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 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.

[travelist location=”Besalu, Spain” type=”img” url=”http://www.latortugaviajera.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Besalu-bridge.jpg”]

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.