Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

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Down a Gothic Time Tunnel – Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

I cross la Rambla, a wide boulevard of outdoor cafes, flower kiosks, and bird vendors’ stalls that sweeps from the statue of Christopher Columbus at Port Vell to Placa Catalunya, the busy hub Barcelona revolves around. Cautiously I squeeze between yellow taxis and white delivery vans stalled in the traffic while watching for speeding scooters that weave through the gaps scattering gawking tourists.

Consulting a tattered map I turn out of the bright sunlight into a shady alleyway cutting between tall stone buildings. It is cool and quieter in the narrow alley that was constructed centuries ago. A labyrinth of lanes unfolds curving and crisscrossing in a chaotic maze which confused the Arab raiding parties that frequently stormed up from the shoreline back then. Each step takes me back in time into The Gothic Quarter, the medieval citadel built on Roman ruins that thrived in the 1400s when Wilfred the Hairy wore the Crown of Aragon and ruled Catalonia, Spain, and lands beyond.

I pause at a water trough whose hand painted tiles depict the walls of the old citadel. Then I stride on; past a hatter’s displaying stylish straw Panama’s and brushed silk Fedoras, past a pop art gallery hung with Picasso prints, under a charming shrine to The Virgin chiselled into a stone wall, and beside an upholster’s workshop cluttered with chairs and tables smelling of sawdust and varnish.

I peep behind carved wooden doors into a secluded garden, gaze at the imposing facade of La Marce Basillica, and wonder at the fabulously ornate Carrier del Bisbe bridge which spans a narrow street. Then I stop in a small piazza shaded by a plain tree to realise that, like would be raiders, I am completely lost. 

Seeking a seat and a cool drink I spy a simple café whose plain glass windows display desserts and pastries from a byegone era. I swing open the door to be greeted by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the distinctive sounds of the Catalan dialect. The décor inside is plain, even austere by modern standards with its earthenware tiled floor and orderly rows of marble topped tables surrounded by high backed wooden chairs. None of the comfortable cosiness of a Starbucks nor the stylish sterility of a MacCafe: here even the expresso machine looks archaic and industrial.

Strangely, in pride of place over the industrial expresso machine bar is a painting of two cows. Clearly, this is an authentic Granja, a dairy café or milk bar, frozen in time as it was when it first opened over sixty years ago in 1947, a time when Franco ruled Spain and the Catalan language was suppressed. Granja, literally means farm or barn and also refers to a small family run café specialising in milk puddings, chocolate dips and imported coffees: indeed the building housing Granja La Palleresa was a dairy for decades before it was converted to a café.

I take a seat, a waiter in a starched white shirt, pressed black pants, wearing a black bow tie presents a typed menu. Even with my limited Spanish, I can count twelve dishes with cream, eight with chocolate, and four milk drinks, including Double Milk and Curd. I shun the Churros, extruded doughnut strips to be dipped in sickly sweet melted chocolate to try something more adventurous – a Pedralhes an Nata, the blancmange mousse surrounded by cream I saw in the window display. Pedralhes translates literally from Catalan to ‘white stones’ and is the name of an affluent district of Barcelona.

The waiter returns, respectfully corrects my pronunciation, then carefully notes my order on a little duplicate pad. He steps smartly to the bar to present the top slip to a Baristas, who could be his brother with similar greying hair and dark soulful eyes. 

The old coffee boiler belches and spits out a stream of inky fluid into a tiny cup drowning out the soft buzz of conversation. Two housewives at the next table pause, then resume gossiping. Local girls sitting under a picture of a farm continue their urgent discussion, from their anguished expressions the topic is probably boyfriend trouble. A couple of elegant matrons are chatting at an adjacent table. They are tastefully dressed in a smart linen two piece and a cotton floral print dress, both timeless classics fashioned back in the fifties. Affluence is evident in their quality court shoes and leather designer handbags, all choice examples of the stylish accessories for which Spanish craftsmen are deservedly famous. Towards the door an older man sits alone nursing the tiny cup of inky black coffee that has been belched out by the old boiler. He ignores the newspaper spread before him and gazes wistfully out of the window.

Some customers hurry in, wait impatiently for take-outs, then scurry back towards the busy city streets. But most take a seat and tarry; lingering to savour the serenity of this tranquil sanctuary away from the impatient traffic, swarming tourists, and the sticky summer heat.

My Pedralhus an Nata arrives, shaped suggestively like a woman’s breast surrounded by whipped cream. The solemn waiter places it down carefully yet it wobbles seductively: do I detect a wry smile under his moustache? Whatever, I spoon up the tasty treat, its smooth texture carries subtle flavours of caramel laced with a hint of coffee – delicious! The cream is tasty too; fresh, hand whipped, and spooned from a bowl not squirted from some stale aerosol can. Warming to the delights on offer I order an Ensqunada a Crossan, a light pastry tasting of almonds and dusted with sweet icing sugar to accompany a richly aromatic Columbian coffee.

I long to linger like the other patrons, whiling away a slow afternoon, but I have to venture out to find Rent-A-Tiger to collect the Triumph Tiger XC800 motorcycle I have hired to explore the twisty tracks that wind over the Pyrenees.

I retrace my steps along the alleyways and after a few missed turns find my way back towards the bright sunshine and bustling streets of modern Barcelona. I pause once again beside the water trough tempted by the sparkling clear water splashing onto the weathered stones. Yet I am wary of an old legend that states if you drink at this trough a spell will hold you captive compelling you to return to Catalonia. You will not be able to resist returning down this time tunnel to get lost again in The Gothic Quarter, and possibly experience a second quiet interlude from another age at Granja La Pallaresa.

Undeterred, I stoop down to scoop up the cool water hoping the legend holds true.

© Stephen W Starling

Next time you are in Barcelona do visit Granja La Pallaresa on Carrier de Petritxol, 11, Barri Gotic, 08002 Barcelona, Spain. If you get lost, like me, call them on +34 933 022 036. 

    By the way, tearing along the trails of the Pyrenees was great: you will be able to read more in two upcoming articles – watch for details on the Publications page.


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