We're standing in front of a counter laden with raw sea critters, labelled in Spanish and Catalan, some it it recognisable but most of it not. We speak barely any Spanish and no Catalan. We have no idea what to order or how on earth to order it. But the canteen-like restaurant is heaving with satisfied-looking Spanish diners and that encourages us to butch out both the potential humiliation and the 30-minute wait for someone to take our order and direct us to a table.
La Paradeta, just within the confines of the El Born district of central Barcelona and a few seconds' walk from the gorgeous Parc de la Ciutadella with all its family-friendly offerings, is a recommendation by a local – a friend of a friend. It's the kind of place we'd have never found by ourselves, save by pure serendipity. That in itself makes it gold dust. Just around the corner, a much more accessible place beckons, with an outdoor terrace, menus in English and, no doubt, prices three times higher for dishes of inferior quality. It's by far the easier option, and on another day we might have given in....
But at the counter of La Paradeta, we point and shrug and gesticulate and somehow summon ourselves up a feast of chanquete (minuscule fish deep-fried until crisp, like diminutive whitebait), grilled clams and squids, and tiny octopi. The server loads the uncooked seafood into cones of white paper, weighs and prices them, and hands us a slip of paper with a number on. We proceed to the till, take a tray on which are loaded an excellent salad, wonderful bread and some beers and soft drinks, and reckon up (cash only). The server hands us some colouring sheets and packets of pencils – so much for us thinking the place wasn't child-friendly – and we are shown to our table, where we wait for our number to be called. When it is, we scurry to the hatch to collect our food. When we're done, we drop our plates back at a second hatch. Our incredible and utterly memorable feast costs us less than then €45 for five full and happy bellies.
We head for La Barceloneta beach, where Spanish families outnumber foreign tourists. This is our third day in the Spanish party city, which I often visited pre-kids. This time is a very different experience, but one no less enjoyable. Where before I stayed in five-star hotels on business, this time we rent an apartment via HouseTrip (housetrip.com).
A few Metro stops out from tthe centre, our Poble Nou apartment is perfectly suited to our needs for a week-long city-break with children, with Wifi, flatscreen TV and DVD, washing machine and dishwasher, and air-con. Of course I pine for the five-star experience of yore, but with three kids in one of Europe's most desirable cities in Europe, it's simply not feasible.
Families have long been wise to the the benefits of self-catering, whether in cottages, apartments or apart-hotels, but it's a form of travel that chimes nicely with the trend for a more authentic holiday experience and for 'living like a local' – which generally means either crashing at someone's home for free ('couchsurfing') or renting a locals' apartment for a fraction of what you'd pay for a hotel.
Our apartment is in a block on a busy main road leading into Barcelona, with a large front balcony where the boys like to breakfast and watch the cars, buses and motorbikes 'race' into the city as I stare over at the mountains and up to Tibidabo, a hill with the stunning Church of the Sacred Heart plus a quirky amusement park where we spend a day. Behind the apartment is a square with a playground where the boys play in the cool of evening, alongside local kids watched over by gaggles of young mamás gossiping over snacks and cigarettes. The Ramblas – not the famous one but a much less hectic one, the Ramblas de Poble Nou – leads from the square down to the local beach, about a 15-minute walk away. This beach really is a place for locals rather than tourists. Poble Nou itself, once the 'Catalan Manchester', is a fascinating working-class 'hood that's slowly being infiltrated by the modern incarnation of Barcelona while retaining much of its atmosphere.
We're just a five-minute walk from trams and a 10-minute walk from the Metro, but over the course of a week, what with the schlepping around between various attractions and beaches and forms of transport, there's perhaps a bit too much walking – at least with a moany four-year-old in tow, in temperatures of up to 34°C – and I do often find myself wishing we were staying somewhere a bit more central. But then we would miss on the local experience, which I truly treasure.
It could all have been so very different – the more central apartment I originally booked fell through at the last minute, due to urgent repair work, which is one of the pitfalls of choosing this kind of accommodation. Housetrip worked hard to find an acceptable replacement within a day, but the fact is that I'd spent a great deal of time trawling through the website for the right apartment in the right area at the right price. To have to make a snap decision a couple of days before leaving for Barcelona from a much reduced selection is annoying and I can't help but keep thinking about the lovely apartment I had my heart set on.
And yet there's a part of me that accepts the fate of it all, that loves the Spanishness of our Poble Nou apartment, that loves being surrounded by Spanish families. As I sort out laundry in the little utility room at the back of the apartment, the smell of fried fish wafts up the communal internal courtyard where the other apart-dwellers hang out their laundry from wall-hung driers rising up the 11 storeys. Their little rear balconies give vistas onto domestic life here – computer screens, hobs steaming with food, trainers stood out to air after pounding the city's pavements. The sounds of TV programs, of families talking, shouting, drift across. This, I think, is how it feels to live in Barcelona.
Read more about Barcelona family holidays and breaks.