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

In the Shadow of the Prado

If my trips to Madrid have been notable for one thing, it would be overindulgence. It’s not just the food, but the art. After all, Madrid has the Prado, which houses one of the world’s most exquisite collections of European paintings. As if that weren’t enough, the city also has the massive Reina Sofia museum of modern art (home to Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a once-private art collection that spans the history of Western art from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

Before my most recent trip to Madrid, I searched for some celiac-friendly restaurants. The Asociación de Celíacos de Madrid has an excellent website, with information available in Spanish and English; the association maintains a gluten-free restaurant list, and it offers some general guidelines about ordering in Spanish restaurants as well. The restaurants on its list include spots such as No Sólo Pasta, which may be the most famous gluten-free restaurant in Madrid, and Madrid 20. However, there was no mention of my favorite restaurant from my first trip to Madrid, before I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

Once in Madrid, I decided to give El Cenador del Prado a try anyway. Located close to the Prado, the restaurant recreates the elegant world depicted in some of the museum’s 18th- and 19th-century paintings. Located in a dramatic, antique-filled building, El Cenador is filled with gilded mirrors and trompe l’oeil paintings. Its most beautiful dining room has trellis lattices and flowers painted on all four walls, creating the impression of being seated in an opulent gazebo on a sunny day.

I remembered from my previous visit that the restaurant’s service was just as luxurious as the surroundings, and I wasn’t disappointed the second time around. Much to my surprise — and delight — my waiter knew exactly what celiac disease was. He then proceeded to call over the other servers and have them read my Spanish celiac translation card, so that there would be no confusion about what would be served to me. My waiter consulted with the chef and described to me, in a mix of Spanish and English, what my options were. I ended up having a creamy mushroom soup followed by grilled cod with potatoes and leeks. Dinner was accompanied by a selection from El Cenador’s excellent — and affordable — list of Spanish wines. For dessert, I had Spanish cheeses and fruit, which made me feel, as indulgent as I was that evening, almost virtuous.

El Cenador del Prado [address] Calle del Prado, 4, Madrid 28014, Spain [tel] 91 429-15-61 or 91 429-15-49 [web] www.elcenadordelprado.com

Celiac Disease in Translation

In the four years since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve traveled to six countries where I didn’t speak the language. Asking the right questions about food preparation when you, your server and your chef all speak the same tongue can be challenging. When you’re dealing with translation issues, it makes the entire process that much tougher. Eating at a restaurant is always an exercise in trust; for the gluten-intolerant, it feels especially risky. I plan ahead by printing celiac disease translation cards before leaving home. Here’s how to do it — for free.

  1. Start by checking for free celiac information cards from national or regional associations. Both the Czech Coeliac Society and the Swiss Celiac Society offer such cards online. For other countries, take a look at the “International Celiac Societies” listed on the Resources page at Celiac Handbook. Only a few of them provide a card, but hopefully the number will increase. Print several copies so you won’t mind if a card gets damaged in a restaurant kitchen.
  2. The Celiac Travel website provides an impressive selection of cards in many languages (currently there are 38, including Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu). I’ve used both the Hungarian and Spanish cards from this site and found that they worked extremely well. Given that several companies are charging money for celiac translation cards, I have to tip my hat to Roger and Lyndsay, who run this site, because they’re providing these detailed cards for free (a small donation is requested but not required).
  3. Gluten-Free Passport provides free cards online in French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. I like these because you have the English and the translated language side by side, though of course that makes these cards larger to print.
  4. There are several sites, including Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Finnish Celiac Society, that provide or link to free information about celiac disease in different languages. These descriptions aren’t detailed, but they certainly get the point across in languages including Polish and Thai.
  5. If possible, learn a few words or phrases in the local language before you go on your trip. Knowing how to say “Tengo la enfermedad celiaca; No puedo comer harina o trigo” (I have celiac disease; I can’t eat flour or wheat) made my travels to Spain and Chile easier, because awareness of celiac disease was widespread. But I have to admit that I never managed this in Hungarian.

Has anyone bought the celiac translation cards from Triumph Dining, or paid for gluten intolerance or food allergy translation at Allergy Translation? I haven’t tried either of these options, but I’d love to hear your comments about them.

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.)