When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused. —Rainer Maria Rilke
When drowned by stress, I go to one of my Happy Places which is often the ocean.
In my 2015 travels one of my happiest solo travel stays was at Hotel Santa Marta –a beauty break amidst botanical gardens winding down, down, down to the shore. Sheer. Bliss.
The near 15-acre (6-hectare) estate is located on its own private bay, Santa Cristina, and was chosen for the opening night party of this year’s European Travel Bloggers Exchange. I had already booked a stay there for a restful retreat after the networking/workshops of the conference ended, but by the time the ship reached sand I was in love with a wonderland lit by sunset.
The Spanish Mediterranean coast is as beautiful as beaches in Southern Italy and France. I was there in spring when, like late fall/winter low season, a single sea view room can be as low as 115 Euro per night. I love boutique hotels for their privacy, but plan ahead because this paradise stays booked, particularly by Europeans who vacation along Costa Brava in high season.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.— Kate Chopin
The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.–Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I loved swimming in the pool and sea, writing on the balcony, and sleeping to the sound of waves in the ultimate room with a view. It’s the perfect solo, group, or romantic retreat in Lloret de Mar.
I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.–-Anna Quindlen
For more on the beauty of Girona and the Costa Brava Coast, see my 5-Part Series (links below) and go here for more information.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Around the corner and up the hill is the 13th century Bellcaire Castle. Within are government offices and the Parish Church.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where I create, there I am true. —Rainer Maria Rilke
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.
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.
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.”
Joan also showed us how to drink the local wine properly.
So Nick tried.
And then there were four…desserts. A fitting end to a sweet trip!
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:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”—St. Augustine
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.
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.
In the following centuries, as Romans, Visogoths, and Muslims invaded, more walls, castles and towers would be raised for protection from attack.
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.
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.
First stop was a famous bridge, rutted from wagon wheels.
We pedaled our way through Fontclara, Sant Feliu de Boada, Peratallada, and other towns. Five hours later we parked for lunch in Pals.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But as we pushed through the fog, then stopped in the middle of it, I thought of Open Waters and all the Jaws marathonsI’d watched with my son. It was the kind of chill thrill–an excitement and dread–I’d hoped for.
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.
After stuffing, then zipping myself into my wetsuit and posing for pics,
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.
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.