Christmas in Barcelona

Stefano Buonamici for The New York Times
The galet is a macaroni commonly found in broth at Christmas. Big plastic versions appear on Barcelona streets. More Photos »
Like so many things in life — soccer, sex, pigs’ feet with snails — Christmas is better in Barcelona. Not for the Catalans the tinsel, the candy canes, the celebrity reindeer with his blinking nose. No, Christmas in Barcelona is an altogether sleeker affair, whimsical and exotic in equal measure. The lights lining the avenues are more artistic, the parades better choreographed, the cakes more elaborate and the exertions more athletic. (Witness the Christmas day group swim, when hundreds of Barcelonans launch themselves into the chilly Mediterranean.) It’s the time when Barcelona is more truly itself: the tourists are still here, but somehow it seems as if the city has reverted back to its rightful owners. Which means that at Christmastime, the balance between artistry and common sense that so deeply characterizes the Catalan soul is on fine display.

Arriving in Barcelona on Jan. 4, I felt as though I had stepped into a time warp, where the holidays, instead of having passed into recent memory, were still building steam. As in the rest of Spain, Christmas begins on the night of Dec. 24 and doesn’t end until Epiphany — called Reyes — on Jan. 6, when all the gifts arrive. Throughout those two weeks, children are released from school and work schedules are reduced, so, whatever the hour, the city center is alive with locals. There’s shopping to be done, of course, but most people engage in less commercial pursuits: a stroll down the elegant streets of the Eixample to admire the Gaudí-esque lights strung overhead; a stop at a stand in the Barri Gotic for a sack of chestnuts; a visit to a church, whether the soaring Sagrada Familia with its newly completed interior or the bare Santa Maria del Mar in the Born, for a holiday concert.

A two-week holiday also means that while most of the world is grappling with warranty cards and resolution lists, Barcelona’s children are still scribbling their hopeful letters — to the Wise Men, mind you, not Santa. And with exotic scenes like the one at City Hall playing out, most prefer to deliver their requests in person. It’s why Carla and Berta Herreros, ages 6 and 4, braved the cold to present their own letters to the Mailman. Given the site’s palm trees and pantaloons you might have expected the sisters to ask for something similarly exotic, like a gold-saddled pony or a porcelain doll. But no, Carla requested a suitcase. “So I can go visit my grandfather,” she explained.

There it was, that common sense that the Catalans call “seny”: you could be in the most fantastical setting, and someone would always be wondering about a suitcase. I saw it again when I stepped outside. In one corner off the Plaça de Sant Jaume, the Orféo Català was performing carols, the singers’ voices bouncing joyfully off the stone walls of the Gothic quarter. And just a few feet away, in the plaza in front of the cathedral, a Christmas market was closing up for the night. But instead of tracking down the perfect carved donkey or guiding star that would complete the family crèche, the remaining customers were stocking up on batteries.

It works both ways: I walked to the Boqueria market a few blocks away, and found, amid the skinned rabbits and leeks with dirt clinging to their roots, a whimsical pasta shell the size of a Smart car guarding the entrance. This was the galet, a typical macaroni eaten at Christmastime with a meat broth. Some years ago, the city elders got the idea of making holiday decorations out of galets, and now oversize plastic versions of them can be spotted throughout the city. Whatever they were made of, they were making me hungry.

So I made my way uptown to Fonda Gaig, in the Eixample. With its white walls and blood-red leather, the restaurant epitomizes sleekness, but the menu is down to earth. Part of a trend that has several of the city’s most avant-garde chefs opening updated versions of the old casas de comidas, homey restaurants where generations of Spaniards took their midday meal, Fonda Gaig specializes in updated versions of the old favorites. With a blustery wind outside, hearty dishes like meatballs with squid and trinxat — a potato-and-kale pancake — were exactly what I wanted. In honor of the holiday, I started with the sopa de galet, which I quickly realized was a Catalan version of matzo ball soup, though a decidedly trayf one: the single, dense galet floated in a rich chicken broth alongside a pilota, or pork-and-bacon meatball.