Catalonia – The Character of a Nation

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.

Pizza in Llívia, Catalonia in Spain on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

One of Fabián Martín’s more traditional appearing but tasty creations

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.

Kilian Jornet Burgada

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 Jornet a hero and son of Catalonia, Spain on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Portrait of a simple man

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.

Fabián Martín

In total contrast to Killian this gentleman is all showmanship, displaying his not inconsequential talents with panache and humour.

Fabián Martín pizza maker and showman in Llivai. Catalonia, Spain on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Showman supreme

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.

An award winning Fabain Martin pizza in Catalonia Spain on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_040666

An award winning pizza

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.

Chef Pep Nogué i Puigvert in La Garrotxa, Catalonia, Spain on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

The great beer and a Catalonian institution

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.

Chef Pep Nogué i Puigvert showing his tv cookery skills in La Garrotxa, Catalonia, Spain Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure, photography

An artist at work

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.

The Santa Margarita Church in an extinct volcano in the La Garrotx, Catalonia on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

The Santa Margarita Church in the volcano of the same name

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Comments 23

  1. lara dunston

    Wonderful post! Great stuff! As you may know, my husband and I mainly focus on (and try to promote) ‘local travel’ on our blog – living like locals, connecting with local people, exploring local neighbourhoods and everyday life, etc – so I absolutely love love love that you wrote about the local people you met. For me the best way to experience a place is through its people. I really don’t think I could have read another post about the adventure side (I have to admit I’m getting very bored with the sky-diving/ballooning/white-water rafting type posts that come out of a lot of these blogger trips; everyone does the same thing, so they are all very similar – for some reason adventure travel, while very exciting to experience, is often excruciatingly dull to read), so I am really pleased to see you focus on the people – and what fascinating characters they are too. I’ve travelled to Catalonia/Catalunya on both the Spanish and French sides a few times, and we’ve driven all over the region, and it *is* spectacular and the food is amazing, but, like you, I’m struck by the strength of character of the people and the strong cultural identity of the region. Thank you for this post!

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      Iain

      Thank you Lara I am really glad you liked the post and enjoyed reading about the people (we’ll pretend the other post about hot air ballooning does not exist for now) I have to agree that any destination is not only enhanced by its people but they are what the visit is all about. I also agree it is important to find a different angle to post about from these trips as so many posts come out saying similar things, which is what i attempted to do with this one. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Natalie

    I think the people that you meet can make a huge difference to your trip. I have met a lot of people on my recent trip, either local or travelers as well and they have all added to the experience. Would love to taste Fabián Martín’s pizzas. Now they read like they could be a work of art.

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      Iain

      The people do make a huge difference Natalie those that choose to keep to themselves are seriously missing out, it is such a big part of the overall experience. I am sure you will love Fabians pizzas they are amazing creations so original many far from our usual ideas of pizza.

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  3. Rachel

    Lovely to hear about your experiences with local people and not just activities that could be done in a variety of place. Catalonia is an area I´ve only managed to skirt around, so far.

    Spain is so huge and diverse, makes it tricky to get around it all.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Rachel

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      Iain

      I am glad you enjoyed reading about Catalonia Rachel and hope you get to visit there yourself soon it is a very sepcial region indeed.

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  4. Sherry

    Catalonia has always impressed me. The people more than anything else. I feel like its one of the few places in the world where life transcends time. Where the young and the old play an equal part in preserving their heritage. Everyone just seems so proud of who they are and where they came from and these people you’ve outlined are evidence of that; its really something to admire. I cannot wait to go back and explore more of these lands … perhaps hot air ballooning.

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      Iain

      You really seem to understand and appreciate Catalonia Sherry, your description pretty much sums up how I felt about it, a proud and close community within a nation. Thoroughly recommend the ballooning if you get the chance.

  5. John

    Lara makes a good point, getting to know the locals always makes for better memories, perhaps even life long friends. In my humble opinion, your post on the balloons captures the experience more effectively through the photos than the text. Like most activities, participating is more fun than observing. I am not a lover of “The guide spotted a Griffon vulture circling on the thermals above the pine forest. He applied the Jeep brakes so violently, that some of the contents of the glass of Cava I was savouring, spilled onto my lap. Getting out, I nearly dropped my camera onto the dusty, rocky strewn trail…..” . A photo of the Griffon Vulture wings outstretched on the rising air currents, with perhaps the Jeep in the foreground, the forest behind and the rocky mountains behind that, waste far less of my time. All I am looking for is a taste of the region, from that I can decide whether I would enjoy it. I wouldn’t be drinking Cava, but looking for wildlife myself and I would take better care of my camera. I couldn’t care less whether the writer enjoys Cava more than beer or vice versa. Give me the facts, the figures, figures, great photos, maps etc. so that if I enjoy what I see, I can decide whether or not to visit that destination.
    Taking the narrative away from “Me, myself and I”, is a step in the right direction.

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      Iain

      With all due respect John I do not write merely for your benefit, there are many that also like to have the experience explained and described. Whilst a mere journal of what the traveller did is not ideal many still appreciate descriptions that take them beyond the mere vision of a photograph. It is entirely the choice of the reader whether they enjoy a post and site and whether they will return. Personally I do not go around telling others how they should edit and publish on their sites, but that is of course all about freedom of speech, thank you for letting me know the kind of posts you prefer however do not expect to see mere facts and figures on this site in future.

      1. John

        Iain, reading my comment again should reveal that after agreeing with Lara, what follows is my own personal opinion, not a judgement on how you or anyone other person writes about travel.

        But do you really mean to say you don’t write for me personally. I’m gutted! 😉

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          Iain

          Sorry John but “Taking the narrative away from “Me, myself and I”, is a step in the right direction” sounds like a form of judgement, but that is just my opinion.

          You have read a quite a few of my posts so therefore should also be aware that I tend to mix styles between this and ‘opinionated’ editorials when the subject suits. In this case I felt that expressing how I personally felt about the balloon flight was appropriate.Evocative as the images maybe to me they do not explain my specific feelings/emotions during the experience.

          1. John

            No, it is a summation of the previous paragraph. The point I was trying to get across was that if I was thinking of taking a hot air balloon flight. I would be convinced more by your photos than the text. But before you jump in and say I’m criticising your writing. That is not what I’m saying. Let’s just say that a picture paints a thousand words and almost at light speed. You can’t say that about text unless you are a really, really fast reader.

            I also find your posts tend to be written for your readers, not as a Facebook travel p—ing contest, to refer to another of your posts.

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            Iain

            Fine John, personally I cannot see why you felt it necessary to make the distinction but each to their own, so enjoy your particular style of commenting.

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