Exploring Barcelona With Rick Steves

Let me admit a certain amount of bias upfront: I spent a decade writing guidebooks for Frommer’s Travel Guides, so I’m predisposed to believe guidebooks are useful. But in recent years, that belief has taken a beating. Even before the pandemic, guidebooks were an endangered species, since a growing cohort of travelers think they can get everything they need from the Internet. That led to guidebooks being updated less frequently, which undermined their utility. More recently, guidebooks have been getting a bad reputation thanks to what the New York Times calls “a new form of travel scam: shoddy guidebooks that appear to be compiled with the help of generative artificial intelligence, self-published and bolstered by sham reviews, that have proliferated in recent months on Amazon.”

When I was planning my trip to Barcelona this spring, I’d pretty much sworn off guidebooks. This would be my fifth trip to the Catalonian capital, and I felt like I knew my way around the city reasonably well. But when I glanced at the latest guidebook options, I noticed that Rick Steves had a recently updated guide to the city. On impulse, I decided to buy it.

Friends, I’m so glad I did.

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Barcelona’s Casa Calvet

Barcelona is a city that I find more beautiful the closer I get to it. There’s nothing particularly striking about its skyline when viewed from a plane or train. Even from Montjuïc, one of Barcelona’s two mountains, the view is more impressive for what it captures of the Mediterranean than for what you can see of the city itself (see photo above). But once you start walking through its streets, Barcelona becomes so stunning that it’s almost impossible to believe. Up close, Barcelona’s charms are irresistible.

Part of the city’s attraction is its unusual layout and architecture. For starters, once you’ve seen octagonal intersections, you wonder why anyone would plan them any other way. Then there’s the work of extraordinary architects, such as Antoni Gaudí. His inspiring Sagrada Familia, psychedelic Park Güell, and various otherworldly visions are an essential part of what makes Barcelona so dramatic and unique.

Casa Calvet is considered the most conventional of Gaudí’s buildings. Located in the Eixample district, it was built for a textile manufacturer in 1898. While the exterior is far more conventional than a typical Gaudí project, its interior is striking. Better yet, a restaurant (also called Casa Calvet) has been open on the premises since 1994, making fine use of the ground-floor rooms with their soaring, undulating ceilings. But this isn’t a dining spot that gets by on its good looks. While the menu at Casa Calvet changes frequently, I was impressed by the duck-breast salad I had as a starter, and the main-course grilled hake (a salt-water fish that’s similar to cod); both were already gluten-free and required no modification to make them safe for me. Almost everything was made from scratch on the premises (always a help when you need to identify every ingredient in a dish), except the rice cakes that were served to me in lieu of bread. Familiar with celiac disease and the gluten-free diet, the thoughtful restaurant staff made the evening extraordinary. I’ve learned not to expect anything less from Barcelona.

Casa Calvet [address] Carrer Casp 48, Barcelona, Spain [tel] 93-412-40-12 [web] www.casacalvet.es

Balenciaga and Baguette


I’ve been a fan of the department store El Corte Inglés for years. What began as a flirtation with the ubiquitous Spanish chain when I first encountered it in 1999 in Madrid turned into a full-fledged love affair after a couple of subsequent trips to Barcelona, where I learned that the store doesn’t just carry souvenirs, clothing, toiletries, housewares, and electronics, but some of the most exquisite shoes I’ve ever seen. How could you not fall in love with a store that carries beautiful pumps by Balenciaga – and sells them at a reasonable price?

I couldn’t imagine that my passion for El Corte Inglés could get any deeper, but that’s exactly what happened on my last visit to Spain. While I was researching my trip (my first to Spain since being diagnosed with celiac disease), I came across the association Celíacs de Catalunya, which provides information for gluten-intolerant people who live in the Catalan region. In addition to recommended restaurants (which includes some information on other parts of Spain, too), the website provides a list of stores that sell celiac-safe foods, and I spotted El Corte Inglés on this list. After a visit to the store’s website, I was entranced. Was it possible that the department store’s supermarket division really stocked gluten-free croissants by Proceli, madeleines by Adpan, and baguettes by Special Line El Corte Inglés, with each product priced between 2 and 5 Euros? I suspected I was dreaming.

It turned out to be reality. While not every El Corte Inglés supermercado carried the full range of products that appear on the store’s website, every single one carried enough gluten-free goodies to thrill me and my taste buds. Not only was I able to enjoy baked goods sin gluten every day of my trip, but many of the products were vacuum-sealed and dated five months ahead (though once the package is opened, the contents need to be consumed within a few days).

In addition to my almost daily visits to the supermercado, I had to drop by the shoe department once or twice, too. Even with so many packages of Proceli croissants in my suitcase, I managed to find room for one more pair of Spanish-made shoes. The croissants are long gone, sadly, but the shoes are enjoying their new home in New York.

(A note on language and translation: The El Corte Inglés website is in Spanish, while the site for Celíacs de Catalunya is in Spanish and Catalan. You can translate some of the pages using Google. To view the options at El Corte Inglés Supermercado, you will need to enter a Spanish postal code. Can’t think of one? Type “1” in the box and a drop-down menu called “Centros de Recognida” will appear. Pick any option on that list and it will bring you do the main page for the supermarket. Because of the frames on this page, I find Google’s translator doesn’t work with it. Click on the first drop-down menu and select “Alimentos dieteticos”; in the second drop-down menu, select “Productos para celiacos”; on the third drop-down menu, click on each selection in turn to find gluten-free beer, cookies, breads, pastas, and other products.)