It was hard to say when summer arrived in the Alt Empordà, the upper part of Catalonia, in the northeast corner of Spain. The fresh milled olive scent that clung in the air had vanished. Swallows returned to the fields, making a career in midair with matinal excitement before joining the cows that grazed on the open meadow. Grapes had ripened exquisitely after a fairly dry winter and are ready for the picking. Though there are still occasional moments when the wind from the Pyrenees blows cold and gray puffy clouds ensconce the azure sky. Even so, the sun, now lingers a little longer, depicting a landscape that bore the resemblance to one of the paintings by Evarist Vallès and Angel Planells.
On a cool late June afternoon, we were passing through Figueras, the seat of the Alt Emporda in the province of Girona en route to France. Swept away by some memories of the distant past, my travel partner who used to sojourn in this town close to the Spanish/French border during the 60’s; unexpectedly brought the idea to have a quick excursion and look around. After arriving in a 14hour trip from Kuala Lumpur to Barcelona on Qatar Airways, I figured it was a great antidote. Needless to say, the region was still foreign to me. How little I knew about Catalonia’s geography, I quickly jumped at the chance to see other quaint Spanish villages as well as the possibility of taking home some bottles of olive oil and wine along the way – added to the temptation.
It was only two winters ago when I first came to this part of Catalonia, while visiting artist friends who had a passion for converting old ruins into luxurious mansions. I also had the chance to spend hours admiring the ancient arcaded houses that flank the sluggish Rio Onyar in Girona. The city’s cobbled-streets, its formidable walls, as well as the medieval baths and the imposing cathedral can instantly transport anyone into the age of antiquity. Then there were the rocky shorelines that obscure small secluded coves and the towering craggy cliffs of the Costa Brava, a short thirty minute drive from Girona and less than two hours from Barcelona.
Perhaps what sets Emporda apart from anywhere else in Spain is its strong character that can be seen from its wild natural landscape and its inhabitants. When the people of Emporda speak of their local landscape and cultural identity, it is with fervent ardor and of great pride. The Catalans after all, have resisted the oppression imposed by Franco’s dictatorship, banning the use of the Catalan language during the Spanish Civil War. It was only in 1979 that Catalans were given back the free reign to speak their language again. One could say that the Catalans are as resilient as the landscape they dwell in and this holds true in the words of its most eloquent native son Josep Pla when he said, ‘Landscape elucidates literature, because literature is the landscape’s memory through time – Cartes de lluny’.
Naturally, Emporda is a cradle of many outstanding artists as well as pictoric avant-garde disciplines with surrealism being the most prominent. If I were to use the front window of the car as a frame in creating a piece of surrealistic art, I would undoubtedly end up with a blank canvas. Surrealism intends to resolve paradoxical conditions of dream and reality. To Salvador Dali, Spanish surrealist ‘I am not a surrealist; I am surrealism. Surrealism is not a party or a label; it is a state of mind, unique, to each his own, that can be affected by no party line, taboo, or morality. It is the total freedom to be and the right to absolute dreaming’. With the forever changing landscape of the Mediterranean woodlands, the sun-drenched coastlines, against the almost endless stretches of sea bordered by rolling hills and cactus-dotted mountains, it came to a point that it was difficult to tell whether I was dreaming or what I was seeing was real. Perhaps these were the very same elements that inspired surrealist artists who came and lived in the Emporda region.
After a few roundabouts on a country road, we reached La Bisbal. Less has been said about the town that was once a refuge and ultimately became a home to a great number of French immigrants after the French Revolution. Presently, the town is revered for its great tradition of craftsmanship expressed in different forms of pottery and ceramics. Its main street, Aigüetta is a showcase for all that the town produces. Time permitting, I would have loved to mold some clay in one of the pottery workshops. As we left town, the blinding light of the afternoon transformed itself into an obliging glow. I grew to love the sensation that it brought to my cheeks and how it smudged everything into a color of ripened wheat.
We drove a few miles heading east on a narrow lane that gave way to a pastoral vista punctuated by undulating slopes. Through a local’s recommendation, we followed the signs that lead to Mas de Torrent. Nestling on the edge of the medieval village of Torrent, the hotel, a member of Relais and Chateaux group, is an 18th century farmhouse that has been converted and carefully restored into a sophisticated hideaway. The old farm mill and the façade that recall the hotel’s past, perhaps, is where the real charm lies. We immediately checked ourselves into one of the hotel’s many splendid 37 rooms, eight of which have private pools and 20 come with gardens, before indulging ourselves to some Catalan cuisine in its restaurant.
Had I been lazy that evening, I would have tempted myself to order the tasting menu; leaving the gastronomic expertise entirely up to the chef. However, I decided to put my derived Catalan wisdom to the test and surprise my palate. I asked for dry carnaroli rice with prawns from Palamós while my travel partner had a helping of an oven baked turbot, all the while trying to impress the convivial waiter. I uttered a few words in Catalan that I had acquired in my trip. He grinned playfully in response, pulling out the list of the region’s best olive oil and wine. I grappled from the extensive selection. I could only smile back at the camarero, squinting my eyes and realizing that I was too ill-equipped for the challenge. Nevertheless, he rewarded my efforts by being our personal sommelier for the night. We sipped our wine and dipped the warm crusty bread in a bowl of olive oil while watching the neighboring medieval town of Pals softly engulfed by the night.
The following morning, we left the town of Torrent and drove to the nearby villages to finally procure those famed bottles of olive oil and wine. I ended carrying a jar and three small bottles of artisanally produced Arbequina oil, while my travel partner took charge of the wines. The bucolic weather presented a sky in its bluest color. It might have been one of those striking blue backgrounds that Salvador Dali often used in his paranoiac masterpieces. We quickly hit the gas and drove to our next Spanish adventure.
If there is one thing I can truly say about traveling, aside from always keeping an open mind, is how quickly the feelings of trepidation are replaced by a sense of enveloping spontaneity and a profound curiosity. After an hour’s drive and many tormenting hairpin bends, we emerged in the coastal village of Cadaqués. The town glistened in white. The iridescent sea was everywhere. A huge partially submerged rock could be seen in the harbor. A few meters away, children raced to the inviting water, squealing alongside stagnant sunbathers that were splayed seal-like on the rocky shore.
We ambled along the stony path walks and passed several irregular whitewashed casas stacked atop one another much like the dwellings reminiscent of a Greek island. Shutters were flung open, inviting the summer breeze. Windows were filled with flower beds while others were of laundry. We continued our way up until we reached the highest point where Esglesia de Santa Maria, the town’s main church presides. Up there, one can easily say that nature is at her most benevolent and that time runs fluid. Dali himself witnessed all of these and captured time in a form of a melting clock in his 1931 painting – Persistence of Memory. Having spent many summers in a rented family house in Port Lligat, a mere ten-minute walk from Cadaqués where he found pleasure with his brush, he once said ‘I have had a wonderful time, as always, in this ideal and fantastic village of Cadaqués; there, at the side of the Latin sea, I have quenched my desire for light and color; I have spent the sultry summer days, painting like mad, trying to translate the incomparable beauty of the sea and sun-beaten shore’.
As the bells chimed just before noon, a number of townsfolk poured out of the 16th century church that houses an intricately-designed Baroque altarpiece. Little girls dressed in their Sunday best skipped in gaiety while the elderly cautiously walked down the winding alley and quietly disappeared. Right on the edge of the Cap de Creus Peninsula, almost touching France, where the mountains of the Pyrenees convene with the Mediterranean, cicadas chirped in midday; and against the lapping sound of the waves, summer had already begun.