Category Archives: Catalonia

A Costa Brava Summer: 24 Hours in Palafrugell

The patio bar of Hostel L’Estrella

In summer, just north of Palamós, the Costa Brava turns a bit quiet thanks to an absence of big hotels and mass tourism. Palafrugell, located a few miles inland, is in a privileged location at the heart of this part of the Costa Brava — a place I always wanted to visit. Finally, I had the opportunity. Palafrugell is well below the radar for most tourists. Calella de Palafrugell, a very upmarket coastal destination — and one of three coastal towns (the others being Llafranc and Tamariu) belonging to the municipality of Palafrugell — gets all the “buzz” in travel and food guides. But “buzz” is not everything.

Centre Fraternal, Plaça Nova

Palafrugell, with a population of 23,000, is the largest town in the region (Baix Empordà) and, as I discovered, has a lot to offer, beginning with a busy central square (Plaça Nova), where the locals gather in the early evening. With no traffic, and at least a half-dozen cafés, it is a great place to order a drink, have a few tapas, and people watch in the cool air. The Centre Fraternal, with its large windows opening on to Plaça Nova, is a cultural center active since 1887. It has a restaurant and great atmosphere. There’s a sizable market (one of the best I have seen) in the town center selling fish, meat, fruits and vegetables every day except Monday. On Sunday the market triples its size to sell other products, from clothes to kitchenware.

Modernisme Door, Cork Museum

Carving of cork cutters, Cork Museum

The cork industry determined the town’s development. Thanks to an abundance of cork oak trees, Palafrugell was famous for its cork manufacturing in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The largest factory closed in the 1970s, leading to harsh unemployment. There is a small but impressive museum (Museo del Suro) commemorating the history and heritage linked to the Catalan cork industry. The museum building itself is an old cork factory in a Modernisme (Catalan Art Nouveau) design. It is in the town center.

“Kouros” by Manuel Solà, Can Mario Museum

Sharing the old cork factory complex is the Can Mario Museum, a contemporary sculpture museum which was inaugurated in 2004. It houses more than 200 sculptures from the 1960s to the present, created by various artists who were either born in or are residents of Catalonia.

Facade, Sant Martí church

The parish church of Sant Martí is definitely worth a visit. Constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries its nave and side-chapels are in the Gothic style. It was badly damaged in 1936, at the beginning of the Civil War.

Mural: Baptism of Jesus, Sant Martí church

In 1939 restoration of Sant Martí began. Guillem Soler, a Catalan painter who specialized in frescoes, designed and painted murals for the church between 1942 and 1948. They are genuinely impressive.

View of Sant Martí church from L’Estrella Guesthouse

Summer in Palafrugell brings the sounds of havaneres, Catalan sea shanties rooted in the songs sung in local taverns. The songs relate Caribbean travels in the 19th century, a time when many Catalans sought their fortune there — especially in Cuba, which explains the songs being called haveneres: “of Havana”. Outdoor concerts featuring groups who perform havaneres are frequent events — in fact, I enjoyed a concert havaneres at the Plaça Nova during my stay. Here is an example, sung (in Catalan) by Sílvia Pérez Cruz, native of Palafrugell, and her father, Càstor Pérez:

Near Plaça Nova

I could have spent more than 24 hours in Palafrugell and want to return to this peaceful, friendly place. Hostel L’Estrella is recommended as a great place to stay and restaurant L’Arc offers wonderful local cuisine.

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

My Summer (sometimes Autumn, Winter or Spring) Place: Sant Feliu de Guíxols

View from my apartment

Sant Feliu de Guíxols is a small Catalan Mediterranean port town, about an hour north of Barcelona, with a long history. At present it is my home for 4-6 months each year. It has all the qualities that make it a great place if you are an artist, writer, photographer or poet. But because Dalí never stayed here, it is not known as an artists’ colony.

The town was named for the Carthaginian Saint Felix (Sant Feliu in Catalan), martyred in Girona during the last great persecution of Christians by Roman authorities in 304. The Romanesque Basilica of San Feliu was constructed in Girona to honor him. Guíxols is a bit of a mystery — it appears to be derived from the word iecsalis, found in a 10th century document, that seems to mean “rope-maker”.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols grew around a 10th century Benedictine monastery. The fortified monastery has been rebuilt many times, and now has an art museum as well as a parish church and a restaurant under its roof.

Sant Feliu beach in winter

These days, the town is relatively active throughout the year — emphasis on relatively. November, January and February are particularly quiet and despite what the local tourism office promotes, the weather year-round is not an idyllic eternal summer: winter brings cold rain with the tramuntanya (Catalan name for the northern wind) and summer, when tourism takes over, can be uncomfortably (and at times unbearably) humid.

Downtown Sant Felíu

Sant Feliu de Guíxols has a small historic center, with narrow streets and architecture spanning centuries. A market hall, on the Plaça del Mercat, was constructed in 1929. A local farmers’ market is held here every Sunday morning.

Local cliffs

The town was once an important centre for cork manufacturing and, in fact, it was economically prosperous for decades thanks to the cork wine and champagne stoppers produced here. Small abandoned or redeveloped (parking lots a favorite) cork factories can be seen in just about every neighborhood as well as cork oak trees, endemic to southwestern Europe and northern Africa.

The port of Sant Feliu

Fishing is a tradition here but has never had the importance it has in neighboring Palamós. Some small boats are still active today, with blue fish (primarily sardines) the main catch. In late spring a month-long blue fish festival (Campanya gastronòmica del Peix Blau Ganxó) is held. During the festival many local restaurants offer menu selections featuring blue fish. The smell of grilled sardines are a sign to me that summer has arrived here.

Spring in Sant Feliu – the best season to visit!

Beginning in the 1950s, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, like the rest of the Costa Brava, began to be developed as a center of tourism. Though high-rise tourist apartments and hotels line the seafront, it avoided the worst excesses of package tourism. The near-by town of Platja d’Aro has the nightlife, the multiplex, and chain stores, leaving Sant Feliu de Guíxols with a slower pace. The Festival de la Porta Ferrada — Catalonia’s oldest music festival — began here in 1958, and is a very diverse summer festival that attracts large crowds in July and August.

7 things to see/do in Sant Feliu de Guíxols:

The Monastery

Monastery/Thyssen Museum: The Benedictine monastery is the most important heritage site in town. Mare de Déu dels Àngels church, the History Museum of San Feliu and the Summer-Autumn exhibition space of the Thyssen Museum are all located in the monastery.

Sant Elm

The Hermitage of Sant Elm: In 1203 the monks received royal authorization to fortify a cliff  that would warn them of attacks from the sea. In 1452 they built the hermitage of Sant Elm, dedicated to La nostra Senyora del Bon Viatge (Our Lady of the Good Journey). From Sant Elm, the bay and the city of Sant Feliu de Guíxols as well as the dramatic coast can be seen. It was from this spot that journalist Ferran Agulló had the idea, in 1908, of christening the coast with the name of Costa Brava (“wild coast”).

The Casino (detail)

Casino La Constancia: Designed in the modernista mozárabe style by Barcelona architect General Guitart i Lostaló, it was inaugurated in 1889. It is located on the Rambla del Portalet. Despite being called a casino, it was never a place of gambling but the headquarters of a working and labor society founded in 1851. It was a place of  cultural activities (including popular dances), discussion forums, and a library. Today it is a restaurant.

Rescue Station

The Maritime Rescue Museum: A museum located in the town’s rescue station (built in 1890) dedicated to the history of local maritime rescue operations. The view of the harbor from here is beautiful.

Sant Feliu Cemetary

Town Cemetery:The Sant Feliu de Guíxols cemetery, established in the 19th century, contains some remarkable tombs in the Catalan Modernist style which reflect the opulent good-fortune of some during the height of cork manufacture and maritime trade here. It is small enough to explore in less than an hour.

Camí de Ronda

Camí de Ronda – Sant Feliu to Sant Pol: This coastal path (Cami de Ronda)begins in downtown Sant Feliu de Guíxols and is an easy hike crossing a pine grove near cliffs and the sea. At the end of the path is Sant Pol, the most northern of Sant Feliu’s neighborhoods.

Casa Estrada: , the “house of 9 towers”, Sant Pol

The beach at Sant Pol: Located on a large bay, Sant Pol is a long family beach, complete with boardwalk and a protected area of dunes. Among its attractions is its architectural heritage. The best-known house on the beach is Casa Estrada, the “house of 9 towers”, built at the end of the 19th century.

Girona: Jewel of Northern Catalonia

Window Box_edited-1

Window box

If I only had time to visit one city in Catalonia, it would be the ancient walled city of Girona, perched on a northern hillside close to the Costa Brava. Barcelona, over-hyped and tourist overwhelmed is bigger, but for me, Girona is a much better alternative.  Compact, relaxed, bohemian, and stylish,  it is a great base for day trips to the Pyrenees, the Costa Brava and the Salvador Dalí Museum in his nearby hometown of Figueres. Girona is located about 100 km (62 miles) north of Barcelona — perfect for a daytrip there.

Iglesia de Sant Lluc Girona Blog

Església de Sant Lluc/Church of Saint Luke

With a population of just under 100,000, Girona is northern Catalonia’s largest city. It’s wealth in medieval times produced many fine Romanesque and Gothic buildings that have survived repeated attacks and sieges. It is a stunningly beautiful city with plenty of inspiration, with an easy-to-stroll center and incredible food. Close to the French border, and with Catalan as the lingua franca, it has a distinct character not diluted by mass tourism.

Along the River Onyar Blog

Houses overlooking the River Onyar 

The River Onyar divides the city, joined by a several footbridges, including Pont Eiffel. It was built by Gustave Eiffel et Companie around 1877 — before the famous Tour Eiffel in Paris. The walled medieval quarter (Barri Vell) runs uphill from the eastern bank and the 18th-century shopping district lies on the western bank. Girona has an abundance of Moderniste (Catalan Art Nouveau) architecture , with many remarkable buildings designed by the same architects that attract tourists to Barcelona.

Cathedral

The Catedral de Santa Maria (detail)

The Catedral de Santa Maria, with 91 ascending stone steps, is one of the most important examples of Catalan Gothic architecture. It has a Romanesque tower and cloister, a Gothic nave and a Baroque facade. In the cathedral square, the grand episcopal palace is now home to the Art Museum housing historical and modern Catalan works.

Fountain copy

Old City Fountain

Just below the cathedral is the end of the Via Augusta, the Roman road that crossed Iberia, bringing  Moorish conquerors from Cádiz in the south and French from the north, who besieged Girona in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  The Passeig de la Muralla is a restored medieval defensive wall on the east side. It now forms a walking route high above the old city.

Courtyard Jewish Museum Blog

Patio of the Museum of Jewish History

There was a large Jewish community that flourished in Girona until their official expulsion in 1492. The old Jewish neighborhood or Call is one of the best preserved in Europe. Today it is on “The Sephardic Way”, a network of towns whose aim is to locate, revive and recover the cultural heritage of Jewish Spain.  The Museum of Jewish History (Carrer de la Forca 8) tells the story of the community that lived in Girona for centuries.

Old City Scene

Freshly washed clothes hanging out to dry in an old city street

Unlike Barcelona — whose much-touted Rambla has lost its locals and is now populated by tourists, underwhelming overpriced cafés and pickpockets — Girona has a Rambla that is still very local.  It is a tree-lined pedestrian street where you can stroll, shop and drink midday aperitifs in a small café. Girona has an impressive number of local designers and craftspeople, with many small shops offering unique clothing and jewellry.  Another great location is the Plaza de La Independencia with many excellent restaurants and cafés around it — I always look forward to lunch at  Casa Marieta (Placa Independencia 5), the perfect place to try classic northern Catalan cuisine.

Cafe Girona

Café La Terra, located at 23 Carrer de les Ballesteries, filled with atmosphere by the river

There are so many places to relax, reflect and be inspired in very bohemian Girona.  Just as you might imagine on a visit to southern Europe, one can sit in a café by the river, sip some excellent local wine and enjoy the sensation of being immersed in a different culture.

There is always something festive or cultural (or both!) on the calendar. One of the most famous events takes place in May: Temps de Flors (Time of the Flowers).

 

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

A Costa Brava Summer, 2016

Sa Concha Blog

… Sa Concha beach, near Platja d’Aro …

I am spending the summer on the Costa Brava, in the northeastern corner of Catalonia. This is a region I have been exploring for many years  —  so sharing a few insights and images is way overdue!

Steps to the Sea - S'Agaro

steps to the sea, S’Agaro …

Stretching along the Mediterranean from Blanes, 30 miles (60km) north of Barcelona, to the French border at Portbou, the Costa Brava (Wild Coast) is filled with wooded coves, high rugged cliffs, peaceful beaches and clear blue water. On the streets everywhere the lingua franca is Catalan, not Spanish. Some areas are also overflowing with the damage that followed rapid tourist development beginning in the 1950s, but, in general, it remains a relatively unspoiled region.

Tossa de Mar

… the medieval walled town of Tossa de Mar, la Selva  …

The Catalan coast is divided into three coastal comarques (counties): la Selva to the south, Baix Empordà at the center, and the Alt Empordà in the north. During the winter months the Alt Empordà  can be subjected to the legendary Tramuntana, an impressive wind that blows off the Pyrenees.

Fishing Boat - Blanes

… a small fishing boat on the beach in Blanes …

The cultural heritage of the Costa Brava is tied to the fishing trade and ship-building. The city of Blanes, in la Selva , known as the “Gateway to the Costa Brava”, is a good example. Beginning in the 18th century, the local economy entered into a period of growth with all of the typical Costa Brava economic activities of the time:  extensive maritime-fishery, boat building plus lacework, rope making, and barrel making. The town was a center of shipbuilding and also had a famous sailing school. Tourism is the major industry of Blanes today.

Cami de Ronda near Sant Pol_edited-1

… view from the Cami de Ronda (walking trail) near Sant Pol, Baix Empordà …

One of the best ways to appreciate the Costa Brava is to walk the many coastal trails that connect traditional fishing villages. The Camins de Ronda (walking trails) were originally created by fishermen to protect coastal inhabitants from approaching pirates and smugglers. Certain parts of the old trails vanished with tourism development in the late 20th century but many trails have been recently restored. I find them very safe and well-marked. Difficulty varies in each section, but even the easiest section might be a challenge for visitors who don’t integrate walking or cycling into their daily routine.

Empúries - Blog

… ruins of Empúries …

Empúries Roman Tile Blog

Roman tile floor, one of many at the Empúries ruins

The ruins of the ancient Greco/Roman colony of Empúries, founded in 575 B.C., are located just north of the town of L’Escala, in the Alt Empordà. The strikingly beautiful coastal site is one of the most important Europe — and, for me, a very memorable visit. The site is open year-round and the Museum of Catalan Archaeology is located on the grounds.

Castell d'Aro

… a quiet street in the medieval town of Castell d’Aro …

Església de Sant Martí de Romanyà Blog

… the church of Sant Martí de Romanyà in the village of Romanyá de la Selva …

This is a region filled with medieval towns, churches and farmhouses. Small farms are everywhere, supplying the local markets.

Casa Font en Begur Blog

… the Indiano Casa Font (the Font house), Begur, Alt Empordà … 

Llagostera Blog

… an indiano in Llagostera, Baix Empordà …

Sant Pol

… the indiano Casa De Les Punxes in Sant Pol, Baix Empordà …

Indiano Begur_edited-1

… an indiano in Begur, Alt Empordà …

In the late 19th century a large number of inhabitants of the Costa Brava traveled or emigrated to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic — it has been estimated that as much as one third of the average town here left to make their fortune. Many of these immigrants were financially successful in the Caribbean, especially Cuba, and returned to their towns and villages on the Costa Brava where they constructed large and ornate houses. Many houses, referred to as Indianos (“from the Indies”) can still be seen — some are a bit dilapidated, many restored. During the first week of September, the town of Begur (Alt Empordà) celebrates their nostalgic relationship with Cuba with the Fira d’Indians (Festival of the Indianos).

Dali Museum Figueres

… the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Alt Empordà

The rugged Alt Empordà is Salvador Dalí country. Dalí lived most of his adult life in a unique house of converted and connected fishermen’s huts in Port Lligat (near the French border), and three excellent museums: Dalí Theatre-Museum, Salvador Dalí House – Port Lligat, and Gala Dalí Castle Púbol comprise what is known as the Dalinià Triangle. Here is a wonderful video about them: The Dalí Triangle.

Cabanas Blog

… the beach at Sant Pol,  Baix Empordà …

Beyond the intense summer tourist season, there is year-round activity on the Costa Brava. Out of season (November – March) the area returns to being “local” — the small coastal towns and villages go quiet and the bars, restaurants, hotels and shops that cater only for the summer tourists shutter during the winter. At times it can be bleak, windy and rainy — especially in January and February — but it is also when you can discover the calm and space of the coast — and the beautiful winter light.

Winter light

… January sunset over the Massís de les Cadiretes (Baix Empordà) …

 

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

El meu Barcelona (My Barcelona)

For over two years, I lived in Barcelona’s old city (Ciutat Vella). Here are some favorite photos — with a few memories — I took during my years in the Ciutat Comtal (the City of Counts):

Number One Blog

… Number 1 …

Location:  Carrer de la Mercè

The first photo I took in Barcelona. Of all the sights and sounds in the vibrant city, it was street art — graphiti, stencils, chalk and paint — that found my camera first.

Faceless Angel Blog

… faceless Angel …

Location: La Basílica de la Mercè , Carrer Ample

Called “an oasis in the city”,  La Basílica de la Mercè (The Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy) is a Baroque-style basilica, built between 1765 and 1775.  The “faceless Angel” watched over a favorite restaurant of mine (now defunct).

Study in Pink Blog

… my neighbor’s pink recliner …

Location: Carrer de Meer

In my neighborhood, the tradition was (and still is) enjoying any small bit of sidewalk as a community terrace, especially on hot and humid summer nights…it was sociable and peaceful, though in the last few years the locals have been battling with young, rowdy tourists for space.

Different Green Blog

… early Saturday evening …

Location: Plaça dels Traginers (Barri Gòtic)

Tucked away in corners of the ancient winding Barri Gótic (Gothic neighborhood) streets there were still a few plazas where Saturday nights are spontaneous “happenings”, centered around tiny bars. Music, poetry, art. Inspired times.

Picasso Blog

… Pablo …

Location:  Carrer d’en Rauric

I always navigated the small streets and alleyways of Barcelona because of both their character and  the distance away from the hordes of tourists. “Pablo” was always a welcome sight!

Barceloneta Balcony Blog

… my neighbor’s garden …

 Location: Carrer del Baluard

In my neighborhood, a small balcony (much like that little bit of sidewalk for a reclining chair) was/is a small expansion outward that could be either utilitarian or creative — or both.

Happy Face Blog

… happy face door knocker …

Location: Carrer del Correu Vell

 A touch of Barri Gótic (Gothic neighborhood) humor, another layer added to the history of an aging  door.

Barceloneta blog

Barceloneta patterns…

Location: Carrer Sant Elm

One of my favorite places in all of the city was/is  La Barceloneta, a neighborhood in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) district of Barcelona. It was constructed during the 18th century, with the residents working in and around the port. There is even a little museum,  La Casa de la Barceloneta, where the history of the neighborhood comes to life.  La Barceloneta is known for its long, sandy beach (which made an appearance in Don Quixote, Book 2).

Casa Bruno Quadros Blog

Casa-Bruno Cuadros

Location: La Rambla, 82

 When living in Barcelona, I associated La Rambla with hordes of tourists, over-priced cafés and pick pockets — and some amazing jewels of the Catalan Art Nouveau movement, Modernisme. The Casa Bruno Cuadros, also known as the Casa dels Paraigües (House of Umbrellas) is an example. The most opulent decorative element is the ornate Chinese dragon on the corner of the façade. It was used to advertise the shop, together with the umbrella below it.

 

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

Spain: Security Shutter Art

I am really keen on security shutter art here. Because of the 3-4 hour afternoon Spanish siesta, the art on security shutters — often humorous and always creative — brightens the streets when businesses are closed. Here are few favorites my camera has captured in Barcelona and Valencia.

Note: please click on images to enlarge.

Shutter Art Blog 3

Barcelona • Hair Salon

Shutter Art Blog 2 BCN

Barcelona • Chill-Out Lounge

El Burrito Blog

Valencia  El Burrito Take-Away Food

Ride Blog BCN

Barcelona  Trixi Bike Cabs

For Your Listening Pleasure Blog

Valencia • La Flama Music Club + Bar

BCNartBlogBKstore

Barcelona Bookstore

Plug-In Blog BCN

Barcelona  Electrician

Eat, Eat! Blog

Valencia  ¡Come, Come! (Eat, Eat!) Take-Away Food

BCNartBlog Brains

Barcelona • Storefront

BCNartBlog Political

Barcelona •  Political (empty storefront)

A Noble Attempt

Barcelona • I have no idea what this is, but I call it a noble effort…

Barcelona: Casa Vicens

Windows

Casa Vicens (1888), located on a quiet street in the Gràcia district, has been called una joya de Gaudí oculta en Barcelona (a hidden jewel of Gaudí in Barcelona). While living in Barcelona I visited Casa Vicens many times, appreciating the striking exterior design – and noticed the lack of large crowds of tourists/Gaudí enthusiasts that are the norm at other Gaudí sites throughout the city. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005 for the quality of the work and its place in the history of modern Catalan architecture, the recent news that Casa Vicens will open to the public in the second half of this year (2016) is cause for celebration!

Casa Vicens was the first complete building designed by Antoni Gaudí within Barcelona’s official borders. He had worked on smaller projects, but Casa Vicens was the start of good fortune for him. It was commisioned in 1878, the same year Gaudí, at the age of 26, graduated as an architect.  For a Gaudí admirer, Casa Vicens is the place to begin any study of his amazing career.

The building is covered with spectacular tiles (no coincidence that Manuel Vicens Montaner, who commissioned the building from Antoni Gaudí, was a tile manufacturer), following the vogue at the time in Spain for Oriental and Eastern motifs (Neo-Mudéjar) while also reflecting Gaudí’s developing style.

Gaudí based his design for the tiles on the French marigold (Tagetes Patula) which grew in the grounds of the estate, marking the beginning of his use of nature as an inspiration and a model:

Casa Vicens detail

Gaudí designed the railings by making clay models of the resplendent leaves of the fan palm:

Gaudi Gate

I look forward to visiting Casa Vicens when it opens its doors later this year, and hope that this beautiful corner of Gràcia does not loose its tranquility as visitors arrive seeking new insight into the world of Antoni Gaudí.

Exterior

Casa Vicens location: Carrer de les Carolines, 24, Gràcia, Barcelona

Metro: L3 Fontana

Official website:  Casa Vicens

Map:

 

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

Temps de Flors

This spring I decided to visit Girona during the Temps de Flors (Time of Flowers) festival, celebrating its 60th anniversary. The festival is held for 9 days in the middle of May.

The city of Girona is in northeastern Catalonia, beside the River Onyar. It’s known for its medieval architecture,with a walled old neighborhood (Barri Vell), including the Jewish quarter (Call) — one of the best preserved in Europe. During Temps de Flors the narrow, winding streets, gardens, patios and monuments are imaginatively adorned with flowers.

The festival is very popular and the crowds can be a challenge, as space is needed to fully appreciate the floral arrangements — this year there were 164 installations — quite a lot to see in a day, even arriving early. There is a free map, with a well-organized route, available at the Girona tourist office.

The restaurants of Girona are renowned for both traditional Catalan and cutting-edge cuisine but as often happens during festival days they were either booked or offering special menus beyond my budget. I was very glad to discover Lapsus Cafè on the Plaça de la Independència, offering a perfectly priced daily menu (3 courses plus wine for 9.50€) of traditional Catalan fare, plus very friendly service and a relaxed atmosphere.

…floral welcome…

 

…spring mix…

 

…pink and blue corner…

 

…a celebration…

 

Links:

 Temps de Flors website   

 Official Girona Tourist Office website

Lapsus Cafè

Map:

 

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica