Kaye Mueller explores rural Catalonia and discovers eccentrics and entrepreneurs
"Beer?" Pedro asks, handing me a cold bottle.
I've just arrived at Can Bassa, a boutique residence in the 14th-century village of Madremanya nestled in the forested Baix Emporda region about 130km up the road from Barcelona towards the Pyrenees. From here, I can almost smell the salt spray carried on the warm June breeze from the rugged Costa Brava coast 20km to the east.
Pedro and his wife Isabel bought the rustic ruins 15 years ago as a derelict farmhouse and lovingly restored it into guest accommodation. Sitting under an ancient fig tree next to the pool, watching a falcon chase swallows around the church bell tower, I pour myself a pale ale. The label catches my eye. It's black, with the unmistakable outline of two kiwi. "Dos Kiwis".
Pedro tells me it's a new Cerveza artisanal, a craft beer brewed by a young New Zealander in the neighbouring village of Monells. I rent some wheels from Pedro's bike shop and set off to find the Kiwi.
Swooping along the quiet, narrow lanes through fields of grain, red-speckled with poppies and trampled in parts by a family of wild Iberica pigs, I reach the tiny village of Pubol after a few kilometres and hit the brakes. Towering before me is Castell Gala Dali.
The eccentric surrealist Salvador Dali had bought the 11th-century castle in 1968 and rebuilt it with one purpose, one person in mind: to create an oasis of rest and refuge for his beloved wife, Gala.
"I took pleasure in decorating the ceiling so when Gala raises her eyes she will see me always in her sky," wrote her devoted husband.
Gala, it turns out, was a bit of she-devil with a seemingly insatiable appetite for young artists, whom she would entertain at the castle. Not surprisingly, Dali had to get written permission to visit her there.
Inside, Dali's predilection for gilded excess is evident. His paintings adorn the walls; trinkets, jewellery and photos lie scattered as if the place has been hastily abandoned. The mood is sombre and, well, just a little spooky.
After a peek at his muse's crypt in the basement, I leap back in the saddle and resume my search for the beer-brewing artisans from Aotearoa.
A few kilometres on, I pedal into the centre of Monells through a series of low vaulted archways lined with potted geraniums and climbing roses. The arches open out into a sun-flooded market square enclosed by medieval houses made of massive sandstone bricks. It's 4pm, lunchtime in Catalonia. Locals and a smattering of tourists sit in the sun enjoying tapas and wine.
I take a seat at a restaurant, El Roura Blanch, and ask for a Dos Kiwis beer and information about the brewer.
"You're looking for the Kiwi boy," says the waitress, pointing the way.
Three doors down a nearby narrow lane, Michael Jones opens the massive wooden door of his brewery. He's tall and rangy with a somewhat shy smile. The Auckland-born 34-year-old dropped out of Tauranga Boys' High to work in a panelbeater's garage before moving to Wellington to pursue a career in hairdressing. At 19 he flew the coop to become a hair stylist in London. On the job he met Judit Pinol, a Catalan model.
The pair moved to Monells permanently about 18 months ago.
"I brewed some beer for a friend's wedding in Toulouse and it was a hit. Judit had worked at another friend's brewery in Sydney, so it felt like a nice direction to take. Judit's now an honorary Kiwi, together we're Dos Kiwis," Michael says, grinning.
Inspiration for the label?
"Black is one of the coolest things about home. It's our national colour; in rugby, sailing, even our singlets and gumboots. It's a bit Goth."
Currently, they produce about 3000 litres of two IPA beers: Modern World, a Kiwi-Catalan collaboration of the English IPA with hops sourced from New Zealand and the Anytime Session IPA, created for the neighbourhood specifically with the medieval market square in mind — a lighter, "sessionable", slightly cloudy beer for anytime. At €2.50 a bottle, perhaps All The Time would be more fitting.
"We're covering our costs," admits Michael, "but we're supplementing our income with other jobs. Judit's a part-time model," he chuckles, "if I may reference the Flight of the Conchords.
"We're hoping to open a tap room for visitors to fill a flagon or have a drink and sample some tapas."
In this tranquil pocket of the world, so close yet worlds away from the rookeries of sun-baking naturists on the Mediterranean, I'm struck by just how openly the Catalans embrace eccentricity and entrepreneurialism: Gaudi, Miro, Dali ... and now Dos Kiwis.
Take the plunge
For those who've dived deep into Catalan's delicacies, a new initiative called Vies Braves provides a way to reignite the appetite.
Miquel Sunyer, a celebrated Spanish ocean swimmer, lobbied for a series of 500m to 2km "sea lanes" to be buoyed off. It worked. Swimmers and snorkellers can now safely explore the crystal-clear coast without getting run over by motorised vessels. There are currently 25 protected passages in 16 towns between Sitges south of Barcelona and Portbou near the French border.
The Vies Braves website outlines each of the ocean lanes and upcoming events. Miquel and his squad also tailor all-inclusive packages to suit all abilities. Non-swimmers can accompany swimmers on foot along stunning coastal tracks that run parallel to the swimming routes.
Take the plunge and burn off the beer.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Qatar Airlines offers deals to Barcelona on its new service from Auckland.