The Catalan Coast

The “coast” part of this phrase, “The Catalan Coast,” is fairly self-explanatory. The Mediterranean Sea makes up the eastern border of both Spain and France, and the coast just north and south of the boundary between those two countries is the parcel of land in question here.

The “Catalan” part of this phrase is a little more complicated. We’ll get there in a moment.

I decided to drive my little rental car north out of Barcelona to see what this section of the world looked like. I expected beautiful coastline, Mediterranean vegetation, the remnants of Medieval fortifications, and charming harbor towns. In that regard, I wasn’t disappointed.

What I didn’t quite expect was that I would have communication issues. Sure, I knew people spoke Catalan in Barcelona. I had been there before and experienced what I perceived to be a stubborn but quaint insistence on speaking an ancient language derived from Vulgar Latin. But I also knew that everyone in Barcelona understood Castillian Spanish and that all signs would be in written in both languages, so I wasn’t too worried.

As I left the city, however, things changed. Signs over store windows had an awful lot of x’s in them (not a common letter in Castillian Spanish), and, while I could guess at the meanings of many of the words, others had me completely perplexed. When I stopped for gas, the attendant spoke Catalan. When I checked into my hotel room, the desk clerk spoke Catalan. And most significantly, every town’s welcome sign said “Pays Catalan” on it, right below a replica of the Catalan flag.

My first stop was Cadaquès, a port town with charming white buildings ringing its semi-circular harbor. Once a popular haunt of Salvador Dali’s, this former sleepy fishing village was injected with life in the 1950’s when Spain identified Cadaquès and the area surrounding it as having a high potential for tourism. They nicknamed the zone the “Costa Brava,” and a flurry of successful development ensued. Cadaquès’ recent status as a European beach destination did nothing to change the fact that I could not understand my grocery store cashier; she made no attempt whatsoever to speak Castillian Spanish, English, or French when I gave her a perplexed look. She pointed to the number on the cash register and scowled.

Later that day, I crossed into France (a fairly uneventful process since the Schengen Agreements eliminated the need for border checkpoints in EU countries), thinking that I would be done with this little Catalan thing. While my French isn’t terrific, it’s better than my Catalan, and I assumed I’d at least have the benefit of familiarity once I’d formally left Spain. I drove about ten kilometers north of the border to Banyuls-sur-Mer, the village I’d be staying in for three days, where I was greeted with a sign that said, yes, “Pais Catalan.” The town center was filled with placards that advertised tapas, “xurros” (what we usually call “churros”), and “xocolata,” and I couldn’t possibly miss the continued use of that notorious pronoun “els” (the plural of “el” or “the” in English. In Castillian, this word would be “los”). I even saw a giant painted paella pan hanging on a wall in a side alley. Apparently, the Catalan thing was not over yet.

Some background is in order here. Catalonia was established in the late 8th century and put under the jurisdiction of a Frankish vassal, the Count of Barcelona. It consisted of the four current provinces of Spain called Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona as well as a current French province, Roussillon (now called the Pyrenees-Orientales). Catalonia existed independently until the kingdoms of Catalonia and Aragon were united by marriage. Despite their unification, a certain amount of separation of institutions continued, and, in 1635, Catalonia revolted and became part of France. Multiple wars ensued. The Spanish eventually regained the four Spanish provinces but was forced to cede Roussillon to France in 1659. That province has stayed French ever since.

Meanwhile, in the 1700’s, the Spanish monarchy attempted to outlaw the Catalan language, but both the language and the culture it represented survived. In 1914, the four Spanish provinces declared themselves a commonwealth, and in 1931, they restored an autonomous Catalonian government. Under the dictatorship of Franco, the language was (obviously, unsuccessfully) banned again. In 2006, Catalonia declared itself an “Autonomous Community of Spain,” (I have to admit that I am still not quite sure what this means), and in 2015, this Autonomous Community approved a plan for secession from Spain. The plan was rejected by the Spanish Constitutional Court – although why that would matter, I’m not sure. If you’re seceding, you don’t pay attention to the dicta of the country you are seceding from, right? Catalonia is still part of Spain. Sort of.

Clear as mud, yes? Trust me, I feel your pain, as do many confused travelers.

The good news for me was that the French Catalonians do, for the most part, speak French. While there are estimated to be about six million Catalan speakers in Spain, they may number as few as 100,000 in France’s Pyrenees-Orientales department.

Other than this difference, however, the French Catalan villages shared not only a common cuisine and a sense of self-identification with their Spanish neighbors, they also shared a quiet harbor town feel. Banyuls-sur-Mer, the southernmost of the communities, is well known for its Banyuls grape varietal, and, as testament to this fame, stone-terraced vineyards surrounded the village on all sides. The downtown area appeared to be prepping for its busy summer season, still three months away; the entire waterfront was under construction, save for what my brother and I would call a “ghetto mini golf course” right in its center.

The next town north along the coastline, Port Ventres, is clearly a more commercially-functioning harbor town, and there was a substantial amount of fishing and shipping traffic moving in and out of the port while I was there. There were yachts aplenty in the water and fresh fish for sale on the sidewalk, and the early morning catcalls I experienced reminded me that harbor towns also offer the charms of bored single men.

The northernmost, and by far the most endearing, of the French Catalan coast towns is Colliure. Its Medieval fort and associated ramparts strike a dramatic silhouette against the sea. Colliure’s prime coastal position made it a strategic harbor throughout history, and generations of Romans, Visigoths, Aragonians, and Hapsburgs fought to keep it under their control. Surrounding their substantial constructions are rows and rows of colorful townhouses with shuttered windows, and the numerous sidewalk cafés and bars along the waterfront add to the village’s atmosphere – even if most of them were closed during my low season visit.

While I still don’t exactly understand the source of Catalan pride, I can absolutely understand these people’s pride in their area. These communities are relatively far from any major city, yet they provide valuable goods and services (wine grapes, seafood, shipping, recreation) to a much larger population through their well-developed railways, ports, and highways. Their landscape is a gorgeous combination of coastal mountains and rocky shoreline, and their weather is temperate and sunny. They exist at a crossroads between countries and seem to have no interest in picking sides.

Or, perhaps I should say that they have made their own side?

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