With one journey, the course of my life was forever changed.
On 12th April 2017 I packed my bags and set out to see my girlfriend Miriam and family, parents Kiko and Isabel and brother David, in her homeland of Catalonia, Spain. Arriving in her picturesque hometown of Manlleu, the next week saw us travel together to Barcelona, one of the most strikingly beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.
On Easter Sunday, our time in Barcelona was over and we took a slow train through the mountains back to Manlleu. But my travels were far from over, and the next stage of my journey not only really proved how stunning Catalonia truly was, but also how kind and generous her people would prove to be.
Following on from the first instalment in my CATALONIA TRAVEL DIARIES series (click the link to read now), I’m chartering my journey into the mountains, retracing my walks through the countryside around Manlleu, and remembering the time I spent with the people of Catalonia…
DAY 6 - JOURNEY INTO THE PRE-PYRENEES (17/4)
An early start greeted us on our first day back in Manlleu, and neither Miriam nor I were particularly happy with the rude awakening: a weekend of travelling all through Barcelona had left us tired, aching and (in my case) sunburnt to a crisp. Despite our grumpy begins, the day dawned bright and hot and I was excited to begin our journey into the Pre-Pyrenees. Kiko pointed out our route on a map: our road took us north, through the town of Saldes, before turning off towards the massive mountain of Pedraforca.
Fed up on copious amounts of Catalonian chocolate (after an already hearty breakfast), the journey began through the fields of Manlleu. Then our road began to climb steadily upwards as we approached the ring of hills surrounding the small town, which soon disappeared behind us as we drove ever-onwards into the hills.
Even to a traveller of New Zealand like myself, the views were truly spectacular.
Reaching the end of our time of the motorway, our road now dived suddenly upwards on small track leading deep into the heart of the hills. This precarious road was our path for many miles, snaking through valleys that feel hundreds to feet below us mere inches from where the car drifted slowly onwards. Suddenly, after what seemed like a lifetime of not looking out of the window for fear of falling, the mountain of Pedraforca opened out before us, and stood impressively against the skyline.
This monolith seemed to have been cleft in two, with two peaks and a valley where once one peak would have risen. Tradition told of a town perched at the top of the mountain, whose ruler was a cruel and malicious tyrant. Tired of his ways, the gods cast the town down, taking the peak of the mountain with it, and tasked him and his followers with the job of rebuilding the shattered settlement.
If the tales are to be believed, you can see their ghosts walking up and down the mountain, still committed to their eternal task…
Stopping to take pictures, the temperature difference was immediately obvious. Though no snow was on the ground, the temperature had dropped by 10 degrees at least, and the blazing sunshine did little to warm us in the altitude. As we climbed higher, ditching the car and travelling by foot up a winding mountain path, there were bricks of snow in the shadow of the mountain.
And so, in Spain in the middle of April, Miriam and I stopped in our tracks to have a snowball fight.
As the day closed in, the time came for us to take the long journey back home. Charting our way around the mountain, the early start finally caught up to us. Miriam and I drifted off to sleep in the back of the car, surrounded by mountains, and awoke in the green fields of Manlleu two short hours later.
DAY 7 - A TYPICAL DAY IN CATALONIA (18/4)
With the hectic pace of the past few days, a long and restful break was needed. A day in the flat called to me, despite my adventerous side screaming at me to do otherwise. So in the morning, while Miriam worked, I sat with Kiko and he took me through the day to day life of the Catalonian. and Spaniard.
As in Spain, the hours of meals and other amenities are vastly different to those in the UK. When the British have lunch at 12, they won’t even think about it until 2. And when the bars of England are calling their last orders at 11, the restaurants of Catalonia are still serving food to a packed dining room. The bars will finally kick their patrons out into the streets in the early hours of the morning, which is to say nothing of the nightclubs, whose music blares on until the sun starts to appear on the horizon.
For a man born and raised in the quite rural city of Lincoln, where the last club closes at 2, it was a stark contrast but one that I soon adapted to. The heat in April alone was enough to make us not consider food until way into the evening, and in the summer months it’s indescribable.
A restful day was what I wanted, and a restful two days was what I got. Whilst my adventurous spirit was still kicking I went out to explore Manlleu, but soon decided against travelling alone through a still unknown town with only a very basic grasp of the local language.
So Miriam and I headed back to the flat, both of us wanting nothing more than to enjoy a cold drink and a film.
DAY 8 - THE TRAVELLER'S DOWN-TIME (19/4)
As the end of my first week came and went, the pace of the past few days still had its hold on me. My adventurous side had given up trying to get me out past the few blocks of Manlleu I knew well enough by now, and reigned itself to waiting until I was fully rested.
Another morning of talk and rock music with Kiko beckoned, followed by an afternoon of Miriam being tied to her university work. Sadly, real life doesn’t wait for you to come back from holiday.
As I wasn’t making myself useful, I grabbed my book and headed out to the balcony. There I sat, with shorts and bare-chest, watching the sun go down. A book in one hand, I took steady sips of an ice-cold beer resting in the other.
I am British, after all.
DAY 9 - EXPLORING RURAL CATALONIA (20/4)
Catalonia is an incredibly diverse landscape, but its defining feature is perhaps not what it has the most of, but what is has least: that is, people. For miles in most directions in any given place, hills and mountains surround you. The further north you travel, the more the countryside turns from luscious green pastures to towering mountains.
Manlleu is situated in a massive bowl, trapped in my mountains and surrounded by little more than fields. Those fields truly are a rural explorer’s paradise. Miriam and I found ourselves lost among rivers and meadows as we left the town far behind us, and although we couldn’t feel it we realised that the ground was sloping upwards.
From exploring a half-abandoned farm, save for the animals (including a dog which nearly followed us home), to sitting atop a rock looking towards to Pyrenees far in the distance, a quiet afternoon with just the two of us was exactly what we needed. Miriam and I shared stories of our childhoods, in many ways both remarkably similar and strikingly different, as we walked through the fields which have been my girlfriend’s home for nearly as long as I’ve been alive.
By the time our paths took us home, night had long since set in. Realising that neither of us had properly enjoyed a night of drinking together since I’d arrived, we left our bags in the flat and ventured out to the local bar.
Countless hours later we walked home, singing songs together at the top of our lungs.
Nights out have never been better.
DAY 10 - EXPERIENCING THE MODERN HEART OF MANLLEU (21/4)
Manlleu is a town of two halves: the old and the new. Miriam lives in the heart of the old town, with its abandoned buildings and medieval architecture that I’d already explored days previously.
After a day together of doing very little (and saving our money for what we knew was coming next), it was then time to visit Isabel at her work in the modern heart of Manlleu. Leaving the cobbled streets behind us, the roads became more akin to what I was accustomed to, and the shops and bars seemed to increase steadily in both price and appearance as we ventured further inwards. The shops were bigger, the bars were louder, the restaurants fuller. This was the heart of Manlleu, the modern hub of the ancient town.
Isabel worked in the town’s centre: the building that was the meeting place for every group and society from every corner. From a hairdresser’s clinic to a youth club: exploring this building (thanks to Isabel’s loan of the master key) threw up more surprises than I’d ever considered. Having spent the better part of a week in Manlleu’s old town, surrounded by picturesque buildings and quaint side streets leading out into the fields, this was a massive change.
Despite its modern beauty, Manlleu’s town centre seemed devoid of life when the old town had seemed so vibrant and active. There may have been more people, but the old streets had a charm to them that wouldn’t easily be beaten.
With a long few days ahead of us, Miriam and I go an early night. But not before we walked alone through both old and new Manlleu, experiencing this unique and beautiful town as it was meant to be seen.
This post was particularly difficult to write. Sometimes writing about doing very little is 100 times harder than writing about doing something incredible. But still this is something that I wanted to share with you: travelling is not all expensive journeys and constant adventure.
Sometimes you have to sit back and let the places you visit wash over you in order to really appreciate them.
Enjoyed what you’ve read so far? Be sure to come back later this week for the third and final part of my Catalonia Travel Diaries series, where I travel to the beaches of south Catalonia and return to the mountains before bidding a short but nevertheless heartbreaking farewell to the woman and the country I had fallen in love with.
Until next time,
Ross M. F. Firth
If you want to learn more about me, click here.
You can read my previous blog post (TRAVEL DIARIES: Catalonia, Spain (#1)) here.
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