Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Mayor of Port de la Selva

all photos c. Lluis Sala

Genís Pinart, the mayor of the little Catalan fishing village of Port de la Selva, stands on a steep scrub-covered hillside overlooking an impossibly azure Mediterranean bay. Mountains rise around us in a bowl shape, creating a natural barrier to the tramuntana wind, weather, and men. The village below us, and the sea, face outward to the world. He points to a huge triangular carved flat stone at our feet, placed on top of three supporting perpendicular stones, and says, “The prehistoric people of this region built this ten thousand years ago as a tomb. It is older than Stonehenge.” Nobody knows now what the carvings mean.

this photo only:c.Pere Gali

He is actor-handsome with short gray hair, an honest smile, and the tanned lined face of an outdoorsman and I realize that one day, a long time ago, another man who carried those same genes in his own blood stood here on this spot and ordered the lifting and placing of this massive stone dolmen by his fellow tribesmen. He had to have vision, and charisma, and strength to be able to get people to follow him and organize around his ideas. Now this mayor’s hand sweeps the hillsides, which are terraced with hand-built rock walls at narrow intervals to hold the soil up, and tells me that when he was a boy here, they were covered in grapevines and olive groves. Hundreds of hectares then, but now only a few vines are left. First the phyloxera killed most of them, then the changing times kept them from being replanted even after the Texas wild vine rootstocks came to save the winegrowing industry of Europe. “Young people don’t drink wine anymore. We drank wine with every meal, as a normal thing. Now they drink whiskey, and beer, and try to be modern.”
After the grapes went away, the hillsides went fallow and fishing was the only way left to make money. Then as the primary assistant to the previous mayor, Pinart realized that the village was in inevitable decline unless something was done. He saw that tourists were beginning to arrive, slowly at first, but in ever-increasing numbers from places that were rainy and cold like Britain and Germany and Holland, to this Costa Brava area of Catalonia between Barcelona and the French border. He saw the way. As a builder himself, he could have pushed for unlimited building codes the way most places did, resulting in tacky, sprawling overdevelopment along the coast, turning the beautiful hills into an uninspiring parade of boxes-as-housing, concrete, and desultory little cafes and souvenir shops for miles. Instead, he did something seemingly contrary to type, and pushed for local building codes that closely regulated the type and placement of construction, and limiting the height that anything could be placed on the bowl of mountains around their town. This vision meant lower initial profits for men like him, but now that Port de la Selva has remained beautiful and unspoiled, the steady flow of money and visitors into the village has turned it prosperous and beautiful, a fine destination indeed. He says he is ready to turn over his office to a new person, but he worries that inexperienced people will succumb to the enormous new pressures that large corporations are putting on places like his town, to allow all sorts of unaesthetic structures to be thrown up. He says, “I may be a liberal, but I am not stupid; I know how to push back, hard. I worry that a new person may not be tough enough.”
As we look at the little white village, I suddenly notice that, unlike most of Mediterranean Europe, nearly everything in the town is new. He points at the north shore of the bay, saying, “Just over that mountain there is France. During the Spanish Civil War the leftists were bringing munitions and supplies into our village. Hitler found out about it and sent his planes to bomb us. They bombed every building in the village to the ground, and later they came back and did it again just to underline the point. Then the army came in and took control of the port. When the war was over, they lined up the last 25 young men in the village and shot them all dead and left.” So, Port de la Selva has been literally and figuratively rebuilt from scratch, a tribute to a people who, along with their prehistoric, Celtic, Greek, Roman, Visigoth, Arab and Frankish ancestors, have had the kind of spirit and determination to raise everything from huge stone tombs on high hillsides to thriving, artfully conceived vacation destinations on those same brown and gold hills and somehow never bow to the pressures of the elements, or war, or diseases of the body or the vine. Port de la Selva is the story of Catalonia, of the Mediterranean spirit, of European ingenuity and gentle understanding in the face of horror, of mankind.

As my friend and photographer Lluis Sala and I climb back into the Land Rover the Mayor says “I have something for you” and gives me a clear unlabeled bottle of pure green virgin olive oil from his thousand-year-old grove, and bottles of deep red wine from his vines. We tour the vines and olive groves that lie between the mountains and the flat lower lands. They are dotted with little stone huts made without mortar, stacked into circles of ever-
decreasing diameter until they meet in a dome overhead. It was refreshingly cool inside the hut, even on a warm spring day, a place of refuge from the hot afternoon sun after working in the vineyards and the olives. The stone that covers the final hole in the center of the roof can be removed, he says, to let smoke out, for a fire in winter. Some long-forgotten genius, a self-taught architect and construction wizard, did this and many more like it scattered around the slopes.
Nobody knows how to do it now. An eighty-two-year old man tends the vines, the vineyards planted in old-style field blends of red and rosé and white grapes with names like “Lledoner" and "Macaveo” that are the local dialect names for the ancient Greek and Roman varieties that throve here, Carignagne, Grenache Noir, Pedro Jimenez, Muscat, Picpoul, some of them lost to the rest of the world but preserved here in the hidden places in the hills, varieties that will one day be suddenly recognized as wonderful “new” wines, merely thousands of years old in truth. He has crusaded to save these old vines and odd varieties, and planted them in his and in the village’s own new vineyards in a cleft in the hills where the soil is just deep enough and the water just present enough for the grapes to thrive there. He has campaigned for twelve years now to revive the wine and olive culture before they disappear, as they nearly did, and slowly, the ancient stone hillside terraces have begun to bloom with green grapevines again and the dark black of the olive trunks amidst the cork oaks and juniper trees and cactus. The terraces are so narrow that only a mule or a tiny little special tractor can negotiate them. They will return, just like Port de la Selva, and the brown scrub and the golden wildflowers will give way to color and life again here. It takes people with vision, and heart and leadership to make things like this happen, as a grower coaxes a plant from the ground.

Men and women have always turned to natural leaders in times of turmoil for hope and intelligent direction and it is with special urgency that I write these thoughts in the midst of the U.S. presidential elections. I can only hope that this once-great nation can at last select a person who can do those things once again for us, and with us. ¡Visca Catalunya!