Catalonia: Living in the past

Catalonia, between France and Spain on the Mediterranean Sea, is a region with much to offer – especially the quality of its people and the adherence to old customs.

Catalans have a strong cultural identity and nationalist feeling. As school-teacher Eduard Comas explained: “in Catalonia when we talk about country we are talking about Catalonia not Spain.”

Pau Casals (1876-1973), a Catalan virtuoso cello player who was awarded the U.N. Peace Medal in 1971, began his acceptance speech by saying: “I am a Catalan. Catalonia has been the greatest nation in the world because it had the first democratic parliament, well before England did. And the first United Nations were in my country. At that time –XI Century– there was a meeting in Toluges –now France– to talk about peace, because in that time Catalans were already against war.”

Then Casals played a melody from Catalan folklore: El cant dels ocells, “This is a song that Bach, Beethoven and all the greatest would have admired and loved. What is more, it is born in the soul of my country, Catalonia,” he added.

The love for their region is palpable in every place, though harder to fully understand in Barcelona, which, as Catalonia’s largest city, is very diverse. Further inland, where it is still touristic but not as crowded, is where you begin to understand the people and the place. Families are very tight-knit; people are likely to live close to their parents and siblings, and have Sunday lunch together.

In the smaller towns, the “siesta” is still upheld: Everything closes from mid-day until 3pm – a luxury that the hurries of this century can’t afford, or at least that is what I thought until I went to Catalonia.

As you would expect from a region bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the food is exquisite: Abundant olives, olive oil, seafood, and excellent wine.

Catalonia suffered from dictator Franco, who banned their cultural identity and language. Children of those years had to study in Spanish. Such is the case of Mercé Rissech Ruscalleda, 77, who explained: “I was three years old when the war began so I did not have an education in Catalan; therefore I speak it but I cannot write it. We couldn’t speak Catalan in public, only at home.”

Mercedes lives with her husband in the town of Llagostera in front of the main square, Plaza Catalonia. She likes sitting by the window, watching the lively square outside. Wonderful people like her are the soul of Catalonia.

A two-day tour of Catalonia

This is a two-day tour through small towns in the north of Catalonia, spending the night in the wonderful and famously touristic city of Girona.

Day one

Starting from Girona, the first stop is the Lake of Banyoles with its crystal-clear waters. Mountains and green fields surround the lake giving an air of freshness and purity. This is a lovely walk to start early in the morning, taking into account that while on holidays “early in the morning” means around nine or even 10 a.m.

 

The walk is a 90-minute loop around the lake. The surrounding area is very varied and colourful. There are fields full of bright yellow crops with heavily scented flowers (“colza”, a plant used to feed cattle, as a local helpfully explained). There are also many small red flowers called “ruseiya” and green fields that add to the pure countryside feel.

The Catalans, knowing the beauty of this lake, chose it to host the rowing competitions during Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic Games.

There is a camping site near the lake for those nature lovers who want to enjoy the clean air and the spectacular landscape for a longer period of time.

After this walk it would be time for lunch in the small yet majestic town Castell Follit de la Roca, 40 minutes by car from the lake. This town is built atop a rocky precipice –when you see it from the main road you’ll open your eyes wide, and probably your mouth too!

Surprisingly this town doesn’t see many tourists – it was so empty that it even felt phantasmagorical. But it is definitely worth the visit as the natural location is awe-inspiring. Since it sits high on the rocky mountain it has great views in all directions, particularly from the top of the church tower. La Garrotxa Volcanic Natural Park is nearby.

For lunch I strongly recommend the restaurant Ca la Paula which had amazing food, surprisingly cheap for the quality. A three-course set menu (with several choices for each course) with red wine was 16 euros (£14).

After Castell Follit de la Roca the next stop is Besalú, an extremely touristic medieval town.

Besalú is considered the most important medieval town in Catalonia. It has been declared a National Historic-Artistic Town,” explained Eduard Comas, a local school-teacher.

Besalú means fortification between two rivers, and it really is between two rivers. To access Besalú there is a massive medieval bridge of “unknown” origins, as its sign stated.

The town was full of tourists browsing the craftwork shops and taking pictures. The craftworks ranged from ceramics to wooden tools, and on that particular day there was a blacksmithing fair in the main square, where heavily-muscled men were hammering at various iron objects.

“Ironwork is very traditional in Catalonia and in Spain in general but this craft is starting to disappear as less and less people are interested in buying these objects. These fairs aim to promote our wares to tourists and —who knows!— someone might engage in this profession thanks to the fairs,” explained blacksmith Carlos Moreira.

The fair displayed all kind of forged objects: horseshoes, dragon- and snake-shaped coat hooks and ornaments, swords, even a sailboat.

One corner of the fair caught my attention, where large muscular men were gathered around a short, aged man who was explaining technique to the young group. You could tell from his age and the attention he commanded, that he was the expert around here.

The old man was Josep Ferrer, a blacksmith for 71 years. We arranged for an interview, a few days later at his home in Les Planes, a suburb of Barcelona. Later on we’ll learn more about Josep but for now let’s continue this tour…

A coffee and a dessert later it is time to head to the city of Girona, whose beauty must be seen both by day and by night, which is why we’ve chosen it for our overnight stop in this two-day tour of Catalonia.

Girona is a historical city with buildings dating back to the times of Charlemagne. It is very romantic with many small and hidden paths to get lost in. The view from the river is famously picturesque, with houses painted in different bright colours.

There are many stories or myths around this city.

One of these is a belief that if you kiss the buttocks of the lioness statue located in the Plaza de Sant Feliu, you will surely come back to Girona. The statue isn’t very tall, just three metres from the floor, with convenient stepping-blocks.

“Funnily enough a visitor heard the legend but got the wrong statue, a male lion atop a column a good six metres above the ground. He was halfway up the column when someone told him he was reaching for the wrong lion! It was so hilarious it was even in the news,” explained Orlando Sánchez, a student at the university of Girona.

Another legend concerns a puppet, resembling a harlequin, that is suspended above the commercial Argenteria street during the city’s spring celebrations. Jordi Serrat, who lives in Llagostera, a small town close to Girona, explained one version of the legend that says that “El Tarlá [the puppet’s name] is to remember an acrobat who raised the city’s spirits during times of a serious epidemic by doing acrobatics in the street of Argenteria.”

According to Jordi, Girona is the city with the best quality of life in all of Spain.

For dinner in Girona the traditional restaurant Café Le Bistrot was recommended by locals, with outside seating in a steep, quiet medieval street.

Day two

Leaving Girona, not without first kissing the lioness, the second day of this tour leads us to the towns of the “Costa Brava,” the Rugged Coast.

After a busy first day, today’s plan is to chill out on the beach.

A good option is Tossa de Mar, a seaside town with white-washed walls and a white sandy beach. It used to be a fishing village but now lives mostly from tourism.

At one end of the beach stands a fortress built on a rocky hill. The town is divided in two areas: The old area, inside the fortress walls, and the modern area, much of which is no older than 60 years.

Tossa de Mar is perfect when you want to spot people and be spotted. But if solitude and quietness is what you prefer, there is a nearby beach called La Fosca. To get to this beach, the best thing is to drive to Palamos and walk from there. It is a ten minute walk to paradise, as La Fosca is a wonderful beach to just sit and enjoy the calmness and massiveness of the sea.

There is a short walk from this beach that takes you to an isolated cabin once owned by the famous Catalan artist Salvador Dalí.


A forgotten traditional craftwork

Josep Ferrer

Josep Ferrer, 86, a simple-hearted and quiet man, was born in San Cugat del Vallés, Catalonia, where his grandfather used to work as a blacksmith.

“I was born in my grandfather’s workshop. When I was a kid I played with the hammers,” explains Josep.

Josep switched from playing with the hammers to working with them at the age of 13, more out of necessity than choice.

“It was during the years of the [Spanish Civil] War [1936-1939]. Money was scarce and you found yourself in a situation of real necessity. My grandfather asked me to help him in the workshop.

“Those were difficult years, but we were lucky because one of my uncles was working for the Council of Catalonia and he was sent to Paris to the League of Nations. So, my uncle sent us packages of food like coffee and sugar that my mother could exchange with the farmers for vegetables.”

During these years of war Josep mostly forged iron tools for farming as in times of war there is no money nor will for art. But after the war he began to create other objects like chandeliers, coat racks, and copies of antiques. These copies were in great demand because of the museum Cau Ferrat, founded by the Catalan poet Santiago Rusiñol, which has on display a vast collection of forged iron antiques.

Josep considers himself an artisan although many artists have used ironwork to build abstract sculptures, like the Catalan artist Julio Gonzales (1876-1942), or Pablo Gargallo (1881-1934) who was born in Aragon but moved to Catalonia where he learnt to forge iron as an art.

“Blacksmithing is very traditional in Catalonia and in Spain in general. Last century all the iron Gaudí used was forged in Barcelona.

“Nowadays all the blacksmiths in Spain are making very similar things, nice and with high quality. But it wasn’t like that in the past when the blacksmiths from Catalonia were the best in Spain.

“The real blacksmith creates an object with one piece of iron, without soldering anything at all. You need a lot of experience to achieve the expertise. Each person has their own working style; I consider my style contemporary.”

For 30 years Josep forged pieces for American railways. “It was a big company. They used to send me the designs, because obviously the Americans have different tastes, and I built them.”

Josep’s home has a garden full of different flowers and plants and a big dovecote: His wife’s hobbies are gardening and taking care of her doves. Just to the left of the garden is Josep’s workshop.

Josep and his family are very united. His daughter and her family live next door and the two houses are connected.

Talking about blacksmithing again, Josep explains: “I retired 23 years ago and since then all I do is to enjoy myself. I continue to forge pieces for love of this craftwork and everything I do is to give away to friends and family.

“Unfortunately, now there is very little demand for these art pieces. With the economic crisis people do not spend money on superfluous things.”

Blacksmithing is not all Josep does in his spare time; he used to do freediving (diving under water whithout any breathing equipment) until the age of 65. But he is very humble about it: “I used to go only 12 metres deep; there are those who go down to 30 metres.” Josep stopped practising this hobby because “the oceans are very dirty and the animals do not come near the shore. So, there are few fishes to look at and it’s not worth it.”

Josep also loved mountain-climbing and now, though he doesn’t practise it anymore, he still meets with his group of alpinist friends once every week for lunch.

As to musical tastes he explains, “when I was young I went dancing very often, but now I don’t like modern music.” What about sardana, the traditional circle dance of Catalonia? “It is not the kind of dancing that I did, although when my wife and I were dating we use to take the Vallvidrera funicular to Collserola Natural Park every Thursday evening and there were sardanas. Thanks to those nights I know a little how to dance sardana, but that’s it.”


The Duality of Barcelona

Meditarranean beaches, exquisite gastronomy, great weather all year round, fantastic architecture and richness in culture – do you fancy a visit?

Yes, this is Barcelona, the diverse city, where everyone wants to live or at least visit. But is it that good for everyone? Not really.

Although Barcelona is amazing for tourists, some locals complain that Barcelona’s council cares more about keeping tourists happy and coming back, than about the local residents.

Every night the council hoses the streets clean with water, “to keep the city clean for the next day,” says the council. But according to anthropologist Andres Pera, “they wet the sidewalks to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them.

“It is a bad way of tackling this issue. Why don’t they try to find them a place to live instead of preventing them from sleeping in the only place they have?”

Barcelona also has a problem of human trafficking. People are brought from Eastern Europe, China and Africa to work in prostitution or in terrible working conditions. Walking through Barcelona even during daylight you can see women offering themselves for prostitution, proving how good the business is. Not many people seem to notice them.

According to a CNN report, human trafficking is facilitated by the tourism industry. First, because vacationers are among the main clients of prostitution; secondly, many of these people are brought to Barcelona under a tourist visa.

To know a place is not only about going to its museums and famous landmarks. It is also about knowing the reality of the place, the way everyday people live. Like a square in a common neighbourhood. Like the beautiful and authentic Barcelona neighbourhood of Gracia.

Another clear example of the duality of Barcelona is the Sagrada Familia or Sacred Family church, which was designed by the architect Antoni Gaudí. The Sagrada Familia has two opposite faces.

One side represents the Nativity: The stone is white and the sculptures are polished and modern. The opposite side represents the passion and death of Jesus Christ; it is dark grey, gothic, and resembles melted wax.

One street bordering the Sagrada Familia was closed, with activities for young and old. Rosa Cebra explained what was going on: “The Group for Multicultural Interaction is celebrating a week of integration. There are activities for every one to come and participate while integrating with the community.

“This year the Barcelona council has a campaign called ‘No rumours, thank you’. We are spreading the word about this campaign.”

I asked her what that campaign meant. She replied: “This campaign aims to end the rumours that are passed from one person to the other and that are not true, but that cause a lot of damage to Barcelona’s society.”

When I heard this, the first thing I thought of was the story about the council wetting the streets to stop homeless people from sleeping there.

The Plaza Gaudí is a park in front of the Passion façade of the Sagrada Familia. At one end of the park were several old men playing “petanca”, a kind of outdoor bowling game that only the third age seemed to be interested in. On a notice board between the two courts was a picture and a short caption of the winner of this and last year’s petanca tourney, Lucia Ventosa. Suddenly a man approached me to ask what I wanted. I explained that I was just reading about Mrs Ventosa, to which the man replied: “she is my wife.”

The man is Mariano Lopez, 70. He explained that petanca is a French sport played by people of all ages. “Tourists sometimes get the impression that only old people play petanca. But the reason is that since we are retired we can come and play any time of the day.”

After a while, when Lopez realized that he could trust me, he surprised me by saying: “I approached you and asked you what you wanted because next Sunday there is a tourney here and I thought that you were from the opposite team who came to spy on us.”

In every park of there were retired men playing petanca, chess, dominoes or checkers; with such a great weather, parks are the perfect meeting point in Barcelona.

One example is the green zone on either side of the Paseo del Triunfo (Walk of Triumph) just past the Arc of Triumph, built by Franco after the civil war. Here a group of five men were playing a board game and on the other side where others were playing petanca – perhaps the opponents of the petanca team from Plaza Gaudí.

Across the street from the Walk of Triumph is the Ciutatela Park, a huge park containing the zoo of Barcelona. Outside the zoo some campaigners were gathered asking for the release of the animals because according to them “a zoo to an animal is equal to a life sentence to a criminal.”

From the Ciutatela Park and zoo, La Barceloneta beach isn’t very far away. You can take a bus or even walk, which is advisable as you will pass through the hip neighbourhood El Born.

The Barcelona city centre is easily walkable. From the beach you can get to the statue of Simon Bolivar and then walk up through the famous Ramblas (a pedestrian commercial district).

Near the main Ramblas is the similar but smaller, less congested Ramblas del Raval. Here there is another example of the duality of Barcelona: Directly opposite a luxurious five-star hotel there is a squatter house inhabited by 14 buskers. They have created a community group called Barrilonia Social Centre.

One of the squatters is Martin, no last name given, who explained their use of the house: “Everything we earn from our music in reinvested in the house. We use this house as a community hub for everyone to come whenever they want to. We hold workshops on bicycle repair, percussion and chess.”

Park Güell

Park Güell, built between 1900 and 1914, is one of the most important touristic sites of Barcelona because of its architecture by Antoni Gaudí, creator of the city’s flamboyant Sagrada Familia church.

In 1984 UNESCO declared Park Güell a World Heritage site, which was no surprise as the style of the park is as crazy and imaginative as only the distinctive style of Gaudí can be.

It features bridges made of stone and big columns that look desertic and massive. There are many colourful areas covered in mosaics in Gaudí’s unique and recognizable style.

The park was meant to be an aristocratic city-garden but instead it was opened to the public.

Juan Hueso, who works in Park Güell for the council of Catalonia, explains the park’s history: “Count Güell contracted Antoni Gaudí to design a set of private houses in these 18 hectares.

“Only three houses were built, and the remaining lots remained unsold, as in that time this area was outside the city and you needed a lot of money and a car to live here. So Count Güell’s project failed.  Güell decided to donate the rest of the park to the city and it is now a public space for the amusement of locals and tourists.”

In the three built houses of Park Güell lived Gaudí, Count Güell, and a third family. Gaudí’s house is now a museum, Count Güell’s house is a school, and the third house is privately owned and worth a small fortune.

A huge number of people of all ages and nationalities visit the park every day. To get to the park from the nearest metro station visitors have to climb a steep street, but there are electric escalators in the middle of the road (an unusual sight, in my humble opinion).

The park attracts not only visitors but also street vendors selling souvenirs. There are many buskers who use ingenious and colourful props, with a variety of music ranging from flamenco to ska, to gypsy, to African, you just name it.

“Street vendors are forbidden in the park, so the vendors are always watching for police. On the other hand the police do not say anything to the musicians because the tourists like them,” said Juan Hueso.

Most of the musicians are found in the lower part of the park where most of the visitors are. But walking to the less crowded upper areas you will find a busker with a very fine instrument playing relaxing melodies from idyllic times.

Mauricio Cazelli

The musician is Maurizio Cazelli, 52, an Italian who has been playing in park Güell for seven years. His instrument, from ancient Persia, is called the Santur.

“I came to Barcelona to give a concert at a cultural institution and then I fell in love with this city and never left,” explained Cazelli in a distinctive mix of Spanish and       Italian.

“The climate here in Barcelona is good all year round. I once lived in London for a year and let me tell you, in four months I did not see the sun once,” he added.

“Barcelona has good services, the city is clean and safe. It is not like that in all Spain; it is just in Barcelona that everything works perfectly.”

It is twenty past nine in the morning and at this time the passers-by are mainly locals exercising, walking their dogs, or council gardeners working. They all say hello; Cazelli seems to know everyone.

There is a reason why Cazelli sits where he does: “If I sit further down in the park I could earn more money because not everyone comes up here. But I like it here because it is quieter and the view is amazing, people can just sit and enjoy my music. I create a special environment with this location and my music for people to relax.

“If they want, they leave money; if they don’t want to, they don’t. They take pictures of me, make videos and I don’t care, I like it actually. This is a cultural exchange.”

Suddenly a bunch of vendors came running up the path, hiding behind hedges and communicating between themselves with hand-signals. A short time later they were followed by police, also running, hiding and talking on their walkie-talkies. The situation is rather comic and silly.

“The police come and patrol the area and the vendors run away. Ten minutes after the police are gone, the vendors come back. And it is like this all day, in a cat-and-mouse chase,” explained Cazelli.

“The musicians have a different treatment because music improves the park. The requirements are not to use amplifiers and to be really good with your music.” He adds, laughing, “but of course not everyone here is.”

“Park Güell without music would be dead, it would be just a park in a mountain.”

The police are tired of playing hide and seek with the vendors and there is a proposal to gate the park in order to control the entrance.

Nudism in Barcelona

A law that prohibits nudism in Barcelona’s beaches and public spaces came into force on 29 April 2011.

Any tourist or local who fails to follow this law will receive a warning and has to dress immediately. If the person fails to dress the punishment is a fine that could range between 120 and 500 Euros (£105 – £450).

Joaquim Plana, president of the Catalan Naturism Club, said “nudism is a right and people should be able to choose. It is a shame that it is forbidden as it is an emblem of Barcelona.”

The Spanish Federation of Naturism, FEN, sued the council of Barcelona asking for the removal of this prohibition, on July 13.

Nudism has caused a lot of controversy in Barcelona. There are two opposite sides to the debate. The naturist society defends nudism arguing that it is a right and that it doesn’t hurt anyone. Others, such as the mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, disagree: “While it is acceptable to practise nudism in some spaces, like nudist beaches, it is not acceptable to have naked people walking around the streets.”

It all began in 2005 with the draft of a city ordinance called “Convivencia Ciudadana” (Peaceful Coexistence), with an article stipulating that nudism in Barcelona was forbidden. This triggered outrage from naturists and human rights defenders who argue that the decision of what to wear was personal and that it has nothing to do with the law.

The council decided to remove the ban on nudism from the ordinance and by doing that it was inferred that nudity was legal. The Ordinance of Peaceful Coexistence finally came into force in January 24, 2006.

“That day everyone was so happy; my friends and I went completely naked around the streets of Barcelona, celebrating the apparent legality of nudism,” said anthropologist Joan Roura.

Since then there has been a lot of debate around this issue. In 2010 there were plans to introduce some amendments to the ordinance of Peaceful Coexistence.

Those who were against nudity in public spaces took advantage of the opportunity by adding an amendment banning nudism in all public spaces.

The division extended to regional and national politicians, as some like Jordi Portabella, the leader of the ERC party, argued that the council of Barcelona “have more serious problems, like the economic crisis and its effects on our citizens, to be worrying about how people should dress.”

The spokeswoman of the republican party, Ester Capella, said that it was pointless to add this amendment to the ordinance as no more than three people practise nudity in the streets of Barcelona.

Joan Roura added: “during the years that nudism was ‘legal’, not many people walked naked on the streets. Some did, of course, but most people dressed normally and kept their nudity to the beach.”

Roura added, “There is one particular nudist who is well known in Barcelona. Everyone calls him ‘The Tripod’. He has many tattoos and a piercing hanging off his penis. Whenever he walks the streets everyone stops to look at him and take pictures because he is impossible to ignore.”

The Tripod’s real name is Esteban (no last name given for privacy reasons). At 67, he is the most famous nudist of Barcelona. In 2007 he was fined 80 Euros for public nudity. Esteban ignored the orders of the urban guard to get dressed and the guards filed a charge for contempt.

The judge’s sentence said: “The defendant mistakenly thought that only he has rights, in this case of walking completely naked, ignoring that the rest of the public also has the right not to see him naked.”

The new law not only states that it is forbidden to practice nudism in public spaces but also to practice semi-nudism, which means that it is not allowed to be bare-chested in public spaces.

On this matter Roura said: “this is very silly as this is a coastal city, you expect people to walk bare-chested.

“After this law came into force the urban guard has had to stop joggers to ask them to put their shirt on. On sunny days the urban guard has to compel people taking the sun in a park to get fully dressed.”