front pocket, leave your passports in the hotel safe – keep a photocopy of your passport page separately in your luggage. Do NOT be paralyzed by the idea just keep it in mind. Everywhere you go you will get little kids offering to shine your shoes, sell gum, etc. It is hard to do, but ignore them completely and coldly. As cute as they are, it will make for an unpleasant trip if you pay attention. I am assuming that due to the economic situation there will be more begging, but then again it’s hard to say. Spain is a country that has a history of hardship and it draws on its family ties to deal with those situations.
Finally most outsiders find Spaniards to be colder than other Europeans. The main thing I find is that Spaniards are interested in families – yours and theirs. Engage in a conversation (they all speak some English) ask about their families and way of life and I think you will break through the coldness. I would love to hear about your impressions.
OK now for specific recommendations on what to eat.
- The first thing, of course, is prosciutto. Anywhere you go there will be jamon which is the Spanish prosciutto. It is ubiquitous and nothing is more satisfying as an evening meal as un bocadillo de jamon – meaning a ham sandwich BUT that is all it has to do with a ham sandwich. You will see jamons hanging in many bars and in some places you will not see the ceiling for all the hams that are hanging.
- Aceitunas – olives — are again unique to Spain (as a kid I hated olives except those in Spain).
- As a tapa, eat a piece of tortilla de patata. This is a piece of potato omelet served cold and is delicious as a tidbit snack.
- For a refreshing soup have gazpacho. Every place you go it will be different.
- Spain has super wines and some “house” wines are spectacular – but some are undrinkable!!
- One morning you should have churros y chocolate. Churros are a fried pastry that you have no doubt had in Latin American countries, but this is sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and the chocolate is a hot chocolate which has NOTHING to do with our hot chocolate. Spaniards travel all over their cities to find the best place.
In Barcelona the place for el paseo, the daily evening stroll, is Las Ramblas. This is a boulevard right down the centre of old Barcelona. Barcelona is in the region of Catalunya (an autonomous region of Spain) that is the centre of some of the most exciting cooking in Spain. I have identified a couple of places off las Ramblas.
- El Callejon, Carrer Ample 33 bis o Carrer Gignas 10-12 (the entrance is off two streets Ample or Gignas) – the official language of Barcelona is Catalan and so you will see words that don’t look Spanish.
- Bodega Biarritz 1881, Calle Vidre, 8
In Barcelona visit the Picasso museum and of course the La Sagrada cathedral. There is also a Gothic neighbourhood, and some of Gaudi’s homes that are worth a look. The thing I always have liked in Barcelona is wandering around.