Category Archives: History

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 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.

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, History

A new view of Barcelona – from the Fabra Observatory

Mount Tibidabo is fast becoming my favourite place in Barcelona.

It’s a slow burner, granted. I’d lived here two full years before ever setting foot on a single funicular to ferry me up to its pine-clad slopes, up, up and away from the anything-but-bucolic Barcelona below.

And once you peak, chances are your head is turned by the exigencies of expiation. The screams from the funfair’s roller coaster (they must be atoning for something), or the beguilingly beautiful lanterns of the summit-smug Sagrat Cor church.

Sagrat Cor by Julie Sheridan

Admit it, you’re beguiled.

But all the while, right under your nose – and indeed, in most postcards of Tibidabo – is a century-old site that most Barcelonans themselves have never discovered.

The fabulous Fabra Observatory.

fabra observatory by scalleja

Perched among pine trees at over 400 metres above sea level, the Observatory was originally conceived of as a site devoted not just to the study of astronomy, but of meteorology and seismology.

In fact, dating from 1904, it’s one of the most ancient bases of astronomical, meteorological and seismological study in the world.

The first team of staff took up their posts in April 1906 (it had taken two years to recruit them – bear in mind, the guide points out, there was no InfoJobs back then). And they didn’t mess about. A good 29 years before the Richter Scale was even introduced, the Barcelona team’s instruments predicted major seismic activity on the other side of the world.

Sure enough, on 18 April 1906, the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was unleashed.

Fabra Observatory Museum by Julie Sheridan

“The universe knew we were coming.”

The ascent

The universe might have known we were coming, but I’m betting it hadn’t bargained on us coming by public transport.

The Observatory’s website helpfully counsels “we recommend you come by car”. Sadly lacking in the car department, I somewhat trepidatiously eyed up the public transport options. This involved a metro ride from Tarragona to Plaça Catalunya (20 minutes), then a connecting train from Plaça Catalunya to Peu de Funicular (15 minutes – make sure you sit in a middle carriage or you’ll alight straight onto a brick wall), then the funicular train from Peu de Funicular right up to Vallvidrera Superior.

Exiting the station, in the middle of nowhere up a mountain, I consulted the bus timetable from Vallvidrera, only to find out I had a good 25-minute wait in store. In what was probably not the wisest decision of my life (iPhone in handbag), I decided sod it, what’s a dark mountain top between friends on a Saturday night, and hiked it up the hill on foot till I reached the Observatory, pausing now and again to gasp in awe at the Sagrat Cor church lit up, up close. (The church is honestly spectacular, and well worth the trip.)

Suddenly I see

Reaching the Observatory, at last, it turned out I was 45 minutes early. Ushering me through the gates, the guide was magnanimous in the face of my quaintly British tendencies.

“Why don’t you wait at the look-out point?”, he suggested, as I nodded and obligingly circumnavigated the building in the dark.

Alone, early, feeling irksomely non-Spanish, I found myself stumbling towards a long bench of decking, flanked by trees, and then gasping at the sudden view of the whole Barcelona conurbation corruscating at my feet.

Barcelona view by mazlov
The photos, of course, don’t do it justice.

To the left stood the Torre Agbar, in all its contentious conflagrations. In the middle the W Hotel, punctuating the horizon, definitively marking the end of the beach. A little inland, the reasurringly blue rays beamed over MNAC, the Magic Fountain dancing and prancing in symmetrical synchronicity, commanding attention, the prettiest belle of the ville.

I thought of James Joyce and his epiphanies.

Welcome to our World

Half an hour later, I found myself, not for the first time in the last two and a half years, the only non-Catalan-speaking person in the room. The guide seemed a kind, friendly little man, who clearly knew his stuff. He quickly clocked the look of dismay/incomprehension/boredom on my face as he launched into his welcome speech to the audience, which I was surprised to see on a Saturday night were mostly made up of parents and young kids.

“I’m just going to switch into Spanish”, he smiled at everyone, much to my gratitude.

lecture at Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Owned by the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, the southward-facing Observatory has an illustrious history. It’s the fourth-oldest observatory in the world that’s still going strong, and the building itself is the brainchild of reluctantly Modernista architect Josep Domenech i Estapà (the same designer behind the likes of CosmoCaixa and the city’s Law Courts).

The Observatory’s scientists began keeping records in 1914, and our guide takes pains to point out that not one day of data over the last 99 years – on the local weather, regional seismic activity and celestial shenanigans – has gone unrecorded. (He also mentions that this October has been the warmest since records began, confirming my deeply-held Scottish suspicions.)

Poignantly, this uninterrupted track record comes despite the devastation of the city during the Spanish Civil War. The Observatory then became a makeshift refugee camp for some members of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the systematic bombing of Barcelona from its viewing deck must have been a terrible sight to behold.

The dame in the dome – the Fabra Telescope

Holding court in the Observatory’s cupula, the telescope itself is a grand old dame. One of the largest and oldest telescopes in Europe, it loomed large in front of us as we climbed the narrow access ladder, momentarily silencing the overweening Spanish children.

Each person got to take their turn, for about 20 seconds, to eye up the in-focus planets. On clear nights, our guide explains, they zoom in on the moon, but on overcast evenings the planets provide a more satisfying voyeuristic experience.

telescope Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Did the earth move for you?

I have to admit, what I saw through the lens wasn’t earth-shattering.

It could best be described as a nebulous white blob.

Later on, the young Spanish mother who I’d met in the museum and who had very kindly offered me a lift back down the mountain confessed to a similar sense of bemusement.

“What did you see?” she quizzed me as her husband took the Tibidabo bends expertly. “A white blob?” I ventured, and the three of us laughed in relief.

telescope Fabra Observatory by Julie Sheridan

Similarly starstruck?

The Observatory is open to the public on Sundays from 11am to 12.30pm, and you’re fine to just show up without booking ahead (note that it’s closed all throughout August, though).

For night-time visits (and let’s face it, that’s what it comes into its own), you’ll pay a bargain 10€ entry fee for a welcome speech (in Spanish), followed by on-eyeball planet action through the telescope, and a stroll around the panoramic outdoor walkway.

Feel Museum at Observatorio Fabra by Julie Sheridanlike splashing out? Or just hungry? From June till September each year the Observatory offers ‘Sopars amb estrelles’ (‘dinner under the stars’), where you get to dine in what must be one of the most privileged places in Barcelona. It’s not cheap (and I can’t vouch for the food), but having seen the look-out point/terrace where the supper takes place, I bet you’re in for a treat. Book ahead.

Whenever you go, bear in mind that Tibidabo tends to get a little on the frigid side (relatively speaking – I’m from Glasgow), and you’d be as well to bring a cardigan or light jacket for when that wind really starts to nip.


6 Comments

Filed under History

The magical La Mercè – best bits 2013

Of all Barcelona’s traditional myriad excuses for a knees-up (or ankles-up, in the case of the sedate little steps of the Catalan sardana), late September’s La Mercè festival is somewhat of a legend in these parts.

Sundry fabulous beasts of yore – giants, dwarfs, fire-breathing dragons – prance and parade in their finery, not to mention castles of quivering human loins and foes of fire and water reaching operatic heights in an awe-inspiring final farewell to summer.

The 4-day event is a compelling cacophony of Catalan culture, and, amazingly given the continuing Crisis, it’s completely free.

castellers by Julie Sheridan

Castles in the air – saluting the town hall

La lovely lady herself

The festival is named in honour of Barcelona’s co-patron saint, the Virgin of La Mercè, who’s said to have intervened in a particularly pesky plague of locusts in the 17th century, thus bagging the ‘patron saint’ accolade. She shares the podium with Saint Eulàlia, who, peeved at having to share the limelight, is credited with tears of rage when it inevitably rains on La Mercè’s parade every year without fail.

Except this year, when the sun shone blithely throughout, making the spectacle on the streets all the more scintillating.

sardanes by julie sheridan

The circle dance of La Sardana – that’s what it’s all about!

Having somehow managed to be out of the city for most of it last year (following a baptism of fire in year one), this time round I wasn’t going to miss the chance to honour my closet pyro. With two somewhat wary Scottish relatives in tow, we donned our best fire-protective clothing, threw our handbags in the ring, and prepared to kick up our heels.

drums-la-merce by julie sheridan

The ‘bastoners’ belt out the beat of Barcelona

The city is the stage when it comes to La Mercè – to enjoy the festival’s best moments, you need to be out on the streets. The festival even has its own soundtrack, in the form of 50-odd open-air concerts from both local talent and established international performers.

gegants-by-PhotographYeah!

Anyone know the collective noun for giants?!

If you’re somewhere in the centre of town, you won’t need to wait too long for a passing procession of friendly giants, while circus acts and street performers do what they do best, enthralling kids up at Montjuïc Castle and thronging the main city park, Ciutadella.

Catalan conflagrations

The ‘correfoc‘, or firerun, takes place on the Sunday night, and is perhaps the most hotly anticipated event of the whole festival.

Forget running with the bulls – if you come to Barcelona for La Mercè, you better be ready to sprint with Satan himself. Plus his entourage of minor demons and aforementioned mythical beasts.

firerun by vosh

Throw caution to the wind in the non-BSI regulated correfoc

I’m no La Mercè virgin, but even I underestimated the strength of the tridents’ sparks. I emerged apparently unsinged from dancing with the devils under the umbrella of embers, but on the metro ride home, relative number 2 revealed she’d been burned right through three layers of clothing – as well as branded on her forearm.

dragon by julie sheridan

Nessie gets really mad


The ‘Pyromusical’

With full potential to be cringingly kitsch, but in actual fact touchingly impressive, Tuesday evening’s ‘Pyromusical’ saw the grounds surrounding the Magic Fountain packed to the gunnels.

The crowd of thousands in front of Montjuïc was remarkably well behaved as they craned their necks to catch sight of the first flare to light up the Barcelona night sky. The spectacle that followed was worth the wait – fireworks and fountain jets synching and sinking in time to the music, in a sublimely choreographed and jaw-dropping display.

All in all, a festival to take your breath away. See you there next year?

pyromusical by Julie Sheridan

 

4 Comments

Filed under Culture, History

Coasting the Costa Brava

Of all the reasons behind my move to Barcelona, being close to the coast was perhaps the most pressing. Having the sea on your doorstep is something I’d grown used to, having spent most of my life on one Scottish shore or the other. Like conches, many of the poems I write invoke the sea, and I suspect it will always be a legacy.

But somehow, having lived in Barcelona for the best part of two years, I have yet to really make friends with the Mediterranean. To be honest, at times the slick, spruced-up seafront – overhauled in the run-up to the ’92 Olympics – leaves me a little cold.

Plus, if you don’t happen to live close to the beach in Barcelona (and I don’t), it’s entirely possible to spend months without going anywhere near it. Which is a huge pity, really, when you think about it.

So when I was offered the opportunity to take part in a press trip around the Costa Brava, with a particular focus on the importance of the coastline to the Catalan sense of identity, I jumped at it.

L'Estartit harbour

The Costa Brava – where you don’t even need Instagram

From Barcelona to Girona and east to L’Estartit

Straddling the flood plain of the Ter estuary, L’Estartit is a small, seafaring town. A privileged wee place, its long beach and beautiful bay scintillate in the Catalan sunshine. The ace up its sleeve, though, is the enigmatic archipelago that sits about a kilometre off shore – the uninhabited Medes Islands.

Medes Islands from Girona Tourism Board

The Medes Islands as seen from the mainland

Once patrolled by pirates, these seven little islets are something special.

Twenty years of protection have made the Medes Islands one of the most important marine flora and fauna reserves in western Europe. A mecca for divers from all around the world, the area boasts the largest red coral reef in the Mediterranean. I am not a diver, but listening to tales of tame rays, barracudas, groupers and scorpion fish (but no sharks – always a bonus) made me want to load up on Nitrox and delve the depths of the seabed.

Approaching the Medes Islands

As the schooner skulked around the periphery of the seven moody monoliths, I was reminded of Ailsa Craig, that hulking heft of rock that rises up out of the Ayrshire seabed. It, too, was plagued by pirates. Seeing the islands up close felt a bit like reading the region’s palm. Not for the first time, I reflected on the connections between Catalonia and Scotland…Caledonia.

If scuba and snorkelling are not your thing, there are other ways to explore these compelling crags. Companies in L’Estartit offer boat trips in glass-bottomed boats around the islands and right along the Montgrí coast.

The Spanish flag - la Rojigualda - and the Catalan Senyera

The Spanish flag – la Rojigualda – and the Catalan Senyera

The port of Palamós

My head still conniving with cunning plans to jump ship from Barcelona and move lock, stock and barrel to L’Estartit, it was time to head south, to the less pretty, more gritty, port of Palamós.

Sorting the catch in Palamos

Sorting the catch in Palamós

The Catalan coastline is 580km long and fish is a hugely important part of the local diet. Surprisingly, though, fewer than 100 of the 532 species found in the western Mediterranean are of interest to fishermen, and only 12 constitute the basis of the fishing sector (anchovies, sardines, blue fin tuna, tuna, hake, blue whiting, angler fish, sea bream, red mullet, octopus, Norway lobster and, of course, prawns).

In Palamós, the seafaring traditions of Catalonia turn into a spectacle in front of your eyes. Palamós smelled of my childhood. Watching the guys at the docks sort and unload the day’s catch, the stench of salt and nostalgia was in my nostrils.

Monday through Friday, by mid afternoon the fishermen start to arrive back at the port, and the unloading of the day’s catch begins. Shanties and shindigs don’t come into it – this is big business. Years ago anyone and their dog could fish from the coast, whereas today you have to be a professional fisherman with a bona fide licence.

For fish to carry the prestigious ‘Palamós’ label, strict criteria must be met. Staff check to make sure the fish aren’t from polluted waters before the produce can take its place on the conveyor belt, bound for the daily auction.

The famous Palamos prawns (gambas de Palamos)

The famous Palamós prawns (gambas de Palamós)

The auction itself, conducted in a building closed off to the general public, is a sight to behold.

The first auction kicks off at 7am (for ‘blue’ or oily fish, like sardines, mackerel and anchovies), while the second takes place late afternoon.  The small auction room has a terse, no-nonsense atmosphere, with buyers (mostly restaurant and market stall owners) sitting glued to their handsets. Old sea dogs and their wifeys pack the pews.

Up until fairly recently, the prices were sung out, but modern technology means that things have moved on. Buyers are part of a sophisticated network, with their own Facebook groups and everything. Simultaneously, auctions are going on in Girona, L’Escala, Roses and Sant Feliu, and it’s all about getting the best price. Just to complicate matters (or facilitate them, depending on your point of view), prices are shown in pesetas as well as euros.

Although it’s an auction, there are no actual bids for the boxes of fish. The person who pushes the button first gets the lot. The price varies from day to day, with Friday being the most expensive. To give you an idea, a kilo of Palamós prawns will sell for 90€ in the market in the summer, but the fishermen only take home 27€ of this. Most of the time, all of the fish is sold by the end of the day – only flotsam and jetsam remain.

dead-fish-Palamos-beach

The tides of life on Palamós beach

The Fishing Museum (Museu de la Pesca) in Palamós 

Aside from the excitement of seeing the whole process up close – the smell, the a(u)ction, and yes, if I’m honest, the burly fisherman in yellow overalls – I think the highlight for me of the whole tour was the Fishing Museum in Palamós. This is a seriously well thought-out space, rivalling the best of the museums you will find in Barcelona.

Visitors are greeted by a suitably stirring 10-minute-long audiovisual presentation before being ushered through to the permanent exhibition itself.

The impressive Fishing Museum in Palamos

The impressive Fishing Museum in Palamós

In laying bare the relationship between humans and the sea, the Museum takes a modern, hands-on approach. I was struck most of all by the stories behind some of the characters whose voices echoed down throughout the centuries.

“I think if I was to be born anew, I’d choose again to be a fisherman. You do the the same thing every day but it’s never the same.” – Josep Mateu, Fisherman (1923)

“When I started, there were 50 women…We mended the nets on the beach. Ouch, the sand was burning! We sat on the ground all day.” – Joaquima Brull Vila, Net mender (1912)

If you’re planning a trip to Palamós and intend to take in the Museum, my advice would be to allow yourself plenty of time. In addition to the permanent exhibition, it offers guided tours, workshops, excursions and itineraries, and you’ll want time to enjoy it all.

I especially enjoyed the cooking workshop at the end of the tour. “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot,” said the Catalan writer Joseph Pla (1897-1981), and this seemed particularly apt as we chomped on fresh-caught tuna fillets. If there’s a recurrent theme throughout the various exhibits, it’s that of sustainability – and I certainly left with a new-found interest in the fish I consume and the way that it’s caught.

Cooking-demonstrations-muse

A live cooking demonstration in the Fishing Museum, Palamós

All in all, this taster tour of the Costa Brava left me desperately devising ways to spend more time there. If I can pluck up the guts to hire – and drive – a car in 2013 (the wrong side of the car, the wrong side of the road, the wrong side, no doubt, of the law) I will be hotfooting it north from Barcelona the first chance I get. See you there.

The compelling Costa Brava. Dive in.

Craving the Costa Brava? Dive in.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

4 Comments

Filed under Culture, History