Sunday, June 13, 2010

all things Catalan

She’s like that wickedly fun and feisty aunt you wish you’d had in your family. The one you can count on to make everyone grin. The one who doesn’t care if people comment on her wardrobe or style of speech. It all hangs together anyway and you love her for being so damn brazen and perhaps even more for her fastidious love of good food and bubbly wine.


We have just a morning to see her, although we’re bound to stop here again, on the last day of June, just before returning home.

A morning is plenty of time to discover at least some of her quirky, colorful habits.

But it takes us a while to figure out how to get to her bosom. There’s the matter of the train schedules (we’re by the airport and can take any number of trains into town). And the matter of making our way into the center of it all.

Alighting from the underground station, it doesn’t take long to see that Barcelona is fire and stone, a wave of freshness and audacity. I wont do a history lesson here. That’s not an Ocean habit. Besides, most people know that Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia – that part of Spain that wishes it had more autonomy, that even now, through referenda, pushes for greater (if not total) separation from the rest of Spain. That it has a population that speaks the Catalan language and prefers to use it in daily discourse.

I’m sitting at a counter at the Mercat La Boqueria – the largest food market in the world, I’m told. It’s noon and we haven’t had breakfast yet. I’m looking at what others are eating. I want wild mushrooms and fried eggs and Cava – the bubbly white wine that comes from this region and is both inexpensive and delicious – a stellar combination. We’re trying to remember how to say mushrooms in Spanish. I ask the older woman sitting next to me.

I don’t speak Spanish, she answers bluntly (even as I know she is from Barcelona). Catalan is my language. Here. This is how you say it in Catalan. She writes on my placemat. "Bolet." She is speaking to me in French.


The mushrooms are exquisite – prepared with onion and balsamic – exotic, woodsy, heavenly.

People in Barcelona care deeply about food. Eating locally foraged foods is important and unfairly easy: they have it all here.

At the fantastically colorful market, we discover just the tip of the spectrum.








And the people watching. Just a sample: of the quiet, the animated, and the tempted:




Ocean readers may also know that Barcelona is the place of fantastically different architectural styles. Where the modernistas lived and worked at the turn of the nineteenth century. Transforming Catalan society from a traditional one, to a place inspired by new forms and ideas.

And so you see buildings, many designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi (too original to be labeled even something as original as a Modernista, I read) in the early 1900s, incorporating elements from the natural world which he so deeply revered.

So, you may know all this, or you may be new to the Gaudi world, but in any case, let me throw out some photos of the buildings that are so eye catching and unique.





On the main strolling boulevard (Las Ramblas), there is enough theater to distract you from the press of time and from the mundane issues of schedules and obligations.

Take, for example the painted people -- clever and oftentimes performing brilliantly to the steady stream of people:



There is, of course, also the conventionally colorful. The flower sellers...


...and the bird sellers. Who will also sell your kid a caged dancing furry tail that moves around crazily on the power of, most likely, a battery. No need to clean the cage here.


All this, and still, there is so much more...




We catch our breath at a tiny shop where the waiter offers me a Catalan cappuccino (sweet, with chocolate and cream) and Catalan biscuits and even Catalan water.


It’s Saturday and there are many many people out and about and though we only have these three or so hours, we are mesmerized by the city. And I say we, because even Ed, who generally does not like places with crowds, is pulled in just a little, making enemies and friends by speaking good Spanish in a place that would like to avoid it if it can, even as the reality is that it cannot.

We have a car waiting for us somewhere in the area of the airport. Ed rented from Sixt – a company that gives phenomenal discounts and fantastic service, a company that does not mind that we are almost two hours late for our pick up, a company that gives us exactly the teeny car we ask for (a Smart car – the only car that utterly delights me when I drive it).

Ed takes out his wallet to finalize the rental agreement. Can’t seem to find my credit card... Where did you last use it? Last night, at the pizza place...

Sigh... Sometimes I think we are getting rather on the older side of the things.

We Skype the pizza place (being the only travelers here who will not charge up a cell phone) and the lovely people there ask for his name as they rifle through all the abandoned cards and cell phones (you’d be surprised how many people leave these with us), and sure enough, it’s there.

The trick now is to get to this place. It's next to our hotel, but we’d used free airport shuttles thus far. We get lost – of course we do, but people are as helpful as in Ireland and within an hour or two we find the right combination of streets and byways to get us there. After all, it’s all of 3 kilometers from the car rental.

And now it is almost four and we are speeding north in our little white Smart with the sunroof, the cheapest and best rental on the planet. We cross the Pyrenees Orientales (the “lesser” but also, according to me, the most beautiful of the Pyrenees) into France and immediately get off the highway and follow the little roads with tall trees and the ever beautiful vineyards against the backdrop of the formidable mountains (with some formidable weather, even as here, it is lovely and warm)...


DSC05348 our home for two weeks: the small and lovely village of Sorede.


Our landlords warn us that things will be mostly closed on Sunday (except for the bakery of course) and so we stop at a supermarket to purchase the essentials for the next few days: cheese, tomatoes, coffee, chocolate and lovely, delicious, heavenly rosé wine from the region of Languedoc (we are in the southern most tip of France’s Languedoc).

(At the parking lot, you can see two cars that I love to admire: our Smart, next to the Citroen 2CV.)


I’m sure I’ll say more about Sorede, but this post is already long and the day is almost over anyway, so let me leave you with just a few comments. First of all, Sorede sees itself as Catalan, with French habits. On the main square, the flags are of the European Union, of France, and of Catalonia.



Then, too, Sorede is small. Fewer than 3000. But it has a half dozen good restaurants, two bakeries, a grocer, a market twice a week – in other words, it is, for me, ideal.

We eat dinner at the Auberge de Margau:


(We take a good half hour to study the menus and decide. I am in the mood for grilled large shrimp, Ed likes his mussles.)


The food and wine – well, it need not be restated: the people of this region are fanatically devoted to good eating.

We stroll back to our apartment – a small two story place with a terrace for those breakfasts outside. I’m thinking of where to start tomorrow. So much to choose from! The Mediterranean Sea is less than ten minutes drive to the east of us. The mountains are right there, to the south. There is art. There is good warm weather. Where do you begin...

That’s tomorrow’s post. We end our day now with a pause at an outdoor café. I have a glass of sweet local Muscadet. The TV us placed outdoors. The evening is warm, the breeze is delicately playful. The US is playing against England in South Africa. A handful of expats is watching. We stay until the end of the game.

In case you haven’t been following it, the American team came in from behind and the game ends in a tie.