BARCELONA — One never knows what one will run into when one needs to pee. In the hot Barcelona summer, I fight the heat by drinking water — copious amounts. On a nice walk to the old Gothic quarter, I found I really needed to go.
As if by magic, the Museo de la Xocolata appeared before me. It was clean, it was air-conditioned, and it was a museum — it was a sign. We turned in and, after availing ourselves of the facilities, Ramona and I took a look around.
Here’s a disclaimer: I don’t really eat chocolate. I don’t like dark chocolate. I don’t eat chocolate bars save for the occasional Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bar (if it is from England because the U.S. version is not the same), and I don’t drink hot chocolate. But I am a nerd and if there is a museum for something, I am all over it.
Our entry “tickets” took the form a chocolate bars, which is a nice touch. Dark chocolate so I didn’t eat it, but a nice touch none the less.
The museum is housed in the old St. Augustine convent which has a long history with chocolate. In the 18th century, the Bourbon army was a fanatical consumer of chocolate the museum’s website states, and, according to the ordinances, chocolate was present on the menus of the 18th-century military academies: “For breakfast each cadet and company officer shall be given one and a half ounces of chocolate with a quarter of a pound of bread….” When the troops were in barracks, acting as garrison, chocolate was also commonly eaten. The halberdier corps, the monarch’s personal bodyguard, was known as the “chocolateros,” because, as they were a pampered, elite corps, they consumed a great deal of chocolate.
Chocolate has played a part of the economy of Barcelona since being brought to the country in the 15th century, and the first Spanish factory to transform it from a drink to a bar is believed to have started at the end of the end of the 19th century (Englishman Joseph Fry and his son first mashed chocolate paste and sugar into a bar in 1847, and John Cadbury marketed his first chocolate bars in 1849).
The museum’s mission is to preserve the confectionary’s contribution to Catalan tradition, the website states.
The first couple of displays were quite informative, telling is about the cacao bean, where it comes from, how it is processed. Fair enough, good to know. There were several other rather informative displays, chock-a-block with cocoa beans and chocolate-making paraphernalia. It was all quite interesting, but what really grabbed my attention was the chocolate sculptures.
Don Quixote and faithful Sancho Panza battle windmills. A pair of toreadors fight a bull and Bambi plays with his friends. There is a white chocolate gorilla and a Star Wars display. For “Game of Thrones” fans, there is a chocolate dragon, a Stark House direwolf sigil, and a sculpture of G.R.R. Martin with his laptop, presumably working on the sixth book in the series (you know he’s never going to finish it, right?).
Two classic scenes attracted my attention — one French and one Belgian. I didn’t grow up with comic book heroes such as Batman and Superman. “Asterix the Gaul” was published in 1959 and was translated into English in 1969 when I was 10. Written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Udozo, the comic book story features the eponymous protagonist and his large friend Obelisk. They resist Roman rule by dint of a magic potion created by the druid Getafix. I loved the play on words and the illustrations were great. Seeing a chocolate representation of the story, which was ranked as the 23rd greatest book of the 20th century in 1999 poll in Le Monde, brought me back to my childhood and made me want to get a new copy of the slim volumes (there are 34 in all).
But the most exciting was the sculpture of Tintin in “Explorers on the Moon.” As a youngster, I loved the adventures of the boy reporter (it occurs to me that back them I had no idea I would end up teaching journalism at a university). The Tintin stories, written by Belgian Georges Remi under the pseudonym Hergé, were first published in 1929. The books were a constant source of fascination to me. Tintin, accompanied by his dog Snowy, and aided by his friends Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and the Thompson Twins (from which the ’80s band got its name), was constantly solving crimes, getting in and out of scrapes, and generally saving the world from some threat.
Tintin was first translated into English in 1951. I loved the books, both for the stories and the illustrations. There are 24 in all and I need to find another collection. The chocolate sculpture at the museum is brilliant, instantly recognizable to fans of the books. By the way, if Americans know Tintin at all it is through the Steven Spielberg motion-capture movie. It is really terrible. The technology removes any of the humanity. Do yourself a favor and just check out the books.
The final sculpture on the way out — after the Satchmo sculpture which, to be honest, had that slightly dried out look of a candy bar that one forgot was on the desk in the corner — is a giant pouch with the face of Harry Houdini. The twist is the small hand with a key that pokes out of the bottom corner.
So if you find yourself in Barcelona on a hot day and want a pleasant diversion for an hour, check out the Museu de la Xocolata. It is a tasty confection.
The Chocolate Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is 6 euros (about $7).