Catalonia: Festivals, Food and Cava

By Maxine Albert

When asked, “With all your travels, which country offers the most fun and exciting experiences?” without hesitation, I utter, “Spain.” Spanish festivals mean massive parties with entire towns celebrating in the streets, 24/7. I’ve seen all of Valencia erect colossal statues; then burn to the ground during Fallas. In Menorca, the islanders cheer as mounted horsemen play medieval games in the streets and ride into houses during the Fiesta de Saint Joan.  But I’ve never seen anything as spectacular as the human towers in Catalonia. They are more stupefying than Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic feats. Put this down for your next trip and you’re guaranteed a thrilling vacation with great photo ops. You’ll also be assured of being the person with the most entertaining stories at cocktail parties …for the rest of your life. Not to mention you’ll enjoy the great culture, food, wine and Cava!

Located in the northeastern Iberian peninsula, Catalonia boasts a varied topography with a gorgeous Mediterranean coastline, white sandy beaches, and the rugged Pyrenees. This picturesque region with its own language is known for its gastronomy and excellent wines. It’s a land steeped in traditions dating back a thousand years. Foremost among these are festivals celebrating the patron saint of each locale with competitions of spectacular human towers. Recognized by Unesco as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, this spectacle is a wonder to behold.

Tarragona: Charming Port Town

I arrived late September in Tarragona, a charming port on the Mediterranean, known for having the oldest preserved Roman ruins outside Italy. It was early evening and the festivities celebrating the patron saint, Santa Tecla, were in full swing. People were dancing in the streets. A live orchestra played cha-cha, salsa, meringue, Latin ballads and, surprisingly, American swing on the pedestrian promenade, the Rambla Nova. Everyone was up and swaying their hips, including me, at this inclusive shindig. A few blocks away the young set danced the night away to the sounds of a hip band playing rock-n-pop while a huge screen overhead showed new release music videos.

The next morning, The Concurs de Castells, or Human Tower Competition, began with thousands of people lining the streets. Hundreds of men, women and even children called "castellers" climb on each other’s shoulders to form an actual human tower, climbing as high as 10 levels up. Teams from all over the region compete, each wearing a different colored shirt. The taller and more difficult a tower is, the more points the team scores. These gravity-defying human sculptures are supported by nothing but the participants’ strength, balance, and courage.

The strongest, heaviest men make up the base of the tower, while women and children climb on to build the upper levels. As the tower grows, castellers shrink in size, until the smallest and lightest remain. It’s riveting to watch the tower take shape. You can see the shoulders of the castellers shaking as they bear the weight of each new climber ascending to a new level. The crowd waits with bated breath until a small child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, climbs to the very top and gives the triumphant wave of the hand. At that moment the silence is broken and the rapturous crowd cheers and claps jubilantly as the child shimmies down and all the castellers descend slowly and carefully to the ground. Then, the excitement starts all over again as the next team, with clocklike precision begins their staggering ascent to create the greatest and tallest human tower in the world.

After watching these dare devils, we proceeded to a celebratory lunch at Restaurant Barhaus (www.barhausrestaurant.com).  A cava toast was followed by luscious octopus Carpaccio and superb duck with cranberries washed down with regional wines. With exploring: the monuments from the Roman era at the magnificent archaeological complex, designated a World Heritage Site. Also noteworthy: the Cathedral and the impressive ancient wall bordering the old historic quarter peppered with antique shops, cafes and wine bars on winding narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways.

Barcelona: Vibrant Cosmopolitan City

Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, a vibrant, cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean is known for its architecture, art, culture, cuisine, happening nightlife and great shopping. And during La Merce Festivity…more Human Towers!

When I arrived, the city was buzzing with evening concerts celebrating the great La Merce fete. Blues, rock, jazz and Latin music sounded in the squares, parks and all kinds of venues until the wee hours. The next morning a Parade of Giants (Gigantes) accompanied by a marching band entertained the throngs with a lively dance performance in a huge square. Towering figures of Queens, Kings, Princes and other notables manipulated by one person, twirled and spun around to everyone’s delight.

Then the games began.

I sat on the edge of my seat in awe of these staggering human towers. One team with hundreds of castellers rose straight from the ground all at once as the crowd roared wildly. To this day, I can’t figure out how they did it. Each new human tower was different in formation, width, height and complexity. Had my friends not pulled me away I would have slept there waiting to see more. All great performances need a great finale. Happily, the lavish fireworks, music and multicolored dancing water extravaganza at Montjuic Hill, site of the 1992 Olympics, did not disappoint.

There’s more: stroll Barcelona’s bustling tree lined promenade, the Rambla, outdoor cafes, galleries, chic shops and kiosks selling fragrant flowers of all colors. Take in the impressive Art Nouveau, Gothic, Modernist and avant-garde balconied buildings. Treat yourself to some indulgent retail therapy at upscale boutiques like Adolfo Domingues on fashionable Passeig de Gracia. Relish a tapas and wine lunch at nearby Tapa Tapa  (www.angrup.com).  Then visit Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces: La Pedrera with its phantasmagoric roof (www.lapedrera.com) and be certain to make an online reservation (required) to see the dazzling La Sagrada Familia Basilica (www.sagradafamilia.org). Dine with the smart set at gastronomic eatery Monvinic (www.monvinic.com). Afterwards, hit the nightlife in this lively town and have a blast. As I’ve said, the Spanish know how to have fun!

Excursions: Rent a car or take a tour and explore the beautiful countryside and Mediterranean coastline and its lovely beaches. Don your sunglasses and enjoy scenic Costa Daurada, (the corridor of land south of Barcelona), and the stunning Costa Barcelona.

Cava Tasting: A Cava tasting is a must. Often compared to champagne or Prosecco, this Spanish sparkling wine produced in Catalonia is my favorite drink. Needless to say, I was in a good mood here. The esteemed family-owned Recaredo Cava Cellar in Penedes offers tastings and demonstrations of the highly skilled craft of making this luscious libation (www.recaredo.es).

Fine Catalan Wines: Known for its excellent wine culture, the Catalan region has the optimal climate for growing the grape. Vall Llach wine cellar (www.vallllach.com) in Costa Daurada, and Torres wine cellar and restaurant (www.torres.com) in Costa Barcelona, offer tastings of some of the region’s best wines.

Foodies Delight: Sample the tasty gastronomy at any typical village eatery, usually filled with locals. I dined at small family-run Cellers de Gratallops, in the tiny village of Gratallops in Priorat, and enjoyed as good a meal as I’ve had in any top restaurant around the globe. Cod in aioli with black rice and pea puree plus a honey cheese flan-like delight topped with home made cinnamon ice cream paired with fine wines from their vineyard were sublime.

Siurana: This legendary hilltop village, with spectacular views and castle ruins was the last Moorish stronghold in Catalonia. A favorite of mountain climbers and nature enthusiasts from around the world, this is also home to top gastronomic eateries. Glimpse the footprint of the horse on the rock at the cliff’s edge and hear the chilling tale. It is said that upon hearing that the enemy broke through, the Queen tied a scarf around the eyes of her favorite steed and rode full speed off the cliff into the river below.

Carthusian Monastery: A visit of the Cartoixa d’ Escala dei Monastery, at the foothills of the Montsant Mountains, gave a window into the daily life of the Carthusian monks. Living in silence, they believed God spoke to them through nature such as birdsong, the wind and the trees. It appears that they lived quite well with their quarters including a reading and prayer room, sitting room, study alcove, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and huge courtyard and garden. Their farming techniques included planting vineyards on the steep, slate slopes of the region. Thanks to the hard work of these reclusive monks, Priorat now is famous for its wines (www.turismepriorat.org).

For information about travel to Catalonia, see www.catalunya.com  and www.spain.info.

Maxine Albert, was a columnist for Elle. She has traveled the globe and written about the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, maharajahs’ palaces in India, the Serengeti migration in Tanzania, the Aeolian and Greek Islands, the best spas in China and Thailand and the best of Paris, among others. She can be reached at maxinealb@yahoo.com

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