Discovering Costa Brava: Part V

The best thing for being sad…is to learn something…That’s the only thing that never fails… That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting…Learn why the world wags and what wags it…Look what a lot of things there are to learn.― Merlyn to Arthur, T. H. White, The Once and Future King 

Plunge boldly into the thick of life, and seize it where you will; it is always interesting.— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

IMG_8555

A secret buried beneath the floor, a scene from Ghost (though first it felt more Lucille Ball than Demi Moore),dungeons and dragons, and a magical meal.  I expected beauty and adventure from Costa Brava but was surprised by Catalonia’s hidden treasures, creativity and community.

IMG_6822

When exactly St. John of Bellcaire (Sant Joan) was built is a mystery given the Roman exterior but nave’s architecture which dates earlier.  For the whole story on churches and history in the area, free lance expert Nik Duserm (below) is the guide to get.

20150504_193336

IMG_6810

IMG_6812

IMG_6821

IMG_6823

IMG_6814

IMG_6813

Beneath its floor lies the remains of a Roman temple built before Christian missionaries came to Spain. We were invited to explore the ancient base in the earth’s belly.

IMG_6820

IMG_6818

IMG_6817

IMG_6816

IMG_6819

The parking lot outside was built on a former cemetery.  Though the remains were supposed to have been moved, it is thought that human bones are mixed in the gravel.

IMG_6824

Around the corner and up the hill is the 13th century Bellcaire Castle. Within are government offices and the Parish Church.

IMG_6825

IMG_6826

Always remember, it’s simply not an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.--Sarah Ban Breathnach

War, famine, and floods once plagued the area, but proud of their survival, locals now share stories of their ancestors’ tenacity.

IMG_6830

IMG_6834

IMG_6835

Above, behind the houses of Bellcaire under fog is the Montgri castle (below). Feudal lords from both castles kept an eye on the sea and each other for attacks.

IMG_6841

IMG_6837

IMG_6836
A cannonball hole patched in the Bellcaire Castle.

At La Bisbal, capital of Emporda, Girona bishops lived and ruled. Touring the castle of a Medieval Square, tourists learn history and see education in action–children’s artwork displayed.

20150505_180116

IMG_6944

IMG_6943

IMG_6945

IMG_6941

During the Spanish Civil War, the castle was a prison. Above is the dungeon.  A region known for wine, below is where wine was made within the castle.

IMG_6947

IMG_6948

IMG_6949

IMG_8698

Where I create, there I am true.Rainer Maria Rilke

At the School of Ceramics of La Bisbal we were shown how to take a spin on a potter’s wheel.

IMG_6957

IMG_6956

IMG_6955

IMG_8540

IMG_8542

IMG_8543

IMG_6962

IMG_6961

IMG_6964

IMG_6974

ceramica 3 IMG_6976

A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, traveling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints. — Wilfred Peterson

Our amazing trip culminated with our last night together at Mas Masaller, a 13th century farmhouse owned by Joan and Marta, veterans in the restaurant industry. They offer half-board (European for breakfast, bed, and dinner) and picnic lunches on order. A decade ago I fell in love with agriturismos in Italy and escaped yearly, my first solo travel experiences, to a B and B called The Edgeworth Inn  in Monteagle, Tennessee.  The iron bed and quilts reminded me of their and my home.  Being at Mas Masaller with a group was fun; we watched soccer in the living room, then laughed around the huge table at dinner.

IMG_6995

IMG_6994

IMG_6993

IMG_6991

IMG_6990

IMG_6989

IMG_6988

IMG_6987

IMG_6986

IMG_6984

IMG_6983

IMG_6980

After a delicious salad, Cocina de la Tierra, greens picked from the garden that day and cooked with sausage (what we call “country sausage” in Kentucky and Tennessee), was served. Seasoned and smoky, it was the best vegetable dish I’ve had since moving abroad last August.

IMG_8701

It was so good we assumed it was the main course. When Marta (below) brought out a huge kettle of chicken and we told her, she said of her husband, Chef Joan, “Not in this house! We have to  have plenty of food.”

IMG_8706

IMG_8705

Joan also showed us how to drink the local wine properly.

IMG_8703

So Nick tried.

And then there were four…desserts.  A fitting end to a sweet trip!

IMG_8711

IMG_8709

IMG_8710

IMG_8714

IMG-20150506-WA0025

IMG_8702

The closest airports to Costa Brava are Girona (GRO) or, farther south, Barcelona (BCN).  

If you missed Parts I-IV of this series, check them out for more details on what Girona has to offer at links below:

Part 1: Discovering Costa Brava: Spain’s Medieval Coast

Part 2: Discovering Costa Brava’s Medes Islands

Part 3: Discovering Costa Brava’s Bounty


Part 4: Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages

Thank you to Catalunya, Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona, and El Consell Comarcal del Baix Empordà for an amazing stay and introduction to all Costa Brava offers!  Note to readers: the opinions on this 5-Part series are all my own.  I recommend only travel experiences, destinations, services, accommodations, and restaurants I personally enjoy and would love to revisit.

Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages: Part IV

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”—St. Augustine

20150505_135814
Photo by Alba Plana of www.costabrava.org

No history text or virtual tour can compare to cycling through Medieval hill towns in a land where BC structures and prehistoric cave paintings remain. Nor can a classroom feel like wind tangling my hair, smell like lavender abuzz with bees,  or taste like fresh bread in an olive grove. Such was my escape to Emporda, Spain.

IMG_6896

IMG_6848

IMG_6855

IMG_8614

Each time I leave the classroom to travel–to breathe history, literature, life–I return a better teacher.

I”ll never forget finally touching the wall William the Conqueror built in 1066, commencing the Medieval age of castles, chivalry, and courtly love.  Homer and Sophocles were beside me when I climbed a hill in Athens to the Parthenon and roamed the Coliseum in Rome. As a teen I’d studied about partygod Bacchus and Christian Paul.  But blushing at pornographic paintings in Pompeii VS standing in an amphitheater in Ephesus where the latter preached faith over religion made what I know to be true feel even more real.

Last month while in Catalonian countryside, I saw a wall older than all but one of the ancient edifices I’ve experienced. Built only one century after Delphi’s Temple of Apollo, Ullastret was the first Iberian establishment raised in 6th century BC in Girona.

IMG_6874

IMG_6873

IMG_6875

In the following centuries, as Romans, Visogoths, and Muslims invaded,  more walls, castles and towers would be raised for protection from attack.

IMG_6929

Sentries watched for pirates, but even when the coast was clear, in the wetlands below marshes bred malaria which claimed lives.  Today, Costa Brava still isn’t tame though locals no longer fight to survive.  It is a place of adventure and natural beauty. Here one can thrive and feel alive.

IMG_6856

Rather than a trusty steed, I powered through stone villages and past poppy fields on a  burricleta, an electric bicycle named for its burro-like benefit of providing horsepower to handle high altitudes.

IMG_8626

IMG_8630

We began our journey (see our route here) in Gualta.

20150505_093505

20150505_102909

First stop was a famous bridge, rutted from wagon wheels.

IMG_6846

IMG_6844

IMG_6843

We pedaled our way through Fontclara, Sant Feliu de Boada, Peratallada, and other towns. Five hours later we parked for lunch in Pals.

burricleta 2

IMG_6857

IMG_6858

20150505_111953
Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages

IMG_6859

IMG_6860

IMG_6865

IMG_8631

IMG_6867

IMG_6869

IMG_6870

IMG_6871
The plowed fields reminded me of Kentucky farms where I grew up.

IMG_6872

IMG_6885

IMG_6883
The town well

IMG_6884

IMG_6897

IMG_6902

IMG_6903

IMG_6908 IMG_6907

IMG_6898

Chef Jordi, of Hotel Mas Lazul met us in the grove after rising early to bake loaves for the tasting and for us to tote home. The master baker formerly worked alongside Santi Santamaria, chef of 3-star Michelin restaurant, Can Fabes.  We sampled six types. My favorite was the dessert bread with pumpkin and raisin. He said children are given bread with wine and sugar as a treat.  Each recipe takes 24 hours counting the rest and rise times. While he taught, our hosts made fresh aioli. The bread and spread…delicious.

IMG_8662 IMG_8661

20150505_131520

IMG_8664

IMG_8634

IMG_8641

IMG_8642

IMG_8644

IMG_8616

Riding buddies, Heidi and Patti, above, Rachel and Betsy below.

IMG_8615

IMG_8617

20150505_140921

Lunch time in Pals

IMG_6922

IMG_6923

IMG_6924

IMG_6926

IMG_6927

IMG_6928

IMG_6933

IMG_6936

IMG_6931

IMG_6938

IMG_6942

Discovering Costa Brava’s Bounty: Part III

Catalan dance in Barcelona
Catalan dance in Barcelona

Catalan cuisine is something to celebrate.  Below are two must-eat restaurants of Costa Brava.

Marc Genes of Visit Emporda  and  Alba Plana of Costa Brava Tourist Board  introduced my group of travel bloggers to locals excited to share their tables brimming with goodness.  Outside the Museu de la Mediterrania we sampled raw and cured sausages prepared as they were in the 14th century; brunyols, fried, sugared dough similar to beignets; local apples, bread, tomatoes, and wine.

IMG_6808

IMG_6807

IMG_6805

Our one day in L’Estartit meant sink or swim to manage two big events– snorkeling the Medes Islands and a meal.  Why we all didn’t sink after lunch at  La Gaviota is a mystery.  Located beachfront, it was my favorite restaurant of the eight delicious days I spent feasting on Costa Brava.  From Lloret de Mar through the Baix Empordà region, nature’s bounty of foods locally grown and freshly caught made tasting experiences simply exquisite.

La Gaviota. L’Estartit

Restaurant La Gaviota in L'Estartit
Restaurant La Gaviota in L’Estartit

IMG_6788

IMG_6783

Deciding from all the choices was difficult.
Deciding from all the choices was difficult.

IMG_8580

Seafood lovers, this Poulpe a la galicienne (Octopus Galician style) is the best dish I’ve ever had. It could have easily been my meal rather than the starter.

IMG_8590
Main course, Hake donostiarra style

IMG_8592
Ratafia ice cream…Ratafia is a liqueur of lemons, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, mint, rosemary, and anise.

IMG_8593

IMG_8591
Whiskey frozen cake (Tarte galcee au whisky)–as a Kentucky/Tennessee girl I couldn’t resist.

IMG_6780

This wine (below) was wonderful.

IMG_8584

IMG_8588

Even the water was stylish.

IMG_8582

IMG_6779

IMG_6778

IMG_8595
Thanks to the staff and our gracious host. owner Lluis Pigem.

South of L’Estartit was the most beautiful restaurant of the tour, a once-casino and terrace under a magnolia tree that reminded me of home.  The presentation of starters; their signature dish, Pals rice casserole; and the best macaroon dessert I’ve ever had relaxed us so much after a bike ride we needed a double expresso to continue our journey.
IMG_8674
IMG_8691
IMG_6918
IMG_8677
IMG_8681
IMG_8680
Nice wine , fun friends
20150505_143218
Classy food, classic place

IMG_8683
We wondered if this was the casino’s safe in bygone days

IMG_6916
IMG_6917
IMG_6913

IMG_6914
Scallops with cream of leek and truffle oil

IMG_8684
Foie grass with figs and mango jam

IMG_6915
Rice casserole made with local rice and seafood

IMG_8690

IMG_8689
A fine finish…hazelenut and raspberry praline macaroon with Ferrero Rocher ice cream

Discovering Costa Brava’s Medes Islands: Part II

Medes Islands--photo by www.visitestartit.com
Medes Islands–photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

Of all the adventure and beauty planned for my “Discover the Medieval Coast” tour, I was most excited about snorkeling around the Medes Islands, the richest natural reserve in the western Mediterranean Sea.

Since before Johnny Depp donned an eye patch, I was swooning over swashbuckler movies with my mom. Going to a pirates’ playground dating back to the Middle Ages would be great fun.

The archipelago is located a mile off the shore of Estartit of  Torroella de Montgri in the Baix Empordà county in Catalonia.  The largest islands– Meda Gran and Meda Petita—were first home to Ancient Greeks and Romans. But in the 15th century, pirates moved in, motivating King Martí Humà to fortify the area, resulting in castles clustered along Costa Brava today.

PAT037
photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

Ottoman corsairs, or Barbary pirates, from North Africa occupied the islets next. And though French soldiers took them in the 17th century, during the war with Napolean they were defended.  Today the area is protected above and below, making the real appeal  of the Medes Islands what lies beneath.

photo by www.visitestartit.com
photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

I’ve always loved the ocean. Maybe because my sign is the fish or because I loved Jacques Cousteau.  Since he dove the area exploring lush layers of red coral, sponges, sea grass, starfish, sea bass, eels, barracudas, rays, fan mussels and red mullets, divers have followed suit.  Now I would, too.

NAT063
photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

ALP/41
photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

Onshore I stuffed my first wetsuit into a bag remembering movies I’d watched as a child, thrilled when a giant octopus put a submarine in a chokehold.

IMG_8598 IMG_8599

IMG_8601

IMG_8602

But as we pushed through the fog, then stopped in the middle of it, I thought of  Open Waters and all the Jaws marathons  I’d watched with my son.  It was the kind of chill thrill–an excitement and dread–I’d hoped for.

IMG_6795

I’ve been asked how I had the courage to move to an African country I’d never seen. The short answer is, “It felt right.” Putting on a scuba mask, however, never has.  Dodging cobras in the square while being chased by henna hustlers is my new norm. Breathing through a tube still isn’t.  I’d snorkeled in Florida and Honolulu, and though the mask made me feel smothered, I knew if I panicked, my flippers could plant firmly in the sand.  Not so this time.

The air temperature was 65 degrees and I knew the water would be cold.

IMG_8608

After stuffing, then zipping myself into my wetsuit and posing for pics,

IMG_6790

IMG_8603

snorkel 17

the girl who slowly lowers herself into pools in 108 degree weather in Morocco dreaded plunging into the freezing sea.

“Hold your mask, count, and on 3, step off,” I was instructed. I was a kid again on my neighbor’s diving board trying to get the nerve to jump. Almost every time, I’d climb down, walk to the ladder, and lower myself into the pool. But I’d come too far–not because we’d driven from Lloret–but because living abroad started with a solo trip to Costa Rica. I’d called it my No Fear tour. I’d learned over the last nine months that the real No Fear tour isn’t a trip; it’s a long journey called life.

One, two, go.

snorkel 10

As water rushed into my sleeves and up my arms, members of the group shared support, body heat, and a floating ring if needed.   I’d spent the last ten months keeping my head above water, a fish out of water, a mermaid in Marrakesh.  In Puerto Viejo I’d finally floated on my back without my feet sinking… by relaxing.  Face up, I’d smiled at the sun.  This time, if I wanted to see beauty, I had to relax, but with my head down, submerged in a world where I can’t breathe.

I stopped fighting the waves with my fins.  I depended on the mouthpiece, the tube, and my arms to keep me afloat.  I relaxed, listened to my breath, and I looked. I released the ring, knowing I could swim.  I could breathe.   A school of grouper and a meadow of sea grass waved me on.

FullSizeRender

Check out the fabulous blogs by my expat friends living in the UK and the Netherlands: Shobha, of Just Go Places, and Rachel, of Rachel’s Ruminations.

BC2

IMG_6792

Heidi (3rd from left below) is a Belgium blogger who worked at an aquarium and dreamed of seeing a sun fish, a mola mola, in open waters. On our way back to shore, one made a special appearance just for her.
Heidi (3rd from left above) is a Belgian blogger who worked at an aquarium and dreamed of seeing a sun fish, a mola mola, in open waters. On our way back to shore, one made a special appearance just for her.

Thanks, MEDAQUA, for the adventure!

Check out all Torroella de Montgri, l’Estartit, and The Medes Islands have to offer here: CATALEG_GB