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PO'B's Town and Stephen's Country

by Jay Reay

This account is of a trip my wife Philippa and I made to Catalunya in July 2000. We flew to Perpignan in south west France and drove to Collioure, the French Catalan town on the Mediterranean where Patrick O'Brian lived for many years with his wife Mary. They are both buried in the small town cemetery there.

Philippa and I then spent a week in north east Spain, the autonomous region of Iberian Catalunya, staying with our elder daughter Katy, who has been studying for a year at the Law University in Madrid. She is living in Catalunya for the summer before she returns to the University of Wales for her final examinations. Katy has spent the last five summers and four winters in this part of Spain and knows it well; she speaks Castellano (metropolitan Spanish) fluently and is learning Catala', the Catalan tongue, the first language of eight million people in south west Europe. Catala' is a distinct language with a strong literary tradition. Although the vocabulary appears to be a mix of Spanish and French, there are many unique words from the common Latin root. To my ears it sounds like Spanish with the ends of words bitten off.

This account gives my impressions of a day in Patrick O'Brian's adopted home town and a week in the family lands of his fictional hero, the Irish-Catalan surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin. I have included a lot of detail about some aspects of Catalan culture, as it is distinctive. Although times have changed here as elsewhere, there are strong echoes of the old maritime and rural life which make up the Catalan character.

POB chose to place one of his heroes firmly within two cultures - Irish and Catalan - each of which have much to offer. My short time in Catalunya gave me a taste of the background to part of Stephen's upbringing.

We arrived at Perpignan airport on a warm afternoon in early July, the blustery wind hot and dusty on our faces, to be met by Katy and her Catalan boyfriend Xavier Vaz Rodriguez. The airport is small and intimate - it reminded Philippa and me of African airfields in the 1960s, palms in dusty ranks, scarlet bougainvillea draped over a low white terminal building, a stubby pink control tower, small private planes dotted about and an ancient BP aviation fuel bowser parked to one side of the single jet aircraft pan. The airport is so small we saw Katy and Xavi waving to us from the runway-side fence as we touched down - a rare pleasure at international airports these days.

Perpignan is the centre of Catalan France, close to Carcassonne and Montpellier, and the red and gold striped Catalan flag is everywhere, with road signs in French and Catala'. This region, Languedoc-Roussillon, famous for red wine, is called Catalunya Norte (North Catalunya) by the Catalans and was once part of the old kingdoms of Aragon and Majorca before annexation by France in 1659. Its airport is a useful entry for south-west France and north-east Spain (it is 20 minutes from the main border crossing on the A7 motorway to Barcelona) and flights there connect to Paris Orly and London Stansted.

POB's Town:

So to the town where POB spent nearly half his life, Collioure - or in Catala', Cotlioure (pron. "cott-lee-yoreh") - a coastal resort about half an hour's drive from Perpignan, and close to the border with Spain. As we walked around, Cotlioure was bathed in bright sun, hot in its small squares and narrow dusty lanes, but by the sea the cooling wind was delightful. The small main beach was already full of early season tourists, mainly French and a few British. Cotlioure is a pretty town full of character, a mecca for artists seeking inspiration from the fine bourgeois buildings and the special light of the western Mediterranean. Matisse painted here and inspired a well-known school, the fauvistes, noted for their experimental use of bright, bold colour.

Over a light lunch in a good cafe facing the main beach we asked the staff about POB and his house. My French is reasonable and the waiter understood what I was asking but claimed never to have heard of one of his town's most famous residents. It being mid-afternoon he went off duty while we were still eating (with apologies for not being able to continue serving us), so we asked the second waiter the same questions in French and had the same response. Not a good start!

But then the first garçon de salle came back, dressed for the beach, and told Xavi in Catala' that he had known POB, wasn't sure where he had lived, but that a friend in the information office knew and might tell us, if we were to ask her in Catala'.

The information office is in the centre of Cotlioure, in the Place de 18 Juin, part of the picturesque market area behind the Château Royale and the old harbour. The first assistant we spoke with didn't speak Catala' and disclaimed all knowledge of POB, but the waiter's friend overheard Xavi and said she knew Senyor O'Brian's house and marked its location on a tourists' map of the town. We found it easily, just 200 metres from where we had parked the car when we first arrived.

The Master's House:

POB's house is in a quiet, dusty lane, which diverges from a larger cul-de-sac road at a flat bridge over a narrow river (the rocky bed dry in summer), and winds up a steep hill overhanging the houses, hotels and cafes at the southern end of the sea-front. In the heat of the afternoon, when most sensible people were snoozing in siesta or eating in a cool restaurant, the lane was empty and still, bone-white in the blazing sun. This Mad Dog (but no Englishman, I) was able to examine the outside of The Master's earthly paradise without hindrance, in my zeal to give my shipmates good bearings for the place where he had written the Canon.

The house and its half a dozen smaller neighbours on the other side of the lane must once have been surrounded by small fields, olive groves and vegetable plots, the remnants of which stretch up the hill. Now there are modern residential apartments on the town side, but POB's house has what amounts to a moat and defensive wall separating it from these modern intrusions below his old home - the steep-sided stream and a small, overgrown stone quarry beneath his property.

The house looks to have been built in the 1960s, white and boxy, with rectangular arbours made of white concrete lintels projecting on two sides and a wall of large glass windows on the side facing the town - it looks a bit like the superstructure of an ocean liner. Entry to the house is between two immense, thick hedges of cypress either side of large concrete box planters under one of the arbours (its fishing-net plant support now empty) shading two short flights of steps leading to a narrow platform on a stone cellier supporting the white wall of the house. This side wall is high and angled, with a large chimney stack, grilled windows with shutters in dark wood, several small square window-lights (like a ship's scuttles) on the upper floor, and a single dark wood door coffered in the Catalan style. The house is stylish and fits the location like a glove, but - POB would be mightily offended at my impertinence! - from the outside it is a tad shabby genteel, in need of minor refurbishment

There are no names on the mailbox - which has a label for a security company prominently displayed - or on the electrical connection boxes by the entrance. The house is quite a few years older than its neighbours across the lane, a row of cream-walled, red-tile roofed villas each with tiled terrace balconies jutting out over steep gardens falling down the hillside behind them. Compared to their traditional designs, POB's house is starkly modern but the effect is softened by its honey-coloured stone base and by a proliferation of bougainvillea and other shrubs.

On the side of the property up the lane away from the town there is a gate in a green wire-mesh fence leading to a small, dry and somewhat neglected garden. Under a first floor (US second floor) balcony is what appears to be a sitting room on the ground floor - still furnished with easy chairs - with a floor-to-ceiling window looking onto a patio, which has two well-shaped cypress trees in each corner.

Next to the sitting room window is a tall metal gate in a squared cobweb design, which appears to lead to a small courtyard. I recall from the BBC television interview with POB that his study seemed to look out onto a courtyard; perhaps this is the one. The design of the building and its neighbours (where similar courtyards are also visible) indicates that this room would be the coolest one with an outside wall.

The gate opens onto the patio, which through a concrete lintel arbour and some untended bushes gives access to the small garden, well shaded by trees on two sides and coniferous hedges on the third.

At the end of the garden over the low wire fence bordered by two tall Corsican pines, is a small field - about half an acre - of grape vines, POB's vineyard. Entry to the vineyard is by a short, steep path next to the garden's lane gate, defended by a low-slung chain with a "Privee" sign. The vines have been tended recently and the green grapes were abundant although this early in the season they were still hard. To the embarrassment of my wife and daughter I declaimed over the vines a short passage from Master and Commander in English from my dog-eared copy. On my desk as I write is a cone from one of POB's Corsican pines, which I found on the vineyard path.

The lane meanders up the steep hill and eventually peters out amongst scrubby trees which continue up to an old fortification on the crest - Fort Béar - which from the garden and vineyard is silhouetted dramatically against the sky. The fort can be seen in the distance behind Jim Klein's right shoulder in shot 18 on his website of his visit to POB's grave and closer in a photograph I will post.

It is possible, from the height of the house and its position on the hillside, that POB had a view of the sea from the long, deep windows of the rooms on the town side, but this may now be obscured by the new four-storey apartment blocks built alongside the stream below the house.

As we had a dinner appointment in Spain we didn't have time to see POB's grave, as Jim did recently, but the cemetery is marked on the official tourist map of the town. As Jim found, there is some defensiveness about POB in Collioure, and it is interesting that speaking Catala' overcame this resistance. POB is mentioned on the town's interesting website which has pages in Franglais.

Stephen's Country:

And so to Iberian Catalunya. We drove over the border at Cerbère where the foothills of the Pyrenean mountains fall into the Mediterranean, and where the carriages of the trains from Marseilles to Barcelona change bogies from the standard gauge of northern Europe to the broad gauge of Spain. The coast road is directly east of the location of the fictional Stephen Maturin's family lands in the Serra de l'Albera, but there are no roads inland on this route from the French resort of Banyuls right down to elegant Llança in Spain, so it was not possible to detour up to "his" castle at Castell de Requesens near La Jonquera in the short time we had.

The road traces the edge of the sea-cliffs or climbs through narrow gorges and is not for the fainthearted. But despite being windy (by which I mean it meanders, not just that it was subjected to strong breezes) and going through several small coastal towns, the journey was quite quick. Xavi is an accomplished driver and also young, impetuous and Latin, taking the many hairpin bends much faster than I would dare to! We entered Roses, where Katy is living this summer, an hour after leaving Collioure.

The Place:

Roses (which is pronounced as if Sean Connery were saying "rose-ass") is a town about 30 kilometres south of the border in the region of Catalunya called Alt' Emporda, the "High Borders". In the winter it is a quiet and intimate village of fewer than 4000 people, but in summer it is full of tourists, mainly French and Spanish. They are in this somewhat upmarket part of Spain for the good food; the museums, theatres and haute couture boutiques in nearby Figueres and Girona (and Barcelona is easily reached by road and rail); the golf in Perelada (which also has a beautiful castle, once the home of one of Generalisimo Franco's ministers); excellent swimming and boisterous sailing off the rugged Costa Brava coastline.

The neighbouring villages southwards along the long beach, Santa Margarita and Empuria Brava, cater for ocean-going yachties from France, Britain, the Netherlands and Barcelona, and the gin-palace motor boat mob from Germany, for whom a modern resort was built 20 years ago next to the ruins of ancient Empuria, the gateway to Iberia for Greek and Roman traders. Roses - more elegant in the style of the French Riviera - was founded over 2000 years ago by Greeks from the island of Rhodes and locals like Xavi are called Rodians.

We stayed in Xavi's lovely house in the barrio of Mas Oliva, where the foothills of the Pyrenees sweep down to the Bay of Roses. Xavi's three-storey house was designed by his father Nicolas in the Catalan style with white plaster walls, shuttered windows, and red tiled roof on the front, and a big sitting room with a long balustraded terrace on the first floor. This terrace - at the southward-facing rear of the house to catch the sun - looks out onto an ancient olive grove stretching up a low mountain bordering the sea. Being himself an Andaluz (from the south of Spain where the Moorish influence is strong), Nicolas had the whole house floored with marble or terracotta tiles, a cool sanctuary from the blazing heat of a Catalan summer.

The temperature on this side of the Pyrenees was never lower than 80º F during the day and often humid but the constant breeze - sometimes brisk but usually gentle - off the sea or the mountains makes the climate comfortable for us northern Europeans. On our last night in Roses we had a tropical-style rain storm, a spectacular son et lumiere show rolling through the mountains for six hours, but that was just a refreshing interlude in otherwise perfect weather. A month later the mountains behind Xavi's house were to be alight with forest fires for a week or more, a common natural occurrence in hot summers and important for the generation of new pine trees.

I intended to visit some of the Catalan places mentioned in Post Captain and elsewhere in the Canon and had been given place-names and maps by Bruce Trinque and Chris Moseley but didn't get to the exact locations this time. We crossed the border on our last day very close to the point identified by Bruce as where Jack exited France dressed in a bear's skin; the A7 motorway now crosses here at le Perthus, in a pass winding through the Serra de l'Albera, mountainous but not too high for the cultivation of vines, olives and apples. Unseasonal snow glinted on the higher peaks to the west. Needing to get to the airport in good time we didn't detour but I plan to spend more time in this area on my next trip, using Katy's 4x4 to get to the mountain paths where the porcupine hunt took place. I had some practice in fast off-road driving this visit, scattering dust and goats in all directions as I wrestled to keep the vehicle on the steep hillside track above her house.

But we did see many interesting towns and villages in the foothills of the Pyrenees very close to the possible location of Stephen's castle, and on the nearest point of the coast to his Catalan homelands, and got a flavour of the Catalunya Stephen would have known.

Boats and sails:

We spent a relaxed day in the tiny port of Cadaques, reached only by a steep mountain road or by boat, where we were enchanted by the white buildings enlivened by the special colour of the area, "azul Cadaques", the blue of the shallow water in the boat-filled bay. In their later years this beautiful town was the inspiration and site of the private homes of Salvador Dali and Picasso.

There is a style of sailing and motor boat here unique to this specific area, full- or half-decked with a wide beam, high freeboard, rounded stern and an almost vertical stem. The sail versions are often gaff-rigged with a stubby bowsprit, but they all have a carved samson post on the prow, evoking the prow of ancient Greek sailing ships. Like many of the older Mediterranean sailing boats, they use a lateen rig - the mast stepped with a slight forward slant and the yard at an angle of about 50º to the horizontal - which the Catalans call "vela de latina", Latin sail.

I coveted one beautiful specimen, a motor boat about 36' at the waterline, with the pronounced bow-flare common to larger Spanish fishing boats, teak decked with a good sized wheelhouse leading to a big saloon, the hull olive green with cream coachlining. Another caught my eye too, a slightly shorter sailing boat with a dark blue hull and a Cadaques blue canvas stern dodger and folding awning over the long tiller. I plan to buy something similar this year at one of the out-of-season sales along the coast; I won't berth it in the flashy marina at Empuria but at Roses' fish harbour, where I enjoyed talking to a crew preparing to go out for a night's catch.

Food and drink:

The Spanish breakfast early on magdalenas (sweet cakes), zumo (fruit juice) and hot chocolate; taking mid-morning tapas (literally "plates", small appetisers such as whelks, scallops, salted almonds, savoury biscuits, meatballs, cheese puffs, salted sunflower seeds) with chilled dry sherry, or churros (little sugared dough rings, or the local version, bunyols, bun doughnuts filled with cream) and coffee. Many lunch lightly (often on bocadillos - crisp white baguettes drizzled inside with olive oil and filled like sandwiches) although most Spaniards take two hours or more over several courses in cool restaurants during the hottest part of the afternoon.

The Spanish custom in summer is to dine late (sitting down to dinner at 10.00pm is usual, often later in Madrid). If at home they dine lightly on bread, salad, cold meat, cheese, olives and wine, but substantially if at a restaurant. If out to the early hours of the morning, in bars or clubs, they have another snack - usually a large plate of tapas, a raçion. Every good bar gives a complementary dish of olives, pepinillos (pickled gherkins) or salted almonds with drinks.

Over the week I enjoyed tasting many dishes Stephen would have known from his visits to his Catalan family. Amongst the huge range of fish and seafood dishes I particularly liked (most of the words in italics are in Catala', not Spanish):

zarzuela (white fish and shellfish in a tomato, wine and saffron broth); bacallá (raw salt cod, one of the great dishes of the Iberian peninsula) with artichoke hearts; rap (monkfish) poached with pimientas (red peppers), tomatoes and peas; grilled merluza (hake) with salsa romesco (a paste of almonds, hazelnuts and mild chilis); grilled sardines with couscous; pollastre amb gambes (chicken and prawns in a red wine and pine-nut sauce); boquerones (fresh anchovies marinaded for a few hours, delicious and different from their bottled cousins, served in a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and hard-boiled eggs); arroz marinera - a Catalan sailor's paella (saffron rice with monkfish, white sausage, huge prawns, crab meat, peas, tomatoes and pimiento peppers); langostino (crayfish) cooked in garlic butter and saltwater.

Game meat and poultry is usually good in country areas, but red meat is not always good in Spain - I often joke that it is butchered in the bullring, as the cuts can be rough, very different from northern Europe and affecting the taste and presentation. Mutton is as common as lamb, tastier but tougher, and the ubiquitous pork and ham can be stringy. A piece of good meat is often ruined by boiling before roasting.

But on this trip to Catalunya, all the meat was high quality, properly cooked and well presented, with some unusual combinations, and I very much enjoyed:

roast goat with rosemary, served with trixat (the Catalan bubble and squeak - fried mashed potato and cabbage); chuletas de cordero (lamb cutlets) grilled with thyme and served with a mushroom and caper sauce; bocadillo con lomo de cerdo (a baguette filled with hot roast loin of pork, very popular in Spain); bocadillo con jamon y queso (baguette with ham and cheese, known in Madrid as a "mixto" and in coastal Catalunya as a "bikini"); conejo del monte guisado (wild rabbit poached in cider and shallots) with boiled new potatoes, broad beans and tomatoes.

Catalunya has very good vegetables; as well as those mentioned above we also liked these vegetable-based salads and snacks:

escalivada (whole pimentos and aubergines baked until soft in olive oil and herbs, sometimes served with anchovies); truita de patate (the Catalan tortilla española, a thick omelette with potatoes, the best version I tasted also having aubergines); the classic Catalan snack of pa' amb tomàquet - also called pan catalana (crusty white bread lightly toasted, rubbed with a garlic clove, a fresh tomato crushed on top and drizzled with olive oil) - eaten with thinly-sliced fuet (dried garlic sausage, more tasty than the ubiquitous and often nasty Spanish chorizo); espàrragos verde con revueltos (fresh asparagus with scrambled eggs); revueltos y beicon guindillas (a spicy dish of scrambled eggs and bacon strips with small pieces of very hot chili peppers marinaded in vineigre extra - salted wine vinegar); chili-hot gazpacho chilled and drunk from glasses. I don't like Spanish cheese but loved the fine Italian buffalo milk Mozzarella with jamon serrano and spinach at a light meal on our last night.

For pudding and refreshment I delighted in fresh figs warm from the tree; immense water melons; manzanas de miel (apples sliced in honey); home-made vanilla ice-cream; prunes soaked in white wine; and of course, crema catalana, the original creme brulee, which I just had to try several times!

This part of Catalunya is one of Spain's main wine regions, Penedès. The reds here are more elegant with less tannin than the better known oak-aged Riojas of north-central Spain, and mainly a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenacha grapes. Priorat is the best, with the rare Gran Sangre de Toro close behind, but cheaper reds from the many local wine cooperatives are also very drinkable.

Penedès is more famous for its white wines, very good but usually with less body than I like (my taste these days is for big southern hemisphere wines), but over a very long fish lunch in Sant Pere de Piscador I enjoyed three local white wines. I started with a very pleasant half-bottle of Freixenet's creamy Cordon Negro brut cava with the langostinos (cava is Spain's excellent, good value methode champagne), drank a fruity Alella (semi-dry) with the hake, and closed with a large copa of vi' rancio, a heavy pudding wine. On Katy's terrace late one very warm evening Philippa and I shared a chilled bottle of Cordoniu's superb cava brut natur with langostino and almond couscous on our 23rd wedding anniversary.

In an excellent new restaurant in an old chapel in the village of Vila Sacra, we were given chopitas - friendship drinks - of the local marca, a cognac-like spirit.

Other diversions:

One morning we sat with Katy and Xavi, and his parents Nicolas and Ana, on the terrace of their new house built in the traditional style of the Catalan mountain area, outside the wine-growing village of Capmany (pron. "cap-mine-ye") only a few miles south of the fictional location of the Maturins' mountain castle at Requesens. We tasted the fruits of the local vineyards and olive groves, spread over the southern face of a shallow hill in the narrow rolling plain between the Pyrenees and the low mountains around Figueres to the south, discussing the pain and pleasures of the European Union in Spanish, English, French and Catala'.

As the Catalan language in any form was illegal from the end of the Spanish Civil War until the old dictator Franco died 25 years ago, Nicolas and Ana speak only Spanish, and that with the strong accent of their native Andalusia; with my sparse Spanish I found that difficult to follow until I became attuned to it. In the Andaluz dialect the "s" sound is almost lost - when showing my present of Glenlivet 12 year old malt whisky to his daughters, Nico called it "whihkee". Xavi is fluent in all four languages (and almost so in Italian and German) and Katy speaks Castellano Spanish like a Madrileña and some Catala', so they worked overtime to translate, but we all quickly developed a rapport; different languages are no barrier to understanding and enjoyment in good company.

On another memorable day at their house I played petanco - the Catalan version of boules, the summer sport seen in every French and Spanish town in which players compete to get three steel spheres - pelotas - closest to a small jack on a playing field - the "pista" - of gravel. I was teamed with Nico against his son and his son-in-law Miguel, who I found out after the first couple of ends was a former petanco champion of Catalunya and very serious indeed about his sport. Miguel's playing name is "El Negro" because his petanco pelotas are black iron - like small cannon balls - and he has a markedly swarthy complexion and blue-black hair, unusual in Catalunya; like Nico and Ana, Miguel is an Andaluz, his family being forcibly moved to Catalunya during Franco's regime of cultural dilution.

Nico has a petanco pista alongside his vineyard, with grape vines shading a cool store of wine and beer hidden from the women of his house.

I quickly picked up some of the more arcane terms used in this sport (for example, "ostra" means that the distance from the jack between one pelota and another is too close to call without a measure - the difference is "as tight as an oyster shell"), and a few unsavoury and untranslatable phrases too. This is a simple game which can be enjoyed anywhere (we often play boules on our rough lawn at home and on the beach) but one piece of equipment essential to this sport is a glass of wine or beer, held lightly in the non-playing hand. The skill is not to spill any drink while throwing the pelota high in the air with a twist of the wrist to let it land and spin to a stop where you want it. My Catalan playing name is "Mano de ratón" - "Mouse-hand", as I release the pelota with a soft upward flick of my closed hand, apparently looking somewhat like a rodent's paw - in the witty Catalan manner there is also an obscure reference here to my occupation as a writer using computers!

Nico and Ana took us to a beautiful restaurant hidden in the narrow main street of a tiny mountain village. Over a long and noisy lunch we all made fools of ourselves drinking Garnacha rosé from spouted wine flasks. This restaurant was in a lovely, ancient house, filled with artefacts from the rural past of the region. In the hills around us were wild boar, ibex and lynx and there was something of the feel of Godfather Corleone's fin de siècle Sicily in the photographs of villagers equipped for hunting, taken less than 50 years ago. Until 1975 or so such villages would have been recognisable to Stephen Maturin, remote, grindingly poor, silent and deeply suspicious of strangers, but modernisation has been fast-paced and sweeping since Franco's successors freed Catalunya from the yoke of enforced ignorance. Today mobile phones, expensive new cars, high fashion and the other paraphernalia of a sophisticated modern world are the fruits expected by all Catalans from their hard work, for which they are famous and feared in Spain.

This was a memorable visit to Catalunya, a beautiful country and a delightful, interesting, cultured people whose hospitality was unstinting. Once we have acquired our second home there (and the essential 4x4 off-road vehicle and the non-essential but desirable boat) I will visit Stephen's places mentioned in the Canon, and perhaps write a Lissuns Catalunya Locator.

© J M J Reay 2000