Poetry in Stone – Peratallada and Besalú
Stepping into any Medieval town in Europe often takes me back in time. Sure, many things have changed since 500 AD. The streets are not strewn with animal waste, the buildings are scrubbed and clean, and the only industry present is the tourist industry. Towns like Peratallada and Besalú survive on the jobs created by the restaurants, hotels and art boutiques that cater to the tourists that visit these areas during the summer.
We visited Peratallada in autumn – if you are coming from Northern Europe, like we did, you wouldn’t think it was autumn at all. The trees and bushes were still mostly vibrant green and some plants were still flowering. The temperature was balmy at around eighteen to twenty four degrees during the day. The only things that gave away the time of the year were the colour of the light at sunset – I feel it is more golden during the spring and autumn months, and the gentle twinge of red and gold on some of the leaves.
When we drove into Peratallada (actually it was more like the carpark near the back entrance of the fortress, since vehicles are not allowed in the city itself), I felt we were driving into a picture in a storybook. The road into town winded past lovely stone buildings on either side, some covered in verdant ivy. To our right was the Riera de Peratallada that ran past the terrace of a restaurant underneath a stone building. It was mid afternoon – siesta time, and the streets were empty.
Our AirBnB host, Yassin, the person responsible for Casa Mas Valoria, met us here to chauffeur us to the rural estate we would spend the next two nights in. Find out more about Mas Valoria in our post “Mas Valoria – Casa Rural”.
We would whole heartedly recommend the experience of staying in Mas Valoria for your time in the region. It’s about two kilometers away from the town of Peratallada, a really nice and easy hike through the forest to the center. When we visited, we had the entire estate to ourselves and it was quite an experience.
I suppose it was the time of year we were visiting – it seemed like we had Peratallada to ourselves. The good thing about visiting in autumn (apart from the stunning sunsets) is that you get to enjoy the beauty of these historical sites in serenity. The streets were mostly empty and we had many great opportunities to take photographs of the architecture un-hindered by other visitors. The downside is that most places are closed so our choices were limited. Personally, I didn’t care much for the lack of choice.
Like most of the stone towns in the region, Peratallda is a fortified village. It is build on top of a foundation of sandstone rock, which the town’s moat is carved into. Inside the town, there are stairs that lead to the entrances of villas which are some metres below street level. I suppose the sandstone bedrock must have been carved into to provide the dwelling space for these homes.
The centrepiece of the town is the castle, which is dated to the year 1065. However, architectural analysis of the village has shown that the village and its fortress predate the castle. The piece of land it sits upon was suppossedly wetter in the past than it is today and was a natural deterrant for enemies wanting to attack the village.
We really felt how ancient the town was as we walked through its winding cobblestone streets that twisted and turned in no practical way – the type of urban layout that is clearly unplanned – something I love since every turn promises to hold a new surprise. Because of this, there’s a lot more to explore in Peratellada than you first expect for a town of its size!
The main attraction of Peratellada is the “Torre de L’Homenatge”. It is unmissable when you are entering the town. This tower is a standard architectural feature of all medieval fortresses. It’s also known as a keep, like the Red Keep in Game of Thrones, where the ruling reagent keeps her seat. The purpose of the keep is to provide the lords and their protectors a good view of the surrounding land and to provide the most protection in case of an attack.
If I thought Peratallada was beautiful, Besalú was even more so. From afar, it looks beautiful, but not too spectacular – unlike the town Castellfollit de la Roca which is literally built on top of a cliff face – but the moment I took the first step onto the bridge leading into the city, I was blown away by the beauty and uniqueness of its architecture.
The bridge leading into the city has a Romanesque style – an architectural style that appropriated the fashions of the Roman empire after it collapsed roughtly around 500 AD. This is most noticible in the perfect semi-circular arches under the bridge and its two large towers. The city itself has buildings that are laid out in a way that conforms to everyone’s ideal of a medieval town on a hill with buildings pointing in all directions, catching the sun and casting shadows on each other in the most photogenic way.
Besalú was a multi-cultural city in its heyday, its primarily Christian population sharing the city with a large Jewish community and a sprinking of Muslims and Goths.
The most interesting part of the city is the Jewish quarter, one of the most well-preserved in all of Europe. It is near the city’s entrance at the Bell-Lloc gate which you’ll have to pass if you enter by foot from the bridge. Here the streets are winding and entice you to wander freely. We followed them all the way down to the foot of the city where there was a path by the river that surrounded Besalú. It was very serene and beautiful here, and if you watched closely enough, you’ll see quite a number of interesting birds.
The streets near the entrance of the city also sport a number of beautiful sculputures by local artist Kel Domènach. These sculptures are perfect for the city. They are surreal and inspire curiousity, making me look at the architecture of the city in a different way.
Modern art often preaches about giving viewers a different angle on life – the chair sculptures of Besalú, in their understatement, literally do this without even trying – all the while blending in perfectly into the city. Personally I think it’s one of the best pieces of public art I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
When I entered Besalú, I was sorely disappointed I had forgotten my sketchbook. Living in Catalonia, I had (almost) gotten used to the ridiculous beauty and intrigue of its quirky architecture. I didn’t bother bringing it along because I felt it would be enough that we had photographs of it.
However there was something about the city that grabbed at me and made me feel I had to capture it the way I saw it. Sadly, I didn’t have the tools to do so. I guess the only thing to do would be to go back there as soonest as we can!