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Literary Journeys Through Catalonia: Through Josep Pla’s Empordà

By Azareen Van der Vliet & Leonardo Francalanci
"Landscape elucidates literature, because literature                                                                
is the landscape’s memory through time."
—Josep Pla, Cartes de lluny

Centre Fraternal, PalafrugellThe Empordà, the northernmost territory of the Province of Girona, stretches from the northern border of the Gironès to the French border, and encompasses El Cap de Creus, a stunning national park that is home to a string of quiet, seaside villages—Roses, Port Lligat, and Cadaqués—where Salvador Dali, Picasso and the poet García Lorca spent some of their time. The landscape and the weather of the Empordà are dramatically beautiful.  Wind-battered marine pines and olive trees grow at ninety-degree angles from the pink granite cliffs of the Costa Brava; their inclined trunks cast shadows on the white sand of the coast. In the shallows, the color of the Mediterranean shifts from aquamarine to jade to blue. Then, at the line of the horizon, the water deepens to a royal purple. Inland, the landscape shifts to rolling hills and flatlands. Here, the fields are maroon-colored where the earth is exposed, fluorescent green where the grass is left to grow. Hay bales are scattered across the flatlands. Their tall, round forms jet the eye upward. The sky fans open—a vast, bright blue. But this is not all. In the lower Empordà, a smooth network of roads links a plethora of medieval villages built of carved stone. One can stroll through the villages’ windy, cool corridors, stop to taste the bold, aromatic wines of the region, and eat local dishes such as salt cod with wild mushrooms, or oven-roasted rabbit with garlic and tomato sauce.    

It is no surprise that when the people of the Empordà speak of the local landscape, they do so passionately and with symbolic weight. After all, Catalans have had to resort to innovative and often perilous strategies to resist the systematic oppression which was imposed against their language and culture by the Franco dictatorship.  One could say that in the Empordà—a region at the core of rural Catalonia—the people are as resilient as the landscape they inhabit, and no author sheds light on this resiliency with as much material as Josep Pla. For us, Josep Pla represents the quintessential author for a literary journey through the Empordà.  Considered one of the most influential Catalan authors of the twentieth century, he was born and raised in the Empordà, and over the course of his life wrote over 30,000 pages of prose in which he diligently catalogued the landscape and the life and habits of the people of the region. His complete works, published and republished over the years, contain marvelous descriptive passages that capture the landscape’s history and its complex topography at once. Since we both greatly admire the author’s work, we decided to pay homage to his writing by dedicating our first literary journey to the Catalonia he lived and breathed in.

One of the first things we discovered as we read his work, is that despite the roads, railway lines and construction projects developed in recent years, the topographical reference points in Josep Pla’s work are still considered valid for orienting oneself in Catalonia today. Of course, the Catalan landscape, like any other, has changed dramatically as the region has adapted to the advent of globalization and advances in technology, but there remain elements of the social and geographical landscape that feel untouched by the passage of time. Josep Pla’s writing engages the landscape through time; in fact, his writing has become embedded in the people’s collective consciousness, and indeed, after reading his work, it becomes difficult to separate his representations of the landscape from one’s own perception of it.


                        I was born in Palafrugell (little Emporda) on March 8,
                  1897. The totality of my blood is Empordanese. My primal     
              landscape is contained between Puig Son Ric of Begur to                                                                                                                                    
         the East; the mountains of Fitor to the West; the Formigues
   Islands to the South, and the Montgrí to the North.

-Josep Pla, El Quadern Gris

For our first journey, we thought it would be appropriate to walk a road much traveled by Josep Pla during his early days as a writer: the old road from his rural hometown of Palafrugell to El Far de Sant 

SignpostsSebastià, a lighthouse built on the top of a cape, overlooking the Mediterranean. As a budding writer, Pla used to hike this path almost daily. It is known that once he reached the summit, he would sit beneath the lighthouse for hours, searching for the perfect adjective with which to describe the landscape. His diary, written originally in 1918-1919 and expanded into the novel El Quadern Gris in 1966, is testament to his daily expeditions to El Far and to his lifelong dedication to writing the Catalan landscape.

Before starting our journey on foot from Palafrugell to El Far, we stopped to eat at the Centre Fraternal—a modernist building that serves as a casino, bar, and cultural center—where Josep Pla used to spend his evenings drinking with his friends and discussing literature into the wee hours of the morning. We had read countless passages about Josep Pla’s time at the Centre, and we thought it would be the perfect place to start our journey. However, to our disappointment, upon entering, we were asked to sit at the row of tables furthest from the other clients, since most of the tables were reserved for members. Banished to the corner between the window and the toilets, we sank into our seats, ordered arros a la cassola, a few beers, and settled in to watch the other customers. The men—because all of the customers were men, as they had been in Josep Pla’s time as well—ate, gambled, chased their cafe tallats with beers, discussed current events and, in a comic show of affection, excommunicated one another from their tables. The situation seemed to have come to life directly from the pages of one of Josep Pla’s novels, and we quickly realized that even though we were at a remove, we were nonetheless in a privileged position for observing the other customers. It was as though we had remained undetected in the corner, and in the spirit of Joseph Pla, we practiced the art of objectivism. In an interview the author once said: “Against the literature of the imagination—literature of observation.” It is true that Joseph Pla was a determined realist, and that the pages of his books are filled with quotidian scenes in which the gestures, speech habits, and cultural psychology of the people of the Empordà, along with the spaces the characters inhabited, are captured with tremendous detail.

Belly-full, we set off to find the old road. We had, as we had promised ourselves, abandoned all technology. All we had in hand was El Quadern Gris, photocopies of the 1918-19 version of the diary, and a relatively basic map of the area which we had picked up at the Fundació Josep Pla. An hour and a half into our walk, we realized we had gone astray. We found ourselves amid a network of trails that had led us further inland, when we had intended to be walking toward the coast. Here was our first challenge in trying to rely solely on writing to guide us through the world. We laughed, thinking of Ulysses fighting against the wrath of the gods, and thought about how instead of Poseidon, technology has emerged as a mischievous god to which we must all, in one way or another, render tribute, in order to continue enjoying its protection. We wanted to carve our way out of modern habits, and rely on our instinct and on the writing left behind by others who had traveled the same roads in the past, rather than on digital maps or iPhones.

View from El Far de St. SebastiaBut we were lost, and it wasn’t until a truck drove by some time later that we reoriented ourselves. The driver kindly gave us a lift to the main road, and from there we entered a second set of trails, found signposts and began our hike up to El Far of St. Sebastià. By the time we reached the summit, the lighthouse, situated at the top of the cape and overlooking the sparkling white coast of the Mediterranean, had taken on a mythical quality.  The historical eminence of the Mediterranean quickly become evident: the lighthouse dates back to the nineteenth century, but the area was inhabited long before that, and in fact directly behind the lighthouse there is an archeological site with ruins of an Iberian settlement.   

Fully situated now, we began our hike down to the beachside village of Calella, where Josep Pla used to spend his childhood summers with his family. There are accounts in El Quadern Gris, of Joseph Pla and his brother rowing a small boat along the coast, all the way from Calella to Aigua Blava and beyond. Tempted by the silver color of the sea beneath the descending sun, we climbed onto the rocks from where the young author would launch his small boat, and jumped into the sea. The serenity and beauty of the area were astounding, and they brought to mind a passage from one of Joseph Pla’s earliest books, Coses Vistes, which is now almost impossible to find, as much of its content was re-appropriated by the author into later texts. In his piece called “Calella” he writes:

“Life in the village has a unique rhythm that swings from desire to boredom and from boredom to desire. If man has the strength to take it on, in the end its oscillation will give way to a headache imprecise and distant, a headache sweet like honey.”

As evening fell, we headed back to Girona. We took the same road Josep Pla took when he went to Girona for the first time as a young teenager, to be dropped off by his father at a local boarding school run Calellaby French Priests who had come to the area years before. On the day they were scheduled to make the journey, the local trains weren’t running due to a labor protest, and rather than waiting, Josep Pla’s father decided they would travel the old road—a narrow, rural road which ran parallel to the train tracks—by a cart drawn by a female horse named Perla. The month in which they traveled the road was September, and we too, as we headed home to Girona, were doing so in the fall light of another September, nearly one hundred years later, to our building which is linked to the boarding school where the young author studied, and which sadly now lies abandoned and with its roof collapsed. 

Published Mar 7, 2012   Copyright 2012 Azareen Van der Vliet & Leonardo Francalanci

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