Literary Journeys Through Catalonia: A Trip Through El Camp de Tarragona

By Azareen Van der Vliet & Leonardo Francalanci

“Beyond the shadow of a doubt certain natural artefacts have a density, a mystery, an intensity we often find in works of art.”

                                                —Maria Manent, Art, atzar, natura.

I.

After exploring Josep Pla’s Empordà and Mercè Rodoreda’s Barcelona, we decided to head south to the Camp de Tarragona in order to explore a valley at the center of Baix Camp, an area located between the city of Reus, the touristic Costa Daurada and the lesser-known—at least for us—mountains of La Mussara. Our destination is the remote countryside town of Aleixar and its neighboring village Maspujols where, almost a century earlier, the Catalan painter Juaquim Mir and the poet and critic Marià Manent lived. The villages, only a few kilometers inland from the coastal towns of Cambrils and Salou, are surrounded by fields of almond, hazelnut, and olive trees, and are enclosed by dramatic red-and-white boulders. The stone architecture of Aleixar and Maspujols—with the exception of their individual spear-shaped bell towers–blends in organically with the natural surroundings.

When we arrived in Aleixar, after a tiring 250-kilometer drive in the August sun (public transport to the area is more than scarce), we found it almost entirely deserted. There were a few stray cats rubbing their backs against the hot stone walls of the houses. But the streets, leading out like arteries from the town square, were almost completely empty and silent. On the main corridor, a Café sign hung above a door that appeared to have never been opened. As we looked around, we wondered, what could have compelled Joaquim Mir to leave behind his native city of Barcelona to move here, and especially during a time when every artist’s dream was to go live in bohemian Paris? Where could Marià Manent have found inspiration for his poems? The place is serene, beautiful even, but rather ordinary when compared to the dramatic range of landscapes Catalonia offers. What could Mir and Manent have seen that we cannot? Though the town seemed unaffected by time, we thought perhaps whatever had lured the artists to rural Tarragona disappeared into the folds of history, as did they, almost a century ago.

To our surprise, when we found ourselves in the Town Hall asking for information a few minutes later, an office worker kindly said to us: “I´m sorry, but we don’t have any information here. You can find all your answers online.” Of course, we sighed, the Internet! Despite all our efforts to stay away from technology, here we were, cornered into surfing the Web to get information about a town that seemed untouched by modernity. We asked about the local writer, Fina Anglès Soronellas, whom we knew had created a literary route which placed Mir and Manent’s individual representations of the space—the latter’s paintings and the former’s poems—in conversation with one another despite the artists having lived in the area more than thirty years apart. But, as though one found oneself in Aleixar every day, the gentleman suggested we reserve a guided tour with the author and return to visit the town “at some other point in the future.” After some time the gentleman resigned himself and handed us a comprehensive guide book by Anglès Soronellas, titled Un passeig amb els sentits: de la natura a l'art (A walk with the senses: from nature to art). The book came complete with a CD and a map delineating the various points along the literary route where either the poet or the painter had sat contemplating and capturing the landscape. Unable to escape the technological reality of our times, we handed him our credit card to purchase the book. But the gentleman screwed up his eyes and said, “I´m sorry, we don´t accept credit cards.” The book was going to cost us all our cash. We looked at each other, and the nuisance quickly turned into a knowing glance. Things were turning back to the way we wanted them to be, simple and direct: experience unmediated by technology.

II.

We sat in the bar to read through the guidebook. Except for an old man sitting alone at a table reading the newspaper, it, too, was deserted, and resonated, as Aleixar did, with a sense of alienation and abandonment. As we flipped the pages, old black-and-white pictures of the village emerged from the book; scenes of everyday life and portraits of the two artists and their families, accompanied by detailed explanations of the local vegetation, which both Mir and Manent represented with pristine lucidity in their work, came to the fore. We learned that neither artist had chosen to live in rural Tarragona: rather, they had ended up in the area as a result of personal circumstances and at very different historical moments. Mir arrived in 1906, after he was released from the psychiatric institute, Pere Mata of Reus—reputed to be one of the best in the country at the time—where he was recovering from a crisis he had on the island of Mallorca, where he had gone to paint with artist Santiago Rusiñol. Manent, on the other hand, first began going to Aleixar after he got married to Josefina Segimon Cisa, the daughter of Domingo Segimon Artells, in 1929, but it wasn’t until the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War that he decided to permanently reside there. The artists’ main link to the villages of Aleixar and Maspujols were the local, land-owning families of Segimon and Artells, to whom both artists were connected personally.  As we gazed at the pictures, Aleixar’s past began to take on life: it grew familiar, and the ordinariness that chocked us upon arriving began to transform. Suddenly, we knew this trip would be the most demanding of the literary journeys we had undertaken thus far: to grasp the beauty of this place, to really understand how it inspired Mir and Manent we would have to overcome our prejudices and push through our ideas of “discovery.”  We were ready to begin our journey.

III.

We started out at the hermitage of San Blai. Situated at the north end of the village, it offers a view of the surrounding mountains of La Mussara, the red-and-white boulders that stretch from east to west across the horizon. There, we read Manent’s poems and as we gazed at the landscape, we realized that what for him was a very specific and well-defined universe, is for us a simple sketch, an outline: where we see trees, he saw hazelnut, almond, walnut, and pine trees; where we see flowers, he saw “Blue irises begin to open their six fine petals, which are ornamented at the center with a darker brushstroke”; where we hear birdsong, he heard the cry of the lark, “From the window I see a lark warbling with drunken obstinacy, as though it were a symbol of life’s patience, its mystery.” In his work, the natural landscape of Aleixar appears as something quotidian and straightforward, but never simple, or banal. He seems to capture the pure essence of the place, and his poems are odes to the “easiness” of nature: that quality of spontaneity and immediacy with which everything, from the song of a bird to the most dramatic sunset, resonates.

On the stairs up to the ermita (hermitage), one can see some color stains that are supposed to have been left there by Mir while cleaning his brushes. We looked for them, then headed back to town through el Cami Antic, the old road, now a small countryside path that runs through fields of almond and hazelnuts trees. It’s a short way back to Aleixar, and we quickly find ourselves in front of the Riera d’Alforja, the local creek that runs along the village. Directly outside the walls of Aleixar, we find the Font Vella, the old fountain, where the women used to fill their jugs and wash clothes which they then hung on the tree branches to dry. The structure of the fountain dates back to the early eighteenth century: right above the faucet is the coat of arms of the village and the date, 1702. Mir has a beautiful painting of a group of elderly women talking near the fountain. They are all dressed in black and are wearing scarves; one of them carries her càntera on her head. Another holds a child by the hand and there´s a dog in the background and a few other children playing in the street. These days the riera is not the lively place it used to be, and of course on a working, mid-summer’s day, it was as deserted as Aleixar.

Before entering the town through the old Carrer de l’Aigua, we walked around the remains of the medieval wall on the eastern side of l’Aleixar. Eventually, we returned to the Placa de la Vila, the main square, where we had started our journey a few hours before. There, everything looked exactly the same. It felt as though we had momentarily traveled beyond the boundaries of time, and had returned only to find the town unchanged; not even the light had shifted.

We left Aleixar behind and headed out to Maspujols. While travelling from Reus to l’Aleixar, Mir passed the village of Maspujols and was so taken by its ubiquitous bell tower that he forced his family to stop there first, because he wanted, he needed, we read, to paint it urgently. During his years of recovery in the area, Mir painted the church and its bell tower from every angle, at all hours of the day, under different whether conditions. In his paintings of the church’s bell tower, the area’s architecture and its landscape fuse with one another to form a single, continuous spectrum of light and color. We walked around the church. The village was completely empty; there were no animals, no people, only the warm, dry wind which sounded out against the walls. We walked around looking for a picturesque spot called el Racó de la Figuera (the nook of the fig tree): in Mir’s work it appears as an intimate and secluded place where people used to gather. They would sit in the shadow of the fig tree on a round stone bench built around its trunk. We look for it following the directions in the book, and come across the courtyard where it once stood. But the fig tree is nowhere to be found. After a few attempts, and with nobody around to ask for information, we surrender to the fact that the tree is simply not there anymore. We can see Aleixar in the distance all the way from Maspujols, and as we gaze at its quiet form, we wonder if discovery, in its truest sense, resides in the conscious act of discovering the non-banality of the ordinary, the sharp sparkle of the elements of quotidian life. What resonates with us as we leave is that in some ways Mir and Manent’s work offers, among a myriad of other sensory delights, the notion, cliché and simple as it seems, that it´s not what you see, but rather how you look at it that counts.


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