Sunday, 17 September 2017

Aiguabella - a Taste of the Catalan Countryside

After 5 busy days in Barcelona it was time to take it down a notch and move somewhere quieter. It has to be said that there was still plenty for me to see and do in Barcelona, but the men in my family were growing a little tired of Gaudi and Modernista architecture. Is that possible?
We drove north to the Garrotxa county, an area known for the Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa, a huge natural park with many extinct volcanic cones. We had booked an apartment in Aiguabella, a beautiful manor house dating from the 13th century, set in the charming village of Sant Feliu de Pallerols. Aiguabella was built by local noblemen and each apartment is named after the house's 13th and 14th-century inhabitants. Our apartment was simply spectacular and we loved every minute of our stay there. The pictures above and below show the view we had from the apartment's windows, and look at the village itself. Just look at it!
The 8 nights we stayed in Aiguabella were meant to be for relaxing, swimming and generally unwinding, but honestly I am not very good at that! I relax when I am visiting unfamiliar and beautiful places. Each day we set out for somewhere new. We visited nearby Olot, the capital of the Garrotxa county, known for its natural landscape including four volcanoes scattered around the city centre. We climbed the steps up the Montsacopa volcano, which has a circular crater produced by an explosive strombolic eruption some 100,000 years ago. From the top we enjoyed the 360º panoramic views of Olot. The volcano also has a chapel on its top, built in 1817 and dedicated to Saint Francis, and two watchtowers surrounding the crater. Later that same day we walked around the medieval town of Santa Pau, built around a castle, with lovely views of the surrounding valleys.
Another day - the boys' absolute favourite day of the holiday - we drove to Ribes de Freser and took the rack railway up to La Vall de Núria in the Pyrenees. The railway climbs 12.5km over an incline of more than 1,000 metres through wild mountain scenery, and is the only way to access Núria's Valley. Stepping off the train, we were greeted with the most incredible views - and a sudden and unexpected heavy fall of rain and hail, which fortunately stopped just 10 minutes later! La Vall de Núria sits 3000 metres above sea level in a perfect little valley hidden from view, until the last moment, by the the mountains which completely surround it. In the centre of the valley is a hotel and exhibition centre, a picnic area, a lake and a small farm with animals. We soon left all this behind and set off on one of ten marked trails that climb above the valley. The words spectacular, stunning, awesome, breathtaking, beautiful and jaw-dropping spring to mind.
I knew that the Call Jueu or Jewish quarter and medieval centre of Girona was a must-see, so I booked a guided tour with Miquel at Girona Trips for our visit to the city. Girona was once home to a large Jewish community. Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi (better known as Nachmanides or Ramban) headed one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe here, but in 1492 the Jews were expelled from Girona and Spain as a whole. Girona also happens to be the place where some scenes from the 6th season of Game of Thrones were filmed, and the men in my family are big Game of Thrones fans.
We met Miquel in front of the Basilica of Sant Feliu and were soon exploring the old town. We saw the Girona Cathedral, the old synagogues, the Aljama and the Jewish quarter, the archaeological gardens and old city walls, and more. We also discussed quite a bit of football! Afterwards I visited the Museum of Jewish History, a museum which allowed me a glimpse into Jewish life, both in Girona and in Spain. The tour was a great success.
We had been told that the Costa Brava is rugged and beautiful so set off for Tossa de Mar on the southerly part of the coast, to see it for ourselves. The craggy rocks with the teal-coloured Mediterranean glimmering below were indeed gorgeous, but the beaches were absolutely packed with tourists and the English menus in the restaurants were not our thing! We quickly made our escape to the next beach up the coast. Maybe one day in the future we will travel further north and enjoy the unspoilt stretches of coast up there.
Modest, the friendly owner of Aiguabella, suggested a drive into the hills to enjoy the incredible views of the Garrotxa region from La Salut Catholic Sanctuary, located at the height of 1,028 metres, and the Sanctuary at El Far, positioned on top of some spectacular cliffs and overlooking the Montdois Plain and the Susqueda reservoir.
And then it was our last full day. I can't say that I am the biggest Salvador Dalí fan, but I wanted to experience the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, his birthplace, for myself. The Dalí Museum is officially called the Dalí Theatre-Museum because it is a renovation and expansion of the town's old theatre which Dalí knew as a child, and which was almost destroyed by a fire during the Spanish Civil War. It holds the largest collection of major works by Dalí in a single location. In addition, a small selection of works by other artists collected by Dalí is housed there, and the second floor is dedicated to the work of his friend Antoni Pitxot, who became the director of the Dalí Museum after Dalí died. Mister Handmade in Israel and the boys even opted to join me on this visit and we spent a good couple of hours at the museum. I’m glad we saw it. There is little doubt that Dali was a very unique and thought-provoking creator. But am I now a fan of Dalí's work? Erm, no.
Our final stop, before it was time to pack our bags, was Besalú, a picturesque medieval town dating back to the 11th century. Famous for its impressive Romanesque bridge which, unusually, is not straight but follows more of an 'L' shape to take advantage of rock in the riverbed, Besalú is also well known for its mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath dating from the eleventh or twelfth century and thought to be one of only three left in Europe from that period. The mikveh anchors the remnants of the old Jewish quarter, as well as the remains of a medieval synagogue, located in the lower town near the river. The Jewish population of Besalú thrived until 1415, when the authorities sealed the Jewish quarter, according to a plaque at the site. Within 20 years no Jews remained in Besalú and, by the end of the century, the Spanish Inquisition was going strong and Jews and other "nonbelievers" were forcibly driven out of Catholic Spain.
The narrow cobblestone streets, restored medieval stone houses and small squares of Besalú were a treat. It was a great way to end our exploration of Catalonia. We loved La Garrotxa, the ever so slightly cooler weather, the chance to relax in a charming manor house, and also to delight in one or two good meals out (dinner at Casa de Curry was yum!). Yet again, though there is so much of the world I would like to see, I hope we'll be back someday.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Barcelona - It Was the Second Time That We Met

I had a great summer! For the second time in as many months I travelled abroad, this time to Spain. Many of you will remember that back in June I went by myself to visit my Dad in the UK. This time we went abroad as a family. Now, it's not easy holidaying with teenagers. Truth be told, my 14 year old didn't really want to go on holiday with Mum and Dad. He likes an action-packed holiday and he thinks that Mum and Dad are old (we're not that old actually!) and that Mum enjoys too many museums (I do!). The 16 year old, on the other hand, realises that these all-expenses paid holidays with his parents are coming to an end, and was happy to join us - especially when we suggested a visit to Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona. In the end we all went together. Heck, I can't leave a 14 year old home alone, and his grandparents happen to live in another country. And you know what? We had a terrific time!
We split our holiday into two parts. The first few days we stayed in beautiful Barcelona and the boys in my family (I'm including Mister Handmade in Israel here) knew that I was going to insist on a bit of culture. We visited the incredible Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí's renowned unfinished church which was started in the 1880s. The interior's creative use of colour, space and stone work is jaw-dropping. We walked around the Barri Gotic, the Parc de la Ciutadella, and enjoyed the wonderful Picasso Museum. Park Güell, another of Gaudi's masterpieces, was completely amazing and surprises awaited around every corner.
I got up early one morning to check out the produce at La Boqueria, a fascinating food market just off Las Ramblas. The range of fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, drinks and pastries was incredible to see, and also rather intriguing to this Jewish blogger who sticks to a kosher diet. I picked up some churros for the younger son who was keen to try this traditional Spanish pastry.
This football loving family couldn't visit Barcelona without a visit to Camp Nou, the largest football stadium in Spain and Europe. Unfortunately we weren't the only ones there and, though we had booked tickets ahead, we were somewhat rushed through the stadium along with the rest of the group. The day was saved when we realised that Paulinho Bezerra, one of FC Barcelona's summer signings, was making his debut on the pitch. We waited to watch, and ultimately enjoyed the experience far more than the tour!
Sadly things took a turn for the worse later that day and we were far too close for comfort to the horrible terror attack that took place in Barcelona this summer. Coming from Israel, it was rather ironic to find ourselves so close to trouble in another country, but thank goodness we were all okay (sadly others weren't) and it just meant a long and late night for Mister Handmade in Israel and me before we could get back to our hotel (the kids were already there).
Picking ourselves up, the next morning we set off for Montjuïc to see the Olympic Stadium, then the boys visited the Barcelona Olympic and Sport Museum whilst I went off to spend some quality time with Joan Miró. I enjoyed the comprehensive collection of works from across Miró's career, including some well-known pieces. This was one of my favourite museums in Barcelona.
Then it was time for some more GaudíCasa Batlló on the Passeig de Gràcia may be the most fantastical place I have ever visited. Its exterior is sheathed in colourful pieces of broken ceramics, while the roof is covered in scale-like tiles. The audio guide, which simulates the way the house looked with its original furniture, really brought the house to life.
La Pedrera was a must-do for the rooftop and views alone, but we also visited the attic, an apartment inside the building and the downstairs courtyard. The building, the last private residence designed by architect Gaudí, is spectacular and a wonderful way to truly appreciate the organic nature of his work.
My absolute favourite of all the things we saw in Barcelona was one of the last places we visited. The Palau de la Música Catalana is a concert hall designed in the Catalan modernista style by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. From the outside alone it is an impressive building, but inside it is rather like a multi-coloured glass jewellery box. The concert hall, which contains 2,146 seats, is the only auditorium in Europe that is illuminated during daylight hours entirely by natural light. The hall has an ornate central glass light on the ceiling depicting the sun bursting out of a blue sky, 18 half-mosaic, half-relief muses appear out of the back of the stage, and winged horses fly over the upper balcony. Decoration truly erupts everywhere. The building is a feast for the eyes and my only regret is that we had no time to see a performance in this unique and elegant concert hall. I will just have to go back someday.
California Globetrotter
Sunday Snap
Blog Widget by LinkWithin