Empordà / Girona, Catalonia, Spain

It’s funny how fast and intense travel friendships can be. Usually it ends with people extending an open invitation to visit their homes: hey, I’ve been on both ends of that. As genuine as they are, more often than not, these invitations are aspirational, seldom followed up.

It’s thus all the more surprising which friendships endure. I spent barely a day and a half with Gemma and Ramon in Sri Lanka seven years ago! We pulled a memorably freezing all-nighter, hiking up those 5500 steps, before parting ways in opposite directions with each other’s recommendations. Occasional messages over the years gave way an increasingly serious desire on my part to act on their open invitation to visit. And so here I am!

Unlike my last three sets of reunions, given our short history, there’s little catching up to do here: this was a week where we got to know each other. What I expected was to hang out a little, meet their son Mateu, and get to know their little slice of Catalonia through their daily routine. I got all of that. What I didn’t expect was such a warm reception, an eagerness to introduce me to Catalan culture all across the region, meeting an entire village’s worth of people, spending a weekend away together, so, so much food, and most of all, just how well we got along with each other.

Until just several days before I arrived, I didn’t actually know where Gemma and Ramon lived! Turns out it’s Verges, a village of a little over 1000 people, and somewhat complicated to access without a car. Before arriving on a Tuesday evening, I spent the day in the eponymous and much more famous capital of the province, Girona, before taking a train to the nearest station where Gemma could pick me up from.

Girona’s cathedral is nearly 1000 years old! The city walls are even older, the Jewish Quarter old but still hundreds of years later. I don’t really pay attention to the historical details anymore — medieval times, Gothic style, Roman empire… I get them all mixed up. The fact that things are still standing, still used, after changing hands in conflict so many times is already impressive. Modernity just coexisting with it, built around the old stuff? Now that boggles my mind. Needless to say, it’s awfully pretty, particular along the river criss-crossed by bridges.

And so is Verges! If I didn’t go to Girona or any of the other touristy towns my friends took me to, I’d have already been impressed. A walkabout I had with Ramon one afternoon could be loosely translated and summed up as, “Oh yeah, that church is like 800 years old or something. Not many people go anymore. Moving on. Here’s the moat.” Just up the road in Toroella de Montgrí, visible from afar, is an abandoned and unfinished castle built in 1300 with a jaw-dropping view overlooking everything from the coast to the inland mountains. “We used to jog up the mountain from home pretty frequently. Gemma did it while 5 months pregnant.” The feeling of casually living in a place surrounded by history is not a sensation I’m used to.

Verges is basically in the middle of everything: inland in the region of Empordà, at the edge of the Pyrenees on one side, and the famous Costa Brava on the other, though far away from the resorts in the south. It’s thus surrounded by snow-capped mountains, farmland, and water. It’s a mere 15 minute drive to the coast, to the town of l’Escala. Full of mostly French tourists in the summer season that’s now winding down, Gemma and Ramon treat it like an extension of their backyard — whether to bring Mateu for after-school sports, go to yoga classes, hit the beach, grab a delicious xuixo (kinda like a deep-fried, sugar-dusted, cream-filled croissant) from a bakery, buy from larger stores, or wind down at the family summer house on the weekends. In a little over a week, I lost count of how many times we drove over.

Did I mention that l’Escala also casually flaunts its history? The tiny village of Sant Martí d’Empúries is on the edge of town, adorable, immaculate, and quaint. You’d never know it dates all the way back to 600 BC, if you didn’t also see the Greco-Roman ruins it stands next to. You’d also never be able to tell just looking at it that the Musk family closed the entire area for a day to stage a wedding, even inviting the Obamas, Beyonce, and Jay-Z among other international A-listers.

In a place like this, between tourists and celebrities, it’s amazing to me that local culture still thrives and remains accessible. On the weekend, just in time for the annual Festa de l’Anxova (anchovy festival), highlighting l’Escala’s most famous export, I joined Ramon, Gemma, and their friends Josep and Albe along for an anchovy tapas crawl by bike, winding around neighbourhood roads, the waterfront, and old town alleys. (Their son, Pep, and Mateu entertained themselves while we ate.) In between some seriously-inspired bites and drinks — I will forever dream of this anchovy-almond-limoncello-cheesecake concoction that was far, far better than it has any right to be! — we kept running into countless members of their friends and family in and around the crowded tapas bars.

And I haven’t even gotten to the fact that we did some backyard camping with their vans, waking up to coffee, pastries, and embotits along with a view of the Gulf of Roses! The gulf which we spent the previous afternoon cruising on Ramon’s boat! What an absolutely fantastic weekend, and if this was any indication of normalcy, what a lifestyle!! While I know they still have the itch for international travel, made difficult by a pandemic, having a young child, and conflicting work schedules, it’s great to see Gemma and Ramon focus their spirit of adventure among the many spoils around them — and I’m so glad they were so eager to share that with me as well. With Ramon working on his enormous, sprawling apple farm in time for harvest season, Gemma planned a long list of activities for me, taking me around all over Empordà and beyond. Having done absolutely no research, everything was a surprise.

Well, except for the works of one of the world’s most well-known artists: Salvador Dalí, of course. On a morning before work, I visited Figueres and his most famous piece of work, the Dalí Theatre-Museum, where he’s also buried. Despite the suffocating throngs of tourists even on an off-season weekday, seeing the whimsical building and floor after floor of his art, along with his penchant for optical illusions, was an obviously worthwhile endeavour. While I knew of his work as a painter, I also saw many more mediums and forms, in realism and surrealism, oil and watercolour, motorized jewelry, and sculpture art.

What I didn’t know was possible to visit though was his home. On the edge of the French border, Gemma took me to the beautiful seaside town of Cadaqués, on the outskirts of which is Port Lligat, a tiny fishing village Dalí took over to build his home.

What looks very ordinary from the outside quickly reveals itself to be as eccentric, debauched, inscrutable, and vain as the artist famously was in public — that strange backyard, the many many little details hidden everywhere amongst the furniture, the room full of photos of him with celebrities. (Amongst his hobnobbing, turns out he was also a regular on the American late night talk show circuit. It’s even more surreal than you’d expect.) There’s even a cave with the perfect acoustics for his wife, Gala, and her singing performances. The surrounding landscape, the beautiful coastline and bay, seems familiar though — visible from many rooms, it often features in the backgrounds of his paintings. How this tranquil area inspired him and a legion of other Catalan artists to all go the surrealism route is a mystery to me.

As I learned later, despite being a native son, Dalí’s legacy within Catalonia is somewhat complicated — for one thing, he tacitly supported of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who not only violently repressed the population, but banned the use of all minority languages, including Catalan, among other deeply damaging policies with lasting cultural implications. And in another thinly-veiled insult, upon his death in 1989, Dalí willed his entire estate to the Spanish state, rather than the nationality he called home.

Yet all around Cadaqués and his home, all around Figueres and his theatre, and all around Empordà and the province of Girona at large, you’ll practically never see a Spanish flag. Even the regular Catalan regional flag isn’t as common as the independence variant estelada (with the star), openly flying not just on balconies but on giant flagpoles and even historical monuments. There’s deep pride in Catalan culture and identity, but also deep resentment of the state here. Spain has little creating national cohesion between its multitude of regions and languages — and indeed, Catalonia isn’t the only region with an independence movement, though theirs is the most prominent.

In Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and home to over half of Catalonia’s population, Franco-era policies which built it up economically also caused linguistic and cultural dilution. On the flipside, this economic success has led Catalonia to become one of the richest regions in Spain, one which consistently finds itself contributing an outsize proportion of taxes (to subsidize poorer regions of Spain) compared to what it receives. It’s kind of a weird catch-22, but another ongoing source of frustration.

Catalonia’s pro-independence government held a referendum in October 2017. Deemed illegal due to the Spanish constitution providing no means of secession, it caused a mess all around. With a 92% yes result but a 43% turnout with the pro-constitution side largely boycotting the vote, the Catalan government attempted to declare independence anyway. The Spanish state first intervened using force to prevent some people from voting in the first place (and how much that affected the turnout will never be known), but later imprisoned pro-independence politicians responsible (forcing the Catalan president into exile, where he still remains), and briefly rescinded autonomy for direct rule until new regional elections.

Almost exactly five years later, that heavy-handed response, the violence and the raids, and continued lack of a legal route to vote on their own sovereignty (even if the result were to remain) seem to be the greatest source of lingering resentment amongst the population, driving even previously-indifferent people against the Spanish government. There’s anti-Spanish state graffiti and banners everywhere. On the occasion of my visit, the anniversary was top of mind, and it was an unavoidable topic of conversation: many people shared their thoughts with me. On the other hand, the current Catalan government hasn’t been doing themselves any favours, having over-promised on independence, fighting amongst their own coalition over how to achieve it. Current opinion polls say that independence support is fluctuating at just under half the population. Without clear direction or resounding support, most people who talked with me seemed resigned that it’ll never happen.

It still dominates both Spanish and Catalan politics, with both governments torn between further brinkmanship or offering olive branches. With most imprisoned politicians pardoned and some attempt at cross-government negotiations for further autonomy if not a legal vote (which was quickly shot down), it’s…something, I guess. Being both Canadian and Hongkonger, I’ve seen how things could go better or far, far worse when it comes to these questions. Whatever the solution to this may be, whether through independence or constitutional overhaul or negotiation, at least possibilities remain on the table, open to discussion.

Taking away the politics, with such strong feelings of nationalism present, what I do appreciate as an outsider is just how passionate and proud people are of their identity, and their enthusiasm to share it.

Having hit the biggest sights along the coast, Gemma took me on a whirlwind tour of some smaller places I had never heard of, all dating back to medieval times, incredibly photogenic, and still very lived-in. I don’t know how villages with like 200 people somehow manage to have a giant church and city walls and even a castle, or how they were important enough to trade hands between powers countless times from the 700s onwards, or how they’re still somehow livable, but hey, look at Monells and Peratallada!

Even in the more famous towns west of Empordà, despite the heavier tourism, the villages still felt like places locals actually live in. And they still actually do! (Even if they’re all now starting to deal with an influx of snobby rich Barcelonans.) Besalú‘s imposing bridge makes walking through it feel like a step back in time. Go a little further right outside of the old town, and you’ve got the school, the playground, and Gemma’s friend’s apartment. Castellfollit de la Roca is dramatically set on a narrow cliff’s edge, straight out of a fairytale. After commenting offhand to Gemma how vertigo-inducing it must be to live there, with buildings looking like they’ll fall… Lo and behold, we walked past the home of the parents of another friend of hers, who ushered us in for some local vermouth and snacks on their balcony, overlooking the abyss!

But as with my time in Mallorca, what I appreciated most was getting to join in Ramon and Gemma’s very packed daily routine — mornings taking Mateu to school, occasional stops at Ramon’s farm, dinners of their wonderful cooking and some indulgent regional treats for dessert, late evening conversations over some lovely local wine, the requisite weekend children’s birthday party (where most importantly, the adults nosh on embotits and cheese and get drunk and merry while the kids play), the revolving door of family and friends. On that latter point, there were many surprises: I’d never have expected diversity to the point of having the most authentic homemade plov I’ve had since Central Asia, nor the curiosity from their social groups of my own cultural and linguistic subtleties. Everyone is also multilingual, often in more than just Catalan and Spanish, making up for my own deficiencies and not impeding any of the genuinely interesting conversations that came up. Being there felt…normal, in the best way.

I felt so welcome in Catalonia — not only from just how much Gemma and Ramon made me feel comfortable, but from everyone I encountered through their circle. And there’s nothing like that feeling of deepening a connection, of learning that your friends are even cooler people than you knew them as before! Combined, I was a complete puddle of tears while saying goodbye at the train station. (I’ve been a teary mess this whole trip! So many goodbyes!) They may be a long way from home, but I know that we’ll make the effort in the future to see each other again, be it on the road, in Vancouver, or of course Catalonia — not that I’d need any coercing to return to this beautiful corner of the world!

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