I admit it: as anniversary gifts go, discovering my husband had been creeping out of bed at night to use the internet wasn’t top of my wish list. But then Paul revealed he’d got us into Tickets – Ferran and Albert Adrià’s famously oversubscribed Barcelona tapas bar. ‘You can only book online. I had to log on at 2am,’ he pleaded.
The surprises kept coming. The booking was in half-term, so our 11-year-old, Joe, was coming, too; Joe’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Tickets’ menu proving surprise number three. ‘They do exploding olives like at elBulli and all sorts of insane stuff.’
I’d been set up… but I’d only myself to blame. Hadn’t I encouraged Joe’s Blumenthal fixation so he’d have something to discuss during his 11+ interviews?
Tapas work brilliantly with kids. For starters, portions are child-size and designed for sharing; plus prices are usually low.
Two months later, we check into The 5 Rooms – a funky little B&B of 12 rooms (it’s grown) sprawled across two floors of a late 19th-century apartment building. Brilliantly located on the border of the Eixample and Old City districts, it makes a delightful base, not least because we’re minutes from Casa Alfonso – a famed charcuteria, café and brasseria that’s been wowing locals with porcine produce since 1934.
Barcelona’s unorthodox nuttiness sees us pounding pavements well past Joe’s usual cut-off point. The playground of Modernism’s pre-eminent architects, Eixample seemingly has something to gawp at on every block, be that ornate balconies that gaze out like Colombina masks, or Antoni Gaudí’s epic La Sagrada Familia – the architect’s sole focus from 1883 until his death in 1926. Work still continues today, but even the cranes can’t detract from the intricate façades teeming with sculptures. Got younger kids? Modernism’s great for ‘I spy’.
‘It’s like something Tolkien dreamt up,’ whispers Joe.
The inside is equally mind-blowing. It’s an astonishing, light-filled forest of stone; giant tree-like twisted columns branch up and out to support their vaulted foliage. Joe’s right, the elves of Lothlórien would fit in perfectly here.
At Muhba, the Museu d’Història de Barcelona, we discover the remarkably intact remains of Roman Barcelona in the basement (‘Gross! They used wee to bleach clothes!’). More confusing is Macba: Barcelona’s museum of contemporary art, where Joe gets the giggles trying to work out what on earth modern art is all about.
Fuelled by the belief that ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’, we walk for miles, but with plentiful pit stops. At the taverna and artisan deli Onofre we’re seduced by sizzling prawns in garlic and baby eels (gulas) with mushrooms. ‘Like fishy spaghetti,’ muses Joe, ‘just much more fiddly to get on your fork.’
Another lunch sees us squeezing into La Taverna del Clínic to demolish plates of stewed oxtail and slow-cooked suckling lamb – Joe’s favourite. ‘I’m not saying your roasts are rubbish, mum, but I can eat this with my spoon.’
Carne temptation is everywhere. At Reserva Ibérica, surrounded by more vintage hams than a Carry On cast, we nibble slithers of Iberico Joselito Gran Reserve. It is a ham so exquisite, that the revered Spanish food critic Rafael Garcia Santos likened its taste to a ‘stroll through paradise’. Joe scoffs reams of the stuff, then asks: ‘If this is ham, what’s that stuff you put in my sandwiches?’
The Spanish adore kids and, throughout, Joe’s treated like a king. Indeed, at one panadería, the baker, seeing Joe torn between two pastries, hands him the second for free. Only once, stopping at a Gothic quarter granjas (café) for chocolate con churros, do we struggle to feel the love. A reminder that (even when your host’s a benign-looking granny), agree the price first if there’s no menu; the doughnuts and hot chocolate are OK… but not €18 of OK.
Barcelona’s other renowned chocolate experience, the Museu de la Xocolata (museum of chocolate) disappoints, too. Extraordinarily dull, even the chocolate model of Gaudi’s Park Güell dragon seems clinically depressed.
‘I want to melt the chocolate and drown in it, that’s how boring this is. Check your iPhone app, Mum, this can’t be the right place.’
But, finally, within the organised chaos that is Tickets, Joe finds Willy Wonka’s soul – and just like Charlie Bucket, we too are ‘bewildered and dazzled’. Chefs labour furiously at open cooking stations; biplanes and hot-air balloons made from Coke cans dangle from striped canopies; waiters dressed as cinema ushers zip beneath a ceiling strewn with theatre lights, waved on by shelves of mechanical golden cats.
If ever there was a destination restaurant to take kids, it’s here. The menu even highlights child-friendly dishes – including those olives. An intense olive purée emulsion somehow contained within a gossamer-fine skin, they detonate as soon as they hit our tongues.
‘Oh my God,’ exhales Joe… and then the fun begins.
Nothing is what it seems. Avocado Galician crab cannelloni appears capable of escape at any time, and fried duck-egg with truffled fat and potato cream resembles a boring boiled egg, but tastes like super-luxe egg and chips.
Courses arrive with either bespoke cutlery, devouring instructions or both. Razor clams come with hand-wipes, too.
‘Try to eat it in two bites,’ jokes our waitress.
Desserts are similarly fantastical, like a Grimm brothers’ fairytale on a plate. The Living Forest’s imitation fly agaric toadstools seem potentially deadly, but taste like space dust. Finally, we toast our marriage – not with champagne, but with a tree, each branch a carnival cloud of fruit-flavoured candyfloss.
It’s a gloriously childlike way to celebrate a relationship that started way back when we were just kids, so who better to share it with than our own?
How to get there: easyJet flies from London Luton and London Gatwick to Barcelona, from £60 return. Ryanair flies from London Luton and London Stansted to Barcelona El Prat, Girona or Reus Barcelona, from £50 return.
The hotel: The 5 Rooms – a B&B of 12 rooms (it’s grown) makes a delightful base; junior suites cost from £130 per night, including breakfast. Meliã Barcelona; junior suite from £340 per night, including breakfast.
Where to eat: Casa Alfonso (+34 93 301 9783). Onofre (+34 93 317 6937). La Taverna del Clinic (+34 93 410 4221). Reserva Ibérica (+34 93 272 4974). Tickets - it only accepts online bookings, and these are taken up to two months in advance.