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Side Orders – In `Little Barcelona,' Seafood for Thought
By Deborah Baldwin
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 24, 1997; Page E02
   


It's hard to get a fix on Barcelona, a city that sizzles and sighs simultaneously as if unable to decide whether to stretch out on the beach and order a few drinks, hunker down in the cool shadows of its narrow medieval streets, or stay up all night bar-hopping. This isn't a single city but a patchwork of communities, including the folksy waterfront neighborhood known as Barceloneta -- "Little Barcelona."

A 25-acre swath bordered by the Mediterranean and the Barcelona harbor, Barceloneta is a former fishing village. You won't find nets drying in the sun these days. But you will find delicious seafood, along with a residential area stubbornly out of sync with the adjacent Vila Olimpica neighborhood, which underwent a flamboyant retrofit for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Think of Barceloneta as the more tranquil path to the sea.

Unfortunately, Barceloneta, an appealing expanse of low-rise residences, bars and restaurants -- one of them a fancy seafood restaurant where we were determined to lunch -- is so low-key its streets don't even warrant inclusion on the official tourist maps. That's too bad, because Barceloneta is worth the walk. It isn't even that far from the city center. To get there, simply head for the ocean and turn left.

A likely starting place might be La Rambla, a popular Barcelona promenade packed with overflowing newsstands, flower stalls and caged-bird dealerships. It runs along the Barri Gotic, whose streets are so narrow the sun seeps down as if through Venetian blinds. The faint smell of sewage and neglected garbage cans are a small price to pay, and you can refresh yourself along the way at the cafes in the Picasso and Textile museums.

When you hit the waterfront, take a good look at the Mediter- ranean. The beach is a variation on a city street, decked with palm trees, uncombed sand, a few brave swimmers and cheap cafes. An overhang provides shelter from the sun as you follow the coast east to the Marina at Port Vell. En route, check out the fancy sidewalk cafes on the Passeig de Joan de Borbo, their market umbrellas billowing like clipper ships with sails at full mast.

Barceloneta is on the marina's far side. If kempt landscapes are more your style, cut through the pretty Parc de la Ciutedella and the zoo, exiting on the south side. Cross the Ronda Litoral to enter Barceloneta.

Barceloneta was designed by an 18th-century French engineer with the improbable name of Prosper Verboom. He believed buildings should be only one story high, the better to allow in light and give all households a street view. Over time, his height restrictions eroded and the cityscape became more of a mishmash. But it remains a mishmash with soul.

In keeping with Verboom's vision, Barceloneta is best seen in the daytime. Unlike the gaudier parts of Barcelona near city center, it offers laid-back meeting places where kids play and adults exchange gossip. Visitors who don't want to come on foot or by cab can take the Metro.

But about that fancy seafood restaurant. It's called Can Mayo (Almirall Aixada, 23) and specializes in serious stews, grilled seafood and fresh shellfish, with meals costing about $20 per person. We arrived at 1 p.m. on a weekday and couldn't help but notice that the regulars wait till 2 to break for lunch. As we were finishing up a platter of perfectly cooked shellfish and a rice dish with mussels, shrimp and clams, they were tucking into more exotic shellfish and white wine, with fruit tarts to finish.

If you're in the mood for something cheaper and more down-home, try the tapas at Can Ganassa (Placa de Barceloneta, 4-6). Assuming our customary roles as the Michelin Tire Man and His Family, we worked our way through an olive-oil-based smorgasbord that included anchovies cured in vinegar and fresh coriander; blistered sweet peppers with garlic and olives; meatballs in tomato sauce; and creamy slices of potato omelet. Prices per tapa start at $2.25.

The people of Barcelona seem to live on tapas. If you intend to eat like a native, which means waiting till the middle of the night for dinner and consuming lunch when one normally naps, tapas keep body and soul together.

It took us a few days to find the interesting stretch of tapas bars directly north of Barceloneta at the Passeig del Born near the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral. Never mind how long it took us to master Barcelona's other treasures. Plan on taking your time. And think of your search as a way to walk off the olive oil.

Information: Tourist Office of Spain, 212-265-8822 or 212-265-8864 (fax), http://www.okspain.org. The city of Barcelona has a site at http://www.bcn.es.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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