Homage to Catalonia

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Terry McCabe ate, and drank, his way around one of Spain’s most distinctive regions

The Catalan Province is situated in the northeast of Spain – the Pyrenees to the north, Costa Brava to the east.   It has its own language, distinct culture and cuisine. Amazingly you can walk on a sunny beach yet within a couple of hours be on the ski slopes – you won’t be bored.

Girona makes an ideal starting point serviced by Ryanair from Dublin and only 30 minutes by coach from the airport and 30 minutes by train from Barcelona.   We stayed in the centrally located Cuietat Arabat Hotel within a stroll of the cathedral, museums, art galleries and shops.   The cathedral is unusually wide without internal supporting columns – one of the stain glass windows is by Sean Scully.   Nearby the Jewish museum in the old synagogue is well worth a visit with exhibits on many floors.

The Jews are believed to have come with the Pheonicians in the 6th century BC – artifacts from 2nd century BC have been found.   It seems they were very important people: Columbus’ navigator was a Jew as was his financier for his American trip in 1492.    This was the year of pogroms and their expulsion from Spain.

I have lifted word for word a piece on the Jews from the museum: “The Catalan Jews were distinguished in the study and exercise of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, languages and science in general.   Outstanding Catalan figures took part in an important chapter of medieval knowledge.   Their literary and poetic production was highly valued and Jewish philosophy was especially noteworthy in that it played a key role in the evolution of medieval thought.”

Wines and cuisine

The Catalans are justly proud of their wines and cuisine – we dined in a restaurant on a bridge Pont de Terro over the River Onyar called Vol Espai Gastronomic. It has won international awards and chefs cook local produce in front of the diners, serving complimentary wines – brilliant.   You could spend a day or two at the start of your journey walking or cycling around the city

( The hotel has electric bikes 15 euro half day 25 euro full day).  Population is 100,000 and it feels very safe and friendly.

Canet de Mar a seaside town about an hour’s drive from Girona was a major port and docks where ships of all sizes were built. Now it’s a fishing port and market town.   Its architecture is a striking mixture of old traditional buildings, neo-classical and Cuban style for it was the rich merchants who made their fortunes in the Spanish colonies who spent some of their wealth on houses and churches here.   There is a tourist train that travels through the streets and climbs up to the Santa Florentina Castle which is open to the public and caters for weddings and is now owned by a wealthy Russian.   The train is called a Zip Train — why I don’t know for it travels at a nice sedate pace giving you a chance to enjoy the changing scenery.   While you’re there the church near the Castle is worth a look and within 100 metres is a not-to-be-missed Art Nouveau family run restaurant called Santuari de la Misericordia – inexpensive and first class.

Not far from Canet de Mar near Montseny Natural Park is the spa town Caldes de Montbui famous for its springs which emerge at 76C; the Romans also built 15 baths here. In the tourist information offices there is an interpretive centre and a permanent exhibition by Manolo Huge and Pablo Picasso.  In medieval times the building was used as a hospital offering thermal treatment to the poor.   When we were there large teams of people were gathering preparing for a contest called castles.   This entailed men, girls and boys combining so that they could stand on one another’s shoulders making a human tower – on this particular day they achieved seven tiers.   It’s taken very seriously and a lot of practice and preparation goes into it with teams from different villages vying with each other to be the tallest.   A small boy no more than 5 or 6 finishes off the pyramid, nowadays wearing a helmet due to a recent fatality.

There’s a lot to see in this historic town but a must is to dine at Robert de Nola, a restaurant on Passeig dei Remei only a few hundred meters from town centre. A word of warning – they take this dining very seriously and the food is superb; allow lots of time and its excellent value.

If you enjoy walking and the countryside, Santa Fe del Montseny National Park is a good place to aim for, situated in 31,000 hectares of forest and upland farms climbing to a height of 1700 meters, its varied landscape can be spectacular.  The Interpretive centre at Santa Fe has an interesting film show and exhibitions, so you will be more aware of your surroundings.   There are many well marked trails from two hours to days in extent; guides are available.   There are just two campsites in the park. However if you are on a long hike you are allowed to pitch your tent but only between the hours of sunset and sunrise.   As the elevation rises the climate and tree variety changes from Mediterranean with holm oak, cork and pine to European with beech, fir and further up sub-alpine.   I did notice cork trees with the bark removed – this procedure happens when the tree reaches 60 DBH (60 centimetres at breast height) then they are left for 14 years before another lot is taken.  Cork not suitable for bottles is used for insulation.

Fonda del Montseny is a restaurant in Montseny. We had a three course meal there – cheese with chestnuts, sausages of chestnuts and meat and beans, then chestnut cake and ice cream.   The wines were white Flor d’Alva – red Vinya del Tons and coffee for 22 euro 50 – scrumptious.   While in the area we stayed in Hotel Ciutat de Girona, an ideal base for walking and further up into the hills is the Three Mounts interpretive centre and restaurant in El Belver ; just sat, had a drink and took in the magnificent views

L’Escala on the coast near Figueres is a sea port with a large marina offering boat trips of all sorts and durations.    It has a renowned anchovy factory supplying shops like Fortnum and Mason.   The fish are placed in barrels of brine with weights on top – left to stand in a controlled temperature for about a year before being prepared for bottling.   We stayed in Hostal Empuries right on the sea shore – a high class Wellness hotel with all kinds of treatments and good cuisine.

From there we went north to another Natural Park Cap de Creus.   This is a more rugged, sparse scene because of the fierce winds that sweep across the landscape at times, carving out unusual shapes and figures in the softer rocks.   Dali was much inspired by these shapes and based some of his paintings on them.   He knew the area well as his father was from Cadaques, a lovely old fishing village nearby.   It is here Dali and his wife Gala converted several fishermen’s cottages and grounds into their home and studio.  Dali spent his summers here until Gala died.   The house is open to visitors and is full of his artefacts and furnishings, paintings etc.   I noticed a collection of photos of Dali with the great and the good – world leaders, etc.  including the bould Brendan Behan.   If you want to pay a visit you should book as they only allow small groups through at a time and it’s very popular.

Last but not least a visit to a vineyard in Mollet de Peralada to Cellar la Vinyeta.   A young couple have grown this business from small beginnings and have made a mark gaining awards for their unique blends.   We spent a very enjoyable afternoon here sampling and tasting – my favourite was Heus Negre Farrinyeta.   And so ends an unforgettable trip – the only downside was the weight gained but of course it was purely for research!

 

FURTHER INFORMATION

For more information on visiting Catalonia, contact:
Spanish Tourist Board, 1 Westmoreland Street, Dublin 1.
Tel: (01) 6350200. Email: dublin:tourspain.es

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