Airbnb Experiences in Barcelona!

Not sure if you’ve heard about Airbnb Experiences yet but it’s a relatively new thing that Airbnb has launched to get travelers more immersed in their travel environments! In Barcelona, the city where I first tried Experiences, it had only been launched for about 1 month, and the group of hosts were pretty small. From what I saw, only the best of the best were chosen to be Experiences hosts because all of three that I went to were fantastic! While I’ve always had a good experience with Airbnb, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the whole new Experiences aspect of Airbnb. Often times, new features go through growing pains where things are not organized or expectations are not met. In my experience (hah!), the new Experiences feature, specifically in Barcelona, is very well done as the hosts (like regular Airbnb hosts!) are caring, thoughtful, and very courteous and try their best to make sure you have a fantastic time in their beautiful city.

What are Experiences? Experiences is basically an event you book where you spend a couple hours or so going through some kind of experience that usually is relatively unique to the city you’re visiting. It’s meant to be fun, social, and sometimes incredibly informative (depending on your chosen Experience). All the hosts are local to the area, so they’ll know all about the city and can offer great insight for visitors of the city.

For Barcelona, you can imagine the variety of available Experiences to attend: hiking the local mountains, eating tapas at local restaurants, tasting beer from a local microbrewery…anything you can think of, really! I spent 4 days in Barcelona, more or less, and got to experience 3 different Experiences. I’ve sectioned them out below in case you’re only interested in just hearing about one, but feel free to read through all of them because they were all really great in their own unique ways.

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Fisherman’s Friend

Fisherman’s Friend was my very first Airbnb Experience, hosted in the neighborhood of Barceloneta. My host was the lovely Cristina, the daughter of a local Barcelona fisherman. As far as she can remember, her family has always been in the fisherman business—her father was a fisherman, her grandfather was a fisherman, her grandfather’s father was a fisherman, and so on. She told me at our first stop to the long, wide green fishing nets that she remembered playing as a kid in the port, jumping on nets and following around all the fishermen.

As we walked in between these large nets, we saw that an older gentleman named Pedro was working on these nets, checking for holes and repairing them as needed. Pedro was finishing up his work when we dropped by, and he showed us the various repairs he’s completed on old holes that appeared in the nets. Because of the intricacies of these nets, all the repairs need to be done carefully by hand. No machine work here! As he talked to us, Pedro finds out he has to stay a little later because the incoming boats that left this morning have holes in their nets. From the sounds of it, the holes were rather big since he sounded a little annoyed at having to stay later. After all, it was Friday! The fishermen here go out to sea and fish Monday through Friday, so in order to be ready for Monday’s trips, Pedro had to stay and fix this afternoon.

Next, Cristina took me out to the pier to awaiting the boats’ return. All the boats leave early in the wee hours of the morning, sometime around 5-6AM. They then sail out for about an hour or so off the coast and fish for the local seafood, which include shrimp (gamba rosa), prawns, sardines, and other fish. I would name them but I honestly have no idea which ones are which. Cristina did tell me the fish often caught are various kinds of hake, which I know nothing about so I can’t explain that to you haha! These boats come back around 5PM everyday, and on Fridays, the families of the fishermen usually meet them on the docks. As we chatted about the fishing boats, they started arriving into the harbor. The boat we were looking for was the Nus boat, which is Catalan for knot, like a sailor’s knot. Once the Nus arrived, we got to hop on the boat and look at the catch of the day.

Once docked, the fishermen got to work to prep the items for the indoor fish market. The catch were removed from the big ice chest and washed if necessary. Since shrimp are bottom feeders, you bet they needed a bit of a dip! Tossed into crates, these little critters were given a nice rinse, put into a blue plastic container, and loaded onto the cart to be taken over to the fish market. Let me tell you, these sea creatures are FRESH as can be, as you see them still wiggling around in the bucket. My favorite thing to look at was the gambas rojas because they were so immensely beautiful. Never have I see shrimp SO red!

Apparently today was not a particularly good fishing day. Cristina told me that usually, the shrimp and fish were much larger than this, which is amazing to me since I thought they already looked pretty big. All the different seafood were sorted into various sizes to be sold by the kilo (because remember, no one else uses the silly Imperial system aside from the United States ahaha), and the “broken” shrimp was sorted into a separate box to be sold at a slight discount.

Major seafood seen in the waters of Catalunya

Once everything was sorted and cleaned, the boxes were wheeled over to the indoor fish market. Normally when I think of fish market, I think of the massive ones in Japan where you walk around and bid on tuna and such. Alas, this is different than the fish market where the fish is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Cristina explained that this fish market operated on a reverse auction style where the controller of the fish market take a look at the catch brought in, assigns a price according to size and quality, and people in the stands have clickers that they use to bid on the items.

If the demand is not high and no one bids, the price lowers a bit. This might seem strange, but realize that each restaurant/buyer will want the best seafood, so they won’t wait till the last moment to buy. You can bid to purchase the whole set of shrimp or fish from a boat, or you can purchase just what you need (i.e. just 2 kgs of gambas rojas instead of all 4 boxes of gambas). Depending on how large a restaurant is, the more they may need to buy. In addition to restaurants, you also have buyers that sell to smaller restaurants that have 10-15 tables that might not need to buy large quanitities of seafood. Whatever your needs may be, you know you’ll be getting quality mariscos if you’re purchasing from this market.

The bidding while I was here was pretty standard. Something gets listed, you hear a big BLEEP, and you’ll see on the screen the name of the item, the quantity of what’s offered (in kgs), the name of the boat that caught the items, and the person who bid on the item. Once it was bid upon and purchased, the packer would throw some ice on the necessary items and set it aside with the printed receipt of purchase on top of the box. The boxes were stacked according to who bought what, and would be available to be paid for and picked up after the auction concluded. I would say that things seemed very calm, but Cristina explained that when it came to a big holiday season like Christmas, the auction house goes nuts. Everyone wants the best of the best during special seasons, so of course, the demand is much greater for the best seafood. Makes sense, since in the States, everyone always wants the best turkey and best ham during Thanksgiving and Christmas! Cristina proudly mentions that Nus often has people vying to get their seafood, as her family always often provides the best, fresh seafood that the market has to offer. After looking at the boxes of what was caught, that fact becomes obvious!

Unfortunately, maintaining a relationship with your local fishermen is a dying tradition in Barcelona. While Cristina’s market only sells local fish caught off the coast of Barcelona, the other much larger fish market has many more offerings than just the local fish; they also offer fish from all over the world. The seafood at this larger market is flown in from everywhere, and sometimes can be cheaper since they are larger commercial fishers. At the risk of sounding a little hippie, I find this to be a bit tragic since the seafood of Barcelona is so delicious that I can’t imagine not wanting to offer and show off what the seas by Barcelona has to offer. I like my Chilean sea bass as much as the next person, but have a bite of the gambas rojas that these ships catch and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Speaking of taking bites of food, I asked Cristina to recommend some restaurants that offered her family’s seafood. I love the idea of completing an experience by going from start to finish like this, so while I couldn’t cook my own seafood, I certainly could have an expert Catalan chef prepare something delicious for me. She recommended two restaurants in Barceloneta for me: La Cova Fumada and Somorrostro (which is where I ended up eating).

We finished the experience by sitting down and having a chat about seafood and life over some cava. If you’re unfamiliar, cava is an alcoholic drink specific to Spain that is comparable to champagne. Fun fact! Champagne is not considered champagne unless it specifically comes from the Champagne region of France. Everything else is considered sparkling wine. With Spanish cava, this alcoholic beverage has a similar taste to the famed champagne but is less sweet as the sugar content in cava is much lower. Personally, I don’t particularly like sweet alcoholic drinks, so cava is preferable to me between the two. Cava comes from the region of Catalonia (I don’t remember which one), and this specific cava was purchased from a family that Cristina’s family always buys from for cava. After a couple glasses and lots of laughter, we said our goodbyes and ended the Experience.

What’s my overall take on this Experience? Two thumbs up way, way up! If you’re at all interested in learning about the food you’re eating in Barcelona, going through this Experience will teach you a lot. Cristina offers fantastic explanations about the life of a fisherman, and this is the type of experience that you’re unlikely to get in Barcelona elsewhere. The port is closed off to everyone except the fishermen, so unless you have a guide with you, you won’t be able to explore this world. Personally, I strongly believe that we need to bring more light to the value behind this line of work because it’s difficult work that isn’t as appreciated as it should be. There is a wealth of knowledge you can draw from when you know your local fisherman, and with today’s fast paced world, it’s good to slow down a bit and know what’s going into your food. Interested in following more about Cristina’s family’s boat? Check out their Instagram here!

 

Natural Paradise

Natural Paradise was exactly just that—an adventure full of gorgeous natural beauty. Arnau was my host for this experience, and while I was a little skeptical about this experience at first, all skepticism disappeared as soon as I went on the hike! I had so much fun listening to all the stories Arnau shared while we explored the hiking trails along Montseny. Do note that this trip will require you to take the train an hour outside of Barcelona, but it’s super easy and worth the trek, so no worries!

Word of warning for those thinking this will be a glamorous Instagram-perfect experience like stuff you see about Yosemite, Grand Canyon, etc—-it’s not that. That’s not to say that Montseny is not beautiful (because it certainly is), but don’t expect crazy, insane views because it will not be that. You will be disappointed if you expect mind-blowingly picturesque.

If you’ve been researching Barcelona area nature trips, you’ve probably come across Mont Serrat. Montseny is east of that, and much much less crowded as the tourist buses don’t come this way. With Arnau as your private guide, you’ll have a blast hiking through a relatively easy hike (only a couple slight inclines here and there) while listening to the cool legends about various spots along the way. Here’s one of my favorite ones:

This little pond is home to one of the fairy legends of the town of Viladrau. Once upon a time, long long ago, there was a man that came across this pond on his journey through the area. While using the pond for water and refreshment, the man encountered a water sprite/fairy and fell in love with her for her beauty and charm. After some time, he asked her to marry him. She agreed under one condition—he must never mention again that she was a fairy because if he did, she would disappear. It is believed that when you marry a fairy, you become very prosperous and your life becomes perfect. For this man, that was true; once he married his beautiful wife, he became rather wealthy, and they had 2 beautiful, perfect children. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end when the man forgets his wife’s cautionary words. One night, as the couple argued about something trivial, the man uttered “You don’t know anything, you’re just a stupid fairy!” And with that, his wife vanished, leaving behind no trace. The distraught man, realizing what he had done, tried everything to try to bring back his fairy wife. To his dismay, nothing he did would bring her back. He was heartbroken at the lost of his wife and the mother of his children, but alas, she was gone. However, one night, as he was brushing his children’s hair before their bedtime, a few pearls fell from their head as the comb brushed through. Legend says that those pearls are from his fairy wife’s tears from being separated from her children.

Throughout the hike, you’ll hear a lot of different stories and legends like this one, including stories about witches, fairies, and bandits. I’ve always love myths and legends so I found them very intriguing and enjoyable. I can’t tell you all of them because I don’t want to spoil them (and I also don’t remember all of them ahaha). One of the big stories that Arnau will tell you is about the famous bandit Serrallonga, and you’ll get to see the outside of his house. No one lives there any more, and you unfortunately won’t be able to visit inside, but hearing the story from outside and visiting the “magical” tree that resembles his friend is just as good 🙂

Also, you’ll get to learn about the various plant life in the forest as well. For instance, Arnau will point out the chestnut trees throughout the forest. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea what chestnut trees looked like until Arnau pointed them out. I knew chestnuts grew on trees but that’s about the extent of my knowledge about chestnuts.

Something that I found to be super exciting as the fact that forests here do not have poison oak or poison ivy. Hiking trails in California are often lined with poison oak, so hiking back home has always involved constant vigilance to avoid those plants. On Montseny, there is one plant that does cause some irritation, but the itchiness only lasts for a few hours instead of terrorize you for days. Annoying but not too bad; as long as you stay on the trail, you’ll be fine.

Halfway through, Arnau will show you this super old and tiny church of Erola was founded. You’ll have a small picnic lunch there, where you’ll get to enjoy some tasty Spanish sausages (some of them where made by Arnau’s friend!) and cold cuts, as well as the Catalan tomato for your bread. Let me explain what I mean when I emphasize this tomato.

You may have seen “pan con tomate” on menus all over Barcelona. If you’ve gotten it, you’ll notice it’s NOT the bruschetta you were expecting. It’s just bread (sometimes toasted) with tomato rubbed all over it with olive oil and salt. For this dish, you gotta use tomàquets de ramallet or tomàquets de penjar to get the right texture. You cut it, squeeze the tomato and rub it all over the bread, so all you’re left with is the skin. This dish is specific to Catalan cuisine, so don’t expect to see this in other parts of Spain like Madrid or Valencia!

Another cool thing I thought I’d mention—the group that Arnau works with hosts summer camps for kids so they can spend time in the outdoors. There’s a program called “Programa Erola” that focuses on helping disadvantaged kids with family issues (drugs, violence, etc) spend some time at the camp away from a negative environment and just be social kids for the summer. They also work on rebuilding the area around Erola, such as building simple pedestrian bridges. I’ve always found these programs to be crucial to a community and very admirable because I feel like they’re so beneficial to the youth growing up. When you’re on the hike, feel free to ask him more about the program once you get to Erola. It’s cool to note that the money you spent on the Experience goes towards this program!

After lunch, you’ll hike back down and you’ll get a little project to collect little things from the forest to help you remember the forests of Montseny. Here’s mine; not super exciting but colorful!

And then you’ll be done! My thoughts on this Experience? Great trip for those wanting to diversify their travels a bit. It’s a nice change of pace if you’ve been in the loud city for some time. The trail is pretty quiet and you’ll probably not run into any other people, so it’ll feel very peaceful and private.

 

Spanish Ham Master

Spanish Ham Master was definitely the tastiest Experience out of the three I tried since the whole purpose was to sample the different Spanish hams! This was the first Experience I went to that actually allowed me to interact with other guests, so that in of itself was really nice and different. The Jamonarium store (also known as Pernil181) is a little ham shop in the Gracia neighborhood, which you’ve probably heard about in relation to La Sagrada Familia. With over 30 years of experience in selling Spanish hams, this place was the perfect venue to learn about this delicious Spanish tradition.

So Spanish hams—-what is the difference between Serrano ham and Ibérico ham? What is bellota? What the heck is lomo? Back in the States, I usually just see “Serrano ham” when I’m out shopping for deli meats. I knew from watching a lot of Food Network (specifically shows like Chopped and Iron Chef) that Ibérico ham was particularly special and delicious due to the specific pig used and its diet of acorns. But what are all these different other words? In this Experience, Sergi of Jamonarium will explain all and answer any questions you may have about Spanish hams!

First, we went through a taste test of three different hams. Because all are cured by Jamonarium, all are great quality. “But which one is the highest quality?” asked Sergi. We’re challenged to taste all three and give our reviews of each one. Two of the hams had much more tender meat with a good amount of fat (2nd and 3rd hams on the plate). That tipped me off that those two were probably better quality than the other ham. The first ham on the plate was still tasty but the meat wasn’t as tender, and it didn’t have as much flavor as the other two. The second ham in the middle was my favorite, as it had a flavor that I was used to tasting when eating Spanish hams. The last one was good too but I think I thought it was too salty or something. Perhaps just a flavor I didn’t like?

Turns out, ham #3 was the winner: it was the jamón ibérico bellota! Ham #1 was jamón serrano, and ham #2 was a jamón ibérico. What’s the difference? There are two types of pigs when it comes to Spanish hams: the white pig (the pigs we’re used to thinking about) and the black Ibérian pig. The white pig is used to create Serrano ham, which is delicious, but the fat distribution is different from that of the black pig, so it won’t be as tender. The black pig is found exclusively in the Iberian peninsula region, and Ibérico hams are made exclusively from this type of pig. The pata negra (black hoof/paw) pig distributes the fat through its muscles differently than that of the white pig, and its diet can greatly influence the flavor and texture of the fat as well. Think of the ham from the Iberian pig like Kobe beef vs regular generic beef.

To go into even more detail, Sergi explains the different grades of Ibérico ham: white label, green label, red label, and the coveted black label. Each of these color tags will indicate the diet of the pig, which in turn affects the quality of the meat. White label is the least expensive; this means the pig was farm-raised and fed with just farm feed. Green label is next, and this means the pig was raised in the countryside mainly on feed, but has access to acorns when they’re in season. Red label is pretty excellent quality; the pig eats some feed, but eats mainly pasture grass and acorns during acorn season. The last grade—Ibérico Bellota—is the best quality of Ibérico ham because the pig feeds exclusively on grass in the pastures and acorns. No farm feed for this fancy fella! When you go into the ham shops, you can visually look for two things: the pig’s hoof and its tag. You want to see that pata negra—the black hoof—with a slender leg (like a skinny wrist) leading into the hanging leg or shoulder. If you see a white hoof, you got yourself a pig that is not the Iberian pata negra. Secondly, you can look for one of those tags: white, green, red, or black. Using those two visual cues, you can tell TRULY how high quality the jam on the restaurant is serving you.

At some point, Sergi will let you feel the fat on two different ham legs, and you’ll get to feel the difference in quality. Obviously a restaurant isn’t going to let you do that, but if you find yourself buying an Ibérico ham, that’s super useful for figuring out whether or not what you’re paying for is worth the cost.

And there’s even more information! With Iberico ham, you have 2 choices: the leg or the shoulder. Between the two, I don’t think one is better than the other; it’s just a matter of how much meat you want. The front legs, or the shoulder, are smaller, so they will cure faster than the back legs. Due to the shoulder’s anatomy, it will be a little more difficult to cut the meat off off (compared to the back leg). The back leg is just heavier and has more meat, so it will take longer to cure. It’ll be easier to cut but will be more expensive. Either way, both hams will be of the same quality; it just depends on how much you need and want to spend. And again, depending on what quality you want, the prices will differ there too.

Just when you thought that was it, Sergi brings out another type of Iberico ham to get your head spinning with thoughts of pork! Lomo, the Iberico ham made from the tenderloin of the pig, is another type of cured meat you can buy that tastes completely different from the shoulder or leg! As it comes from the tenderloin, the meat is not lined with fat as in the other parts, but is still very tender and delicious. Some people prefer lomo to the other parts, and it’s all about preference. Personally, I could eat my weight in all of these hams.

Lomo is the piece on the left!

Last thing! This part wasn’t explained to me (and I forgot to ask at the time!), but I think I figured it out from all the information that was given. You’ll see a lot of ham shops have the blue-tinted light shining on all of their meats (like in the above photo), which might give the ham a weird look in the sense that you don’t see their beautiful red hue. These hams are meant to be stored in a cool place, out of direct sunlight, so I believe the blue-toned lights are cooler than your generic soft white/yellow lighting. After all, these hams are cured in a cave-like structure, so the darker lighting mimics the conditions a bit. With regular lighting, you’d heat the meats up from the heat of the lights, which wouldn’t be good for preserving the hams.

My thoughts on you booking this Experience? Do it!!! Even if you choose not to listen to anything (you really should though), the hams at Jamonarium are absolutely delicious and better than anything you’ll be able to find in the United States at that price. You’ll definitely come away from this experience with a wealth of knowledge, and you may or may not become a ham snob. “Excuse me, I can tell this ham was not from a pig that had an exclusive diet of acorns. Psh, this is not bellota ham!” 😉

 

Ready to book your own Experiences?

So are you convinced and ready to book your own Experiences?! I hope so because this is a fantastic way to support the city locals and businesses (vs just your typical touristy avenues). In Spain, I believe the only available city currently (as of April 2017) is Barcelona since they’re still testing the market, but hopefully they will expand over time. Airbnb’s still improving their UI on Experiences, so I personally would recommend booking via mobile app vs desktop. Airbnb’s desktop platform is great for booking rooms, but they’re currently a bit lacking on desktop (on your computer, not tablet or phone). Things are much clearer and easier to navigate on the mobile app, so I’d highly recommend using that platform to book and manage.

When you do book, you will have to go through a simple verification process where you take a selfie of yourself so Airbnb can verify that you’re the person that’s actually booking (and that you didn’t steal someone else’s photos lol). Pretty easy stuff, so don’t fret about that! Just thought I’d mention to make sure you’re aware of the process.

How do you pick through which ones to go through? How many do I recommend? Depends on how much of your trip you want planned out. I spent 4.5 days in Barcelona and having an Experience once every few days was great since it gave me time to explore on my own, as well as have a guided activity. If you’re traveling to Barcelona and are staying around for about a week, I would say 1-2 Experiences if you want to have a more flexible schedule, and 3-4 if you want a more structured trip.

Have you been on an Airbnb Experience yet? If yes, what did you think? If no, any plans to try one? Let me know your thoughts below in the comments!