Exploring Catalonia, and DON’T SAY “Spain”

Prior post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2023/10/12/road-trip-europe-ii-23-10-09-23-10-10-a-long-slog-to-spain/

Road Trip Europe II 23/10/11-23/10/15

I’m more or less caught up on my sleep after my 21 hour journey and this Wednesday morning, I have an appointment for the mandatory, biennial vehicle inspection, the ITV, before I start exploring Catalonia. It’s not due until February but I may be away from Spain through then. I’ve been unable to determine whether I can have it done on my return without penalty so I’m playing it safe. The inspection is not particularly intense, similar to New York State but with more tests done with instruments rather than visually. The Berlingo passes easily and I’m good for another two years.

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Spanish vehicle inspection
Spanish vehicle inspection

Leaving the test facility in the town of Celrà, I spot a small directional sign that says, in Catalan, “former airfield”. The signs peter out and Google Maps, puzzlingly, leads me to an agricultural field but some online research eventually clarifies the matter.

FormFormer tannery smokestack, with later street built around iter tannery smokestack, with later street built around it
Former tannery smokestack, with later street built around it
Former tannery in Celrà, Catalonia
Former tannery in Celrà, Catalonia

You may not know that Spain endured a civil war not that long ago, 1936-39. Right wing militarists and Catholics tried to overthrow the recently ascendant, secular, left wing Republic. The rebel Nationalists eventually prevailed which led to Generalissimo Franco’s 35-year rule rule as the fascist, authoritarian dictator of Spain. The nation returned to democracy – although many Spaniards feel the nationalists quietly retain control — only with Franco’s death in 1975.

The three year war was very intense and the historical sign I saw on the way home referred to a wartime Republican airfield adjacent to town. Except for a few bunkers, there is very little left at the site, which is now the farm field to which Google Maps pointed me, but Celrà’s defunct tannery, a massive building now devoted to various public uses, has a hard to find exhibit hall commemorating the airfield and its loyalists.

Spanish civil war Republican poster, 1936 "Comrades of the rear guard. More shelters and we will avoid new victims"
Spanish civil war Republican poster, 1936 “Comrades of the rear guard. More shelters and we will avoid new victims”

They fought the rebels bravely but to no avail. The field was bombed 10 times by the Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War has faded into oblivion for most of us, but this hall brought it to life for me.

Republican Civil War poster, 1936: "For a strong and powerful air force"
Republican Civil War poster, 1936: “For a strong and powerful air force”

Heading home, I stop at my favorite supermarket, Aldi. to pick up some groceries. Eric has been working intensely and with Gemma gone he’s not particularly well stocked. He’s also a vegetarian so if I want any meat, it’s on me. I get some stuff to make my eating a little bit more flexible and that satisfies my diet for the moment.

We speak for a long time in the evening over politics, economics, and other topics. It’s nice to get along well. Eric and I both have plenty of strong opinions (“smartest guy in the room” [grin]). Now, we can talk politics and society and homo sapiens and even though we disagree on various aspects, there are fundamental things on which we’re in concert.

My plan to drive solo through Spain, Portugal, and Morocco is starting to firm up. Old friend, Linda Magley, is toying with the idea of joining me for a while, but flying here from her rural area is expensive — and she has a dog. It will take quite a bit of good luck for that to work out. It would be nice to spend some time with her, though, since we’ve rarely seen each other since she moved to the (yecch!) Carolinas decades ago.

With a travel route coalescing, I’m going to have to spend some intense time finding hosts and working out details. That will occupy a lot of tomorrow, which is Eric’s last day of work. He’ll have a week off after that. And we’ll probably do some things together before I leave here. At least I did my 2023 taxes – just before I left home — so that giant annual chore is out of the way.

Thanks to lobbying by the tax preparation giants (I’m looking at you H&R Block and Intuit), the IRS is legally prohibited from offering automated or even directly prepared returns. There is so much mandatory financial reporting in the US that the government could fill out 90% of your return ahead of time, which is how it works in some other nations. Instead, we all have to prepare or have prepared our own incredibly complicated forms. I did mine by hand for many years, on the assumption that knowing the details of tax law was a worthwhile effort. About 15 years ago, the already complex process became so impossible that I had to start using commercial software. As a sop, the tax prep giants offer free filing for many lower income people but each taxpayer has to figure out which firm, if any, they qualify for and millions of people aren’t even aware of the possibility as it isn’t well publicized. It’s a perfect example of dollar politics, where the rich can write their own laws and regulations even when it’s not in the public interest.

Thursday is busy but unexciting. I’m working on trip planning, sending out dozens of tentative hosting requests (since I don’t know more than a day or two ahead where I’ll be), and other necessary tasks. Eric is decompressing and relaxing after finishing work in early afternoon. Taking care of his bicycle touring guests while pedaling every day isn’t easy and he works three weeks straight without time off. He’s lucky, though, to be able to spend most nights at home.

A neighboring couple are screaming at each other, she on their balcony, he on the street. This is apparently a recurring event here and, tonight, someone calls the police. Seven officers mill around trying to defuse the rancor.

Friday turns out to be a lazy day. Eric takes the van to pick up some purchases from a warehouse and I get a message saying a Romanian acquaintance is in Barcelona, heading back home today. I stayed a few days with Florin in his small town. He is ex-army and in his retirement has his own one-person trucking company hauling car parts around Europe. We went out every day to see the sights in his region of Romania and he was a great guide. I spent some jolly time with his relatives even though some of them didn’t speak English. In Romania and Hungary, alcohol is a significant part of many people’s day and diet and I spent a lot of time there fending off proffered drinks, including firewater, often with the completely honest excuse, “No thanks. I can’t afford to get any more stupid than I am.” My last ditch strategy is to lie that I have a bad liver and alcohol will kill me, but no one has ever been so insistent as to drive me to that extreme. I invite Florin to stop by for a reunion on his way out of Spain and I walk to a supermarket to get some lunch and dessert supplies.

He arrives later than he expected, 5:30 PM, and can only stay 15 minutes as he has to get his load, for which the shipper made him wait in Barcelona four days (!), to Belgium by morning. He looks very tired, but he insists coffee will get him through the night safely. Florin has a childhood friend riding with him for company. Vasily is Romanian but, by sheer coincidence, lives a block away from Eric here in Sarriá de Ter. Serendipitously, he gets to meet one of his neighbors through my Romanian connection.

Saturday, I decide to start my road trip early Monday morning so I need to finish everything I need to do today and tomorrow. I drive over to Girona’s shopping area to buy some basic camping gear. Decathlon is the REI of Spain, with an enormous selection and reasonable prices. I end up with a tent, sleeping bag, folding camp stool, and an insulated cooler bag, all low end and just consumer quality. Surprisingly, rigid camping coolers are an uncommon item here. The rest of the day is spent on the computer doing stuff that shouldn’t be neglected but has been.

Sunday is packing day. I like to keep everything invisible under the load cover in the rear of the Berlingo to minimize the chance of theft but that area is quite limited so too much load means I’ll have items exposed in the back seat. To avoid that, every bag and box must be tight-packed, which requires planning and experimentation. Piled up in Eric’s garage, it looks like much more than will fit but I think I can manage.

By the time Eric returns home from a typical 3-hour Catalan lunch with a friend, I’ve done all I can do. He and I take a ride up into the nearby mountains and past some of the region’s dams and reservoirs, almost all of it on narrow, sinuous mountain roads.

Susqueda Reservoir Dam above Girona
Susqueda Reservoir Dam above Girona

To put it extremely simply – which is the only way I understand geology — about 65 million years ago, the Iberian tectonic plate careened northeastward into the much larger Eurasian plate, turning the smaller plate into today’s Iberian Peninsula, ie Spain and Portugal.

The idea of giant land masses drifting randomly on the earth’s mantle like ice floes and reconfiguring the continents every 10 million years or so has always fascinated me, especially since as a young child I stared at maps of the Atlantic Ocean and noted that the contours of the land masses to the east and west seemed like they would fit together if the ocean were removed. This idle observation came years before the theory of plate tectonics became sufficiently accepted to reach the public eye.

The Iberian impact pushed up the Pyrenees Mountains, the present day border between Spain and France. The stresses of that uplift (I think of the analogy of ripples radiating outward from a rock splashing into a pond) also resulted in the formation of the Catalan Coastal range, the low mountains near Girona through which we’re driving. This region has deep canyons and exposed cliffs everywhere you look so the views are frequently very dramatic.

Returning home after an intense drive, we go into Girona proper this evening and have dinner at a Catalan restaurant.

Agrada restaurant, Girona
Agrada restaurant, Girona

The food is very tasty but the portions leave a lot to be desired from my point of view. The service is very sluggish and I can’t figure out if it’s due to understaffing or the fact that there’s no custom of tipping in Spain. I guess speed of service doesn’t matter because Catalonians linger for hours over their meals. Eric tells me they are so focused on preserving their unique culture that ethnic restaurants have never gotten much of a foothold in Girona. Many Catalonians reject the idea that they are Spanish and wish for independence although that will almost certainly not come to pass.

After our meal we walk around Girona’s old town a little and Eric shows me the footbridge designed by Gustav Eiffel years before he designed the Eiffel Tower. I jokingly ask whether the structure was also intended to be a tower. Did it then fall over and the city made the best of it by using it as a bridge?

Girona footbridge built by Gustav Eiffel early in his career
Girona footbridge built by Gustav Eiffel early in his career
Eric on the Eiffel bridge
Eric on the Eiffel bridge

Returning home, Eric and I say our goodbyes before going to bed because I plan to be on the road before first light tomorrow.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2023/10/23/road-trip-europe-ii-23-10-16-getting-high-in-the-spanish-pyrenees/

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