On the Beaches of Barcelona
July 1, 2014
The best part of Vilassar de Mar was the blue. In the mornings, we woke to the bright glare of the ocean pinching sunlight from the sky and pitching it in through our window. The early hours were cool and dry, lulled by the soft crash of waves and shattered by the Renfe searing down the tracks with a load of commuters headed for the city center. In Barcelona, the merchants in La Boqueria would already be unrolling the shutters from their stands to reveal hanging hocks of jamón and stacked fruit, and the bleary-eyed tourists would be marching down Las Ramblas with bulky black Canons strapped to their chests. But in Vilassar de Mar, there was only ocean, a multi-hued blue dotted with sailboats and solitary paddle boarders cutting the surf.
What we couldn’t figure out in Vilassar de Mar was when things were open. On the day that we arrived, just after lunchtime, the little town was shuttered. We wandered uphill from the shore, the only direction to wander, and passed cafés and shops, all closed. Even the grocery store participated in the afternoon siesta hours, only opening again late in the evening. We were still hesitant of ourselves, the only tourists on the deserted streets, slow in our Spanish, when what we should really have been speaking was Catalan.
Choosing somewhere to eat is hard when you’re so fresh to a new place, when you want so badly to make the best decision, but are too hungry to decide. At least there weren’t that many options. Halfway up the hill, we found a small bakery that was still open. One lazy couple sat beneath a yellow umbrella, slowly picking at fish bones. The tables were covered in clean white cloths and inside the windows, glazed pastries billowed beneath the glass. A chalkboard advertised a fixed menu with first course, main dish, and dessert.
When I slipped the first mussel in my mouth, I knew we’d arrived at the sea. They were simple, cooked in white wine and served with a thick lemon wedge. Their salty brine was like a rich, beachy suck of seawater.
Later on, on our last night in Barcelona, we would order a plate of fried anchovies and calamari, the seafood freshly plucked from the ocean, its short, salty lifespan so apparent as they melted softly in your mouth, seasoned with only a pucker of lemon. This dish would remind me most of our first meal in its simplicity and casual grace.
We survived on these little sea creatures along with ham and bread. In Catalonia, the bread is crusty and white. For pa amb tomàquet, long, thin slices are rubbed with garlic, olive oil and tomato so that wet bits of tomato flesh stick to the jagged edges of the toast. We ate that bread served with oysters bedded in coarse salt, with cold, dense anchovies, with slices of fuet, and with paper-thin slivers of cured ham. We ate all the bread we could get and then some more.
Between Vilassar de Mar and Barcelona, the Renfe rushes along the beach. Miles of white sand and blue ocean dotted with dark rocks and brown, sunbathing bodies gives way to reddish, sandy rocks and laundry hanging from tenuous lines stretched across windy porches. On the outskirts of the city, the train dips below the ground and shakes along the tracks in blackness.
It’s an interesting contrast, the glistening beaches of Vilassar de Mar and the sprawl of urban Barcelona. There are similarities, of course: The twisted streets, remnants of Gothic architecture, peachy pinks and browns, the cobbled streets. But where Vilassar de Mar is a slow haven, rustled into calm by the constant crash of waves, Barcelona spills over its edges, crushing pedestrians against each other along the narrow alleys crammed with xocolaterias, plush boutiques and dim cafés, or the imposing façaded avenues where every now and then a twisting Gaudí stops walkers in gawking cluster.
I think, between them both, I preferred the former. I preferred the beachside house where we slept, four rambling stories packed like a museum with books in every corner, comics with brittle paper pages butting against dense great tomes. Mementoes of travels taken, tokens of lives lived sealed beneath a thick layer of dust. I preferred our late evening walks along the beach, passing slow-wandering walkers with little leashed dogs or joggers kicking up sand. I preferred our view of cool, white sailboats and the tidy, tiny store where we bought single bottles of Catalan beer and fresh bread.
On our last day, an almost full one, we spent the whole morning on the beach. Our sunscreened hands smeared the clean pages of our books and snuck sand into the binding. Our toes dug small holes in the sand, our eyes closed against the slowly rising, warming sun.
For lunch, we sat in one of the open beachside restaurants, with a view of the glistening beach to one side and the row of pearly seaside houses, each one unique, on the other. We felt the sun sinking into our skin and smelled the summer of it as we nibbled on puffy patatas bravas with aolï and sipped chilled sangria, glasses beading with condensation. In our gentle silence, we could hear the happy shouts of children building sandcastles and the ever present swoosh of that big blue ocean. In the calm, we could finally hear ourselves think.