I waited for Helena at the doorstep of her apartment building, an enclosed tower on the rim of “Gaixample,” Barcelona’s gay-friendly Eixample district. Conceived in the 1850s by the urban planner Ildefons Cerdà as an extension of Barcelona’s crammed old quarters (Eixample literally means “expansion” in the local Catalan language), the street was empty and wide enough to give the impression of a silent Spanish suburbia. I knew better, though. Just a few corners away were the boys, ribbed Adidas crew socks and all. We must have looked like bees from the air, flitting between the city’s distinctive octagonal blocks, in a hive unlike any other in the world.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Helena approach in a gleaming green dress, smiling and radiant. The last time we met each other was in Zurich, when we were both freezing and starved for sun. We climbed the narrow stairwell to her first-floor apartment, located an incongruent three floors up. To the frequent confusion and mild amusement of tourists, Cerdà’s buildings contain two additional levels: an entresuelo, literally “in-between,” and a principal, traditionally the most expensive floor of a building before elevators became commonplace.
“Would you like some gazpacho?” she asked, pulling from the fridge a carton of the chilled tomato soup. It wasn’t the usual jaunty red, but instead, the color of puréed peach—a delicate hue that looked as soft as it tasted. The secret ingredient to delicious gazpacho? Blended almonds, apparently.
Séb arrived on the first flight the following morning, and the three of us spent Friday studying, teleworking, or at least trying to. We sipped the intricacies of Spanish coffee culture, which Helena demystified. ¿Café con leche? Only in the mornings, like Italians and their cappuccino. Past breakfasting hour, a cortado—equal parts espresso and milk—is more typical. On a hot summer day, it’s great on ice. Then there is café bombón, a liquid dessert of espresso and condensed milk. And for something caffeine-free, horchata is a popular beverage made using soaked and sweetened tiger nuts. In between cups, we made plans for the coming days, and when the afternoon slipped into dusk, we strolled up the hill of Montjuïc to watch the illuminated spray of Barcelona’s Magic Fountain.
Saturday started with a homemade breakfast as sweet and light as the Iberian sun. After a plate of honeyed yellow figs, strawberries, and the most tender fresh cheese, Séb and I set off for the Sagrada Família. It’s been seven years since I saw it last. In that time, Barcelona’s centerpiece inched ever so slowly toward the firmament and completion. The most recent addition was a larger-than-life, 12-pointed glass star that now crowns the tower devoted to Mary. By day it sparkles under the sunbeams, while at night, it emits its own Venusian glow, a bright étoile hovering over the metropolis. The inside of the Sagrada remains unchanged, although I viewed it now with different eyes. I remembered it seeming extraterrestrial, a gargantuan alien belly of cold gray bristles, stony purple flesh, and disorienting symmetry. Only now did I see the basilica’s earthly motifs: the forest of pillars branching up toward the vaulted ceiling; the rounded central knots mimicking pruned trees; and the abundance of light pouring through the canopy. Outside, the façade took on human details. Spindly columns looked like stretched tendons and ribs, and the bell towers resembled strained muscles, reflecting Christ’s Passion in beauty and in cruelty.
We decided to leave Barcelona. Not from a lack of things do to. Just that the prospect of exploring more of the region was too enticing to pass up. Early Sunday, we rode the slow train out of Passeig de Gràcia towards Helena’s hometown, Girona. In the rest of Spain, it is known as Gerona and pronounced with an h, but its name in English derives from Catalan, in which Girona retains its g.
We meandered through the city’s historical center, guided adroitly from one bank of the pacific Onyar to the other. Past the stacks of colorful houses, we stumbled into a curious boutique with shelves brimming with handmade caganers. These small bawdy “poopers,” depicting Catalan peasants in red caps popping a squat, are placed in the region’s Nativity scenes to usher in good fortune the following year. At the Plaça del Vi, site of Girona’s castells festivities, Helena explained the longstanding tradition of Catalonia’s castle-building, where fearless Catalans of all ages and social backgrounds pile their bodies on top of one another to form fugacious human towers. Some of them can reach a height of eight humans.
We soon arrived at La Lleona, a ritualistic stop for visitors. Prior to the pandemic, it was considered lucky to leave a kiss on the derrière of the 12th-century limestone lioness. Do all lucky charms in Catalunya involve butts? I wanted to ask, but was cut short by the monstrous Gothic cathedral which suddenly loomed into view. There it was, the Great Sept of Baelor, where my favorite protagonist Margaery from Game of Thrones prepared for her Walk of Atonement. Even in real life, the massive slab unsettled me. It was an edifice fit for Judgement Day, chiseled with demigods that looked as they would spring to life any minute. Ninety steps leading up to the doors prolonged my roiling unease. By the time we reached the top, we were done for. The sun was punishing, drenching our backsides in sheets of sweat. The sea called.
Cap de Creus
I had always imagined Catalonia as an arid, Mediterranean back country with a sliver of hot white coastline. Much like my hometown in California, lost among the miles of straw-colored mountains and jagged ocher stones. Growing up there, I never cared for the landscape. It parched me. But as we approached the shores of Cap de Creus, a windswept natural park at the easternmost point of the Iberian Peninsula, the rocky dryness of the Costa Brava—Spain’s “rugged coast”—ceded to a sparkling seaside of evergreen groves and deep blue bays.
The painter Salvador Dalí built his home on the cape in the fishing village of Portlligat, and it’s easy to see what inspired him to do so. Small white boats speckle the canvas, gently rocking the viewer to a place of transcendence. Framed by swaying olive trees and cypresses, the woes of the world were nowhere to be found. Scenes from the small bay have even made their way into several of his paintings. Inside the house, a cunningly hung mirror still redirects the rays of morning light to an empty bed. During his years in Portlligat, Dalí claimed to be the first person in all of Spain to see the sun rise every day.
“I can’t wait to show you Cadaqués,” Helena said with an anticipation that we reciprocated. The first order of business upon arriving in town was to pick up a box of taps dolços at the Can Cabrisas patisserie. Invented by the Cabrisas family more than two hundred years ago, these sugar-dusted cork-shaped puffs are so beloved, they need to be reserved a day before by phone. Gently sponged by syrup, they were a gratifying sweetener for our five o’clock snack. We promenaded along the cobbled streets, contemplated chocolate-stuffed churros, stopped to watch a habanera performance—an iconic local tradition imported from Cuba by Catalan sailors—and then, the cloche of dusk cloaked the vibrant Cadaqués.
What little time we had left in Catalonia was spent in the water. The noontime heat made the sea almost unbearably fresh and drove us to paddle in circles, searching for warm currents. Helena dove for purple urchins to show Séb, and we watched her slink and slip underneath the surface, a mermaid returned to her element.
I relished the tranquility of our cala, our marvelous pocket of viridian and smooth pebble tucked between the rocks. While drops of seawater slowly turned to salt on our skin, I mulled over the word. Cala—a two-syllable concept older than Latin, the Romans, and Europe as we know it. Even the earliest peoples realized the need to name these small slices of heaven. There on the shore, the three of us must have been partaking in one of civilization’s earliest and most essential rituals. I could have lain there forever.