A Surreal experience between the city of Besalú and the Romans

On a chilly Friday morning, we walked to Barceloneta rail station and boarded the metro to Urquinaona. The forecast called for a 60% chance of rain. When we left the metro to walk to school, we were greeted with a cool stiff northwesterly breeze under still clear skies. Beth and I walked down Avenida Trafalgar towards the school, searching for the bus that would take us to the medieval town of Besalú, about an hour and a half north of Barcelona towards the French border. Besalú is famous for its Romanesque medieval bridge built in the eleventh century and its Jewish bathhouse which is one of only three surviving Mikvahs in all of Europe. Most of our students had signed up for the trip and we found that some of the Washington students would also accompany us, as well as a few interns from the school.

Since the bus was nowhere in sight and it was still chilly, most of us went inside and upstairs to the school to either warm up or use the restroom before the bus ride. Finally, we saw the bus pull up and we all gathered to load for the road trip. Most were eager to get out of the city, even if only for a day. We passed by a defunct bull ring which had the Star of David emblems designed on its side, along with some seemingly Muslim architecture. We turned onto the wide Avenida Meridiana through the Sant Andreu neighborhood and towards the Autovia heading towards Girona and the French border. It felt good to see countryside again, even at 120 kph.
Soon the traffic slowed and all three lanes came to a stop. We sat there on the Autovia for at least 30 minutes as fire trucks and ambulances raced by on the shoulder. Finally, we inched forward as all three lanes merged into one. On the side of the road, the shell of a completely burned car was still smoldering. Since there was no apparent accident, was it a car fire caused by overheating, or another act of vandalism by Catalan separatists? The acts from the last month were still fresh on our minds.

The mountains to our left rose higher and higher as we continued north through the valley. At last, we pulled into a parking lot on the outskirts of Besalú, as the streets in the town could not accommodate the bus. We walked over the fortified bridge over the Fluvia River into town. The bridge is not straight, but takes an L shape to take advantage of rock in the riverbed.

We stopped to take individual and group photos here. Some of the students are First Generation college students with their first study abroad experience, so the school gave out certificates and took pictures of them on the bridge.

COCC students in Besalu

Since we were behind schedule from the burned car and the traffic on the Autovia, we had only about 30 minutes to explore the tiny town before meeting at the Can Quey restaurant for a group lunch. Beth, Raoul and I did a circuit inside the walls of the medieval city. Besides visiting the ruins of the Jewish bathhouses, we strolled alongside the walls of St. Vincenc church built in the 11th century, but sporting bullet holes from the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

After a hearty lunch of traditional Catalan cuisine, we piled back into the bus for a 40 minute ride to the town of Figueras, home of the Dalí museum. Salvador Dali was a famous Catalan painter and sculptor, well known for pushing the boundaries of looking at the world in different ways. He collaborated with other types of audiovisual artists and was a student of the sciences. His style, which rejected realism, attempted to attract public attention and shock the reader. He was very eccentric and was criticized for being narcissistic. When I took an art appreciation class as an undergraduate, I admit that I didn’t really get him.

Clouds were thickening as we disembarked the bus and walked toward the museum. The exterior of the building was quirky, with eggs atop the roof of the turret, and loaves of bread pasted to the exterior walls. Above the entrance to the building, statues of disemboweled people with submarine sandwiches on their heads peered down at us over a figure of a person whose head was an egg of gold.

As we entered the building, I chose to join a group where the guide who led explained his works using the Spanish language. Most of the students and Beth went with the English speaking guide.
Our guide was a 40 year old woman who was Spanish, but who used to live in New York City in Greenwich Village. I knew that neighborhood, so we quickly made a connection. She was very knowledgeable and spoke clearly, so that I understood about 98% of her explanations. She explained the history of Dali’s life, his influences from renaissance thinkers, the events around the Spanish Civil War, and the meanings of the symbolism in his art. I came away from the museum with a different appreciation of him. One of his most famous works is called “the persistence of memory”. Many are pictures within a picture. Some thought he must have been a drug addict, as his works seem to be influenced by hallucinogenics, however he was not. Some said he was a genius, others said he was mad. Actually, how much daylight is there between the two?

Portrait of his wife
Looking up at a boat from the ocean bottom.

Some of us slept on the bus on the way home. Some surely had vivid dreams……that were surreal! We got back to town about 9:30PM and headed back to our respective homes. It had been quite a day from beginning to end. And we still had Saturday and Sunday to go.

Well, where do the Romans fit into this story? That would be on Saturday. We looked at the weather for the weekend and it seemed that Saturday would have the better weather of the two weekend days, so I went online and booked a rental car for 24 hours beginning at noon on Saturday. We would head south down the coast with two items on the agenda…..the small village of Renau, and the large city of Tarragona.

The day started out with great weather. We took the train to the airport and rented an Ibiza from Cami at Enterprise. She remembered us from a few weeks ago when we rented a car to go to Andorra. We headed south just a few minutes after noon.

To both avoid tolls on the Autovia and to take in some beautiful scenery, we took the winding coastal highway down the Costa Daurada towards Sitges. Since it might takes us all day to get to our destinations that way, we hopped back onto the Autovia and tried to find Renau. Why there? Well, my buddy from college is named Pat Renau. He always wanted to go there and he is the one who told me about it, so I am going there on a vicarious expedition. That’s an idea for my next business plan…..Vicarious Expeditions Inc…..we’ll do your vacation for you if you can’t and we will document it for you. Now, we just have to figure out how to make money with this idea!

On the edge of town

Renau is a small village of maybe 200 people, with old houses surrounded by vineyards. I did see one empty lot for sale. Maybe Pat could retire here!

Next we headed to Tarragona, a city of about 900,000 inhabitants, about a fifth of the size of Barcelona. The draw here is the Roman ruins. The Romans did not favor Barcelona, as its harbor was shallow and location not as optimal as that of Tarragona. Outside of town we spotted the Devil’s bridge, an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water from the mountains to the town.

Once in town, we found a place to park on the street and walked to several sites. Daylight was quickly fading, so we skipped any indoor museums and went for the old walls and the coliseum by the sea. Some of these ruins reach back to the second century B.C. Below are a few photos…….

Park in downtown Tarragona with modern buildings across the street

With darkness quickly falling, we had planned on staying in Tarragona and returning the car by noon the next day. However, we got what we came for, so we decided to save our Euros for another day and drove back to Barcelona that night. We took the inland two lane road and made it safely back to the airport, where we took the FGC train to Passeig de Gracia and transferred to the L4 metro line for three more stops. When we came out of Barceloneta station, we were thankful to be in our own bed in the next few minutes and have a whole day off on Sunday!

3 thoughts on “A Surreal experience between the city of Besalú and the Romans

  1. Oh Yes! The village of Renau, the only settlement with that name on the planet. I wonder if I would be the only Renau in town of the 200 when I arrive ?!


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