In a trip overflowing with highlights including canyoning and a hot air balloon ride on a recent visit to Catalonia and yet the main highlight for me remains the people.
The populace of a region are what gives it character, Catalonians are proud of their heritage. Their passion was immediately apparent for preserving their culture and their eagerness to demonstrate just how important and great it is.
From the first moment our group arrived in the first restaurant ‘Cal Cofre’ in Llivia it became clear how passionate they all are about their region and its culture. This was not diluted at anytime during the visit right up to the ‘K la Gina’ restaurant in Garriguella on our final evening.
This passion is epitomised by some of the very different characters that we were privileged enough to meet during the visit to this lovely region of Spain.
We were joined by this remarkable young man for dinner one evening with his father. Already having been provided with some information regarding him the whole group was eager to meet him.
Kilian is an endurance athlete, participating in events known as skyrunning which entails long distance events over the mountains. He has broken many records including victory in the The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and has recently completed a traverse across the Pyrénées averaging over 120 kilometres a day. That is almost three full marathons everyday over mountainous terrain, no wonder people refer to him as a machine.
He turned out to be a very unassuming, simple and pleasant young man, whose passion for his beloved mountains is what, struck me most. Eager to find out what made him tick he was faced with a steady stream of questions throughout the evening, all of which he answered in a totally unflustered manner.
At times it was a little difficult to reconcile the Kilian we were meeting with the Salomon sponsored running machine that we had already heard so much about. There were not any pretensions or any signs of conceit just a love of the mountains and nature. I asked a few questions regarding his training regime and was particularly interested to hear about ski mountaineering as a competitive sport. Most of the time however, I remained spellbound by his quiet and patient response to the questions of others.
The evening could have gone on forever as far as I was concerned, thoroughly enjoying his company. I feel extremely privileged to have met a very special person who is an inspiration and perfect ambassador for Catalonia.
In total contrast to Killian this gentleman is all showmanship, displaying his not inconsequential talents with panache and humour.
An ex-boxer who was due to represent Spain at the Atlanta Olympics until his career was cut short by a traffic accident. After humble beginnings as a delivery boy in a pizzeria he now runs a highly acclaimed pizza restaurant of his own and has won several titles including the European and World Pizza Champion.
Do not expect a traditional style pizza however the menu includes an eclectic mix of varieties all of which may stretch our imagination a little but undoubtedly have not even begun to test Fabián.
Many of the pizzas on offer were as much artistic delights as culinary pleasures, some presented in small cocktail glasses, or small mouth sized morsels inspired by San Miguel beer and the Japopizza a sushi pizza eaten with chopsticks.
It maybe a little ironic however that our most popular pizza still appeared to be the most traditional with toppings of mozzarella, ham and mushrooms known locally as cepes.
Fabián explained the story behind each pizza usually providing a few finishing touches to illustrate the care taken in each creation. All were presented in his inimitable style; he has a wicked sense of humour and obviously felt completely at ease entertaining us with his anecdotes and displays of his talent.
Finishing with an impressive show of his ability to acrobatically toss the pizza dough around, some of the moves even having a name, we almost cheered him when he finished and applauded this display of his award winning skill.
Whilst his passion was more ‘in your face’ than our encounter with Kilian and was more entertaining than inspiring it still left an indelible impression on me of the region and its culture.
Chef Pep Nogué i Puigvert
When the brief describes the mornings activities as a “walk in La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park of la Fageda d’en Jordà followed by an open air picnic” it’s easy to imagine blankets and baskets. What we actually received was home brewed beer, amazing local volcanic cuisine and all presented by a larger than life character known simply as Chef Pep.
Just as well a good appetite had been worked up on the walk as I lost count of the number of courses our picnic involved and by the end was truly stuffed.
The beer is produced from buckwheat and was certainly welcome on a very hot day, it proved to be the most popular item on offer and we drank Chef Pep out of his stock of microbrew.
Our host is well known in Catalonia, a television personality that passionately extols the virtues of the locally produced ‘cuina volcanica’. After a few minutes of being exposed to his very polished and professional presentation skills it is easy to imagine him on the set of many television cookery shows.
It was uncomfortably hot and the beer, which is brewed to be savoured like a wine, was definitely not being sipped in the manner an equally good wine should be, suffice to say we were thoroughly enjoying it.
Chef Pep did not skip a beat however, the heat did not seem to bother him at all and he presented every course in a highly entertaining and witty manner. Despite our own discomfort it seemed as if every one of us was totally captivated by his explanation of each successive dish.
An ambassador for the tasty cuisine which is extremely popular here, his impressive presentation left me at least still hungry to experience more of it in future.
These were just a few of the amazing personalities we met during this visit to the Catalonia and the Pyrénées. Whether it was our guide amongst the vines and olive groves of ‘la Vinyeta’ or the mind blowing works of art in the Salvador Dali Museum their pride was clearly evident to see.
This region has its own very distinct culture and identity which is epitomised by the people. Visiting the area will definitely have you smiling throughout any trip, take the time to get to know the local population and the memories will last a lifetime.