Artículo de Información
Catalonia in the Off Season
By FRANCINE PROSE
Brooke Slezak for The New York Times |
Like so much else in Cadaques, lunch at Casa Anita feels
like a skip back in time. The rough communal tables covered in red-and-white checked
oilcloth, the wine bottles smothered with candle drippings, the walls decorated with
framed photos of portly, satisfied customers all seem like tickets for travel to an
another era, though it's oddly hard to pinpoint our final destination. Rural Spain
in the 19th century? Greenwich Village in the 50's?
The Teatre-Museu in Figueres,
built by Salvador Dali in the 1970's, incorporating part of the old city ramparts
as well as a facade of the former Municipal Theater.
Casa Anita's proprietor -- one of those jolly, theatrical, life-loving
guys whose girth seems like an advertisement for the skills of his chef -- would seem at
home in any number of regions and decades.
In summer, our friends in Barcelona have told us, long lines of eager customers
spill into the street, waiting for seats at one of Casa Anita's crowded tables. But on a
Sunday afternoon in early December, the clientele consists of a total of three couples:
my husband, Howie, and me, two weekenders from faraway Madrid and a pair of young lovers
from the nearby city of Girona.
So the proprietor has time on his hands and nothing much to do but open
a bottle of light, young, local white wine and sit down at our table for a leisurely discussion
of today's menu. First, a dish of olives and a Catalan specialty, pa amb tomaquet -- toasted
bread smeared with olive oil, mashed tomato and garlic. Then a fish soup so flavorful and
thick with tiny crabs and giant shrimp that Marseille's robust bouillabaisse seems, in memory,
like canned clam chowder. The soup is followed by a platter of grilled sardines, another
of fried calamari. All simple, all divine.
Our host suggests a short break while we consider dessert, a decision he
facilitates with shots of herbal brandy. In the pause between courses, he waves his arms
like a semaphore to announce: Now for the entertainment! He grabs a porron, the traditional
Catalan drinking vessel, an alchemical-looking glass flask with a long, slender spout. Drinking
from the porron, your lips should never touch the spout. The whole point is to hold the
flask as far as possible from your face and tilt a high, arched stream of wine into your
open mouth. The perfect marriage of hygiene and showing off, drinking from a porron requires
a high-wire combination of nerve and hand-eye coordination.
Senor is an expert. He holds the porron at arm's length. After every long
gulp he grins, and his six customers applaud. Suddenly his grin becomes exponentially more
wicked, and he tilts the porron and directs the stream toward the middle of his forehead.
Magically, the river of wine converges between his eyebrows and travels neatly down the
sharp edge of his nose. With hardly a drop wasted, the wine ends up in his mouth. Our host
bows. His forehead is slick with wine. He looks like he's run a race. He bows and smiles
at each couple in turn.
''It's sexual,'' he says.
The performance aspect of lunch at Casa Anita may be more intense at the
height of the summer season, when tourists swarm the lovely, endearingly funky fishing town
of Cadaques, at the northern tip of Spain's Costa Brava. But somehow I doubt it. The owner
of our comfortable, unpretentious hotel, which tonight has only eight guests, and which
is due to close tomorrow for a holiday vacation, tells us that -- although the high season
provides much of his income -- he can't imagine why any sane person would come to Cadaques
in August. To sit in traffic? To struggle for a few feet of space on a beach crowded with
The December day is chilly enough that it's hard to imagine wanting to
lie on the beach. Yet even though the winter sun keeps disappearing behind the clouds, it
seems like the ideal time to visit Cadaques, the most idyllic moment to spend in what is
arguably the most unspoiled town on the Costa Brava. Unlike its neighbors along the coast
south toward Barcelona, Cadaques has prohibited the rampant overbuilding that makes so much
of this scenic territory seem occupied by invading armies of condos. And simply getting
to Cadaques requires a serious commitment. After you leave the main highway that continues
up into France, there's a long and daunting drive along a road that barely clings to the
sides of the mountain until at last Cadaques appears in the distance, rising up a hill from
the ocean, the houses, inns, waterfront cafes whitewashed and trimmed in that Mediterranean
blue Matisse so loved.
In winter, Cadaques reverts back to its private self: a working-class fishing
port where, on Sunday, as ringing bells signal the end of Mass at the church on top of the
hill, families are already gathering in the casino -- now converted into a cafe -- and are
drinking coffee and listening to the heartfelt efforts of a homegrown brass band. If you
could somehow unfocus your eyes to screen out the cars and satellite antennas, almost nothing
would seem to have changed since the early 1930's.
Here's my recipe for a blissful winter afternoon, though perhaps not to
everyone's taste: From Cadaques, you drive up through Cap de Creus National Park, a winding
road through an otherworldly, lunar landscape, paradoxically lush and austere, a scrubby
headland pocked by bizarre, sculptural rock formations, with startling views of the ocean
around each impressive curve. Cap de Creus is the easternmost point of the Costa Brava,
and it's become a ritual to come here to watch the sunrise, especially on New Year's Day.
At the top of the road, not far from the lighthouse, is a restaurant whose
exterior suggests a battered remnant of the Wild West. At 4 on a Sunday afternoon, it's
jammed with local people -- solitary barflies, huge families, children and dogs. It's a
spirited, friendly crowd, and the place is simultaneously evocative of a tavern in Goya's
era, of a contractor's bar in upstate New York and of a home for stranded members of the
60's Joe Cocker show. Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley sing on the sound system. You can order
a full meal of Catalan home cooking or, as we do, absinthe and Galician brandy, then sit
in a chair by the fireplace and meditatively sip your drink. It's impossible not to notice
that you have come to a special place that could hardly be farther from your ordinary life.
At twilight in Cadaques, the twinkling lights surrounding the crescent
cove are the only things that even seem to move, except for the wheeling seabirds. In the
morning, just before dawn, I wake up to watch a fleet of local fishermen shipping out in
wooden boats. At such times, it's easy to understand why the town's charms attracted some
of the 20th century's greatest artists and writers, including Picasso, Bunuel and Man Ray.
Cadaques is where Gala and Salvador Dali first met in 1929, when she came
from Paris on vacation with her husband, the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. In the early 1930's
the Dalis -- who were officially married in church in 1958 -- returned there to buy and
renovate the cottage that functioned as the refuge to which they retreated to plot their
conquest of the wider world. Only eight visitors at a time are admitted to the Casa-Museu
Dali, the Dalis' house at Port Lligat, a few minutes from Cadaques. In season, it's necessary
to call or e-mail far ahead for reservations. But today we are invited to come in with the
next group, in 10 minutes.
A succession -- a sort of tag team -- of knowledgeable guides takes us
through the charming, predictably strange and unpredictably modest cottage that makes you
see one of history's most famously difficult art couples in a more tender and flattering
light. A goofy stuffed bear greets you in the entrance hall, holding a welcoming lamp and
offering a first taste of the Dalis' ubiquitously evident passion for taxidermy. Dali's
studio has a magnificent ocean view, and on the wall are the red-and-green 3-D-movie glasses
with which he experimented in the 1970's. Given that outsiders were rarely invited into
the house itself, you can only conclude that their theatrical bedroom was meant for themselves
alone: the thronelike, almost comically regal beds, the bird and cricket cages, the mirror
in which Dali could watch the sunrise without getting out of bed, the melancholy trios of
children's chairs that were among Gala's contributions to the couple's obsessive decorating
scheme, along with the dressing room she papered with photos of them posed with A-list celebrities
ranging from Harpo Marx to Picasso to Laurence Olivier in full Richard III drag.
The last of the guides tells us that the Dalis only entertained guests
in their garden, which does indeed feel like a more public space, modeled, whimsically if
immodestly, on the gardens of the Alhambra. Familiar Dali objects -- eggs, teacups -- are
scattered around, along with touches like a large flamingo-pink statue of the Michelin man
and a fountain Dali created from cheap tourist-souvenir liquor bottles in the form of bullfighters.
The artist's less appealing sides are on full display in Figueres, Dali's
birthplace (he was born in 1904), less than an hour away, where, perhaps as a sort of parting
shot at the bourgeois city he found so oppressive, Dali built the Teatre-Museu, a turreted,
rose-colored palace, built to include part of the ancient city ramparts; its roof is lined
with monstrous, sentrylike white eggs, its walls encrusted with gold-painted knobs. Much
about the Figueres museum -- for example, the gold jewelry Dali designed -- evokes the more
vulgar, cynical aspects of his career. But I loved discovering, in the museum's courtyard,
''Rain Cadillac,'' a piece I remember seeing as a child, in the garden of New York's Museum
of Modern Art: a vintage black Cadillac, its interior filled with jungly greenery watered
by a steadily dripping rain. Seeing it was like meeting an old friend, a friend, who --
that day -- happened to be singing in the voice of Bing Crosby. The music emanating from
the car, Crosby singing Christmas carols, made me laugh out loud, and seemed like something
that Dali, at his best, would have loved.
Driving through this corner of Catalonia, you rapidly understand that Dali
represents only a punctuation mark in the lengthy and complex book of the region's art and
culture. A twisting drive that gives new meaning to the phrase ''not for the faint of heart''
takes you to the sublimely melancholy ruins of the monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, begun
during the 10th century and constructed intermittently until the 18th. So in harmony with
its surroundings that it suggests a mysterious geological outcropping rising from the mountain,
the abbey -- with its vaulted crypt, soaring basilica and arched loggias -- has to be, you
feel, more lovely in its present state than it was in its glory.
At Empuries, a brief and considerably less hair-raising drive down the
coast, are extensive, elaborate remnants of Greek and Roman settlements. Dramatically situated
on a bluff above the sea, they are notable for the skilled, inventive landscaping that has
turned what remains of the ancient cities into a terraced park with marvelous topiary, rosemary
hedges, stands of pampas grass. A few minutes away is the sleepy (at least in December)
medieval village of Sant Marti d'Empuries. In the small plaza across from the church, sited
to catch the maximum winter sun, are several inviting, elegant and reasonable restaurants.
At the Meson del Conde, in a pink-walled dining room with an open fireplace and beamed ceilings,
we're served artichokes with cod brandade, monkfish ''scallops'' with cinnamon sauce, partridge
with black pudding and bream with duck breast in mushroom sauce. At the next table, a young
man digs into a portion of calcots, the broiled scallions that are a seasonal specialty
of the region and that are eaten -- or rather stripped with the teeth -- by diners wearing
plastic gloves and a bib.
In fact, the area is dotted with perfectly preserved medieval towns that
in winter seem more like human habitations than theme parks. As we climb up to Begur, a
tolling church bell warns us that a funeral is in progress. Sure enough, half the town is
in mourning, gathered in the plaza. It's hardly the time for tourism, and we head back down
the hill. In Pals, by contrast, at 9 on a weekday morning, we don't see one other human
being as we wander through the tastefully restored walled village. Nothing's stirring but
the mist and a few stray cats in this magical town that in August begins to resemble a medieval
mall selling local crafts.
At that point, Pals might be better admired from the windows of the Mas
de Torrent, an 18th-century inn converted into a luxury hotel. When I call from the road,
the receptionist says: Please. Come on over. Whenever you want. There are two other guests
at the hotel, an American mother and son. The desk clerk says she hopes we'll understand
if the restaurant is closed. Our room has a terrace and a long wall of windows with a view
of the distant landscape and of Pals, rising from the valley floor. We walk in the formal
gardens and, in the evening, watch the lights come up in Pals and the nearby farms.
Checking out the next morning, we're surprised to hear the buzz of an excited
crowd. In the lobby, we find a large group of young men and women -- a class from a hotel
school. They stare at us, as if surprised to see a guest, as if a guest were something exotic.
And we stare back because, with their scrubbed faces, slicked-back hair and neat, navy blue
blazers, they seem so innocent and appealing.
An instructor herds them into the gardens, and we follow, on our way to
the car. The hotel students keep looking at us, and we keep looking at them as they head
deeper into the mist, like a flock of quail scurrying through the austere, lush Catalan
Francine Prose is the author, most recently, of ''The Lives of the
Domingo 14 de septiembre de 2004