A trek through Catalonia with two ex-Golani soldiers

What I learned about "the Jews of Spain" in the Pyrenees.

June 5, 2018 12:41
A trek through Catalonia with two ex-Golani soldiers

Catalan separatist supporters remove yellow crosses after a protest to demand the release of jailed Catalonian politicians, at Mataro's beach, north of Barcelona, Spain May 27, 2018. (photo credit: ALBERT GEA/ REUTERS)


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It started like any other organized trip to Spain. I was greeted by my guide, Eli Magal, promptly after landing in Barcelona. He bought me a café con leche, or coffee with milk, and entertained me with tales of the city’s night life while we awaited the rest of our group.

But we weren’t in Spain to drink wine and eat paella in Barcelona – not exclusively, at least. The six days that would follow would consist of a jeep tour through the Pyrenees Mountains, which stretch 305 miles across Spain’s Catalonia region, forming the country’s natural border with France.

Most of the people inhabiting towns and villages along the Pyrenees consider Spain’s northern border largely artificial. As Catalans, they live peacefully alongside their Spanish neighbors but identify more closely with their own culture – which thrives on the French side of the Pyrenees as well – than with Spain’s as a whole.

The group put together by Magal's new company, Anaman Travel, consisted of myself, Magal, company photographer Niv Shimoni and two Israeli couples.

The couples were each given their own jeep, and I rode along with Magal and Shimoni in a grey 2006 Toyota Land Cruiser provided by Miguel Angel, Magal's main supplier in Spain.

I spent over 21 hours in that jeep, off-roading and cruising through Churches and Catalan towns and villages. I learned a lot about Catalonia – and about Israel.

The author (left), Eli Magal (middle) and Niv Shimoni (right) in  Val d'Aran, in northeastern Spain. (Courtesty)

Magal and Shimoni served together in the IDF’s elite Golani Brigade from 2002-2005, conducting operations against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. They were also called upon to fight in Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah in
Lebanon, just a month after their mandatory service period ended.

Smoke rises after Israeli artillery shells land in the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab August 6, 2006, in this picture released August 6, 2006 by the Israeli Defense Forces

I heard what it felt like to hide inside a building behind enemy lines, knowing an armed terrorist stood just outside the door, and then being discovered. I heard about a comrade who was shot in the head in Gaza by a sniper recruited from Chechnya, after exposing himself for just a fraction of a second.

“With all due respect to our friends Hamas,” Magal said during an off-roading session in the lower Pyrenees. “These Chechen guys knew what they were doing.”

They were most dangerous, he said. Battle-hardened from fighting the Russians and radicalized in Islam, the Chechen fighters brought a “winning combination” to the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

“I’ve always heard it’s an experience to serve in the army,” I told Magal and Shimoni.

“An experience? You want an experience, then go visit the Grand Canyon. Army is life or death,” Shimoni said nonchalantly while turning sharply on an unpaved road overlooking a steep cliff, 5,000 ft. above the ground.

Much of the time off-roading in Catalan country there wasn’t a fence to prevent us from taking a tumble down the mountain.

Trees could do the trick, but they weren’t always available either. Luckily Shimoni, apparently our designated off-roader in addition to photographer, was a pro.

There was something special about touring a land of the Catalans, people who are sometimes referred to as “the Jews of Spain” because of their perceived second-class status and desire for statehood, with two men who fought side-by-side to defend the Jewish state.

Magal was in Barcelona in the Fall of 2017, when Catalans took the world by surprise and declared independence. Thousands took to the streets in what was the culmination of years of pushing for more autonomy by the Catalan parliament.

People shout as Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) flutter during a protest the day after the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain October 2, 2017. (Enrique Calvo/Reuters)

Catalonia is one of Spain's wealthiest and most productive regions, and has a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years. Many Catalans feel they have been economically taken advantage of by the rest of Spain. Some told me they feel like Madrid’s “colony.”

Deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who was removed from office after the independence referendum and is now operating out of Belgium, summed it up succinctly in reference to King Felipe, who has staunchly opposed Catalan independence.

“He has become head of state of only one part of society. For that reason, the monarchy has lost Catalonia,” he told The Guardian in March.

Catalan culture and language differs from Spanish, too.

“It would be like someone confusing Hebrew with Arabic,” Angel explained to me over dinner one night.

Catalonia’s independence referendum, of course, ultimately failed, culminating in the Spanish national police making sweeping arrests. According to most I spoke with in the region, police also “beat the crap” out of Catalan protesters. It was Spain’s biggest political crisis since democracy was restored in the country in 1975 after the death of military dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

Being Catalan was made “criminal” under Franco's 36-year rule, as one hotel owner told me. And Catalan culture was suppressed under Franco. Catalonia was devastated during the Spanish Civil War, and even speaking Catalan was outlawed after it ended.

Just like the Jews of Europe throughout so much of modern history, the Catalans retained their language and customs in secret.

Since last year’s push for independence, though, Catalan culture has been reinvigorated.

“It’s such an exciting time we live in,” a hotel owner who wished only to be identified as Natalia said. “I was in New York last year, and people know who we are. We’re on the map!” she said.

She then grabbed a yellow ribbon from a drawer in the lobby, and placed it on Magal’s chest.

“This is for you,” she said. “It’s a sign of solidarity with the Catalans still being held in prison.”

Those ribbons hung from windows alongside Catalan flags and si (yes) for independence banners in every Catalan community we visited.

Pro-Catalan independence banners hang from a fence in a small Catalan community in the lower Pyrenees. (Eric Sumner)

Throughout Magal’s ten years of working in the Pyrenees, he forged connections with hotel owners and restaurant servers, Catalans and Spaniards alike. Although Magal had dozens of maps at his disposal in the back of the Land Cruiser, he knew the area by heart.

He communicates with his groups in the other jeeps over walkie-talkie.

“Friends, we’re going to stop at this restaurant on the right for some of that Olla soup,” Magal said after a few hours of snow biking.

Olla soup, Magal had told us at a mountain pass at which we reached a dead end for our jeeps embodied by about 3 ft. of snow, is the first thing Catalans give a person after having been stranded in snow. Composed of different herbs, pork and some kind of sausage I later learned was made out of pork blood, Olla soup warms a traveler spiritually as well as physically. Of course, it wasn’t for everyone.

“Just pig fat,” Shimoni said as he watched our server bringing it out. “Not for me.”

A dog sled makes its way through the snow in Mongari, a snow mobile location in Val d'Aran. The snow was well over 6 ft. deep in some parts of the mountain. (Niv Shimoni)

In addition to describing scenery and providing context, Magal’s announcements were often along the lines of: “friends, time for a coffee break,” and “who’s hungry?”

Indeed, we drank loads of cafe con leche and cortado, or a double espresso with a small amount of steamed milk. One of the members of Magal's group, Amir Chaver, fell in love with a Catalan desert called crema de Catalana. (I also fell in love with it, I must admit.) Similar to creme brulee, the crema is composed of a small piece of cake floating in a lemon-flavored cream.

A server at one of our restaurant destinations, which was apparently not Catalan-owned, wasn't thrilled when Chaver tried to order the crema.

"This is Spain, not Catalonia." he said. "If you want to order that, go to a Catalan restaurant."

On the way out of that restaurant, Magal informed the group of our plans for the following day. And instead of kayaking, we would go white water rafting. He also told me about the time he angered his friend Angel.

"I wrote a story about the Catalan push for independence when I was here last year," Magal said. "But when you see Miguel [Angel], don't mention it."

When we had dinner with Angel one night in a traditional Catalan restaurant, where the food is cooked slowly and servers take their time, Angel explained to me why he supports the Catalan independence movement with the passion of a patriot.

Everyone in the group noticed the fire in his eyes -- especially when he recalled Magal's story.

"The story you wrote is bullshit," Angel said sharply.

"It's okay," Magal retorted. "Friends are allowed to disagree."

According to Angel, Magal misquoted the Catalan patriot as saying that Catalans don't cheer for the Spanish national soccer team when it plays against other countries. In doing so, Angel said, Magal made him and other Catalans seem radical and traitorous.

Magal maintains Angel said every word.

"He gets carried away sometimes and doesn't remember it," he said.

I took advantage of this evening of access to an opinionated Catalan who supports the movement. Angel supports independence, he said, because he doesn't feel quite equal to ethnic Spaniards in the eyes of the government. But he emphasized his willingness to live side-by-side and that he holds no ill will toward his fellow countrymen, as long as Madrid makes concessions, and works with the Catalans to rebuild their infrastructure and fund their schools.

"Do you feel different in the rest of Spain?" I asked Angel. "In Madrid, for example?"

"Most people are friendly," he said. "Sometimes, though, my friends there call me cheap. Once or twice is a joke, but when it happens all the time it doesn't feel like a joke."

We Jews have the same reputation, I reminded Angel.

"It's why we're known as 'the Jews of Spain,'" he said.

The author was a guest of Anaman Travel's on a week-long trip in March.

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