Empordá
life imitates art

They say it’s the Mediterranean light and the skies, swept clear by the constant tramuntana wind. The harmony of the landscape, green on the inland plane, blue along the rugged coastline. The solitary old farmhouses, with plenty of room for spacious studios; the local people, used to welcoming without judgement. Whatever the reason, the Empordà, the northeasternmost comarca of the province of Girona where Catalonia borders France, is a land of artists, a haven that exerts a magnetic attraction on painters and sculptors. In the 1930s, when it was still an unexplored Eden, the area was first discovered by those fleeing the impending war, then by escapees from occupied Europe. For Marc Chagall, one of the earliest arrivals, it was a “Blue Paradise.” Years later Truman Capote chose as it as his writing retreat. In the 1950s Hollywood made it the backdrop of films starring Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner. And when Dalí set up home in Port Lligat, the stream of artists became never-ending: Magritte, Picasso, Man Ray and García Lorca, to name but a few. This Empordà, with its artistic heritage, which is also the Empordà of traditional ceramics and fortified medieval villages, was the one that captivated us.

terra cuita

Sitting in the light from one of the studio windows, facing the small pots that contain colors she made herself, she draws on a ceramic bowl using a pointed metal stylus as if it were pencil. With an expert touch and the style she inherited from her aunt, she sketches a fish that she will later paint with a brush or a rubber bulb and a dropper. Rosa Maria and her two sisters, Núria and Maria Puigdemont, are the third generation of their family to run this craft pottery workshop in La Bisbal, capital of the “Empordanet,” the affectionate local nickname for the Baix Empordà region, in the province of Girona. La Bisbal has been known for its pottery-making for 500 hundred years, and has a history of ups and downs associated with it, but nevertheless the industry has survived, making the town one of the most important centers of ceramics production in Catalonia. There are four reasons why “pottery” and “La Bisbal” are practically synonymous. Restorer Toni Bofill lays them out for us at La Bisbal’s Terracotta Museum, dedicated to pottery and industrial ceramics, which has retained the name of the former nineteenth century ceramic tile factory that houses it. The first reason is the proximity of the mountain massif of Les Gavarres, the source of the charcoal and firewood needed for the kilns.The excellent quality of the area’s raw materials is the second reason. Two different clays can be found, one red and the other white, both unusually malleable. The climate, ideal for drying the clay in summer and storing it over the winter, is the third.
However, this environment, however favorable, would never have borne fruit without the vital work of families of artisans, who have cultivated the tradition and passed it on, and today can boast their own trademark and certificate of origin, Cerámica de la Bisbal, to protect their products. La Bisbal pottery is characterized by its popular appeal, its practicality and — probably its most noticeable trait — its vivid use of color. Ceramics with bright, saturated pigments, glazed and kiln-fired for eleven hours at 1000ºC. Historically, the town produced all kinds of pots for domestic and agricultural use, including the botijos that are now among the most coveted pieces. Over time, a ceramic tile industry grew up, and four signature colors became dominant: straw yellow, an earthy red, bottle green and navy blue. From the 1940s onwards, with the emergence of new materials such as plastic and stainless steel, and the decline in the rural economy, pots ceased to be essential and became purely decorative. This might have meant the end of La Bisbal’s potteries, but with the region’s tourist boom, only a few years later, traditional pots became popular as souvenirs and decorative objects, and some workshops were able to adapt to the new market.

within the walls

The medieval Baix Empordà was a hive of activity, and left its mark on the region’s architecture. An area was crisscrossed by roads and trade routes, it was frequently the site of conflict. To improve their visibility and their defenses, towns were built on the tops or the sides of hills. Peratallada’s sprawling feudal manor house grew up around a castle built on a huge rock, whose stone sides were cut vertically to increase the height of the main structure, the crenellated “Torre de l’Homenatge.” This is the origin of the town’s name, the Latin petra scissa giving the Catalan pedra tallada: hewn stone. With three walls and a deep moat, it was an impregnable fortress, under which, according to legend, there are still secret underground passageways that lead to the nearby woods.

guest stars
Just outside Palamós, the seaside town in the Empordà region where Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, and not far from Es Castell beach, stands “Mas Juny,” a country farmhouse that once played host to such illustrious guests as Coco Chanel, Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor. This is the story of the stone cabin neighboring the house, with its surreally tilted doorway: la Barraca de Dalí – Dalí’s shed – a faint echo of the stories the walls of “Mas Juny” would tell if they could talk. The property was first acquired by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert, painter of the murals at the League of Nations, Rockefeller Center and the Waldorf Astoria. Its second owner, Alberto Puig Palau, bon vivant, millionaire and patron of the arts, ensured that it stayed in the limelight. It was his influence that brought Ava Gardner to star in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, filmed on the Costa Brava. Dalí was a regular guest at Puig Palau’s flamenco fiestas, which drew figures from the worlds of art and culture, dancers and musicians. As a gift, he built the painter a studio where he could work. Dalí never used it, but the cabin stands as a reminder of a glamorous past.

bisbalenc

Its four contrasting textures separate and mingle on the tongue: the crisp sugar that coats the topping of pine nuts combines with the fine puff pastry and its sticky filling of fresh spaghetti squash jam, known as cabello de ángel (literally “angel’s hair”). People born in the town of La Bisbal d’Empordà are known as Bisbalencs, and so are these cakes, whose name has marked them as a typical local delicacy ever since they were invented in 1932 by Modest Sans, a cake-maker who moved from Viladesens to La Bisbal. As the first tourists arrived in the area, his bisbalencs became so successful that his cake shop, Sans de la Bisbal, where they are still made according to the creator’s original recipe, registered the name. Because they remain fresh at room temperature for several days they have travelled far and wide, crossing international borders with the many visitors who buy them and take them home.

keep cool
It keeps water cool, in blazing sunshine, on the hottest, most parching of summer days. This magical object is called a botijo, and it is a simple earthenware water vessel. An invention from the south of Mediterranean Spain that has become a historic icon of the whole country’s popular culture. Its smart design allows it to be shared, providing a hygienic way for anyone to quench their thirst from a fine stream poured out of the narrower of its two spouts. It cools its contents because of the way water seeps through the pores of the clay and evaporates. This is the so-called botijo effect, which works better the more the sun shines on it. Heat and dry air speed up the evaporation process and make the botijo more effective, able to lower the temperature of the water by up to 15º Celsius. It was such a useful, practical object that every region of Spain came to have its own version. Those pictured, similar but none identical, were found inside the vaulted ceilings of the Convent of Saint Sebastià in La Bisbal. Cracked and useless, they had been repurposed as building material. Today, in the town’s Terracotta Museum, they enjoy a second life as ethnological exhibits.
on the house
The Mediterranean cypress, whose durable timber is said to have been used by Noah to build his Ark, has a symbolism and a function in Catalonia that go beyond its traditional association with cemeteries. If you see them grouped together, it is usually in a compact row, and it means you are in the Empordà, where they rise like green walls on the north side of fields, protecting crops from the fierce Tramontana wind. Standing alone, Catalan folklore regards them as a trees of tale and legends rather than mourning. Far from being the emblem of the place where everything comes to an end, they are traditionally identified with the place where hope begins: planted near a farmhouse, they are symbols of hospitality. Stories tell of an unwritten code that indicated to pilgrims or the needy what a house might offer when they reached the door. One cypress at the entrance meant they would be given pa i trago: bread, wine and cured meats. If there were two, they could expect a full meal, while three meant they could also stay the night.
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