In the early 1800s, disease struck Spanish red grapes from this region so they resourcefully planted white grapes. And after a visit to France, they realized they could make a wine like Champagne. Since wines are strictly named after their geographical location, this Spanish sparkling wine is called Cava, not champagne, but it is very similar. I’m not sure why cava is not more famous. We took an excursion outside Barcelona to visit the Codorniu winery, the oldest family-owned business in Spain and the 15th oldest in all Europe.
A more recent Cava winery from the same town, better known in the U.S., is Freixnet.
It was an adventure figuring out how to take Spanish public transportation and there was nearly fatal confusion over our tour reservation (we didn’t actually have a reservation after all), but all turned out well. Especially the Train Rescue by DH.
Part of the tour involved a tram ride through the old underground storage areas that offered the perfect temperature for the aging bottles.
At the completion of the tour, there was a brisk tasting, everyone tossing two classes of cava in about ten minutes, including the tour guide! (Many things about Europe are more relaxed…) Then we all trooped to the gift shop…ah, now I understand the two glasses of cava…why DON’T we have more paraphernalia with winery names on it? Our party stepped outside, thoughts turning to lunch and the return trip to Barcelona.
We were just in time to see a line of empty tram cars roll slowly by, and as we looked one way and the other, we all realized it was a ROGUE TRAM, only cars – with NO engine or driver. DH jumped immediately to grab it while the other three of us all yelled, “no-o-o-o-o-o” like a slow motion movie. But happily, he did stop it from careening over a curb and possibly dropping into a lower parking lot and the glass windows of the display center. My friend’s DH VALIANTLY – at GREAT PERSONAL RISK (plus I think there were widows and orphans involved), Fetched Someone by cleverly explaining – without any Spanish – that the train was “leaving by itself”. A frantic woman ran out, raved a little in Spanish, thanked us profusely and, when we tried to modestly leave, gratefully offered us a complimentary glass of cava and hors d’oeuvres. Pretty fun!
By this time, all the hopeful taxis had left but, bolstered by our successes and cava, we determined we could EASILY walk back to the nearby town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia and the railway station. It was further than we thought and VERY VERY hot. We ate a wonderful lunch at Cal Blay Vinticinc, the restaurant recommended by our new best friend from the winery. The waitresses were very friendly like so many of the people we met in Barcelona. A really nice day after all…
The first Saturday night in Barcelona we found ourselves on a big boulevard called Las Ramblas. It seemed like all Barcelona was out strolling on the sidewalks and down the wide center pavement. We passed The Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house and La Bocqueteria, one of the big covered markets, three times the size of Pike Place.
Miraculously and suddenly, enormous twenty-foot tall puppets floated towards us in a solemn parade down the center sidewalk of the boulevard.
A single man carried each one, hidden under its long robes. Dressed in sort of Moorish garb, the men figures reminded me of the Three Kings as they are often depicted. Apparently there is a long history of using puppets and giant figures in Latin festivals, with periodic repressions and revivals. (Thanks, internet!)
The giant man and giant woman puppet pairs would sometimes stop and DANCE, whirling around each other to the music of flutists and drummers. Smaller puppet figures circled and wove alongside.
Here is the sketchy night time video I took…
…and one from Youtube that better captures the strange dignity of the puppets.
It turns out these puppets were coming to town for La Mercè, the Festival of the Virgin Mary, the major annual festival of Barcelona since 1871. The festival would start right after we left and included fireworks, major giant puppet action and the strangest sport you’ve never heard of: Castellers, teams practicing the 18th-century Catalan tradition of building castells, or human towers. Standing participants stack on top of one another to construct towers up to nine or ten levels high.
We did see fireworks one night, but I didn’t mind missing the crushing crowds who come to watch the human stacking towers with small children on the very top.
I LOVED the puppets and felt very lucky our paths crossed.
A few random things…town square…castle
The heart of the old town is a square where people gather to sit and drink coffee or something more. One of our friends is working with Providence Hospital in Seattle to consider “community” and how that works. He is taking this idea back: a place to gather and visit.
We would walk to this square and sit together and just chat. Sometimes someone else from our group would wander by and sit down or just say hello. Sometimes someone would head back to the rental or off on a different adventure. It was hard to capture this with my camera, but I will remember the feeling.
And of course there was a castle or chateau. And a cathedral that dominated the town when viewed from afar. Like anywhere with a long enough history – especially, it seems, involving passionate religious beliefs – there was violence and squabbling. A small museum told the story with a model of the original chateau.
And here is the stone wall-enclosed laundry yard…
An hour and a half south of Capestang and you are nearly into Spain. The beautiful Riviera seaside town of Collioure is very lovely, cheery colors and a more southern architecture, but packed with European tourists. Which is kind of interesting – Americans tourists were unusual.
And here is an excellent description of the town’s historic Fauvist heritage from a more knowledgable and very funny writer, Stephen Clarke:
Collioure was the birthplace of Fauvism, created when Matisse and Derain arrived here in 1905, having apparently forgotten their black paint and produced 242 pictures, making Collioure’s church one of the most painted locations in France, on a par with the Moulin Rouge, Monet’s lilies and Madame Renoir’s thighs.
Then, on the way home, DH and I drove back through Fitou, a wine terroir, in search of a wine we had with our cassoulet. We noticed the name Fitou on our way down the coast. Beautiful tough scenery.
The wine we sought was from Domaine Bertrand-Bergé, a small six-generation family-owned winery. The lugubrious patron told us that for wines in their appellation, Languedoc-Roussillon, the dominant grape/vine variety is Carignan which has to constitute 40% of any blend. We liked the wine with the Cassoulet and thought how nice it would be with our winter meals back in Seattle.
But alas, we forgot about terrorists and international shipping squabbles. So we are having to drink everything we bought in our heat-induced dreams BEFORE we return.
This area is full of canals. And boats travel along them, tying up now and then to rest or visit a nearby town, passing through locks or just floating by. DH and I rented bikes and rode along the canal that passes through Capestang.
There was a French par course along the route should we choose to dismount and perform some Fench exercises.
I wanted to show DH a place we had eaten before in a neighboring town but non, non, it was closed on Wednesdays.
How the French economy does very well, since there is a LOT of closing in a somewhat random pattern, is mystifying. But maybe the citizens are just well-trained. And it all leads to adventures.
Hot and far from home on bikes, we crossed the street to a restaurant full of French diners.
The waiter was dismissive and brusque. It was possibly the best meal we've eaten so far.
We split a bottle of wine in the middle of the day and pedaled happily home speaking perfect French and speeding like the wind.
Today we all went in search of cassoulet, the hearty bean dish that is the pride of this Languedoc région, and on to Montolieu, the Village of Books.
On the way we had occasion to use a French rest stop. It was the most modern roadside facility I have ever seen. We all checked it out, some more thoroughly than others.
The city of Castelnaudary claims to have originated this dish made with white beans (haricots Blanca), duck or goose confit, sausages, and more meat. The French are very passionate about their food and proud of its geographic heritage. Here each city has its different way to make cassoulet. There are some folks who don’t exactly agree that Castelnaudary is the “home of cassoulet” and sadly, we didn’t have time or room for more scientific research into the question.
It was really, really good.
Then we headed to the 800-person village of Montolieu, the city of books, where there are 15 bookstores. Go books! That is the short story. Michel Braibant, a bookbinder from nearby Carcassonne, is credited with beginning the revival of this small town in 1989 when he founded an association and a museum, le Musée des Arts et Métiers du Livre – the Museum of Book Arts and Crafts. Bookshops, bookbinders, calligraphers and other book artists set up shop in Montolieu. Buildings were renovated, the small primary school re-opened, commerce sprang up supporting the influx of over 50,000 annual visitors.
And because mosquitoes love me, I was glad to find some mosquito repellant or “lotion répulsive”, as the bottle says. Repulsive lotion is surely every girl’s dream. The charming French pharmacist asked me lots of odd diagnostic questions, “was it for BOTH me and my DH or just me?????”
Today we took a short trip to a nearby town, Poilhes. The lovely Canals du Midi wind their way through this région and we saw barges drifting slowly along. Traveling on the canals seemed really appealing in the heat here. It is September, I wonder what it’s like in the summer months. There are beautiful old plane trees everywhere.
My friend who arranged this villa works in the wine industry and she wanted to visit a wine store in Poilhes. The French eat their main meal at noon on Sundays, and there were a lot of people eating at the restaurant there. So we suddenly ate there. We mystified the owners by eating lightly.