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Barcelona: Meet the locals

You may come for golden beaches, Catalan gastronomy and Gaudí masterpieces, but the people of Barcelona are the real highlight — from museum curators and tour guides to architects and street artists, we discover the beguiling city through the eyes of its doting residents

Barcelona: Meet the locals

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Meet the chefs
Carme Ruscalleda and Raül Balam

It’s only when listening back to the recording of a pre-lunch conversation with Carme Ruscalleda and Raül Balam that I can hear Catalan as distinct from Spanish for the first time. The rolling Rs, the curious pronunciation… their language is clearly different. Their food is, too.

The mother and son are, for some, the faces of new Catalan cuisine. Carme’s restaurant, Sant Pau, is found 30 miles north east in Sant Pol de Mar and has three stars from the hallowed Michelin Guide. A branch of Sant Pau has also been successfully exported to Tokyo — leaning heavily on the culinary traditions of its home region.

Raül is the head chef here at Moments (Carme is its director) in the sumptuous Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, and it has two stars. They aren’t the only ones with these honours in Barcelona, a city as defined by its modern cooking as its traditional, but no one keeps it in the family quite like this remarkable pair. With such a high bar and so many local rivals, how do they keep ahead?

“It’s good to have a lot of restaurants competing because you push yourself to be better,” says Carme, who comes down to Barcelona once a week. “Michelin is the guide of guides. The important thing is that people feel and believe what the guide says when they’re at our restaurants. In the kitchen, our chefs have to be ambitious enough to get there every day.”

Barcelona locals - Carme Ruscalleda and Raul Balam

Image: Richard James Taylor


Does that bring pressure? “We bring that on ourselves,” says Raül. “I’m always going for a third star, which means I’ll at least maintain two. [My mother] is going for four — which doesn’t even exist!”

“Catalonia is perfectly located for all the produce we need,” he adds. “For climate — we have all four seasons bringing different produce — but also for cultures. We have typical dishes and ways of eating here, but they’ve been influenced by historic cultures — Roman, Greek, Jewish. In 200 years, those will have changed; Mexican, African, Chinese — they will have added a lot.”

All those worldly influences translate to the plate in Moments’ ‘Ecosystems’ menu. Presented with a sort of food chart that explains where in the world ingredients can come from, I’m left in little doubt over the provenance of each dish. I’m also doubtless that I’m in for an extraordinary treat, from the first course until the 13th, even the one titled ‘Swamp’. Some high-end restaurants try to distract from their cooking with unnecessary gimmickry or showmanship, but not so at Moments, where the colourful dishes are presented with perfection, but are utterly delicious. mandarinoriental.com 

Image: Richard James Taylor

Meet the tour guide

Everybody talks about how well the city works — how clean, safe and easy going it is.But I think the architectural elements are probably the biggest surprise to people. They’re really unique once you compare with other cities round the world. Getting lost in the Gothic Quarter is like being immersed in a fairytale.

September is the best time to visit. Good weather, none of crowds and noise of the peak-tourism period. You also have my favourite event, La Mercé [a festival each September celebrating the city’s patron saint]. The party stretches across all of Barcelona, with a full week of events, activities, concerts, spectacles, colour, gastronomy and happiness.

I think the city changed after the 1992 Olympics. Before then, it was a little chaotic and not so organised. In the past 10 years, especially, it’s been trying hard to improve all infrastructure and services — we’re one of the cleanest cities in Europe and have amazing (and cheap) public transport.

My favourite spot is Mirabé, a peaceful oasis just a 15- to 20-minute drive from the city. You can enjoy a Catalonian delicatessen meal paired with a glass of Cava and observe how the colours of the sky change from the top of Tibidabo Mountain, then how the lights turn on across the city. Just a perfect way to end a busy day. etapatapa.com

Meet the festival organiser
Abel Suárez

“I play hits all the time; I don’t care which style,” says Abel Suárez, aka DJ Coco. He’s the man who closes Barcelona’s mammoth Primavera Sound festival, which takes place annually at the end of May. Other acts use the event to experiment with new material, to take their audiences on journeys and offer them surprises. Not Coco. “I’ll play everything from Daft Punk to Love is in the Air. It’s funny — I don’t do that kind of style normally, but people really enjoy it at the festival.”

Although an experienced club DJ, he was never supposed to perform at the festival he helps organise. But in 2007 — or maybe it was 2008, he can’t quite remember — a slot fell open on the last night and he found himself playing to the 1,500 or so diehards who’d stuck around for the final set. “It was like a party — people from the office dancing on the stage and it was really funny,” says Coco. “I was just playing my favourite tracks, but now it’s like a tradition, so I do it at the end every year.”

In its early days, Primavera took place near the centre of Barcelona, on Montjuïc hill, but within a few years, once headliners started getting booked, it outgrew that setting. Keen not to divide it into a multi-venue festival, they moved to the city’s Parc del Fòrum. “We’ve always been really, really eclectic. When we were only doing music that we liked, it was experimental folk and disco and techno and really anything. But every year the festival got bigger — we needed something more for 50,000 people.”

The city had built the Parc del Fòrum for major events, without actually having a specific event to host there. It was a perfect match for Primavera. “It’s a really huge place,” says Coco. “In the first three or four years we were only using half of the space, but now we’re using all of it, plus another place. I think now it’s two kilometres to get from one side to the other.”

Coco is talking a few weeks before the 2018 edition of the festival. Soon after our chat, he and the organisers will move to the Primavera site to begin the frantic process of preparing it for the festival. Until then, he’s in the office, albeit one that’s satisfyingly rock and roll. The lobby has a well-used foosball table, while the meeting room is dominated by a powerful set of Marshall amps and a pair of Bose speakers. There’s a forgotten, unopened bottle of wine resting on one of them. The entire place smells of cigarettes. The houseplants look a touch emaciated like they’re the ones who’ve just spent a long weekend partying at Catalonia’s largest music festival.

Founded at the turn of the century, Primavera Sound has grown from boutique specialist festival to take its place on the list of essential European summer events. Being based in the city brings its own pressures — it’s undoubtedly a disruption and a distraction for the local residents. Coco and the other organisers are keenly aware of the importance of maintaining a good relationship with them and so, as a sort of compensation, put on free gigs and shows before and after the main party starts. “We try to give something back to the people. We don’t feel we could do this in another city,” he says. “The size and the feeling of the festival is only possible in Barcelona.” primaverasound.com

Meet the Catalan language professor
Professor Francesc Xavier Vila

In linguistic terms, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian and Romanian all come from the same source: Latin. Catalan is directly related —  it’s not a mixture of Spanish and French, like some people think. If you had to pick a language that was very connected to Catalan it wouldn’t be Castilian but Occitan Provençal, or Italian. It’s not more connected to Spanish than it is to those two.

Language shift did not take place in Catalonia; for the majority of Catalans, the intergenerational transmission of the language has never stopped. Catalonia in the 20th century attracted millions of people from other places — that was the moment that a lot of Castilian speakers settled here. You can only say that Catalans really learned Castilian massively last century.

If you speak about native speakers we have about 5.5 million. If you talk about people who say they can speak it, then it’s more than 10 million. Ours has been described as a medium-sized language — in terms of the number of speakers, we’re close to Danish or Slovak or Latvian.

What we have here is not so strange. We just exacerbate some phenomena that you have, say, in London. You might have someone who’s lived there for 50 years but whose English is weak. If you
have that with English, imagine that here with Catalan. I mean: we’re really quite normal! ub.edu

Meet more of the Barcelonians in the September 2018 issue. Get your copy today.