(By Carol Hunt/IIndy) My first time ever to venture to north Barcelona was when the Catalans were building their Olympic stadiums in 1992, and simultaneously, turning back to face the Mediterranean.
It’s hard to believe that then Barcelona – recently voted the “best beach city in the world” by National Geographic – had no city beaches that could be used by locals or visitors. Northwards, up along the stunning coastline of the Costa Brava, was where maritime and natural beauty can be found.
Today, more than ever, the area north of the Catalan capital, deserves a visit in its own right.
We hold our breath as the tiny child tugs at first one leg, then an arm further up, another leg, until finally she swings herself on top of the shoulders of the last small girl, reaches the ‘top of the castel’ and makes the customary salute to the cheering crowd.
We are in the Catalan town of Caldes de Montbui, a cultural heritage site of national interest due to its extensive remains of Roman spas, allegedly caused by Roman water gods who caused the water to bubble and boil for the ritual bathing of locals and tourists alike. On this warm Sunday September morning, however, the majestic town square is filled with Catalans aged between five and 85, all dressed in uniforms of orange, green and purple jerseys with white trousers and black cummerbunds.
They are Castellers – communities who come together to build the famous Catalan human castles.
These daunting creations can be made of up to 500 people, from all classes of the usual stratified Catalan society; tiny children and great-grandfathers, teenagers and concerned mothers, all have a role to play in the building of these awesome examples of community strength, teamwork and trust.
We stop off in the lovely Canet de Mar, where the modernism fair is taking place. The scent of hot chocolate, chestnuts and spices fill the air as children romp the streets in 19th-century garb, and musicians entertain the local crowds. We take the popular “zip train” to the nearby Santa Florentina Castle, where preparations for an afternoon wedding are taking place.
Conveniently, we lunch in Santuari de la Misericordia – an art nouveau restaurant beside the church where bride and bridegroom are taking their vows. A horse-drawn carriage waits impatiently outside, hooves tapping, tails swishing in the languid afternoon sunshine. Later we walk off lunch in the beautiful Montseny Natural Park, 30,000 acres of mountains and forests with historic sites, rural hotels, fragrance farms and magnificent scenery. And all just 50 minutes drive from Barcelona City.
Further north in the beautiful Roman city of Girona we count the 90 steps up to its great 14th century cathedral and correctly guess – eventually – that the Irish artist who donated a stain glass window to the church was Sean Scully. In the old Jewish quarter of the city – a dense quagmire of atmospheric lanes and criss-crossing streets – we visit the new museum, a wonderful space, dedicated to preserving and reflecting the history of the Jewish communities of Catalonia.
Sadly – or rather excitingly – we have to cut short our boat trip at the Club Nautic l’Escala, on the Costa Brava, as thunderous clouds and flashes of lightning suddenly arrive overhead, but we are well rewarded as we retire to the luxurious spa facilities of the nearby Hostel Empúries, where we are entertained into the small hours by the loquacious host, Ferr Pringuelle.
And then there’s the food. Catalonia is a true gastronomic heaven. Highlights were Robert de Nola’s slow food restaurant, where the owner, an anthropologist turned epicurean historian, assures us that ‘no revolution ever happened without the stomach being involved”. Catalans are passionate about using local produce and highlighting cultural trends. In Girona, we are lucky enough to have lunch at the Vol Espai Gastonomic, a recently created space, teetering over the river, which was specially conceived for locals and visitors alike to experience the products of the Girona area. A different chef entertains weekly.
Next day, we are similarly treated to a Catalonian gastronomic cookery lesson at the nearby Vinyata vineyard. We learn how to cook gazpacho, Spanish omelette, paella and, best of all, Catalan cream custard. Earlier, we had donned white coats and hats in order to tout the l’Escala anchovies factory. This was far more fun than it sounds, as the anchovies are washed and packed by hand – the men fish, the women sort – and taste delicious with fresh bread washed down by local wine, even at 11am in the morning.
The highlight of these few days though, is the place that I hope to return to for a much longer visit; the “landscape of the artist Dali’s imagination”, the natural park of Cap de Creus.