June 12, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

My journey started in the bustling Barcelona center, smack right in front of La Sagrada Familia cathedral. Surrounded by tourists and the buzz of street traffic, I had no idea that only a half hour later I’d be engulfed in a nature paradise – Montseny.

Designated by UNESCO as a biospere reserve, Montseny Natural Park is a flora-and-fauna-covered mountain range that staggers into the skies just inland between Barcelona and Girona. Reaching over 1700 meters in elevation, the rain-saturated landscape seeps H2O from every crevice — so much so, in fact, that 50% of Spain’s bottled water originates from the mountain fissures, rivers and lakes.

The classification as a “natural park” rather than a “national park” is a unique distinction. According to a Montseny park guide, since the Montseny land has been occupied and used for quite some time (since the Palaeolithic Age, to be exact), rather than taking a passive approach to its conservation – as with national parks – the government works proactively to ensure the evolving land use doesn’t harm the region’s ecosystems.

Take for example Sr. Farmer. Let’s say he’s got a herd of cows munching on a lush grassy pasture, just like they have for generations. But Sr. Farmer’s son isn’t super keen on the whole cow thing – I mean, he could be a DJ, astronaut or, say, travel blogger. So, chances are that when Pops retires, so will the cows. And, along with them, say “adios” to the entire ecosystem that was created around them. That’s not cool.

But natural parks like Montseny work to mitigate this problem. Filled with loads of animal and plant species, public funds are dedicated to researching, maintaining and supporting the fragile ecosystems. So, while much of the land is privately owned, careful checks and balances enable a more promising future for the area. And good news for the rest of us: a nature-filled playground for years to come.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share with you this little natural paradise only a short drive away from Barcelona and Girona. Grab a snack and some comfy shoes, because it’s going to be an active and very food-filled journey.

Disclosure: I’m traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

June 5, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I’m not entirely sure where I am, as late last night we weaved up through the mountains, past the clouds, and finally stopped at a hidden stone villa, where a warm fire awaited and the promise of some much-needed sleep. What I do I know is that I’m somewhere in the Monsteny mountains, only a short drive away from Barcelona. Judging by the crisp mountain and air and the chorus of birds outside my window, I can’t be sure, though. More to come soon, but first: A couple quick shots from yesterday, which started at 4:30am in Madrid, followed by a healthy stop in Barcelona, and finished with me prancing around a Montseny farm full of plants that smelled so delicious that I wanted to roll around in them.

Disclosure: I’m traveling through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

April 3, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I found love in Catalonia – in the colorful hanging buildings of Girona, inside the quirky walls of Dalí’s house in Cadaqués, and while tip-toeing across river stepping stones in Besalú. But my biggest Catalonian love? The calçot.

The Catalonia region claims cuisine fame for many things: pan con tomate (bread with tomato), crema catalana (similar to crème brulee), the sparkling wine cava and, sure enough, a special little onion called a calçot. With their long green shoots and wiry roots, they look an awful lot like leeks or oddly monstrous green onions.

Sure, so you’re thinking, big deal, Tortuga – I’ll see you your gigantic special green onions and raise you some organic jicama from Whole Foods, or something. Ah, but there’s so much more to a calçot than just simple, giant oniony goodness. This is because a calcot’s future is so much more exciting than that of your typical grocery store produce.

The special-ness takes place during early winter and late spring, when the famous veggie comes into season. Since the onions are so fabulous, Catalonians often partake in a proper gastro celebration, called a calçotada – a feast filled with wine and food, but mostly mass quantities of calçots.

They start by spearing loads of the stalky green onions onto a wire, like a necklace, before draping the creation over a blazing fire. The exterior layer chars on one side for a few minutes, before getting flopped over to the other side. Wrapped up newspaper, the calçots stay warm, while strand after strand of vegetables has its turn above the flames.

At the table, hungry mouths water while sleeves get pulled up, ready for the impending mess. After all, they won’t be eaten tidily with forks and knives, but rather by hand. You see, to get to the sweet interior, one must pop the bottom off, then slowly peel away the outer layer with care. Holding the calçot by the green stalk, the tender tip is then dunked in a bowl of romesco sauce – a fire-colored concoction made of bell pepper, garlic, olive oil and nuts like almonds, pine nuts or hazel nuts. Honestly, everything at the table (at least my table) ends up getting dunked in that amazing sauce – bread, spoons, fingers – it’s that good.

Peeled and doused in romesco, it’s time to dangle the calçot above your mouth, noshing away at the toasty sweet bottom portion, just up until the green part begins. Then you repeat the process again….and again…and again, because it’s amazing, and even better, it’s crazy healthy, so there’s no logical reason not to eat these things like you’ll never have another meal for the rest of your life. Truly.

The only tragic part about this whole experience is that I feel as though there is a pre- and post-calçotada aspect to my life these days. Now, whenever I see anything resembling a calçot at the store, I get really excited, thinking it’s my beloved onion. But not only is not a calçot, but even if it were, I can’t quite see myself whipping up a bonfire on a Madrid sidewalk in order to get my calçotada on. Although…..I’m totally not above that….

Disclosure: I traveled through Catalonia as a guest of Charming Villas Catalonia. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

March 27, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Pueblos, rivers, art, bla bla bla. Let’s get to the really important stuff: the Catalán food. Am I right?

Remember that first day in Girona? We schlepped up, down and all around town. I adored that city, but wow it made me hungry. And thank goodness for that because, unbeknown to me, a nine-course meal awaited. Allow me to share with you the highlight of that lovely dinner: this little treasure on a plate below.

See, I’ve never liked artichokes. On several occasions I’ve re-tried them, convinced that I’ve been mistaken – after all, they seem like something I should like. But alas, every time I give them another chance, my taste buds say no. This time, however, a tender artichoke heart resting on a bed of sweet sobressada (a Catalonian sausage often served as a spread), finally seduced me into not just liking the once off-limits veggie, but falling passionately in love with it. I rode that artichoke-high through all nine plates – from the deconstructed tortilla española, to the jamón ravioli, and fusion patatas bravas.

I rose the following morning still dangerously full from the night before. But one overcomes such obstacles when faced with a giant brick of sugar-encrusted bread, called coca. Tell me who could possibly resist this? I wanted to nestle it under my arm and gnaw away at the squishy dough for the rest of the day (I didn’t, but I seriously thought about it).

Still digesting the coca (and plotting how to get my hands on another baguette), we arrived at a bodega-topped mountain blanketed with rows upon rows of dry vines. The sun blazed outside and a fire blazed inside, where we feasted on homemade butifarra (Catalonian sausage), anchovy pinchos, pan con tomate (bread with tomato), and a steaming stew of alubias blancas (white beans), all washed down with a range of wine from the Martín Faixó vineyards that surrounded us. Good thing we were up on a hill because really, after that meal, I just needed to be rolled back home.

At this point, I’d probably already done enough feasting to last me until early fall, but low and behold, another massive meal was in store – dinner by chef Lee Pennington at our hilltop villa in Cadaqués. Among the favorites: toothpick-pierced cubes of membrillo (similar to jam) and queso fresco (a light cheese), and a dessert of chocolate truffles made with olives (sounds weird, but it was all sorts of delicious).

A tortilla española here, a paella there, and a few days later the gastro madness came to a close. But not before snacking on these little pastries below – one of which was even filled – yes FILLED – with chocolate.

Oh yeah, and one more culinary adventure still remains – the famous calçotada and all its onion-burning glory….but you’ll still have to wait to hear more about that.

Disclosure: I traveled through Catalonia as a guest of Charming Villas Catalonia. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

March 22, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

After surviving the twists and turns departing Cadaqués, we arrived in Besalú – the next stop on our tour of Catalonia. Without knowing much about my new destination, I could tell it was already trying to lure me in with its arched bridge and the promise of another villa. Could my emotions handle being toyed with yet again? After all, I am a one-pueblo kind of girl.

Upon arrival, the get-to-know-you session was in full swing. Rather than rest, my new pal Marie-Eve and I meandered down the town alleyways with the river as our destination. Stepping out of the confines of the old city wall, the multi-arched bridge revealed itself with the wide riverbed at its feet. A trail of rectangular stepping-stones carefully laid across half the water like the start of an unfinished board game, and I was ready to play.

With the city behind me, and the bridge just ahead, I danced across the stones by myself, water slipping through the cracks and passing all around me. My first fling with the village was exhilarating, but would it last?

After a homemade paella at our villa (said with an ultra-posh accent), we convened in front of the Museum of Miniatures – a destination that, by all accounts, I’d scoff at with a giggle had I traveled to Besalú alone (you know, because these days I hang out at villas and all 😉 ).

miniature ant on a high wire

But what at first seemed like just a series of shoebox-sized dioramas with dolls, turned into laughter and gasping as we stared through magnifying glasses at unexpectedly bizarre images – an umbrella-wielding ant tip-toeing across a high wire, a choo-choo train chugging inside the eye of a needle, an Eiffel Tower smaller than a microscopic insect. Sounds silly, but it was probably the unexpected highlight of the day.

chair in besalu

Besalú still had more quirk up its medieval sleeves, though. Following the museum, we approached a building with peep-hole windows emanating a warm glow, and a peculiar multi-legged chair affixed up high to its side . This was the art gallery and workshop of Kel Domènech – the eccentric furniture creator and self-proclaimed sculptor, cabinet-maker, historian, collector, antique dealer, designer and philosopher (unlike myself – the eater, wanderer, drinker, day-dreamer, generally confused foreigner, and expert on all things chocolate. That’s my official title, actually).

I should mention that there is a bit of a “chair” movement in Besalú. Yeah, a chair movement – or at least that’s what I’m calling it. Allow me to elaborate. Basically, the idea is that in such a beautiful place, one needs time to sit and reflect, thus all these symbolic chairs throughout the city. Between the chairs, Dalí and the Museum of Miniatures, it clear that artistic eccentricity runs in the Catalonian blood.

chair in besalu

Exhausted from the roller coaster of emotions (Girona, Cadaqués, and now Besalú!), we finished our day back at the villa for wine tasting and tortilla, before falling asleep to the sound of the church bells. Sigh, I was in love. But while this was our last pueblo, it wouldn’t be our last villa. The next day, we would head to the countryside for a calçotada – a feast involving onion-like veggies, lots of fire, and wine, of course. Warning: I advise you read my next Catalonia post on a full stomach.

Disclosure: I traveled through Catalonia as a guest of Charming Villas Catalonia. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

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