Catalonia visits southern France, bearing calçots

My daughter Emily’s just visited from her home in Barcelona, bringing her Catalan boyfriend, and an enormous bundle of calçots sent by his mother.

Calçots! Think we have enough?
Calçots! Think we have enough?

Eating calçots is a century-old tradition in Catalonia at this time of year.  Garden onions are planted deep in the soil, and earthed up throughout their growing period, so they have long thick white stems, just like a leek’s.  Harvested between Christmas and Easter, they’re a much appreciated local delicacy.

Really, they should be grilled fiercely over an open fire or barbecue.  We lack a barbecue, and in any case, southern France has its own traditions: Holy week is cold, wet and miserable.  Without fail.

Preparing the calçots
Preparing the calçots

So we settled for baking them in a fiercely hot oven.  And then we got down to the cheerfully messy business of eating them.  You strip the hot slippery skin off each calçot, and then dunk it in a punchy romanesco sauce before tipping your head back to ingest the lot.  You need napkins, yards of kitchen roll – bibs would be good –  and good bread to mop up the juices and sauce.

Serving the calçots.  Another break with tradition.  They should be on a terracotta roof tile.
Serving the calçots. Another break with tradition. They should be on a terracotta roof tile.

We had fun, but probably not as much as if we’d visited one of the outdoor festivals dedicated to the eating of these alliums.  Watch the video from Valls.

Eating the calçots.  No red wine for us.  The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal
Eating the calçots. No red wine for us. The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal

Salvador Dali and a star-shaped fortress

These three figures look down on you as you wait to visit the Dali Museum.  And the loaves of bread?
These three figures look down on you as you wait to visit the Dali Museum. And the loaves of bread?

“Where, if not in my own town, should the most extravagant and solid of my work endure, where if not here? The Municipal Theatre, or what remained of it, struck me as very appropriate, and for three reasons: first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter; second, because the theatre stands right opposite the church where I was baptised; and third, because it was precisely in the hall of the vestibule of the theatre where I gave my first exhibition of painting.”

That’s Salvador Dali, speaking about his wish to create a museum to his own work in the shell of the theatre at Figueres, destroyed, like so many other buildings in Catalonia and throughout Spain, at the height of their Civil war.

The courtyard, the Cadillac, the tyres... and... and....
The courtyard, the Cadillac, the tyres… and… and….

It’s an astonishing place.  Start out in the central courtyard, and you’re confronted by a Cadillac – Al Capone’s allegedly – beside a tower of tyres topped off by a fishing boat.  Wander round – in any order, please: Dali insisted there was no timeline or other imperative to be followed.

Homage to Hieronymus Bosch?
Homage to Hieronymus Bosch?
Gold cross.
Gold cross.

You’ll discover rooms of paintings in which he worked in the style of other artists as diverse as Vermeer, Picasso, Goya, Velasquez, Millet, de Chirico: was he in search of a personal voice, or simply exploring and celebrating his knowledge of art history?  A room full of fantastically bizarre creatures shows an affinity with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, but only a few yards away is a room full of exceptionally fine gold and bronze jewellery, largely made from coins with the heads either of Dali or his beloved wife Gala on them.

Then there’s the Mae West room.  Walk in, and you’ll see some random objects: a couch, two wall paintings, a fireplace.  Climb the stairs at one side of the room however, and look though the lens, and there she is, Mae West herself, in all her ruby-lipped glory.

And here she is.
And here she is.

It goes on.  He’s copied Michelangelo’s Moses: but what’s an OT prophet doing with a giant squid?

Or go and get vertigo while standing four-square on the ground, viewing the dizzying perspectives of the ceiling in the Palau del Vent.

...and that's only a bit of the ceiling.
…and that’s only a bit of the ceiling.

The whole thing was by turns stimulating, exciting, puzzling and sometimes even annoying – bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.  We’re really glad we went, though once may be enough.  And if you want to know more, there’s an interesting account in the blog ‘Elsewhere’

The Civil War came up again when we visited the Castell de Sant Ferran, just outside Figueres.  It’s an enormous, star-shaped site, built in the 18th century to protect the Spanish from the French, but it saw almost no action.  But in the 1920’s, Salvador Dali did his military service there. It only came into its own during the Civil War.  Then it provided secure storage for masterpieces from the Prado in Madrid, and became a stronghold for international brigades and ammunition.

We spent so long tramping round the walls – it’s a 3 km walk to encircle the entire site – that we didn’t explore the interior, which may have been a pity: some other time.  But what a walk!  As we began we could clearly see the Mediterranean coast and towns such as Roses.  Then the Pyrenees, covered in snow over to the north, and the dusty more barren nearby hills.  Figueres itself doesn’t give a good account of itself from up here: modern concrete factories and lots of high-rise blocks.

A small stretch of castle wall, with the Pyrenees beyond
A small stretch of castle wall, with the Pyrenees beyond

And that was it.  Our brush with the law in Barcelona had left us feeling a bit sour, and we felt our holiday was at an end.  So off home for us, planning a return one day to explore that coast we’d caught distant glimpses off from the castle walls.

The cops and robbers of Barcelona

Christmas in Barcelona.  A perfect way to celebrate.  Son and daughter-in-law were there too, and we all stayed in Emily’s flat, since her flatmates had gone away.  Perfect times for us don’t make for interesting reading for others: the balmy weather, meandering round the endlessly fascinating streets as desultory sight-seers, coffee stops at the outside tables of bars in picturesque squares, shopping at temptingly- stocked shops and market stalls in the cosmopolitan quarter which is Emily’s home, eating out or sharing tapas at simple neighbourhood restaurants….  Here’s the story in pictures.

So something had to come along and spoil it.

The car and Barcelona don’t go well together. Even driving in and out of the ill-signposted city is something we always dread.  With a superb and cheap public transport system, we’d have liked to have left the car at home, but it was stuffed with extra bedding, presents, bits and bobs Emily needed from home, so when we arrived, we unloaded and then took it off to park elsewhere for the duration, since she lives on a square with little parking.  She’d taken advice, and suggested a quiet nearby corner of town where a Spanish friend said it would be safe and out of the way.  Once there, we checked, and checked again that there were no restrictions.  One morning, we popped up and checked yet again.  All was well, so we left it until we were packing to go….. walked to the street where we’d left it…… No car.

Stolen!  Panic! What to do next?  Contact our insurers, see if we could sort out one-way car hire between Spain and France?  Would insurance pay? What about replacing the car, which we’d newly and expensively fitted out with snow tyres?  How could we possibly afford that? Emily rang the police, who promised to call back once they’d made enquiries.  After a couple of hours to-ing and fro-ing, we learnt that the car wasn’t stolen, but had been towed away because of parking infringements.  There should have been a notice stuck on the road where the car had been, telling us what had happened: but there was nothing there. We’d need to go in person to the Police.  There are three sorts here: those belonging to Barcelona itself, local Spanish police, and the national service.  We went to see the Barcelona lot, a 20 minute walk away.  Eventually they tracked our car down – thank goodness for Emily’s command of Spanish – to the Spanish police’s car pound at the last stop on the metro line.  If we went with ID and 239 Euros, we could have out car back……

Walk to metro.  Impatiently sit out long journey.  Emily spends time texting Spanish friends.  They’ve all had similar experiences: ‘It’s to try to fill the city’s empty coffers’, they explain. Track down car pound.  Join disgruntled queue of fellow-sufferers. Pay up.  No choice.  Receive form on which to write our grounds for appeal. Try to make our way back to Emily’s from a completely unknown part of town – we get good at buying time by circling roundabouts twice.  All the time fuming at the loss of precious hours with Tom and Sarah on our last day together.

Heigh ho.  Even run-ins with the Police however, can’t take away our memories of a wonderful Christmas break.

The Orange Man

Winter has arrived.  How do I know?  Although the nights are cold, the afternoons are still for going walking or tidying up the garden wearing a tee-shirt, beneath a duck-egg blue sky. So until the other day, I thought we were clinging on to autumn.

But on Thursday, the Orange Man arrived.  This is exciting enough news for it to be worth phoning a friend.  Every year, once winter kicks in and the orange harvest is well under way in southern Spain, a huge container lorry arrives in Lavelanet. It parks up at a disused petrol station on the main road into town and becomes an impromptu shop.

The man with the lorry, the Orange Man,  speaks only Spanish, and sells only oranges.  Not singly or by the half-dozen, but in large 10 kilo boxes.  10 kilos, 10 euros.  What a bargain.  These oranges, though sometimes a little knobbly and in irregular sizes, are the juiciest and tastiest you’ll ever eat, and it’s no wonder that whenever you pass, you’ll see someone pulling up their car and opening the boot for a case or two.  Our Spanish friend won’t have to stay long.  In a few days the entire container-load will be sold, he’ll return to Spain …. only to return when he’s loaded up again.

When he departs for the last time at the end of the season, we’ll know for sure that spring has arrived.

PS.  Very topically, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall takes oranges as his subject in today’s cookery column in the Guardian