Tapas on the Feast of St Joan by Elizabeth Moore
We had but three nights in Barcelona so the decision to take a sunset tapas tour through the city was an easy one. That it was the feast of St. Joan (St. John) would become evident before our night was over. Our meeting point was Fàbrica Moritz Barcelona, a brewery serving tapas. Spanish tomato bread or pan com tomate and patatas bravas were perfect local choices, easily complementing our beer tastings. Our group of eight gathered with guide Nick who outlined our itinerary. We had two more tapas and wine stops and a visit to La Boqueria.
Barcelona’s narrow streets were beautiful. Old churches shared cramped space with boutiques and bars. That evening it seemed art was everywhere - beneath our feet in mosaic colours, straddling facades in stark iron formations, even throwing bougainvillea in green and purple profusion into grey abstract reliefs on a long abandoned wall. We wound through alleys and across small squares, absorbing the history and vibrant life of the city in equal measure.
Suddenly we were on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s central, leafy boulevard. Trees laced their leaves to frame creamy stone walls and iron balconies. A second glance revealed that yes, there really was a naked figure staring down at the street from his window. Echoing the fine forms of ancient sculpture, his gaze didn’t shift as I snapped a quiet image in late afternoon shadows.
And then there was La Boqueria.
The city’s central market was a profusion of regional produce. Fruits, nuts, vegetables and mushrooms were some of the well behaved offerings, sitting sedately in their crates, awaiting scrutiny from the jostling crowds. Manners had not extended to the seafood stands. Fresh shellfish, lobsters, prawns, crabs, cockles and goose barnacles sprawled and tumbled across their beds of ice. Even fish abandoned decorum, draping themselves across each other to attract attention. One stall featured eggs, just eggs – stacked with pyramidal exactitude – creamy whites, browns and terracottas - earthy tones warming their nests of straw. The market was a swirl of colours, smells and tastes, tossed salad-like by hustling patrons and merchants. As we left, passing rows of cascading bunches of dried chillies, several pigeons assumed sentry positions at the exit, scanning the stone floors for anything the market stalls chose to reject. I toyed longingly with the delicious idea of having La Boqueria as my local daily market.
Our tour continued and we entered the tiny precinct of Santa Maria del Pi. In front of the church, street theatre featured impossibly large bubbles being trailed from giant wands; the shimmery spheres hovering uncertainly in the cool air. Adults and children alike abandoned themselves to jumping, squealing and reaching for the flimsy rainbows. We turned into Placa Sant Josep Oriol and white tented artisan stalls beckoned, set in geometrical rows. The crowds were lively here and bustled between booths, admiring jewellery, fabrics, artwork, woodcraft, pottery and glassware. I paused, wanting to browse, perhaps buy, but we were hurried on.
Two policemen in hi-visibility vests were surveying the swelling crowds, when suddenly we burst into the city square to joyous pandemonium. Music was playing and couples were dancing. Old and young alike swirled to the mood of the placa. One couple danced alone, oblivious to their surrounds, lost in their own private world, but still part of the celebrations. Balloons – Catalonian red and yellow - were everywhere. A gathering of inline skaters waited expectantly, their blue T-shirts announcing a shared intent; their backpacks suggesting an adventure on this night. Our guide turned to us. “It is the Festival of St Joan. There will be revelry, fireworks and a dancing eagle. Oh and if you burn something of wood in the traditional fires, you will be cleansed of sin.”
Just as the smoky fireworks erupted, we moved from the crowded square to Lonja de Tapas. Now melting Iberian ham, potato omelette and Manchego cheese preserved in herb-infused olive oil were paired brilliantly with local Catalan wines and good conversation. As we were finishing, three larger than life figures passed by - a massive eagle flanked by a king and queen. Apparently the massive bird had already danced in the square while we were sampling our tapas and was now moving on. As we stepped back into the street, another festival tradition greeted us. A tired group of orange shirted runners bearing a flame shuffled past. These modern day envoys were bearing La Flama del Canigó which had been carried in relay from the Pyrenees to light the Sant Joan bonfires throughout the city. As the couriers passed, we saw people holding tiny pots of rosemary. Legend has it that herbs on this night possess one hundred times their curative power and the little plants were guarded carefully.
Our walk continued. Leaving the fireworks, noisy celebrations and dancing behind us – we headed towards our final tapas destination, La Taberna del Cobra. Our hosts matched Cecina de León (cured beef), seafood salad with pickles, Andalusian-style artichokes and aubergines with wines from surrounding districts, including a rather delicious rosé produced from the Trepat grape. Of course there was cava. There is always sparkling cava in Barcelona. Sadly, however our wonderful tapas experience was winding down.
As we headed towards our apartment, artisan stalls were closing but I bought a tiny silver cat and a hand woven grey and white scarf – perfect souvenirs in carefully wrapped tissue. The crowds in the town square had thinned. Stragglers remained, dancing slowly to long departed music. The party was over and the guests had retreated - each to his own barrio - where there would be fires from La Flama del Canigó burning cleansing wood until well after sunrise. Tomorrow we would taste coques – aniseed flavoured bready cakes in honour of St. John. Right now we had tapas and wine on our taste buds, music and fireworks in our heads and a sombre processional eagle with his king and queen as lasting images of this unexpected festival.