Drew and I recently took our first real vacation together in too long. It was part belated honeymoon, part road trip, part food-and-wine tour, and completely incredible. Our first stop was Catalonia in the north of Spain, where we stayed with our brother-in-law Jordi’s family who live about thirty minutes from Barcelona.
We landed groggy after a 14-hour flight. Jaume, Jordi’s dad, met us at the airport, and we began navigating communication in a mash-up between his basic English and our basically non-existent Spanish (ahem, Castellano). It was a bit tricky at first, especially with jet-lag tying our tongues, but we managed.
We drove south along the windy sea-side cliffs to El Vendrell, where Jordi’s mom Sagra instantly prepared a mid-morning snack of pan tomate (bread with fresh tomato juice and olive oil), delicate Spanish ham, and Manchego cheese. Then we were off to see the sights with Jaume as our enthusiastic tour guide.
First we visited vineyards that have been in the family for generations. The grapes are still sold to the local collective, where they are made into wonderful local Cava. A powerful thunderstorm broke out while we were touring the vineyard, with lashing rains chasing us back to the village. Back at home, Sagra made a wonderful paella for lunch, accompanied by a variety of pickled shellfish.
Days in Spain seem longer somehow. Lunch is served late, in our case around 3pm, and dinner is normally served at nine or ten pm. This leaves a lot of afternoon for exploring. We visited beautiful villages along the coast, each with a different style. Decorative walls and windows dripping with flowers invited one to linger, but we kept moving.
In one village, we witnessed a castell competition, a Catalan tradition in which teams stand stacked on each others’ shoulders, up to eight people high (or more). The sound of drums and flutes signaled the beginning of each castell. A pool of team members dressed in brightly colored tunics and sashes formed a wide base, out of which the tower seemed to grow effortlessly. At last, the tiny angellito, a little child of about 5 years, scrambled up to the very top, thirty or more feet in the air. When the angellito gave the signal, the supporting sides of the castell slid down in layers, leaving a single column of people standing stacked and perfectly straight. The effect was breath-taking and beautiful, if more than a little crazy.
After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to taste Catalonia. We drove out through the countryside to Cordoniu, the oldest Cava producer. The wines were light and lovely, but the facility itself was just as interesting, built in the Art Deco style with intricate brick and glass details.
For lunch, we stopped at a little spot lost among the vines, with an extensive garden that provided most of the produce and even the poultry served in the restaurant. A rich duck breast with plum sauce and a delicate wild trout both worked nicely with a light local red wine. Sagra and Jaume also insisted that we try the crème catalan, similar to a crème brulée but with an intriguing cinnamon flavor.
Next stop was to visit family in Vilanova. We walked down La Rambla to the sea, then back for a drink and some people-watching. Sagra pointed out several local companies that have closed, evidence of the economic crisis that hit Spain especially hard. It seems that times are improving, but slowly.
Our final visit was to Sitges, a town perched over the Mediterranean and barely contained by its limestone seawall. Waves crashed over the steps of a church overlooking the sea.
The next morning, we were off to France. There was so much to see and do in Catalonia, and we only got a tiny taste of it. Thanks to our amazing hosts, however, we made the most of the time we did have!