I don’t know if it’s due to my Filipino descent or my obsession with Hemingway and his novels. Whatever the reason may be, I have had an affinity towards Spain for as long as I can remember. In recent decades, Spain has continued to grow in popularity with travelers. Much of this growth can be attributed to its gastronomy. When the topic of best food or restaurants in the world is being spoken, Spain takes a good part of that breath. Though there are many wonderful cities in which to experience the culture and its cuisine, my favorites are still the big two, Madrid and Barcelona.
Barcelona with locals
My family and I are New Yorkers and consider ourselves Northeasterner. So, it was no surprise that we feel at home in Barcelona. Barcelona is the main attraction of the Northeast region of Spain, known as Catalonia. Akin to New York, Barcelona is extremely diverse and has plenty to offer to those who visit. For culture, there is no shortage of museums, the Picasso Museum being our favorite. The architecture is second to none, exemplified by Gaudi’s creations. There’s plenty of entertainment, most of it taking part in the famous Las Ramblas. Not to be forgotten is the fantastic beach scene, which is something even New York City does not have. And, of course, the unrivaled tapas (pintxos) eateries and the accompanying lively scene.
La Boqueria in Barcelona
All the above mentioned are easily found on any search you make on your computer or mobile device. However, when in a town like Barcelona, the card you want to play is to find insider information.
An example of this is the first time we went to La Boqueria, Barcelona’s illustrious market. We sat at the counter of the famous food vendor, Pinotxo. It was 8 in the morning, as we left our hotel in Barcelona but the energy in the market made it feel like it was 8 in the evening. We took the stools at the end of the counter and to our right was a couple who was taken by our daughter (age 6 at the time).
We got to talking, and quickly but surely, they guided us away from ordering an ordinary breakfast and showed us how the locals ate. That morning, we had cava (sparkling wine) to start and an order of chipirones con judias (tiny squid with beans in its own ink) along with many other things. We finally ended with a cortado (espresso with a little steamed-milk). The experience made us feel that we belonged. Yes, Pinotxo is no secret, and certainly not the market itself, but how to order properly can only have been taught by a local.
Madrid With Locals
The city of Madrid is steeped in history and its inhabitants are proud of their Castilian culture. This was impressed upon me from the very first time I visited. I had landed in Barajas International Airport, and from there hired a taxi to bring me to Plaza Santa Ana where my hotel was located. Throughout the drive, the kind gentleman behind the wheel took it upon himself to direct my attention on some of his city’s highlights, many of which make for a great self-guided tour of Madrid. His English was equal to my Spanish which led to almost-comical idiomatic conversation. The most defining moment of the ride was him pointing out his favorite place to have tapas with his friends. He told me that I should drink vermouth there and not beer. It’s a good thing I took note of the address because I would later find that it didn’t exist in any of the guide books I had brought along with me. I stopped at that eatery every night as one of my tapas stops and always enjoyed myself. Many times throughout the trip, I found myself having longed for his local insight, wondering if I was missing out on other hidden secrets.
Plaza Mayor in Madrid
I have been to Madrid many times over. A few years ago, I visited with my family. One evening, we were in the middle of Plaza Mayor trying to agree on what to eat. We heard a small boisterous crowd going down one of the alleyways, and being seasoned travelers, we followed. We had a feeling they were going somewhere good to eat. Our gamble paid off, as that crowd led us to Mercado de San Miguel, an early 20th-century market that has been renovated and turned into one possibly the best food court in the world. Vendors purveyed the best of what Madrid/Spain has to offer. There was no reason for further debate amongst us, we all simply got what we wanted from the multiple stalls, with offerings ranged from Jamon Iberico to percebes (goose barnacle), Tempranillo to Albarino, Manchego to churros, Bacalao a la Vizcaina etc, etc. We found a table to eat, laid out our cornucopia of food and joined the crowd for an evening of fun. In essence, as it was with the cab driver, we were led to a great experience by locals.
Enjoying Spain with Locals
These stories I share are happenstance. Luckily, these days it doesn’t need to be. We are always looking for authentic experiences, and this is facilitated by some great startup tour companies. One worth exploring, especially in these two towns, is a company called Withlocals. They’ve developed a marketplace that connects travelers like ourselves with locals. In my opinion, there is no better connection to food and culture of a country or city than to experience it with someone who calls it home. This company facilitates the process. Look them up next time you travel. Currently, they have a roster of locals ready to show you their town in 3 continents, 22 countries.
Yes, maybe it’s because some of the dishes in Spain are reminiscent of the Filipino flavors I grew up eating. Yes, maybe the thought of “killing the night” as Hemingway puts it, is another reason. Madrid and Barcelona are towns in which I feel a kinship, and its nuances have been enhanced by the locals sharing their insights with us. It’s this that continues to heighten my fondness for the country. Oh, and the food isn’t too shabby either.
Headed to Spain? Here are tips on where to stay in Madrid.
Some of our favorite guides and book on Barcelona and Madrid:
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