Catalonia, Spain May 7-17 2012
“We have time,” I said, “let’s follow that green, squiggly road on the map up the coast. It looks much more fun than the red roads.” Thus began our drive through the northern section of Catalonia on the scenic roads. Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain in the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula, with the official status of a "nationality". We confined our trip to two of the four provinces of Catalonia, Barcelona and Girona , in the area that borders France and Andorra to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. All the signs we saw were in two languages, Catalan, and Spanish and sometimes in Occitan as well. We got along well with English and my tourist Spanish.
We had picked up our VW Polo rented car in Barcelona and headed north. Yes, there were narrow roads that hugged the coastline and traversed the tops of mountains, and sometimes I was tempted to close my eyes rather than look over the side into an abyss, but the traffic was light and we got what we were looking for. We did stop whenever we could find a lookout to enjoy the view and we did get photos just like the guide books show of mountainous Spain.
We made it to Blanes, a resort town with the longest stretch of sandy beach on the Costa Brava (wild coast), before lunch. We wandered around the old town and finally made our way to the long promenade beside the sea. A seafood restaurant right on the promenade with a Menu del Dia caught our eye. It was a good choice and I got to practise my skill in deboning a whole fish. I got better at it as the fresh fish served often came whole.
There are two botanical gardens of note in Blanes. We chose the Mar i Mares for an afternoon visit. Founded by Carl Faust, German amateur biologist, in the 1920s, it covers 4 hectares with spectacular views from its Cliffside location overlooking the Mediterranean. The variety of plants was mind boggling. There are well over 3000+ species of plants, both native plants plus from five continents. It was certainly worth a visit.
Tossa de Mar, a little farther up the coast, was our overnight stop. We had booked a room on the internet and had written down all the instructions from Google maps to our hotel. This was the first of many times we had trouble finding our hotel. We didn’t have access to a printer to give us a detailed map of the town, we didn’t have GPS in the car and there was a distinct lack of street signs. We ended up driving down very narrow streets, dodging tourists who wondered why we hadn’t read the signs limiting cars to delivery vehicles in the entire old section of Tossa. We finally found the tourist bureau and got a good map on which the helpful attendant marked the only way to get to our hotel. We found the hotel, parked and didn’t drive again until we left for the next destination. That was the way we operated in most of the towns on our trip.
Tossa, settled by the Romans, was a pretty town with a working port protected by towering cliffs on each side of the village. We had time to visit recently excavated 1st century Roman ruins and to walk up the hill to enter Vila Vella, the only example of a fortified medieval town still standing on the Catalan coast. It made for a good walk uphill, past old cannons and the ruins of a church, to a lighthouse, built on the site of a 12th C castle. Of course, hill walks always include lookouts for photo ops of the wild coastline.
Girona has one of the largest old town centers in northern Spain, outside Barcelona. The city, which has undergone twenty-five sieges and been captured seven times, now supports a healthy tourist industry. There are medieval churches to visit, ancient city walls to walk and lots of restaurants and shops. There was enough to keep us interested for three days.
Girona Cathedral stands on the site of an ancient cathedral, which was used by the Moors as a mosque, and after their final expulsion was either entirely remodeled or rebuilt. The broad eighty-six steps leading to the main entrance were in the process of being covered with grass carpeting and flowers for the annual festival of Flowers, due to start the next weekend. Unfortunately, we were leaving the day before the festival started so we only saw the activity of the florists decorating every historical building in the old town. The interior of the Cathedral was impressive, and includes the nave, built in 1416, has the widest Gothic span in the world. The cathedral museum, included with our entry ticket, had an interesting collection of 11th- to 12th C tapestries and altar pieces, elaborately worked in gold and silver .
Outside another church, Sant Feliu, was a group of young Dutch women, all volunteers, busily weaving straw onto frames to be used as backgrounds for Flower Festival displays. Not as large as the cathedral, the 14th C Gothic church is the most popular church for Girona parishoners.
The old fortifications are another popular sight. Historically, these have played a vital role in protecting Girona from invaders for hundreds of years. Originally constructed by the Romans in the 1st century BC they were rebuilt many times and gradually absorbed into the city. Enough of the walls have been restored that it is possible to walk on the walls and climb some of the towers.
The Benedictine church of Sant Pere de Galligants now houses the archaeological museum. Displays traced the settlement of Catalonia from pre-historic to medieval times, illustrating each era with artifacts discovered in many sites in Catalonia.
We discovered that one of Salvador Dalí’s homes was in Púbol, a small village a short drive from Girona. Proclaimed the leader of the Surrealist movement in 1929, Dalí found the perfect retreat for himself and his wife Gala in the Castle of Púbol. He moved to the castle in 1930 and lived there at least six months of the year until his death in 1989. In 1982 he was named "Marquis of Dalí of Pubol" and his wife Gala is buried at the castle. Dalí restored the castle, adding rooms inside and terraces outside to showcase his imaginative art works. Casa-Museu Castell Gala Dalí was the first of three Dalí museums we visited. We never got tired of his collections.
Our destination after Girona was Figueres, the birthplace of Dalí. We made a change in our driving route to detour to Port Lligat, on a small bay next to Cadaqués. Dalí often visited Cadaqués in his childhood, and later kept a home in Port Lligat, where he and Gala lived when they were not in Púbol. We arrived to find that we needed a reservation to visit Casa-Museu Salvador Dalí and the next available time was three hours from then. We decided our only alternative was to backtrack to Cadaqués, just a few km away for lunch. This pretty resort town on a bay in the middle of the Cap de Creus peninsula was called the St Tropez of Spain in the 1960s because of the crowd who flocked to the village every summer hoping to catch a glimpse of Dalí. It was a pleasant detour, made more so by finding a restaurant serving one of the best meals we had eaten in Spain, for a very reasonable price.
We found out why reservations were needed at Casa-Museu Salvador Dalí. The house has a labyrinthine of small rooms, none large enough to hold more than ten tourists and a guide, who led us through a succession of rooms, linked by narrow corridors and changes of level. Windows in each room were designed for maximum natural light and to give a view of Port Lligat bay below the house. Art covered the walls in every room and sculptures decorated exterior terraces and a swimming pool area. We took lots of photos but unfortunately they were on the memory card in Ray’s stolen camera. You will have to visit yourself to see an imagination run wild.
Figueres, the Catalan for Fig trees, is notable mainly for Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dalí, a large museum designed by Dalí himself. The 19th century theatre, bombed in the Spanish Civil War, remained in a state of ruin for decades until Dalí and the mayor of Figueres decided to rebuild it as a museum. The museum, opened in 1974, also occupies buildings and courtyards adjacent to the old theater building. A wild, eclectic collection of Dalí’s art still leaves room for works by other artists, including a small gallery devoted to fellow Catalan artist Antoni Pitxot, who became director of the museum after Dalí's death. We hadn’t seen such a large crowd of tourists since we left Barcelona, but we were able to avoid the worst of the congestion by exploring the museum in the opposite direction as the big tour groups. Some of the most interesting exhibits were works carried out by the artist expressly for the Theater-Museum, including a Mae West Room, best viewed by lining up for a look on a raised platform, and the Rainy Cadillac; a car with a Botticelli type nude standing on the hood and gruesome figures seated inside. A side gallery, inaugurated in 2001, contained a fabulous display of opulent jewels designed by Dalí. We loved the ruby lips with pearl teeth and the gold spider pin, amongst others.
It was time to move on. We reserved a room in a B&B near Puigcerdà in the Pyrenees, right on the border with France and only 67 km from Andorra, for our last three nights, hoping to hike in the mountains before heading to Barcelona airport. To get to Puigcerdà we made a tour with stops in three medieval villages on the way. Besalu gave us more than we anticipated. We arrived early to vendors just setting up sales table of books and other goods for the day in front of the church of Sant Pere, consecrated in 1003. We thought there were far too many restaurants for the size of the town, but we were early. The buses only pulled in as we were leaving. We had the old streets to explore by ourselves. We walked across a 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvià river, passing through a tower gateway at its mid-point.
Sant Joan de les Abadesses sounded interesting for its monastery, founded by Wilfred the Hairy, first count of Barcelona, in 887. This was one of the first nunneries founded in Catalonia, and its first abbess was Emma of Barcelona, daughter of Wilfred, who directed the convent from 898 - 942. We arrived in the municipal building next to the abbey for the opening of a photographic exhibit of abandoned workshops. We were disappointed they did not offer us a glass of champagne the others were enjoying. There was also an interesting exhibit of scale models of Romanesque churches in the area. By the numbers displayed, you could spend a whole trip just seeking the churches out.
It was Sunday, the worst day of the week to find a decent meal. Ripoll, the largest town in the region was no exception. We were lucky to get souvlaki sandwiches to eat in the plaza in front of Santa Maria de Ripoll, a Benedictine monastery founded by the count Wilfred the Hairy in 879, who is buried in the monastery. We had hoped to visit the monastery but it was on its long lunch hour. We moved on.
It was another scenic drive through the mountains to Puigcerdà; a green marked road all the way. We climbed up into the clouds, hoping that there would not be many cars passing on the way; there weren’t. It started to rain, and then poured. Could this be our fate for the end of our trip? We came down out of the clouds to spectacular views of the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees and arrived in Puigcerda just as the skies opened again. We stopped at the tourist bureau to get better directions to our hotel than the ones Google provided and had to wait in the car until the deluge ended.
We did manage to get good directions and found our rural hotel in Age, a tiny village 2 km outside Puigcerdà. We were in Cerdanya, an historical region in the Eastern Pyrenees, divided equally between France and Spain. The area is the largest valley in the Pyrenees and with lots of sun, supports both a large market garden region and a resort area aimed at skiers in the winter and golfers, horse riders and walkers in the summer. This accounted for the great number of new holiday homes and condos built throughout the valley. No one was around but a note on the front desk directed us to our room. Cal Marrufès B&B was a renovated farmhouse with 14 comfortable rooms, only two of which were occupied at this time of year, and nice seating areas outside in the yard. The rain had stopped. We left our luggage in our room and headed to Puigcerdà, in search of an evening meal. The town, founded in 1178, is built on a steep hill, all the better to see your enemies before they attack, with streets twisting every which way to the center of the town at its apex. Of course we got lost, discovered new territory and with No Parking signs all over, we got out and walked to Torre del Campanar, a 12th C bell tower, all that remains of a parish church destroyed in the 1936 Civil War. A few locals were still enjoying the return of the sun in a nearby plaza but all the restaurants had closed their kitchens for the day. We finally found one serving tapas and sat down to enjoy a variety of snacks with a half bottle of wine.
We met our host, Lluis Bosom, in the morning. Besides Cal Marrufès, he runs several other self-contained holiday homes in the area. He suggested a good walk for the day would be to the Col de Cadí. To get to the start of the walk we had to drive west towards Andorra and get to Estana, a remote mountain village. This was the narrowest and steepest road yet. There were few turnoffs should we meet another car on the road. The one time we did, the other car backed up to let us go ahead. Perhaps they recognized a tourist and knew to get out of the way. It took us about an hour to hike up the path from the village to an open meadow. The day was warm and sunny and the views were spectacular but we realized this was not quite our destination. It wasn’t much further but it was worth the walk. Another meadow ended at the base of towering cliffs with small glaciers between the peaks. We returned to our car and drove back towards our B&B, turning off to a restaurant recommended by Lluis in an old train station just south of Puigcerdà.
We relied on Lluis again for another walk the next day. He directed us to Brangoli, another mountain town a little east of Puigcerdà, in the French section of Cerdanya. From there we followed a well marked path through the woods and up almost past the tree line, where we saw the little stone Santa Maria de Bell-lloc Church. Dating from the 13th C, it was at one time on one of the routes of Saint James to Compostella. Restored by the local community, it is still used for special occasions. Our eyes had to get used to the dark interior before we could see the tiny altar in an alcove and a cross help up by a wood stump with two branch ends carved in the shape of upturned hands. We enjoyed the 360˚ view of the Massella resort ski hills and the mountains surrounding Puigcerdà.
Lluis had warned us to watch carefully on our drive down the mountain from Brangoli and not miss the sign for the Dolmen, also known as a portal tomb, most date from the Neolithic period (4000 to 3000 BC) although there were no signs authenticating the age of this one. We found the Dolmen. The huge stones were in place guarding this ancient burial site but there were no bodies or urns that we could see inside.
Lluis also suggested another restaurant for lunch in the village of Meranges, high in the mountains west of Puigcerdà. We found the town and the restaurant but it was closed for the day. At least we had enjoyed seeing more of the Pyrenees. We decided the best option was to return to the Station Restaurant where we had eaten the day before. The staff was glad to see us and we enjoyed the meal. They told us that the next day, Wednesday was their day to close, but it didn’t matter. We were heading south towards Barcelona the next morning.
We took the quickest route south, still very scenic. There were several tunnels through the mountains including one that was 5 km long. We found the route to Montserrat Monastery, where we planned to spend most of the day. It was another drive up a steep hill to reach the monastery, perched in the serrated hills at 1,236 M. We hadn’t passed or been passed by many cars on the way up, so we were surprised to see the parking lots filled with tour buses and private cars. Access to the monastery is by road or cable car, or by train from Barcelona. Most people came in a tour bus.
Catalonia’s holiest place, it is surrounded by chapels and hermit’s caves. The first chapel was first mentioned in 9th C, and the monastery, Santa Maria of Montserrat was founded in the 11th C. Destroyed in 1811 when the French attacked Catalonia in the War of Independence, it was rebuilt and repopulated in 1844 and became a beacon of Catalan culture during the Franco years. Benedictine monks still live there but 99% of the people we saw were tourists.
People were lined up outside the courtyard leading to the basilica, one line led to the interior of the church. The other line was waiting to view the small wooden statue, La Morenata (Black Virgin), carved in the 12th C, she has been adopted as the Patroness of Catalonia. We decided the wait to stand in front of La Morenata for five seconds wasn’t justified. A service was in progress in the Basilica but we were able to walk around quietly viewing some of the side chapels.
There are a multitude of walks in the hills around the Monastery, some very difficult. Funiculars can whisk you up to visit chapels and caves on top of the mountains. We had time only to take a short walk past memorials to people important for their works in Catalonia, including one to Pablo Casals, the revered cellist. We made it up to a cross overlooking a cliff and visited a small chapel in a quiet place in the hills.
Leaving Montserrat we drove to Barcelona airport to return our rental car and caught a shuttle bus to our hotel near the airport next to a shopping center. The restaurant choice wasn’t great but we found a newly opened Chinese buffet that wasn’t bad.
Our early morning shuttle bus was there on time to take us to the airport for our flights back to Ottawa. Except for the robbery of Ray’s day pack in the airport, our visit to Spain and France went very well. We look forward to our next adventure, whatever that may be.
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