Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...

We made it! After all the palaver over passports, we made it ... back home to sunny Sant Feliu de Guíxols on Spain's Costa Brava. If Ireland didn't exist I'd have to call this God's Own Country!

Sant Feliu de Guíxols

It's a pretty perfect sort of a place with a horseshoe beach that's protected by the harbour wall from the open sea beyond. There's a monastery that they tell me was founded by Charlemagne (I have my doubts on that front, but, hey, let's not allow the facts to get in the way of a good story). An ancient rocking stone stands on a hill outside town, which the locals used to wobble when they wanted to tempt the fates. There's a working harbour full of boats, a colourful food market, a casino decorated in the neo-Mozárabe style, elegant town houses aplenty, an eighteenth century hermitage, an ancient hospital and a handful of truly splendid eateries. What more could anyone ask for?

We live, high up on a cliff facing out over the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, and on a good day, like today, you could almost believe you'd died and gone to heaven.

Many of the villages along this part of the Costa Brava turn into ghost towns when the tourists go home at the end of the summer, but not our village. Our village is a proper village all year round. It's got its own beating heart made up of the lovely people who live here all the time. And I am honoured to be able to count a number of them as my friends and family.

So, shall I show you around? Would you like to see this perfect pueblo of mine? Come on! I'll give you the grand tour ... .

Sant Feliu de Guíxols faces the sea. For generations the Guixolencs have been seafaring folk. They've had an important ship-building industry since forever. They still have their own fishing fleet that puts to sea every night (except Sunday). Over time the sea has shaped how people have lived here, what they've done to earn their daily bread, and it has also played a part in shaping their fears and nightmares. Down the years countless mothers, wives and daughters have anxiously scanned the horizon, searching that line where the sky meets the sea, looking for some sign of the ships that would bear their loved ones home.

This constant preoccupation is reflected in the little hermitage of St. Elmo, which sits high up on a hill on the other side of town. It's worth making the effort to climb up there as the views back down to Sant Feliu and out to sea are breathtaking. Looking back over the rooftops yesterday afternoon we saw the snow-topped Pyrenees in the far distance. Meanwhile, on the beach below us, people stretched out lazily on the sand, soaking up the rays in their bathers. The hermitage is dedicated to Saint Elmo and the Virgin of Safe Journeys, the patron saints of mariners, pilgrims and sailors. In my mind's eye I can easily conjure up images of the worried townsfolk who, over the years, have slowly made their way up that steep hill with the hot sun beating down on them, to pray for the safe return of the people they held dear. Perhaps they said a Rosary as they went up; perhaps tears were shed when hope was turning to despair. Whatever the way of it I have no doubt but that the little hermitage was an important part in many a personal pilgrimage of the people who lived in its shadow.The present structure dates from 1723, but there's been a hermitage up there since 1203.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...
The Hermitage of Sant Elmo
Originally Sant Feliu de Guíxols was a walled city, walled to keep the bad guys out. And the bad guys? Who were they? Well, to name but a few, there were Barbary pirates, the English, the French, the Austrians, the Spanish, even - depending on when you dropped by. But the one thing that all these bad guys had in common over the centuries was a propensity to arrive by sea. So the city fortified itself with strong walls, and the people looked cautiously out over the waves, keeping watch for their enemies.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...

That's not to suggest that the Guixolencs were passive victims of history: no, absolutely not; nothing could be further from the truth. They built ships in their wharves and on the sands in front of their town; many of their number were successful generals and sea captains and, when they got a chance, they got rich on the booty of their captured enemies. One famous Guixolenc pirate Captain, Jeroni Basart Morató, known as El Rufo, captured 4 English frigates in 1782. El Rufo was well regarded for his exploits and, when the Napoleonic Wars broke out, he was given command of a small fleet of 6 corsair ships, manned by his fellow Guixolencs, who spent their days cheerfully sallying out to attack Napoleon's vessels.

Ship-building on the Sant Feliu beach in the eighteenth century

The sea remains important to the town, although these days most of the invaders are tourists who arrive by aeroplane, rather than corsairs who arrive by sail.

My pueblo ...
The harbour with the old sanctuary for the ship-wrecked (the small terracotta building on the cliff top)
Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...
The harbour, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Costa Brava
Go Barcelona! Football's a serious business over here ...

And, as you can see from the Barcelona Football Club crest painted onto the bow of this fishing boat, football is a big preoccupation here, and it's really not a good idea to support Real Madrid ... or Chelsea ... or Bayern Munich.  The motto of the Barcelona Football Club is més que un club, more than a club, and that is certainly true. For the people living here it's a totem of their culture, and of Catalan pride. Everyone and their dog is a fanatical Barça supporter. Just before Barcelona play a game the streets empty and an eery stillness descends. When the broadcast coverage kicks in I can sit outside on my terrace, listening to the progress of the game which echoes around the empty town in cheers and the wails whenever a goal is scored for or against the team. And then, when they win a big game, the whole place goes mad. I don't mean sing-a-song happy; I mean gridlocked with drive-by cavalcades of ecstatic people waving Catalan flags and honking their horns; I mean fireworks exploding and throngs, multitudes of people singing and making enough happy noises to wake up their ancestors in the cemetery just outside the city limits.

No tour of Sant Feliu de Guíxols would be complete without taking a turn around its fortified Benedictine Monastery.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...
The Monastery

It's a truly ancient pile. There's been something on this site since Roman times. The oldest part of the existing structure is the Porta Ferrada, which was only discovered in 1931 when they were doing some fix-up work to that side of the building. It's a mysterious wall that they think was once part of some Carolingian abbot's or prince's palace. Its origins are lost in the mists of the time, but you can see the influence of the then-Muslim south in the keyhole shaped windows that are typical of the Mozárabe style (the style that was carried north by Christian refugees who fled the lands to the south that were controlled by the Moors). They're not sure exactly how old it is, but there's some consensus that it probably dates from the tenth century.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...
Porta Ferrada, Monastery of Sant Feliu de Guíxols
Inside the Monastery is the city museum, which chronicles the history of Sant Feliu de Guíxols from the earliest times to the present day. There is a gallery featuring the works of the more eminent Catalan painters from the area, and there are a number of temporary exhibitions. The Baroness Von Thyssen has a house, just outside town, on Punta Brava. From time to time she allows them to stage exhibitions of paintings from the Von Thyssen collection at the museum.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...
Views of the Monastery including St. Benedict's arch, which is all that remains of an outer wall that used to encircle the monastery and the famous Porta Ferrada (bottom right)

The hills around town are forested with cork trees and pine trees. They're wild and untamed. And sitting on the shoulder of an enormous hill is the Pedralta. Isn't it magnificent?

It's a humungous boulder balanced on an outcrop of granite boulders. Do you see it, that great big heavy one on top? It weighs in at 101 metric tonnes, and sits 17 metres off the ground. They planted a cross on it in 1890. Well, in the old days, a man, any man, used to be able to shimmy up there and rock it. It was regarded as a bit of a hoot by the locals to scale the column and push it back and forth like a giant stone rocking horse. What can I say? It was all a bit mad.

But then, one stormy night in 1996, a terrible gale hit the hillside ... and the great rock came crashing to the ground. It was a matter of civic pride for the Guixolencs to bring the cranes in and restore it to its former position. However, health and safety regulations being what they are these days, the wise men in the department of town works decided that they'd pour a tonne or two of concrete into the mix to keep it in place with the result that the great rocking stone no longer rocks.

It's still a lovely place to go for a walk. It's a wilderness. There's a strange, primitive atmosphere, and in the middle of the pine trees and the cork trees you'll find the little hermitage dedicated to the Virgin of the Ascension.

Hermitage at the Pedralta

Back in town we should also check out the old hospital. There's been a hospital in Sant Feliu de Guíxols since the early 1300's. It was first recorded in 1305 in the last will and testament of a local woman, Blanca de Mordenyac, who bequeathed a bed and a blanket to the hospital. At first it stood outside the city walls to prevent the spread of disease. However, as civil unrest spread, a new hospital was built inside the city walls for protection. Work on the present building started in 1595 and finished in 1602. It's seen victims of malaria, plague and leprosy pass through its doors, although the lepers would have been dispatched pretty quickly to a leper colony. Casualties from the Wars of the Spanish succession, the Napoleonic wars and, more recently, the Spanish Civil War have all been ministered to here. If walls could talk, these ones would have a few gory tales to tell ... .

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...
The Old Hospital
The town also has a casino, La Constància, originally built in 1889 in the Mozárabe revival style that became popular with the Catalan Modernist movement. You can see the Moorish influence in the keyhole shapes of the windows of the upper floor, and in the minaret-like tower in the centre.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...

And there you have them: my highlights of sunny Sant Feliu de Guíxols. I hope you've enjoyed the tour, and that maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, you'll drop by and see it for yourself. 

Sant Feliu de Guíxols ... mi pueblo ...

Hasta la próxima,

Bonny x

P.S. This article was shared with Mosaic Monday and Our World Tuesday