Travel is an exhilarating experience when your friends happen to be your travel guides too. It happened to us this spring when Sylvia and Miguel took us off the beaten track in Catalunya and its surprising history.
Sylvia is Catalan and a proud one. I (Edgar) must confess, I’ve often teased her about the rivalry between Catalunya and Castile, not only sport-wise, but politically too. It is a subject that I knew little about and honestly, I’d never understood the Catalans urge of independence until this visit. Their history resembles Portugal’s, but with a different ending.
When travelling around Catalunya we had the feeling of a different Spain starting with the romance language, which has Spanish roots, yet distinguished – sometimes it sounds like French, or Greek or Portuguese…we even found similar words to Romanian! 🙂
People take pride in their origins, in their art and culture, where Dali and Gaudi were born, their food and their history – of which they are all knowledgeable. In short, we loved the Catalunya we experienced and its welcoming people.
Catalunya’s creation started during the Roman Empire, when Tarragona was the capital of Hispania and for a short period of time the capital of the whole empire.
Around 717 AC, the Moors conquered the region. Their occupation did not last long, and at the end of the century, the southern region served as a buffer zone between the Christians and the Moors.
In 985, after a sack of Barcelona by the Moors, and not having received any support from the Franks, Count Borrell II declared independence, although it was only recognized in the 1200’s – this is the beginning of the Catalonian independent state.
In the 13th century, Catalonians conquered other territories (Mallorca, Ibiza and Valencia) and drove the Moors outside the Mediterranean. The following century will be Catalunya’s golden age. The region prospered and its domains reached until Sicily, Sardinia and the South of Greece, including Athens.
The independence of the region was threatened, when king Martí died with no heir in 1410. Then it got even worse when in the end of the century Catalunya became part of the newly formed Spain. Inquisition was introduced, making most of the Jewish community flee the region, and there was no permission to trade with the newly found continent, the Americas, hence starting an economic crisis.
From this moment forward, Catalunya has always been under the shadow of Spain, and governance of Madrid’s centralized power. Ever since 1932, it has a Statute of Autonomy which allocates the local government the responsible for many rulings.
Barcelona. The first thing you’ll notice is that the city is well planned, big streets and bigger avenues…they all seem to fit perfectly with each other. This was actually one of the first things we’d noticed even before landing. It reflects a big city renovation plan in the 19th century, tearing down its medieval wall and growing further.
Still, vestiges from the old Barcelona can be found in the neighborhood of Gràcia, the Old Town, where streets are of smaller size and buildings go beyond two centuries old.
So we set our goal for the day and walked around the city and parks, like the large Parc de la Ciutadella with the amazing glass and iron building from 1800’s. After so much walking, there’s nothing better than finding a good place for lunch. Being with and around locals is exactly what we got. A very unique experience of the Catalan food. If you happen to be nearby Barceloneta, search for a local eatery.
We won’t reveal the name nor the address of the place that we luckily came across. Barcelona has become one of the major tourist destinations worldwide, and the gentrification of its most traditional neighbourhoods is causing a huge debate around locals. Hence, we don’t want to ruin what it seemed to be one of the few places where locals still can enjoy their city. What we can reveal though is what we had: several different tapas with seafood paté, jamón ibérico, croquetas filled with different types of meat and seafood, patatas bravas (a must have local dish) and all of these washed down with Vermouth con gas (macerated wine with herbs served in small barrels with sparkling water).
After such a feast, we went down to the beach and lounged for a while. As Miguel, our friend would say, it’s really amazing to have the beach right at the city’s doorstep..
A trip to Barcelona can only be completed with the visit of Sagrada Família and/ or other Gaudí attractions (Casa Milà and Casa Batlló were left for a next time). This time we went for Sagrada Família and Park Güell, both overwhelming in all ways… The pictures speak for themselves.
We had been in Barcelona before, so this time, with the little help of our friends, as the song goes, we managed to get away the touristy places and explore more the region. Yet there are always some places you end up at, like Las Ramblas, the famous boulevard where one can find all sort of stores and restaurants. It is definitely one of the most crowded places in town..
Before we close the Barcelona chapter, you need to know that there’s a magical local drink called Orxata and it’s at Horchateria Sirvent you can have the best one in town.
Girona – In awe of this idyllic Catalan city
Off beaten tracks also means off tourist traps – Sylvia and Miguel made sure to show us some well kept gems. We started our trip in Catalunya with the visit of Girona – colorful and medieval with labyrinthine streets and an idyllic old Jewish quarter.
It was in Girona that we were introduced to Ratafia, in a local tiny bar. Though the best we had was home-made, by the hands of real masters. We are of course talking about Miguel, Sylvia and her family and friends. But wait, what is Ratafia? It is an alcoholic drink sweetened with fruit, herbs and spices and, as we used to joke about, with everything else you have in the pantry and garden.
We could have not left the city without tasting the famous icecream sandwich at Rocambolesc Go for it!
Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres
In Figueres, we visited Dalí Theatre-Museum, a mandatory visit not only for its collection, but also for what Salvador Dalí artfully managed to do out of an old theatre’s ruins.
It stays at 150 km distance from Barcelona – it’s a one day trip, go for it!
Later on, we also visited the idilic and serene village of Potlligat, which was the retreat sanctuary for Dalí and his wife Gala.
Catalunya with azure Mediterranean water and white Pyrenees
For the rest of our trip, we wondered around and marvelled at Catalunya’s countryside and coastline…from the Natural Park of Cape de Creus to the most northeastern point of Catalunya, Portbou, where we learned about the tragic story of Walter Benjamin, by visiting his memorial, Passages, a very unique place, where we spent quite some time taking pictures…
Then we crossed the border to France, in Cerbère, just to see Hotel Belvédère du Rayon Vert squeezed between the train tracks and a street. It is an impressive art deco building, which used to have a cinema and a tennis court, operated from the 1930’s till 1983, when it closed due to the Spanish Civil War. Nowadays, the hotel is partly used for residential apartments.
- Good time of the year (less crowded) to visit: we went during Semana Santa – the Holy week before Easter. It’s also a good timing to attend the religious street celebrations with traditions and customs…
- To skip the line but also to ensure there are still tickets available for Gaudi’s masterpieces, you should buy them online in advance.