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A New Series: Literary Journeys Through Catalonia

By Azareen Van der Vliet & Leonardo Francalanci

Throughout history writers have, again and again, undertaken journeys—journeys of the mind and actual journeys, traveling across their respective homelands as well as exploring more distant, foreign territories. They have traveled, one could argue, to feel captivated and reinvigorated by a sense of discovery, and perhaps even to make sense of the apparent chaos of the human condition by observing its nuanced manifestations through a variety of cultures and landscapes.  The synergy between journey, literature, and landscape is strong, and Catalan writers, both ancient and contemporary, continually put the strength of this relationship in evidence.  For example, Joanot Martorell’s famous fifteenth-century chivalric romance, Tirant Lo Blanch (Tirant the White), features a protagonist who travels from England to Constantinople through the larger Mediterranean, and draws into relief the landscape’s breadth and variety.  With a more focused eye on specific aspects of the Catalan landscape, nineteenth-century poet and practicing priest, Jacint Verdaguer, frequently traveled to the Canigό Mountain in the Pyrenees to get inspiration for his epic poem Canigό.  The trend continues with twentieth-century authors. Mercè Rodoreda is known for representing some of Barcelona’s most quintessential neighborhoods; one of the most recognized examples of this is her representation of the neighborhood of Gracia in Barcelona before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War, in her novel La Plaça del Diamant, translated into English as The Time of the Doves.  A contemporary of Rodoreda, Josep Pla, employs extensive descriptions of the landscape in his writing, paying particular attention to the province of Girona through a range of poetic passages that capture even the most quotidian details of his birthplace, the rural region of the Empordà, as well as the world-renowned region of the Costa Brava and the Catalan Pyrenees. Some of his most recognized titles include: El Quadern Gris, Aigua de Mar, and Girona.

Over the last year, as we have both become immersed in the landscape and literature of Catalonia, we have begun to wonder about what constitutes a journey and what leads us to undertake them.  In the wake of the global financial crisis, traveling abroad quickly became an inadmissible luxury for the both of us,  and we started to question our own definitions of journey.  We began to wonder:  How do we define the notion of journey?  And what is the relationship between distance—the remoteness of one’s destination—and the feeling of discovering something unknown?   Given that in our current cultural context we can travel from country to country with tremendous speed, it may seem as though the idea of travel were linked, almost exclusively, to traveling abroad.  However, as we began to scratch beneath the surface, we realized that feelings of discovery are not contingent upon the distance one travels, but, rather, linked to the force with which the journey awakens such feelings in the traveler, regardless of the remoteness of one’s destination. 

In order to put these thoughts to the test, we decided to embark on a low-budget, local journey, using Catalan novels as maps to guide us through the landscape.  Accompanied by the works of Jacint Vardaguer, Santiago Rusiñol, Josep Pla, Blai Bonet and Mercè Rodoreda among others, we plan to undertake a literary pilgrimage through the four regions of Catalonia—Girona, Barcelona, Tarragona, and Lleida—guided by some of our favorite authors’ descriptions of the region’s captivating and diverse geography.  We will end the trip by hiking the Canigό Mountain, one of the most important cultural and literary symbols of Catalonia, and then, if budget allows, by taking a boat across the Mediterranean to the Island of Mallorca.  As we exchange travel guides and GPSs for novels, and planes for our walking shoes and local transportation, we hope to explore the connection  between literature and landscape, and re-approximate the notion of the journey to one of its most ancient ideals, of self-discovery.

Published Jan 26, 2012   Copyright 2012 Azareen Van der Vliet & Leonardo Francalanci

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