“Brace yourself for the most boring place on earth! Welcome to Mordor!”
When my friend Jordi jokingly claimed that his hometown easily resembles the Land of Shadow and nest of Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien´s Lord of the Rings, boring was the not the word that first came to mind. Eerie was more likely the apt adjective. So when we get off the train after an hour-long ride from Barcelona, I instantly expect Orcs, or Easterlings and Haradrim or even Trolls to pick us up at the station. But no hideous creatures marched down to fetch us. Instead, a smiling Jordi and an excited Sofia give us a sunny welcome. A huge contrast to the real gloomy state of the weather which threatens to spoil our trip to the most boring place on earth.
Perhaps Jordi is right. Sant Celoni might really be the most boring place on earth. Gazing outside their big attic window, dark clouds and gray mists hover on the horizon. The sight is just about to make me pack my bags and hop on the next train back to Barcelona where the sun seems to be hardly ever under the weather.
The walking tour
But drawing a conclusion without exploring this small municipality in the comarca of the Vallès Oriental is not giving it a fair play. So at around eleven o´clock on a lazy Saturday morning under depressed skies and the sun is still too sleepy to stretch its rays, we traipse towards Sant Celoni´s famous bridge, El Pont Trencat. Built between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the bridge was destroyed during the Peninsular War in 1811 to hinder the passage of Napoleon´s invading troops.
We follow the narrow path going down the river Tordera and explore the green patch of land below. So narrow is the river that it can be mistaken for a stream. Gazing up, the bridge easily resembles the dragon from Sant Celoni´s famous legend that was slain by a local gentleman named Soler. The 11-century-old chapel of St. Martí de Pertegàs, believed to be the chapel where Soler heard mass first before heading to the dragon´s lair, is not far away.
Light raindrops quietly start falling as we stroll down the path leading to the sad looking chapel for cover. The door is closed. We take some photos and continue our tour oblivious to the slight drizzles. As we amble through the narrow streets of the town, it is hard not to ignore the nationalist flags hanging on several balconies alongside colorful pots bearing newly-bloomed flowers of spring.
We stop in front of what is left of the ancient Roman wall or locally known as the Força de la vila which was built in 1154. Only a chunk of it has been conserved. Carrying on, I admire the beautifully-decorated windows and doors of the brick houses. Some of them date back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
Taking several turns and corners, we bump into one of Spain´s first restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star, the world famous El Racó de Can Fabes owned by the late Santi Santamaria. His death in 2011 led to the eventual demise of the highly regarded restaurant.
The municipal hall stands proudly in the middle of the main square. The sun has slowly come out summoning the locals to bask under its rays. The plaza mayor is teeming with senior residents.
Pushing their grocery carts, several grandmas stop in the middle of the square to have a short chat with a friend or neighbor. With only 17,000 inhabitants, it gives me the impression that everybody knows everybody in Sant Celoni. Pastry shops are busy with families queuing to buy fresh from the oven bread and sweets. A number of grown-ups are heading to their favorite bars to grab their first meal of the day. We enter a friendly looking coffee shop to have some sip of hot drinks before carrying on with our walking tour.
As we step out of the coffee shop, the sun has gone into hiding behind the clouds again, stealing some nap I guess. We pose in front of the 17th baroque Parish Church of Sant Martí before heading for the parking area. A solemn funeral mass greets us as we enter the massive church. Constructed during the second half of the 17th century, the church boasts of its portada which bears stunning engravings of figures that are allegories of virtues and representations of saints, angels, archangels considered to be one of the most important engravings in Catalonia. Looking at the entire 200 year-old façade seems to be like staring at a giant altarpiece that is so breathtakingly magnificent.
Jordi recalls that during their teenage days, almost everybody in town owned a motorbike and every afternoon, he and his friends would drive all over Sant Celoni and its neighboring villages. He laments that now, it seems that nobody in town owns a motorbike anymore.
“You are bored now, aren´t you?” Jordi teasingly asks us from time to time. Well, as a matter of fact, the thought of packing my bags and head back to Barcelona hasn’t crossed my mind since the start of our walking tour. Though not as stunning and charming as the other Catalonian towns like the medieval town of Bésalu or the famous Figueras, Sant Celoni is not as bad as I have imagined. Maybe Jordi just wants us to expect less of his town, nicknaming it Mordor, calling it boring, just a ploy to jack up our curiosity of the place. Sort of a tourism marketing stunt, isn´t it, Jordi?
Where witches dwell
As part of the “ploy”, Jordi and Sofia have come up with a plan to complement Sant Celoni´s “beauty”. We drive out of Sant Celoni and snake through the long winding road that makes all passengers on board feel nauseous. We finally reach the site more popularly known as the Dolmen de Vallgorguina. Also known as La Pedra Gentil, it is consist of seven vertical megaliths that hold a big block of megalith lying horizontally in a form of a table. Although there hasn´t been a scientific research to verify the truth behind the stone formation, some estimated that it was between 3,500 and 3,000 A.D. that La Pedral Gentil came into existence.
Many considered the place as the valley of witches. Many years ago, fishermen from Meresme reported that every Friday night, evil sorceresses descending from their brooms would convene around the megaliths to perform a bloody ritual. If one of the witches had been behaving in an un-witchlike manner and was found not worthy to be a witch, she would be condemned to death by hanging. The rest of the broom-riding necromancers would brew a big storm complete with lightning and thunder to distract the neighboring towns from discovering this satanic activity.
I don´t see any blood-stained cups though, nor feel an creepy sensation of the place. Instead, I imagine our winged Filipino witches, with their lower extremities separating from their upper bodies taking selfies with their Catalan counterparts in one of their witch conventions. Despite the scary stories that hound this place, curious visitors come here to admire the stone formation and the spectacular view below. There is even an organized walking tour of the place leading up to Corredor which turns out to be the next destination that Jordi and Sofia have cooked for us.
Something exotic and familiar
We have to endure the short dizzying drive up to the top of the Sierra de Corredor which takes us to the Sanctuari de Corredor, a 16th century hermitage dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It was in 1524 when a group of peasants built a small hermitage dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary on top of the mountain. Sixteen years later, the hermitage was taken down to give way to the construction of a much bigger three-sectioned chapel. The former location of the hermitage became a place of refuge for pilgrims which would later be converted into a restaurant.
The restaurant is very popular among the locals especially the bikers. So it is not surprising to see the place packed to the rafters. Without a vacant table for five, we first get inside the chapel to have a look. The only light that illuminates the place is the sunlight coming from the open door and the three lighted electric votive candles. The chancel too is covered in darkness save for the little light behind the small statue of Our Lady of Sorrow on the altar piece. I take the last pew and contemplate at the simple beauty of the chapel and say my little prayer.
A few feet away from the chapel grounds is the sprawling Montnegre i el Corredor national park. The park is also busy with families munching bocadillos on the grass. Still no table for us, we take a short walk into the woods, following a path full of cork trees. I look back at the restaurant and it looks like a small castle with soldiers wearing red shining armors from afar.
Several kilometers later, we are so peckish we can no longer walk any further. Finally, a table for five is waiting for us once we get inside the restaurant. Joan, Sofia´s brother-in-law who happens to be one of the owners of the place comes out of the kitchen to greet us. For apéritifs, we have the traditional pan con tomate, scrambled eggs with mushroom, breaded artichokes, chicken croquet, salad with big chunks of goat cheese and snails bathe in sauce. The table falls silent for a while as everybody is busy wolfing down the heavenly dishes.
For the main dish, the food ranges from the familiar to the exotic. Roasted pork, baked chicken, botifarra, steak and baby goat legs flood the table. For dessert, we have crema catalana, with chopped strawberries and slightly burnt caramelized sugar on top.
After lunch, Joan gives me a tour of the kitchen. He introduces me to his staff and one of the cooks pulls me aside to show me a big pot full of quails he is deep frying. Joan takes a stoker and shows me how they caramelize the crema catalana.
Before we bid goodbye, Joan takes the key of the sanctuari and guides us to the second floor of the chapel all the way to the bell tower. An enormous ancient bell greets us as we get out of the old wooden door. We stay there for a while digesting the amazing view of the sea on one side and the mountain ranges on the other. Such a picture perfect scenery. Looking down the bell fry, cars sit quietly under the gaze of the giant mountain ranges as dark fogs still loom above.
Moving the giant
We still have an hour to catch our train back to Barcelona but we can´t leave Sant Celoni just yet. We have a mission to accomplish. After lunch, we drive to Jordi and Sofia´s nest. As soon as we get to their house, we find ourselves standing face to face with the 2-meter tall and 20-meter wide mahogany cabinet in the living room. The massive piece of furniture looks like a stubborn bully trying to intimidate the whole second floor. Jordi wants it moved to the garage and be put on sale. He needs some helping hands. Arnel, who is the mathematician of the group, starts calculating the geometric size of the figure in question. Mentally formulating the algebraic equation to solve the problem, he begins assigning who holds which part or which side to lift first.
I hate lifting heavy stuff. At first, I plan to fake my part. I will just pretend, work on my facial expression. I mean, the three of them can manage it, can´t they? Wearing a “pained” face, I look like I am shitting in my pants. Seeing the grimace on my fellow lifter´s faces however, guilt sets in. Sofia is busy cheering us on and snapping photos while we sweat our ass off lifting the big monster down the stairs. Taking the first flights is like walking towards death.
The monster is really heavy. As heavy as one whole house itself. Are the dead bodies of the dragon and Señor Soler inside this darn thing? After a couple of attempts, careful steps and measured paces, we progress, slowly but surely from the second floor to the first floor and then to the garage.
Driving us back to the train station, we thank our gracious hosts for the delightful tour. Sofia invites us to visit them again while Jordi recites his gratitude for helping him move his cabinet before asking us his parting line: “So how did you like your trip to Mordor?”
Tolkien described Mordor as surrounded by several mountain ranges and the river Anduin. Sant Celoni is surrounded by the mountain ranges of Montseny and Montnegre and the Tordera river flowing in it. With witch conventions happening nearby and a big dragon buried somewhere, Sant Celoni can easily be Catalonia´s version of Tolkien´s Mordor. But spooky, it is not. And boring, neither it is. On the contrary, it may not be spectacularly beautiful but visiting a place is not always about the place itself, is it? Sometimes, it is more than that. And in Sant Celoni´s case, it is the company, the food and the legend that made our trip far from being a big fat yawn.
And yes, that über heavy cabinet too.