• Image about Barcelona
The Mercat de St. Josep
Krzysztof Dydynski/Lonely Planet Images

This is obvious as we stroll up to a crowd of people gathered around a man kneeling on the pavement, deftly pushing around three matchboxes and doing a rapid-fire patter to interest potential suckers in his shell game.

I, apparently, look like a sucker. A German sucker.

“Deutsch?” he asks? “No, American,” I reply.
  • Image about Barcelona
Tall plane trees fill the center of Barcelona.
Robert Estall/Alamy

A sucker is a sucker is a sucker, because Mr. Shell Game doesn’t miss a beat. He informs me that all I have to do is watch him put a pea under one of the matchboxes and keep track of it while he shuffles them around. If I guess correctly, I win — so simple!

My daughters gleefully encourage me, and I look at them with a fatherly “Oh, I have so much to teach you” kind of glance. Mr. Shell Game thrusts a 50-euro bill in my hand and asks me to put up 50 euros of my own so the game can begin. When I laugh and shake my head no, he snatches his cash back from me and renews his search for a more gullible customer.

“That was so cool,” says my oldest daughter, who is getting an eyeful of the earthy richness that the Rambla offers up: stall after stall of gorgeous, fragrant flowers; performance artists dressed up as aliens, flamenco dancers or headless men, willing to let you snap their photo for a few euros; kiosks that sell cute and cuddly birds, turtles, rabbits and other small house pets; food merchants; seed sellers; candy shops.

What finally stops us is the Mercat de St. Josep (also known as La Boquerìa), a massive food market across the street that fills what once was the open courtyard of a church. Much like Seattle’s Pike Place Market, La Boquerìa is a culinary kaleidoscope. It’s so big and so varied and so not the norm that it’s almost too much of a good thing. But that’s true of Barcelona itself — so many great tapas restaurants, so many awesome churches, so much to sample.

We limit our grazing to some fresh fruit and a couple of baguettes, but we wander the stalls in a slow daze, trying not to gawk at the sheep’s heads and bull’s testicles for sale. Fishmongers wielding some wickedly lethal-looking knives hold court behind piles of crushed ice that hold giant fish and tiny shrimplike creatures. Mountains of fruit make way for stall after stall of every kind of meat imaginable, with butchers standing by, ready to shave slivers of jamón serrano (cured ham) or slice off a couple of chops.

Breads, candy, vegetables, drinks, sandwiches — it’s a glutton’s never-ending paradise and an overwhelming feast for the eyes. And by the time I discover that one merchant sells more than 20 varieties of olives, I am not the least bit surprised — only dismayed that it’s 5,200 miles from home.