Nov 19, 2013

The Gresham Hotel – Afternoon Tea

In Dublin days gone by there was nowt so posh as the Gresham Hotel. Still the smart stalwart of O’Connell Street, I met the girls there, in the Writer’s Lounge, on Saturday for Afternoon Tea. Founded in 1817, the Gresham possesses a grandeur that does not come from interior decor alone but rather from it’s rich history. We sat by the large ivory draped windows, on plush red velvet sofas – old skool luxe – and settled in, warm and cosy, far from the madding crowd.

We were celebrating a birthday and I’m happy to report that even Mesdames such as we still want a party with lots of cake! So it was Afternoon Tea for five. First came tea – made with loose leaves – in big silver pots. Proper old fashioned. Then the main event. Two large tiered cake stands arrived, containing one of everything for each of us. Savouries, sweets and little treats. A very nice deal indeed at 21 euro per person.

Luckily I’d walked from ILS HQ, so had worked up a good appetite. Where to start… I tucked into smoked salmon on brown soda bread and cucumber sandwiches (what else?) while the ladies munched on finger sandwiches of Parma ham, chicken and roast beef. We gossiped away happily between bites and copious amounts of tea. Two more pots were summoned as we turned next to the first cake tier.

Mini scones were served with butter, jam and fresh cream. There was dainty slices of Madeira cake, tea brack and fruit cake. Homemade pistachio biscuits were light, crumbly and crunchy. The thing about Afternoon Tea is not to feel like little piggies scoffing endless goodies but to nibble lady-like on myriad delicious petite pastries. The Gresham have judged their dinky offerings just right. Totally Downton.

There for a good three hours, we talked weddings, babies and love. And clothes, shoes and handbags. And hairstyles. The Writer’s Lounge is such calm surrounds, with plenty of space and relaxed waiting staff. The Gresham is not a seen-to-be-seen kinda place. I like that. The final tier… Tiny meringues, fresh fruit vol au vents, chocolate torte and strawberry cream in teeny sundae glasses. Glam not glutton.

The chocolate torte was to die for, a sliver of pure decadence. It really was fun oohing and ahhing over all the doll sized gateaux. And getting away from the world for a wee while, the girls agreed. O’Connell Street is due a new lease of life with the much anticipated re-vamped Clerys opening this week. I see hours of retail therapy in my future and now I know exactly where to go for a spot of R&R afterwards…

The Gresham Hotel, 23 Upper O’Connell Street, Dublin 1 / www.gresham-hotels-dublin.com

Nov 14, 2013

O’Briens Wine Fair – Grape Expectations!

Me and Dad met on Saturday morning, outside BT as usual, all excited about O’Briens Wine Fair. Dad’s fave bottle shop were hosting a series of tasting sessions at the Round Room in the Mansion House. Don’t mind if we do! First up was some carb loading at M&S Rooftop Restaurant, to line our stomachs before the main event. We’ve long been fans of this place. M&S food already cooked for you. What’s not to love?

We went for the Dine Menu, 14.50 euro for two courses and a glass of vino. Well we had to start somewhere… I had a creamy Camembert tart with rocket, asparagus and onion marmalade, while Dad tucked into seafood pie with a golden breadcrumb topping. Both were absolutely top drawer. We followed with Eton Mess for me and chocolate tart for him. The best thing about the Rooftop Restaurant is that we were done and dusted in an hour. Satisfied customers!

Off we trotted to the Mansion House. The Round Room was kitted out with 45 different wine merchants from around the globe. We were handed a glass each, on arrival, and set free into a Willy Wonka world of wine. The tables were arranged in order of country of origin, with each producer offering their glug, San Pellegrino and Carr’s Table Water biscuits. Ambassador… The idea was to take a sip and move on.

We started with Norton Argentina, from – you guessed it – Argentina. 2010 Syrah Reserva for me. Next up was Bethany, from Australia, where I sampled their Old Quarry Tawny Port. A taste of Christmas. Vina Chocolan, from Chile, was an early favourite with their 2011 Syrah Reserva and 2011 Malbec Gran Reserva both tickling my tastebuds. We milled about the room, rather than from table to table.

I got talking to one or two wine buffs, chaps who were only too delighted to shoot the boozy breeze. I know nothing about wine, just that I like it. Dad bumped into an old pal who tipped us off to a couple of numbers. According to these sources, O’Briens Wine Fair was one of the better events they’d been to. Good to know! Certainly in terms of variety and ease we were impressed. And enjoying it very much…

In fact so much that I tried four wines from Spain’s Coca i Fito. 2009 Sao Abrivat, 2010 Jaspi Negra, 2009 Coca i Fito and 2008 Planets de Prior Pons. Modern and delicious, these bottles were beautifully packaged too. My must-have white was New Zealand’s Man O’War 2011 Valhalla Chardonnay. It’ll be on our table on Christmas Day. Domaine Duffour, from France, was a single 2012 Gascogne. Yummy!

And so to Champagne, darlings. Beaumont Des Crayeres Grande Reserve fizzed on my lips, decadent and sharp. Nothing like the real thing! Except maybe a really good Prosecco. Rizzardi Prosecco Spumante was the party tipple of choice for Mother’s recent birthday bash. I recommended it to a bride-to-be who was totting up a list of prospective toasts for her wedding. Seems everyone was having fun!

Two hours in, slightly tipsy but well diluted with water and crackers we had made our picks. Dad was a happy camper as many wines were discounted and there was a bonus 20% back on his loyalty card for every six bottles bought on the day. Deal-tastic. The final cut included the Sao Abrivat, Delheim Chenin Blanc, Chocolan Malbec and Privada Blend. It was soon high time for some well earned Americanos.

www.obrienswine.ie

Nov 6, 2013

Corfu – Greek Feast

As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of dining deals. There’s so much good food in this city and often it’s below the fashion radar. I’m not talking online discount sites, but genuine lunch offers and early birds. So when a mate called me yesterday, for a spur of the moment rendezvous in Temple Bar, I knew we’d find nice nosh at a stone’s throw. Corfu on Parliament Street was the venue. A Greek triumph!

Two courses and a glass of wine (or soft drink) for a tenner makes for a pretty good lunch in my book. Eating in good restaurants for less is a bit like clothes shopping in the sales. D’ya see what I’m saying? The lunch menu at Corfu offers quality over quantity. We started with feta pies, delicious salty cheese spiked with herbs and wrapped in the most delicate filo pastry. Me and my mate ate these on holiday.

My request for vegetarian moussaka was kindly obliged by our lovely waiter, while my pal went for the traditional minced Irish beef version. Mine was a colourful square topped with rocket. Rich in flavour and light of texture, layers of aubergine, peppers and butternut squash were sandwiched between potato, tomato sauce and a fluffy bechamel topping. So simple, so tasty. I was left satisfied, not stuffed.

Corfu offers an extensive menu of trad Greek fare, including impressive mezzedes (mixed platters), souvlaki (charcoal skewered meats) and kleftiko (lamb on the bone). Not to mention home made desserts. Mmmn, baklava… We’ll be back for the mezzedes, for sure. Like tapas, you can sit for hours sipping wine and savouring Mediterranean bites. And gossiping. In a cosy farmhouse atmos to boot.

Corfu, 12 Parliament Street, Dublin 2 / www.corfurestaurant.ie

Nov 5, 2013

Lumiere – Sweet Sound of Home

Sunday evening is the new Saturday night! Well, for me and the Bloke anyway. All I had to do was turn up and be fed. Himself had cooked up a Mexican bonanza of Quorn chilli, refried beans, rice and tacos. Bung on guacamole, cheese, jalapenos, Greek yogurt (great alternative to sour cream), salsa and salad and you’ve got a belly full of yum. Dessert was Lumiere at the Workmans Club. And how sweet it was.

Lumiere are Pauline Scanlon and Eilish Kennedy, two trad singers from Dingle, Co. Kerry. Together, their voices form a beautiful union, earthy and ethereal at the same time. What I love about the Workmans Club, is that it’s the perfect venue for plain good entertainment. A stage, some higgledy piggledy chairs and a few simple lights. They have mirror balls on the ceiling, but Lumiere need no fuss.

We missed The Damien O’Kane Trio, due to our pie eating contest, but there would be more from them later. Pauline and Eilish shared the stage with musician Gerry O’Beirne on the acoustic. I hadn’t seen Lumiere live before, and I must admit I was instantly uplifted by their singing. The whole room was captivated. There’s something about the Gaeilge that, as an Irish person, touches your very soul.

Pauline and Eilish, like two strings on the same instrument gave a rousing rendition of “Oro se de Bheatha Abhaile”. And what haunting ballads from their new album “My Dearest Dear”. Joking and quipping all the while, Lumiere connected with their audience on many levels. It was like we were all down in the snug of a wee pub in Dingle. Such fun! Gerry O’Beirne, a pure character himself, sang too.

If every gig Lumiere do is like this, then I can see why they are so loved. “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” was another stunning number (Sinead O’Connor sings on the album) and “Samhradh” was a fave of mine. The girls were joined on stage by The Dermot O’Kane Trio. A jangle of guitars and a ukelele were married with their twin voices, with plenty of banter in between. A real down home vibe.

Chatting to Pauline and Eilish afterwards, they told me next stop was Kerry. That night. Touring the country is hard work, but the glamour is in their exquisite sound. Pauline added that the joy is in seeing the audience reaction. Lumiere are looking forward to a happy Christmas with their upcoming US tour. Me and the Bloke then hit the Garage Bar for a spot of moonstomping. Variety is the spice of life!

www.lumieremusic.net / The Workmans Club, 10 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2

Oct 17, 2013

Very Extremely Memphis – Rock’n’Roll Roots

Having another of our Sunday-like Mondays, me and the Bloke rocked along to the Grand Social that night for Very Extremely Memphis. Free gig, we parked ourselves upstairs in the Loft and ordered a pair of Guinness. The set up was a Q&A with film director Paul Duane and MC Pat McCabe about Duane’s latest release, Very Extremely Dangerous. A documentary on the life of the mad, bad Jerry McGill.

Opening tomorrow at the IFI, Duane’s film charts McGill’s musical beginnings in 1960s Memphis, through his odyssey of crime and jail to his present day ex-con lifestyle. No less wild than his younger days, he brings Duane on the road to recording a follow up to his 1959 single, Lovestruck. Off the rails, McGill isn’t a regular dude. Gruesome too, it deals with his terminal cancer. McGill passed away since.

It’s clear that music and it’s history are Duane’s passion. He spoke animatedly through a number of clips from hazy Memphis days. Really cool, rare stuff. Pure rock’n’roll. Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson were two memorable features, anti-establishment figures with real rebel blood in their veins. It really gave Himself a thrill. A little slice of New Orleans in Dublin! Duane and McCabe were equally enthralled.

Time for a bit of music. First up were The Problem Blob (ex-Female Hercules), with singer and guitarist Conzo giving it socks. I loved the punky ‘tude of these guys. Using their instruments as weapons of intent. The Slick Hicks were a different kettle of fish. A polished rockabilly outfit, these cats sailed through a blinding set. We shuffled happily to the double bass rhythm. Then home to bed. Rock’n’roll.

Very Extremely Dangerous – Irish Film Institute, 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin / www.ifi.ie

Oct 16, 2013

The Threepenny Opera – Jazz Hands!

So it was that I met a friend at the theatre on Saturday afternoon. Matinees are such a pleasant way to while away the weekend. I’d had a busy morning, whisking Dad and the Bruv around town in search of a birthday present for Mother. I know, I’m a saint. We ducked in and out all over the Creative Quarter (South William Street & Co), Powerscourt Townhouse and eventually up to Wexford Street. Phew!

We struck gold, or should I say an opal and silver ring, at Djinn Jewellery. Gorgeous contemporary pieces. Designer and maker Simon Phelan advised us with his expert knowledge on gems and wrapped the dainty ring in a cool wooden box. Job done. Back down town and into the belly of Temple Bar, it was Mexico To Rome with the lads for a lunch deal. Burrito and chips with a bottle of Peroni for a tenner. Can’t go wrong!

Off they went, for more shopping (crafty pints), and I made the final stretch up to Parnell Square to The Gate Theatre. A small but smart space, The Gate features a low, open stage. You can catch all of the action, no matter where you’re sitting. Me and my mate were here for The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. It’s the high octane story of lusty criminal Mac The Knife.

The production opened in style with the Street Singer (David Shannon), a sort of musical narrator, belting out signature tune ” Mac The Knife”. A tale of petty crime, street urchins, silly girls and crooked police, The Threepenny Opera unfolds first in the back street shop of Mr. Peachum (Mark O’Regan) and his formidable wife (Jackie Marks). This pair and their charge, the hapless beggar Filch (Laurence Kinlan) set the tone.

The Threepenny Opera is bawdy, in your face and actually does jazz hands. Brilliant. This version is directed by Wayne Jordan, with musical direction by Cathal Synnott. The cast, both young and vintage, are fresh and full of energy and there is some great voices in the mix. Set in Victorian London, though there’s Dublin accents at The Gate, Brecht and Weill offered a socialist critique of a capitalist world.

And so we are introduced to a cast of scoundrels, drop outs and hopeless romantics. Main protagonist Macheath (David Ganly) is a charming thief who steals the heart of not so innocent Polly Peachum (Charlotte McCurry). Their marriage causes ructions and we are treated to much hilarious to-ing and fro-ing, with Mac dodging the cops and Polly answering to her parents. His cronies add to the mirth.

We learn that Mac has friends in places high and low. His friendship with Tiger Brown (Stephen Brennan), Chief of Police, has kept him out of trouble. But he can’t resist Low-Dive Jenny (Hilda Fay) and her ladies of the night. Mac will never go straight and when Polly discovers a love rival in his other “wife” Lucy Brown (Ruth McGill), all hell breaks loose. The tussle for Mac’s affections land him in jail.

Ganly gives a big and bold performance as the incarcerated Mac The Knife, but it’s his women who steal the show. A scene with McCurry and McGill is great fun with the two gangster’s molls finally bonding over their plight. Hilda Fay shines as the tart with a heart, looking steely and sad all in one go. Mac is to be hanged. Alas, a comical reversal means that Mac is freed and a musical romp ensues.

I suppose the message is, life ain’t all that bad. We’re all in it together. That’s Mac The Knife, Tiger Brown and the Peachums. The beggars and the whores remain in the gutter. The Threepenny Opera, almost a hundred years old, is relevant in any society. The good and the bad triumph over the ordinary, as ever. This production at The Gate is action packed from beginning to end, a feel good take for sure.

The Gate Theatre, Cavendish Row, Parnell Square, Dublin 1 / www.gatetheatre.ie

Oct 10, 2013

Mexico To Rome – Mojitos and Burritos

When the Bloke suggested dinner last Sunday, I put word out to my Facebook peeps. Where to go? With Himself living in Temple Bar, we have the world at our feet and I wanted to try somewhere I hadn’t been before. Mexico To Rome piqued my interest. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a restaurant that serves Mexican and Italian food. And Asian. And Irish. There’s something for everybody in the audience!

Genius for a couple, or a party, in different food moods. Both of us were channelling Mexican, as it happens. Off we went down the cobbles, to East Essex Street. Temple Bar was alive with a brilliant band busking outside the door. I love this town! We settled in with a beer and a mojito (quite a good one for a fiver) and shared toasted tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. Enough to whet our appetite…

I munched on a veggie burrito while the Bloke tucked into a beef taco. Mine was a soft tortilla with crunchy edges (how do they do that?) packed with mixed veg and re-fried beans in a spicy tomato sauce. Covered in sour cream and salsa, with Mexican rice on the side. It was seriously yumsters! Himself enjoyed the chilli beef but would have liked more heat. Jalapeno peppers would add extra kick.

Mexico To Rome is homely, a nice place to chillax of an evening. We found the service just the right side of easygoing, which helped us to wind down. With such a reasonable and unpretentious menu, this is the sort of place you can pop into off the cuff. Just what you want in Temple Bar. For dessert it was whiskey and rum at The Globe, where we bopped along to top rockabilly boys The Pavement Kings.

Mexico To Rome, 23 East Essex Street, Dublin 2 / www.mexicotorome.com

Oct 6, 2013

Keith Cullen – With Eyes Open EP Launch

Last Friday night saw your fave reporter all snuggled up in the Odessa Club for the launch of Keith Cullen’s new EP, “With Eyes Open”. The intimate venue was packed, but me and my fizzy water found a nice spot stage-side. Odessa Club is all leather sofas, glossy walls and sexy lighting – the perfect setting for Keith Cullen. An Irish singer / songwriter, Cullen is known for his heartfelt live performance.

The crowd was immediately animated when Cullen came on stage. Good looking and groomed, he was slick in a black leather panelled jacket and matching top teamed with black skinny jeans. Understated cool. Opening with “Flashing Lights”, Cullen was on his game, backed up by two female singers and a great band. His voice conveyed great feeling and it was shaping up to a be a top gig. A talented guy!

Next up was “Superhero”, a sweeping ballad, atmospheric and damn catchy. I wasn’t familiar with Cullen’s work before, a friend invited me along, but I was really loving his stuff. Big radio-friendly sounds and strong lyrics, Cullen’s style is bold. He was arms out wide for “When I Hear Your Name”. A natural performer, he was in his element as the audience bopped along. Such passion in his deep brown eyes.

An acoustic version of Rihanna’s “Stay” had us all swaying, and Cullen joking “this is the only track you’ll know!”. The song beautifully showcased his vocal range and glam stage presence. Cullen has a clean cut image, with a boy band edge, and I could see him owning Eurovision. He’s got what it takes! Katie Carpenter, one half of Jezzebelle, dueted on “Safe From The World”, one of her own numbers.

A striking combo, Carpenter and Cullen delivered a breathless version, hitting the high notes together to a gentle strumming beat. “Losing My Way” and “The Walls” showed Cullen at his best, voice soaring to marching drums and perfectly choreographed as he moved in rhythm to the music. He really came alive, big songs and a big heart. Announcing his new EP “With Eyes Open”, Cullen closed with the song.

A rollicking tune, catchy with lots of ohh-woahs, Cullen had everyone clapping along to “With Eyes Open”. I can hear this one on the radio, or on the dancefloor, a wave of strong vocals over a powerhouse melody. It was obvious that Cullen’s fans are a loyal bunch as there was such excitement as he bowed out with “let’s have a party!”. He brought a real feel good factor to the room. Now that’s entertainment!

www.kcmusic.ie / Keith Cullen “With Eyes Open” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY23lMcG_ys

Oct 3, 2013

Cappuccino Bar – Breakfast of Champions

This is one of those places I’ve walked past a million times, but never gone in. Y’see, despite what it says on the tin, Cappuccino Bar isn’t chic or slick or like a little Italian cafe. There aren’t any cakes in the window. It’s all pizza, paninis and burgers. So, none of the things I like…. But the Bloke loves it. They serve all-day breakfast and it’s next door to his gaff. He doesn’t need fancy decor. Less is more.

When we met for brunch on Saturday, instead of mooching about town deciding what to eat, we went here. He got the Full Irish, I got the Veggie Breakfast. So that was sausage, bacon, eggs, beans and tomatoes for him and mushrooms, eggs, beans, tomatoes and hash browns for me. Cappuccino Bar don’t deal in gourmet fare, but rather straight up grub. Our breakfasts were fresh, fast and very tasty!

Fifteen quid for the pair of us, which included rounds of toast and a pot of tea. It’s a winner! The menu, otherwise, is all about carb loading. Great choice of sambos, wraps and bagels. Not for salady sorts like me, but Cappuccino Bar is a good place to fill up. There are plenty of meal deals including Big Al’s burgers (beef, chicken, veggie or fish) with fries for a fiver. Sit outside for Temple Bar people watching.

Cappuccino Bar, 10 Crow Street, Dublin 2

Sep 29, 2013

From Barcelona With Love – Top Ten Things!

Me and the Bloke went on our holliers to Barcelona. And I’m happy to report that we had a grand ol’ time! There was eating. There was drinking. And there was some touristy stuff too. As well as shopping, swimming, dancing, singing, reading & laughing. We stayed in the Blokes’s mate’s gaff (thanks Carlos) in Barceloneta, a salty part of the city with the port on one side and the beach on the other. Nice!

Day One, we left Dublin at silly o’clock for the red eye to Barcelona. On arrival we were sufficiently dazed and confused to order a taxi. We sunk into the welcoming leather and silently watched the suburbs whizz by. Once in Barceloneta, we rendezvoused with our man at the local tapas bar and got the keys to our new abode. The area is all tall, skinny houses and our apartment was at the top of a tall, skinny stairs.

After our first go on the “stairs of doom”, all seventy of them deep and dark, (we never got used to them) it was siesta time. Bliss. We woke up to dinner at Jai Ca, the buzzy place around the corner. Traditional tapas served by hip staff. We munched tortilla (omlette), tomato rubbed bread, grilled sardines, ham croquettes, Greek salad and mixed olives. All washed down with Estrella beer, fresh from the taps. Off to a good start…

A walk along the beach revealed Barceloneta to be a place of many different faces. Originally a fishing district, housing port workers, it retains it’s old skool charm while also presenting an ultra modern beach and promenade. Beside the tavernas, bodegas and tapas bars are sophisticated seafood restaurants. Joggers, skateboarders, bike riders and dog walkers share the slick waterfront with locals and tourists.

Frank Gehry’s giant fish, made of stone, steel and glass shimmered in the early evening sunshine. We stopped by Ice Box for some artisan ice cream, what else (everybody knows there’s no calories in posh food). Made with real banana and vanilla, away we licked… The local supermarket was next for supplies of bottled water, juicy nectarines and, of course, beer. Then a shower, cuddles and dreamy, snoozy time.

Okay, so I’m not gonna do a blow by blow account (ooh er, Missus), as we were there for ten days. But rather a “good things to do in Barcelona” or – here’s one we made earlier. I found Barcelona to be such a diverse city, with something for everybody. Whether you’re rich, poor, a bit alternative or just an ordinary Joe. I’ve never seen so many shops in my life. Or cafes. Or bars. And more art than you can shake a stick at. So, here’s the Top Ten things we got up to…

1.) Gaudi. You really can’t do Barcelona without Gaudi. The legendary Catalan architect embodies the spirit of Barcelona in his fantastical designs and his buildings are among the top tourist attractions in the world. Colourful and unique, Gaudi’s work broke the mould. I remember seeing his masterpiece, the towering basilica La Sagrada Familia, on a family holiday when I was 18. And I never forgot that awe.

La Sagrada Familia. It was a super hot day and of course the queue was around the block. We didn’t go inside, but there was no need as the Gaudi designed church is a sight to behold from the ground. Construction of this magnificent architectural beast began in 1882 and continues today. Gaudi was ambitious in combining Gothic and Art Nouveau forms, with improbable spires that reach for the skies.

Park Guell. Another Gaudi gem. Built for Count Eusebi Guell, the park was inspired by the English garden city movement. However it is anything but quaint. Built over a steep hillside, Park Guell undulates wildly like a sort of Alice in Wonderland playground. Exquisite tile mosaics shimmer above the columns and over serpentine seating in the court. The fountain “El Drac” is its most famous feature. There was live music too!

Casa Batllo. La Pedrera. Palau Guell. Casa Batllo and La Pedrera (Casa Mila) are both situated on the grand Passeig de Gracia, home of some truly magnificent architecture. Palau Guell is tucked in off La Rambla, you can’t miss its quirky chimney pots on the skyline. All feature Gaudi’s whimsical touch, including twisted balconies and curved roofs. His interiors are just as magical, Willy Wonka crazy.

2.) La Rambla. We hit Barcelona’s main thoroughfare several times during our stay. The energy of this area is infectious with street performers, live theatre, market stalls, newspaper stands and flower shops all jostling for the attention of tourists and locals. The main drag stretches from the Monument a Colom (Christopher Columbus) on Port Vell up to Place de Catalunya in the city centre. La Rambla is a metaphor for life.

Apart from the tiled pedestrian walkway, featuring a Joan Miro mosaic, La Rambla is a busy boulevard lined with many shops. It opens into the Barri Gotic on one side and La Raval on the other. We found La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous food market, half way up. I found Escriba (I’ve a nose for cake), a beautiful pasteleria with an original art deco shop front. Le Gran Teatre Liceu is the grande dame of La Rambla, but there’s plenty of impressive architecture to admire as you, um, ramble.

3.) Tapas. If you like eating, go to Barcelona. There’s endless cuisine on offer, but it’s traditional Catalan fare that tastes best. We got lucky in Barceloneta, being fish fans. Our local joint, Jai Ca, fed us a few times and we brought a pal from Dublin along for a feast. Fresh calamari, pork bomba, fried cauliflower, grilled green pepper, tuna filled pimento. Everything on the menu is homemade and totes delish.

One of our favourite meals was at local bodega, L’Ectricitat, which looks totally un-posh from the outside. But the food… Squid and octopus, raw white fish, crab and eggs, pickled anchovies, two different red wines. None of which we actually ordered, but were brought randomly, by the mad man in charge who urged us on in babbling Catalan. Brilliant. Everyone sat in rows on benches, eating and chatting by candlelight.

We decided to get all dressed up and dine on the port front one night (well, it was our anniversary) at Toc de Mar. Paella was on the agenda and this bad boy came big and bold with king prawns, mussels and squid. I made a good stab at it while the Bloke struggled. Some seriously yummy Rioja helped our cause though. Restaurant prices in Barcelona are very decent and you’ll get good food and wine, as well as top drawer service.

One thing I couldn’t help noticing was the amount of cake shops. And ice cream. And chocolate. Catalans like their sweets. Baluard, a gorgeous bakery conveniently situated next door, was a fave of mine. Fresh pastries with all kinds of fruit, baked cheesecake and cute things with custard. Try churros con chocolat, basically dipping skinny doughnuts into thick hot choc. What’s not to love?

Now, if I can talk a little more about food. Tapa Fina, where tiny open sandwiches with every combination of topping sat on the counter like foodie jewels. Vioko, where chocolates came in gold, silver and sparkling pink. La Rosa Negra, where we gorged Mexican food (homemade guacamole, Sweet Lord) and mojitos. El Nou Ramonet for gazpacho, charcoal grilled sardines, Rioja potatoes.

4.) Barri Gotic. The true centre of Barcelona, this sprawling labyrinthine area dates from medieval times. Mostly pedestrian, Barri Gotic is wonderful to just mill around and let things find you. Shops, bars, cafes and plenty of history. We explored Barcelona Cathedral (Santa Eulalia), Basilica of La Merce, Church of Santa Maria del Pi, Casa de la Cuitat (City Hall). Holy stuff is a big theme in Barcelona, obviously.

Punctuated by squares – Placa Sant Jaume and Place Reial being two of the liveliest – Barri Gotic has many hidden gems in its back streets. Off the main drag, Portal de l’Angel, which is home to big brands and national department store El Corte Ingles, are tonnes of little boutiques. Some cool, some kitsch, some trad. There’s something for everybody. Me and the Bloke actually enjoyed shopping together.

I liked the vintage stores, the shoe shop Kokua which displayed it’s many coloured flats like delicate cakes, the stationery shops (geek) and the jewellery shops. Himself liked the knife shops. We both liked the souvenir shops that sold figurines of famous folk pooing. Y’know, pants down crouching over a mini turd. The Pope, Queen Elizabeth, Obama, Madonna, Angela Merkel. Even Bono! Didn’t buy one…

After dark, Barri Gotic comes alive with myriad bars and cafes. Tucked away in its alleys are some very cool drinking dens. We frequented Manchester Bar, where the vibe was – you guessed it – Manchester music. Who knew The Smiths sounded so good, when off your face on cocktails. I hadn’t been drunk in a long time, the Bloke got quite a kick out of it. But those mojitos were too damn tasty… There are loads of tapas bars in Barri Gotic, so you can fill up before getting tipsy!

5.) El Born / La Ribera. A really cool part of the city, this is where to go to find the edgier shops, cafes and bars. Along with the upper part of La Raval, we found it easy to just wander and find things we liked. Santa Caterina Market stands out with it’s rainbow coloured roof. Santa Maria del Mar Church, along with the Picasso Museum, are hives of tourist activity. We took one at the queues and stayed outside!

But what a beautiful area. Unlike the Eixample, east and west, there are no fine avenues or designer shops. Passeig del Born cuts through a jumble of tiny streets and lanes, with alternative boutiques, vintage stores, little cafes and trendy bars all making for a hopping atmosphere. I totally got the Barcelona vibe here. It’s an outdoor city, where balconies hang over the hustle and bustle of daily Catalan life.

We visited the old El Born Market, which has just opened as a cultural centre, and viewed excavations of the original city from a gallery. There was also exhibitions showing how Catalan life was back in the day. The Bloke, being fascinated by all things revolutionary, got a thrill out of taking part in National Day of Catalonia. The streets were packed. We checked out nearby Museum of Catalan History too.

6.) Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The building alone is worth seeing. Housed in the Palau Nacional, high up on Montjuic, MNAC is heralded by an impressive sweep of steps, a waterfall, fountains and pillars. Spectacular when lit up at night. It had a been a long hot day for us, and the cool confines of this gallery were welcome. Sweating out the excesses of Manchester Bar, the night before, I demolished a fresh lemon granita, before our next culture injection.

MNAC is split into four sections – Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Modern. There are some amazing Romanesque religious art works, a lot found in rural churches and of such antiquity. This important collection of Catalan heritage is unique to MNAC. The Gothic collection is surprisingly colourful and by contrast the Baroque quite dark. Finally, with Himself losing the will, we hit the Modern art section.

We perked up though, with Picasso, Joan Miro, Ramon Casas and Antoni Tapies. A very well curated collection. He loved the photography gallery, which featured some very cool black and white Civil War shots. I loved the furniture collection, which included zany Gaudi pieces, stunning Art Deco glass work, amazing silk velvet chaise and ornate mahogany cabinets. Far more glamorous than our Ikea world.

7.) Fundacio Joan Miro. One of my fave artists since my art school days, Miro’s colourful creations are at times childlike, at times complex. Set on the rolling idyll of Montjuic, the white building, and example of Rationalist architecture, is a perfect backdrop to Joan Miro’s work. It’s freshness made up a little for the lack of air conditioning on a hot day, but we persevered. We began with the Joan Miro printmaking gallery and sculpture on the outdoor terrace.

This is the world’s most complete collection of Miro, but also houses work by other artists, both contemporaries of and tributes to the master. For me, Miro truly represents the spirit of Barcelona. A sort of carefree joie de vivre. His ceramics, sculptures and paintings have a distinct Catalan flavour. Fundacio Joan Miro really got my art brain ticking. It also has a brilliant art book shop and chic open air cafe.

8.) La Boqueria. And now for some more food. When in Barcelona… The city’s largest food market, La Boqueria is a treat for all the senses. Centred around a fresh fish market, this food emporium fans out to encompass all manner of edibles. Purveyors of fruit, veg, meat, nuts, cheese, sweets, cakes, bread and spices are punctuated by busy tapas bars and fast snack vendors. Let your mouth do all the work!

We munched salmon bomba and calamari, cooked at a fish stall. Vegetable tortilla (omlette) and courgette pastries. Marshmallow in every flavour you can think of (I picked ten). Fruit juices, laid out ready to drink. So refreshing, we slurped on strawberry and banana and pineapple and coconut. Bring your goodies out back to the Eden-like gardens of Hospital de Sant Pau. It really is another world.

9.) Parc de la Cuitadella. Sitting on the edge of the Old Town and right above Barceloneta, the city’s main park is an oasis that houses Barcelona Zoo and the Parliament of Catalonia. It’s foremost features are the Cascada, a spectacular waterfall of the most clear blue water, and the lake, in which young lovers can boat away a romantic afternoon. Me and the Bloke simply sat on a bench, eating juicy apples, and soaked up the sunshine. Barcelona is a city of small pleasures…

The park is designed in a series of winding paths, that almost seem like a natural trail. It was alive with dogs and kids having fun, as well as happy tourists milling about. We saw a group of French lads having great larks on their motorised mini-scooters. A nice breather from the city centre. We made our way from here up to the imposing Arc de Triomf, which was linked to the park by a wide tree-lined pedestrian boulevard.

10.) Barceloneta / Port Vell. Two different areas of the city really, but linked by their ties to the sea. Barceloneta, where we were based, speaks of earthy Catalonia. Not a salubrious neighbourhood, it was constructed in the 18th century to house those displaced by the building of the Cuitadella. So it started off as a ghetto, developed into a thriving fishing community and is now a chi chi beachside haven.

The beach itself is clean and welcoming, with turquoise Mediterranean waters. Barcelona, despite its costal location, was not open to the sea until this area was revamped, along with the appearance of the Port Olimpic marina for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Now it’s an urban beach with plenty of cafes, bars and nightclubs adding to the cosmopolitan mix. We enjoyed a dip in the cool, calm ocean. Heaven.

Port Vell is the face of wealthy Barcelona, with glistening yachts lined up for miles and massive cruise liners sitting in the bay. But it too was a run down area before the urban renewal of twenty years ago, when I first saw it. The old Customs building leads on to the Rambla del Mar bridge which links the city to Maremagnum, a thoroughly modern mall featuring posh shops, restaurants, an IMAX and the world’s largest Aquarium.

Barceloneta, on the other hand, offers old world charm in the folds of its narrow streets. The port side is brash with seafood restaurants and international cuisine. If you walk further down the cable car to Montjuic is a fun way to see the city. However, we were lucky enough to discover the true Barceloneta. Don’t stay here if you’re shy, the neighbours can see right in the window! It’s a lively place indeed…

We mooched around Barceloneta Market, which was just behind our gaff, and scoffed tapas in El Bar Del Paco. Eggs, patatas, Manchego cheese, olives and tomato rubbed bread. Next door was New Orleans Cafe, which does every kind of tea you can get. Normal tea was what the Bloke wanted. I got chocolat, natch. We sat at the counter, a great spot for people watching.

On our final night, we took a moonlit stroll through our little neighbourhood. Taking a fancy to something spicy, we found Mar Brava. An unassuming Indian place, it was the best Ruby we’d had in a while. Hot Madras with juicy prawns and creamy raita, all washed down with San Miguel. On telly, Barca were giving Ajax a lesson in football at Camp Nou. We’d seen the Dutch team leaving training the previous night. Footie is a way of life here and FCB make it look so easy!

What can I say, Himself fell in love with Barcelona. Me too. The lifestyle is super chilled. Although a busy city, and full of tourists, the Catalan capital keeps a cool, calm rhythm. It’s not exclusive in the way London or Paris can be. Barcelona plays by its own rules. You can have a good time here, whatever your budget. And we loved being by the water, when tired of the heat. Dare I say, it’s totally different to Spain. That’s its USP. We learned so much about Catalan culture and would love to explore more. Barcelona is one stylish city.

Photography by Glenn Brown

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