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Alt Heidelberg in Barcelona: German amb els ‘Germans’

EatCatalunya Contributor Mark Bradley recalls three decades of visits to Barcelona’s Alt Heidelberg Bar & Restaurant.

It’s not the sort of place that generates ‘TripAdvisor’-style adulation, nor is it among the foodies’ favourite feasting places in la Ciudad Condal, but it’s been a reliable staging post for me since I first set knife and fork in Barcelona in 1983.

I’m talking, of course, about the Alt Heidelberg, the German-themed cervesseria on Ronda Universitat, which has for more than 60 years been serving a curious but engaging menu of German, Spanish and Catalan snacks, tapas, meals and plats combinats.

The Alt Heidelberg’s location, just a few metres from the University and close to the traditional dropping off point for coaches, always meant that it was likely to be at least cursorily inspected by the hungry traveller.  I remember spending my first ever night in Barcelona at the Hotel Condestable, just a few doors away, and being tempted in to chew ravenously on a sauerkraut-laden burger and to my innards with several canyes.

It is as it was then.  An impressive Teutonic entrance leads to bars on the right and on the left, with the dining rooms at the back.  Provender flies up and down the dumb waiters as quick snacks become longer visits, cambrers change shifts and the afternoon refresher becomes a more enduring commitment with Frankfurts following calamars a la romana, and canyes upgraded to ‘madres’.

Back in the 80s, with no bank reckless enough to endow me with a credit card, purchases had to be made with a level of frugality only recently revived.  But in those days of the peseta, your money went further and I don’t recall ever leaving without a heaving ventre.

But our affection for the place goes further than its products.  For three decades now it’s been a must-visit destination in Barcelona, even when we’re only there for the weekend.  For some the years-long wait for a reservation at El Bulli might weigh down the most enthusiastic of hearts, but for us, finding the Alt Heidelberg closed is a tragedy of much greater proportions.

My sister came out to study in Barcelona in 1985 and I used to take the train down from Manlleu, where my attempts at teaching English were to result in a lot of young Manlleuencs subsequently unleashing a series of flat vowels and curious Geordie hybrid tones on the English-speaking world. But as the Alt H was only five minutes from the train stop, a quick snifter there and I’d feel all the more inclined to walk all the way up Passeig de Gracia to Carrer Corsega to meet Catherine.

My wife Ana studied Spanish too, so when it came to choosing the destination for her study year abroad, I naturally assumed the prospect of carousing with her rugged English Heathcliffe would lead her to quickly opt for Barcelona.  Sadly, I ended up way down the list of must-haves (between the Corte Ingles and Planells i Donat, the turron makers, incidentally).  We were all way behind the Alt Heidelberg, but that swung it in Catalonia’s favour.

In the late 90s, on discovering that sharing canyes with the kids might be frowned upon, we moved to the dining rooms at the back.  Elena and Luis both immediately took to the bustle of lunchtime and, as the picture shows, the years have given them a decent appreciation of what makes a meal in this part of town so appetising: not just the calamars a la romana, pernil iberic, croquetes, amanida rusa, bistec amb patates but also the friendliness of the waiters, the affection for our kids and the sense of well being that floods through us as we make our way back to wherever we’re staying.

But ask any member of the family about the Alt Heidelberg and I’m afraid the anecdote they’re most likely to share is one that does not present Dad in a particularly promising light.  On one particularly hungry expedition to the Alt Heidelberg in 2003, accompanied by our Dutch friend Xander, we’d just consumed the Catalan equivalent of an Adam Richman-style Man vs Food challenge – una tapada que no vegis – when I nonchalantly requested the bill (albeit somewhat incapacitated due to a surfeit of canya).

Our waiter had just been replaced by his evening shift companion and the latter proceeded to repeat back to me the frighteningly long list of items that I understood would make up the bill.  Unfortunately, I was not making myself clear – and instead of obtaining the bill, I’d managed to repeat the entire order.

This only became clear when a parade of hamburgers, frankfurts et al started to emerge from the dumb waiter. Unwilling to admit my error, I did consider eating it all again, but was persuaded to own up, confess to them that I was a tourist and beg for their forgiveness.

With a smile, it was soon granted – and even though Dad has been forbidden from opening his mouth in the vicinity of the Alt Heidelberg ever againwe still look forward with as much anticipation as ever to our next visit to our German germans.

Mark Bradley is a contributor to EatCatalunya. Author of UK customer service travelogue Inconvenience Stores, Mark’s a writer and consultant working in European football, tourism and leisure. He learned to speak Catalan working in the kitchen of a Girona family restaurant in 1983 and, ever since then, his drugs of choice have been pa amb tomàquet (El Rossinyol, Manlleu), calamars a la romana (Can Roca, Girona) and truita de patates (Hotel Aiguaclara, Begur). Song of the Soul, Mark’s biography of north east musician Martin Stephenson was published by Ardra Press in 2009. You can make contact at mark@bradleyprojects.com.

Photo of Alt Heidelberg entrance by Jennifer Woodard. Photo of Elena with tapas by Mark Bradley. Image of Alt Heidelberg tapas by the Patatas Bravas blog.

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