Location: Carrer de la Palla, 8
Beans on the menu: Café Mochy Mezcla
Caffeine delivery method: Cortado
Crutch compatibility: 2/5 stars. Negotiating the steep stairs to the basement could prove fatal for the crutch-enabled crusader (there are street-level vestibules available for the less inclined)
Hit to the wallet: €4,55
Music playing: Stevie Wonder (and friends)
Architecture aside, one of the most striking features of Barcelona is the prodigious amount of tapas bars and cafes. So finding good, distinctive coffee bars in a caffeinated city of this magnitude is a bit like trying to find a needle in a pile of proverbial needles. There are so many, they are in danger of starting to all look the same. But on recommendation from a friend and long-standing resident of BCN, I had the good fortune to be guided to a place that can only be described as ‘heavenly’. Except it isn’t really a coffee house in the truest sense of the word; it’s a little more tempting than that.
Just a beans’ throw from the Church of Santa María del Pi (St. Mary of the Pine Tree), Caelum enjoys a commanding corner spot in the centre of El Barri Gòtic. The high windows that advertise an alluring display of cakes, baked goodies and sweets that wait within are an irresistible enticement for the coffee enthusiast in need of some earthly salvation.
Since 1998, Caelum (named after a constellation in the southern hemisphere) has been sourcing much of its celestial culinary creations from the vast network of convents and monasteries that span the Iberian Peninsula. Thanks to the dedication of monks and nuns across the land, there is more than enough wholesome refreshment to satisfy the taste buds of the most demanding pilgrim. Seeking purely to find sanctuary in the bean however, I opt to indulge my uninitiated senses in the bowels of the building rather than at street level.
Once you have laid siege to the short, steep flight of stairs down to the basement, Gothic arches and friendly staff invite you to find welcome rest in Caelum’s very own crypt. Soft candlelight gently illuminates the exposed brick surroundings whilst the soothing tones of Stevie Wonder and friends (Curtis Mayfield, Otis Reading etc) are a comforting psalm for the ears. Paradoxically, it feels like descending into a higher place where coffee, tea, sweet monastic delights, funk and soul play their part in perfect harmony. This has to be a first.
Before leafing through the menu, the cover reads:
“El olor de la santidad es una mezcla de membrillo y rosa, muy delicada…” Paraselso
(The smell of holiness is a mix of quince and rose, very delicate…)
It’s an interesting quote to contemplate whilst Stevie Wonder simultaneously funks out ‘Superstition’ over the stereo. Deciding to take my cue from Señor Wonder, I reject the holier virtues of quince and rose and soon find solace in a righteously smooth Cortado and sinful Bonbó de figa con rom y brandi (Bonbon of fig with brandy and rum). Dare I say it? The combination was pretty heavenly.
Although the well-healed clientele are testament to the fact that this establishment isn’t necessarily kind to the wallet or purse, you could easily be forgiven for throwing caution to the wind by indulging in temptations such as: Puff Pastry filled with Angel Hair; Carolina’s Brownies from the Monastery; Saint’s Bone; Cheese from the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña; Toast with lashings of Strawberry Jam of Sor Elena, Herbal teas infused with an Elixir of Roses; Trappistes Rochefort beer, Reservas from the Monasterio de la Olivia; and Santiago’s Tart amongst other gastronomic delights. The coffee is also good. Nor does it have that familiar bitter or burnt aftertaste to it that all too many cafes serve up.
Having paid my dues I ascend ungracefully back upstairs aided by my faithful crutch and guiltily eye up the delicious selection of monastic pickles, honey, jam, wine, liquor, vinegar, oil, chocolate and biscuits on my way out.
I have to confess that Caelum is unashamedly a refuge for hungry, saintly and sinning pilgrims alike. If you have indeed given into temptation (and who could possibly blame you if you have?), prepare yourself for a long wait if you’re looking for a miracle to be performed on the bill.
But it’s well worth taking to the road for.
Bean on a Crutch rating: 4/5 stars
Cafés El Magnífico
Location: Carrer de l’Argenteria
Beans on the Menu: More than forty different varieties and blends worldwide to suit the most discerning of palettes plus a wide variety of speciality tea
Crutch Compatibility: Sins muletas, con cojera (without crutches, with limp)
Caffeine delivery method: Freshly roasted Tunki filter coffee. Also purchased: 250g Espresso Virtuoso Mezcla (Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, India), 250g Ethiopian Harrar Boldgrain
Hit to the wallet: €10,50
Music Playing: No jukebox required
Señor Salvador Sans is a fast-talking Catalan who is serious about coffee. You could say that it runs through the veins. Well it certainly has been running in the bloodline for generations since his grandfather first started to roast coffee on the streets of the Barrio El Born district back in 1919. But during the three decades of Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), coffee was sadly a luxury only enjoyed by the extremely wealthy and the business of roasting and selling coffee was banned under the regime. Yet, the time-honoured skills and knowledge were defiantly – and bravely – passed down from one generation to the next. Now the third and current owner, Salvador, who inherited the business from his father in the early nineties, is faithfully keeping this family tradition alive.
From these humble beginnings that began on the corner of the narrow Carrer d’en Rosic almost a century ago, the family business has grown beyond recognition. Cafés El Magnífico now trades behind the warm glow of its stained glass window which delicately frames the shop front on the bustling L’Agenteria. Located near the magnificent lofty columns of the medieval Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, this welcoming boutique-like coffee shop serves and sells some of the – if not the – best beans in town.
“You want to see some coffee being roasted?” Salvador asks without giving a moment’s pause for a response. “Let me show you where it all first started,” he says before leading the way at a brisk enough pace for my, now crutch-unaided ankle, to just about keep up with. Within a few moments we arrive at the worn wooden doors of the old premises and he leads me down into the basement to introduce me to the Vittoria roasting machine which still bares the scars of a fire just three years-ago. Operated by roastmaster Iván from Cuba, it was just finishing off a morning batch of Arabica coffee beans from Timor. “They’re not ready yet,” said Salvador as he inspected the bag of newly roasted beans, “they need at least another 48 hours for the aroma to fully come through.”
Within a matter of minutes, we were on the street again and back on the pace towards the distribution ‘nerve-centre’ of the business. It is a spacious half-cum warehouse, half-cum art gallery with framed coffee sacks from all over the world hanging on the walls; each printed with the distinct ‘coffee art’ of the grower. Sacks from Papua New Guinea, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama are just some of the artworks on display. The aroma inside the high-ceiling storehouse is infused with a heavenly mix of coffee and speciality teas that are carefully being hand packed and sealed, ready for delivery to the 200 plus – and growing – book of clients.
Without any diversion, Salvador heads straight to his favourite roasting machine; the 30 kilo Roure, dating back to 1960. As a testament to the unique character of any roaster, this gleaming behemoth with a cast-iron chamber at its heart is at its best when roasting Brazilian beans, he proudly maintains. The controls that can be programmed with multiple ‘profiles’ to exact the roaster’s requirements looked more befitting of a British Nuclear Fuels reactor instrument panel (circa-1989) than a coffee roasting machine; but that’s the science of roasting.
Yet beneath the evident pride in running a successful family coffee business that supplies a ton-and-a-half of freshly roasted coffee to cafes and restaurants in and around Barcelona each week, there is an underlying frustration. The reason, he laments, is that despite the prodigious amount of bars in the city (a staggering 15,000), that serve coffee, very few have the “loyalty, faithfulness, and professionalism” that is essential if coffee-across-the-counter is to achieve its full flavoursome potential. His startling but insightful analogy of an espresso machine being likened to a fruit gambler where the “owner doesn’t care what comes out the other end as long as it makes him money” immediately shatters my over-romanticised vision of the deft and meticulously trained Spanish (or Catalan) Barista in a single retort. “It is nothing short of a crime,” he sighs.
But Salvador and his dedicated team of 24 employees continue to keep this history-steeped family flame alive to ensure that excellent coffee remains a reality in Barcelona for years to come. For him, the essence underpinning the success of Cafés El Magnífico is the refrain of coffee-enthusiasts everywhere. Simply put: ‘Adoro Café’ (I love Coffee). Once the bills are paid, profit comes only after good coffee, he insists. And I believe him.
“I want coffee to shine, as a product and as a drink” he says passionately, as we enjoy a cup of the silky award-winning and organically certified Tunki (Peru) coffee with two customers in the back of the shop. Asked if he expects either of his two children to take over the business when he retires, he pauses for the first time since we met earlier that morning. Thoughtfully, he explains that his ten year-old son currently has only a passion for FC Barcelona. His sixteen-year old daughter however seems to be following assuredly in her father’s footsteps and already works in the shop at the weekend and during holidays.
“We’ll see, who knows what the future will hold,” he responds with a philosophical, paternal beam. If the past – and present – is anything to go by, I don’t think Salvador has much to worry about.
Bean on a Limp rating: 5/5 stars
Mesón del Café
Location: Carrer de Libretería
Crutch compatibility: 4/5 stars (the liberal sprinkling of sawdust on the ceramic floor provides ample traction for the crutch-enabled coffee enthusiast)
Beans on the Menu: To quote: “‘Top Secret’ South American Mezcla”
Caffeine delivery method: Cortado, (glass of Catalan Mescaro, no ice), cafe con leche
Hit to the wallet: €9 (and worth every eurozone bean)
Music playing: Radio Catalunya
Steadfastly resisting the contagion of brash souvenir shops that appear to be advancing from both sides, the Mesón del Café (Coffee Inn) evidently has its roots planted firmly in Catalan soil; and isn’t budging. Walk a few yards from the grandiose Plaça Sant Jaume down Libretería and it’s easy to miss this little gem. Patience and a keen eye do however pay off and you will find, nestled amongst the plethora of cheap ‘I ♥ BCN’ trinkets imported from China, a coffee house of the highest order.
Established in 1909, this unpretentious – almost rustic – establishment has been quietly picking up awards throughout the years. Correction. Decades. And for good reason. Aside from the tasty selection of pastries and churros on display, coffee is the real star attraction here.
It’s a lively little place. The chain smoking owners take turns between feeding their nicotine addiction and serving the brisk turnover of caffeine depleted customers. The clientele is as diverse as the conversations are animated. From starry-eyed lovers to fatigued day trippers; families spanning the generations to old friends confiding with each other in hushed tones; punctuated only by solo ‘sixty-seconders’ in search of instant fortification (because it takes that time to order, polish off a cortado, pay and leave). There are some real characters too. One eccentric regular, whom I presume lives above the Coffee Inn, occasionally pops in to converse with the customers and to introduce his petite two year-old mongrel dog affectionately called ‘Mimi the Terrorist’ to anyone who takes an interest.
Perched at the end of the narrow wooden bar that runs the three-quarter length of this cosy establishment, I decide to divert my body’s innate need to take a mid-afternoon siesta and order a cortado (from the Spanish ‘cortar’ or ‘tallat’ in Catalan). A popular pick-me-up in Spain, Portugal, Cuba and Latin America, a cortado is essentially an espresso ‘cut’ with a ratio of 1:1 steamed milk and a dash of foam to gently round off the edges of its intense, flavourful kick. It judiciously arrives served in a glass accompanied by not one, but two bowls of sugar.
The mid-height wall panels made from old hessian coffee sacks from the Merconta plantation in Brazil are just an understated nod to the provenance of the beans and their long journey to reach this exceptional cafeteria. Above, are faded black and white photographs of fresh-faced baristas of years gone by. A fascinating array of framed artefacts also adorn the wood-panelled walls and speak of the many magical moments that can only begin to describe this coffee house’s prestigious history.
On recommendation from the unflappable, but attentive owner, the next course was a superbly balanced 28 year-old Catalan brandy to soften the arresting volcanic blow of the cortado. Wishing to savour the moment a while longer, I finish up with an unhurried cafe con leche.
Rumour has it that the ‘house’ Picardía (a mix of espresso, condensed milk and whiskey) is also without parallel. But I had had my fill, content in the knowledge that I had found a small corner of coffee heaven right in the heart of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella.
And if anyone is still in need of convincing of the Mesón del Café’s grounded charm, look no further than the corner window above the entrance. There you will find pictured a coffee jar overflowing with a steaming fresh brew of coffee. Look a little closer, and carefully painted on the vessel is the faint outline of one of Kaldi’s very own legendary Ethiopian ‘dancing goats’. Need I say any more?
Bean on a Crutch rating: 5/5 stars
Nursing a chronically sprained ankle whilst periodically pounding the streets of Barcelona on a pair of standard-issue crutches does have has its own advantages.
Although not an exhaustive list, here are just some of the reasons why:
- The polite (but not forgotten) tradition of having doors opened for you at the threshold of establishments is revived with gusto
- You get your own personal ‘shopping assistant’ who will offer to carry your basket for you in supermarkets (most of the time)
- Your faith in the spirit of human solidarity is restored… between other people on crutches
- Motorists slow down – or even stop – as you cross the street
- You have a perfect excuse to temporarily slow the tempo of life down, elevate the feet with a strategically-placed bag of frozen peas, and rest up with a good book
All well and good you might think? Here is the downside:
- Stairs become your enemy.
(In a city where the sheer density of living means the only direction is to build up – or down – there are battalions of them. Ninety-three from flat to street level to be exact)
- Uneven or wet surfaces become a minefield of potentially backside-numbing proportions
- Repeated obstruction caused to more able-bodied pedestrians merely compounds the urge to hobble around with a large sign that reads ‘El inválido que acerca: Ceda por favor’ (Invalid approaching: Please give way) emblazoned across my chest
- Refer back to point one
In all seriousness, my respect and admiration for disabled people who face the challenge of negotiating an urban world designed for the able-bodied on a daily basis has shot up beyond recognition over the last few weeks. I dread to think what living in Barcelona confined to a wheelchair is like and have no intention of finding out.
Now, balancing up this veritable smorgasbord of pros and cons, I have – with the encouragement of former resident of Barcelona and fellow coffee enthusiast Anita Westmoorland – decided to emerge from this enforced period of convalescence and fight the good fight of the crutch-assisted quadruped.
And whilst the torn tendons in my ankle perform their miraculous physiological feat of repairing themselves back to full pedaling capacity, I have resolved to take on some of the the best (and quirkiest) Tapas bars that BCN has to offer; and drink coffee.
So for your delectation, here is the first installment of:
A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona (on crutches)
Bar El Paraigua
Location: Plaça de San Miguel
Crutch compatibility: 2/5 stars (put aesthetics to one side and the immaculately polished chequered marble floor makes the crutch-enabled dash to the baño a sure-footed feat for the brave)
Beans on the Menu: Saimaza Colombian High Roast
Caffeine delivery method: Cortado
Hit to the wallet: €1,65
Music playing: Motown
Put the steep ‘tourist tax’ to one side and this charming Cafeteria-Tapas-Cockteleria-Whisqueria bar is, as the description suggests, more than your average coffee house. Standing on the site of one of the oldest convents in El Barrio Gótico, it opened its doors in 1968 to the good people of Barcelona after a hugely ambitious renovation. In every respect, its beautifully carved wooden interior is a truly authentic homage to the spirit of the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau movement. Every light fitting, marble tile, wall fixture, including the splendid antiquated cash register (dating back to 1898) which sits in pride of place on the mahogany bar, was pretty much cannibalised from a turn of the century umbrella and fan shop down the road, relocated and lovingly refitted, with stunning effect. Setting the walls with floor to ceiling smoke-tinted mirrors is a stroke of pure genius, elegantly achieving the desired optical illusion of space and openness to mask the bar’s diminutive size.
For me, the evocation of this era would have been almost complete if were not for the newly introduced nationwide smoking ban. Call me nostalgic bit some places just have to be fully appreciated through the atmospheric filter of a soft, Gauloise-infused haze; and this certainly has to be one of them. The pricey Cortado was good too, if a little on the milky side.
Yet it comes as no surprise that in an establishment like this, it’s not the coffee that you pay for.
Now, please pass the Gauloises…
Bean on a Crutch rating: 3/5 stars
I wonder what Don Quixote would have made of Barcelona in 21st century Catalunya. Would he have tilted at wind turbines? Or jousted with Gaudi’s larger-than-life lizards? Maybe, the Man from La Mancha, and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, would have shored up the city’s defenses with a two-man bulwark in an effort to repel the chaotic crowds that surge up Las Ramblas, believing them to be the advancing enemy?
And, as for a ‘plague’ of thieves and villains, what would have the knight errant resorted to in his chivalrous bid to rid the world of evil-doers and scoundrels? All said and done, only the late – and great – Miguel de Cervantes would know the definitive literary answer to this purely hypothetical question.
Now back to the real world.
Once the traders have closed their graffiti-art front shutters and the lively bars and nightclubs open up for another night of revelry in El Gótica, there lurks an unsavory element which, as sure as night follows day, soon emerges from the shadows.
It was the eve of departure before taking the ferry to Genoa, Italy. Our panniers packed and ready for the off, my friend and I decided to go for a quiet drink to celebrate our last night in Barcelona and toast our impending adventure on two-wheels. We excitedly talked about our anticipation of new horizons; the unadulterated freedom of being self sufficient with only the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. You could say that were were in high spirits. Until we met the ‘shadows’ in a certain jazz bar that dare not speak its name.
A whiskey for the road was the last lucid memory that either of us share. The ensuing 24 hours followed like a bad dream that you want to wake up from but can’t because the dream is real – only too real. I won’t go into details here as there isn’t much to report, only a handful of vivid flashbacks that replay like a looped Super-8mm cine film. You guessed it dear reader, we had our drinks spiked.
Struggling to piece together the fragmented memories of the previous night, I spent the next day in hospital with a severely swollen and bruised ankle.
Sporting a foot that looked more like a specimen out of a medical encyclopedia under the chapter ‘Elephantiasis’ is one thing, summing up the financial cost of a mugging just adds insult to injury. Fortunately, no broken bones or fractures were sustained and the reality of an enforced stay in Barcelona nursing a sprained ankle soon began to dawn.
That said, this rich tapestry of life has a funny way of throwing cold water in your face just when you drop your guard. A wake up call if you will. So for now, I’m making virtue out of necessity in that it’s life in the slow lane until I can ditch the crutches and get back onto the saddle for the next leg (excuse the pun) of the journey.
It is often said that there is ‘honour among thieves.’ I disagree. Even the most professional criminal would sell his/her sidekick without hesitation if the price were right.
Disclaimer: There is no suggestion that the events described in this post are in any way exclusive to this great city. It could happen anywhere, in any place, at any time. It’s just that I happened to become another statistic, and it happened to be in BCN.
Speaking of statistics, Barcelona does however enjoy the dubious honour of being top of the list of petty crime capitals worldwide. Whilst muggings are sadly on the rise, it has even been said that if pickpocketing was an Olympic sport, Barcelona would take the gold medal. Hands down.