The Charming Couple
“You have come to the city of Barcelona, and you want to see a village? Why?”, Pablo wants to know.
Pablo is Pablo Manzano, a successful ophthalmologist in a suburb of Barcelona. He is with his lovely Japanese wife Yukari; she is an professional optometrist and a passionate Japanese teacher. We came to know this charming couple because our respective sons studied together in a US University. We had merely exchanged a few pleasantries over e-mail and WhatsApp earlier, and this was our first meeting. Yet, they reserved a whole Sunday to show us “anything you like” in Barcelona. We have Indian words like Virundombal and Khatirdari to describe such hospitality, but their warmth is beyond that. Apparently the Spanish are like Indians— emotional and hospitable. Even more so, perhaps.
I explain that I had heard of a village near Barcelona that reflected medieval architecture and my interest was historical. “History eh? I can show you many villages!”, Pablo is ready! So Anu & I hop into his car for a 250 Km countryside excursion that would be the envy of the ‘Lonely Planet’!
Santa Maria de Ripoll
Our first destination is Ripoll, near the French border, where he wants to show us the Monastery of Santa Maria. Pablo is as excited as I am, because he hasn’t been to this place in many years. As we near the target, he stops and asks for directions in Catalan — the local language. “I will be killed if I ask directions in Spanish”, Pablo tells me mischievously. That’s a joke of course: Pablo is as Catalonian as it gets, but does not believe in the Catalonian Separatist Movement. But many buildings in Catalonia sport Catalonia flags. Why, even the mayor’s office in Ripoll flies the Catalonian, (not the Spanish) flag!
Mayor’s Office: full of flowers, but no flag of Spain!
How can the Spanish Government tolerate this, I ask. Pablo gives an insightful answer: by ignoring them, you defuse them!
By now we can see the Monastery. It was built in Romanesque style by Count Wilfred-the-Hairy (what an awful title!) in the 9th century. It is famous for medieval manuscripts and underground tombs where nobles (including our Hairy Count) were buried.
Historic 9th century Monastery (don’t miss the Catalonia flag on the left!)
Grand Entrance: bas-relief of Biblical stories
Inside the monastery
Coat of arms in Mosaic
The corridor of arches
A devotee in the prayer hall
The Cloister of the monastery: Anu, Pablo & Yukari standing near the fountain
The sunlight paints a chiaroscuro through the arches
View from the Cloister
Castellfollit de la Roca
For our next destination, we drive through a long tunnel cut into the mountain and we are childishly excited. Pablo is inspired: he opens the sunroof of the car and yells “why don’t you stand on the seat and photograph”? We do that too!
Tunnel-vision? View from the sunroof of Pablo’s car!
Castellfollit de la Roca is a small village on a basalt cliff. It probably has less than 1000 inhabitants but it has a quaint medieval castle and church. We walk through narrow cobbled streets which haven’t changed in centuries. We reach the edge of the cliff and there is a magnificent view!
The village on a basalt cliff
The quaint old street leading to the cliff’s edge
View from the cliff’s edge
The weather wonderfully sunny, and the roads (like everywhere in Spain) are excellent. The countryside is beautiful.
Idyllic Catalonian countryside…
…and its eminent bovine citizens
We now reach Besalu village, a picnic spot popular with the locals. Besalu is a derivative of the Latin Bisuldunum, meaning: the mountain fort between 2 rivers. It is a beautiful castle town surrounded by River Fluvia (North & South) like a natural moat. It was originally ruled by the Moors and later by the Carolingian Kings of France. During the reign of Charles-the-Bald (another awful title!) Besalu passed on to Count Wilfred (remember the-Hairy-Count from Ripoll?);and he carved out a separate Catalonian kingdom and became its first independent ruler. Indeed, a hair-raising experience after which Besalu never looked back!
By the medieval castle on the River Fluvia…
…and the village that it encompasses
We walk through the lovely Jewish quarter and Synagogue. No Jews are left, because in the aggressive Christianisation of the 15th century, they were persecuted and evicted from Besalu. How could such lovely people practice persecution, I wonder…?
Souvenir shops near the Jewish Synagogue
One of the lovely streets of old Besalu
Then we pass through the famous Church of St. Pere and the bustling village market. The Village has a population of only 2500, so the market must be dependent on the picnic parties.
The Besalu village market with the Church of St. Pere in the background
By now we are hungry but the cafes are full. But Pablo has thoughtfully made a reservation in a restaurant with a view. And we are treated to a traditional Spanish meal that lasts hours.
First Pablo orders Red Wine. It is rich in colour and aroma. He says that Spanish wine is second to none—as yet ‘undiscovered’ because Spain has not marketed its produce as cleverly as France & Italy. After drinking it, I agree!
A satisfying wine at the picturesque restaurant
Then he orders Turbot, the local fish delicacy. When it arrives I’m amazed— he is a huge fella! It has an intricate skeletal structure, and I the amateur non-vegetarian need Pablo’s help to de-bone it with fork and knife. Pablo is most helpful.
Eating Turbot: the skilled surgeon helps the amateur!
I am ready to quit, but Pablo has ordered dessert and we conclude with a heady local liqueur called Ratafia. What we need now is a good Spanish siesta!
But no, we have miles to go. We are over 135 Km from Barcelona Pablo wants take us to Tibidabo. It is a hill in Barcelona (the highest point of the city) which promises a beautiful panoramic view of the city. We have to get there before sunset. Oops, we remember that the entire Europe has switched to Daylight Saving Time* yesterday and so today’s sunset is a good 1 hour earlier! The Highway is good and Pablo is a skilled driver; so we decide to make a dash for it.
[*Geographically speaking, Spain needs to follow Greenwich Mean Time (like Britain) — indeed,they did so till the 1930s. When Franco came to power, he aligned himself to Hitler’s Germany and switched to Central European time. History overtook Geography!]
The tension rises and we make small talk to defuse it. What does Pablo Manzano mean in English? He says it translates to ‘Paul Apple-Tree’. Why Apple-Tree? Pablo guesses that maybe, one of his ancestors was Jewish and was compelled to convert; he just took a random name when he converted. It is just speculation, but I am fascinated. Because, there is a striking parallel in Indian history. When the French offered citizenship to Indians in Pondicherry, they rechristened themselves with random French words — like Lumiere (Light), Janvier (January) LaPorte (the Door) etc.!
We reach Tibidabo in time, but a heavy fog descends upon the hill. The panoramic view is ruined. Pablo is crestfallen. He feels personally responsible for the weather and needlessly apologises. He wants the show to end with a BANG!
So, he drives to the Gothic Quarter – a historic quarter which still preserves its 15th century flavour. The lights have come up and the monuments—Barcelona Cathedral , Cathedral Santa Maria del Mar – look majestic.
Barcelona Cathedral at twilight
Inside the Cathedral Santa Maria del Mer
Images of the Holy Santa Maria
And a modern rendition of San Ignacio Loyola
It is just before Dia de todos los Santos – the Spanish All Saints day—when they honour and celebrate their ancestors. The shops around Placa Sant Jaume are full of sweets made for the occasion.
Panellets for Halloween
Pablo picks up some Panallets (sweets made of pine-nuts and sweet potatoes) for us. It tastes very like our own YeLLurundai that is made in Tamilian homes on the day we pray for our ancestors! Which raises the question: were the original Iberians from Tamilnadu?
To our charming hosts: Thank you Yukari & Pablo!