Double Arch on Carrer del Bisbe Street in Barcelona

The Sea Cats of Cap de Creus

Road trip to Spain's northeastern Mediterranean coast.


e are about to leave our rented apartment in Barcelona, and drive north to Catalonia’s rugged Cap de Creus coast.

I lean over the wall of the top-floor patio, looking out over the narrow old quarter streets—layers of old masonry, weeds sprouting from upended ceramic tiles, Catalonian flags waving in the same wind that brings gulls from the sea.

This top-floor apartment is adjacent to the Museo Picasso, and as I look out from this patio, I can’t stop pondering the plausibility of a night entry into the museum via the roof. Not that I plan to steal a Picasso, but, could I? Looking at a 3D view of the La Ribera neighborhood in Google Earth, I learn that our rented flat is the only realistic entry point to the roof of the museum.

Born District in Barcelona

Alley in the El Born District, Barcelona


obody needs to get uptight when talking about art theft and Picasso. The artist, whose paintings are stolen more than any other artist’s in the world, was at one point the prime suspect in the world’s most famous painting theft; the 1911 heist of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. And he did steal artwork himself, by paying a friend to lift prehistoric Spanish carvings from the same Paris museum. He famously said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Very few painting heists involve rooftops or digging through walls. But a 2002 theft at the Van Gogh Museum involved a daring rooftop entry after thieves used a ladder and rope to climb to the roof, break through a window, steal two paintings and then vanish, even though they tripped every infrared sensor and video camera in the building.

The problem with the Museo Picasso, however, is its old heavy Spanish tile rooftop construction. How do you penetrate that? But maybe it’s not the theft that interests me as much as the fact that there are navigable routes across the top of these rooftops.

There is a reason that street-level Barcelona, like, other southern European cities, smells like urine each morning. Sure, you can make some sort of justification for a lack of public restrooms in one of the most densely touristed cities in the world, but don’t blame someone for wanting to be a few stories above that.

White-washed streets

White-washed street in Cadaqués


f you were to steal a Picasso, what would you steal, and why? This thought keeps rambling through my mind as the three of us walk through the streets of Barcelona to the rental car agency, our single carry-on thumping against the cobblestone.

My one rule for this trip: only one museum a day, and only thirty-five minutes inside. I have distinct memories of Europe from childhood. The colorful bees, the large snails, the gardens, the country bread I remember fondly. But not all those hours in museums and churches.

Jane says there is a French word for the very act of loafing casually through a city, her most favorite way to travel. By avoiding tickets and lines and the insides of big buildings, we keep a nine year old engaged. If there is a word for a traveler who mostly wants to wander around and pet cats, that describes my kid.

Cats of Cadaques

Injured and stray cats are welcomed at the Cat Sanctuary, adjacent to the Church of St. Mary at the heart of Cadaqués.


he museum rule also helps with Jane’s desire to be a flâneur, an urban loafer-explorer. “Someone who wanders around looking at things as an art form,” she explains. How do you travel as a group of three when everybody has different interests?

I have seen many friends part ways permanently after traveling together, even after a short getaway. And I have seen many families come back from trips frazzled and angry.

Are itineraries and activities to blame?

When Kellan was a toddler, Jane wrote a parenting column for National Geographic Kids. The formality of having to write about it kept the questions of family travel on the surface for us. For many, a vacation with kids means a vacation for the kids. In the modern model of family travel, there is little room for flânerie. But which model of travel works best for us?

We leave Barcelona in the morning, giving wide berth to the street crews frantically powerwashing the alleys. The highway north is quiet, the sky is blue, and the poppies are just beginning to break free in the lowlands of Catalonia. To the northwest are the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees.

Yellows, pinks and turquoises are common in the back alleys of Cefalù, Sicily.

The Church of St. Mary looks out over the Badia de Cadaqués.


e stop at Aiguamolls de l'Empordà, a massive wetlands along the Mediterranean coast, and follow a trail that begins in the plains. This trail passes through freshwater marsh, ponds and lakes, into brackish marshes and finally saltwater tidelands.

Today it’s Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, White Cranes and Water Rails. But it’s a productive marsh. Half of Europe’s species have been seen here. Any time I see my favorite bird, the stilt, my heart flutters. Here, they are whirring about over the wet meadows at the end of trail, their long red legs dangling in the air.

This is when I realize which painting I would steal from the Museo Picasso. I would ignore the most notable and historic paintings from this collection. Science and Charity, Portrait of the Artist’s Father. I would take The Pigeons, because it is bright, happy and captures the warmth of seaside Mediterranean.

Arch in downtown Cadaques

A double arch in Cadaqués leads to the Mediterranean Sea.


rom the lowlands of Aiguamolls, we ascend into a drier coastal headlands, to the white-washed coastal Mediterranean town of Cadaqués, the easternmost point of mainland Spain.

For the next three days, we’ll practice small town flânerie, with no agenda. As I take my first solo walk through the small, narrow and steep streets, I learn that the town is almost empty. Small restaurants crop up on nearly every street, but tourist season is months away, making Cadaqués feel like it’s our very own.

“And,” I tell my son when I return to the flat, “there are a lot of cats. Cats on every street!”

Kellan’s shoes are somehow magically tied, and he must see those cats. The heart of Cadaqués is built on a steep hill, and its signature church is built at the top of that hill. As we climb the stairs and alleys, I am reminded of the graphic novel, The Lions of Valletta, by Ursula Murray Husted, which begins with a beautifully drawn panel of a cat sleeping between ancient stone sculptures. The panel quotes Italo Calvino; “The city of cats and the city of men exist one inside the other, but they are not the same city.”

Cadaques, and the Mediterranean

A typical street in Cadaqués.


e pet the cats of Carrer de la Font Vela, and the cats of Carrer Llampec, and the one cat of Carrer Bellaire. We find only a pair of cats on Riera de Sant Vicenç. We climb the stairs to pet the cat of Carrer de Santa Margarida. When we return back to the flat, exhausted, Kellan asks if we can pet cats again.

For two days, we walk the streets of Cadaqués, looking for stray cats. Kellan creates a backstory for all these cats, explaining as we walk up a set of stairs, that the cats that live at the top of Cadaqués have created a harmonious and successful society. Pointing to a stray near sea level, he explains that there are other cats who also want to live there, but that the higher-elevation cats want to keep them out. He shows me the border between the two societies, making me circle the center of Cadaqués, so he can draw a demarcation line. He tells me that the lower elevation cats, creeping along rooftops, and sitting in dim shadows, are attempting a siege. They too, desire the fruits of high elevation Cadaqués.

These stories consume us, as we build our imaginary cat history of Cadaqués.

Street in Cadaques


here is something about following a cat through an old Mediterranean city, tracing its three-dimensional cat highway across roofs, along awnings, up the railings of stairs, that is equally a reminder of the joy of youth and the joy of scrambling in the wild. What if humans built the public spaces of cities more like this, with freeform architecture, bridges and steep steps, more arches, routes that come with a dash of risk, like a log across a creek?

The next day, we drive north along the rocky coast, towards the protected and undeveloped Cap de Creus peninsula. This is Matollar Mediterrani habitat, dry scrub woodlands, resistant to high wind and hot summer sun. Rosemary, Jerusalem Sage, prickly pears and strawberry trees mix with a rainbow of wildflowers and butterflies.

Port Lligat Streets


he next day, we drive north along the rocky coast, towards the protected and undeveloped Cap de Creus peninsula. This is Matollar Mediterrani habitat, dry scrub woodlands, resistant to high wind and hot summer sun. Rosemary, Jerusalem Sage, prickly pears and strawberry trees mix with a rainbow of wildflowers and butterflies.

n this drive, I try to monologue about the history of the Catalan people, and how they were great seafarers and also rugged mountain people, and how all the things Catalonia gave to the world come from these two starkly different traditions. I describe the Crown of Aragon, and how Catalonia once sat at the political center of a vast Mediterranean Empire. But my son yawns, and will have none of it.

Green Hairstreak in Catalonia, Spain

A Green Hairstreak butterfly, Cap de Creus, Catalonia, Spain


e have picked up picnic foods along the way, and at the very end of the road at the tip of Cap de Creus, we carry our picnic foods out on the rocky coastal headland. From this spot, our view is of rugged rock, jutting out every which way, with sprigs of yellow flowers, and a bright blue sea which becomes turquoise in the small bays below. Our view includes the border towns between Spain and France.

At the Boqueria Market in Barcelona, we had found Lomo ham, a cured pork loin which is more portable than the well known Serrano and Patanegra hams. In Cadaqués, we had found a Serrat Gros raw goat cheese and a bakery selling country ficelle bread.

Looking out at the sea, while I cut slices of the bread, I can picture ships sailing along the coast. Ancient Catalonian ships, carrying goods from Sardinia and Naples.

Cap de Creus

Cala Fredosa cove in the Cap de Creus Natural Park.

There is a way to slip just a dash of history into this vacation, without a string of churches and museums. I imagine a story to tell my son. A story about great seafaring cats, flying the red and gold flag of Aragon, carrying goods across the Mediterranean.

If Jane’s ideal way to travel is through the art of urban exploring, then maybe my ideal way to travel is the preparation and execution of a picnic in a very foreign place. A picnic is really just a loose, open thing.. Here we are, with a two-hundred and seventy degree view of Mediterranean Sea, a bright sun over our head, and a picnic that is the result of a week’s worth of flânerie.

Explore more in Europa

In Venice, Istrian Croatia and Slovenia, I explore whether another Venice can be built in the future.

On the Island of Paros, I explore whether a musical improvisation master could have thrived in the ancient Mediterranean.

On a road trip to Iceland's remote Westfjords, I explore the decline of the iconic Atlantic Puffin.

In a road trip to Spain's Mediterranean coast, I ponder the value of itinerary-free travel.

Exploring Sicily's Tyrhennian Sea coast, with notes on the effect of climate and migration.

The Alfama district of Lisbon hints at the global influence of colonial Portugal.

Celebrating a family feast in the strange, modern setting of Pomerania, land of my ancestors.

Exploring small towns of Iberia, where some of Europe's most fabled cheeses were born.

Exploring the Bavarian and Swiss alps in search of the region's famous handmade cheeses.

Sketches, illustrations and notes on improvisation and worldbuilding in the Germany's second largest city.

Notes, drawings, sketches and illustrations in different mediums from Paris.

Drawings, notes and Moleskine journal sketches from my travels on the island of Sicily.

Notes on Gibraltar and its famous macaques, plus an interview with one of their protectors.

Drawings, sketches, Moleskine journal notes and illustrations from Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Midnight tapas in Madrid, the plains of La Mancha and ancient alleys in Cuenca.

My companion notes, sketches and illustrations to my story on the Venetian Adriatic.