Mamma Mia, it's Barcelona

What is it about Irish daughters and their Mammies? Our relationships change with each passing year as we grow from good little girl tugging at our mother’s skirt for attention, to rebellious teenager, to harassed parent with new found respect for her, to mature adult recognising her as another woman making life’s journey just a few short years ahead of ourselves. For many of us our relationship is transformed again when, as so often happens, our beloved Dads pass away and our Mums are left alone to rebuild their lives.
My darling Dad died suddenly 7 years ago leaving my Mum, me his only daughter and three sons bereft at his passing. By then they had been an item for 58 years, all her adult life. She was recovering from serious surgery at the time and I marvelled at her fierce independence and resilience as she found a new way of living, buoyed up by her appetite for life and knowledge. This is a woman who reads a newspaper from cover to cover, because that’s what her own Dad told her she should do,  knows more about current affairs than I do, and applies the same zeal to her new found interest in the internet and her iPad.
Since Dad died we’ve tried to get away for a short-break together most years, a chance for some quality time alone and new experiences. This year she had a tough winter, losing a few close friends of her own generation including my mother in law, and in recent months a health scare made a holiday seem unlikely. Once she got the all clear I made a spur of the moment decision to offer her the choice of a short break in one of five European cities in easy reach of Dublin. After much Google research she picked Barcelona where she had never been.
We arrived early on Sunday morning 1st September for a four days visit. A friend had recommended Hotel Catalonia Born on Rec Comtal which is centrally located close to the Arc de Triomf and about 15 minutes walk from Placa de Catalunya and La Rambla. I got an excellent rate on line, not much more than €100 for the two of us a night, so I wasn’t expecting much, just somewhere to hang our hat. In fact it was a lovely surprise, set in a refurbished 19th century building and with friendly and helpful staff.
The hotel is located et at the end of a long, narrow, lived-in street in the atmospheric Born district, Our room was modern and nicely decorated with all the facilities we needed for the few days, including free wifi. The roof-top patio surrounding a tiny swimming pool is a lovely spot to catch the last rays of the evening sun and enjoy the peaceful Barcelona skyline.
I had asked for a room overlooking the street and ours, on the 6th floor, gave us a perfect view of the goings on below and the evening ritual of neighbours chatting across their balconies. We could easily imagine ourselves taking up residence on that street lined with its little grocery shops, bakeries, cafe bars and tiny store selling everything from dresses to spanners.
We didn’t eat in the hotel. Instead we had eggs for breakfast each morning at Elsa y Fred directly opposite, a buzzing neighbourhood cafe bar with an art deco feel which is open until the early hours of the morning and serves great food all day long. Local families come and go with babies in buggies while couples with dogs, and even a tame pig, sit at the tables outside. It has great wifi too so I wandered over each evening for a glass of cava to check my emails and Twitter feed noticing other tourists doing the same.
We wanted to cover as much ground as possible in our few days but to minimise the amount of waking we would have to do so we got two-day tickets for the Barcelona Bus Turistic open top bus tour. On the Sunday we took the red route from our nearest stop at Barri Gothic out to the west of the city, around by the Olympic Stadium, the Joan Miro Foundation, the hill of Montjuic, down by the harbour and beach of Barceloneta and back to Placa de Catalunya. Even without stepping off the bus, it was a perfect way to get a sense of the vibrancy of the city, nestled against the hills and gazing over the shimmering sea. The contrasting, colourful architecture of old and new, that unique Gaudi flair and the style apparent even in simple street furniture and modern apartment blocks are constant reminders that this is a place apart.
The second day we took the northern blue route and hopped off  to visit the stunning interior of Gaudi’s Casa Batllo which is my favourite house in the world – even the handrails on the staircase are testament to his care for detail in touch, texture and colour. We continued on the bus to visit his extraordinary unfinished cathedral Sagrada Familia and had lunch in a little cafe looking nearby.

With my Mum’s youngest grandsons in mind, we had to get a glimpse of the Barca soccer stadium from the top of the bus so they would be suitably impressed by their very cool Granny so we followed the full route around past Parc Guell and the high hills of Tibidabo.
The following day we walked to the tree-lined La Rambla, stopping en route at the city’s imposing main cathedral. We visited the wonderful food market of La Boqueria where we had brunch sitting at the counter of El Quim, a must for anyone interested in Catalonian food. Later we continued our walk down the new boardwalk to the marina until the heat of the day got to us and we took a taxi back to the main shopping area.

Which brings me on to food in Barcelona – there is excellent quality and value  to be had if you know where to go. I was spoilt for choice thanks to Twitter recommendations and I have a long list of places I want to visit if I get another chance to go back there. But we discovered lovely restaurants just minutes from our hotel. 1932 opening out onto the little square of Placa San Agusti Vell was a real find. We went back there twice drawn by the friendly service and fresh flavours of their food – delicate cod with pea puree, perfect crisp and crunchy calamari and goats cheese with aubergine and honey were among the dishes we polished off.

My Mum also tasted tapas for the first time on this trip and the quality of tapas in Barcelona rivals that of San Sebastian. Our local Elsa y Fred had a selection ranging from the traditional Patatas Bravas to those with Asian influences including an intriguing Foie with salt, Sichuan pepper, port wine reduction and nut toast. Sashimi salmon with endive, miso sauce, onion and lime converted my Mum to  eating “raw” fish. By the next night she was on to tuna carpaccio – no stopping her then.

Barcelona is of course a great shopping city whether wandering market stalls near Placa de Catalunya, the food market of La Boqueria or the upmarket shopping streets. My Mum tracked down an outlet mall outside Barcelona – La Roca Village – and felt it would be more manageable for her than trekking the long city streets so, with some groans on my part (I had the Teleferic of Montjuic in mind for her last day to overcome vertigo…) we took ourselves out there by bus. It made for a pleasant day of shopping even if there were no great bargains. I discovered a Nike outlet nearby which had great value in sports gear, not to mention Barca jerseys for the nephews.

Of course, as with all holidays it’s not just the new sights, sounds and tastes you remember. It’s the little things – dozing off to sleep while my Mum watched Mamma Mia on TV, not put out that it was dubbed in Spanish as she already knew it by heart, waking to chat in the early hours of the morning, sharing reminiscences of her childhood and mine, sorting memories from imaginings, making up stories about passersby or the couple at the next table based on a fragment of overheard conversation or a look passing between them (yes my Mother has a Maeve Binchy streak and is secretly a repressed writer).
Barcelona you opened your arms to us with warmth and good humour. My Mum and I had a wonderful time in your magical city and we made memories to treasure.

Contemplating a swim at Hotel Catalonia Born

MamaRita, Mamma Mia, I love you and I’m proud of you and your zest for life.
Your only daughter,