As we have gotten to know Barcelona better, the cool fall wind has blown us to explore other parts of Catalonia. Catalonia is ridged with unique landscapes, and it is almost impossible to believe that so many different scenery grooves can be cut into one region. The beauty we have seen in the last few weeks has deepened my fondness of Spain and made me realize how much more there is to explore. I feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to get to know one place so well, albeit a small part of one country.
Zaragoza (*actually not in Catalonia, but in the neighboring Aragon)
I’ve been keeping my eye out for Spanish festivals near us – Lord knows there are a lot of them! I was surprised that Spain actually celebrates Columbus day on the same day as America. Anyway, I saw that Zaragoza had a big festival named Fiestas del Pilar, which celebrates the Virgin Mary. It is about a two-hour train ride from Barcelona (halfway between Barcelona and Madrid), so we headed out for a day trip.
When we arrived in Zaragoza, we first visited the Alfajería Palace, a medieval Islamic palace first built in the 11th century. It’s the first Islamic-influenced architecture we have seen in Spain, and we fell in love with the endless patterns and infinite curves and lines of the fortress. I learned that the patterns are designed to reflect infinity very purposefully – to reflect God’s infinite nature. Not only were the ornate carvings gorgeous, they also carried a deep meaning.
After visiting the palace, we walked along the riverfront to the main square of the festival. Here, visitors from all over the world had brought offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary to form a large, bright-colored pyramid of blessing.
In the evening, the town walked through the cobble-stone streets for a protracted rosary parade. The villagers carried glass floats representing each of the five glorious mysteries, five sorrowful mysteries, five joyful mysteries, and five light mysteries. Grant and I pulled up a reflection on each mystery on my iphone to follow along as the floats came by us. I have never seen such a large religious celebration before! The celebration was really and truly about Mary and Catholicism – there were no gimics or non-religious traditions. The sun went behind the horizon and dimmed the town just before the five light mysteries started, making the miracles even more luminous and glorious.
Pyrenees – Ensija Mountain Range
The meetup.com community is very active in Barcelona. Many of the art workshops I go to are from meetup.com – it’s a great way to meet other people and learn something new. I found a few hiking meetups, so our first outing was to the Pyrenees to hike there a few weekends ago. We trekked across four summits in the Ensija Mountain Range. We had a view of Pedraforca (“pitchfork”), which is a recognizable mountain in the area.
As most mountainous climbs begin, we started the hike going up, up, up. The views at the top of each summit, though, took our breath away more than the climbing! Fall was in full swing, so the landscape was splashed with reds and golds, contrasted against royal blue mountains in the background.
The hike was definitely harder than I had expected! The group kept a steady pace, whether straining upwards or ambling downwards. My fear of heights was tested on some sections of the hike. Would not be good to take a tumble here!
The Pyrenees are about a two and half hour drive from Barcelona. You know this girl can’t help but love the easy access to the ocean and the mountains! My answer to the age-old question “mountains or sea?” is BOTH!
Tortosa & Miravet
After exploring the mountains, I was freshly inspired to escape the city to see other part of Catalonia. Next up was the River Ebro! I had seen a cycling group which had organized a ride to this area as a day trip, but the elevation gain of their ride was quite intimidating. Instead, I made arrangements to stay overnight to recover from a bike ride and give us additional time to hike and explore the area. My favorite part about biking is being able to see new places from a unique perspective, so as much as I love biking, it’s not really about pushing the pedals – it’s about getting inspired.
We took a train to Tortosa in the morning. From Tortosa, there is an old railway line called Via Verda that was converted into a walking/biking trail. This meant that we could turn our pedals over without any interruption from cars. The trail followed the River Ebro for a while.
By far, Grant’s favorite part was the old railway tunnels we had to cycle through. Some of them were quite long, requiring lights even during the bright day!
We pedaled on the Via Verda to Fontcalda, a thermal spring in the nearby mountains. A popular destination in the summer, we had the thermal spring all to ourselves. The water was about 70 degrees. We didn’t get in since we had to keep cycling, but we did steal a few moments to enjoy this mountain oasis.
This is the part in this story when I tell you that things didn’t go as expected on this ride. Come on, you knew it was coming! We always end up on weird detours! I didn’t look carefully at the elevation profile for this ride, as we had decided to shorten it to make it to Miravet, our final destination, in better time. However, we missed our turn, our maybe there wasn’t a turn? It’s unclear. Anyway, the only way to get out of Fontcalda towards our destination was UP. I’m not talking a hill, I’m talking a freakin’ mountain. A thousand feet doesn’t sound too big for a bike, but it’s a wall when the elevation grades are consistently between 20 and 30% and up to 45%. So Grant and I dragged ourselves and our bikes up the endless switchbacks. More than once in a burst of optimism, I would declare, “There’s no way we can still go up! This is the last uphill, then it’s all downhill.” Oh, how wrong I was. But we made it! Grant was very impressive, because not only did he make it up in style, but he was also carrying our backpack full of hiking supplies and food up the whole way (that added a good deal more kg!). What a badass.
Needless to say when we arrived in Miravet, we sat our stinky selves right down for a big Spanish lunch on a terrace that could blow away all of our pleasant aromas.
We met up with our airbnb host, who led us to the most unique, most wonderful airbnb we have ever stayed in! The three-story house leans directly against the cliff rock of Miravet, and the raw rock face protrudes directly in to the house, making you feel that you never truly left nature by going inside. A balcony wraps around the entire convex facade, leaning out over the town and delivering sweeping views of the surrounding area. Miravet is tucked into the bend of the River Ebro, so you can see the river appearing from seemingly nowhere and venturing on down-river towards Tortosa.
After showering, I lounged on the bed staring out at this view with a meaty book in hand, watching the world turn pink, gold, blue, and purple, and finally lay to rest in a deep blue.
The town of Miravet is so small that there were no restaurants open for dinner. Our airbnb hosts cooked a savory meal of mussels, salad, chicken, and rice for us. We cobbled together our English and Spanish for dinner conversation that was as diverse and delicious as the food we shared. To the background of classical music, we talked about everything from architecture to Catalan independence to how we had met. I have never felt such a warm welcome from airbnb hosts. Meaningfully connecting with people who I should have nothing in common with touches a chord deep down inside of me that tells me that as people, we really are more alike than different. Such a hope this brings to know we are never alone! That there is just a thin veil of misunderstanding between each of us.
The next morning, after devouring the juiciest honeydew I have slurped up in my life, we headed to the Miravet Castle and to hike around the area. The castle itself was not particularly impressive, but the views from the citadel spread the area around us like a glorious patchwork quilt.
We hiked around above the river for a while, attempting to follow a path until it led us down a trail that was a little too steep for comfort.
Real-talk time here for just a minute. Following the hiking trail, we went down a steep path from the top of this rock to the valley. Not only was the path steep, but the rocks were rather loose and the only vegetation was brittle, stickly, and close to the ground. All I could think is that I was going to lose my footing and go tumbling down the mountain like a cartoon character – cartoon clouds of dust and all. I decided that I had to scoot down most of the mountain (yes, scoot). Even with that, though, I freaked out. It has taken me a long time to articulate and come to terms about what has been happening to me for several years. I sometimes have panic attacks, and I had a panic attack going down the side of this mountain hill. It starts by me freaking out, and starting to breathe hard. Then, just when I think I have it under control, my racing heartbeat informs the rest of body to get ready for “flight” and suddenly my body system is out of control. My heart is frantically beating, my whole body feels shaky, tears are streaming down my face, and I can’t think clearly. I had to sit down, put my head down to block out the rest of the world, and just focus all my energy on trying to breathe normally. What make it worse, is that most of the time in the moment, I am judging myself – I am embarrassed at what is happening. Why can’t I handle it? Anyway, where I’m at with this is that it is something to accept and manage. We made it down from the mountain hill just fine.
Grant had spotted old ruins of a watermill from medieval times on the river from the mountain, so we bee-lined for that. The journey there was Grant’s ideal adventure – it involved whacking aside bamboo, balancing on trees over water, and going off-trail. Once we got there, Grant convinced me to scale the walls for a fantastic picnic lunch above the river. Grant pulls me out of my comfort zone and supports me every minute through it – whether physically by offering his hands together as a foothold or emotionally by telling me that I’m brave. What’s more romantic, anyway, than being somewhere you’re not supposed to be, alone together?
We had a short bike ride back to the nearby train station in Mora la Nova before heading back to Barcelona.
Garroxta Volcanic Zone
My friend Bex, from South Africa, and I joined another meetup group for a daytrip to the Garroxta Volcanic Zone in Catalonia. We got to hike in small dormant volcanos and through a magical fairyland forest, just a few hours bus ride from Barcelona.
Most of the leaves were shyly changing into reds and golds, but others boldly tossed aside the green to shine brilliantly against the clear blue sky.
We met some ponies along the way, too! The brown one and I got along quite splendidly. Too bad our one-bedroom can’t fit him!
The bus drove us to a unique village in the area where two rivers have hewn the volcanic rock into a peninsula of sheer cliff. The houses of the village cling to the edge of the cliff. This was my favorite part of the trip!
It was quite funny, because places here were attempting to meagerly decorate for Halloween. It’s not a holiday that’s traditionally celebrated in Spain, but some places are trying to make it happen.
While America has been busy complaining about how there are too many things that are pumpkin-flavored, we have been pumpkin deprived over here in Barcelona! I finally broke down and went to the Taste of America store to buy canned pumpkin. The Taste of America is the oddest store – as you might have guessed, it carries products imported from the States. If you had to stock a small store with American goods, what would you pick?
Some of the shelves are hilarious – do we really need a full floor-to-ceiling shelf dedicated to Lucky Charms cereal? However, I can’t pass up the selection of salsas, barbecue sauce, and in this case, canned pumpkin.
My friend Maya, from Boston, and I had made a vegan and gluten-free version of my standby pumpkin lasagna. This totally curbed my cravings for pumpkin! We paired it with a delicious kale salad with persimmon and pomegranate – yum, such a treat!
Happy late Halloween to my dear Americans! We miss sharing this time of year with you all! But I can’t say we aren’t enjoying fall in Catalonia.