Tag Archives: Catalonia Postcards

Catalonia, An Aborted Drive to Andorra

Catalonia Spain

Breakfast at the Hotel Sèquia Molinar also turned out to be rather good although it was a boisterous and noisy affair because several families were using it as a Saturday morning rendezvous and competing chatter and conversation took the volume way above acceptable European Health and Safety levels.

It turned out that this was a Saturday morning gathering of family and friends who intended to go off hiking into the mountains because apparently Catalans like sociable company and communal picnics in high places and will walk all morning to get to a favourite secluded spot.  I began to worry that if they were meeting here to go off for a walk then our car would be blocked in and we would be stuck here for the day but the hotel staff assured me that this wasn’t the case and as soon as we were ready to go they would ask them to move their vehicles – and they did!

Together we have a plan to visit all of the countries of Europe and so far we have visited thirty out of fifty and today we thought that there may be an opportunity to add another because a look at the map seemed to suggest that Andorra was close enough for a day trip.  Actually this rather pointless objective seems to be getting tougher because every time I check there seems to be a couple of new countries that I have never heard of and to be honest there are two or three that we probably wouldn’t especially visit anyway.  At least if Catalonia or Scotland ever achieves their objective of independence then we can legitimately say that we have been to both of these.

And so we set off and once through the town of Ribes de Freser the problems started as the road crumpled like a piano accordion and soon we were swaying from side to side and climbing dramatically into the Pyrenees.  I rather enjoy this sort of motoring but there were several hazards to negotiate which turned this into a roller-coaster white knuckle ride which required one hundred percent total concentration and attention.

Natural hazards of course because I didn’t want to fall off the side of the mountain or get a falling rock through the windscreen because I was almost certain that sort of damage was excluded from the vehicle insurance, but also other road users, cyclists who insisted on riding two or three abreast, thrill seeking motor bikers who were driving at full throttle in the middle of the road, more crazy local drivers taking massive overtaking risks whenever there was fifty metres or so of straight road and then a herd of cows who were rather reluctant to give way as they made slow progress stopping frequently to graze at the verges.

The first thirty kilometres took almost an hour and a half and we were barely half way to Andorra when we pulled into a car park with a panoramic view of the mountains and the valleys that seemed to go on forever and we had short debate and agreed that this whole journey was just too ambitious and that we were looking at probably four or five hours of the same so we turned the car around and went back the way that we had come.  Andorra it seems will have to wait although a friend who visited at more or less the same time told me that in his opinion we hadn’t really missed very much so on that recommendation it might now have to wait a very long time before we cross it off the list.

It was rather tedious making the return journey through Ribes de Freser and then Campdevànol but it would have been a great deal worse if we had tried to carry on so we were both pleased with our decision as we drove through Ripoll without stopping and then picked up another mountain road through the Garrotxa Volacnic Zone and past the town of Olot.  This road was thankfully straight and undemanding and just after lunch time we arrived at our next stopping point, the town of Besalú which was lazily baking away in the wilting heat of the afternoon sun.

We found the Hotel Three Arcs and the receptionist told me that we could ignore the traffic restriction notices that seemed to suggest that the place was pedestrianised and bring the car into the main square but I was nervous about this because it involved driving over one of those solid steel retractable bollards that rise up from the centre of the road.

I was worried in case it raised up without warning and the CCTV cameras would catch the moment and I would forever be shown on television repeats of the Spanish equivalent of ‘You’ve Been Framed’ or ‘America’s Funniest Videos’.  I could sense that a local driver behind was getting impatient so I had to go and I revved the engine and popped the clutch, spun the wheels and dashed across as quickly as I could.  Nothing happened – the bollard stayed down of course and people sitting at a bar probably wondered why I had set off as though I was an Italian driver at a set of red traffic lights.

Besalu Catalonia spain

Catalonia, The Pyrenees and Vall de Nuria

Vall de Nuria Rack Railway

Ribes de Freser is a pretty little town which is famous for spa water and paper manufacture and a number of redundant stone mills are squeezed into the valley of the river Freser where even in July the melt waters from the Pyrenees made it fresh and lively as the agitated water danced over rocks and surged across gravel beds as it swept the surplus water away.

We walked along the river and came across a young couple who had obviously made the same timetable mistake as me and were now engaged in a blame share conversation that was becoming quite heated and increasingly blue!

And so we dawdled through the streets, Kim wasted some time in a shop while a spotted a poster for a dancing festival that would start tomorrow – the day after we had gone and then we found a table in the sun and ordered some beer.  Nearby was a group of young people with a massive dog and I took no particular notice because it was lying peacefully in the sun and not annoying anyone. Not that is until it sniffed my pheromones and sensing my acute cynophobia stood up, arched its back, bristled its hairs and started to bark madly in my direction.  I really hate dogs and they clearly hate me, I had done nothing to provoke this act of aggression and the owners had to apply a muzzle, try to calm it down and failing completely, pay up and leave. Oh boy, I really hate dogs and they really hate me!

The two hours passed surprisingly quickly and we made our way back to the train station, purchased our tickets and waited for it to arrive and leave.

The Vall de Núria Rack Railway is a mountain railway line that connects Ribes de Freser with the mountain town of Queralbs and then finally Vall de Núria. As Queralbs is the highest point in the valley that can be reached by road, the rack railway is, except for the old footpath, the only way to reach the shrine and ski resort at Núria.

The line is twelve and a half kilometres long and the first half of the line is operated by conventional rail adhesion but then it becomes so steep as it rises through one thousand kilometres that the remainder of the line is operated as a rack railway using a system of cogs that interlock with the track to ensure necessary traction to negotiate the gradient.

The journey took forty-five minutes as the electric engine purred its way along the river valley with wonderful views of forests, rocky cliffs, bubbling waterfalls, river beds strewn with sharp boulders and fallen trees and narrow mountain passes which was once the only way that pilgrims made their way into the valley and to the chapel and sanctuary at the top.  Eventually the track levelled out and the train passed through a long dark tunnel before emerging into the sunshine once more and into the sanctuary of the Vall de Nuria.

This place was apparently once a favourite of General Franco and his pals and it is not difficult to understand why.  Beneath the craggy peaks where black walls of bare rock were separated by gullies still streaked with winter snow are lush alpine meadows where fat dairy cows gorge themselves on emerald green grass, where bubbling streams tumble down the mountain side through rocky gorges and under stone bridges and in the centre of the valley is a blue lake where fish swim and leap out of the water and it all reminded me of that American folk song ‘the Big Rock Candy Mountain’.  I liked it here, it was peaceful, it was gentle, it was tranquil and it was out of the way and off the beaten track.

There was a cable car ride to the very top where at two thousand three hundred metres the views in all directions were quite stunning, too stunning as it happens for me to be able to describe and then, as it was cooler at this elevation, we choose to walk back down and make several detours to enjoy the countryside, the waterfalls and the crisp mountain air.

Actually, the only thing that spoilt it was the hotel complex building which reminded me of Battersea Power Station on the River Thames and whose design didn’t seem to especially complement the natural surroundings but there were a couple of good displays inside about the history and the technology and we visited the sanctuary chapel and suddenly after a couple of hours it was time to go back down.

On the drive back to Campdevànol we stopped and purchased some wine and then there was a decision to be made about evening meal.  The hotel restaurant had a café feel about it but Kim was confident that it would be fine so we reserved a table and after a rest and a couple of beers we returned down stairs to a restaurant that was overflowing, that was bulging, that was struggling to cope with the number of diners and we interpreted this as a very good sign.  And Kim was right because the meal was exceptional and the staff, unaccustomed to English guests had gone to a lot of trouble to make us feel welcome even to the extent of translating the menu into an amusing English version just for us, which I thought was a very nice touch!

 

Catalonia, The Town of Vic and a Boutique Hotel

Balneario Prats Caldes de Malavella Catalonia

Before leaving The Balneari Prats Hotel we went in search of improved health and swam for a last time in the rejuvenating waters of the swimming pool but after half an hour I was still running out of breath and joints were still creaking so we gave up on the whimsical notion of eternal youth, packed our bags and left for a short journey into the mountains to the west.

There was a fast new road from Girona to Vic with almost no traffic to share it with as we soon started climbing, climbing, climbing through a succession of long tunnels bored directly through the mountains which I presume the old roads had to negotiate in long difficult raking loops.  As we climbed we left the Province of Girona and entered Barcelona but in contrast to that city we passed through vast green forests spreading in every direction and punctuated here and there with terracotta villages hiding in the folds of the hills and only given away by their church towers that peaked above the tree tops.

Masalbereda hotel…

Eventually the climb levelled out and there in front of us was a vast agricultural plain surrounded on all sides by a ring of mountains and in the centre of this was the town of Vic spreading from its centre like wine spilt on a table cloth.  We would visit Vic later but first we needed to find our hotel in nearby Sant Julià de Vilatorta so that we could drop off our bags.  It was quite early and we didn’t really expect to be able to check in but we were lucky and even at mid morning the room at the five hundred year old farmhouse now the up-market boutique Masalbereda hotel was ready so we explored the hotel and then the village before driving back into the hills.

There were no new roads here and we had to take the traditional way of reaching the top by a narrow country road full of hairpin bends, hard climbs and the occasional crazy local drivers who were prepared it seems to take extraordinary risks to overtake an inconvenient tourist in a Volkswagen Cabby!

We were driving to see a reservoir at the top and this was another vertiginous road that went up, up, up and then down, down, down until we reached the languid green waters of the reservoir under the shadow of a tall red mountain top which felt suddenly as though we had been transported to Utah or Arizona and we were on the set of a John Ford western movie.

It was hot and it was humid so after we had walked for a while around the machinery of the massive dam we returned down the same road and stopped for a very expensive beer in the highly manicured village of Vilanova de Sau before driving the short distance to Vic.

Vic Catalonia Spain

Vic, Catalonia…

Mid afternoon and in the heat of the day was not the best time to visit Vic because most of the town was closed and the sensible residents were resting in the shade behind closed shutters because the dusty Plaza Mayor inside its ring of high stone buildings the sign on a chemist shop claimed that it was a sweltering thirty-five degrees centigrade.  Undeterred by this we followed the tourist trail through the town through narrow stone streets, past the cathedral (closed for the afternoon) and the Roman Temple (also closed for the afternoon) and then along the disappointingly concrete Las Ramblas where a few hardy folks were sitting out at the occasional pavement bar.

We declared it too hot for the full sun so we darted back into the shade of the side streets and after being turned away from an air conditioned restaurant because we only wanted a beer found a bar in a small square with tables under the shade of some leafy plane trees stopped for a while to cool down with a more sensibly priced drink.

I have to say that I don’t think Vic is worth making a special journey to visit but it is a nice enough regional town to spend an hour or two.  It turns out that Vic has a long history but my favourite story is that after it was destroyed by the Moors in 788 most people abandoned the town for the safety of the hills until it was made safe again and repopulated by the magnificently named William the Hairy a hundred years later. (There is a story that William was so named because hair grew on a part of his body where it normally doesn’t but I cannot find any further details – my guess is the palms of the hands?)

A little bit disappointed by Vic we returned to Sant Julià de Vilatorta and because we suspected that the hotel restaurant might be rather expensive we walked the streets to find somewhere suitable for evening meal.  We found three good places but on enquiry they all told us that they were closed tonight on account of an important football tournament in the village and all recommended the Masalbereda, so it looked as though we had no option.

This turned out to be rather lucky because although we have a preference for a noisy bodega or a lively tapas bar to the crisp white table cloths and whispered conversations of a silver service restaurant the menu turned out to be quite reasonable and the food was excellent and we enjoyed our short stay at a smart hotel that was unusually expensive for us and before I went to sleep I tried as hard as I could to remember just why I had booked something so far out of our usual price range.

Vic Catalonia Spain

Catalonia, A Medieval Village and a Mountain Drive

Spain Girona Catalonia

Very quickly we left the busy coastal roads and started to travel inland through a succession of dusty, terracotta coloured medieval villages all closed down for the afternoon siesta and sleeping under the shadows of their ancient churches.

Interestingly, a lot of the churches in the towns and villages of Catalonia have had to undergo extensive repair and renovation because during the Spanish Civil War this was a Republican stronghold under the control of the socialists and supported by communist funding and in the struggle with the fascist, Catholic Church backed Nationalists, many churches were pillaged, vandalised and used for alternative inappropriate purposes.

We were driving now on narrow country roads through fields of golden hay bales, rolled and drying in the sun, arable fields with crops waiting to be harvested and the occasional field of glorious sunflowers and then through rice fields in semi-marshland before we climbed again and approached the fortified medieval villages that are a feature of this part of the province of Girona.

We were heading for the village of Peratallada which it turned out is a heavily visited tourist bus destination for holidaymakers having an afternoon away from the beaches but it was quiet this afternoon as we pulled into the car park and grudgingly paid the parking fee before walking into the village.

Peratallada Girona Catalonia Spain

It was nice but I couldn’t help thinking that all of a sudden I had been transported into Disney World, EPCOT World Showcase because this was an over-manicured, not a thing out of place sort of village that was beautiful to see but was hardly authentic.  The cobbled streets were immaculate, the gardens would all have won gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show and everything was groomed to perfection.  The doors and windows were highly polished, the iron balustrades all black and shiny without a hint of rust and the steps and streets that undulated gently through the village were all swept scrupulously clean.

It was mid afternoon by now and the sun was beating down relentlessly so as much as we could we kept to the shady side of the streets as we walked around the meandering alleys until we reached the tourist heart of the village with pavement restaurants, chattering bars and a few overpriced shops and that really was all there was to do in Peratallada so we strolled slowly back to the car and plotted our route back to Caldes de Malavella.

Doors of Sigüenza 5

This all looked rather straightforward on the map but what I failed to notice was that although it was only a few kilometres as the crow flies the journey involved driving over an unexpected mountain with a lot of twisting roads which increased the distance to be travelled rather considerably.  Very quickly we left the long straight roads and soon we were beginning to continuously climb through a series of sweeping hairpin bends that took us ever higher and higher into the sky.

It wasn’t very helpful either when the satnav kept losing satellite reception which I found strange because at this altitude I could almost see them!  For long periods I was driving without any assistance because having Kim as a navigator is like driving in a blindfold  and I have to try and keep calm because at the first sign of impatience from me she descends into map panic!

Eventually we reached the top, the road levelled out and we began the descent over the other side towards the town of Casa de la Selva which was waking up after the siesta and the roads were becoming busy.  At one point a beat up old truck came to a sudden and unexpected stop directly in front of me and then started to reverse into a parking spot which I was certain was far too small.  I was very close and I worried he hadn’t seen me and that later when I returned the car I might gave to explain the missing headlight and the gouge down the side so I blew my horn to warn him.  This had zero effect and he just kept coming so I did it again and then with the precision of a surgeon he slipped past the Volkswagen Caddy and manoeuvred perfectly into the parking spot and flashed me an indignant look for doubting his reverse parking abilities in the first place.

Mont St Michel Door

It was our final night in Caldes de Malavella and it was even quieter than the first two nights as we walked around the village on a hot and humid evening as black clouds raced in from the north and bullied their way into the sky.  The restaurant that we had used the first two nights was closed so we walked to Vichy Catalan where the menu prices turned us straight back around again and we ended up in a back street bar where the owner was pleased to see us and although he didn’t have a menu as such he did persuade us to sit down and he prepared an impromptu meal of cuttlefish in between serving regulars at the bar.

We had enjoyed it here but after three nights it was time to move on so before going to bed we packed our bags in preparation for leaving in the morning and driving inland to the town of Vic.

Balneario Prats Caldes de Malavella Catalonia

Catalonia, In Search of Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis Voices of the Old Sea

Norman Lewis – Voices of the Old Sea…

“By the end…it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms.  Spain became the most visited tourist country in the World, and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.”  –  Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.

The Costa Brava in Spain…

The north east coast of Spain was first named Costa Brava by the Catalan journalist and poet Ferran Agulló  in an article published in the newspaper La Veu de Catalunya in September 1908 when he applied the name to the stretch of rugged landscape and coast which runs from the river Tordera, near Blanes, to Banyuls.

As I understand it, it is rather difficult to agree an exact English translation for Costa Brava. ‘Rugged Coast’ is most often suggested, but a Catalan will tell you that ‘brava’ is a word with a meaning that goes beyond ‘rugged’ to ‘wild’ or ‘fierce’,  even ‘savage’.

Costa Brava Catalonia Spain

Spanish mass tourism began on the Costa Brava, a truly beautiful stretch of coastline, overlooked by the Pyrenees in the north and which wanders down the coast of the Catalan province of Girona.  Along much of its length it is a coastline characterised by intimidating crags and cliffs, nicked by tiny coves and secret bays and backed with rough pine forests stretching all the way down to the water line of the blue Mediterranean.

In preparation for visiting the Costa Brava I read the book ‘Voices of the Old Sea’ by Norman Lewis who (allegedly) spent three summers in the fishing village he called Farol and where he watched, recorded and lamented as modern tourism replaced traditional, almost feudal, rural industries and he mourned the changes that take place.

The book is an account of localised social change punctuated with humour and stories of strange Catalan customs – such the local tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly-pressed grapes, walking over red hot coals and jumping over babies.

It is hard to tell how much embellishment Lewis allowed himself, probably quite a lot I imagine, because he wrote the book many years later from old notes and he even neglects to mention that he travelled there in a Ford Buick with his wife and family and not as a solo traveller as he would prefer us to believe.

Portugal Fishing BoatBari Puglia Door Detail

Slowly over the three sections of the book he explains how he integrated himself into a community that had barely changed for hundreds of years, where people adhered to tradition, superstitions ruled, and the ageless rhythms of the year continued as they had for centuries.  A feud with a neighbouring village, the patriarchs who meet in the bar, the travelling clairvoyant who predicts the best time to fish for tunny and all the details of village life are recounted in a way that is appropriate to the pace of life there.  He asks a local man to explain about life and he replies: “How can anyone put it? One thing is certain – here we have always been and here, whatever happens, we shall remain, listening to the voices of the old sea.”

But it is an affection tinged with melancholy and despair, for Lewis was observing life on the verge of headlong and irreversible change, the cork forests that were the life blood of their neighbours were suffering blight, the fish were not as plentiful as they once were and worst of all, the first waves of tourism were beginning to lap at the shores of the Costa Brava and a way of life was heading for extinction.

Costa Brava Beaches Tourism Norman Lewis

In the 1950s, the Costa Brava was identified by the Spanish government and by local entrepreneurs as being a coastline suitable for substantial development as a holiday destination to compete with the south of France and mainly for package holiday tourists from Northern Europe.

It was a sort of perfect ‘Surf and Turf’ with a combination of a very good summer climate, a green environment, excellent beaches and a favourable foreign exchange rate.  This made Spain a relatively inexpensive tourist destination and this was exploited by the construction of large numbers of hotels and apartments in such seaside resorts as Blanes, Tossa de Mar, and Lloret and in a relatively short space of time tourism rapidly took over from fishing as the principal business of the area.

Lewis recalls his time there to describe the poverty-stricken and almost medieval lifestyle of the fishermen and their families. During the second season a dubious local businessman opens a hotel and begins the gradual transformation of the village into what he considers to be a tasteless tourist trap in spite of resentment and resistance and the fishermen who continue obstinately to fish the dwindling stocks even when it is pointed out that they can earn far more taking tourists on a single boat trip than in a whole season of fishing.

By the third season there is no turning back – the fishermen’s wives are working as chambermaids at the hotel, and even Lewis’s friend Sebastian has had to abandon his ambitious travelling plans and become a waiter.

Muga’s bribery and manipulation, at least in his own mind, are benevolent, even visionary. He aims to modernize the region and turn Farol into a tourist attraction, complete with seafront hotels and shops filled with flamenco dresses and Cervantes figurines – in other words, souvenirs from the complete opposite side of Spain, souvenirs that have no connection with Catalonia or the Costa Brava. On account of this rapid transformation Lewis sadly laments that “Farol began its slow loss of identity.”

Benidorm Spain

Norman Lewis and the Bluff of Farol…

There is actually no such place as Farol (farol means bluff) because if he possibly could, Lewis, in a selfish sort of way, wanted to retain its anonymity, he didn’t want his description of an idyllic fishing community to contribute to the flood of tourism that he thought would destroy it.

This was all rather pointless of course because by the time he wrote the book the changes had all taken place and there is a wide streak of vanity running through this objective because once started nothing was going to stop the ever increasing flow of pasty faced tourists from the north.

Given how much Spain’s Costa Brava had changed already by the time Lewis was writing, Voices of the Old Sea is devastating in its understatement. Refraining from overtly referring to the full extent of the later transformation of the place that Lewis was painfully aware of he lets us fill in the blank sequel ourselves with the shocking knowledge we already have about the impact of the northern invasion.

The truth is that it may not even be based on anywhere in particular and many people have tried to identify the fishing village of Farol and I am going to have a try as well.

Castelsardo Street

I am fairly certain that the village is on the Bay of Roses which leads me to chose between Roses in the north and L’Escala in the south.  I have discounted Cadeques because this would have been just too remote.  The nearest big town is almost certainly Figueres so I have concluded that it must be Roses.  Lewis doesn’t give away many clues and most people agree that a lot of the content of the book is simply ‘made up’ but I submit two other pieces of evidence to support this theory.

Alicante Fishermen

Lewis tells us that the village priest Don Ignacio has a passion for archaeology and likes to visit the Roman ruins at Empurias and he visits the site by taking the bus.  Now, Empurias is close enough to L’Escala to walk but is thirty kilometres from Roses so would almost certainly require transport.  Secondly, Lewis calls the neighbouring village Sort and tells us that it is five kilometres from Farol and lying conveniently five kilometres from Roses is the modern town of Castelló d’Empúries, which I suggest is the village Lewis calls Sort.

As secondary evidence I suggest that the name of the entrepreneur who wishes to drive the transition to tourism is taken from a local feature – his name is Mugo which is the name of the river that flows through Castelló d’Empúries and empties into the Bay of Roses. As his influence grows Lewis tells us that Mugo buys new property that is regarded as useless marsh land through which a river flows and this little snippet is not completely irreconcilable with the development of such land south of Roses which was to become the modern day marina of Empuriabrava.

Read my story about Benidorm in the 1960s here.

Benidorm Fisherman

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