* Prices may differ from that shown
There is much for a visitor to see and do in Barcelona: architectural gems to admire; historic relics to inspect; parks and gardens to explore; art galleries to mooch around; the shorefront, regenerated for the 1992 Olympics, to stroll along; boat-trips around (or cable-car rides above) the port to take; bars and restaurants in which to relax and enjoy the tasty local cuisine. At a pinch one might even get to the Camp Nou to take in a game of football. All these make for a busy schedule.
Be sure, though, if you planning a visit, to leave time to browse around the city's many and varied markets. And then leave a little bit more time still, because once you arrive you'll find there are more markets, and more of interest in them, than you have managed to glean from the guidebooks. At least, that was my experience, which means this review will less comprehensive than I would have wished, since I didn't see as much of them as I would have wished. But I hope I saw enough, and will manage to convey enough, to give you a flavour and to whet your appetite. For Barcelona has some truly outstanding markets - outstanding for size, atmosphere and the range of goods on offer. For example:
* Mercat de La Boqueria (St Josep) *
Probably Barcelona's best-known and longest-established (since 1217) food market, La Boqueria is located just off the Ramblas, on the western side about half-way down, and easily spotted from the attractive metal and stained glass arch above its entrance. Since most visitors will walk down the Ramblas at some stage - the busy thoroughfare is on every recommended tour itinerary - and since La Boqueria is open all day until 8.30 p.m. every day except Sunday, no great effort is needed to see it and usually you will find it full of your fellow-tourists. Full of local shoppers too, though, for visitors alone could never provide enough custom for the numerous well-stocked stalls that line its crowded aisles.
One of La Boqueria's specialities is seafood, and at the heart of the market is a circular arrangement of stalls all offering every type of Mediterranean fish, as well as squid, lobsters, crabs and other shellfish. Surrounding this hub are sectors specialising in meat and charcuterie, including hefty haunches of ham and long dangling clusters of chorizo; gleamingly fresh fruit and vegetables heaped high; and dried and candied fruit, nuts and sweetstuffs of all kinds. Plus plenty of bars at which to refresh yourself as a break from shopping.
The jostling throng and accompanying noise, though, can make La Boqueria somewhat daunting, and if you don't feel up to joining the scrum, you could content yourself with browsing the stalls along the lower stretches of the Ramblas, which are much like a market in themselves, and not just for souvenirs; plants and a variety of craft and artworks are for some reason to be found there. Talking of art, just off the Ramblas on the other side is la Plaça de Sant Josep with its
* Mercadillo del Art *
A mercadillo (mini-market) indeed, and only active at weekends, when local artists fill the little square with displays of their work, often setting up their easels and painting while they wait for buyers, engaging passers-by in conversation as they do so. They are serious about their work here, though; if you want a cartoonist to sketch you a holiday portrait, you're better off in the Ramblas.
Also in the vicinity is the Plaça del Pi, venue each month (first Friday and Saturday) of the Fira Artesana, the artisans in questions being makers of traditional local foodstuffs - honey, jam, cakes and cheeses. By all accounts there's some delicious fare to be found at the Fira, but having foolishly neglected to ensure my visit encompassed the relevant weekend, this is one I missed.
On any Sunday morning, though, just south-east of here in the elegant Plaça Reial, you can find the
* Fira de Numismàtica *
Which is to say, the market for rare coins and banknotes. In fact, it's grown into something rather more than that, with stamps and similar collectables on offer. You don't need to be a collector yourself to enjoy wandering round looking at the range of merchandise and observing the negotiations of the more serious buyers and dealers. In the afternoon, I'm told, the market undertakes something of a metamorphosis, with the specialists departing and giving way to ad hoc trading in junk and oddments - a kind of car boot sale without the cars. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to stick around to see this. Even less forgivably, I also missed the
* Mercat del Enchants Vells *
A renowned flea market that is held in the patriotically-named Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes to the east of city. This takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, mornings only. By all accounts, though, it absolutely seethes with buyers and sellers of everything from antique furniture to adult DVDs, from books to bikes, from clothes to clocks to cradles. Serious dealers apparently arrive early for the antiques auction that takes place at 7.00 each morning, though there is a further auction of unsold items at midday. I console myself for having missed it with the thought that my excess baggage allowance would never have coped with everything I might have bought there.
While on the subject of antiques and bric-a-brac, though, I did see
* Mercat Gotic (a.k.a. Mercat dels Antiquaris) *
Which is held every Thursday, with stalls set up in the square in front of the Cathedral in the Gothic Quarter. This is, though, rather an up-market market (if such a thing exists) with many fine ornaments and curios, some of high quality but priced accordingly. Although it was a pleasure to look around, there was little that actually tempted me to buy. To my mind, better bargains, if perhaps a generally lower standard, in such goods were to be found in a set of ad hoc stalls to be found on the quayside at the old port, so ad hoc that they do not feature as a market in the guidebooks; for that reason I don't know whether they're there every day, or only on a Saturday, which is when I happened upon them.
Whatever you feel about the Mercat Gotic, it's worth noting the Cathedral Square location, in case you happen to be in Barcelona in December, when it becomes the venue for the Fira de Santa Llúcia, a Christmas fair with many seasonal items and craft goods also on sale. Not far from the Cathedral square, just across the Via Laeitana into the district of Ribera, is an extraordinary edifice that houses the
* Mercat de Santa Caterina *
Extraordinary because it has recently been renovated, retaining the traditional stone frontage of arched windows and doorways topped by a balustrade, but adding a soaring futuristic roof. I'm not sure these disparate elements blend particularly well (in fact, I'm rather sure they don't), but I absolutely loved the roof. Discreetly supported by steelwork, it is clad in wood on the underside and a pattern of hexagonal ceramic tiles above, and is shaped so that it seems to ripple like brightly-coloured waves.
Inside, the market is open every day except Sunday, and has a fine selection of foods of all kinds for sale, reasonably priced and quite as good as to be found at La Boquera without anything like the same hustle and hassle. If you wanted to shop for a picnic in central Barcelona, this would be my choice of where to do so, though I'm told that the Ninot market, just north of the old centre, is also favoured by locals. Also the Sant Antoni market to the west, which sells food on weekdays, but on Sundays becomes the centre for second-hand books, magazines and all kinds of printed ephemera. Having discovered this only in retrospect, my regret at having overlooked it is tempered with the thought that the wares are probably mostly in Spanish or Catalan and beyond my reading ability.
A rather less successful renovation than that of the Santa Caterina, in my view at least, is that of the
* Mercat de la Barceloneta *
Where Santa Caterina is colourful and expansive, this has been rebuilt in industrial-estate grey steel, startlingly shaped but rather forbidding and with the exterior giving little clue as to what lies within. What lies within - mainly food stalls - is well-stocked and attractive enough, but nothing out of the ordinary. There is, though, a café with tables outside in the square in which the market lies, the Plaça de la Font, at which to sit and watch life in this dockland district.
Amazingly, since it is only a block or two back from a sleekly redeveloped shoreline that is now lined with trendy bars and eateries, the area retains its original character, with old women gossipping on street corners and washing hung from windows above the narrow alleys. Although I have never been inside it, I feel able to recommend the bakery on the side of the square just to the north of the market-front café. During the half-hour or so that I sat there it was never without a long queue of locals outside waiting their turn, while a stream of happy-looking customers emerged clutching loaves, bags of pastries, boxed cakes and other goodies of similar kind, making me regret that we had just eaten lunch.
Talking of renovations, I hope that someone will sooner or later do something for the Mercat del Born, a beautiful structure in iron, glass and tiles modelled on the Paris Halles, but not used as a market for many years and fallen into disrepair - a sad relic that deserves a better future. The surrounding area has recently undergone something of a revival as a place for eating out. Perhaps this could become Barcelona's equivalent of Covent Garden.
A thought that puts one in mind of fruit and flowers, and thus the
* Mercat de la Concepció *
Which specialises in those two commodities, and is particularly noted for its floral offerings. Located on the Carrer de Valencia in the heart of the Eixample district, it seemed ideal placed for a visit on the way out to view the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. It is open daily except Sunday, but be careful with your timing. Not all the stalls stay open through the afternoon and you are in danger of finding it, if you go as we did after lunch, already packing up. Given that we also coincided with a heavy shower, they may have been closing unusually early; either way, I somehow doubt we saw it at its most colourful or fragrant.
* And more *
Yes, long though that list may seem, it is by no means exhaustive. The city is full of markets of all kinds, big and small, ancient and modern, but all of them full of interest for a discerning visitor. I have complained in other reviews** about how British markets are losing their character and vitality, whilst those on the continent have found ways to thrive, so I shall not repeat those rants here. Barcelona, though, is a prime example of how a modern, dynamic city can both preserve and renew its markets, and how they - and it - can flourish in consequence. Seeing them certainly enhanced my visit to Barcelona, but also added to my sadness that we don't seem to be able to do the same.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2010
** Other reviews about markets can be found at: