Seeing Spain's Costa Brava from a Local Perspective

Searching for a Place to Put Down Temporary Roots

There’s a book in my future. More precisely, there’s a book in my past that I need to get back to writing if I ever expect to finish it. The problem is, it’s hard to write a book when I’m traveling around the world, switching countries every few weeks. Rumbling around in the back of my head was the idea that I might just stop for a while, if I found a place that I liked well enough. I’d often thought that Spain might be that place, so I was pleased last fall when I learned that a travel blogging conference would be scheduled in Girona, located in the far northeast part of the country, in an region known as Costa Brava.

Unfortunately, three back-to-back press trips booked immediately after the conference left me little time to explore Catalonia before I was scheduled to leave for Paris. But the idea of Spain as a temporary base just wouldn’t go away, so at the end of my French experience I returned to Girona for a longer stay. This time, because I wanted to connect with the locals as much as possible, I arranged to rent a room from a young couple who had an apartment near the city center. In theory it was a good idea but sometimes things just go awry. Rather than being born and bred Spaniards, my hosts both turned out to be struggling immigrants, one from South America and the other from Palestine, who had only just moved in together. To save money they kept the heat turned off, even when temperatures began to dip, relying instead on one small electric space heater that was alternated between bedrooms. It was a relief when they informed me that family was unexpectedly arriving and I would have to find someplace else to stay.

Stunning 12th century Romanesque stone bridge in Besalú Spain osta Brava

Stunning 12th century Romanesque stone bridge in Besalú, one of the most charming villages in Catalonia, Spain

A few days later I moved to the Equity Point Hostel, just a couple of blocks away. I should have suspected that something wasn’t quite right when I was required to sign a form stating that I understood refunds were not possible for any reason, but the front lobby looked fine so I didn’t question it. Five minutes later I walked into the hostel hallway and was assaulted by the rank odor of sewage welling up from the floor grates. Breathing through my nose, I quickly found my dorm room and pulled the door closed to shut out the odor, only to realize that the room was freezing. The window next to my bed was broken and could not be shut, not only letting in the icy air but also leaving the first floor room totally accessible from the outside. Over the next few days I learned that the thermostats for room were all controlled by the front desk, and that heat was turned off early each morning and not turned back on again until night. The only place in the entire facility that was warm enough to write was the lobby, but the only seats were hard plastic chairs. Even the showers were impossible. They turned off automatically after thirty seconds, not even long enough for the water to become hot, and each subsequent push of the handset kept the water on for less and less time. In short, the place was one of the worst hostels I’ve ever encountered.

Context Libreria Cafe in Girona Spain Costa Brava

Context Libreria Cafe in Girona, Spain, where I spent several cozy afternoons sipping espresso and noshing on hummus

With no way to get my money back I decided to spend most of my time outside the hostel. One afternoon I discovered Context Libreria Cafe, a cozy (and warm) bookstore/cafe that offered live music, performance art, and literary events several evenings each week. The owner, Frederik, happily allowed me to while away the hours sipping espresso drinks and snacking on their delicious hummus. Another day, Richard Calvin, the owner of  Charming Catalonia Villas, a company specializing in high quality vacation rental homes and villas, took me hunting for wild mushrooms. When hunger set in we hiked a couple of miles to the tiny village of Orfes, where a handful of modest cottages clustered around an old stone church. There were no stores in sight and certainly no restaurant. Puzzled, I followed Richard up an enclosed stairway to the second floor of one of the homes, where he knocked on the unmarked wooden door. Seconds later the owner, Albert, threw the door open with a smile, revealing the mint green walls and white tablecloths of La Barretina Fonda d-Orfes Restaurant. Albert learned I was a vegetarian and began clucking over me like a mother hen, insisting I try the specialty of the house, a homemade sweet onion tart. Translating from Catalán, Richard explained that Albert roasts the baby onions for six hours, drawing out their sweetness before wrapping them in a flaky pastry crust. The first exquisite bite made me swoon. This simple onion tart was the most delicious dish I’d had in all of Spain.

La Barretina Fonda d-Orfes Restaurant in the tiny village of Orfes, Spain Costa Brava

Richard Calvin (left) scours the menu, while Albert, owner of La Barretina Fonda d-Orfes Restaurant makes recommendations

Later that same week, Richard invited me to spend the day with his family. I hopped aboard a local bus for the hour ride to the town of Besalú, a historical national property since 1966. Richard met my bus and we headed off on a walking tour of the town’s 12th-century Romanesque stone bridge (see top photo), 11th century church, and central square, where the daily produce market was still underway. Being accompanied by a respected local businessman had distinct side benefits, as Richard was also able to show me a restored 11th or 12th century ritual Jewish bath (mikveh) not open to the public. As early as 1090, Besalú was home to one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Costa Brava. With the protection of local authorities, Jews living in Besalú escaped the atrocities suffered by other Jewish settlements during the purges of the late 14th century but by the 15th century they were evicted from Spain. The synagogue and mikveh were abandoned, not to be discovered again until 1964.

Looking down on glistening Lake Banyoles at sunset Costa Brava

Looking down on glistening Lake Banyoles at sunset

A short time later I was sitting at the kitchen table with Richard’s wife, Sara Marti, swapping tips about technology, blogging and press trips, as Richard slaved over the stove. Richard insisted on driving me back to Girona; I didn’t yet know it but he had one more surprise in store. In Banyoles, he diverted onto a pothole-ridden dirt lane and bounced up a hill., where we strolled through a grove of gnarled olive trees and looked down upon Lake Banyoles, glistening in the setting sun.

Two days prior to my scheduled departure I made one last discovery in Girona. Hunched down into my jacket with collar pulled up around my ears, I was hurrying across Plaça de Independencia when a mouth-watering aroma stopped me in my tracks. I followed my nose to a food wagon on the far corner of the square, where long coils of batter sizzled in hot oil, puffing up and turning golden brown. These Churros (Xurros in Catalán), are usually consumed with Chocolate (Xocolate), a thick  liquid that is a cross between hot cocoa and melted chocolate. I surveyed the choices and knew that moderation was not an option. I had to have one each of the chocolate covered, creme filled, and plain varieties. Though they were all delicious, the plain was my indisputable favorite. The light-as-air pastry was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and melted in my mouth. Churros were my breakfast, lunch and dinner during my last two days in Girona.

Can’t view the above slideshow about Catalonia, Spain? Click here.

I never really made my mind up about staying long term. I liked Catalonia and the energetic can-do spirit of Catalonians but the winter temperatures were a bit chillier than I preferred. The food, farmers markets, and abundance of organic products were a definite bonus, as was the fact that Girona offered a real coffeehouse culture. Located less than an hour from the Mediterranean coast and only minutes from the mountains, Girona seemed like the perfect place to put down temporary roots but in the end my wanderlust got the better of me. I may well return, especially since the folks from Costa Brava Tourism informed that there is another hostel in town, but for now the road still beckons. My book is going to have to wait a little longer.

28 Comments on “Searching for a Place to Put Down Temporary Roots

  1. Wow, what a tale of disappointing hotels and hostels. Girona sounds mighty nice/

    • Girona is fantastic, Mark. It just goes to show that even in the best places, you can have a poor experience with accommodations. But, I spent about 6 weeks in Girona and I have to say it ranks among my favorite places.

  2. Loved reading your story and your images are lovely. Sorry about the horrible accommodations you encountered, I felt like I was there with you reading your vivid description, but really thankful I wasn’t 🙂 I look forward to reading more about your travels, and good luck with the book writing.

    • Thanks Barbara – that’s one of the best things you can say to a writer. If a reader feels like he/she is right there with me, then I’ve done something right!

  3. I can totally understand the appeal to temporarily settle down in Girona, it’s such a beautiful city and so much to explore nearby and I love how friendly and helpful the locals are. Too bad about the crappy accommodation.

  4. Yikes – that’s a couple of horror accommodation stories! I’m glad you finally managed to get a bit of local experience, though.
    I think you’re going to find it tough to write the book somewhere that’s full of such interesting things to do, like Girona. I can’t imagine being stuck inside on the computer knowing that there were so many things to explore. Perhaps you need to end up in the middle of the desert, or Siberia in winter, or something like that 🙂

    • LOL Turtle! You may have a point. I’m such a curious person that I love to be out exploring.

  5. It’s always fun and interesting to read your “woes of the permanent traveler” posts and live them vicariously since I know that sort of travel just isn’t my style, I like my home too much – but I also like getting away as often as possible. And as you say, the worst experiences (at the time) make for the best stories later. Great photos by the way.

    • Hi Greg: Interesting comment. I don’t think of them as woes. Guess I never think of anything as woes. It’s just stuff that happens and most of the time I just roll with the punches and stay flexible. But I think those stories are worth telling because so many people tell me I’m “living the dream” and I want folks to understand that living this way is no bed of roses. In the end, though, it’s all about the experience and I treasure every moment of it, though maybe not so much when it’s happening to me. 🙂

  6. Didn’t you really enjoy spending a long period of time in Mexico a few years ago when we first met? I could also see you settling down in Asia for a few months, seems to agree with you. I hope you find someplace that fits for a few months to relax and work on your book!

    • Hi Ali: You’re right! I spent 4+ months wandering solo around Mexico back in 2010 and I do really love parts of Mexico. However I think I’m more attached to Asia than Mexico, so that’s probably where I’ll land. I’m eager to check out Eastern Europe this summer, especially Slovenia and Croatia, but each time I find a place that I like, I still think Thailand is calling. We shall see what happens after this year.

      • I am REALLY looking forward to your Asia info since we will be back in Australia by then. It’s an area of the world that we have barely touched.

        • Hi Deborah: You know that I go to Asia a LOT and spend a good deal of time there, so if you need any help, just ask.

  7. Good to read that you ARE thinking about a temporary settle-down period because that gives you the time and energy to do the necessary writing and editing. It’s always a juggling act when you are on the road. Our 7 months in St. Girons, France gave me enough time to do lots of photo editing and I did quite a lot of posting as well. We’re in Paris for a few days, then off to Brussels, and I am already challenged time-wise with posts because I am so tired from doing the sightseeing and taking the pictures all day long. You have to be tired of packing, packing, packing as well! Good luck with your decision-making process, Barbara.

    • Hi Deborah: Now that you’re back on the road, you can easily relate to the term “blog slave.” No one know how difficult it is to be traveling permanently and still write on a regular basis. We all need to just stop sometimes.

  8. Barbara, your pictures make me desperately want to visit Spain. So beautiful and different from what I am used to. I can totally relate with traveling around half looking for somewhere to temporarily stay for awhile. Much like you however I seem to find myself back on the road more often than not. Happy travels to you… I will look forward to your book one day.

    • Thank you Alli! One of these days you’ll be reading an announcement about my book, but in the meantime I’m so glad you like my blog. Happy and safe travels to you.

  9. I’m glad you’re thinking about the book, Barbara. It wants to be born and will keep bugging you until you sit down and write it. I so look forward to reading it one of these days. Love you, my friend.

    • Love you too, Darrelyn. You’re definitely right about the book bugging me; just keeps getting worse. Someday soon….I’ll keep you posted.

  10. Wow, what an experience you had! I stayed at a hostel in NYC once that had the same problem with windows that didn’t close…needless to say, we got to know the loud neighbors QUITE well!;-) Happy travels, and hopefully you’ll get the book going along the way!

    • Hi Jess. It’s always good to hear that others have had similar experiences. It’s difficult at the time but it makes for realy good stories afterwards 🙂

  11. Hello Barbara,

    How encouraging to read of your wanderlust and answers to it! Since June I have been on the road in one form (driving back and forth across the States visiting friends and family for seven months) or other (In Europe and the UK for four months now) and am living now with the conflict of temporary roots vs. continued wandering. I must go back to the States at this point, but what to do after the two weeks for my being there is totally up in the air. I, too, have a different life from the 30 years of being a wife and mother, on my own with no obligation to anyone or anywhere. Time of redefinition. I have so enjoyed your entries and photographs, and am pleased when I see the e-mail sender be Hole In The Donut! Thank you so much.

    In Peace,

    Irene – On The Road

    • Hi Irene:
      Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know you enjoy reading my blog. It means so much to me! I write for myself – because I have to get the words out of my head – but it’s much more rewarding when I learn people are actually reading and enjoying what I write. Having experienced long-term travel now, I wonder what your re-entry to the US will be like. It’s always difficult for me to come back.I appreciate everything we have in the States, but I find something is lacking. The values and culture outside the US just seem much richer; people around the world seem to know better than we do how to live with joy. Stay happy and keep traveling.

  12. It’s been a long time since we were in Girona, 1975 to be exact. We’ve spent a lot of time driving around northern Catalunya, though. Sabadell, Vich, Sanguesa. Be sure to check them out. You might find your pristine writing venue in one of them. Good luck.

    • Thanks Tom! I’ve been to Roses, Banyoles, Besalu, Roses, Palau-Saverdera and Cadaques, but I’ve never heard of the villages you mention. Guess I’ll have to do some more exploring,

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