In Cataluya/ travel essay by Carole Bell Ford

The Costa Brava

Sheer cliffs punctuate the shoreline; the color of the water constantly varies in shades from light blue green to dark inky navy due to changes in its depth. The vegetation is tropical with cactus, olive trees and spindly firs; the gardens are filled with brightly colored geraniums and roses, and red and purple bougainvillea cascade over walls and balconies. 

My husband, Steve, and I set out from Barcelona where we’d arrived the night before. Instead of the highway we took the scenic drive in a northeasterly direction along the Costa Brava’s rugged, dramatic coastline, the region which lies along the Mediterranean from Barcelona to the French border. We stopped periodically for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat and to wander through lovely towns with Catalan names, some with remnants of their original medieval (and even older) villages: Floret de Mar, Tossa de Mar, Plata d’Aro, Palamós, Llafranc.

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Derived from vulgar Latin, the modern Catalan language is closely related to Spanish and Portuguese, also to French and Italian. It’s spoken throughout Catalonia, the triangular region in Spain’s far north-eastern corner which, in Catalan, is Catalunya. It’s an autonomous community consisting of four provinces and a population of 7.5 million who are fiercely proud of their heritage. For at least the past decade, it has had a secessionist movement that has only been interrupted by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

We’d gotten about halfway up the coast when we turned inland to reach the small town of Sant Jordi des Valles where our friends, Helena and Ramon, had been waiting for us and where we spent the rest of the day catching up. In the evening we went out for a ride and dinner at a tapas restaurant. We knew that dinner anywhere along the Mediterranean was not going to be at 6: 00 or 7:00 although, by the time we settled down for our meal it was late, even for Spain—almost 11:00. Nevertheless, we managed to consume no less than fourteen delicious tapas that they had chosen for the four of us.  

Until the weekend, we would be on our own since our friends, both doctors, were working their usual weekday schedules. We knew we wouldn’t get as far as some of the places in the Basque country we’d heard about, but as it turned out there was much to see and we happily spent several days exploring nearby towns. One of the most interesting was Figueres, capital of the mountainous area, the Alt Empordà (the furthest eastern region of the Pyrenees). 

Figueres, close to the French border, is where the surrealist painter Salvatore Dali was born and where the Dali Museum is located. The building is interesting; it has a central tower upon which sit what look like giant eggs. It was fascinating to follow Dali’s artistic progression, on display from impressionism through surrealism. It’s well-worth having a look online. (https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/dali-theatre-museum-in-figueres.html)  From Figueres, we drove to the northern end of the Costa Brava where we spent some time in El Port de la Selva, a medieval village on the Cabo de Creus, a peninsula and a headland located about 25 km. south of the French border. 

Over the weekend, after a leisurely breakfast of pa amb tomaquet (bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil), cheeses, and slices of sweet pineapple, Ramon was happy to take over the driving.  He especially wanted us to see his home village of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, a municipality that rambles for over 10 km. along the coast. To get there we drove though lovely countryside with forests of pine, oak and cork trees until we reached the coastline with its many little bays and coves sheltered by pines.

By late afternoon it was lunchtime, finally, which I’m happy to say was worth the wait. We shared dishes of mussels in a creamy, garlicky sauce, fish grilled over potatoes and soaked in olive oil and butter, and two desserts: Crema Catalan, and fresh raspberries marinated in a little orange juice and muscatel, topped with vanilla ice cream. 

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Before we returned to Sant Jordi, Ramon drove through Girona to give us an overview of this outstanding Catalan city, known for its long and diverse history. Our first sight of Girona, where beautiful old houses lined one of the four rivers in the city, the Riu Onyar, was stunning.

We spent the next few days exploring the sites, particularly in the old quarter where some of the houses, built in the Middle Ages, back onto the long stretches of the old city wall that are still standing. The wall encloses the cathedral (the construction began in 1038), the rambla which was already a market during medieval times, and a 12th century complex containing a Benedictine monastery, now an archeological museum. 

To us, Girona’s most fascinating area is known as the Call, the Jewish quarter located in the heart of what was the medieval city. According to a document from the year 983, Jews were already living in the callis judaicus by 890 and they remained there until the 15th century when the Inquisition drove them into exile, forced them to convert, or to go into hiding. Some fled further north into the mountains.

The Call, which was essentially governed by Jewish law, had a degree of independence. There was a governing structure which presided over a community that was made up of a variety of craftsmen, as well as others who engaged in mercantile or financial affairs. There were schools, a poorhouse which also acted as a hospital and, most important, two synagogues. Although there were some fine homes, many of the houses were tightly crammed into the district. Some of the streets in the Call were barely wide enough for us to pass through single file.

The Jewish community had many ties to the surrounding city and, for the most part, the Call and the city peacefully coexisted, to their mutual benefit, until the 14th century when attacks began. The Call was reduced in area and became a ghetto so that, by the time the expulsion order came in July of 1492, there were only 20 Jewish families left. 

The history of the Call and its precious artifacts have been preserved and are kept at what is the center of the Call today, the Museum of the History of the Jewish People. 

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            The Journey’s End

During our last few days, we drove to an area in the coastal Pyrenees called the Garrotxa. The name means, appropriately, “rough, uneven land” since it’s strewn with lava fields and volcanic cones left after centuries of violent eruptions. The landscape is unique in Europe, and it’s considered one of Catalonia’s natural wonders, but it’s still unspoiled by tourism. We stopped to visit an interesting 12th century monastery and cloister as we made our way through charming towns and villages—one is perched and stretched along the edge of an escarpment; another has the footprint of a medieval sinagoga and a mikve, its ritual bath. We were sure to stop and taste the Garrotxa goat cheese that the region is noted for, and to bring a supply back to Sant Jordi.

Although we made our farewells reluctantly, we were looking forward to spending a few days in Barcelona before we had to leave. The city of Gaudi is wonderful with its great restaurants, shopping on the Rambla, parks and beachfronts, neighborhoods that invite you to just wander around, and a variety of museums. And, of course, the spectacular Sagrada Familia, now a UNESCO world heritage site, which is still under construction. Although the cornerstone had been laid a few years earlier, Antoni Gaudí took over the project in 1883. 

The expected completion date is 2026.

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Carole Bell Ford is a Hudson Valley writer. Her books include The Girls: Jewish Women of Brownsville, Brooklyn 1940-1995 (State University of New York Press). An excerpt from The Girls was included in Jews of Brooklyn (University Press of New England, 2002). Her next book, The Women of CourtWatch: Reforming a corrupt family court system (University of Texas Press, 2005) was selected by the national organization, Justice for Children, as an outstanding work. After the Girls Club: How teenaged Holocaust survivors built new lives in America (Lexington Books) was published in2010, and in 2013 an essay “Letters from Riverside,” based upon letters written by a young, mid-19th century feminist, was included in the award-winning anthology A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. (Codhill Press, 2013). Her newest book, On and Off the Beaten Path: The best road trips in twenty years of travel in the U.S. and Canada, is available through online sources or through Lightwood.

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