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Whether exploring Barcelona or the Costa Dorada...Catalonia is foodie heaven

Spain isn’t all about cheap beer, golden beaches and incredible weather as Rachael discovered on this gastro trip to the north east corner

Rachael at the H10 Itaca Hotel, Barcelona

Rachael VictoriaSunday World

It’s 12.40am on a Monday, and my eyelids are droopy with tiredness. Not wanting the weekend to end, we have tucked ourselves into the corner of a buzzy little restaurant in Barcelona’s Eixample district. We’ve been touring the Catalonia region for four days now, so I’ve decided this will definitely be my last glass of rosé. I’m ready for bed.

Then, somewhat out of the blue, one of my travel companions suggests we order a plate of acorn-fed Iberico pork — a Spanish delicacy which we have recently discovered. As soon as the suggestion reaches my ears, my yearning for bed miraculously vanishes and there is a unanimous ‘yes’.

We give the order to our weary waiter, an older man with grey curls named Pepe, and wait for our midnight snack to arrive.

Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter

“How can you possibly be hungry again?” one of my Spanish friends teases, although I suspect she is mocking me. From smokey rabbit paella in Reus to mango-smothered goat’s cheese in the Gothic Quarter, there is nothing this foodie hasn’t tried over the weekend.

No sooner has the soft and salty pork been placed on the table than a plate of humble pan con tomate (grilled bread with tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt) also appears. As we dig in, Pepe swoops in and tops up our glasses, another crisp Catalonia rosé for me and some bubbly Cava for the girls.

We spend our final hour embracing the slower-paced Spanish way of socialising — nibbling, talking and laughing, before heading back to our hotel for a very contented night’s sleep.

A few days earlier, we arrived at the city of Reus. I’ll be honest, before this trip, my knowledge of Catalonia was limited to Barcelona, a city I frequented many times throughout my 20s.

The affordable flights from Dublin and vibrant nightlife lured me back time and time again. But as far as Costa Dorada (which aptly means Golden Coast) goes, it was a blank canvas.

Roughly 90 minutes from Barcelona, Reus has everything you might look for from a city destination, with the benefit of being a little under the radar. Think calm atmosphere, beautiful architecture, and more bars and restaurants than you can cram into one weekend.

We found ourselves in the comfortable Hotel Centre Reus for two nights. For a group that didn’t have the greatest sense of direction, the central location proved a significant plus in the wee hours.

Rachael at the H10 Itaca Hotel, Barcelona

Reus has many attractions for travellers, including the Gaudí Centre Reus. This modern and interactive museum celebrates Spain’s most famous architect, who was born in the heart of Reus. The top floor of the museum building is home to Gaudí Gaudir restaurant, where rabbit paella and pork cheek are just some of the dishes on their exquisite menu.

In the same picturesque plaza is Casa Navàs, an opulent 20th-century townhouse which has been restored to its former glory. But visitors beware, its owners work hard to keep it pristine. If you as much as lean on a handrail, you’ll face their justifiable wrath. So as my mother used to say, look with your eyes, not with your hands!

While Reus is bubbling with cultural opportunities, visitors often rent vehicles and venture beyond the city walls for day trips and excursions. During my visit, we head out to two nearby locations: Mare de Déu de la Roca de Mont-Roig and Tarragona.

En route to the picturesque hiking trail of Mont-Roig (which does not disappoint), we stop by the farm residence of renowned artist Joan Miró for a tour of the grounds. Miró’s paintings, sculptures, engravings and designs hold an important place in surrealist history, and the pride in his work is felt throughout the region.

When we reach Tarragona on our second day, it is a scorching October morning, and the towering city walls provide just enough shade.

Our guide walks us through the city’s winding streets, sharing her knowledge of Tarragona’s deep Roman roots, which can still be seen today. For example, the Roman amphitheatre which stands at the edge of the port, was once home to gladiatorial games and is now part of a popular walking route.

The old-world charm of Tarragona

After several hours strolling in the heat — a sensation we Irish are not most familiar with — we head to lunch in the seafood haven of El Llagut. Mouthwatering black rice with cuttlefish, beach crabs and clams is served alongside crispy bread with olive oil. This lunch will stay with me for a long time to come for all the best reasons.

After two days of exploring Reus and some surrounding areas, we check in to Barcelona’s modern H10 Itaca hotel, a four-star hotel which boasts an outdoor swimming area and plush bedrooms. I eye up the bath in my room before dropping my bags and running out the door again to dinner. I make a mental note to make time for a lazy soak before the weekend is over.

Dinner at Mussol restaurant is fabulous, of course. Barcelona is known for being a labyrinth of bars and restaurants. From budget to boujee, there isn’t a dish you can’t find in this city.

For those who may enjoy Barcelona’s nightlife a little too much, I recommend ordering a bowl of huevos rotos. This traditional Spanish dish, consisting of broken eggs, ham and potato, is the ultimate comfort food.

Exactly what you might need on a delicate afternoon. Mussol serves a tasty version using that acorn-fed Iberico pork we all grew to love during this trip. Another of the city’s culinary highlights is the rustic El Pintor restaurant, located in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.

This traditional Spanish restaurant expertly pairs its wine and food (try the walnut and goat’s cheese salad if you get a chance, it’s divine). With its high ceiling and dim lighting, you could easily spend an entire afternoon nestled in here, sampling local ingredients and forgetting the time.

La Sagrada Familia dominates the Barcelona cityscape

Throughout the next two days, I get to eat and experience my way around Barcelona. One thing I’ve learned about this city, perhaps all cities, is that regardless of how often you visit, you will always experience something new.

For me, visiting Casa Batlló by Gaudí is a new venture. This iconic building, which was recently named Best Monument in Spain 2022, offers a self-guided walking tour, which takes approximately 60 minutes. For those who prefer something a little more 21st century, the recently opened Moco Museum is a must-visit, with works by the likes of Banksy, Kaws, The Kid and Kusama on display.

Finally, the Mirador Torre Glòries offers visitors a fresh way of understanding Barcelona through art, technology and science while also boasting a 360-degree view of the city from 125m above the ground. So if you want to catch a glimpse of the iconic Sagrada Familia cathedral from above or take in the vastness of one of Europe’s greatest cities, this is where to do it.

Of course, there is plenty more to mention, but alas, I am running out of space. So, I’ll leave you with the words of Pepe, our weary waiter. As our grey-haired friend shooed us out of his restaurant, well after closing hours, he said, “hasta luego amiga”. Which I believe translates to “see you again, friend”.

My thoughts exactly, Catalonia.

TRAVEL FACTFILE

CATALONIA See catalunya.com and spain.info ■ Rachel visited Mas Miró to learn about artist Joan Miró — masmiro.com — and took in the walled city of Tarragona, which is a 20-minute drive from Reus town. ■ A standard room at H10 Itaca hotel averages €111 per night. See h10hotels.com. ■ Tickets for Barcelona’s Mirador Torre Glòries are €15. See miradortorreglories.com.

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