EMPORDA and surroundings
Albons Bellcaire d’Empordà Foixà Fontclara La Bisbal d’Empordà Canapost Casavells Corçà Clots de Sant Julià Canet Cruïlles Marenyà Matajudaïca Monells Palau-Sator Parlavà Pals Peratallada La Pera Púbol Rupià Sant Iscle d’Empordà Sant Julià de Boada Sant Sadurní de l’Heura La Tallada d’Empordà Tor Ullastret Ultramort Verges Vulpellac
Agullana Castell Sant Ferran fortress Dali's Museum Figueres Maçanet de Cabrenys Lladó Llers L'Escala Les Escaules Peralada Pont de Molins Riumors Sant Miquel de Fluvià Sant Tomàs de Fluvià La Vajol Vilabertran Viladamat Vilanova de la Muga Ventalló
Stark Beauty on the Emporda Plain (ENG)
The serenity is deceptive. From my hill I could also see the vivid extremes of the Emporda's borders: the electric blue Mediterranean to the east, the shaggy foothills of the Pyrenees stretching northwest to France. I was soon to learn that extremes are also at the heart of the Empordan personality, embodied most flamboyantly in the region's most famous native son, Salvador Dali. Apparently, the Empordans' taste for the renegade and talent for irreverence are legendary in Catalonia; some historians credit the Empordans with providing the seedbed for the anarchic imagination that shaped Barcelona, their extravagant neighbor to the south.
The Emporda is divided into two sections, upper and lower. The lower plain is a rural still life of ancient, ginger-colored stone farmhouses, or masias -- some built of stone recycled from Roman ruins -- and fertile, lime green fields irrigated by a web of streams and marshes that used to run to the Mediterranean. It is here that I encountered my first Empordan renegade, an old woman on a rickety bike. I was wandering the roads around La Bisbal looking for its castle and hailed her down to ask directions. I hauled out my best Berlitz Spanish; she looked at me as if I were from outer space. I had recently been only 50 miles away in Barcelona where most people switch back and forth between Castilian Spanish and their first language, Catalan. The woman drew herself up straight and said in the staccato rhythms of Catalan, "This is the Emporda. Catalan is our language. I don't speak Castilian." (Or she said something like that. I caught only a few key words.) When I tried to respond, she gave me a pained smile, firmly corrected three of my words, and pedaled away. It was very important to her that I get her language right.
Born on the plain around the year 1000, Catalan was outlawed by the Bourbons, the Castilians, then Franco; they understood all too well the language's insurrectionist subtext.
I never found the castle I was looking for. But hidden down dusty, often unmarked roads in what seemed like resolute wilderness, I discovered the exquisite medieval manor villages of the Lower Emporda (Baix Emporda in Catalan). The lordly 10th-century castle in prim, magisterial Foixa, population 312, oversees the stone village from its highest hill; the whole of the lower Emporda plain unfurls beneath it. I thought I was getting a private glimpse of unvarnished Empordan soul. However, what I had come across was lush rural renewal.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was told, the crusty, proprietary farmers admitted a first significant wave of foreigners. "Of course, you have to remember that to many of the people here, 'foreigners' often means people from Barcelona," said Daniel O'Brien-Kelley, a naturalized Spaniard of British, Irish and American ancestry who has lived in the region for 25 years. He and his wife, Catherine, run the Masia Store in the minute stone village of Rupia, near Foixa, where they sell rustic furniture and art.
According to Mr. O'Brien-Kelley, wealthy Barcelonans in search of their roots and hungry for peaceful weekend houses began to renovate the Baix Emporda's old stone masias and to research local history to make them authentic. Their zeal soon overflowed to manor villages like Pals and Peratallada where Empordan historians and businessmen had already started to renovate the medieval remnants of crenellated walls, campaniles and churches. The marriage of "foreign" and local passions, well oiled by the Empordans' legendary entrepreneurial prowess, has spawned a cultural renaissance on the lower plain, all within a 15-mile radius. even a few British and Swiss are buying in.
Today Pals and Peratallada are evocative medieval villages draped in bougainvillea with chic restaurants tucked among their stonework; nearby Monells is about to follow suit. The exception is La Bisbal, the small town that is capital of the Baix Emporda. Bristling with unabashed commercial gusto, its stores are crowded with traditional Emporda earthenware whose ancient spiral designs are the legacy of its medieval past; the mossy green and terra-cotta colors are those of the surrounding plain.
Ten miles from Rupia, in the ruined city of Empuries (also called Ampurias) are ghostly toppled columns and skeletons of villas with only their mosaic floors intact. But the fact that they look directly out over the Mediterranean makes the antique city the most extravagant stage set in the Emporda. The Greeks built Empuries as a small trading outpost -- an emporium -- in 550 B.C.; by the time the Romans commandeered it in 200 B.C., the city was a major commercial force in the Mediterranean.
Even now, Empuries gives off a heady entrepreneurial energy. Standing at its walls at the edge of the sea, it is easy to conjure up ships sailing in from Africa and the East, a dozen races and languages mixing it up in the city's colonnaded marketplace and cheering the gladiators in the amphitheater.
About 20 miles to the east in Begur's cobbled town square I watched its residents play out their rendition of renegade Catalonian fervor, the sardana, a folk dance whose fierce antinationalist nature has always rattled both church and state. Beneath the town's imperious, five-towered castle on a hill, the tent of crepe paper streamers hung for the Feast of Saint Peter, with the traditional woodwind orchestra assembled on a platform, three middle-aged women in cotton print dresses and sneakers gave the signal for the sardana to begin: they sedately piled their pocketbooks on the pavement and took hands around them. The men joined the circle, hands held high in the air, and they primly, formally dipped into the delicate steps that moved the circle to the right, then to the left. Next to them, another circle sprang up, this one of men and women, in their 20's, wearing Bermuda shorts and Topsiders.
The next day I headed for the upper Emporda (l'alt Emporda). Field after field of extravagant yellow sunflowers and the weird, spiky cliffs along the shore gave me the sense that everything up here was a little outlandish, larger than life -- maybe even the people. In Perelada, a little medieval hill town with a famous gambling casino in its spare castle, Enric Serraplana, owner of the local antique shop and art gallery, confirmed my instincts. "It's the Tramontana, the wild wind that blows down from the north, that makes us the way we are," he said. "The people here are very proud, very tough. They are like the wild wind -- a little strange, a little loco."
It is no accident that Salvador Dali was born just over the hill in Figueres (also called Figueras). The anarchic museum he designed for his works sits in the middle of the business district, its roof lined with a row of massive white cement eggs; its walls are pink stucco and studded with what appear to be yellow bagels.
Inside, I staggered past the "Mae West Living Room," its door framed by curtains of something resembling her blond, ripply hair and its blowsy red sofa in the shape of her lips; past a painting of Dali's wife-earth mother Gala -- nude, serenely gazing out at the sea. I looked through a trick telescope aimed at the painting and she changed into a schlock portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Next door, improbably, is a full sardana orchestra in white papier-mache. Even at his most hallucinogenic, Dali never lost sight of his Empordan underpinnings. Many of his paintings are evocations of the fierce Mediterranean cliffs around his headquarters at Cadaques, the eastern outpost of the Empordan spirit.
The tortuous mountain road to Cadaques through the gray-black moonscape of the Cape Creus peninsula gave wayto a shining white fishing village and chichi art colony with its own renegade charm and some very good restaurants. Dali's presence is hardly spiritual: mostly, his image gilds the plastic bags in which his acolytes, mainly German tourists and Dutch flower children, carry their souvenirs. I was glad to escape out to Dali's house at Port Lligat to see where he worked in his happiest state, in extremis -- next to the ragged coves at the edge of the sea, in a house with stone monkeys and giant plaster eggs on the roof.
The Emporda's other famous renegade temple is also best described as in extremis -- the monastery of Sant Pere de Roda (St. Peter of Roses), standing with its companion castle on one of the highest, craggiest peaks of the Cape Creus peninsula, about 40 minutes drive west of Cadaques. Founded around the year 900, Sant Pere was, for five centuries, the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monastery in the region. From a distance it looks like God's imperial fortress with its formidable crenellated walls and Romanesque towers. Inside, I found a shell with only the remnants of a cloister and the ghosts of several chapels. All that was intact was a stone carving of a woman's head, thought to be pagan; I wasn't surprised. Many historians believe that a world-renowed temple to the Pyrennean Venus once stood here, its influence so pervasive that the early Christian church renamed the whole peninsula Santa Creus (holy cross) to disinfect the area of its heady pagan aura.
The stories of Sant Pere's demise are cheerfully detailed in its official guidebook. Starting as early as the 11th century, the monks, riding the crest of power and wealth, turned laissez-faire. They dressed in lay clothing, carried weapons, even arranged conjugal visits with local women. Apparently, they also spent a lot of time in the kitchen because they are credited with the creation of one of the glories of the Empordan cuisine, alioli, the potent garlic and olive oil sauce.
Standing at the top of this mountain with a view of the Cape Creus peninsula and Mediterranean coast on one side, the plain on the other, I understood completely how the Emporda could encourage a taste for the uncommon, even the extreme.
The New York Times
March 29, 1992