It’s a warm morning in La Bisbal d’Empordà, a small town in the Costa Brava region of northeastern Spain, located about 80 miles up the Mediterranean coast from Barcelona, near the Franco-Spanish border.
Within moments of arriving, I’m immediately taken with La Bisbal—its colorful houses with wisteria-traced walls, lemon trees heavy with fruit, and centuries-old stone bridge spanning the dry bed of the River Daró.
But then my eyes settle on what this Catalan town is famous for—in front of the melange of shops lining main street Carrer de L’Aigüeta, the sidewalks have been piled high with brightly painted terra cotta tiles, as well as plates, pitchers, flowerpots, and even piggy banks.
La Bisbal is one of the key ceramic centers of Catalonia, with a pottery industry dating back centuries.
With the Terracotta Museum—which is housed in an historical ceramic tile factory—closed for restoration work during my visit, I begin at Puigdemont, one of the oldest artisanal pottery workshops in La Bisbal.
They offer free tours, and I’m greeted in the front showroom by Núria Puigdemont, who is soon leading me through an open, sunlit courtyard into their expansive workspace. She, along with her two sisters, Maria and Rosa Maria, give me a crash course in La Bisbal’s pottery tradition, including their family’s role in it.
“Our grandparents founded the company in 1930,” Núria says. “Then my parents—after school, we would come here and our parents taught us—and now us.”
We start with the heart of it all—in a corner of the workshop where a number of wooden palettes rest on the floor, covered in black plastic. With a rustle of the dusty sheets, there is the grand reveal: block after block of rich red clay delivered straight from pits whose proximity to La Bisbal provided the impetus for its ceramic trajectory.
After showing me a glimpse of the clay in its rawest form, Núria leads me through the workshop, pointing out every stage of the creative process—from the potter’s wheels and rows of metal drying racks on the second floor to the kiln and worktable where her sister Rosa Maria sits painting whimsical geometric patterns by hand.
“Mano a mano, one by one,” Núria says, as Rosa Maria reaches for a new plate to enliven with color. “It is all manual, manual, manual.”
I leave the Puigdemont workshop grateful for the in-depth introduction, and yet I still wonder how La Bisbal’s ceramics evolved as a unique expression of Catalan culture. In search of answers, I step into the showroom of another long-standing workshop in town, Vilà-Clara.
I’m welcomed by Joan Vilà-Clara i Garriga himself, whose father Josep Vilà i Clara founded the company in 1950. With thin graying hair and a kind face, Joan is just the source I’m looking for.
“Ceramics is a tradition found in many parts of the world. But always, it is very limited to specific areas of each country,” he says. “Here it is an expression of La Bisbal, and one of the principal characteristics are the colors.”
He leads me to a long section of glass shelves in the showroom, pointing out the yellows, greens, and blues, what he describes as the “marks of La Bisbal.” “Historically, they obtained the dyes from the earth—the green was from chromium oxide and copper oxide, and the yellow was from iron oxide.”
The traditional ceramics—bowls for salt and sugar, utensil containers, and teacups—are decorated with designs that are drawn as much from the natural world as the dyes used to paint them: flowers, fish, a pair of strawberries. Joan holds up a plate. “These are the zones of the winds. The tramuntana, the llevant, the names of the winds are traditional in this region. Each zone has a name.”
The designs aren’t nearly as intricate as the contemporary ones I’d witnessed Rosa Maria painting earlier, but still there’s something poignant about them.
I think of the national circumstances surrounding the rise of the current ceramic trade in La Bisbal in the 1930s and 40s—that of the Spanish Civil War and the lengthy dictatorship that followed it—and can’t help wondering if the simple motifs were a response to a world that felt anything but.
With the shop about to close for the afternoon, I thank Joan for his time, and head back to the Carrer de L’Aigüeta for one last perusal, the plates and pots and piggy banks now a familiar panoply of terra cotta and color.
More authentic buys in the Costa Brava region:
> Hel·lènica (Carrer de la Força, 17, Girona)
Originally from Barcelona, decorative ceramicist Helena Prat opened a gallery and shop featuring her contemporary takes on the Costa Brava’s pottery traditions in Girona in 2013.
> Labors Vol i Boixet (Sant Pere Més Baix, 41, Barcelona)
Bobbin lace is another traditional craft in the Costa Brava region. While many establishments host lace-making classes, this shop in Barcelona is one of the only places in the city where you can buy new pieces of handmade lace.
> International Basketry Fair (Plaça de la Vila, 24, Salt, Girona)
This annual fair celebrating the Costa Brava’s basket-weaving tradition takes place in a suburb of Girona the first weekend of October.
Writer and sketch artist Candace Rose Rardon recently released her first book of travel sketches, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. Follow Candace on Twitter @candacerardon and on Instagram @candaceroserardon.