Monday, July 09, 2007

Spain 7: markets, Barcelona, adios

Two were left behind with awful colds when we set off for Barcelona, and another was on her way to visit the hospital en route. But wait! While crossing the road to the train station I realised my hip had gone out, and rather than wait to see if it righted itself while doing a walking tour of the city markets, I turned tail and joined the fallen for a day of rest. The hip gradually recovered, and thanks to some strange fizzy Spanish anti-inflammatories, I was upright again by nightfall.

Lucky thing too, because Sunday was a free day, and we transferred to the excellently located Residencia Campus del Mar in Barcelona, where we were handed tickets for the Touristic Bus and set free until Monday morning. We took full advantage and circled the town in our yellow headphones, disembarking at the Miro museum an hour before it closed (early on a Sunday afternoon), so after a sprint round there we hopped back on and then wandered up the Rambla until we found somewhere to eat on a side street. Gazpacho, tortilla and paella did the job nicely and thus fortified we ploughed on to Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.

It was cooling off enough to dare riding the top of the bus, which we did until we reached Parc del Palau Reial de Pedralbes, where we made a tactical error by thinking we could sprint across the city to our hotel at Barceloneta faster by metro.

Not quite. It was so late that, nearly home, we stopped for a small but substandard Chinese meal before rousing the security guard - busy spraying flies in his office - and turning in for our last night in Spain.

We gathered at the bus in the morning, a couple of fallen comrades left to rest up, another taken to seek medical help for a mysterious swollen lip that appeared to be an allergic reaction. The rest of us had an excellent talk from communications and quality director Jordi Tolra about the markets of Barcelona, which number 46 (40 of them food markets) and which aim to allow the citizens to be within walking distance of at least one of them.

Would that other cities could follow this policy! Some of them had even made what seem to me unholy alliances with supermarkets - the one where we had our lecture, Santa Caterina (a former monastery which had been, before the monastery, an ancient food market), had a small supermarket within its walls. Tolra explained that the markets are gathered under one umbrella organisation, which is part of the city government, but that the stall-holders themselves are independent, but joined together by trade associations which organise them by food type. These associations, he said, are a long tradition in Catalonia, which was once an independent state with its own king and culture; after it was annexed by Spain, it kept its culture alive by creating Catalan associations, and trade assocations were the first of these.

The markets have received a lot of money which is used for renovation and modernisation of the buildings, to bring them into line with contemporary needs (logistical, technological, environmental).

A few of us who'd missed the Saturday tour were taken round and shown the foundations of the monastery, the seniors' housing next door, built at the same time as the refurbishment, and the loading areas where a couple of the market's delivery vans were parked. Hearing that all the stall holders bought their produce at the same wholesale market disillusioned us a bit. There were, our guide said, a few stall holders who sold their own produce, but they were in the minority, and there were hardly any organic stalls either.

While carefully negotiating a hefty lunch from the organic tapas stand at the well thronged Boqueria market, I mulled over what we'd heard.

So if the food markets are buying their produce at the same place as supermarkets, where does the difference lie? I guess the sales are distributed to more and smaller sellers, who have less overhead and perhaps employ (en masse) more people with better expertise in their area. But Tolra was definite on the point that he wanted to drive traffic away from supermarkets and into the city markets: families that packed the kids into the car and drove to a supermarket for the day should be bringing them here instead. His vision of family entertainment was more wholesome than supermarket kiddieland, though: his programs aim to educate school children and offspring of visiting shoppers on food and nutrition, to counteract 'hamburger culture' and to bring kids into contact with food producers and sellers as well as teachers and nutritionists.

It's an interesting and busy area, and the markets have some impressive communication programs going. How successful the markets of the future will be will depend on whether the political winds continue to blow kindly and generously in the direction Tolra hopes to keep sailing.


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