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On the founding of the Barcelona Ritz
(CATALONIA TODAY – SECTION: LONG-TERM RESIDENT - ARTICLE ELEVEN)
Last Friday, the poet Joaquim Sala-Sanahuja gave me a lift from Farrera, a village of 23 people slapped like an afterthought onto the side of an otherwise untouched mountain in the Pallars region of the Catalan Pyrenees. As we drove down, Joaquim tapped into his all but unlimited knowledge of all things local and told me a handful of nearly unbelievable true stories.
There was the one about the first Catalan spiritualists, for example: mediums and table-tappers who the Generalitat placed straight into the shock units of the Republican army in 1936 on the grounds that as they didn't believe in death, they couldn't be afraid of it (the few survivors ended up sporting medals galore). Then there was the story of 'Light of the Jungle', a Catalan pre-hippy from the 1920s who lived in the open air in a field near Sabadell for sixty years (dancing naked every dusk and dawn) and then faked his death in 1981, thus giving himself the pleasure of reading his own obituaries in the Barcelona Press.
Best of all, though, was the story of Tor d'Alòs, sheep merchant supreme of the Pallars and co-founder of the Ritz hotel in Barcelona. One day (this was in the early years of the 20th century) he paid his first visit to the restaurant at the Ritz, wearing his shabby merchant's clothes. The waiters refused to serve him. He came back in full evening dress, and ordered a plate of king prawns. When these were served, he smeared them all over his dicky and screamed at the staff: 'In this hotel of mine I see it's the clothes that eat, not the people!'.
Joaquim and I had hit the Diagonal by now, its lights spread out tacky as fashion jewellery. The crags of the Pallars seemed a world away. The Ritz hotel, however, was just over to the right. Within spitting distance, as it were.