Catalonia

Upon leaving my camping site near Eygalieres, I decided to stop in Mausane to fill up my water bottle, buy some cheese, and go to the artisanal biscotterie.  I did the first task, ended up buying great looking produce, pan levain, and several cheeses (I was celebrating being in the culinary capital of Europe).  We had a good laugh at the grocery store.  I’d said I didn’t want Swiss cheese, but in French (pas de Suisse).  A man in line made a crack about being Swiss and liking them.  I quickly explained that I liked the Swiss but was tired of the cheese.  In French.  Sometimes literal translation leaves something to be desired. I made my way to the house where I’d bought delicious mouth watering coconut cookies.  I didn’t expect them to be open, but low and behold they were.  Repairing the roof of the newly enclosed veranda.

The woman opened the door of the store and I relived the memory of 3 months before. I told her I was a return customer and had missed French cuisine.  She laughed and I bought some cookies for home.  Then she showed me the enclosed veranda which had been transformed into an art gallery.  A woman had made leaf prints, and a good caricaturist had sketched political and moral works.  I liked the latter, especially the 7 deadly sins series.  I asked what “l’orgeill” meant.  I was thinking it was boredom, which is ennui.  Her mother came out to help translate, as she lives in Geneva and speaks English as well as French.  We ended up talking about life in Geneva, and politics.  She works as a fund raiser for an international organisation connected with the UN.  She struck me as a very articulate, sharp woman.  Reminded me of the Sullivan women.  Worldly.

I took to the road and headed toward Arles. At the monastery of ??, there was a roadblock.  No sign of the detour.  I asked someone and they said they didn’t know.  So I turned back and headed toward the Roman aqueduct I’d explored 3 months earlier.  Sometimes curiosity has a practical application.  This was one of those times.  Finally I spied a detour sign, miles from the roadblock and on a completely different road.  Great.  You’d have to know where the detour was to find the sign.  I guess that’s how many things are.  In any case, after a wasted 15 minutes or so, I was headed toward Barcelona on the toll road.  And toll it was.  I ended up paying 20-some Euro or so for a few hours of driving.  I’d paid more than that in Italy, closer to 60 Euro for 3 hours of toll road.  In this respect, the US is more socialist than France or Italy. FDR’s legacy, and others.  Eisenhower’s interstate highway program.

In any case, the drive was uneventful.  I wasn’t sure where to go first, and had forgotten to download Spain’s maps into my Here app.  So when I crossed the border, no cities showed on the map.  I followed my nose, getting off at an exit and found a gas station.  Wow, that was another change.  Diesel was 1.35 Euro per litre in Germany and France, and only 1.04 in Spain.  Big difference, as even small cars take 4o litres or so.  As I filled up, the woman working at the station was so kind.  I explained (in Spanish – brain fart changing from French) that I wanted to explore the coast but didn’t have a working GPS.  I hadn’t figured out why it wasn’t working till a few days later.  She kindly drew me a map, explained how to go, and was so nice.  What a difference.  I felt like I’d landed on another planet.  As a general rule (there were always exceptionally kind people sprinkled in the mix wherever I went), people seemed to be getting warmer as I went.

I’d planned to explore Costa Brava.  I ended up exploring a larger swath of northern Spain, that of Catalonia.  I’ve always wanted to meet Catalonians, as I associate them with the republican efforts in the Spanish civil war against Franco and appreciate their fierce determination to gain independence from Spain. On the suggestion of the kind gas station lady I drove to the small town of Pal, falling in love with the medieval walled town. I walked up and down the narrow streets, re within the town walls.  An extremely friendly artist working in a gallery explained the history of the building.  I watched the sun set over the fields behind walls.  There was a lovely centuries old stately home that is now the cultural center. The man whose family inherited the castle at the top of the hill, a doctor, spent personal funds to beautify both the castle and repair the walls and infrastructure of the city.  I learned that most of the medieval cities in this area were built on top of hills like Pals, as the surrounding land was marshy and used to harvest wild rice.  This practice is coming back into fashion, and the nearby fields were harvesting the rice when I walked out into the estuary that night.

In complete darkness, I headed to Begur, a picturesque medieval walled town on a hill overlooking the sea, complete with a castle.  As was my habit, I wandered through its winding narrow  streets.  I ended up at a small restaurant in a strip mall of sorts, quite anachronistic in the otherwise historical town.  La Escalopes boasted a trip advisor excellence rating on the door; I have yet to actually look anything up on trip advisor ahead of time, in part because I don’t have a smart phone with internet connection. I ordered homemade pasta stuffed with minced meat, while Katja, the lovely woman who owns the restaurant, told me about traveling here one summer from Germany and never going home.  Almost done for the season, she plans to travel to Cape Verde, Africa this winter with her husband the cook. I asked if she could recommend areas nearby to explore for a few days, and thanks to her the next day I headed out to explore the suggested areas of the Pyrenees, including Banyoles, Girano, Olot, and Castillet de Roc.  The mountains are ablaze with fall color, so it was a good time to go.

She had invited me to camp behind their house in a dirt parking lot, but I couldn’t find the place.  Instead I headed back to the wild rice field where I’d spied men harvesting grain that morning.  Emboldened by months on the road, I drove into the middle of the marshy paddy on the single lane dirt road.  I hadn’t thought about the fact that agricultural workers would undoubtedly be harvesting again tomorrow. Nor the fact that my down bag was soaked within a few minutes of setting up the tent. Surrounded by a marsh… you can imagine. Despite the 100 percent humidity, I somehow got to sleep.  The next morning I awoke with a start as a man in a truck, no doubt a laborer, sped past me after I tossed my wet gear in the car and reversed out to the main street. I learned later that the road was a short cut used by people living on the other side of the field to get to this part of the coast without having to go way around.  Smart.

I headed back to Bergur where I explored the town more thoroughly. There’s a particularly interesting street in which a large number of folks had moved to Havana Cuba in the 1850s.  They made good money in cork (imported from Spain) and tobacco (exported from Cuba).  Amazing how many undertook the adventure given the dangers involved. A remarkably quaint town is Bergur.  Then I headed to the three tiny beach towns just south, Calella, Llafranc, and Tamariu, which had been listed on a travel site as among the top ten spots on Costa Brava.  Calella is a tiny port about 1/10 the size of Portofino, for those who have been to the Italian riviera. Think postage stamp. They were dumping sand on the beach and raking it.  It was very obviously end of the season, as no one was there, the cafes and restaurants were boarded up, and 2 guys were driving a hoover/mower type machine along the beach. Very strange practice, one I’d seen in Tulum, where they were removing seaweed (which I thought was rather pretty). I headed up over a pass along the sea along a narrow twisty road to a lighthouse overlooking La Franc. The lighthouse had been built in the 1800s, and was recently converted into a posh eatery.  Several couples were drinking espresso from elegant china on the porch, and I was sorely tempted to indulge, but was trying to make time. I discovered a nature trail behind the site which ran along the cliff and pointed out some choice native vegetation in contrast to the pugnacious invasives.  Turns out Opuntilla sp. from California and Mexico was planted in gardens and is successfully taking over the entire coast line for hundreds of miles.  It’s a real shame because it is indestructible and crowding out the fragile and elegant natives.

Atop the bluff is an archaeological site featuring an early Iberian settlement next to a Roman one. An interesting feature in all the Iberian settlements I’ve seen is the underground earthen silos for grain storage. Apparently they could keep grain there for up to 5 years. The grain would use up all the available oxygen in the pit and any in contact with the soil would be spoiled. After thoroughly exploring the sites, I drove down the hill to Tamariu, my favorite of the three small beach towns.  While walking along its narrow footpaths, I met a French woman and struck up a conversation. She has come to the area since she was a child, and finally moved to the area. She highly recommended the gelato from the mom and pop gelateria where she was sitting, and I decided to try some.  More importantly, I bought torino (equivalent to Italian torrone), a local speciality. Unlike the soft chewy Italian and French versions, this one was chock full of almonds and almost broke teeth it was so hard. So I decided to suck it like a tootsie pop.

From the coast I headed inland about an hour to Girano, and fell in love. The old town stands on the steep hill of the Capuchins to the east of the river Onyar, while the more modern section stands on the plains to the west.  It lies at the confluence of four rivers.I walked the 86 steps to the cathedral, whose previous incarnation had been used by the Moors as a mosque.  The edifice is one of the most important monuments of the school of the Majorcan architect Jaume Fabre and an excellent example of Catalan Gothic architecture. From there I wandered up to the old fortifications and city walls which encircle the city. The old town wall was an important military construction built by Romans in the 1st century BC. It was thoroughly rebuilt under the reign of Peter III the Ceremonious in the second half of the 14th century, and in the beginning of the 16th century, was absorbed into the city. I climbed the panoramic lookout tower and met Hendrik, a well-traveled German who offered wonderful suggestions on nearby places to visit, including Ripollo and Andorra. We emailed back and forth for several weeks afterwards, and I enjoyed his lovely photos and daily travel accounts. Upon walking the walls I discovered a beautiful Francisican garden, an old theatre,  the university, and finally at the top of the hill discovered the Capuchin calvary, stations of the cross.  Girona deserves a week at least, but I was trying to cover all of Catalonia minus Barcelona in a week. Looking over my shoulder, I headed to Banyoles, which means “baths” in Catalan, after the thermal hot springs located on the edge of a large lake.  The side of the lake away from town is relatively undeveloped all the way to the distant mountains covered with yellow-leafed poplar and elms.

I arrived in Banyoles at night and found an interesting street called Tinteria, a reference to the cloth dyers who used the small stream that still runs through the road to dye their wares. I resolved to return to a quaint cafe who roasts its own coffee beans and drove to the other side of the site to find a camp site. The only place that seemed plausible was a road next to an old farmhouse that appeared unlived in. I hoped  tried to see whether anyone was there Easier said than done here around the estuary and found a quiet dirt road next to a large house.  I hoped no one was living there and parked in the road.  Accidentally opened the window wide and got wet and cold again.  In am I walked at the old church of Porqueres, and on the trail around the lake, getting tears in my eyes at all the environmental protection – tears of happiness. Saw a lot of people walking – very heartening.

Crisp day, lots of poplars and sycamores turning yellow – then to old town on other side of lake, and found a great cafe which has been around since 1920s – articles about it – modernicsed it a few years ago – they said there was a market on Saturday but I didn’t stay (it was Friday) – went to archaeolog museum mostly palaeontology and flora/fauna from ice age – took photos of wall, the monastery courtyard = then headed to Besalu = small medieval town, very well preserved – interesting about the Jewish gate – in 1415 the town started persecuting the Jews and harassed them, they had been living near the river, their synagogoue was there – but they finally left after 20 years or so of persecution – very pretty, new bridge (had been blown up in 1939 during Spanish civil war) – lots of orphans from Spanish civil war and adults were resettled in Catalonia, they took up to 10 percent of their population in refugees – after Besalu I drove through Olot to Santa Pau, another pretty small medieval town – to the town walls and outside, a man working in the large garden – saw some shepherds next day in Oix – Santa Pau, very quiet now, very few people there – seemed mostly tourist town-  castle in center, lords of Pau…then headed to Figueres, saw the outside of the theatre that Dali turned  into a museum, in his hometown of Figueres, very nice center, capital of Catalonia, though outside old center it’s not very nice.

I thought about coming back for the museum or to Pubol where he lived out the rest of his life are Gala died,  I found out he’d been driven his whole life by his feeling that his twin brother (or just brother) also named Salvador died as a child and his parents dwelt on the other brother, so he was obsessed about death and felt that somehow he wasn’t real – maybe that’s where the surrealism came from – he seemed like a shameless self promoter and many of his things I thought were Koch and reminded me of the art car and collections of a few friends who collect eccentric objects – I’ve never liked his art, as I really hate modern and postmodern, except perhaps for Chagall, who to me is more impressionistic and substantive than the squares and circle s (and blank canvases) of many modernist Cadaques, as I decided I’d try to get into the Dali museum Saturday even though it was already booked.

I stopped in Roses, which I thought was really ugly and too commercial – it looked like Las Vegas – found out a lot of Germans bought homes there years ago so there’s a big German community per Katja – a nice hotel let me use wifi and charge, heard a musician playing, very good voice and guitar playing – headed to Cadaques, winding road – drove through town, found a parking lot with some large camping cars and boat tow had a bad case of diarrhea, though I had kidney stones – tremendous pain, it was cold, put on m down jacket, had to get up several times – finally slept – loud in the am, people driving by – I made my way to Port Lligat and got there at 9am before anyone else had arrived.  It was beautiful and quiet, and I found out later that Dali owned one of the small fisherman houses across the way from his compound and had put the other 2 up for sale at unbelievably high prices so no one would move in.  And the government of Spain allowed him to have special dispensation to essential be the administrator/mayor of the town.  So during the years till Gala’s death, they lived there alone.  I hadn’t been able to get an online reservation (they were booked through Tuesday) and it was Sunday am.  I knew I couldn’t stay till Tuesday because I was flying home from Marseilles that day.  So I crossed my fingers and got on the list, 12th in line.

She said there wasn’t much chance that I’d get in but to come back at 11am.  I’d figured I’d just leave but got interested in a film that was playing in his house across the way, and ended up watching it.  He spoke in a mix of French, Catalan, and Spanish in the interviews, but I managed to catch a good percentage of what he was saying.  Then I went back at 11:10, with no thought of actually getting in.  The girl told me to stand in the corner, and I waited.  And lo and behold they squeezed me into an 8 person tour as the 9th person.  What kind people.  I was ecstatic and went to the car to eat some food so I wouldn’t be famished.  The tour was quite interesting.  Mostly it consisted of a few sentences about each section of the house (the first four rooms that they lived in for the first 10 years or so, in spartan simplicity – then the other rooms that he purchased from fishermen (their houses that is – he bought 3 next to eachother overlooking the sea) and rooms he added on.  His studio had 2 huge windows on one side which could open to let air in and one picture window facing the sea – very wonderful light.  And his paints and props were in another room.  I was struck by Picassso’s comment about Dali as an extreme narcissist.  I wasn’t sure he was mocking Franco by dressing as nobility and acting the part, but apparently he was a great supporter of Franco, which surprised me as an artist from Catalonia.  As he said about Picasso, we’re both great artists, we’re both rich, but he’s a communist.

From Port Lligat I made my way back to Cadaques where I attempted to find parking and finally gave up, parking in a taxi spot.  After walking around for 20 minutes I got the sixth sense that I should return to the car, and there was a police officer writing a ticket.  I told him it was my car and he stopped and said “Sace lo” (take it away) which I happily did amazed that I hadn’t gotten a ticket.  In most countries, once they start writing it up, you’re stuck.  I’d expected to add a Spanish parking ticket to my growing collection.  Ah well, maybe next time.  What a pretty town!   Some beautiful seaside homes with lovely art decou facades, Picasso’s vacation home (I’d forgotten that he’d spent time here – strange bedfellows with Dali right around the corner), and some other incredible buildings. It reminded me of the archetype of a sleepy fishing village that had become discovered but preserved its charm.  Reminded me a bit of Mikonos with its all white buildings accented by blue doors.  I moved the car and walked along the other side of the town, exploring some of the alleyways, delighting in artistic touches and lovely gardens.

After spending a few hours walking in the warm sunshine and contemplating eating some slow food.  Spanish culture necessitates taking hours to eat.  I never ate regional food because I couldn’t spare the time to munch on one tapa dish at at time.  Tapa essentially means snack.  I drove the windy road back toward Roses, turning off at the fork toward Castellfollit de la Roca and Olot.  I reached Castellfollit 40 minutes later, having enjoyed winding up into the low Pyrenees to get there and the amber gold populars turning colors. The medieval town is set at the top of a rocky cliff along a winding river, and I gaped at the dramatic view from the bridge below.  Then I headed to Oix, a pretty little stone town like Santa Pau but smaller set in a beautiful part of the Pyrenees, and then drove up Vall de Bac in the last rays of sun.  What a beautiful spot!  I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.  I came across a marker stone for Le Maso Bolos (the Bolos farm in rough translation).  It turns out that Catalan, or Occitan as it morphed from, is similar to Provencale, something that Frederic Mistral pointed out in his writings about the Provencale language.  The word for farm in Provencale, as in Catalan, is mas.  Maso ,at have been the Occitan or older Catalan variant.

Having gotten my fill of fall colors (not that I can ever goet my fill), I headed towards Olot, stopping again at the bridge below Castellfollit to take in the glorious city on the hill.  Olot is only 5 minutes by car, and I found a parking spot  easily, unlike most towns in France.  Spain seemed to be much nicer about parking, not charging for it most of the time, and it was much easier to find.  Maybe it was because I was now in the off season, thank god.  Happy not to be engulfed in swarming hords of (other) camera-carrying tourists.  We tend to be most critical of our own failings reflected in others.  It was 6:45pm or so, and the night before the beginning of daylight savings time.  So the sun had just set and the light was fading but dusk hadn’t yet settled on the city.  I walked past pretty small shops, buying a yummy  regional pastry with a kind of burnt almond frosting. I love Catalanion pastries.  I had no idea that they had such things, and marzipan is the current ingerendient of choice as we near All Soul’s Day.  Apparently near Christmas they change to torrone, a chewy egg white and sugar candy laden with almonds that I use usually see near Christmas in Whole Foods as coming from Italy.  It turns out that they make this in southern France, Spain, and Italy.  There are a lot of traditions that are shared between these three countries, in part because of their proximity, but also because of the Greek and Roman influence over the three, as well as later rule by the King of Naples.  For example, the santon tradition of the Christmas crèche was brought to Provenceand spread because of its rule by Naples for many centuries.  And fasshing, which supposedly originated in Venice with the masks and theatrical elements, and spread throughout Tyrol and the Alps to Germany and other parts of the world.

I digress. I walked through Olot, and got the distinct feeling that it had a healthy middle class, judging from the large variety of community activities and the way people interacted.  It was Saturday night and there was a wine and cheese fair in the main square. I tasted some green cheese (pesto) and decided to buy 4 Euros worth.  Very much worth it.  I nibbled on it for hours the following day.  I found my way to a large central park with a lovely central fountain and arched arcades bordering it.  I found a good sandwich place (after my bout with diarrhea I was suspicious of all but the freshest ingredients) and also ordered a wonderful ginger spinach juice.  I’m going to have to juice when I get home.   I used wifi to send some friends Halloween greetings, then decided to head back to Begur where Katja had said there would be a 50s  party taking place.  After a long drive, I reached Begur and found my way to La Escoloba, where Katja let me work while I waited for her.  I’d hoped to go there party but went earlier and felt out of lace, as it was all locals and loud music and cigarette smoke.  Not my cup of tea, even if I could fit in.

So I sat for 2 1/2 hours writing my blog.  Katja finished at 12:20am, and I went back briefly, then decided to find my camping spot.  I bid her farewell.  She had given me a final suggestion of heading to the coast to see Santa Feliu and Tossa del Mar, which I tentatively planned to do the next day.  I thought about parking in the soccer field, but then decided I’d be better off with the known quantity and parked where I’d parked the first night on the road leading to the wild rice fields. I parked to the side of the road near the entrance, and not very far in so people could easily drive by.  I noticed the private vehicles only sign past this point, and felt good knowing I wsn’t breaking the law this time.  I decided to sleep in the car with the windows rolled up as it was getting quite cold and wet out.  I had a tickle in my throat an wanted to lessen the chance of it turning into something more.  I slept remarkably well in the car, though I was awoken by what sounded like someone banging on the car.

I awoke muttering “okay, I’ll more along” to the sounds of the thuds, but realised no one was there.  Then I heard it again and realised minutes later that someone was shooting a rifle.  Probably hunting birds illegally was my thought. And I was suddenly happy to be going home to a place where, while we have horrible suburban sprawl, at least people aren’t shooting birds and other animals without permission.  I walked out into the fields filled with misty light and dew, and heard more bangs from a gun.  I took some photos of dew-bejeweled spider webs, then decided to set off for Peratallada, a small town like Pals nearby. It was lovely and I was really glad I’d stoped there.  I got there before anyone else but after an hour there were swarms of tourists and buses.  Yuck.  I used the wifi at the tourist office, and was able to report the dent in my bumper that had happened the day before.  As usual I took lots of photos.  It had been a very important medieval stronghold, in part because of the marriage of 2 ruling families in the area that united to form an important alliance.  The castle and keep are still standing, as is the deep moat caved into rock and the main gate at the top of the hill.

From there I drove toward La Bespal, and saw a sign for Ullastret, which I’d remembered had been recommended to me by the lovely British couple I’d met a few days earlier in Pals.  Ullastret (or rather indika, which is what the indigenous Iberians called the town), was a very important settlement and center of Iberian culture.  I got an audio guide and toured the remains of the settlement.  The impressive fortification walls are the best preserved in Spain.  They also stored grain in underground silos, as I’d discovered about other Iberians.  They would hermetically seal the grain by digging an amphora like shape in the soil and creating a narrow neck at the top which they would seal with clay and straw.  They could store grains for up to 5 years this way, and sold or traded these grains as well as keeping them for their own uses.  Barley turned out to be one of the most important grains in their diet, which they not only ground to make flour, but also brewed to make beer.

I found out that they had worshipped a wolf previously to their contact with Greeks.  They were on friendly terms with the Greek trading city of Empuries on the coast near present day L’Escala, but were enemies with the Romans (who established a colony in Rhodes, present day Roses), mostly due to the fact that the Romans conquered and killed most of the Iberains, causing them to abandon their settlements, including this one, which had comprised about 37 acres and 6,000 inhabitants.

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