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Catalonia and the Costa Brava

08.07.2012

There’s something about being on vacation in a foreign country that makes even the most mundane thing seem novel. The good old ham and cheese sandwich suddenly becomes a sandwich bikini, prepackaged vegetable juice is transformed into delicious gazpacho, and Diet Coke is a slender and tastier Coke Light. Nevermind the fact that local seafood isn’t some sort of luxury  or that $7 bottles of wine are totally delicious or that one can procure a rather fantastic meal at a truck stop.

Catalonian pride/ a church in Girona/ the Girona skyline

Our home base was L’Escala, a small beach community about two hours north of Barcelona that’s known for its anchovies. This small fish gets some major love in L’Escala- they even have their own museum, which I was much too busy to visit (priorities: eating croissants, sunbathing, drinking cava). Had the locals run out of croissants or cava, I most certainly would have visited the anchovy museum.

L’Escala anchovy shop/ fishing boats/ remembering those who loved the sea

Figuring it would be nice to see the surrounding area and fill in time between meals, my cousin Anne and I rented mountain bikes on our first day in town. The next morning we set off with Uncle Ross for L’Estartit, the next village over (conveniently set on the other side of a mountain) for breakfast. On the way home we decided to take a different route that entailed carrying our bikes up flights of stairs, pushing them through prickly bushes and then riding by abandoned military barracks. Fortunately, the scenery was nice.

the road home/ taking a break in the military barracks

Another day, we rode to Torroella de Montgrí, where I was introduced to what is perhaps the best bakery in Spain: Masvidal. There, we ate croissants so flaky that they crunched when you bit into them, revealing chewy, buttery interiors. It was a breakfast that could be improved in only one way: with the addition of a side of “drinking chocolate” too thick to actually drink, but perfect for dipping croissants or adding to café con leche.

croissants and drinking chocolate at Masvidal

The breakfast was almost enough fuel for the four-hour ride home, which included pushing our bikes up a mountain to a castle, and a quick whirl around an hermitage- supposedly with real, live hermits(!). Though being hermits, they didn’t exactly run out the door to greet us.

surveying the terrain/ too rough to ride/ a spot for prayer/ finally, the castle

Later in the week we took an epic drive around the region, stopping for a walkabout in the medieval town of Pals before heading to Llafranc for a lunch of teeny baby squids fried whole, barely grilled gambas, and a strange but delicious salad of greens, fruit and nuts.

Scenes from Pals: harvesting lavender/ the local church (complete with candle vending machine!)/ curios cat/ basket bags for sale/  ordinary living in a medieval village

Almost always, there was pulpo. We are octopus many ways, but usually pulpo a la gallega: thinly sliced, doused in a hefty glug of olive oil, and set atop a bed of potatoes with a generous shake of paprika. As the week went on we debated which presentations were best: should the octopus be sliced thinner or thicker? Creamy potatoes or starchier ones? How much paprika was too much? Consensus: they were all very good. And, why don’t we eat more octopus at home? I may start a campaign.

lighthouse/ local gambas/ menu/ razor clams

There was also a good bit of ice cream. As Anne said, “It wouldn’t be vacation without ice cream every day.” Sometimes, it was simply Magnum Bars, chocolate and caramel dipped ice cream on a stick. Other days it was gelato. Early in the trip my aunt introduced me to leche merengada, a sumptuous Catalonian concoction of lemon and cinnamon flavored meringue. Traditionally taken as a drink, leche merengada gelato became my go-to flavor. I miss it now.

Girona market/ the other red meat/ tourists (note espadrilles, please)/ grains for sale
It seemed like no matter where we went there were good things to eat. And gorgeous waters to swim in. That was the other thing I loved about the Costa Brava. The ocean was gentle and clear, refreshingly cold, but not freezing. After I’d laid in the sun so long I couldn’t stand it, I’d dive in and swim for long stretches along the coast, admiring schools of fish, sometimes diving down so deep my ears would start to ache, and other time floating on my back and looking up at the ubiquitous cliffs that line the shore, wondering why, how anyone would ever want to leave this place.

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