Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

A couple of days after I wrote about “Caga Tio” – the traditional character made out of a rough-hewn log that is believed to “shit” presents in homes all over Catalonia, Spain on Christmas morning, I met up with my friend and fellow travel blogger, Isabel Romano in Barcelona. She and her significant other, Xavier, had read my post and decided I’d learned only part of the story, so after a Sunday morning breakfast of hot chocolate and churros, we were off to Cathedral Square to visit the city’s annual Christmas Market.

Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.

Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.

Isabel and Xavi explained that rather than decorating a Christmas tree each year, Catalonians buy a nativity scene, called a Belen in Spanish and a Pessebre in Catalán. Often, these nativities consist of a complete pastoral scene with a traditional Catalán farmhouse or even an entire village. Each year, families scour the market for new pieces to add to their nativity. Up and down the aisles, booths were filled with everything from basic manger scenes to elaborate miniature buildings, trees, rivers, mountains, farm animals and figurines. I was perusing a selection of Joseph, Mary, the wise men, shepherds, and baby Jesus when Isabel pointed to a large sign atop one booth that said “Caganers.”

There is a Caganer hidden in every Belen,” she explained. “He wears the traditional Catalán hat called a barretina and is always displayed squatting with his pants around his ankles, defecating.” Read More

He was a cute little guy wearing an oversize traditional Catalán red hat. From his place on the countertop of  St. Christopher’s Inns Hostel in Barcelona, his raised eyebrows and big black eyes stared at me with an expression of perpetual surprise. His front legs, just a couple of twigs stuck into a rough log, rested on a sheet of paper with the title: “The Tradition of the Caga Tio – Shitting Log.” I read on as I waited to check in.

In Catalonia, Spain, the Caga Tio (a large log) is believed to "shit" gifts on Christmas morning

In Catalonia, Spain, the Caga Tio (a large log) is believed to “shit” gifts on Christmas morning

In the beginning, Caga Tio  was just a log that, when burned in the fireplace, provided precious heat and light. Fire to the earth. Over time, it became a symbol of other gifts given to the household at Christmas, such as candy, nougat, and wafers. Each Christmas, in homes all over Catalonia, Spain, a Caga Tio is kept in the kitchen or dining room near the fire as the holidays approach, where family members “feed” it dry bread, carob, orange peels, tangerines and other fruits and make sure it has water to drink. Thanks to all this caring, on Christmas Eve, traditionally after midnight mass, or on Christmas morning, Caga Tio “shits” gifts.

I had the strongest urge to pick up the log and see if it had “shit” anything, as the idea of a log “shitting” Christmas presents is certainly one of the more bizarre cultural traditions I’ve ever run across. But being from a country where a fat man in a red suit lands on a rooftop in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, shimmies down a chimney, and leaves candy in stockings hung from the mantle of the fireplace, I decided I had no room to judge and, with some effort, restrained myself.

Some cities beckon sports lovers, others are the darlings of festival lovers. Some delight the palate while others offer up a smorgasbord rich in history, art and architecture. Girona, Spain is none of these. Girona is all of the above.

I first arrived in this Catalonian capital back in September to attend the Travel Blog Exchange Conference, sponsored by Costa Brava Tourism. My plan had been to spend a few days in Girona, followed by several weeks traveling around France, ending with two weeks in Iceland before heading back to the U.S. to spend Christmas with my family. As often happens, my plans were thwarted.

Kayaking the River Ter with two local adventure sports companies, Kayak del Ter and Caiac i Natura

Kayaking the River Ter with two local adventure sports companies, Kayak del Ter and Caiac i Natura

Post-conference, the tourism board went into high gear, chauffeuring me to Vall de Nuria, high in the Spanish Pyrenees for a day, followed by a three-day press trip that promised to make me “feel like a local” in Girona. I milked a cow at an organic farm, hiked to the top of a ring of volcanoes, enjoyed a traditional Catalonian breakfast of tomatoes rubbed on fresh bread and slathered with olive oil at a 700-year old farm, explored a natural spring at Canet d’Adri, and spent a day with one of the city’s top chefs, learning about the gastronomic delights of Catalonia. One morning I kayaked the rapids of the Ter, one of four rivers that converge in Girona, then joined an afternoon walking tour of Barri Vell, the old town in Girona where eye-poppingly colorful houses reflected in the mirrored surface of the River Onyar. Read More

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Passports with Purpose

As I travel in developing countries around the world, I am often confronted by the lack of basic necessities that we take for granted in the United States. With each visit to Nepal I am reminded how difficult life is for residents of rural villages who walk miles each day, carrying large steel jugs of water on their shoulders for the needs of the family and their livestock. Children often miss out on education because their human labor is more important to the family’s survival than hours spent in a school.

Family collecting water in Haiti, courtesy of Water.org and Passports with Purpose

Family collecting water in Haiti, courtesy of Water.org and Passports with Purpose

Being regularly exposed to these living conditions tends to deaden the shock while I’m on the road but each time I return to the U.S. and turn on a tap or bend over a drinking fountain for the first time and can safely drink the water, the reality socks me in the gut. That’s why I’m especially delighted that this year, Passports with Purpose, the annual fundraising effort supported by travel bloggers, will be raising $100,000 to build two wells in Haiti, where nearly half of the people don’t have a nearby source of clean water. PwP is working in tandem with Water.org, in my opinion one of the best charities in the world. Nicole Wickenhauser, a Senior Development Manager with the organization, explains the depth of the problem:

Men, women and children living in Port-au-Prince gather their water each day by walking to a nearby water tank (filled sporadically by water trucks) and filling up a five-gallon-jug which they then carry back to their homes. This is typically the only water they have for the whole day, for all of their needs: drinking, bathing, cooking, laundry, cleaning, etc. Often, it’s contaminated. In the surrounding villages where Water.org works, the situation is no better. People walk miles or wait in long lines for unreliable water which is often not safe.”

Passports with Purpose is a unique effort, in that we don’t just ask you to make a monetary donation. Travel bloggers solicit sponsors to donate prizes that are then raffled off. Each $10 you donate buys one entry in the raffle for the prize you select. And the prizes are pretty darn fantastic, ranging from country tours to stays in luxury hotels, to top of the line travel gear. Check out this year’s catalog of prizes here. See more than one prize you’d like to bid on? No problem. Read More

Our group clustered around Chef Xavier Arrey in the busy market, intent on learning as much as possible about the fresh local ingredients available in the Catalonia region of Spain. Through our headsets, he spoke to each of us in the language we understood – to me in Spanish, to another in Catalan, a third in Italian, and a fourth in French – switching so effortlessly between languages that he made my head spin. At one vendor he picked up a fresh fig and peeled it open, revealing the delicate rosy fruit within, explaining that it would make a delicious appetizer when paired with slices of homemade goat cheese. From the butcher he selected blood sausage to be fried up with Faisol beans, then stepped across the aisle and picked up a plastic container of roasted red peppers and onions. He tore off the lid, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “Fantastic,” he pronounced. Shoving the container beneath each of our noses in turn he commanded, “Breathe!”

Girona's market, specializing in fresh, local, and seasonal products

Girona’s market, specializing in fresh, local, and seasonal products

Chef Arrey took one woman by the hand and led her to a kiosk where spices were heaped in glass bowls. We sniffed redolent paprika and cumin and sampled exotic dried fruits while he selected the perfect spices for the cooking class that would follow. I felt heat rise to my cheeks as Chef draped his arm around my shoulders and led us to the seafood stall, where he waxed poetic over tripe then plopped a crayfish in his palm, explaining that the freshest have clear eyes. After selecting jumbo shrimp and Red Mullet, he turned his attention to the Bonito, selecting a large one from the case. “Ah, bellisimo!” he cried, raising the fish to his lips and planting a kiss on its mouth. Read More

From the outset, I knew I was in trouble in Girona, Spain. Not only did I love the people, architecture, and scenery, I loved the food! As if conspiring to pierce my Achilles heel, Costa Brava Girona Tourism Board, the main sponsor and host of the Travel Blog Exchange Conference I had come to attend, focused on the cuisine of Catalonia. It began with an opening night party, held at the 12th century Castell de Sant Gregori. I stuffed my face with lacy fans of Parmesan cheese that dissolved on the tip of my tongue and devoured an exquisite mushroom risotto, then swooned over mango and chocolate desserts, all prepared by El Cellar de Can Roca, said to be the second best restaurant in the world – no argument from this aficionado.

By the end of the conference I’d gained five pounds and a press trip on the heels of TBEX would keep me eating more or less continuously for the next three days, sampling organic yogurt at a local dairy farm, gorging on a traditional Catalonian breakfast at a 700-year old farm, and feasting at a catered party at the ancient Arab Baths in Girona. On day six I rolled out of bed like a beached whale and perused the day’s schedule, overjoyed to discover we would be hiking in the Llemena Valley. Finally, a reprieve that would allow me to work off the bulge that was beginning to creep over my yoga pants!

Volcanoes of the Llemena valley didn't look very imposing from the base

Volcanoes of the Llemena valley didn’t look very imposing from the base

A short while later our bus ground to a halt and spit us out in front of a peaceful farm that squatted at the base of a densely forested humpbacked hill. We climbed steadily to a ridge where the panorama revealed itself; from east to west, a string of eroded hills ringed the valley like a circle of overturned bowls. Though placid on this sunny morning, 10,000 years ago these now extinct volcanoes spewed lava in living testimony to the fiery forces that formed this fertile valley. Read More