Pals as a lover is a gentle rocker and glider. Wide, smooth dark grey cobblestone streets grip your tread. Sensual meandering winds around gold, silver, pink-hued sandstone shops, archways, ancient houses and wrought iron balconies so charming you don’t realize you’re walking uphill. The walls are a lustrous skin, the narrower streets, arms that nudge you forward. Small squares appear around corners, you stop - you realize you are under jewel box blue skies.
First historical mention of Pals is the 9th century. Producing rice for five centuries, perched on a hilltop in the midst of marshland, three kilometres from one of the longest beaches on the Costa Brava, built around a fortress, this medieval village is an enigma. Utterly charming, soft, rugged, its landscape is influenced by the changing colours of the rice season. Declared a historical site by the government in 1973 this medieval town boasts art galleries, restaurants and shops ensconced in the fortress walls.
The main road into the village winds upwards towards the Gothic Quarter‘s Torre de les Hores (Tower of Hours) a circular Romanesque tower dating from the 11-13th centuries and the remains of the castle that once stood here. Four large towers linked by thick stone ramparts date back to the 12th century stand sentry to the Torres de les Horres and the hilltop church Esglesia de Sant Pere. The church, built in the 10th century, is a gorgeous mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. The interior Gothic nave and apse and exterior Baroque portico and bell tower are simply adorned and romantic. Few of the cobbled roads permit cars and the stepped alleyways could not accommodate them. We follow the narrow cobbled alleyways that wind around these buildings and are delighted by garden vignettes of benches, shaded by blue-lavender jacaranda trees, fairy tale like in bloom, and Frangipani scented Plumeria trees offering enchanting aromas and fabled lookouts on the panoramic views over the low stone walls.
We are five on adventure today. The others are on their own travel trails. As is often the case, due to late starts because of late cave nights and exuberant exploring, we search for lunch rather late. The treasure we hunt is El Pedro, fitting as we have a Peter among us, but we’d also read great reviews. So many restaurants to choose from in such a small town, we are relieved to find it in a courtyard flanked on one side by shops ensconced in the fortress walls. Seated outside on dark ravenwood chairs around a rectangular table under a large beautiful umbrella the sensation is spectacular. We are transported back in time.
Our table is set with white linen napkins and simple crystal stemware. The waiter recommends Sangria for the entrees then wine with the main. A silver bucket trimmed with white linen is set up on the side of our table. A couple of bottles of white are ensconced to chill in preparation for our main course. Seated behind us are a lanky American, in his early forties, Tommy Hilfiger clad, projecting inexhaustible stamina and his lunch companion, a young Spaniard, student-like, solid, a calm counterpoint to his companion. We overhear a mix of Spanish and American accent English staccatoed with sucking, gasps and polite napkin dabbing. One of our posse couldn’t resist chirping “Sorry to bother you but what are you eating?” Responding they assume we’re American. “No we’re not, we’re Canadian”, a couple of us pointedly retorted. “Is there a difference?” the New Yorker gently replied. A short “yes” and no rejoiner enabled us to exit out of what could have been a three hour, six wine bottle required conversation. “We eat the same” was the smooth segue back to the gorgeous platters of food they were tucking into. Graciously they described the dishes and made recommendations having dined there a few other times recently. This was one of their favourite restaurants on the Costa Brava. We were grateful. All of the prix fixe menu selection choices were mouth-watering. From the 4 salads to shoulder of lamb, lobster, sirloin steak, cuttlefish, and baked cod. Choosing was the challenge. The salads too enticing we ordered a variety with cheese croquettes to sample.
Appearing before us are picture perfect samples of gastronomy - salad with foie gras shavings, caramelized apple and pomegranate, roast pepper with goat cheese and dried fruit and another of escarole with salt cod and tuna with romesco dressing. These fresh dishes, the colours of bright red, deep and emerald greens, dabbed with whites and pinks, are too beautiful to eat, to dip a utensil into. Delicately, with small deft maneuvers hoping the ensembles won’t notice we start to pull them apart - and taste! Oh, the delightful pop of the flavours and textures leave exclamation remarks we savour. The Sangria perfectly complements the salads.
On the recommendation of our American friend, for the main dish we order the Catalan specialty Arròs de Pals a la cassola amb marisc i llamàntol, a mix of prawns, cuttlefish and lobster in rice casserole. A steaming clay cauldron is placed in the middle of the table, the top removed to reveal lobster, prawns and cuttlefish bathed in lobster broth rice, dark golden in colour. The presentation is resplendent. We tuck in moaning, gulping, aweing at each mouthful. Could this be pumpkin rice? Dense and flavourful like risotto, its coating expertly complements the rich complexity of the seafood. I guess leeks, garlic, hints of tomato, cognac, white wine and lobster stock? A trace of saffron? Does it matter? Each bite is magnificent.
It’s late. We’ve stayed an hour and a half beyond the restaurant’s closing time; time they use to prep for dinner. They’ve been gracious, unobtrusively attentive, three servers anticipating every one of our needs. A fork is dropped and smoothly replaced before an eyeball is lifted. The Sangria and wine recommendations were perfect. No vibration of hurry or we’re closing is channeled at us. On a number of occasions we’ve enjoyed this type of hospitality here in Spain. We are so grateful.
Now we get to explore those shops ensconced IN the fortress walls! Art gallerys and artisan craft shops horde pottery, sculptures, clocks, leather bracelets, watches and sandals, woven baskets, old world and ingenious instruments and hand stitched crochet and lace clothing. On and around the outside walls samples of local artisan crafts are pinned in trails of elvish Lembas Bread. Giddy with wine and excellent food we enter these sepulchres. We are greeted by animated, elegant store owners pointing to silver trays hosting bottles of Spanish walnut liqueur and lady slipper glasses. Classical music - some Chopin, some Rachmaninoff emanates from the gold stones, creamy in colour from the track lighting above. Labyrinthine rooms reveal their treasures. This honeycomb of smooth stone walled rooms has exits on the outside wall as well as inside the town. You would think the air inside would be stale and still but rather it blows a time of leisure, of delicate savouring of people and pleasures, of lingering moments. The experience is exhilarating. Outfitted with parcels wrapping local crafts we exit on the outside wall to dark grey deep stone stairs descending ten feet. This cobbled road still three-quarters of the way up this beautiful hilltop town, lays outside the fortified wall. Spread before us is a panoramic view of marshland, pine forest and beach…and streaks of sunshine. We stop to perch on the stairs and drink in the view. This town has an embrace that does not want to release us. Joseph Pla wrote "Pals is good for not one but hundreds of visits". Like an amazing lover...
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