The last time I was in Florence, in the summer of 2011, I hoped to visit the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale, a famous food market in the heart of the city. I love food, I love markets, and it sounded like a treasure trove of exciting new discoveries. Alas, I made the rookie mistake of forgetting to check if the market had different opening hours during the month of August when I was there, and assumed I still had a couple of hours left to see it on my last day. Everyone warns against going to Italy in August - the cities pretty much shut down as many businesses close up shop for weeks on end, putting up signs saying they've gone to the beach (yes, for the month!). I insisted on travelling there then anyway, and it was actually fine - things were still open and though it was hot, it had nothing on the sweltering heat of the Dubai summer so it was bearable, plus the streets were pleasantly emptier than they would be during high season. The one caveat? Just because something has the same opening hours every day for the rest of the year doesn't mean that's the case in August. Case in point, the San Lorenzo Market. I walked around the boarded up walls, peering in trying to catch a glimpse after people had already packed up and gone home for the day hours early, and went back to my hotel with my tail between our legs, vowing to make it some day in the future.
Which is why when I went to Barcelona, I was determined to make it to a food market there. (I know, you were thinking, "Isn't this meant to be a post about Barcelona in Spain, not Florence in Italy?"). Much to my delight, my hotel (a fabulous little boutique-style place called the Hotel Espana Ramblas) was literally just a hop and a skip away from the mother of all food markets, La Boqueria. The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria is pure foodie paradise. One of the city's most famous attractions (this is a city that truly celebrates good food, after all), there's everything from candies and chocolates to fresh fruit, seafood, poultry, cured and fresh meats, vegetables, pastries and more, all under one bustling, buzzing roof.
Vegetarians, vegans, and pescatarians, consider yourself warned: The butcher shops housed in La Boqueria are not for the faint-hearted, with some displays even boasting pig heads and huge hunks of ham complete with hoof attached. But for a meat-lover, this could be heaven, where stall-owners hawk their freshly-sliced, "melt in your mouth" jamon iberico wrapped up in little paper cups like meaty bouquets of flowers.
Of course, being a visitor to the city, I didn't have much use for the fresh produce, dairy, and so on, without a kitchen to go home and cook them in. And considering I was only there for a short number of days (armed with an epic list of recommendations from my brother, an avid foodie who had lived in Barcelona for years), I was already facing the conundrum of trying to figure out how many meals I could physically manage in a day in order to "fit them all in" to get a taste. But my favourite part of the market? Definitely the tapas stations. Within the market itself, there are plenty of mini restaurants, permanent stalls set up with sit-up bars and kitchens serving out plate after plate of heaving, hot, delicious food, all for really reasonable prices.
La Boqueria came recommended to me by many locals, and when you're given that kind of a recommendation, you know it's not going to disappoint - and of course, it didn't. It was so good that I eschewed some of my other plans to eat elsewhere to go back and try other restaurant stalls I'd walked past but hadn't yet had the belly-spar for, and for not very much money, I filled myself with a smorgasbord of tapas goodness. I sampled everything from chorizo and patatas bravas to grilled pulpo (octopus) and solomio and so much more in between, and I already know this market will be one of the first pitstops I make on my next trip to Barcelona.
Photographs by Yi-Hwa Hanna