Thursday 22 March 2018

Spain: Glamping it up in Catalunya

Costa Brava: It's quieter than other Spanish 'Costas' and it also boasts a number of remarkable walks and hiking trails.

Jamie Blake Knox

I had never heard of the word, so it was with a sense of trepidation and excitement that I arrived at the foothills of Catalunya to embark on a few days of "glamping".

 I had flown in to Girona that morning. That city has often been overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Barcelona, but it possesses its own unique charm. It is an ancient city that has been invaded and occupied by a succession of Romans, Visigoths and Moors. Despite such turbulance, Girona has managed to retain many attractive features of its chequered past. I arrived in late afternoon and the city was bathed in a warm golden light, giving it a dreamy, almost translucent appearance.

The old town is located on the side of a mountain, alongside the Onyar river, one of four on which the city is built. It is lined with rows of brightly coloured houses, and is spanned by a series of pedestrian bridges, including one which was designed by Gustave Eiffel shortly before the construction of his famous tower in Paris.

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona dominates the surrounding area, and is so vast that its builders exhausted almost all of the local stone in its construction. Its interior includes the widest Gothic nave in the world, with a width of 22 metres. In terms of its overall width, the Church is only surpassed by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. With its white stone reflecting the sun, I couldn't resist climbing the 90 steps up to take a closer look. It is a breath-taking blend of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and there are even the last vestiges of the original Roman walls in the square below. Above the entrance, there are a number of carved heads. One of these with his elongated moustache with the tips curled upward looks remarkably like Salvador Dali. The resemblance prompted the ever-modest Dali to declare that God had foreseen his genius over two hundred years before he was born. The cloisters and 12th-century Creation Tapestry are also quite magnificent, and well worth a view.

It is just a short walk from there to the El Call quarter, one of Europe's best-preserved ancient Jewish communities. This was once an important centre of cabalistic studies, but in 1492 all Jews had to leave the country if they didn't immediately convert to Christianity. Only last year, the descendants of those who were compelled to leave were offered Spanish citizenship. The city is still a labyrinth of medieval buildings, narrow cobblestone streets and small squares. These used to be home to oil merchants, silversmiths, chestnut sellers and ironmongers. It all seemed uncannily familiar to me, and with good reason: the town is now being used for the sixth season of Game of Thrones. The medieval centre is full of chic cafes, trendy boutiques and small galleries. Some of these are secreted away in medieval palaces; others occupying elegant Art Nouveau and Modernist buildings. They create a powerful impression that combines the past and present. Indeed, the main street of the Old Quarter is the Carrer de la Força, which follows the Via Augusta, the Roman road that once connected the Imperial City with its provinces.

The temperature was now so hot that I headed to Rocambolesc Gelateria. It was founded by Jordi Roca, the youngest of the three brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca restaurant which was recently voted the world's best for the third time. Initially, it looks just like any other traditional Gelateria, but it is a unique and magical, whimsical fantasy world, with an abundance of gauges, tubes and taps heightening the sense of theatre. There are six flavours of ice cream to choose from, but they are complimented by a huge array of mouth-watering toppings such as cotton candy, butter cookie, popping-candy, and fresh fruit. I had the baked apple, and it was so pretty - like a miniature work of art - that I almost didn't want to eat it. I'm glad my hunger got the better of my aesthetics as it was simply delicious. Rocambolesc Gelateria is a must for all sweet tooths, and Willy Wonka enthusiasts alike.

An hour's drive from Girona, situated in the heart of the Garrotxa Nature Reserve, is Camping Ecologic Lava: a site which seeks to blend effortlessly into its settings. It is surrounded by thick and flourishing forests which are filled with local flora and fauna. The reserve is situated near to a series of vast dormant volcanoes and craters which offer wonderful opportunities to hike and explore. The camp is very children-friendly, and has a number of ponies, goats and other domestic animals to keep the little ones fully occupied. There are scores of rabbits running around, and it is worth keeping a vigilant eye out for some of the eagles who soar above them on the look-out for their dinner. The bungalow in which I stayed was simple but comfortable. That evening, I ate in the restaurant, where I was served steak and Fésols de Santa Pau or white beans. These beans are boiled in salt water for hours and then fried in a little olive oil. The dish was deceptively simple, but one of the most delicious I have ever tasted. The next morning, I accompanied the restaurant owner on a mushroom hunt, and, while his English may have been limited, his enthusiasm was infectious.

Later that afternoon, I headed to Figueres to visit the museum established by its most famous son , Salvador Dali. It is located in the town's old theatre where Dali held one of his first public exhibitions. This is an imposing building which was badly damaged in the carnage of the Spanish Civil, and it is now painted a vivid red. The giant eggs on its turrets and plaster casts of the local bread which decorate its exterior walls ensure you are unlikely to miss it. The museum contains the single largest grouping of Dali's works, and includes many pieces taken from his personal collection. It features his striking installation of an apartment designed to look like the face of Mae West. There are some interesting and important examples of Dali's early work. These display his originality as a draughtsman and his incredible technique which could have rivalled any old master. Sadly, however, the museum is rather swamped by too many examples of his inferior later work, when he had been ostracised by the Surrealists and had embraced Franco. Aside from a seemingly infinite number of pictures of his wife Gala's backside, it is also home to the work of some of his protégés. Indeed in accordance with Dali's specific request, the second-floor gallery is devoted to the work of his friend and fellow Catalan artist Antoni Pitxot, who later became director of the museum after Dali's death. Dali is buried in the crypt of the museum and he wanted people to leave with the 'sensation of having had a theatrical dream.' It's certainly dramatic, even melodramatic, and a fascinating insight into one of the last century's greatest artists.

For some, the very word "Costa" seems enough to conjure up images of towering apartment blocks and beaches that are jam-packed with tourists. The Costa Brava should not be confused with the type of horrors sometimes found on the Costa del Sol. Thanks in part to its geography, its rugged and hilly coastline - dotted with little coves - it has remained largely unspoilt. It boasts a number of remarkable walks and hiking trails. These vary in levels of difficulty, but they allow you to wander through the tiny towns of Calella de Palafrugell and Llafranc. These are full of charming fishermen's cottages, old whitewashed buildings and a handful of restaurants and hotels. The turquoise waters are incredibly inviting, and I joined a kayaking group at the picturesque village of Tamariu. After a short lesson, we headed out into the open water, I was initially hesitant, but I needn't have worried: the instructors were very helpful and I was soon at ease. We paddled past cormorants and vertical cliffs into some of the nearby sea caves. As we returned small silver flying fish leapt out of the sea.

Famished, I headed to the Hostalillo restaurant which was just up the beach. I had a local dish of fideua or short pasta with cuttlefish and baby squid - it was the perfect tonic. Camping Cypsela was only a short drive away. It offers a wide variety of bespoke accommodation ranging from luxurious safari tents to modern Scandinavian-style chalets. Thankfully, my room was as comfortable as any hotel I've stayed in. It may not be for everyone but I wouldn't mind glamping it up in Catalyuna again.

Sunday Indo Living

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