Carnival of Colors
Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona. Pablo Neustadt/©ICEX
Author: George Semler/©ICEX
Publication Date: 21 Feb 2011
Nowhere is a city more itself than in its food markets, and no European city has more covered, open-air markets than Barcelona, with a staggering total of 40. Paris lost its paradigmatic mid-city produce market, Les Halles, in 1971, but Barcelona has managed to maintain its most famous and central market, La Boqueria, on the emblematic Rambla, along with 39 other steel hangar-covered neighborhood foodstuffs emporiums spread all over town.
ClimeMediterranean climate with mild, humid winters and warm, dry summers.
Artistic heritageLiceu Theatre Gaudí Buildings
Although similar in their brightly illuminated and colorful displays of fruits, vegetables, wild mushrooms, meats, cheeses, and hundreds of species of fish and seafood, each of these markets has its own distinctive neighborhood flavor, architectural personality, and place in Barcelona's history and urban development.
Since many of these steel structures were erected during Barcelona's passionate late 19th and early 20th century love affair with Art Nouveau (Modernisme in Catalan), ornamentation tends toward floral and colorful designs in wrought iron and stained glass, although several newly restored markets are sleek, contemporary architecture. Getting to know Barcelona by touring its markets is one of the best ways to get to the heart - via the stomach - of this Mediterranean feast of a city.
The Boquería market, officially Mercat de Sant Josep for the Carmelite convent that once occupied this space, is the city's biggest and most beautiful produce market and an absolutely de rigueur Barcelona visit along with Gaudí's Sagrada Familia and the Santa María del Mar basilica.
Entering from the Rambla de les Flors, the flower vendors section of the promenade that poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) called "the only street in the world he wished would never end", don't miss the elegant Doric columns that ringed Francesc Daniel i Molina's neoclassical square, a sister to nearby Plaça Reial.
Europe's oldest, still operating, mid-city food produce market, La Boquería, thought to have been named for a medieval goat meat (boc in Catalan) market, sprouted spontaneously in this open space from the late 19th century until 2001, when a remodeling project peeled the produce stands back in from the edges in order to reveal the columns.
The vegetable, fruit and wild mushroom display on the left at the entrance is the most colorful stand in town, while Pinotxo, the Boquería's world-famous barstool counter tapas bar is just to the right. Further in, the circular fish and seafood amphitheater at the heart of the market provides a complete course in Mediterranean and Atlantic ichthyology, as well as a mid-city breath of iodine and salt sea freshness.
Just short of the fish display, a left turn will take you past the brilliantly illuminated Peña fruit and vegetables stand into one of the Boquería's prettiest corners. Past the neo-Moderniste Verdures Ramona island and the excellent El Quim de la Boquería restaurant, across from the Genaro seafood counter, is Jesús y Carmen, a three-dimensional Van Gogh painting made of ropes of peppers from all over the world, nuts, vegetables, exquisite new potatoes, tiny onions, and every manner of goods, meticulously arranged daily.
In the far corner near the Rambla edge of the market, are the popular Kiosko Universal restaurant counter and Avinova, specialists in game from duck and partridge to woodcock and hare. Petràs Fruits del Bosc (fruits of the forest), at the back of the market, displays wild mushrooms, spices and herbs from Catalonia and around the world. Morels, chanterelles, truffles, trompetas de la mort... if it has surfaced anywhere on the planet, Llorenç Petràs will have it.
A local institution, Petràs supplies Barcelona's top chefs, for whom wild mushrooms and truffles are key ingredients. The Petràs wild mushroom cookbook, now in its fifteenth edition, promises to be a bestseller forever.
From the Boqueria, a walk through the Gothic Quarter, past the Santa Maria del Pi church and through Plaça Sant Felip Neri and the cathedral cloisters, leads out to Plaça de la Catedral.
Mercat Santa Caterina
Mercat de Santa Caterina, across Via Laietana, is a contemporary carnival of colors and undulating rooflines restored by the late Enric Miralles (1955-2000). The project was finished in 2005 by his widow, architect Benedetta Tagliabue. Fresh pine inside and multi-colored ceramic mosaics on the roof -conceived as a reflection of the cornucopia within and an homage to Gaudí and Miró- cover a sleek layout of fruits and vegetables in the front, meats and cheeses in the middle, and the fish section near the rear of the market next to Bar Joan's long counter and restaurant in the far corner.
The Archeological Interpretation Center at the rear of the market covers 4,000 years of history, from Bronze Age tombs found under the site dating from 1800 BC. The spacious, clean-lined Santa Caterina Cuines restaurant in the front corner of the market offers an original menu crossing vegetables, rice, pasta, meat, fish, or eggs with four cuisines: vegetarian, Mediterranean, Oriental, and charcoal-cooked.
A twenty-minute hike out to the traditional fisherman's quarter in Barceloneta leads past the 12th-century Marcus chapel on the corner of Carders and Montcada, past the Picasso Museum and through Carrer Montcada's elegant medieval and Renaissance palaces, past the fragrant Gispert nuts and spices store at Carrer Sombrerers 23, around and through Santa Maria del Mar basilica, and by the nonpareil tapas counter at Cal Pep.
Mercat de la Barceloneta and Others
Mercat de la Barceloneta, built in 1884 by Antoni Rovira i Trias (1816-1889, author of the colossal Mercat de Sant Antoni) was restored in 2007.
Barceloneta is the city's fisherman's quarter and the market has been the hub for the social and commercial life of the neighborhood. The new design retains the feel and esthetic of the original steel hangar with contemporary details including solar plaques for energy sustainability and whale fluke-like extensions over the edges redolent of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim.
At the far back corner are Els Fogons de la Barceloneta, serving tapas, and upstairs, Àngel Pascual’s superb restaurant Lluçanès, Barcelona's first market restaurant to win a Michelin star.
Uptown in the Eixample, the post-1860 grid square designed by Ildefons Cerdà (1815-1876), is the Mercat de la Concepció, named for the neighboring church, occupying a city block bordered by Carrers Aragó, València, Bruc, and Girona. The vast Navarro flower market at the Carrer València entrance defines this elegant space designed by Antoni Rovira i Trias (1816-1889).
Reforms finished in 1998 turned the main facades into giant windows adding ample natural light to illumination entering from the upper part of the lateral facades. The central corridor is singularly wide and bright, with two major fruit and vegetable displays at the heart of the market ringed by stalls such as Peix de Platja Enric Bassó, Xarcuteria Debon or Frutes i Hortalisses Angeleta.
Out at Carrer Aragó 313 is one of Barcelona's greatest restaurant-delicatessens, Mantequeria Can Ravell, where Josep Ravell carries on a tradition begun by his father Ignasi in 1929. Top products ranging from white truffles from Piamonte to anchovies from L'Escala to the year's best Idiazabal sheep cheese from the Basque Country find their way to the Can Ravell tasting table in the back room, while the upstairs dining room fills for weekday lunches and Thursday and Friday dinners.
Farther uptown, Gràcia has two markets, Mercat de la Llibertat and Mercat de la Revolució, (now officially La Abaceria Central) reflect Gràcia's independent spirit, and even today there is a youthful, Bohemian, village-like ambience at large in this jumble of tiny streets.
Mercat de la Llibertat opened in 1888, designed by the architect of the Vila de Gràcia Miguel Pascual. The ornamentation, swan-like designs swimming up the cornices, and escutcheons over the main entrances with snail-like creatures around a diamond-shaped crest containing wrought-iron flowers, was added by Gaudí's assistant Francesc Berenguer i Mestres. The various Moderniste produce stalls inside are among the markets finest treasures.
The Mercat de la Revolució opened in 1892 and never reformed or restored, has a lived-in, easygoing and antique feel about it. The aisles are exceptionally wide and the fish section occupies a slight depression in the center of the three-naved space under an oval-shaped roof. Heaps of vegetables spectacularly dominate the southwest corner of the market. Nearby Sureny, serving creative tapas, is the best and closest restaurant.
Galvany and Sant Vicenç
Higher up the hillside and farther west, the Mercat Galvany is one of Barcelona’s finest and most beautiful Moderniste markets. This was an open-air event until the Count of Galvany ceded the land to the city for the construction of a market that began in 1868 and was not completed until 1927. The market provides first-rate produce at top prices.
The octagonal central cupola with stained glass windows and colorful city escutcheons on each of the four facades covers some of the best produce in Barcelona, from wild red leg partridge to wild-caught sea bass to pristine wild mushrooms. Fish stands surround the ancient clock in the central amphitheater, with meats, cheeses and vegetables spinning out to the edges.
A half a dozen bars and counters inside the market serve anything from coffee to full meals, while in the streets surrounding the market, L'Oliana and Silvestre all turn out superior market-based cuisine.
Even farther uphill in the former outlying town of Sarrià, is the city's topmost municipal market, the Mercat de Sant Vicenç de Sarrià, always a cheery visit, if only to see the village and dine in one of the half a dozen excellent restaurants nestled in this onetime rural enclave. Built in 1911 in the former garden of the Sant Vicenç de Sarrià parrish, the market is a Moderniste neo-Mudéjar structure with pyramidal designs on the exposed brick facade under eight decorative chimneys.
The central fish and seafood island is, as always, a spectacle, while the fruit and vegetable stands are an avalanche of fresh garden produce. The Margarit charcuterie and cheese stand is excellent as is their tiny corner restaurant. Along with the handy Café del Mercat for a coffee inside the market, top local restaurants include the superb Tram-Tram and El Vell Sarrià and the world famous home of the best patatas bravas allioli (potatoes with allioli and hot pepper sauce) at Bar Tomàs.
Barcelona's produce markets, with 45 million annual shoppers and 3,450 outlets, are essential to neighborhood life, places where, unlike supermarkets, everyone speaks to each other, old friends meet, and the butcher or fish monger is an old family friend. Barcelona's markets are here to stay.
George Semler has been writing about European travel, food and culture. His work has appeared in Saveur, Sky, and Forbes, among other publications.