Before we moved to Spain last year I stockpiled little bottles of sunblock, toothpaste, vitamins... all of our favorite 'day-to-day' essentials from home. I also went to our doctor and got a year's supply of our prescriptions, because neither she nor I knew if I would be able to get them in Europe.
Now that we've lived in Barcelona for 10 months I have to laugh about those days because Spain is an incredibly civilized country and there are very few things that I can get at home in California that I can't also get here. Additionally there are incredible doctors (and exceptionally affordable prescription medicine) here! Plus, there's always Amazon Prime.
It turns out though, that there are several things we've discovered in Spain that I can't get anywhere in Southern California.
At the top of that list, I'd place 'real-life ancient civilization'.
Sure - we have elegant, well curated museums in California that get traveling exhibitions from very far away. For example, The Getty Villa in Malibu is particularly lovely and built to look old (though construction finished in 1974).
I'd argue though that San Diego has no authentic castles, no World Heritage Site ruins, not even any lingering walls that date back five hundred years or more. The oldest church in San Diego was built in 1850. By European standards, that's almost like the day before yesterday!
It is truly amazing for our family to discover ancient treasures hanging out around almost every corner here in Spain... a country whose record of human civilization goes back literally to the Paleolithic era. Nearly every day I see something incredible that is anywhere between five hundred and two thousand years old.
It never ceases to impress.
This is why, on our third day staying along the Costa Brava, my husband and I decided to explore some ancient sites in the Girona region that had been highly recommended to us by several Spanish friends in Barcelona.
First, the small medieval town of Peratallada.
Next, the larger, posher town of Begur and its landmark castle.
Peratallada is a tiny place east of Girona, in the Empordà. To get there you drive through miles of beautiful green fields and wind your way through other tiny towns (and some larger ones) as the area is quite agricultural. Here and there you might spot a vineyard, or signs for a golf course. Occasionally there is a lovely patch of yellow flowers.
From where we were staying in Tamariu the drive to Peratallada takes about 30 minutes.
"Where are we going, Mom?" The Scientist asked.
"Dad and I want to check out a special town that everyone has been recommending to us," I explained. "It's very old and is supposed to be really cute."
"Ugh," said the children. "Do we have to go? Can't we just stay at the beach while you guys go?"
"Yes, you do... and no, you can't," we affirmed. "Everybody goes... we're going to have a nice lunch there!"
"You'll love it," I added. "It's going to be like walking into the pages of fairytale."
"I love fairytales!" Little Angel cheered happily.
"We don't!" grumbled her big brothers (even though sometimes they actually do enjoy them.) "That sounds boring. Just a lot of old stuff? We're hungry!"
On that um... joyful note... off we drove through the exquisite Catalan countryside.
My husband turned on some music.
"My friend Aleix told me that the area around Girona is the Tuscany that nobody knows about," Señor Aventura told me with a smile.
"I can certainly see why he would say that," I agreed. "Wow! It's really breathtaking here."
Before we knew it, my husband had turned off the main road and was soon parking in a little lot outside of some very ancient looking walls.
The name Peratallada comes from two Latin words: "pedra" and "tallada". It literally translates as 'carved stone'.
As you enter the through town walls by foot it is not hard to figure out where this name comes from! Almost all of the buildings were clearly built out of carved stone that was hewn by hand. We later learned that the stones themselves were taken from the moat that still surrounds this castle town today, a thousand years later.
Apparently Peratallada itself dates back to the Bronze Age. Its castle was built in 1065 and there is also a Romanesque church dedicated to St. Stephen nearby, constructed in the 1200s.
Something I've noticed about truly old towns (as opposed to modern towns built to look old) is that there is a sort of fragile feeling to them. I definitely felt this way in Peratallada, the entire time we walked through its cobblestone streets.
I couldn't help but think about the earthquake that leveled the famous Italian town of Amatrice a year ago in 2016... it's completely understandable why that special place was decimated. Old buildings that have not been remodeled or reinforced do need to be handled with real care.
Peratallada itself is so beautiful. If you wind up on one of its narrow streets with no other tourists you can definitely picture yourself living a few hundred years ago!
It isn't hard to imagine gathering water at the town well while you listen to the parish church bells ring.
It's also easy to conjure up visions of villagers spending time in the square or outside of the castle. In your mind's eye you can see an actual bustling, lively medieval town.
However, that really isn't what Peratallada feels like in person today. On the day of our visit in early April, it felt empty. Very, very empty.
"Do you live here?" my husband asked the woman behind the counter at the lovely restaurant where we ate lunch.
"Oh no, I live in Pals," she shook her head. (Pals is a larger city nearby.) "Not many people live here. We come here to work."
This made sense. We'd seen no grocery store, no pharmacy. No signs of the need for a place to buy day-to-day conveniences like light bulbs and toilet paper.
There were a lot of little hotels though... and restaurants. Plenty of places to make money catering to tourists.
Our lunch tasted absolutely delicious, another cazuela along with fish, salad and even ice cream. We enjoyed it greatly and loved looking out of the tiny old windows at the street where various visitors from different countries congregated at the corner.
Still, as lunch passed we did feel a bit as though we'd come to a visit a ghost town (or as my Catalan friend puts it, "un ciudad de fantasmas". In the heat of the afternoon we encountered very few people on the little town's streets.
After lunch we walked around and saw lots of shops that were closed, but had signs posted on their windows or doors saying they would open again during the summer.
"This place is fun, Mommy but it's really quiet!" said Little Angel.
There were also posters around here and there for a famous summer festival held in Peratallada every August - a medieval faire of sorts. (We may take our dear friends to this faire when they are visiting in late summer!) I imagine that the locals must do fun simulations and re-enactments during the faire, which would be very interesting for our children to see in such a perfect setting.
A lot of the traditional homes in Peratallada may now actually be used as vacation rentals, bed and breakfasts, or second homes enjoyed by wealthier families only in the summer. There are art galleries, cafés and gelato stores.
So it was an odd but happy experience to visit this ancient town. Beautiful, authentic, and yet... strangely hollow. You could put your hand on a thousand year old wall in any direction - but nowhere did we see lines of laundry drying in the wind, or hear children playing ball on the streets. I suppose it was like visiting a particularly glorious interactive outdoor museum.
In a way, it felt to us like the 'real' Peratallada may have died a while ago... perhaps during the Spanish Civil War. A lot of things changed during that time period and later under Franco. It's possible that this is one little town that never fully sprang back to its former life.
Well worth a visit though!!! For travelers looking for a really unique experience, Peratallada is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful historical sites in Spain.
"I've got to admit, that place was pretty cool," Soccer Dude announced as we drove away.
After lunch, we headed on to our next exploration... Begur!
Begur is quite different than Peratallada. First of all, real people live there. Year-round its population hovers around 4,000 and apparently during the summer, thanks to tourism, the population can swell to 10x that much!
It is also in many ways much more developed, with many lovely and modern homes overlooking the stunning Mediterranean coastline below.
As I walked up the hill with my children toward its famous "Castell de Begur" I couldn't help but remark that this area reminded me of our hometown.
"It feels a lot like California," I said. "Doesn't this remind you a bit of La Jolla? Or Rancho Santa Fe?" The sweeping views of the coast from the top of the mountain provided a wonderful way to get a sense of the region. Beautiful villas and well maintained houses with terra-cotta tiled roofs dotted the sloping hills.
In the distance, the glorious Mediterranean sparkled in the afternoon sun.
"Yes," my husband and sons agreed. "It's a lot like California here."
"But greener," Señor Aventura added.
"I like the flowers, Mommy!" announced Little Angel. We continued to hike up the sidewalk along the steep street.
Soon though we arrived at our destination... a place very much NOT like home.
We'd wound our way by foot up to the very top of the ancient ruin of the Castell de Begur!
Perhaps in the United States a place of this historical significance would be closely guarded... and one might have to pay to enter. There might also be guard rails up to protect people from falling, etc.
With zero fanfare we just strolled right up to the top of the ruined castle and hung out for thirty minutes imagining again what it would have been like to live there in ancient times.
The castle itself was constructed in the eleventh century AD, by Lord Arnust of Begur. He chose its site because it was at the top of the tallest mountain in the region (thus easily defensible) and also had a magnificent view of the Empordà and the Mediterranean.
It was privately held by various occupants for about five hundred years. In 1604 the 'castell' was sold to the town council of Begur. Since then it has remained a public property.
When Napoleon's army came rolling through in 1810 during the Spanish war of independence against the French, the Castell de Begur was sacked for its third (and so far final) time. It remains mostly in ruins to this day.
In the 20th century a few improvements were made to its condition... for example, it is now wheelchair accessible. There's no guard on duty though, or really anything to separate this historical treasure from daily life. You can walk or roll right up its ramparts and have a picnic at the top, if you'd like.
We had a splendid time at the top of the Castell de Begur. The children tried to catch butterflies (thankfully unsuccessfully) and poked their heads out of the castle walls to check out the incredible views.
Señor Aventura and I took a lot of photos and enjoyed the warmth and humidity of the bright afternoon. We laughed as Soccer Dude clowned around and tried not to be too irritatingly loud for the other couple that had drifted up the hill to enjoy the castle. Little Angel dedicated her bouquet of wildflowers to the castle and then skipped happily.
It's funny how we've grown accustomed, in such a short time, to living in such an extraordinary way. "Let's go touch some history today," we say, and off we go!
For Spaniards, hanging out at the top of an ancient ruined castle is not a big deal. Of course not... there are stone castle ruins seemingly everywhere you look in Spain.
For us though, it's still quite a breathtaking novelty to wander up a hillside dotted with wildflowers and lean against the ancient walls of a castle where, many hundreds of years ago, a young warrior may have stood alert ready to defend his people.
We feel a thick, tangible connection to the distant past here as we travel through Catalunya, admiring its treasures. Gazing across this fertile land reminds us in a profound way of who we are at core, and where we are from.
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