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.
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.
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.