March 13, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Before we hit the road and head to Besalú, I want to introduce you to a peculiar little place we stopped by near Girona – Banyoles. It’s got all the pueblo essentials: a Plaza Mayor, sunny terrazas for tapas and café, cute old folks taking paseos. Check, check and check.

I suppose it’s most noteworthy for its lake, which was the rowing location for the ’92 Olympics and also for the World Rowing Championships in 2004. That’s cool.

But there’s one other thing that I think it’s famous for – rather, that I’VE decided it’s famous for: These river thingies (oh my brilliant and vast vocabulary!) lining the streets. They’re like modern-art canals that kiss the city walls and slither around its corners. I became obsessed.

Sure they might just seem like silly water canals running through the city, but they caused my imagination to run wild. Like, how often do kids fall in them? What about the elderly? And do staggering drunks ever take a tumble?

Being the curious question-asker that I am, I fired off an email to my friends (let’s pretend we’re friends) at the tourism office, and sure enough, they satisfied my curiosity.

The “river thingies” are actually called recs, and come from a medieval infrastructure (measuring 33 kilometers in length – oh snap!) originally created to water cultivated land, and eventually to generate factory mills. The artificial versions – that I suppose more or less form the basis for what we see now – were actually created by brilliant Benedictine monks from nearby Monasterio de Sant Esteve sometime after the 9th century. Neato, right?

And as hazardous as they might seem, the recs apparently don’t cause much of a problem. Locals are used to them – in fact, if anything they serve as entertainment for little kiddies who like to splash in them, or simply let their paper boats set sail.

So there you have it. A cute little story about a cute little town and the river (ish) that runs through it.

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 6, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I departed Girona feeling like I’d left a piece of my heart behind, but it was time to move on to our next destination: Cadaqués. The journey wouldn’t be easy, though, requiring a twisty turny drive up and over the mountains to the secluded fishermen villages at their base.

Cadaques shoreline

Stomachs all topsy-turvy, we arrived in Cadaqués, its cluster of villages, and our ludicrously glamorous villa (no joke – details in a future post!). The area is indeed so remote that until only about a century ago – when the curvy highway was constructed – people living there were virtually isolated from the rest of the region. As our tour guide would later tell me, her grandfather knew Cuba (by boat, of course), long before he ever knew Figueres – a city just over 20 miles way. This also apparently explains why the area maintains a rather distinctly strong Catalán accent. Just a few little nuggets of odd goodness hinting at Cadaqués’s charming peculiarity.

An egg and a view from Dali's house

And peculiarity is an understatement, because nearby Portlligat claims bragging rights as Salvador Dalí’s home from 1930 until he passed away in 1989. Only made available to the public in 1997, his house serves as the ultimate peek into the artist’s imagination. A Mr. T-style taxidermied polar bear, a slew of mannequins, and eggs, lots of eggs. I decided that I really liked this fellow Dalí. He was quirky, but measured, goofy, but pulled-together…and dude, he had a pretty sweet pad.

bear in dali's house

Manquins in Dali's house

With our minds caught somewhere between reality and surreality, we took a little drive up to the cliffs of Cap de Creus. Perched above the Mediterranean Sea, we sat at a cafe to sip on cappuccinos and nosh on the region’s champagne-cork-shaped pastry, called taps dolços, before heading back for a tour of the city.

Taps dolços

Tour guide in tow, we traversed the alleys of Cadaqués, oohing over the white buildings with blue doors, and ahhing over the zigs and zags of the slate-cobbled streets. Another fun Cadaqués fact: nearly an estimated third of its population emigrated to Cuba in the early 20th century. The successful ones that returned then erected dazzling homes, which to this day still stand out among the rest (pause and imagine a fancy house, as I don’t happen to have a decent picture – oops!)

cadaques street

The next morning, I rose early for a run, to somehow mentally justify the feast the night before (yes, there was another feast, and you’ll still have to wait to hear about it!). After weaving through olive orchards, around a cemetery and over the hill into Cadaqués, I finally realized my captivation with the rising sun was impeding any effort to actually burn calories (plus, let’s be honest, running kind of sucks).

So I returned to the pebbly shoreline of Portlligat, where I plopped down on the cement embankment, dangling my sneakers just above the calm shallow water. With Dalí’s house just feet behind me, I turned off my music and listened to the sound of the sunrise. Water lapping, a breeze rustling through Dalí’s olive trees, my thoughts fading off somewhere in the distance. Sigh…my heart skipped a beat….I totally had a crush on Cadaqués.

Dali house at sunrise

Too bad one more rendezvous awaited. The next day, it was off to Besalú.

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.

[travelist location=”Cadaques, Spain” type=”img” url=””]

March 1, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Colorful hanging houses that line a bridge-crossed canal? Girona tourists might do a double take thinking they’ve made a wrong turn, ending up in Venice or Spain’s capital of hovering homes, Cuenca. But what a lovely wrong turn that would be, as this Catalán town – just over an hour away from Barcelona – will capture your traveling heart.

I’m no stranger to the cities and villages that crisscross the Iberian Peninsula. I never tire of them, but at the same time, many of them do start to look a tad similar, right down to the darling grandpas with their canes and messenger caps.

Girona caught my attention, though. It was love at first sight. Un flechazo, as they say in Spanish.

And I fell hard for the over-2000-year-old city with switchback streets that stagger across the hillside. Over the river, between warm-hued buildings, and up the never-ending steps of the gothic cathedral (previously the site of an even older cathedral that once served as a mosque) – I was enamored of my new Catalán discovery.

From the cathedral, we slithered down alleyways, under arches and into one of the largest preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. Then we trekked over bridges, and past cozy cafés that summoned my friend Cheryl and me to stop for a much-needed caffeine boost. The refuel would have to wait, though.

Locals indulging in their primera copa mingled in the streets outside bars, teasing our growling tummies and wine-deprived taste buds. Little did we know we were on the verge of a nine-course meal – one that would seal the deal on my Girona love affair. But, as usual, I must reserve discussion of food for a separate post, or risk going on an all-too-common tangent….a tangent about mind-blowing jamón cream sauces or, I don’t know, artichoke hearts (which until two weeks ago, I hated) nestled in a sweet sobressada that tasted so good it nearly brought me to tears. Yes, this must wait for another post.

Following our feast, we returned to our rustic countryside villa, nestled below a castle-topped hillside, along an orchard of trees. I thought I’d met the one – THE pueblo – until the next day, when I was introduced to Cacaqués.

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.

February 27, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Last week I returned from a dreamy holiday in Catalonia filled with food, pueblos and villas (see pictures here). But before I indulge you in all of the details, I thought I’d introduce you to the little wonderland that is the northeast of Spain. Grab a glass of wine, and let the session begin.

So first, let’s get a few things straight: Is it Catalonia, Catalunya or Cataluña? A country, community or province? And what language are they speaking anyway?

About that name: In English it’s Catalonia, Spanish it’s Cataluña, and in Catalán it’s Catalunya. They more or less all sound the same when spoken, so just make like a foreigner and mumble whatever rolls off your tongue.

“But what’s this about Spanish and Catalán?” you ask.

If you haven’t heard the foreign word yet, Spanish isn’t the only language spoken in Catalonia (or in several regions in Spain, for that matter), but rather Catalán – a tongue of its own, with various influences (which are totally over my head) according to Wikipedia. At the end of the day, it’s quite similar to Castilian Spanish because I can basically understand every word of it (a very scientific assessment, I know). Even though Catalanes primarily speak Catalán amongst one another, almost all of them are also entirely fluent in Spanish. So rest assured that those five phrases you still remember from high school will still serve you just fine. And yes, you will indeed find the baño.

Not just a land of different languages, many of the Catalanes feel that it is also a different country (even though technically it is considered a part of Spain). To explain the deep roots behind the sentiments on either side, which go back hundreds of years, is far beyond my skills. Suffice it to say that it can be a controversial subject, and I’m totally not touching that hot patata!

Geographically speaking, the region sits up against the French border along the Mediterranean Sea. As one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities (essentially the equivalent of a US state), it has four provinces (similar to counties): Barcelona, Tarragona, Lleida and Girona. For my recent trip, I traveled all around Girona – a trip I will tell you about very soon (oooh the anticipation!).

Apart from tourist hotspot Barcelona, and being home to a famous fútbol team, Catalonia also claims culinary fame. Until recently, one of the world’s best restaurants, El Bulli, resided in this northeastern part of Spain. And despite its closure (made by choice, and to the disappointment of foodies everywhere), the region still has some of the best cuisine around – right down to the basics.

Famous Catalonian contributions to, well, my diet (and I suppose those of many others) include pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato) and crema catalana (essentially creme brûlée). Also, a lesser known fact: the timelessly fashionable espadrille (or, as it is called in Spanish, alpargata) made its appearance in the Pyrenees somewhere back in the 1300s. Just a few of the fun facts I’m going to tease you with before we get into to the good stuff in my next blog post.

So yeah, you could say Catalonia is a pretty rad place. And now that you’ve got your mind wrapped around it, prepare yourself to come on the journey with me through all the pueblos, food and villas. Should be fun!

Update: I foolishly forgot one more amazing thing to come out of Catalonia – a beastly awesome fellow named Puyol. I will let Pass the Ham explain that one, though.

February 21, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Someone pinch me, I think I’m in a dream. Actually, I hope I’m in a dream – after the mass quantities of food and wine I’ve been consuming, I’m kind of hoping this isn’t real. I’ve spent the last four days hopping from pueblo to pueblo and fancy villa to fancier villa (courtesy of Charming Villas Catolonia), all while wine tasting and eating myself to oblivion. It’s obnoxious, really.

Since I’m up to my ears in catching up, I thought I’d give you just a taste of my trip via a few photos I took with my iPhone. Which picture is your favorite?

Girona river
Girona villa
View from our villa in Girona
Besalú, Catalunya
Cap de Creus, Cadequés view
View from Cap de Creus in Cadaqués
Cadaqués shoreline
Cadaqués sunrise
Cadaqués sunrise in front of Salvador Dalí’s house

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.