It’s spitting snow in Mont-roig del Camp the day I arrive, the coldest day in living memory in Catalonia. An hour and a half south of Barcelona, this one-time home of the famous painter Joan Miró is worth a day-long distraction from the sensual intensity up the coast. Joan – pronounced sho-ahn, a Catalan variation of Juan – was one of the most renowned of modern European painters, with a career that ran from the early 20th century all the way up to the time of Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol. His spectacular output includes the iconic painting, “The Farm,” which depicts the family property where Miró spent time as a young man recovering from depression (and which he painted from memory in Paris in 1921).
The Mirós’ house (just a few miles outside the Mont-Roig town center) isn’t open to the public, but an exception was made, and I was able to see the faded interior, with its forlorn clock on the landing and an iron stove in the kitchen where no doubt a lot of classic Catalan dishes were prepared. The eucalyptus tree that dominates the painting is gone now, but lives on elsewhere, in oil on canvas. “The Farm” was bought (on the installment plan) by none other than Ernest Hemingway — when artist and writer, both expatriates, were still working out their crafts — and hung for a time in his Finca Vigia in Cuba. Today the piece belongs to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., having been gifted by Hemingway’s fourth wife, and widow, Mary.
The Catalonian farmhouse itself, surrounded by fields and close to a super highway, is in poor condition, which is surprising given Miró’s fame. But plans are afoot to salvage the property and make it more generally accessible. I hope all visitors will eventually be able to experience firsthand this vital remnant of the Catalan life and landscape. Meanwhile a small Miró museum in nearby Mont-Roig has brought together photographs, farm implements and other mementos, including a sweet little diorama of the scene in “The Farm,” which knowledgeable town matrons will tell you about with enthusiasm.
A local restaurant will also serve you, in season, the Catalan favorite, “calcots,” long sweet onions roasted over fire and dipped in a fantastic sauce made of ground almonds, hazelnuts, tomato, and local olive oil and peppers. Catalonia being a land of high-intensity protein, lunch also includes blood sausage, pork sausage, grilled chicken spread with aoli, sliced salami and olive oil on bread — finished off with local Penedes red wine and crema Catalan (crème brûlée) the size of a salad plate.
The next day, back in Barcelona — where Miró was born and stayed off and on for years — a head cold couldn’t deter me from visiting the Miró Museum (Fundació Joan Miró) atop its bright, airy perch overlooking the city. I wasn’t distracted that evening, either, from the pureed cauliflower and white chocolate with sliced octopus and capers dusted with smoked paprika and a dab of olive oil, which I helped prepare in the cooking school, “Cook & Taste,” or the onion soup with a pouch of blanched spinach leaf containing a soft-boiled egg yolk, or the bitter chocolate mousse with extra virgin olive oil and salt flakes, or the…
You get the idea. Catalonia – countryside, city, food, wine, and people – remains one of the most mysterious and gratifying places on earth. Peeling back its layers would take a lifetime, and is a worthy task, with Miró’s life and work as good a place as any to start. In May, the National Gallery will bring an unprecedented number of Miró’s works to the U.S. which is sure to reignite passion and curiosity about this Catalan colossus and the unique, culturally rich land from which he sprang.
James Conaway is a featured contributor on Intelligent Travel, and writes freelance for National Geographic Traveler and other publications that are devoted to travel, history, and culture.