Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas updates

I know since my first post three years ago about the Caganer Christmas tradition in Catalonia that you are on the edge of your seat every year to know who we have chosen. I can put you out of your misery.

We have broken with the tradition of Barca players to go with the US President elect - and there he is the picture, dumping with Eto'o, Puyol and, er, Messi.

The other tradition here of an annual pre-Christmas lunch with my friends Orland, Pepon, Ramon et al was also purused this year with a very fine boavante y arroz fest at Ca La Nuri which is right on the Barceloneta beach.

Que bueno, as they say here, as we drank our post-prandial gin & tonics on the terrace as a chilly winter sun set over the port.

Finally why is it so cold in Madrid right now? because they are -12 ....

Monday, December 15, 2008

High times

‘I’m still on a high’ said Ben as we walked back from the party last night.

That was some high, almost 24 hours after the end of el clasico, the thrilling encounter between Barca and Real Madrid, that we were privileged to attend.

I can’t remember a football game I have seen with so much atmosphere, tension and excitement and the wonderful denouement of course of the Barca victory with two late goals. .

Virtually full, the Camp Nou was packed with some 96,000 cules wanting revenge against their fiercest enemy – revenge for the humiliation of last April when Barca applauded Real on to their own pitch after they had won La Liga and then swooned to lose 1-4 in a spineless pathetic display.

Now, Barca, playing some of the finest football of any club team in Europe, were 9 points ahead of Madrid, who had lost 3 games out of 4, had a dreadful injury list and had just sacked their manager. Even the saner papers here were predicting margins of 5-0 and 6-1, all of which were utter nonsense.

The fierce rain only added to the charged atmosphere. We got soaked as we got off the bus, soaked as we ate our sandwiches outside the Rala 2 bar and soaked as we walked down to the ground. Unlike the 70,000 or so fans exposed in the open seats, we were at least under cover for the duration of the match.

What followed was 93 minutes of hyper charged football as Barca totally dominated possession but came up against a Real so obdurate, so determined and at times so dirty that it looked like they would steal a point. No pasaran, the rallying cry of the Republican La Pasionara in the Civil War, had been adopted as the unifying force of Madrid defence. Time again Cannavaro blocked shots with every part of his body, while Casillas made extraordinary saves from Messi and Eto’o, not least from the 75th minute penalty.

Next to us, a Catalan descended into the depths of despair, fearing that not only would Barca fail to score, but that Real would break away and steal an improbable victory, which they threatened to do more than once.

Finally, scrappily, Eto’o forced the ball over the line from a corner with seven minutes left and the whole stadium went berserk. Ben hugged the Catalan and high fived the Austrian sitting on my right. Madrid, falling 12 points behind, saw their season ebbing away.

Eight minutes later Barca broke away again and, as Messi lobbed Casillas, Cannavaro ended up injuring himself on the post as he desperately tried, but failed, to keep the ball out. The symbolism of one of the world’s great defenders lying on the ground in agony in the pouring rain as 96,000 fans went beyond ecstasy was almost tragic.

Beyond the stadium, Sarah had switched on belatedly at home to watch the extraordinary finale. Bex had watched in a packed bar in Sitges. Around the city, and all of Catalonia, people poured out of bars and homes to celebrate and let off firecrackers.

We walked home amid a cacophony of beeping motorbikes and got soaked yet again. High? We didn’t even notice the rain …

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hello to economic reality and go home please

Spain is even more in the economic toilet than Britain, which is saying something. Property companies and estate agents are going tits up by the day while unemployment is rising at a rapid rate.

Hence on the front page of a local free paper the other day was a story about how Spanish people are now accepting all the crap jobs they previously left to the Columbians, Peruvians and so on, such as cleaning, nannying, portering, washing up and so on.

And inside? An advert from the Spanish government explaining the new voluntary repatriation scheme for unemployed legal residents from outside the EU. You get your dole money paid (40% on leaving and the rest when you get back) and the right to come back three years hence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

We have a winter

After two very mild ones, it's damn chilly and there's been lots of snow in the Pyrenees where the ski stations have opened two weeks early.

The chestnut and sweet potato sellers, who did no businesses last winter, are having a great time of it. And the Christmas lights, always an understated delight, have been switched on.

Nobody's got any money but .... it sure looks nice

UPDATE: hue hail storm

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Goodnight Vienna

All I know about Vienna and I heave learned from The Third Man, very definitely one of the greatest films ever. 

And for my first two days there I learned little more, spending much of it inside the very splendid Grand Hotel (and everything you think a hotel called the Grand in Vienna might be, it is, all brocade, grand rooms, gold taps, kaffee and kuchen etc).  

But the taxis I took through the wet and the grey showed a city straight out of Third Man country, all wrought iron balconies,  smart shuttered shops, large dark front doors and spired sloping roofs. And the two hours I got to march round the centre were delightful, through the parks, the magnificent Burghof, past shops selling Loden and a million coffee shops, including the wonderful Demel where the obligatory sachertorte was purchased. 

It must be time to see The Third Man again. The clip above is the scene where Orson Welles is finally seen for the first time,  on a dark street corner as a pool of light falls on him briefly, and is possibly the greatest scene in cinema. Ever. 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Samuel Eto'o and Nina Simone

Previously on this blog we have recorded the similarities between the mercurial Barca striker Samuel Eto'o and legendary artiste Nina Simone.

Both are/were stunning performers when they are in the groove yet extraordinarily moody and subject to hissy fits of sneering sullenness when not. Both lit up my weekend.

On Friday we went to see 'Nina Simone: the sorceress', a lovingly made, if slightly confused homage to the great diva, featuring her live performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. And you got the whole nine yards - the grimacing, the cackling, the staring - all conspiring to scare the audience out of its wits. And of course the virtuoso performance ....

... which leads to 24 hours later at the Camp Nou where Mr E played a key role in opening up yet another lame opposing defence with a stunning display of attacking football. Samuel scored a hat trick within the first 25 minutes, all classic 'No 9' poachers' goals.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The good, the bad ...

On a whim last night we went down to the Borne and dropped in at two of our favourite bars, Xampanet - one of the city's oldest and most famous - and Paco, a great cocktail/DJ bar in the same street where we have our flat.

It was a gorgeous evening, both bars were crowded, and the streets were buzzing, although tourists were thin on the ground. It really is a great part of town. It felt very good to be there.

Today has been less good. what i thought was a minor filling job on a tooth turned out to be one that needs an expensive treatment; I then came home and steeled myself to deliver some bad news to a business associate.

Having done that, i heard that a friend needed more major surgery for the second time this year. That's quite enough bad news for one day ...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

10 days that shook the world

It's been 10 days since the last post on this blog, a gap that has encompassed the biggest week's stock market meltdown in history.

It's pretty dire and yes there could be worse to come if the powers that be cant think of a way to fix the system this weekend.

Time to hang on to your friends and have fun. and eat well.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

They don't make football derbies like that anymore ...

  • 19 local players in the squads
  • 2 local managers
  • a dodgy sending off
  • home team takes the lead after opposing goalie is fouled
  • away team equalises after lucky rebound from defender 
  • away fans lob fireworks on home supporters
  • away team attacks non stop but repelled by woodwork and stout defending
  • pompous ref stops game for 10 minutes
  • away team wins game with last kick of the match in the 104th minute - a highly dubious penalty
  • police, football authorities, home team, away team all blame each other for allowing violence to happen
  • away team captain says they're not real fans ... deplorable ... shocking, having gone to celebrate with them when winning goal goes in
Oh yes they do. Espanyol vs Barca, 27 sep 2008.  see it here

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

the blog is back

It´s been almost three months since the last post. A pretty standard Spanish summer break, especially up here where no sooner are people back on 1 Sep than you have time off for the national day (the 11th) and the wonderful Merce festival (ongoing until tomorrow).

As per usual it has rained during the Merce, which is good for the Catalan mushroom industry. And between the showers we managed to take in the fireworks, the fantastic light show on the front of the Ajuntamente building, a brilliant concert by Barcelona based latin salsa group La Sucursal SA and the annual Catalan wine and cava show at the port.

And Barca are back; after a few nervy displays they looked wonderful as they demolished Gijon 6-1 on Sunday. Make no move until you have seen the fourth goal from the genius Iniesta or read Sid Lowe´s jolly tale of how the Gijon crowd are so happy to be back in Primera they sang ever louder as more Barca goals went in.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Catalonia is not Spain (Well, maybe a little right now …)

It’s been great fun watching Spain’s serene progress to the final of Euro 2008 in all senses of the word.

Great fun because they have played some exquisite football; last night’s demolition of Russia was sublime to watch. But great fun also because it has highlighted the bitter-sweet relationship between the Catalans and the nation as a whole.

You don’t need a Spanis civil war history lesson here to know that for a chunky minority of Catalans, Catalonia is not Spain (as the posters given away outside European games at the Camp Nou proclaim).

On top of the 10% or so who would like complete independence, many more here feel Catalonia should get considerably more autonomy, and keep a higher percentage of its economic revenues, from the central government. Culturally, many Catalans feel as close to Madrid as they do to Lisbon or Paris.

So when the tournament opened, just 45% of Catalans watched the opening game on TV versus around 55% nationally and 65% in the Madrid region. While thousands sang and danced in front of the big screen in Madrid’s Plaza Colon, Barcelona’s big squares were empty.

Even the dramatic quarter final penalty shootout over Italy, which I watched in a bar deep in the Catalan countryside, seemed to evoke only a smatter of amused indifference among the locals.

As one Catalan friend put it ‘What really pisses us off is all the ra-ra Spanish stuff that goes with it all.’ He means the Spanish fans dressed as matadors in Vienna or staging mock bull fights in Austrian squares – the whole sangria and senorita image of the country that should have died about 40 years ago. The TV coverage is becoming more nattily nationalistic by the day.

But there is a slight thawing going on. There was a widespread tooting of horns after the games last night; it was hardly akin to when Barca win a title, but it made a decent noise. And I suspect there will be more if they win on Sunday.

And, heck, why not? Spain are, by any measure, playing beautiful football, the like of which few international teams have aspired to in recent years. And it’s being inspired by a Barca/Catalan engine room of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas. Last night’s victory was made in Catalonia.

And, really, would you go the whole hog and back Germany on Sunday just to spite the national cause? We’re not talking plucky little Denmark here or pledging our troth to the beautiful game as played by Portugal. We’re talking big, bad unlovable Germany who win far too often and do so without the passion and beauty that the Spanish bring to the game.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

How cheap are a pair of trousers?

Under 20 euros at Zara for a pair of linen/cotton trousers. 19.90 to be exact. As far as I remember these were around 29 euros last year.

The trousers are made in Turkey and the reduction seems to have everything to do with the strength of the euro. While it's hurting the amount of money I get (I get paid in pounds) it is making goods imported into the EU from outside that much cheaper. 

These trousers were made in Turkey and Zara's Turkish lira costs have decreased around 30% over the last six months.  So I am winning on one side of the equation and losing on the other ...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

When chefs fall out

The dispute between Santi Santamaria and Ferran Adria et al over the alleged ‘poisoning of diners’ is both hilarious and pathetic. 

Nobody has summed it up better than Aidan Brooks, trainee chef at Commerc 24. 

No need to summarise his piece. just read it here.

The fourth wet weekend in succession

My friend who runs the biggest cinema chain in Spain  is thrilled. The rest of us are less than enchanted. The reservoirs, 20% full at the end of March, are now over half full. The drought is officially over. 

Enough already. Bring on flaming June … 

Three things I did this weekend which I didn’t expect to do and enjoyed

  1. Dance on the stage at ommsession at 3am. Life in the old dog etc
  2. Go to see (male) beach volleyball. Weirdly in a city with so much beach, it was half way up the Montjuic mountain
  3. Watch ‘21’ the brilliant film based on the true story about six mathematicians who take on the Vegas casinos and almost win.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rangers fans in Manchester; no surprise

The appalling behaviour of Rangers fans in my home town of Manchester came as no surprise. They came to Barcelona last autumn, in much smaller numbers, and proceeded to drink, piss and vomit in every corner of the city.  

Here they are in action in Manchester:

Nice eh? As a result of this, United's homecoming parade with the Premiership title, and possibly the Champions' League title, has been cancelled. Meanwhile Rangers, possibly the dullest team in the world, go home to win a few more Mickey Mouse Scottish titles.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Is this the best menu del dia in the world?

The local Time Out’s latest issue (the cover price is back to €1 which sounds like it is not doing too well) has a cover story on the city’s best menu del dias – the three course fixed lunch menus that you can find all over the city for €10-20.

 The  menu del dia was an invention of the Franco era, designed to keep the workers near the factory at lunchtime rather than go home to eat and siesta with the wife. No longer compulsory, they are still an attractive way for a restaurant to bring  in lunch time custom and use up last’s leftovers.

 They missed the best one. On Friday, Sarah and I went to Alkimia, the one-Michelin starred restaurant near the Sagrada Familia, and one of the vanguard of new Catalan cooking, where they have just introduced a €32 menu del dia. By the time they’d added on the cover charge, wine and VAT, it was a grand total of €85, or £34 a head. I imagine there are plenty of similar restaurants around the world where you can’t get a main course for £34. If it was designed to face up to the recession now gripping Spain, it seems to be working. The restaurant was near full by 2.30pm.

Nor was it yesterday’s leftovers. The starters were a shot glass of tomato consommé with croutons (a nice play on pan con tomate) and a beautifully textured jellied foie, granola and apple. 

There were three main courses, each with a choice; artichoke salad or marinated salmon, a poached egg in broth or chicken ravioli, then braised lamb or cod. All exquisitely prepared, presented and served, as were the desserts and petit fours, particularly the skewered ball of vanilla ice cream covered in white chocolate.

 It would take a brave person to tackle either the €54 menu (three starters/five mains/two desserts) or even the €68 12-course special, but hopefully I will get a chance to try.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An extraordinary day

By any standards, yesterday was a wonderful day to be in Barcelona. The sun shone all day as the city (and Catalunya) celebrated Sant Jordi when every man has to give a red rose to his beloved and in return receive a book. 

The streets were packed with rose sellers, some from florists, others who'd just bought a dozen or so and set up a table at a street corner. And book stalls were everywhere with readings, signings across the city. If it was not quite the city of love, it was at least a city of blissful happiness. 

Having no beloved here (she is in London) I did the next best thing and bought roses for some proxies who I happen to like and who I would see that day. Rebecca of course, Elvira, our cleaner, and Vicky and (another) Rebecca, the mother and daughter team who run the polloeria in Galvany market where I buy my chickens.

Best of all, they opened up the magnificent town hall for the one day only and I got to look round the mayor's office (and saw the mayor) the council chamber and most of all, the vast and  wonderful salo de cent, the 14th century great hall where the council of 100 deputies sat as one of the earlier examples of representative local government. 

Oh yes there was a football match on as well; the one I hoped would never happen between Manchester United and Barca. As a spectacle - a packed camp nou full  of cules in their best voice - it was extraordinary, and to be there with Ben was something I will always remember.  

My two favourite football teams, my son, the best stadium anywhere, a fine havana cigar and a bocadillo pernil amb tomate. I'm easily satisfied ... 

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Still a great place for food

It seems we hadnt been out to eat in a while but then came a mighty rush this week, all proving that, despite the trailer trash levels that the pound now stands at against the euro, you can eat amazingly well here for very little money. 

Here goes:

  • Thursday night: Cuines de Santa Caterina. An old favourite but still packing them into the huge canteen style tables for great market-style fusion cooking ranging from Gorgonzola risotto to tuna and avocado tartare via thai chicken curry. Ten of us ate here for under £200
  • Friday night: El Japones de Tragaluz. Same owners as the above; a very stylish Japanese. We'd been told to avoid the sushi but the hot dishes and desserts were all more than up to par. Japanese pizza and mandarin sorbet are not to be missed.  Four of us for £55.
  • Today. Went with a huge group to the Castell de Rocamora in Montferri, about an hour south of Barcelona for a calcotada - a feast of eating calcots, the wierd and wonderful leek/onion crosses that are just ending their season. 
You basically thrown a whole mass of these things on the fire to cook, let them cool a little and then serve them at the open air table. You get your bib on, strip the outer leaves, dip them in romesco sauce (almonds, tomato, oil, vinegar) and shovel them down your throat.  They're delicious, very moreish and pretty windy.

After getting through several dozen of these (see aftermath above) you then go inside for the rest of the lunch - sausages, black pudding, lamb chips, chips, salad, profiteroles, red and white wine and cava. The cost?  £30 a head ...

Possibly the best football ground in the world

A strong candidate would be the Campo de Futbol de Carmelo where I watched Ben play on Saturday morning. Sadly I didn't have my camera with me, but if you imagine a football pitch carved high into the rocks of a mountain you have it. 

The mountain is actually Barcelona's Park Guell, home to several Gaudiesque follies, high above the city. The ground has a neat little grandstand on one side, so you can watch the game and get this stunning view of the city and the sea beneath you. It was a glorious sunny morning on Saturday which made sitting there even more blissful. 

There was, as with all these clubs, a splendid cafe which served a bacon baguette of some brilliance. That, a decent cup of tea, and a variety of podcasts on my iPod Touch; what more could a man ask for?

Oh yes, the football. Ben's team went three down, fought back to 4-4 and lost 6-9. Which was a whole lot better than the previous week's 15-0 defeat ... 

Monday, March 24, 2008

Suoerlative Sunday

United, Barca win
Arsenal, Real Madrid lose

and CP Sarria win their tournament, defeating 15 other teams in the age group. 

Priceless ...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The AVE train is truly impressive

It's been 15 years' coming, but the high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid was really worth the wait. 

Just over 3 hours door to door, despite four scheduled stops and a somewhat circuitous route designed to take in the population centres in this sparsely peopled country. Without stops its 2hrs 40 mins. 

Comfortable seats, tonnes of legroom, movies on the screen and 300kph dialling up on the clock within around 20 minutes of leaving a nicely spruced up Sants station. All this for £29 each way if you book in advance and you get half your money back if it's more than 15 minutes late and the whole lot if more than 30. 

Madrid? As impressively and imposingly post-empire as ever, a wonderful and gigantic Picasso exhibition and some more than decent food. try especially Juana la Loca for top tapas  (4 Plaza Puerta de Moros. Tel. 91 364 0525) and the Galician Orixe (cava baja 17, 91 354 0647). 

Just a shame about their football teams and their lack of beaches/mountains/sea etc etc

The Biggest Sunday of Football ...

United vs Liverpool
Arsenal vs Chelsea

but more than that

CP Sarria Alevin in the final of the Benicassim Easter football tournament ....

watch this space

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The blog is back

Sorry it's been so quiet, we've been launching a website and very nice it looks too. So a quick round up:

good week:
  • Celtic fans: loyal, funny and well behaved to the last. They put their Rangers rivals to shame
  • The Barcelona municipality for learning the lessons of the Rangers visit and entertaining them with paella, music, beer and big screens in Montjuic instad of letting them piss all over Plaza Catalunya
  • Jose Luis Zapatero.  Looks like the PM will get back in at this weekend's general election. He's outsmarted the unpleasant Mariano Rajoy in both TV debates and generally run a brighter and more optimistic campaign. Perhaps Zapatero's Catalan list leader Carme Chacón went a little too far in comparing him with Ronaldinho however ...
bad week:
  • The Celtic team. Now we knew they had no chance but we had no idea they would be so craven and pathetic in defeat. The fans deserved better
  • Real Madrid: another year, another failure to get to the quarter finals of the Champions League. shameful
  • Leo Messi. Hamstrings of cotton. Out for six weeks. He weeps, we weep. While you wait for him to return, read John Carlin's marvellous profile of the wonderkid
  • Mariano Rajoy: it's the end my friend. Possibly the last time a bearded man will run for the highest office in a western European democracy. 

Friday, February 15, 2008

The train is here

16 years after arriving in Sevilla, a beautiful town of no economic importance whatseover (but home of the ruling prime minister) ...

two months after the last promised 'drop dead' date, the attempt to meet which caused massive problems to the local rail network ...

Barcelona gets its AVE high speed rail link to Madrid. 

The delays and maladministration have probably done more to fire Catalan self-government than any heady political movement could.  When national development minister Magdalena Alvarez swept into town last week to announce the launch date, she was greeted like Typhoid Mary by the Catalan administration who failed to send anyone to meet her at the station. 

But it does look impressive. 

From next Wednesday it  will be as quick as 2h 38m to cover the 400 miles to the capital. The Landers will be on board on 16 March for a planned visit there having snapped up a set of tickets at 42 euros each way. 

Not bad when you think that you get 50% back if you are 15 mins late and the whole lot back after a 30 minute delay.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Let it be noted ...

... that Ben's team, CP Sarria Alevin B, has now won five games on the bounce (after losing six of the first seven) and has charged up the league from 11th (out of 13)  to 7th and could go 6th next week if the results go right.  

This follows today's thrashing of Parc UD 7-2. Next week sees the second half of the season. Onwards and upwards!

Pascal’s big night out in Barcelona

Arsenal reject and fat lump defender Pascal Cygan came with Vilareal to the Camp Nou on Thursday night for a Kings Cup tie. Here’s the story of his evening:

There’s Pascal
He's big, old, slow and bald
There’s Leo
Leo’s young, fast, lithe and has long hair

Watch Leo run!
See Pascal’s eyes
Pascal is scared

Pascal has an idea
‘I’ll stick my leg out to stop Leo’

Here comes the ref
Waving his nice yellow card!

Now here’s the free kick
Pascal is watching the ball
He is not watching Thierry
Who scores with a free header

Boo hoo!
Vilareal are losing!
Pascal claps his hands and says
'Come on, we can still win this one!'

(One minute later)
Here comes Leo again!
He runs even faster
Pascal has another idea
‘I’ll stick my leg out to stop Leo’

Here comes the ref
Waving his nice red card!

Off you go Pascal!
You're a complete idiot say his teammates
Night, night say the crowd!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sun and Snow

These two pictures were both taken yesterday with the Catalan Pyrenees finally opening every station after some heavy dumps and the temperature on the Barcelona beach front reaching 19C. Very nice ... 

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Three Kings: what else?

Today is Three Kings in Spain when said monarchs descend from the east to provide children and adults alike with their seasonal gifts in place of (or addition to) the ones provided by Santa Claus 12 days earlier.

For many grown ups, the kings will have provided a Nespresso device, the home espresso machine made by Nestle. You can hardly pass a street hoarding without seeing George (‘Nespresso: what else?’) Clooney advertising the system, while the shop round the corner from us was packed to the rafters yesterday with last-minute buyers. This in a land where coffee is almost sacred.

It’s a great business. The machines themselves range from E150-1,000, the purchase of which hook you into forever buying the custom coffee pods. You’ll want all 15+ premium coffee varieties of course, along with the cups, sugars, biscuits etc that come with it. Once in, you’re hooked, or you end up writing off cost of the machine. Very clever.

The resonance for me was the coffee market study we did at business school some 12 years ago. It focused on how Nestle and Kraft fought tooth and nail for ever 1% market share in the stores while being completely blindsided by the rise of Starbucks, which had persuaded people to buy their coffee at £4 a go in a café rather than take it up and pay an effective 10p.

So this is Nestle’s revenge. And some revenge. John Gapper has a fun article on the Nespresso phenomenon in the FT which reveals that Nestle sold 1.4m Nespresso machines and 2.3bn pods in 2006. It’s a cult, he admits as a user ‘“an experience” rather than coffee, Nestlé told analysts last year and, boy, is it all-enveloping.’

And much cheaper than Starbucks …