I am a wanderer by nature. Metro, train, plane, automobile, bus, horse…you name it, I’ll hop on board. But you’ll most likely find me hoofing it most of the time. Given the choice, if I can walk somewhere, I’ll let my feet carry me there.
I love to go wherever my feet lead me, whether that be circling the outer walls of Hamlet’s castle in Denmark, scaling the rocky goat paths of Mount Fuji’s upper reaches, or browsing the endless stalls of Hong Kong’s Jade Market. I don’t mind sore feet, because fantastic sights have almost always accompanied the walking that caused them. When those sights and exercise are accompanied by food, you might as well write me off for a few hours, because I’ll be disappearing down the rabbit hole for a good chunk of time.
Because of that heady combination, one of my absolute favorite places to wile away the hours is La Boqueria market in the Citutat Vella district of Barcelona. Take the Barcelona Metro to the Liceu station on L3, walk a bit down La Rambla, one of the most prevalent pedestrian promenades in the city, and there on your right, a small stained glass sign proclaims that you’re now entering “Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria.” Come with an empty stomach.
La Boqueria has become one of the most important landmarks in Barcelona, which isn’t exactly surprising once you consider it’s been around for nearly eight hundred years. It first popped up just after 1200, when farmers set up tables near the city gate to peddle their meat. To say the least, it’s come a long, long way since then. The monstrous metal roof that shades the market has been around since 1914, and in the hot Spanish sun, you’ll be thankful for the shade as you weave your way through the stalls of succulent fruit, glistening ruby-red cuts of beef and silvery fresh fish, and baskets of every kind of nut imaginable.
I’m an early bird, so when I showed up at seven a.m. sharp (when the market opens), I was a little disappointed to be greeted with shuttered stalls and just a few men unloading fresh produce in wooden crates. I’d forgotten that this was Spain, after all; land of the happily lazy morning…people had still been gleefully stumbling home from nightclubs as I’d been leaving my hostel for La Boqueria. “Good morning, baby,” one of men had smoothly greeted me, and I’d offered a half-smile and cheerful response in return before surreptitiously shifting the ring on my left hand down a finger so as to become magically married. Such is the habit of a solo female traveler.
It didn’t take long, though, for the market to begin to rustle itself into wakefulness. Rather than get in the way of men and women busy stacking fruit and arranging shimmering fish on beds of ice, I parked myself on a stool at El Quim, a tiny restaurant that consists of a large stall surrounded by a dozen and a half wooden stools.
I will put it in simple terms: El Quim is awesome. The chef, Quim himself, danced around behind the counter, directing his young (and damn handsome) staff of half a dozen or so in the morning preparations. They’d all been laughing and joking around, even as they were sliding fresh quiche under the glass counter. “British? German? French?” Quim had asked me, fanning out menus for me to choose. “American,” I’d admitted, and he’d cracked a wide smile before proffering a Catalan (the cousin of Spanish spoken in Barcelona) menu for me. “You’ll be fine with this,” he’d declared. I’d reached for the menu, never one to back down from a challenge, but he’d yanked it back out of my reach with a grin before handing over the English version. “Hang your bag, and let me know when you’re ready,” he’d instructed, gesturing to one of the metal hooks hanging under the counter. In Barcelona, pickpockets, especially in cramped quarters like La Boqueria’s, are something to look out for.
I was content with a rich, thick latte with freshly fried churros for dipping for a while, but it wasn’t long before my stomach had begun rumbling. I caught Quim’s eye and leaned across the counter to ask for the mixed fish platter of the day. He’d raised his eyebrows. “For breakfast?!” “For breakfast,” I’d affirmed. He’d chuckled and then gotten to work scooping handfuls of giant shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fish from their beds of ice under the class counter before handing them off to one of his staff. A healthy lug or two of oil went into a hot pan, the fierce crackling of raw fish meeting hot metal reached my ears, and a few minutes later, Quim came around the counter to slide a steaming fresh plate of fish in front of me.
As I took up my fork and knife to dig in, Quim hovered over me to watch me take my first bite. “More coffee?” I’d asked, gesturing at my empty mug.
“Coffee? How about cava? That’s a proper breakfast,” he’d suggested, leaning in conspiratorially. Cava is sparkling wine, Catalonia’s answer to champagne. It had only taken the tiniest bit of wheedling before I’d acquiesced to Quim’s suggestion, and true to his promise, the effervescent bubbles were the perfect complement to my fish, far better than another cup of coffee would have been. It was a breakfast so huge and decadent that made the elderly man sitting beside me do a double take and then throw back his head in laughter, but I just tipped my fork, topped with a buttery clam, at him before popping it into my mouth and grinning at him.
When I finally pried myself away from El Quim’s counter, La Boqueria was bustling in all its hectic glory, and I was content to wander amongst the stalls.
By the time I emerged from the cool, shaded interior of La Boqueria, blinking into the blazing Spanish sun, I was happily tipsy on the scent of ripe fruit, moldy cheese, and briny fish, the laughter of Quim and his staff, and just the overall laidback atmosphere of La Boqueria.
And the cava probably didn’t hurt either.