Catalan elan

Travel feature in The Weekend Scotsman, November, 2001

Tucked away in the north-east corner of Spain Mary Gladstone discovers an idyllic village untouched by time – until the surveyors moved in next door.

We never knew Marina. She left Madremanya before we had the chance to meet her. Now the former doyenne of the village is settled in nearby La Bisbal D’Emporda, a town only 20 minutes’ car-ride from the Costa Brava.

On our first evening in the village, my sister, Janet, took us for a walk in the wood past Marina’s old vegetable patch (hort in Catalan). All that was left were a few straggling vines whose stems crept across the path. The peaches on the unpruned tree were the size of walnuts now and a mass of weeds covered the well, from which trailed a perforated water pipe.


When my sister and her husband arrived a few years ago it was 78 year old Marina who saw them right. She advised them to close their shutters in the morning so the room wouldn’t be like an oven in the evening: sound advice when temperatures soar into the mid-thirties in mid-summer.

Years of hardship made Marina good at seeing what the countryside around her could yield. When she noticed an ugly-looking fungus protruding from the bottom of Janet’s fruit tree, she told my sister to eat it. Although happy to present the family with regals (gifts) of beans or courgettes from her hort she never revealed where in the wood the wild asparagus grew.

Coming from a generation for which conservation was never a serious issue, the old lady told Janet to kill the dragons which, though ominous-looking, are harmless lizards: they destroy your bed linen and clothes, she warned. Neither Janet or her husband, Ronnie, took her caution seriously. They should have.

It wasn’t only the dragons that were on Marina’s hit list. One day my sister saw what looked like a skeleton high up in the fig tree. Marina told her blithely that it was a fox she had ordered the neighbouring pages (small-holding farmer) to kill. “It’s up there to scare away the birds!” she said in her strong Catalan, a language which is an ancient mixture of French and Spanish, with its harsh sound where the stress often falls on the final syllable. It is the mother tongue of at least seven million people, spoken not only in north-east Spain but in the Balearics, Sardinia, Andorra and Roussillon in France. It is hard to learn and the only one of Janet’s family to be fluent in Catalan is Zoe, her nine-year old daughter, who goes to the local school.

This rural pocket of Catalunya is some 110 km north of Barcelona, just off the A7 motorway which zips from south to north through the mountains and into the South of France. I was struck by the beauty and bounty of the place: as early as late July you come across bramble and elder bushes gravid with fruit; grapes ripen on rows of vines; the odd unpicked lemon or orange hangs from a tree behind a wall; aromatic thyme, rosemary and wild fennel splurge over the verges. It’s a soft, moist landscape much like the heart of Dorset or the Cotswolds and the soil is a thick russet clay (perfect for tile-making and ceramics). Small green meadows interrupted by strips of oak and pine woodland are reached by a network of winding tracks. This is the land of piggeries, apple and plum groves, fig and pomegranate trees and the occasional abandoned Romanesque chapel lost in a field of sunflowers.

One of its more bizarre natives was the artist Salvador Dali, who spent his last years here. Down past Marina’s hort, up over the hill, is the medieval castle he converted in the 1970s for his wife, Gala, at Pubol. Castell Gala Dali is open to the public, who may gawk at the paintings and at Gala’s “haute couture” dresses, at the garaged Cadillac, the murals, the surreal furniture and the elephant sculptures in the garden.

Before they arrived in the mid 1990s, Janet and Ronnie imagined settling in a wilder, less-populated part of Spain. As they drove east from the port of Santander in the shadow of the Pyrenees towards the Mediterranean coast, they realized that sophisticated, self-governing Catalunya was where they wanted to be. They found Madremanya and loved its narrow streets, whose paving stones bore deep grooves scored by the wheels of the farmers’ old carts.

Who wouldn’t be charmed by the houses, with their shuttered windows, vaulted covered archways, the wrought iron grilles, and the odd doorway framed by bougainvillea, whose riotous, purple blooms drop in the heat to carpet the cobbled streets?

Today these dwellings no longer come cheap. Like the 16th century artisans’ houses in nearby Monells, property in Madremanya is rapidly being gentrified. The rich from Barcelona, expatriate Brits, Swedes or Germans snatch up these buildings and convert them.

Luckily the pound was strong when my sister bought her three-storey house in a street that had seen little change in 300 years. All that was needed was to find a job, a mortgage and ship over the furniture. Before giving the walls a lick of paint, they added a couple of windows in the kitchen and the upstairs lounge. Spanish houses are designed to keep out the heat, so traditional homes are often quite dark. In typical Catalan fashion, you enter the house on the ground floor through large, barn-sized doors into a cool, cavernous series of rooms where, in the old days, the horses and other domestic animals were billeted.

After our walk that first evening we sat out in the garden: “Enjoy the view while you can!” Ronnie said, handing me a glass of vin negre. “And the peace and quiet!” Janet added. “For tomorrow the digger comes.” Someone had bought a plot of land in the next field and were going to lay the foundations for a new house.

But all we could hear for now was the whirr of the garden sprinkler and a cacaphony of tin sheep bells clanking. A flock was being led back home by the pastor whose job it is to lead his beasts to ungrazed pastures.

“They want to build 20 houses in that field,” said Ronnie, waving to the pastor’s cheery “Hola!”. Janet and Ronnie first got wind of the plans one spring morning before Marina left the village, when they spotted a man in a grey suit in the field with a tape and tripod. Within weeks all of Madremanya knew about the plans for a development on their doorstep. Petitions and protests followed but the local government was keen to encourage local business and cash in on the region’s prosperity. The houses were needed for local people, they claimed.

The plans, however, revealed that these new homes were for the wealthy incomer, not for the average Catalunyan family on a moderate income. It was the threat of an influx into the village that tipped the balance for Marina; for her, it was time to go. “There’s too much uprootedness these days,” she told Janet. “And transplants don’t grow well. You should leave the migrating to the birds!”