A few years ago my cousin Jaime and I were looking for a river in Aragon but one thing led to another and we ended up looking for a pizza in Catalonia.
It all started because I had two inflatable kayaks and all the other bits of gear needed to paddle down a river, as long as the water wasn’t too big. But it was early May. All the rivers flowing out of the Pyrenees were raging with meltwater from the snowfields high in the alpine. It was a warm day but the river was only a few degrees above freezing. An unplanned swim would be pretty grim.
In the town of Broto, just outside of Ordesa (one of the jewels of Spain’s national park system, you really should go if you have the chance), we walked into a store selling commercial rafting tours. The guide said we might be able to pull off the River Ara, which flows right through town. Thanks, we said, and walked down the street to the bridge across the Ara.
The river’s roar alone was discouraging. And then we saw it. The water looked the way you’d expect it to look, considering the roar. It was very fast and technical, with lots of rocks sticking out. It didn’t strike me as a very good idea. That hasn’t always stopped us in the past, but this didn’t look so much adventurous as it looked just plain dumb. (There’s often not much difference between the two.)
It wasn’t easy to pack it in and give up though, so we just stood there on the bridge, mesmerized by the rapids and pretending that there was still a chance we might decide to run them. It was then that the guide came along. He’d just closed up the shop for lunch.
“Why don’t you go down to Camarasa,” he said. “There’s a section of the river below the dam where it’s not too big.” That sounded good, but what came next sounded even better. “If you go, don’t miss the bakery in the town square. They have the best cocas you will ever have. De puta madre.”
I sometimes struggle with decisions, but this one was easy
A coca is what you would call a pizza if you’re not from Catalonia. If you are from Catalonia, you tell people that Catalonia, along with the Kingdom of Naples, was once part of the Crown of Aragon and so maybe it’s not so clear who copied who. Never mind that the Arabs, with their tradition of putting ingredients on flatbread, probably have the best claim to the idea of pizza, but let’s leave that for the nerds to hash out. The important thing to understand is that cocas are delicious, and different enough to be called something other than pizzas, but recognizable to just about everyone.
Camarasa was tempting, but it was hours away in the car, and also, out of the mountains. We weren’t ready to leave yet and besides, maybe we would find the right river.
The next day, after a long, meandering mountain drive, we were in Catalonia on the shores of the Noguera Palleresa, a big river even more popular with rafters. Once again, we went to a commercial tour outfit and asked questions.
“Well,” a tall, tanned, rafter dude told us, “you could start from here,” he said, pointing to a spot on a map underneath the glass countertop. “But watch out for the hole on the right side of the river just below the bridge.”
“Why,” I asked, not that I would have gone anywhere near it. Holes are powerful recirculating waves that have a tendency to do things that paddlers don’t want done to them, such as keeping them from breathing air.
“People get trapped there a lot,” he said. “Yesterday, the fire department was practising a river rescue and one of them drowned.”
I suppose my expression substituted well enough for words, so before I was able to respond he offered an alternative. “There’s a place near Camarasa that has some bouncy water. Great place to have fun.” I was about to ask him if he’d been to the bakery but I didn’t have to. “If you go, make sure you have one of the cocas in the main square. Buenísimos.”
I sometimes struggle with decisions, but this one was easy.
If the cocas turned out to be a bust, the drive alone was worth it
The C-13 highway to Camarasa is one of the great roads of the Pyrenees. It’s not in the high mountains (though every now and then you catch a glimpse of big snow-covered peaks to the north) but it’s a spectacular drive. Canyons, a winding river, pine forests, and curves, lots of curves.
We took a break at one of the towns along the way. There was an outdoor store there. The girl behind the counter wore her hair in clumpy dreadlocks on one side but shaved on the other, as if she couldn’t decide. When we mentioned where we were heading, she said, “Oh. You’ve got to try the cocas in the bakery on the square. They’re crazy delicious.”
By now the cocas were a lot more interesting than the river. After all, it was just a mediocre piece of beginner water below a dam. But by all accounts the cocas were legendary. Every person we talked to about Camarasa told us not to miss them…and it started when we were two-hundred kilometres away!
It was late afternoon and we were still a long ways from Camarasa but if all went well, we’d be eating cocas for dinner. We cruised through the foothill country, every new curve opening up into a new panorama soaked in golden light. It was the kind of drive you see in movies when they’re celebrating a road trip. Gorgeous weather, clear and warm, like a spring day trying hard to be summer. If the cocas turned out to be a bust, the drive alone was worth it.
Camarasa wasn’t much to look at, and that’s being generous. But we soon found the bakery, on a tiny square plastered with a remarkable number of No Parking signs. Naturally, we parked the car in the square anyway and went in. But we both took a good look around as we left the car. There were so many No Parking signs that you could tell someone was trying to make a point. Something like, “Hey man. Don’t park here and pretend you didn’t see the signs. We know you saw the signs.”
We did the only sensible thing to do
It was a humble entrance, which I thought boded well. I parted the curtain of rubber twizzlers that keeps the flies out and stepped into a small room. There were four or five people ahead of us. As we waited, we peeked into the back of the shop, which was quite large, with ancient wooden filing cabinets where they kept the rolled-out dough. Everything was coated in a fine layer of flour. At the back of the shop was an enormous brick oven. Then a baker slid in a giant wooden spatula and started taking out the next batch. They were huge, roughly six-feet long and maybe a foot wide so they had to be cut into manageable lengths. (You pay by weight.) They were toasty and covered in ingredients sitting on bubbling cheese. As the baker cut into them, they crunched with a mouthwatering crispiness. He loaded them up onto a refrigerator-sized stack of trays and wheeled them out front, filling the room with the heavenly smell of them.
Carefully weighing the options, Jaime and I chose the one that had lots of butifarras, or sausages, but I would have been happy with any one of them. Eventually, it was our turn. “We’ll take the butifarra coca,” Jaime said. Then she said one of the things you never want to hear from anyone in charge of dispensing food.
“Do you have a reservation?”
Silly us to think we could just walk in and buy cocas. You have to call at least a day in advance and even then they take only so many orders.
We did the only sensible thing to do. We ordered cocas for the next day and decided to change our plans and stay overnight.
The next day we drove into the square ready to pick up our cocas but when we turned the corner there was a cop there, a Guardia Civil. He was standing outside his parked cruiser, pretty much alone. I couldn’t help but notice he was a hefty fellow.
What to do? It seemed a bit cheeky to park and ignore the signs with him standing right there, but we did anyway. Jaime shrugged and said, “Let’s see if he says anything,” and we got out.
As we walked by the Guardia, he motioned us over and I thought, uh-oh.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the bakery.”
He took a step forward and put a hand on my shoulder. “You have to try the cocas,” he said with a big smile. “Exquisite! My partner doesn’t even let me go in anymore because I buy them all.” With that he rubbed his large belly as if to display the proof.
The Guardia was right, and so was everyone else. They were delicious. You should drop by if you’re ever within a few hundred kilometres.