EUROPEAN VACATION – WEEK 2
Well, my batching days are over for a while as Elva and I met up last Thursday evening after a three-week separation. She walked half the length of the Camino de Santiago, about 400 km., all by herself. I’m very proud of her! She got along great and, after a few good nights’ sleep, is as good as new!
We spent five days with our friends, Ira Birt and Liz Kays, and travelled a lot across northeastern Spain. Saturday was spent touring the city of Girona where Ira and Liz had rented an apartment for the week. In the morning, we strolled through the massive outdoor market, stocking up on fresh fruit at ridiculously cheap prices. Later, we walked through the old part of the city, along narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets, lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, and countless churches and religious buildings.
On Sunday, we drove to the Mediterranean coast to visit the area around L’Escala, a seaside town we’d cycled to the previous week. While there, we toured the ruins of Empúries, a major military and trading post established originally by the Phoenicians, and occupied successively by the Greeks and the Romans.That afternoon, we toured the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. While I’m not the art gallery type, Dali, judging by his art, was a fascinating character. He was either high on something most of the time or suffered from some sort of psychological disorder. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder at the genius of his creations: fantastic and bizarre, yet strangely beautiful.
We eventually made it to Andorra, a small country located in the Pyrénées Mountains between France and Spain, after a harrowing ride through narrow mountain roads and a five-kilometre tunnel. The country, about one-twentieth the size of Prince Edward Island, depends on tourism, financial services and tax-free shopping for its economic survival. We spent an afternoon there touring around and getting the lay of the land. It is a very modern and prosperous place, but with hardly a piece of flat ground anywhere to be found. The houses and many apartment buildings, especially the newer ones, perch on impossibly steep hillsides and must cost a fortune to build.
Wednesday was our day to ride. We rented bikes and helmets from a shop in Girona called Bike Breaks, and headed toward the nearest town, Banyoles. After a few detours involving steep hills and hairpin turns, we decided there was no easy way to get to our lunchtime destination, so we headed out to the highway. With big trucks whizzing by, we pedaled nervously until we reached the first exit to Banyoles and found our way to the centre of the old city. After sandwiches and cold drinks, we pedaled through the city traffic to the lake and a more relaxing coffee and croissant.
On our last day with Ira and Liz, we drove to Montserrat, a mountain refuge of the Benedictine order of monks that has become a major tourism destination. The drive from the valley to the main monastery, 1,000 metres up, is a bit hairy but worth the effort. We had scouted the place beforehand and knew that the 1:00 boys’ choir performance in the basilica was a must-see. We took our places at 12:15 and watched as the space filled with visitors; there was not a square inch to spare by the time the boys came out on the altar. They were worth the wait. We watched as other pilgrims lined up to see the ‘Black Virgin’, one of the monastery’s major attractions.
Next, we rode the funicular to the very top of the mountain, high above the main monastery. Here, we found a very interesting display that explained the natural and cultural history of the mountain, and we walked a couple of the trails along the summit. The most interesting discoveries for me were the ruined monasteries of Sant Joan and Sant Oneffre, carved into the side of the bare rock face. They were occupied for centuries by monks who sought the most isolated and harsh lives possible, and they surely give meaning to the word ‘ascetic’.
We’ve left comfortable surroundings near the small village of Serinya for bustling Barcelona. It’s time to share a few observations of my two weeks in Cataluña:
1. I haven’t seen a Spanish flag since I left Barcelona airport. The old Catalonian flag and the flag of the independence movement are everywhere. Catalans are a proud and independent people with their own language, culture, cuisine, and political aspirations not unlike those of our neighbours in Québec.
2. Litter is almost non-existent here! The ditches are clean and, in every village, town and city we visited, one could almost eat off the streets. In Girona, we saw a man standing on a ladder, cleaning the lights at a pedestrian crossing, and another scrubbing the walls of an underground parking garage! On Saturday mornings, crews are out sweeping sidewalks and pressure-washing streets.
3. Each village and small town has its central square, dominated by the church and bounded by restaurants, shops and benches. They become the centres of activity, especially in the early evening, and bustle with the sounds of children at play, and neighbours chatting and quaffing their beverage of choice. What a contrast to our neighbourhoods back home, so sterile and impersonal.
4. Spanish food is better than ours in one important respect: there are no fast food joints to be found. People eat a healthier diet than we do and it shows on their waistlines. However, the cuisine here does not compare with what one would find in France. It’s bland and uninteresting to say the least; the meat is sub-par, but the fish is not bad. My best restaurant meals thus far have been two dishes I’d never eaten before: cuttlefish and pig’s cheek.
5. Catalans are industrious, friendly, good-humoured people. While I don’t speak the language, I was never made to feel uncomfortable when I asked for something, especially if I made an effort to communicate in the local language.
6. The coffee here is to die for; none of the codswallop that passes for coffee in Canada. Also, no drive-thrus = no litter! And, finally, if you don't like olive oil, this is not the place for you!