Montserrat Abbey at sunrise. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.
Sunrise at Montserrat Abbey. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

No matter where you find yourself, walking or cycling connect you to place. On foot or on a bike, life slows down and ceases to rush by in a blur. The smells, tastes, sounds, and sights of a landscape can be discovered, lingered over, and remembered. This rings true in both urban settings and the countryside where the aroma of paella cooking, the taste of locally made vermouth, the sound of church bells ringing, or the sight of the remaining fall leaves colorful against a winter sky are savored and stored like Proust’s memories of things past. Or as the landscape writer and teacher, J.B. Jackson wrote in his essay Sense of Place, Sense of Time the atmosphere…the quality of the environment…have an attraction…we want to return to, time and again.” So, after days of walking and gathering our own observational data about Barcelona, we set out to walk in some of Catalonia’s regions known as comarcas.

In the comarca of Pla de Barges, home to cava grapes, we arrived at Catalonia’s iconic mountain Montserrat to visit the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat in which the Mare de Deu de Montserrat – the black Madonna known as La Moreneta – greets pilgrim’s seeking to touch her hand to receive her blessing. The Montserrat range is Spain’s first national park and features formations composed of pink conglomerate and limestone rock visible from a distance as serrated ridges. The park draws hikers, rock climbers, nature lovers, tourists, and pilgrims to traverse the park’s miles of trails. On clear days visitors can see Mallorca one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean; unfortunately for us, it was hazy. At sunrise the rocks and abbey are bathed in pinks and oranges and the Llobregat river valley below the mountain is covered with a blanket of fog. The Llobregat river flows from the Pyranees to enter the Mediterranean at Tarragona, the Roman imperial city of Iberia. The mountains above the abbey host chapels and the ruins of hermitages dating back over ten centuries. We walked the Cami de Sant Miquel through a Mediterranean Oak forest to Sant Joan’s chapel, the hermitage of Sant Onofre and the Stairway of the Poor. On the trail to the hermitage, I was moved by the stones worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims climbing the trail. My thoughts travelled to the Zen Buddhist, Matsuo Basho, the great master of haiku who wandered Japan writing poetry during the 17th century. Bashho drew inspiration from his environment, capturing his experience beautifully in a few short lines. Reaching the summit, I heard the abbey’s bells ring the quarter hour hundreds of meters below.

Sunset at La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.
Sunset at La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Later in the trip, we visited the volcanic comarca of La Garrotxa, staying at the lovely bed and breakfast La Rectoria Sant Miquel de Pineda beside a restored 12th century chapel situated on the Ruta del Carrilet part of the itinerannia, a network of historical paths connecting three comarcs: El Ripolies (Pyranees mountains), La Garrotxa (the volcanic park) and L’Alt Emporda (rolling hills teased by the offshore dry, cold Tramuntana wind ). This network of trails is ideal for avid hikers and mountain bikers who enjoy exploring nature, touring farms, and sampling local cheeses, hazelnuts, pinenuts, honeys and breads, as well as learning about the history of the area. We walked the path leading to La Rectoria once the bed of the narrow gauge railroad connecting the ancient cities of Girona and Olot.  We also explored the cobblestone alleys of the medieval towns of Besalu and Sant Pau discovering the traces of Jewish communities tragically expelled by their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree in 1492 after the Reqonquista of Muslim Iberia in 1491. We visited these towns on the celebration of Treis Reis (Three Kings day) or the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the infant Jesus celebrating the revelation of the Son of God as a human being. Parades arrived at the main town plaça where the Kings presented gifts to eager children and on January 6 we ate the Tortell de Reis. Each night at dinner our host Roy Lawson and his wife Garrotti created delicious meals featuring fare from local farms including haricot beans, truffles, goat cheese soufflé, and buckwheat pancakes. Roy and Garrotti’s hospitality, comfortable and welcoming accommodations, fabulous food are a must if you are travelling in Catalonia; and the people you meet at their B & B are great!  Roy and Garrotti also have a blog for La Rectoria.

And then we came home and began thumbing our new Catalan cookbook!