Some of our best trips are serendipitous. And some of the most interesting things I learn while traveling also are serendipitous. We came to Spain the first time because we were looking for a last minute trip somewhere warm, in November. This year’s trip also came about by accident. The main event is a cooking class in Gascony, France. (More on that in another blog) We had an awkward bit of time to fill before the class, so we looked around for a walk. Thanks to Macs Adventures, our current favourite self-guided walking company, we settled on the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees in the region of Catalonia, just over the border from the cooking school.
Saying that we’ve been to Spain before is a bit like saying you’ve already been to Canada. Spain is a big, diverse country. Andalusia, which is in the south-west on the border with Portugal, looks like the set of a Sergio Leone movie. The foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees in Catalonia are rolling and lush with deciduous trees.
La Garrotxa region of Catalonia
As every pilgrim knows: the best walks involve a miracle.
A few weeks after we booked our non-refundable ultra-cheap flight from England to Spain on Ryanair, their pilots decided to strike. You may not have heard of Ryanair if you don’t live in the UK where their incompetence is the stuff of legend. They get an average rating of 1/5 on trustpilot. The customer reviews tell of remarkable, even comical, misadventures. It’s not just a question of delayed flights or lost luggage; any airline can claim those achievements. Ryanair strives to set the bar for customer service at an unbeatable low. Like the time customers who had paid extra for priority boarding stood on the tarmac for 20 minutes while everyone else boarded. Or the (surprise!) policy that customers who don’t check in online are charged another £55 to check in at the airport. You know: those pensioners who don’t know how to use computers. Yes, Ryanair’s single star is well deserved.
So, imagine our dismay when we learned that the pilots were going on strike on the very day we were due to travel. If Ryanair can’t deliver a decent travel experience with a full complement of staff, what kind of service could we expect in the event of a strike?
The days leading up to our flight were fraught. Should we assume the worst and book train tickets? Surely, Ryanair would let us know if our flight was cancelled. Yet we hadn’t heard a peep. And we’d be fools to think we would. The UK papers were full of strategies for determining if your flight was one of the unlucky ones. Bottom line: if it originated outside the UK, you had a good chance it wouldn’t be cancelled because only the UK pilots were striking. On the day, we anxiously made our way to the airport where we were most relieved to be greeted by a distinctly Spanish employee.
Our miracle had occurred. The flight left on time and we didn’t lose our priority seats for which we’d paid extra because Ryanair makes money by seating family members separately then charging them to sit together. The service was as expected — absent. The seats were as expected — uncomfortable. The single moment of anxiety — when we hit a patch of turbulence that prompted the guy behind me to suggest the pilot was a volunteer — was mitigated by the roar of the vacation-bound kids who shrieked with delight as if they were riding a roller coaster.
Our first stop was Girona, a city of 300,000 people located to the north-east of Barcelona. Most people fly into Girona to access the nearby Costa Brava. But it is one of the obscure European cities that has suddenly appeared on the tourist map courtesy of Game of Thrones. It’s a charming medieval town with houses pitched over a scenic river,
cobblestone streets and narrow winding passageways.
As well as signs in English begging tourists to go home. This is (mostly) due to the ubiquitous airbnb problem, which has limited the supply of housing for locals. Although drunk British vacationers having sex in public could be a factor too.
Girona also is the beating heart of the movement for Catalan independence. This area of Spain once was part of the great Aragon empire, with holdings as far away as Sicily and Athens. The empire began to decline in the 15th century after Isabella married Ferdinand — yes, that Isabella and Ferdinand. He was a Catalan prince and she a Castilian princess. With Isabella’s ruthless consolidation of power after their marriage, Castile flourished, and the province eventually became synonymous with modern-day Spain.
Like our own Quebecois, the Catalan people have been trying to divorce Spain for the better part of the last five centuries. Catalans speak a unique language and have their own laws and government. In the public schools, children are educated in Catalan not Spanish. All I knew about the situation at the beginning of this trip is that a few years ago they voted in a referendum to ditch Spain. But Spain doesn’t want a divorce, so the federal government suspended the Catalan parliament, and its president Carles Puigdemont went into exile in Belgium.
Between political tension and overtourism, Girona is an uneasy place to visit. Gorgeous, but not especially friendly. Particularly for English speaking tourists — who are, in the minds of its citizens, either English and in the process of leaving the EU or Americans who voted for Trump. Thankfully, we were mostly mistaken for French, likely due to our Canadian propensity to blurt out “oui” and “merci” whenever confronted with a foreign language.
Our brief visit to Girona gave us enough time to photograph the cathedral spire from the medieval wall,
and to eat some excellent food at a gastro-bar.
On our first visit to Spain, we ran afoul of eating etiquette when we failed to realize that tapas is an evening snack. This time, we decided to boldly embrace the Spanish custom of eating our main meal in the afternoon. The 3-course lunch was delicious, and came with a complimentary half-liter of red wine for Julian. The waiter quickly assessed my state and brought a full liter of white. We ate leisurely, had a chat with the English-speaking chef, and at 5 pm staggered back to our hotel where we promptly fell asleep. Groggily, we roused ourselves at about 9 long enough to take advantage of a free glass of cava on the rooftop terrace of the hotel. I had a headache that the cava cured nicely.
Julian has newfound sympathy for the Spanish clients to whom he gives private ski lessons. No wonder they look so bleary when the lifts open at 8:30 am.
Our next stop was Santa Pau, an unapologetically lovely medieval village about an hour north-west of Girona in the La Garrotxa region.
The village formed around a baronial castle in the 13th and 14th centuries. Ironically, the castle is now in ruins, but the arcade around the market square hops with tourists visiting hotels, restaurants, and a store selling more than twenty kinds of absinthe.
Santa Pau may be a tourist town, but it’s not a tidy town. Once the tourists and the oppressive heat have ebbed for the day, the village doors burst open and high volume Catalan fills the air. One enlightening moment involved a Spanish-speaking tourist explaining to the Catalan owner (in English for some reason) that the name of her hotel misused a Spanish word. It took several go-rounds before she firmly advised him that the word also is Catalan — with a different meaning that she had used properly.
Our first walk took us 800 meters straight up a hillside to a 10th century sanctuary. The La Garroxta region is full of extinct volcanoes, the view of which is spectacular from the refuge.
But what really intrigued us was the reference to the sanctuary as a place to hold meetings and “plan attacks.” As part of the Catalan resistance? A google search produced no useful information. Not in English anyway.
Two days later found us in another medieval village, this time on a hilltop. As we had walked further into the countryside, we had encountered the symbols of the Catalan separatist movement everywhere: yellow ribbons spray-painted onto doorways and roads, and the yellow and red Catalan flag hanging from balconies. Castillfolit de la Roca is less prosperous than Santa Pau, so separatist sentiment is more prevalent and expressed more roughly. Like other secessionist movements, this one is fueled by hard economic times.
My sympathy began to tilt toward the secessionists. As a Canadian, I’m normally pretty pro-federation, but Spain’s seemed to rely on the coercion of a whole lot of people who didn’t want to be there. Still we were no further ahead in understanding the issues because we don’t speak the language and people were reluctant to discuss politics with tourists. So, for a few days, we just enjoyed the uncrowded countryside, with its rolling hills, small medieval towns, and ancient bridges.
This one was constructed in the 13th century solely so the local lord could exercise his “droit du seigneur” with the lasses across the river when it was swollen.
Another bridge, near the town of Tortella, with its brightly festooned streets,
was both prettier and less sinister.
The temperatures were in the low 30s, so the walking was hot and (at times) a trudge. But the highlight, which was well worth the tedium, was our 900-meter climb to the 14th century Mare de Deu del Mont sanctuary where we stayed overnight. That was good planning on the part of Macs because my little leggies weren’t going to carry me any further that day. The former monastery was home to the 19th century poet-priest Cinto Verdaguer, a major Catalan nationalist figure.
At the top of Mare de Deu del Mont
At the sanctuary, we were again diverted from politics by spectacular views, this time of the Pyrenees, rolling into the distance.
The following day found us in Besalu, our final destination on the walk. The woman who showed us to our hotel room admiringly pointed out the route we had taken to the sanctuary:
Yes, we had climbed up the hill on the left, descended into the valley in the middle then climbed up the hill again on the right. No wonder my thighs were still on fire. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
Besalu brought us sharply back to politics. Another medieval town, with a graceful cathedral and plaza at its centre,
and a 12th century bridge.
But this time the message was explicit:
A timely article in the Guardian newspaper explained all.
Despite what we had seen during our week of walking, polls show that only about half of Catalan citizens support independence from Spain. In the 2017 referendum, less than half of the population voted. Voters who oppose secession boycotted the vote because they considered the referendum illegitimate. The Spanish parliament and the EU agreed. But then the federal government went a step further and charged a dozen Catalan cabinet ministers with rebellion and sedition. The verdict from those trials is imminent. While most Catalans don’t support independence, they do support politicians’ freedom to pursue their political goals. Hence the ubiquitous yellow ribbons, which we’d mistakenly interpreted as support for secession.
So it turns out that like most things in life, it’s complicated. The issues go back hundreds of years. And the way forward isn’t clear. Just like our own Quebec.