June 8, 2008
As you drive into La Bisbal d'Empordà, your romantic image of what a historic pottery-making town ought to look like (quaint cottage workshops complete with artisans at the wheel) takes a withering blow. The place is dusty, for one thing -- sitting on a great big expanse of clay since the dawn of time will do that do a town.
But take it slow here and you will find enough artisanal pottery and good eats to make you forget the scruffiness and want to come back for more. They've been busy churning out clay roofing and downspouts, bathroom tiles and kitchen crockery here for 300 years and have the factories to prove it. L'Aigueta, the old highway through the center of town, is lined with ceramics shops, some of them featuring wares more dubious than garden gnomes.
But, as I was saying, good things come to those who can resist the donkey's gaze. For a look at traditional shapes and colors, I like El Rissec (C/L'Aigueta, 92-102). They've got some over-the-top flouncy stuff and odd imported goods, but they've also got everyday country pottery -- pitchers, coffee cups, tagines, casseroles -- in Catalonia's traditional earthy golds and greens, creams and blues, and unadorned terracotta.
Vila Clara is the place to go for gorgeous unconventional colors. The gray-blue pieces at the top of this post are from there, as are the bright glazes in the photo below. Vila Clara has two shops, one with platters and bowls (C/ L'Aigueta, 56), the other at the other end of town (C/ Sis d'Octubre, 27) with dinnerware collections.
Rogenca d'Ullastret is my favorite. Proprietress Antonia Roig works in an open studio near the center of town (C/ Hospital, 2) most mornings, and is in her shop at no. 112 on L'Aigueta most afternoons. I go back for her Japanese-like tea sets, simple fountains, rock-shaped boxes -- these are not traditional pieces but her forms are very organic and tactile, her colors more delicious than this picture conveys.
Walk across the bridge over the dry riverbed at the center of town and head into the old city on C/Cavallers for lunch. Two excellent places for a reasonable menú del día: Els Fogons (C/Cavallers, 22, tel: 972-645-165) and just across from it and a bit more stylish, La Cantonada (C/Bisbe, 6, tel: 972-643-413). Both are on the way to the Castle -- oh, yeah, there's an eleventh century castle on a square here, especially worth strolling through on a Friday, market day.
If you're serious about your shopping, Artesans Ceramistes website offers glimpses (and whereabouts) of many local producers. If you want to go beyond shopping, there is an interesting Terracotta Museu in town, housed at a defunct tilemaking factory. Though it is currently closed for renovations, once it reopens tours will include a visit to Terrisseria Salamó, which still produces very traditional pieces.
For the crafty, La Bisbal also has a well-regarded Escola de Ceràmica that offers short courses in summer for serious amateur artisans -- ceramics, as well as sculpture, drawing, glass-blowing, and furniture making.