Is Scotland set to break Catalonia’s heart?

It’s not a good sign when you sit down to write a blog post and your heart is already sinking.

Alliterative reasons aside, not for nothing is my blog subtitled ‘from Caledonia to Catalonia’. But as a Scot who’s spent the last almost three and a half years living and working in Barcelona, I have to admit that I’ve tried my hardest to steer clear of the entire socio-political morass developing on both sides of the Channel.

Why? Because I can’t win. Catalans, on hearing that I hail from Scotland rather than England, invariably assume I’m on their side (i.e. a raging nationalist). Scots, meanwhile, on hearing that I forsook the homeland in pursuit of Spanish fluency, deny me a vote in a historic referendum on my own country’s future.

Not to mention the countless Catalans – in Barcelona’s bars and on Twitter – who assure me that “Scotland is not even a country – everybody knows that.”

But with less than two months till Scotland goes to the ballot box, I’ve run out of excuses to sidestep the minefield.

I have no idea which way Scotland will vote in September (have I mentioned I don’t even get a vote?!), but I do want to talk about my experience here in Catalonia in the run-up to the referendum. And why I think Catalans might be backing the wrong horse.

Inca-Catalan-Independence

Precisely.

Two anecdotes to warm us up…

Around a year ago, I was heading home from work on the Barcelona metro and reading some research in English as I waited for the train. A fair-haired tourist walked up to me and, clocking the report, chirped, “Ah, are you English?” Without thinking, I smiled back “No, I’m Scottish”.

In a second, his demeanour changed. (He, apparently, was English.)

“You Scots” he sneered contemptuously, “you always have to make that point, don’t you?” And with that, he stormed off.

Left stunned on the metro platform, it occurred to me that if the situation had been reversed, and I had seen his appearance and fact he was reading an English report and said “Ah, so you’re Scottish?”, he would naturally have replied “No, I’m English”, without thinking any more of it. Yet as a Scot, I was not afforded the same courtesy.

More recently, I was talking to a Catalan friend on WhatsApp, and made some typically sarcastic joke about some nonsense or other. Failing to grasp the sense of humour (that’s a whole other blog post, believe me), my friend texted back “Exagerada”. “Of course I exaggerate”, I replied, “I’m British!”

His comeback was swift.

“You’re not British” he replied, in all seriousness. “You’re Scottish.”

The two scenarios have similarities. Firstly, the arrogance of someone presuming to correct what nationality you think you are. Just imagine the scenario in reverse – me saying to a local, “you’re not Catalan, you’re Spanish”. The fallout would not be pretty. Secondly, and this is where it gets fascinating – why is my nationality so important to both of these people from different countries?

Scotland – from touchpaper to touchstone?

On 18 September this year, around 4 million voters will head to the polls to have their say on whether Scotland, already a country in its own right, should opt for out-and-out independence from the United Kingdom.

As a Scot living abroad, I’m not entitled to a vote, as the Scottish government has decreed that only those people living in the country and registered to vote on Referendum Day can take part in the democratic decision.

(Bit unfair, eh? Yes and no. There are days it still rankles that I won’t get to cast a vote, as someone who was born and brought up in Scotland, is likely to move back one day and still owns property there. On the other hand, I can appreciate the administrative nightmare the Scottish authorities were presumably faced with. How do you decide who’s ‘Scottish’ enough to vote? What exactly are the criteria?)

Meanwhile, in the run-up to Referendum Day, my Catalan compatriots, most of whom have never set foot in Scotland, haven’t given me a minute’s peace. Say you’re Scottish (I try not to, but I fear the myriad mosquito punctures betray me) and their eyes light up.

Them: “So you’ll be voting for independence then?”

Me, patently trying to dodge the question: “Um, actually I don’t get to vote, because I live here.”

Them: “But if you did, I assume you’d be voting for independence, right?”

At this point, the smart answer would be to say aye of course, kick off my flip-flops and dance a Highland jig, but something in me resents the assumption that as a Scot I am automatically a nationalist.

Because nationalism is not a notion deserving of inherent trust. I’m Scottish, I’m British, and I’m most definitely European, but for the life of me I can’t see the sense in defining ourselves even more narrowly than we already do.

Agitating for autonomy

Support for secession has been on the up in Catalonia ever since the start of ‘La Crisis’; the dire state of economic affairs in which Spain has been floundering since 2008.

It’s no exaggeration to say the effects here have been devastating.

Every day in Barcelona I walk past people – of all ages and backgrounds – hunting around in public wheelie bins for something to eat, or to sell. The numbers who’ve lost their homes and jobs have all swelled the ranks of the vocal and visible supporters of Catalan nationalism, many of whom joined hands last September to form a 300-mile human chain in support of Catalan independence.

Catalan flag Girona by Keith Ellwood

The recession has been that bit harder to bear in Catalonia because, and here’s the rub, many locals see themselves as contributing disproportionately to Spanish state coffers, receiving a paltry molt poc in return.

You can see their point. In fact, Catalonia contributes around a fifth of Spain’s GDP and accounts for roughly a quarter of its taxes. It has a rightful claim as the economic powerhouse of Spain (although scant few Catalans seem willing to chalk up any part of the Crisis blame to the spending decisions of their own regional government, the Generalitat).

Catalan president Artur Mas has announced a ‘consultation’ on Catalan independence to be held two months after the Scottish ballot, on the 9th of November. It’s a ‘consultation’ rather than a referendum as the Spanish government has avowedly refused to entertain the idea of a legally sanctioned vote, leaving campaigning Catalans somewhat in no man’s land in the interim.

The confusion even among Catalanists is palpable, with some pushing for outright sovereignty, others for greater devolutionary powers and still others for the ‘third way’; a negotiated solution that would bring about an end to the impasse.

Scotland and Catalonia: two very different situations

The Scottish bid for independence is often held up by Catalans as the great aspiration, but my experience of both locations is that the comparison is inappropriate.

Catalonia’s cultural identity is deeply pegged to its language, with most inhabitants of the region enthusiastically speaking Catalan alongside Spanish.

Not so in Scotland, where Gaelic is most definitely relegated to the ranks of a romantic linguistic relic. (Don’t be fooled by cheery signs of ‘Failte!’ in Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The tourists may love it but only 1% of the Scottish population actually recognise it as their native language.)

The Catalan language, in contrast, is thriving. Enter Barcelona’s metro system and you’ll be greeted by ticket-vending machines that talk to you exclusively in Catalan. Get admitted to Barcelona’s hospital system (as I was for over a fortnight), and you will be given medical paperwork exclusively in Catalan. Send your kids to school in Barcelona and they’ll be taught in Catalan, with a tiny percentage of time devoted to lessons in Spanish.

Many Catalans here are grudgingly admiring of Scotland’s ability to have negotiated its right to a referendum, but many fail to realise what a phenomenally long road it’s been to achieve it. It’s taken over 100 years to get a legally recognised referendum on Scottish independence, something which Catalan nationalists, keen to highlight the British government’s graciously accommodating stance towards the Scots in comparison to Spain’s absolutist intransigence, tend to overlook.

I remember a visit from SNP activists when I was in primary seven, aged 10, and one of my classmates took full advantage of the Q&A session to ask “Do you think Scotland will ever be independent in your lifetime?” This was the late 1980s, long before the days of devolution, and as the question reverberated around the room even a bunch of school kids knew that it was in all likelihood rhetorical.

Going from that to September’s referendum is not the result of an overnight negotiation.

Not to mention the absence of a written constitution in the UK, unlike in Spain, whose constitution specifically forbids autonomous regions from holding referenda on self-rule.

But perhaps the most obvious – and yet, inexplicably contentious – difference is in the current legal status of both territories. Scotland is a country, a constituent nation within a united kingdom of four countries – Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Get off the plane in Glasgow and you’ll be greeted proudly by signage welcoming you to “the best small country in the world”. You’re free to contest the adjectives, but the noun isn’t a matter of debate.

Catalonia’s status is rather different. Like it or not, vote for it or against it, Catalonia’s current legal situation is that of a region within a country. Which means that right from the get-go, the two situations are not on a level playing field.

So wha’s like us, then?

I have no idea which way Scotland is going to vote on the 18th of September, but despite not being able to participate, I am extremely happy that the referendum is going ahead. I sincerely hope Catalonia is afforded the same right, so that we can all just vote and move on.

If they are granted the right to a legally valid vote on independence, I expect to be allowed to take part in it, as a full-time citizen and taxpayer of Catalonia. At the moment, this is not on the cards. If not, the ridiculousness of the situation would be thrown into sharp relief – a Scot living in Catalonia who’s barred from voting in either referendum. Now there’s democracy.

Meanwhile, if it’s a no from Scottish voters in September, I suspect Catalans will be at best crestfallen and at worst completely crushed. Maybe they’d do well to remember the words of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.

“Wha’s like us,
Damn few,
And they’re a’ deid”

 

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Caldes de Montbui – the Spanish spa town with one seriously fiery festival

Barcelona day trippers, you’re going to like this.

If you’ve already sunbathed in Sitges, made like a monk around Montserrat and gone giddy at the mix of modern and medieval in gorgeous Girona, here’s an idea.

Take a 50-minute bus ride to a little-known town just 30km from Barcelona, blessed with curative thermal springs, magnificent Roman ruins and the second-largest cache of Picasso originals in Catalonia. Not to mention a summer festival where you get singed and soaked in equal measure.

Welcome to the Spanish spa town of Caldes de Montbui.

Font del Lleó Caldes de Montbui

The town’s centerpiece  ‘Font del Lleó’ – its 76-degree springs among the hottest in Europe

Perched on a tectonic fault, Caldes de Montbui is characterised by the thermal waters that flow up into its streets, breaking through the surface at a toasty 76 degrees. Nowadays, just like in Roman times, locals make the most of this subterranean source for leisure, craftmaking and medicinal purposes.

Termas-Romanas

Ruins of Roman thermal baths – just one part of an entire spa complex

Witches, wicker and washerwomen

On the edge of the old town sits the Lavadero de la Portalera, named for the four gates in Caldes’ medieval wall that used to lead into this public laundry house.

This is the realm of women.

Even today, on a quiet Saturday morning, an elderly woman clad in an apron and impressively long rubber gloves hunches her body over the largest trough, dooking the dirty laundry into the thermal waters redirected from the Font del Lleó. The thermal waters, it’s said, leave clothes particularly clean, white and soft.

Fer safareig

Back before washing machines were invented, these laundry houses were the social hub of the town. Women (they were, predictably, exclusively women), would line up from five in the morning, laden with the household’s dirty cloths and clothes, to scour, sponge and sluice them into spotlessness.

The women found other canny uses of the thermal waters that welled up into their town. They would often bring pulses and vegetables to cook in the vats of naturally scalding water, while wicker would be left to soak, becoming easily malleable before made into large baskets destined for the fishing wharves of Barcelona.

As the women worked, they nattered, leading to a fascinating set of connotations in Catalan.

The phrase ‘fer safareig’ means to do laundry or to wash clothes, but it also means ‘to gossip; to chat about everything and nothing, everyone and no-one’. The word safareig is behind the modern Spanish ‘chafardear’, meaning to gossip, and gives new meaning to the British phrase ‘to wash your dirty linen in public’.

Fer Safareig Caldes de Montbui

But wet clothes weren’t the only thing to be hung in Caldes de Montbui.

Which brings me on to the witches, and another compelling quirk in the Catalan language. The expression ‘fer bugada’ means to do the laundry or to gossip – but it also means ‘to confess’.

In 1619, following torture, several women accused of witchcraft in Caldes ‘confessed’ to the crime, and were promptly hung from gallows erected in the town’s main square. This wasn’t the first time the town had been associated with witchcraft, though. Its thermal waters are said to have a legendary origin of their own, conjured through the acts of witches themselves.

And every second Saturday of July, the people of Caldes gather for the Escaldarium festival to celebrate this mythic source.

Expecting a fairly standard Catalan correfoc celebration (after you’ve lived in Barcelona for a few years, you get used to the sight of burning tridents and fire-breathing dragons), I wasn’t sure what to make of the news that Escaldarium would also include a trip to the gallows.

And I really wasn’t prepared for the spectacle we were about to witness.

witches by Quim Dasquens

On the Friday evening around 9pm, some eight women dressed in period garb were shackled and paraded through the town, flanked by men with whips and preceded by two sombre-faced drummers.

Crowds of townspeople thronged along behind them, as the witches wailed and protested, goaded by men in the crowd clamouring “Fora bruixes!” (out with the witches!) in a worryingly animated fashion.

“Powerful, isn’t it?” one female onlooker said in hushed tones to her neighbour.

I studied the faces of the spectators lined up on the edge of the town, watching as the witches were led out towards the gallows, which had been assembled some distance away in the midst of Caldes’ vegetable patches. The morbid procession of drummers, chanting chain of witches and whip-happy guards made its way out to the scaffolds, with some of the women feigning to faint as they approached their mock death.

town watching

“Lead to the hanging place, where chimneys are smoking a warning of ash, ash, and the streets are strangely ebullient”

One by one (and I still don’t know how they did it), the guards slipped a noose around each witch’s neck and hung her from the gallows. “Make sure they’re all dead!” the middle-aged gent standing next to me bellowed, making me jump out of my skin.

Obviously satisfied they were indeed mock-dead, the hangman took each witch back down, and lined up the ‘corpses’ at the side of the gallows.

What with the forceful acting, the incessant drums and the het-up crowd, the whole performance was so lifelike that it was deeply disturbing, and I had to wonder at the children being allowed to look on from the crowd (albeit a good distance away). I escaped back to the hotel, the noise of the death drums seeming to sync with the thud of blood as I ran.

gallows by Quim Dasquens

Escaldarium – a fiesta of hellfire and water

2014 is the 20th anniversary of the Escaldarium festival, which takes place on the Saturday night in the town’s main square, right on the witching hour itself.

Earlier in the evening you can catch Catalan Sardana dancing and live outdoor music, but the showstopper is the nine dances of the Caldes devils. You’re actively encouraged to take part in the alternating dances of fire and water, under the proviso that you don a hood, protect your eyes, and to quote the Town Council’s advice, “follow the devils’ instructions at all times”.

Scalding-Escaldarium

Caldes throws one hell of a summer party…

What seemed like the entire 17-thousand-strong population of Caldes crammed into the central plaza, excitedly awaiting the grand entrance of the dancing devils. Meanwhile, the Irish band on stage played a rousing set – original music that was part traditional Celtic knees-up and part Catalan folk melodies. The result was a triumph.

Ring of Fire by Quim Dasquens

Burn baby burn

Suddenly, the lights dimmed, the pyrotechnics kicked in, flames burst forth and incandescent devils whirled like burning dervishes. The crowd were ecstatic, leaping around in the midst of the action, as the rain of sparks shot in every direction and the music picked up intensity.

Correfoc by Quim Dasquens

With the first water dance, though, the mood subdued, and we raised our arms to be dowsed in the jets arcing out across the square.

waterworks by Quim Dasquens

In the heat of the Spanish summer, in the heart of Catalonia, experiencing the fusion of these two elemental forces was something truly unique, and all my expectations of a ‘typical’ Catalan correfoc were firmly extinguished.

After an hour of being singed and saturated, the Escaldarium dances came to an end, but not before fireworks had etched a flaming finale into the night sky. The crowd cheered, dripped slightly, and kept on partying, with live concerts taking place into the early hours.

For more photos of the fiesta, visit the Facebook page of local photographer Quim Dasquens, whose shots of the evening capture its spirit perfectly.

After the party – what to consume in Caldes de Montbui

Caldes has carved out a reputation for itself based on the quality of locally sourced ingredients and lovingly made products, and you’ll find plenty to choose from in the town’s shops and market stalls.

Carnivores will love Caldes, which is famous for its long spicy sausage (llonganissa), while pasta lovers should pick up a packet or two of fideus (short pasta noodles) made with local waters since the 1700s by generations of the Sanmartí family in their Caldes factory.

For a lunch or dinner that will put hairs on your chest, head to restaurant Robert de Nola, whose raison d’être is ‘quality Catalan cuisine’. This is the type of place where the chic, understated décor, courtesy of the waiters and personal attention of the chef immediately make you realise you’re in for a treat.

The menu is dominated by fresh, seasonal ingredients and complemented by an extensive choice of wines from their own cellar. Catalan classics like crema catalana and mató cheese with honey adorn the dessert list, but if it’s on offer, I recommend you opt for the typically Balearic pudding of flaó. This cheesecake-like sweet dates back to the Middle Ages, mixing mató cheese with herbs and mounted on a biscuit base.

Flao by Julie Sheridan

Medieval Spanish dessert of ‘flaó’, made with fresh mint

Takeaway gifts for the hungry hordes back home include the locally grown honey (mel), which is perfect paired with mató cheese, typically made from goats’ or ewes’ milk and served as a dessert.

And to wash it all down? If you’re one of those people who likes life on the edge, try the locally brewed beer (those thermal waters get everywhere, seriously), called Calderina, introduced by the townsfolk as the world’s first ‘thermal beer’ in 2012.

If quaffing thermal waters isn’t your thing, a safer bet are the locally produced liqueurs, either the aniseed-sweet Anis Taronja, which dates back to 1918, or absinthe-green coloured Flors del Remei. Boasting supposedly salutary properties, this orange and green combo of cordials are consumed en masse by health-conscious locals, typically alongside the sweet toasted bread (that’s the best translation I can come up with) of ‘carquinyolis’ (or ‘carquiñoles’ in Spanish).

Carquinyolis by onnoth

Caldes is famous for its ‘carquinyolis’ – made with almonds

It’s fair to say these sweet bites are held in high regard by the locals, who will proudly regale you with tales of the traditional technique. Bakers would leave the almonds on which the recipe is based to blanch under the red-hot waters of the Lion Fountain, rendering them easier to peel and absorbing the health-giving properties of the thermal spring waters. This technique is no longer in use, but the repute of Caldes’ authentic carquinyolis is still a source of local pride.

When to visit

Ideally the second Saturday of July, when the Escaldarium festival takes place, but if you can’t manage that, aim for the second weekend in October when the town celebrates its Festa Major. Expect devils, drums and a downright demonic spectacle.

And if you really can’t manage either of those, visit on a weekend that takes in the second Sunday of the month, when from 10am till 2pm a local market is erected in the town’s main square.

Where to stay

Back in medieval times, Caldes de Montbui was famous as the leading spa centre in Catalonia and the second-ranking in the whole Iberian Peninsula, in terms of both the number and quality of its specialist spa facilities. Even as recently as the 19th century, Caldes had eight separate spas. Nowadays, though, your spa accommodation choices are happily more straightforward.

I stayed at the Hotel Balneari Termes Victoria, a 3-star hotel right off the main square, with air-con, free Wi-Fi and most importantly, an inbuilt spa facility where ‘thermalism’ is guaranteed to rejuvenate even the most jaded Barcelona inhabitant.

The view from my double room was enough in itself to kick start my senses, but the best was yet to come.

View from Hotel Termes Victoria

View from my balcony at the Termes Victoria Hotel

The basement floor of the hotel is given over entirely to the relaxing, revitalising powers of Caldes’ thermal waters, which are tapped and channelled into inbuilt saunas, swimming pools and jacuzzis.

If you’re a guest in the hotel, you’re welcome to use the spa facilities whenever suits you throughout the day, but for a seriously spine-tingling experience, book on to one of the hotel’s ‘nocturnal circuits’. This night-time bathing tradition goes back to Roman times, and essentially means you will walk into a tealight-lit, incense-infused retreat, where your biggest quandary in life is whether to slip into the bubble bath or sweat off the stress in the sauna.

While you’re deciding, take your pick from the mineral water, herbal teas, fresh fruit sticks and Cava on ice laid out enticingly for you in the relaxation zone. Yip, in Caldes they know how to sauna.

Cava fruit at sauna

Catch a bus to Caldes

From Barcelona, you essentially have two options to reach Caldes de Montbui – car or bus. By car, head for the C-33 out of Barcelona and stay on this motorway till you get past Montcada, where you should look out for signs for the C-59. Once on the C-59, it’s a straight road to Caldes. By bus, it’s a skoosh – catch the Sagales bus from Passeig de Sant Joan no. 52 in Barcelona – the journey is a bargain four euros and takes around 50 minutes.

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Chasing waterfalls in Catalonia

Next Monday, the 9th of June, is a bank holiday here in Barcelona (at last a long weekend!), and if you’re stuck for ideas in the face of closed shops and a stowed seafront, I have a suggestion.

Hire a car and head for the hinterland.

Because although the beaches of Barcelona and the Costa Brava itself are rightly renowned, inland, Catalan waterfalls are channelling their way through some of the most achingly beautiful countryside you’ve ever seen (and I say that coming from Scotland).

Las cascadas de Cataluña

Up in the Collsacabra region of Catalonia, north east of the town of Vic, is a scene of such natural beauty you’ll be amazed more tourists don’t make the effort to visit. Set into a natural amphitheatre-cum-canyon, La Cascada de La Foradada de Cantonigrós is named after the ‘hole’ in the mountain that offsets it. From above, the waterfall seems to appear from nowhere amid the tree-clad terrain.

Cantonigros-from-the-top

Hike on down, however, and around 45 minutes later you may seriously be considering skinny dipping.

Foradada-Catalunya by Julie Sheridan

The river above drapes itself over eroded rocks, spilling out into a shallow pool ideal for paddling or picnicking alongside. Small stepping stones signpost the way across the river, allowing you to go round back and venture through the gap in the rock to stand right behind the waterfall itself.

If you can, aim to visit in spring or early summer, when the flow of water is at its fullest and the surrounding vegetation at its lushest.

cantonigros-waterfall by Julie Sheridan

Take me to the water

From Barcelona, take the C17 road north past the town of Granollers all the way up to Vic, where it turns into the C25. Circumnavigate Vic on this ring road and look for signs for the local road C153, following signs for the village of Cantonigrós. The village itself is tiny, and you need to look out for the football pitch and park nearby (parking is free). Along one side of the football pitch (behind the goal posts) you’ll see a rocky path – take this path and you’ll encounter increasingly rocky terrain. Follow the track all the way down, and in around 45 minutes’ time you’ll start to hear the tinkle of wild water.

Eventually the path opens out onto the rocky backdrop of the waterfall, where you can happily spend a couple of hours exploring and having a picnic on the river bank. Coming back up is more tricky, obviously, but trust me, it’s worth it.

From a stunning stone village to the Salt del Sallent 

Once you’ve huffed your way back up the track to the car, rejoin the C153 and follow signs for the hilltop town of Rupit. Dump the car at the car park on the perimeter (even the car park is picturesque) and wander into the town by way of the swinging rope bridge for a look around and lunch.

Rupit church Catalonia

Dating back over 1000 years, Rupit boasts some pretty established restaurants, and I’d particularly recommend the rustic Ca l’Estragues’s at number 4 Church Street (Carrer de la Esglesia). Fringed by red geraniums, its postcard-perfect views over the river are a gorgeous setting for lunch, while the traditional Catalan pan al tomate just cries out for some serious smearing of garlic.

pan-al-tomate

But back to the waterfalls.

After sufficient consumption of garlic, head round to the back of Rupit (it’s not far) and set off on the hike that will take you to the spectacular Salt del Sallent (the Sallent ‘jump’).

You’ll be following the river through woods and craggy countryside, and although there are a couple of spots that might be slightly slippy if it’s been raining, most of the track is accessible and fairly flat.

Suddenly, when you least expect it, the tree-lined track opens out into searing sky, and this is what you spy.

View-from-Sallent-Waterfall by Julie Sheridan

Thousands of trees where sea should be, the summits of distant mountains swathed in cloud and, to your right, an almost 100-metre waterfall that wouldn’t look out of place in Lord of the Rings. The space is so spellbinding that it seems almost pointless to take photos, but there are a couple of miradores (look-out points) where you can stand and contemplate the Catalan countryside in all its vertiginous glory.

Let me know how you get on if you visit, and enjoy the long weekend:)

salt-de-sallent


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