Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Mercè Barceló never expected to own a hotel. At university she studied philology, which qualified her to teach English and German. For years she tutored private language students until, in 2006, her world changed forever.

My big changes came when I decided to divorce,” she explained. “I have a very open personality, as my mother. We always have people in our home…and we always talk and are very spontaneous. So I thought this (hospitality) business could fit in my world.

Are you from this town?” I asked.

I grew up here. This was my house.

I looked around, trying to imagine Niu de Sol Hotel Rural as a private home. The rear sitting room, with its old brick fireplace, had been her parents’ original house. Mercè swept her hand around the dining room where we sat chatting. “This was the new house I built with my ex-husband. When I decided to divorce, it was also a (way of) not keeping memories of my past life.

Spain-Palau-Saverdera-Niu-de-Sol-Common-Room

The siting room is a favorite spot to curl up with a book

Initially, Mercè converted only the front of the building but soon after completing construction her father suffered an embolism and could no longer climb stairs. She helped her parents relocate to a ground-level apartment, then converted the rear portion of the building, increasing the size of the hotel to its present 14-room configuration. Her plan was risky. With only three restaurants and a bar that offers live jazz music each Friday night, the town where Niu de Sol is located, Palau-Saverdera, is anything but a tourist mecca. Yet this sleepy village, located in the exquisitely beautiful foothills of the Costa Brava region in Catalonia, Spain, offers something more precious than excitement.

People who come to me want to be near the coast but a little bit interior. They are searching for a charming hotel in quiet village.Read More

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Everyone told me I wouldn’t need a map. Rental cars these days, they insisted, are equipped with GPS systems that would carry me right to the doorstep of my destination; I just needed to request a car with English language GPS. Argus Rental Car was more than happy to oblige. On the appointed day, I met the Argus representative in his office at the train station in Girona, Spain.

He walked me to to the parking garage and pointed to a brand new, sleek black sedan. “It’s huge,” I thought, then dismissed my concern a split second later as he placed my luggage in the rear seat and began demonstrating how to operate the air conditioning, wipers, blinkers, and various other systems.

“I’m afraid I’ve never used a GPS. Can you show me how it works?” I asked.

“Sure. What’s your destination?” I handed him the address of my hotel in Palau-Saverdera and he scrolled through the settings until he figured out how to add it. “You’re good to go. All you have to do is hit the start button when you leave the garage,” he explained.

“Would you mind entering the return journey for me as well?”

His brow furrowed as he punched buttons, moving between options and screen displays. “All the destination slots are full and I don’t know how to delete an entry to make room for yours,” he admitted.

“No worries,” I said, waving him off and climbing into the driver’s seat. “I’ll figure it out.”

The metallic voice of the GPS directed me to turn left out of the lot and continue straight for several kilometers until I came to the entry ramp for the northbound highway. I tooled along the highway for half an hour before receiving my next instruction: “In 150 meters, turn left.” Huh? My destination was to the northeast and turning left would take me west. “Maybe it’s a cloverleaf,” I thought. I slowed down, looking for the turnoff, but the only possibility was a one-lane dirt road. “That can’t be right,” I mused. “I’ll just keep going north.” The GPS readjusted. “Make a U-turn at the next possibility.” Round and round I went, unable to find the correct road. Frustrated, I took the exit for Figueres and pulled into a gas station, where the man behind the counter drew me a map on a scrap of paper.

Hand written instruction from Figueres to Palau-Saverdera

Hand written instruction from Figueres to Palau-Saverdera

Back in the car, I easily followed the attendant’s map but the GPS was not happy. In addition to repeatedly insisting I turn around, it suddenly developed a second voice that spoke half-a-beat later than the original audio. I considered turning it off but didn’t know how, so I soldiered on, trying to tune out the unintelligible gibberish. Finally, I found the turn-off for Palau-Saverdera and, a few blocks up the hill on the main street, my hotel. With my luggage unloaded, I parked in a nearby lot and aimed the clicker at the car; never before had the sound of a door lock engendered such satisfaction. I turned and walked away, intending to completely ignore the vehicle for a while. Read More

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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

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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.

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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 4 of 4 in the series Passports with Purpose
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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 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