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.


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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.”