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Irish Times 25 January, 2014
Spread your wings beyond Barcelona
Leave the city behind and explore the fascinating Catalan towns and villages within easy reach, where you’ll find culture andgastronomy at every turn
The city of Girona. Photographs: Getty Images
Begur village and castle at dusk
But head for the hills and towns of Catalonia, and the richness of its landscape and culture informs a much clearer picture of what influences the art and cuisine of this fiercely proud region of Spain, hugging the Pyrenees to its north and the Mediterranean to the east.
Looking outwards from the city, Monteserrat is a good place to start. Less than an hour on the train from Barcelona, if you can’t be bothered with car hire, a huge alien mountain greets you, like a badly set sedimentary jelly mold. Should you possess calves of steel, you can cycle up the winding mountain road to the Benedictine Abbey (and embrace in the courtyard, as I saw two vaguely traumatised cyclists do post-vertical-ascent), or alternatively drive up, and hop on the terrifyingly steep funicular railway to the top. The Abbey holds the shrine of Santa Maria de Montserrat, or the “black Madonna”, replicated to Knock-levels of kitsch in the gift shop. It’s also home to one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe, who perform every day in the cathedral, like angelic penguins with their white robes and high register.
You can add Montserrat to the list of places where people think the Holy Grail is located, but the real treasure is hanging in an art gallery here, which is well worth the €6.50 entry charge. Paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Le Corbusier, Miró, Monet and even Caravaggio populate the museum almost casually. The newest acquisition is an Irishman’s work: take a bow, Sean Scully.
North of Barcelona, Figueres is home to one of the best and most bizarre museums in the world, the Dalí Theatre and Museum. This is Salvador’s home town, and when the original theatre was bombed into ruin during the Civil War, Dalí and the mayor got to work in 1960, opening what is now the largest piece of surrealist art in the world a decade and a half later. Works by El Greco and Duchamp are also housed here, but it’s Dalí’s brilliant and bonkers vision that makes this place fizz. You could spend hours here, down a rabbit hole of opera-singing cars, giant pixelated Abraham Lincolns, hologram-like projections, furniture, jewellery and paintings.
In the 18th century, young folk from Begur (an hour north of Barcelona) set out to find their fortune in Cuba. Many returned to build large colonial houses, with balconies, patios, landscaped gardens and murals of the Caribbean island painted on the terrace walls. The crumbling Latin American homes give the town an exotic vibe.
For nearly six centuries the Costa Brava suffered repeated pirate attacks, but Begur’s slightly hidden location and 11 defensive towers protected it from attack: only seven of the towers remain, and they aren’t much defense in summer when the population swells from 4,000 to 13,000 as outsiders descend on the trendy town for its cool restaurants (with an emphasis on slow food), natty boutique hotels and medieval castle with spectacular views out to sea.
Into hidden gem territory now, and the tiny medieval village of Santa Pau in the Garrotxa region of Girona makes for a stunning lunchtime stopover. At Cal Sastre restaurant, you only need to utter two words before being transported into food bliss: duck cannelloni. Cal Sastre merges traditional cuisine such as the omnipresent Crema Catalana and slow-cooked veal cheeks, with contemporary flourishes; olives encased in Martini jelly, and chocolate covered pâté lollipops. Eighty per cent of the food is sourced from within 15km of the 11th century village, and boy does it taste good.