The Mercat San Josep or better known as “La Boqueria” in Barcelona was absolutely fantastic! Located on La Rambla (or Las Ramblas or Les Rambles, confused folk those Catalans…) in the Raval District (next to the gothic District), it has certainly earned a place in my list of “Top 3″ favorite markets around the world. Along with the Union Square Market in New York and the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, La Boqueria took about 5 seconds to cast its spell on Marketman. There are lots of terrific and charming markets around the globe that I have seen, and many that I have not, but a few markets standout as places I would have no problem living next to and exploring again and again. I am particularly fond of small neighborhood markets like those in Paris, San Francisco and Bangkok but when you need variety, a large city market is a must! There was so much hype about La Boqueria that I was worried it would be a bit of a letdown. The first apartment we reserved in Barcelona was literally above the entrance to the market on the left side (in case you have been there). Unfortunately, that fell through and we booked another apartment around the corner, about 3 minutes walk from the marketâ€¦close enough indeed.
La Boqueria traces its way back to the early 1840â€™s and its central location in a high density and high-foot traffic neighborhood, its large selection of goods and hundreds of merchants make it the undisputed king of Barcelona markets for the past 160 years! It has at least 10 aisles and perhaps a good 250+ stalls. If you count the florists and other nearby vendors it probably comes close to 300 merchants. It is spacious, clean and airy and sits under a huge roof that towers above the stalls. There is an outdoor market area (which I suspect the locals get better deals at) and little groceries, bakeries, provedores, etc. on the periphery of the market. It combines little tapas bars, produce sellers, jamon experts, seafood provedores, fruit, pastas, rice, etc. etc. I was so overwhelmed on my first visit at 8 am on a Tuesday as the market came to life that I vowed to return daily (which I nearly did) for the six days we stayed in the city.
It is such a tourist destination that I was certain it would not have the â€œheartâ€ of a real market. But if you avoid the market after 10 am and before 5 pm, you probably get a better feel for what it really has to offer. Despite the thousands of sightseers on the premises during most of the day, this market IS frequented by many of the locals. In the early morning you also find the neighborhood cooks, many of them Filipinas, with their carts buying their provisions. I tagged along behind a few locals and they definitely seemed to get a better pick of goods and bigger price breaksâ€¦that is to be expected and I suspect I could command the â€œinsidersâ€ price after a month of daily visits and a few thousand dollars worth of language classes.
The vendors realize tourists are part of their marketâ€™s continued success but their bread and butter comes from serious customers that buy in bigger quantities. After all, how many crayfish is the average tourist likely to purchase? In a bow to tourists, the market has SPECTACULAR candy stalls, dried fruit, fresh fruit, prepared salads and of course the tapas bars that are not only crowded by locals at the start of the day but descended upon by hoards of tourists who often havenâ€™t the foggiest clue what they are ordering.
Despite being early May, the selection of produce was stunningly good. Of course quite a bit was probably imported from other warmer climates, there was an abundance of items in season such as artichokes, asparagus, baby lettuces, oranges, etc. The first cherries from Southern Spain were also making an appearance and the berries (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.) were already on offer. Not sure if many of these were greenhouse products but the sheer variety and for the most part, high quality was truly impressive. Prices were frankly, somewhat astronomical except for items that were local and plentifulâ€¦think 9.50 Euro for a kilo of cherries but just 1 Euro for a kilo of artichokes!
As you enter the market, the first stalls are clearly set up to “wow” the visitor. Fruit is painstakingly arranged in spectacular pyramids of unblemished examples of each fruit resting on green leaves. Visually, it was the most amazing displays I have seen outside of Japanese and Korean department stores that are notoriously anal retentive about their fruit. But donâ€™t reach out and start grabbing some fruit for the vendor to weigh, they frown on this. You have to tell them what you want and THEY pick it out. Not sure if this applies to locals but it is a turn-off for a serious market denizen. Sure enough, you see brilliant berries on display but they give you some of the dregs as well.
Just keep wandering the aisles and come across a small but stunning seafood section, several meat vendors, incredible offerings of offal and other unusual animal parts, endless ham and sausage vendors, tapas bars, cheesemongers, etc. Go early if you want to get a really good feel for the market and what it has to offer. Some of the vendors were a tad snooty but once they realized you were buying to cook, or if they mistook you for a Filipino major domo, they seemed to warm up a bit. Of course, inevitably, money talksâ€¦if you asked for the finest tiniest forest strawberries, the most artisanal of jamon jabugos and the freshest seafood, you inevitably got some respectâ€¦ I regret that our rented apartment had a minimally appointed kitchen so we only cooked basic meals but if I could bring my kitchen at the beach to within a few meters of this market I would probably never leave the area again…
La Boqueria was an absolute pleasureâ€¦definitely worth a visit, or two, or more. I will post more photos in upcoming entries as well as doing sub-features on offal, hams, seafood, etc.!