Just off Barcelona’s La Rambla, the pedestrianized street where tourists go to get their wallets and other valuables liberated, sits another one of the city’s main magnets of tourism: La Boqueria, or as it’s officially called Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. The market has been around since 1217, making it one of the oldest markets in Europe. Wherever I travel on the planet, I make a point to visit a city’s central market. They’re usually the best and cheapest places to eat, places where you sit shoulder to shoulder with locals in a salt-of-the-earth environment eating ingredients that were just plucked from the sea or a nearby field. I couldn’t wait to go to Boqueria with an empty stomach on a recent visit to Barcelona. There was only one problem: it was a circus. A metaphorical one, but still: there were more people milling about and standing in line to eat than hunks of pork byproducts hanging on hooks; more Tiva-sandle-clad, khaki-shorts-wearing tourists than at a Dave Mathews concert. Not that being around other tourists is always a bad thing. But I was hungry. I walked out frustrated, my stomach growling for good food.
But then something amazing happened. I stumbled upon the Mercat de Santa Caterina. Located La Ribera, Santa Caterina is smaller than Boqueria, there are fewer restaurants, and it’s a tad more sedate. But that’s the price you pay for having it mostly to yourself and the locals. The market, built in 1848, recently got a renovation and a new undulating Gaudi-esque rooftop, consisting of 325,000 colorful ceramic tiles by local architect Enric Miralles. There are 40 retail markets in and around Barcelona, but if you want one alternative to Boqueria, this is the place. At least I thought so on the afternoon I was there last month. There are still mountains of curvaceous Montserrat tomatoes, piles of pig parts, and huge displays of fresh seafood, but I spotted no one was wearing khaki shorts.
Best of all, there were places to sit at the food kiosks. I pulled up a bar stool at La Torna, situated next to the stall selling just eggs and across from a stall selling bread. I ordered the grilled squid, which was as fine a grilled squid I’ve ever tasted: brininess combined with just enough charcoal from the grill; the texture was a slightly chewy, but not too rubbery; intertwined in all this were hints of garlic and olive oil.
In between bites I’d sit back and watch the theater. I say that because the only other tourists eating there, some Australians who said they come here every time they’re in Barcelona, used that word to describe the place to me. “There are only three people working here,” said the portly Aussie, pointing to the two gregarious young women who work as servers and the one guy manning the grill. “But it’s just theater, man.”
And just as he finished, one of the women, having refilled my glass with more cava, slammed the bottle down into the ice bucket. Water from the bottom sprayed up and outward, hitting about five of us with cold water. Everyone cheered. We were baptized. It was just another day at Mercat di Santa Caterina.