I am sitting at the station in Puigcerdà, high in the Spanish Pyrenees, waiting for my train back to Barcelona.
- Why Puigcerdà?
Aha! A very good question, as Puigcerdà is probably not on most people’s “must do” lists of Spanish towns to visit. Some time ago I came across the novel The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It is set in Barcelona of the 1920s and 1930s and is a delightful novel. I brought it with me to re-read, and to see if the places the author talked about were still there – or were ever there.
At one stage, one of the characters goes to a sanatorium in – yep – you guessed it – Puigcerdà, a small alpine town about 150 kilometres north of Barcelona and just a tossed red herring away from Carcassonne and Perpignan in France. The poor chap died at the retreat – I guess the standard of health care in 1920s was not what it might be today – and then much later on his daughter returned to the sanatorium to find out what happened to her father.
The plot thickened and her lover followed her to Puigcerdà, where a cheery railway porter recommended that he walk straight through the village and to stay at the Hotel del Largo – all of whose rooms overlooked the lake – and told him to say that Sebas had sent him.
I put on my deerstalker hat and lit the first of my three pipes and followed their ghosts up into the mountains.
The train to Puigcerdà – pronounced, I think, “pweet SHAY dah” which is why I had to write it down for the ticket vendor as she did not understand my various attempts to say it – took about three hours on the way up and slipped down easily on the return journey taking just two and a half hours. In either direction the train scurried through scores of tunnels and past wheat fields studded with scarlet poppies. En route there were lots of little villages with houses of stone and slate-tiled roofs, occasional fields with contented cows, then more tunnels, waterfalls, mountain streams and stone-built villages.
Toses, one of these hamlets, with a toy-sized railway station and platform, suddenly appeared as the train came screeching out of a tunnel, paused for a quick breath to let off a couple of contented cow farmers, and then disappeared again as the train plunged like a mole back into its burrow.
On arrival in Puigcerdà I did not find any helpful red-capped porters or horses waiting to take me through the snows, but I did find that there were rack railways and elevators to get up to the centre of the village, which clings nervously to the side of the mountain.
I checked into the Hotel del Lago (www.hotellago.com) and found that none of the rooms overlooked the lake … which just goes to prove you should never trust cheery fictional railways porters – red capped or not – who were probably on commission from lakeside hotels.
Even without lake views, it was a nice little hotel with a lovely garden, and with reception staff who were just about the most unwelcoming I have ever come across. They were not actively unpleasant or aggressive – simply not very smiling or helpful. Perhaps my total lack of Catalan and my very limited Spanish had something to do with it so I will give them the benefit of the doubt.
There actually IS a nearby hotel that does overlook the lake (a lake which is much smaller than I had imagined it from Zafón’s description) but it did not seem to be open. Perhaps Zafón took some features from one hotel, added them to others from others and created his own – and the readers’ – fancy.
The twelfth-century campanile of a former cathedral dominates the centre of the town and is now the symbol of the city. The rest of the church was apparently destroyed in the 1936 Spanish Civil War. There are numerous winding streets and alleyways and squares and bars and restaurants. I had a very nice meal with half a bottle of Catalan red in one of these squares, with people strolling, kids playing football and old men playing dominoes, but I lost the track of the lost lovers.
Back in Barcelona
In Barcelona quite a few of Zafón’s destinations still exist, and even when they do not, it was fun trying to track some of them down – but wondering sometimes why Zafón did not choose some of the other medieval places in the old city that are so atmospheric and would have fitted in so well with the gloomy gothic themes of the novel.
In an earlier Zafón novel, a secret library is located just behind the Mercat de la Boqueria. I found the market easily enough – just off the fabulous pickpocket boulevard commonly known as Las Ramblas – but could not find the secret Harry Potteresque door to the library.
Gaudi’s incredible Sagrada Família features in The Angel’s Game, and one of the characters strolls past the huge red-brick Arc de Triomf – a tossed olive or two from the apartment I was renting – and through the Parc de la Ciutadella. and past La Cascada – a superb wedding cake of a fountain in the park.
I used to walk through this park on my way to the St Sebastian beach, past the baroque atmosphere of Barceloneta (a rabbit warren of buildings, squares, churches that date from the Fifteenth Century – and restaurants that date from yesterday) for lots of swimming and lying naked on the beach, and ignoring the vendors offering
- Cervesa, cold beer, cerveza!
I don’t think there are any spelling errors here – one is Spanish and one is Catalan – or the other way around – or perhaps it is a spelling mistake after all! Also on offer from passing vendors were pareos or massages or
- Mojitos, fresco mojitos!
The sun was warm enough for lolling about naked, but the Mediterranean was cool enough to allow only brief dips between having a massage, drinking a mojito or two or a cold cerveza and buying a sarong or two. And all the time there were Chinese tourists – fully-clothed and with outrageous sun hats – stomping up and down the beach, flip flops spraying sand on oiled bodies, taking photos of the funny naked people.
I took the train and cable car to Montserrat one day.
The train from Barcelona’s Placa d’Espanya station takes just sixty minutes, and then it’s a thrilling five-minute vertiginous ride in a gondola over the Llobregat River valley and up 1350 metres to the monastery. This holy site is nestled on a scarlet petunia-clad narrow ridge with towering cliffs looming above and deep deep drops to the valley and railway station far below.
This is Spain’s second-most important pilgrimage site (after Santiago de Compostela) and while the day I visited was not a significant or especially holy day, the place was still packed with buses and hordes of tourists. Perhaps there were some pilgrims there, too, but I did not see any sackcloth- and ash-strewn penitents on knees climbing up the stairs.
We all queued and queued and queued to get to see the Black Virgin and equally black little Jesus …
These marble statues (Whatever happened to the Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images?) are located in a sort of chamber high above the high altar of the basilica, and the queues creep along the southern side of the building through a series of elaborate side chapels, several of which were being restored when I visited.
My timing, quite accidentally, was excellent. There is a centuries-old boys’ music school attached to the basilica, and the boys sing at 13.00 every day. The queue moved to perfection, and I was just by the high altar when they processed in, sang a couple of anthems and trooped out. Having sung for their supper they could perhaps then go off to enjoy a late lunch.
Finally I got to the holy images whose blackness apparently comes from centuries of candle smoke. Both the virgin and the baby are holding balls and look like a couple of people about to start a game of boules. There is a plastic shield around the statues so you can only touch one of the balls – the one being held by the virgin.
There are so many quips I have restrained from making about balls.
Many of which, however, were on show several days later at Barcelona’s annual Gay Pride parade.
Parade and Fado
When I got to the place where the parade started there was a crowd around two fellows – quite naked except for full-body paint in gold or silver and wearing cowboy hats and boots – and nothing but body paint between. No plastic shields around these chaps – and plenty of people were lining up to have their photograph taken with Gold Adonis and Silver Apollo.
I had not been to gay pride parades anywhere else so did not know how this one would compare to the others, but I was a bit disappointed, as I believe that Sydney and Rio and other places have elaborate floats and many people in outrageous costumes.
This one was quite tame, I think, but it was a bit of fun with a few floats filled with muscular men in Speedos, or drag queens in frothy frocks and sequins, and people tossing packets of condoms and safe-sex pamphlets into the crowds. Occasional confetti cannons shot clouds of coloured paper into the skies. A weary looking bunch of cops surveyed the whole thing … and even wearier street sweepers followed the last party-goer, sweeping up confetti, mardi gras masks and rainbow flags.
That evening I went to a concert – starting at 10.00 pm! – in the old Greek theatre on the sides of Montjuïc, a medieval fortified hillside overlooking Barcelona. June is time for the Barcelona Festival – a month-long celebration of music, dance and drama. The performer was Dulces Pontes – apparently quite a famous Portuguese singer. Her website says she is
- The queen of world music, and one of the leading performers behind the fado revival of the 1990s
Unfortunately an over-amplified orchestra drowned Pontes’ singing, with noise echoing and bouncing around the stone walls of the amphitheatre. This was a such a pity, as I later realised that I had heard this woman sing before: she has a superb BIG voice which does not need lots and lots of amplification – especially in a ”Greek” theatre with superb natural acoustics … Ah well.
I left the concert early, fearing for aural meltdown. As I strolled in the pre-midnight streets leading down from Montjuïc, the noise followed me, reverberating between narrow rows of buildings before a final turning dulled the pain.
I started this story on a sunny day high in the Spanish Pyrenees and finished it some four years later on a cool cloudy day, sitting in the Point Rooftop Bar and Grill overlooking motorboats, six-man whalers, one-man kayaks and sailing boats on the Swan River in Perth, Western Australia: a long way between the two locations in distance, lifestyle and wines!
While there are almost certainly mysterious characters and evil doings in Perth, I did not do any amateur sleuthing. The common link is the beach – the wonderful naked beach at Swanbourne WA and the equally wonderful naked St Sebastian Beach in Barcelona.
Oh – the title? I sort of stole it from Luigi Pirandello, an Italian playwright, novelist, and short-story writer. One of his more famous works is Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) written in 1921 – about the time Zafón’s The Angel’s Game is set.
Text and photos © Christopher Hall 2018. Pontes photo from Internet
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship