Thursday, December 15, 2016

Más España! –- Los Caminos de Cataluña –– September 30 – October 9, 2016


Cataluña (Eng.: Catalonia) is an officially designated "autonomous community" of Spain, similar in status to Pais Vasco, the Spanish Basque Country. It occupies the north-east tip of Spain and is bordered to the north by France and to the east and south by the Mediterranean Sea. Catalonia is composed of four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida. 

The Catalan language is one of Spain’s co-official languages and is spoken by over nine million people world-wide, including 75% of the people in Catalonia. To us, Catalan sounds like French-accented castellano (the language English speakers refer to as “Spanish”). Interesting factoid: Catalan is the official language of the Principality of Andorra (which we leave to you to find on a map!).

We won't pretend that our two-plus weeks in this autonomous community brought us any deep understanding of the complicated history and separatist politics of Catalonia. We can only convey our experiences and observations, including the general one that more Catalans seem less happy with being part of Spain than are the Basques. Our general observation is based on:

An Observation: The Catalan flag is flown everywhere. Only federal government offices and one contrarian in the town of Figueres fly the Spanish flag.

Catalan Flag
An Observation: Basques take pride in their quirky, unique language but seem to accept that people around them speak Spanish. By times Catalans seem to express frustration with the predominance of Spanish. At times, when we would attempt to speak Spanish (and Bryce's Spanish is clear enough to be understood by most Spaniards and even complemented by some) the conversation would be switched to English. It felt less like the desire to improve communication we sometimes experience in Mexico and Central America, and more like a dismissal of Spanish. A statement of: "We speak Catalan here. If you can't speak our language we will speak English, not that . . . other language." But then, maybe we are reading too much into a couple of encounters. 

An Observation: We saw several examples of regional pride graffiti.

Something Like: This Is Catalan Land!

Journey to Girona

This post covers the portion of our trip spent in the Catalan province of Girona, which is north of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.

We took the train from Donostia (Eng: San Sebastian, in Pais Vasco) to Barcelona, and then north to Figueres. Barcelona is sort of the Atlanta, Georgia of Catalonia in that most transportation to and from Catalonia passes through Barcelona. We stayed at the Hotel Duran, in operation since 1855. Happily the hotel has been updated several times since then and the rooms/baths are currently very modern and relatively spacious and inoffensively decorated. The hotel’s dining room and wait staff remain charmingly old fashioned and reminded Molly of the Spain she visited in the 1980's. For those who don’t find that little quirk charming – there are lots of places to dine in Figueres!

A Self-Guided Walking Holiday

We decided to take what the British call a “self-guided walking holiday” (how cute is that?) because we are generally pokey as tourists and Molly is generally pokey as a hiker - a combination which does not contribute to group cohesion. Self-guided walking holidays offer trail directions, luggage transfers (our back-packing days are waaaaay behind us), pre-arranged lodging (with breakfast) and the freedom to be as pokey and slow as you want or need to be. Catalan Adventures, the company we booked with, offered all of that for seven days at about $100 a day, per person. 

Our 66 kilometer (41.6 mile) walk was along the Costa Brava which is north of Barcelona. At times we were on one of the many pilgrimage trails to Santiago de Compostela, but we did not walk a pilgrimage route. Here we would usually throw in a comment about being afraid of a lightening strike but later in our trip that turned out to be not terribly amusing.

Trail Marker

          Day One

The morning after our arrival in Figueres we were met at the Hotel Duran by Maria, one of the British couple who owns and operates Catalan Adventures. Maria drove us to our starting point, the sea-side town of L’Escala and gave us detailed written walking directions (including pictures) and a briefing on our route, accommodations and sights available for touring along the route.

After our briefing we wandered along the ocean front to the harbor where we had lunch and looked at – you won’t believe it! - boats. L'Escala gave the impression of a seaside resort that was reaching the end of a looong, busy season. Many of the beach side stores and restaurants were closed and the rest of them were just going through the motions. 

We spent the night at Rallye Hotel, a modest, clean and friendly place across from the malecón (seaside walkway). The hotel's restaurant was good and lively. We settled in after dinner in preparation for the beginning our big walking adventure the next day . . . and were kept up much of the night by weekend party people wandering along the malecón. This hotel might not be a place to seek out in the high season.

          Day Two

Walk One: Fifteen kilometers (9.3 miles) to the Casa Rural Mas del Joncar (a rural guest house) in Sant Pere Pescador (St. Peter the Fisherman).

Our first stop was a bread store to purchase our picnic lunch. That activity was harder than it sounds as we were starting out on a Sunday. Note to self: It's a Catholic Country.

After provisioning for the day we walked to the nearby archaeological site at Empúries – spectacular because it is the only place in Spain one can see the remains of a Greek city and a Roman city, side by side. Sadly, after spending only two hours there (see above re: pokey) we decided that because there were almost 13 kilometers of walking in our future we should quit burning so much daylight! [Travel Note: If you are taking this packaged walk and are a fan of archaeological ruins, consider visiting Empúries on Day One. It is a very interesting site and worthy of more time than most can give it as part of Day Two. In contrast, the town of L'Escala is not a one-of-a-kind place.]

A Roman's View

A Roman's Floor

After we left Empúries we began the most difficult part of the day – beach walking. Beautiful but . . . slooow. We enjoyed the butterfly-like kite surfers and, when we saw a comfortable looking piece of drift-wood, stopped for our picnic lunch.  [Travel Tip: Choose your beach picnic site carefully as many Northern Europeans (read: Germans) enjoy sunning themselves lo natural and, well – it’s best for everyone if you don’t interfere with that.]

Bryce, Beach Walking
Kite Surfers

Following our beach walk we entered an agricultural area. As a former apple picker (part of a misspent youth) Bryce was interested to see apples growing on espaliers – more like grape vines than apple trees.

Espaliers With Apples

At the end of our walk was the charming and comfortable rural guest house, Mas del Joncar, a delicious pork tenderloin dinner prepared by one of the owners, a carafe of nice red wine and the pleasant company of other walkers.

Limping Toward Dinner

          Day Three

Walk Two: Eleven kilometers (6.8 miles) to Hostal Casa Clara in the medieval village of Castello D’Empuriues.  

This gentle walk took us along the banks of the Rio Fluviá


where we were introduced to the idea of a European "Camping" (AmericaRV Park). They are massive - hundreds of electrical hook-ups, swimming pools, club houses, playgrounds - massive. Most of those we saw along our way were closed - but when we imagined what they must be like when fully occupied during high season it was a reminder that we North Americans are thoroughly space spoiled!

We walked through a nature preserve where we saw lots of birds


and climbed an observation tower where we observed each other observing each other  . . .

Molly Observing Bryce

Bryce Observing Molly

and some pastoral views.


We ate part of the delicious lunches we had purchased from Mas de Joncar and packed the remainders for another day. [Tip: If you happen to take this walk, purchase only one Mas de Joncar lunch for every two walkers. Clearly the rotund chef/owner of Mas de Joncar has a horror of letting a customer go hungry and has never carried one of the gigantic lunches he prepares in a backpack for eleven kilometers!]

Our walk ended at the Hostal Casa Clara in Castello D’Empuriues where we inadvertently marched right through the hostal’s very popular restaurant in our dusty, stinky hiking gear (we didn’t see the side door to the hostal). Our very kind hostess managed to sweep us out of her restaurant and up to our room without making a fuss.

We cleaned up and took ourselves on a tour of the lovely medieval area of Castello d’Empuriues. At the Iglesia Sta. Maria (Church of St. Mary) we were entertained by an animated fellow who showed us damage done during the Civil War (1936-39) and assured us that the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi had been inspired by the alter at Iglesia Sta. Maria. After our visit to Gaudi’s famous Segrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona we thought – could be.

The Entrance to Sta. Maria
One of Many Saints
Alter and Gaudi Inspiration

          Day Four

Walk Three: Sixteen and a half kilometers (10.25 miles) between Platja Canyelles and Cadaqués on the Cami de Ronda through the Parc Natural del Cap de Creus.

Maria picked us up in the morning and drove us to Canyelles beach, located on the far side of an extremely large seaside housing development that has been built outside of Castello D’Empuries. Everyone in England who can afford to has purchased a second home there, it seems. 

This portion of our walk offered spectacular ocean views but was a bit tough, not so much due to distance as to the up and down and up and down and . . . etc. nature of the seaside trail.

Oh, Man. If I Go Down . . . 
Who Will Tow Me Back Up?

At one point we cheated and stayed on the rim road above the beaches and the beach-side trail. Our distance wasn’t reduced much – if at all – and it was dusty and at time it was view-less. But it was flatter!

Cheater Seaside Walking

Just as our feet started to cry out to us, we saw Cadaqués in the distance. No wonder both Picasso and Dali loved it.

Cadaqués On The Horizon, Captain!

Happy to see Cadaqués, Molly left a thank-you pebble at a road-side shrine on the way into town. Others had gone before.

Thanks For The Assist!

          Day Five

After a night at Hotel Octavia (clean, well equipped, basic) in Cadaqués we spent our non-walking day -- walking! We ambled the four kilometers from Cadaqués to the village of Port Lligat, famous for being the location of Salvador Dali’s house.

Every House Needs A Sculpture On Top 

We had not made reservations to visit the house museum. Travel Tip: When they say one must have a reservation, they really mean it. 

We had a nice walk anyway (it doesn't pay to stop walking once one starts) and we enjoyed seeing the little fishing/museum village.

Port Lligat 

That night we had our Big Deal Meal of the week at Compartir (Eng.: To Share). For our foodie friends, Compartir is Michelin recommended and was begun by three former chefs from elBulli. Do not miss Compartir if you go to Cadaqués. Tell them the woman that made all the oooh-ing sounds sent you.

          Day Six

Walk Four: Twelve kilometers (7.45 miles) from Cadaqués through the Cap de Creus national park to El Port De La Selva (“Jungle Port” – clearly named by people who never saw a Costa Rican jungle . . . ).

We left Cadaqués thinking that the weather was a bit misty but, what the hey – we’ve been wet before. By the time the rains began and that seemed like a poor call we were about an hour’s walk out of town up an un-groomed path. Even wet the path seemed easier to climb than descend. About an hour later being soaking wet seemed like the least of our problems. We were huddling next to a stone wall at the top of an almost bald hill, hoping that the lightening crackling around us would skip us and be drawn to one of the few nearby trees.

After what seemed a cold and wet age the lightening and rain stopped and we were able to eat our picnic lunch. Standing up in the mud.

Lunching Al Fresco
(Blurry Spots - Rain Drops On Lens)

Our map and walking directions were wet but readable if proper care was taken, we had not been struck by lightening and our lunch had remained dry. Bryce thought this was worth celebrating.

Woo-Hoo: Fed and Not Dead!
Molly thought it might take a bit before she could celebrate being alive. Maybe after she dried out . . . and found a bush to stop behind.

(Blurry Spots - Rain On The Lens)

We were almost dry by the time we arrived in El Port De La Selva for the night.

Somewhere Down There Is A Dry Towel

We spent the night at a funny little hotel and spa where they asked us to leave our hiking boots in the laundry room. We padded around in funky slippers provided by the hotel (all nicely and cleanly wrapped!), dried off and cleaned up, and went out to look for dinner, to celebrate our survival. It turns out that it's not so easy to find dinner in the off season in El Port De La Selva: only three restaurants were still open.

After a bit of a wander, and learning that one of the restaurants could not seat us for over an hour, we chose among our two dining options, enjoyed dinner (it was hot) and managed to stay awake long enough to return to the hotel, leave our shoes in the laundry room and get to bed.  

Day Seven

Walk Five: Almost 13 kilometers (almost 8 miles) from El Port De La Selva to Niu de Sol Casa Rural in Palau Saverdera.

Market and Lunch Provisioning Stop

Shortly outside El Port De La Selva, along our walking route, are the remains of a medieval Benedictine monastery – Sant Pere de Rodes. We were looking forward to touring the monastery until we realized that St. Pere de Rodes is perched on top of a very high hill. A particularly high hill for those who had walked more than 50 kilometers over preceding five days.

Good Real Estate For Monks

In the spirit of pilgrimage (confession / seeking absolution, etc.) we decided to take a cab to the top of the parking lot just below the monastery, confess what we had done to anyone who cared (no one seemed to) and continue along our route after a leisurely tour of the monastery. 

An excellent plan.

We even got a bit of a tour from the cab driver who, unlike others we had met was very happy to speak Castellano. When asked about a proposed independence referendum we had heard about, he sniffed dismissively and blamed the weak government in Madrid for allowing separatist nonsense. 

The Easy Way
The Monastery

11th Century Wall Art
One of the Thieves On Calvary - 11th Century
A Monk's View
Halt! Who Goes There?

The interior of the monastery was wonderful. We were particularly awed by the wall paintings from the 11th Century. This place is not to be missed if you are visiting the Costa Brava - regardless of whether you arrive on foot or by taxi.

After we left the monastery we passed a lovely church which acted as a location beacon for much of the rest of our day.

Church In Our Rear View

After one of our favorite walking days, we arrived at the Niu de Sol rural and settled in. On the recommendation of our Catalan Adventures contact, Maria, we arranged to dine in and were not disappointed; another good dining experience. 

But fairly soon after dinner we were asleep. We had done it! Not exactly an Everest ascent, but more than 45 miles in five walking days. Good for us!

          Day Eight.

Steve, of Catalan Adventures, picked us up the next morning and drove us back to Figueres and the Hotel Duran. Full Circle.

That afternoon we did what one does in Figueres: tour the Salvador Dali museum. Neither of us went into the museum as Dali fans (dripping clocks and all that surrealist thing) but we came away more impressed than we had expected to be. We call that a successful museum experience.

As an encouragement to those who may not be enthusiastic about a Day of Dali, here’s a peek at what he did in addition to the dripping clocks:

Dali's Wife and Muse, Gala
Girl From Figueres

A Boat - Of Course

Molly particularly liked the jewelry Dali designed (who knew?).



But like the best travel moments, our favorite in Figueres was accidental. We came across two groups building Castells –human towers. This somewhat strange activity has been going on since the early 18th century. But now the kids wear helmets.





And Americans worry when their kids play football . . . !

Our other moment of serendipity was spotting a Dutch walker (whose name we never learned) sitting at an outdoor cafe along the square. We had been been saying hello to him all along our walk, and had even shared a table with him at one beach-side cafe where we learned that he had booked his walk through a different company but was on pretty much the same route as we were. In Figueres we had a chance to buy him a  coffee to thank him for the beers he had purchased for us that afternoon. The next time we are in The Netherlands, we will keep our eyes out for him! 

Next Stop: Barcelona, The Capital of Cataluña.

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