Monday, November 28, 2011

Market day in Figueres

This morning we travelled the 30 minutes to Figueres to visit a Movistar store and order our high-speed internet hookup, something we are only able to do now that our precious NIE (Spanish identity number) has arrived. We should have our ADSL hooked up within 10 days. This is a major step forward for us as we will no longer be dependent on expensive pay as you go internet connections, and will now be able to download movies and TV shows.

I love visiting Figueres on market days. Browsing among the abundant fruit, vegetables, flowers, cheeses, olives and hams is a treat, but today’s market featured produce of ‘Northern Catalan’, which is to say French stalls from Roussillon. The first one was selling champagne and Valrhona chocolate. The next one had huge wheels of various goat, sheep and cow cheeses. After tasting several, I bought some cheese and a beautiful baguette that we will have for a picnic tomorrow. You could buy huge loaves of olive bread, raisin bread or a bread with a mixture of nuts; the lady would cut off whatever size chunk of bread you wanted. I couldn't resist the framboise tarts, which should be a tasty addition to our picnic. Another stall was selling wines and another oils and a variety of little loaves. Here I bought a lovely little fig loaf.

After a tapas lunch of patates bravas, potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce or sometimes ailo on them, calamari cooked to perfection and fried little fishes, we headed home.

Later in the afternoon we walked to our village, El Port de la Selva, to buy some sausages for our sausage and lentil stew dinner and to have a coffee. The wind that day had brought out all the windsurfers and kite surfers. But with the sun about to disappear below the ridgeline, they were beginning to pack up. When I say packing up, I mean they were opening their van doors and stripping off their wet suits and bathing suits right in the parking lot before getting dressed. Naked bums, and coffee – another perfect day in Spain!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A vineyard trip

This morning promptly at nine we met with 15 other people at the bodega in town to form an eight car convoy for our trip to Arche Pages vineyard and cellar in Capmany, about half an hour away.

Upon arrival we joined another couple in their car for a short trip to the first vineyard. We were very impressed with the young man who owned the vineyard with his family. He was probably about 30 and has revolutionised the vineyard, which has been in the family for five generations. The vines ranged from two to a hundred years old. Previous generations had sold all the grapes except for a few that they kept for their own wine making. In 2004 the son kept the grapes and started producing their own wine for sale.

The main grape of the area is a granache, which had been harvested already this year.  Unlike in his father's time very few if any chemicals were used on the grapes. Unfortunately, the grass and weeds were cleaned away and the bugs that ate the spiders who eat the grapes had nothing to eat them. It's like the spider that swallowed the fly. They are  now going to grow grass between the vines so little animals will come and eat those red spiders.

It was back in the car for a bumpy ride to fields where the cabernet sauvignon and merlot was grown. There were still grapes on what were suckers of the three main branches of each plant. In his dad's time these little grapes were harvested and sold. It took quite a bit of convincing of the father that these would not go in the wine when the grapes were harvested by locals in September and October. We tasted the little grapes and they were very nice, not too dry. These will be picked later and may be used for wine as they were good quality this year. There were new terraces for the vines and everything was very well cared for. Later with his one Bolivian employee the vines will be trimmed right back and the suckers removed. Apparently, the wood from the vines is excellent for barbecuing.

It was in the car again and off to see how the wine was made. The red wine is made with the stems removed before the grapes go through the crusher. Then it is in to the steel vats for 7-10 days for fermentation and then in to lovely, new French oak barrels for 6 months. This produces 35,000 bottles of wine 25% of which are for export.

We made a short trip in to town, where we were directed in to a cellar of an old house. A table was set up for seventeen with meats and cheeses and of course bread in preparation for our wine tasting. First of all everyone took a piece of bread and tomato and rubbed the tomato pulp into the bread and then the first wine arrived. It was a dry white wine. We were warned about the strength of the wine. Seamus and I hadn't finished our first glass while everyone was finishing the second white wine. We missed out on the second white, which was probably a good thing. Fortunately, we knew to keep drinking lots of water between the wines and more bread and more food. Then the reds arrived. We sampled three. Each one better than the last. The bottles were left on the table for everyone to help themselves and the meat, cheese and bread kept coming. Here we were being served by the owner of the vineyard and his mum and dad. Finally, plates of local almonds, hazelnuts and raisins were placed on the table and really delicious coffee was served.

We made our thank you's and walked back to the car. There wasn't even an opportunity to buy the wine. It was such a pleasure to hear how the wine was made and to see someone so enthusiastic and passionate about what they were doing. It was a lovely day with lovely wine and food. Now for a nap.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our First Club Med Experience

Today we had our first Club Med experience. If you are thinking something in hot climes with exotic drinks this isn't it. It was another warm, sunny day so we decided to head over to the old Club Med site in the Cap de Creus Park.

Club Med operated here from 1962 until 2002 with over 400 cabins that operated for three months of the year. As times changed and the Cap de Creus park was established this became an ecological eyesore. The government dedicated €7 million to take down all of the buildings, take away all the insidious plants and pave a track over 2 kilometers. The area is wild and windblown. In fact the geology looks perfect for a science fiction movie.

We followed the track through huge windswept rocks down some steps to a small, protected bay, where the Club Med boats tied up. We felt the water and it was quite warm and I think it would be possible to have a little swim there even now. After our tuna sandwich and sangria picnic we started back. Imagine a hike of over 6 kilometers where you are the only people. What a special place. A great Club Med experience!

(Here is a great website if you would like to know the full story behind the reclamation of the old club med site)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In the wetlands

Saturday once again saw us taking a trip in to Empuriabrava. Unfortunately, we couldn't get in to our favourite restaurant for an hour so we decided to find the wetlands area, Natural Reserve Estanys that extends for many kilometres from the beach and dunes inland. A wide variety of birds can be found there including flamingoes later in the year. Animals to be found are wild boar and badgers.

Immediately we heard a huge cacophony of bird calls as soon as we got out of the car, ducks and other water birds. Not too far down the trail we came upon huge nests up on platforms, storks nests and there was a white stork perched up on a pole. As we walked further we saw some deer in the distance. The male had the biggest antlers I've ever seen.

The whole area is made up of fields, paddies and wetlands. All along the path was a small river filled with bullrushes. Not only was the sound of the water birds, flocks of starlings and toads but a loud clanging from horses with bells around their necks.

After walking further we went in to one of the wooden hides where you can watch the wildlife. There was already a couple in there and I did feel that they felt a bit proprietary about it. Finally, we ended up at a spot with four towers. We climbed up one tower and spotted more deer, horses and the dunes in the distance.

As we'd walked well over an hour we decided to come back another day with some food. On the return trip there in the middle of the path was a river otter. It walked down the path towards us, gave a shake and disappeared in to the bushes. What a bonus!

Lunch in Gombren

Sunday was overcast but we decided that we were going to visit Gombren in the Pyrenees. We knew if we were lucky that we might be able to eat in Fonda Xece, a Michelin one star restaurant right in the middle of wild mushroom hunting territory. After driving through mountains dressed in their fall colours, negotiating several long tunnels and admiring the bucolic scenery, we arrived. And we were in luck we got a reservation for lunch.

We wandered about the ancient town and down towards a field of cows that were all wearing bells. As they munched they actually sounded like a steel band playing accompanied by the very aggravated mooing of the bull in the next field. Several terraces were behind the cows but not your regular terraces of vines or olives. These were terraces where every so often horses would go racing by at full tilt.

Then it was off to the restaurant. After eating tastes of wild mushroom crackers and rissoles I looked forward to my appetizer of wild mushrooms. I had imagined a plate of wild mushrooms but it was a base of wild mushrooms with veg on top and salt. My it was salty. Next course was entrecote of veal and it was a beautiful piece of veal but so salty. Dessert was a very nice fig tart and finally the bill, which was delivered with a lovely little box of chocolates. Very yummy.

My impressions. I won't be rushing off to look for Michelin Star restaurants. The meal was pretty pricey for what we got. And when the server asked how I enjoyed my food and I told him it was too salty, I didn\'t get any reaction at all. However, this restaurant with the hotel has a great food and accommodation deal for two nights. I wonder how it would be if you said that you were on a salt reduced diet? It might work. There are wonderful, clearly defined hiking trails through the mountains and I think this area definitely requires a return visit.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hair crisis averted

Almost another week has passed and we are getting much more settled. Tuesday saw us test driving a very cool, red Fiat 500 turbo twin air sport. I'm not sure if it is a mid life crisis car but I'm happy to say that we have reserved it and will be the proud owners as soon as we have our National Identity Card. Unfortunately, you can't buy a car until you have it.

We then went in to Figueres to shop and possibly get a hair cut. Finding somewhere to get your hair cut when you move is always quite traumatic. I've had my hair cut once here but wasn't overly happy with it. Of course most hairdressers are closed between one and four for the lunch break but we were in luck. Christian's was open. I boldly climbed the stairs and indicated to a man that Seamus would like his hair cut. I thought that he could be the guinea pig. The hairdresser handed Seamus a book of hairstyles none of which really looked like Seamus' style but after a quick consultation and I do mean quick because the hairdresser spoke Spanish and Catalan and we spoke English he started cutting.

While Seamus sat regarding his stylist somewhat suspiciously, I sat watching and was very impressed. I would take the plunge. Seamus was finished and the assistant took Seamus off to rewash his hair just to get the cut bits out. I meanwhile went through the style book and indicated what I liked. When my cutter was finished the assistant blew dry my hair and added some goop and I must say it's one of the best cuts I've ever had. We both look very stylish and no longer do we have to go through the hair cut angst. Happy days. As a bonus our new bed was delivered that evening. Great zzzzzzzz's.

On Wednesday we drove up to Perpignan in France and walked around in beautiful, warm sunshine. After waiting endlessly at the restaurant sponsoring the Catalan Dragons rugby team, we were told that we couldn't get the menu of the day, the duck. We'd only waited half an hour. When the wine we ordered didn't come either we left. Sad because it was a lovely setting by the river but we made up for it with moules frites for me and baked ravioli for Seamus at another restaurant where we sat outside and soaked up the sun. Perpignan has lots of little lanes where we meandered and looked at the shops for the rest of the afternoon.

Before going home we took a detour out to the coast to find an Ayurvedic practitioner. Finally, after following a very rough scratched map I made before leaving home we found the place and managed to speak to the man. Seamus' assessment was probably correct did I want to get massaged by a man who didn't wear underwear? I'll let you ponder that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A walk on La Ronda

After buckling down and giving the house a good clean it was coffee time. Since it was an extra long weekend for many Spanish and French people celebrating All Saint's Day, a national holiday in both countries, El Port de la Selva was buzzing with people. It was good for us as two bars/coffee shops normally closed were open, and even better we bought some of the little marzipan balls covered in almonds that are a traditional for the Spanish to eat as part of their All Saint's celebration. We managed to save them for our dessert at lunch.

Then it was off on a walk. There are two huge parks near where we live. Parc Naturel del Cap de Creus covers almost the entire peninsula while a little further south are the protected wetlands of Parc Naturel dels Aiguamalls de L’Emporda. We are only minutes from countless trails and viewpoints. Today we chose to start on the other side of El Port de la Selva and follow a well-defined walking route called La Ronda, which starts in Portbou on the French border and continues on to the very tip of Cap de Creus.

We left the car and descended to a beach, where a lovely Bernese Mountain dog greeted us. And then it was on to the trail, a mixture of windswept slate and gravel. We started climbing, mostly through wild rosemary, thick gorse, Queen Anne's lace and other lovely smelling plants. We had great views of lovely crystal clear bays and inlets with the mountains rising behind us. We crossed a number of small streams with water that was really refreshing in the heat of the day. As we were picking our way along the trail the Bernese flew by us with his owner closely following. I wish I was that fit. There were lots of old terraced walls suggesting that some sort of agriculture took place here at one time, although we could see no clue as to what that might have been. In the distance there were a few dilapidated old buildings. I suppose some kind of farming went on here.

Eventually it was time to turn back. The Bernese and his owner were far ahead of us at another beach where the dog was venturing into the water but not actually swimming. We could see that the fellow who had been sitting in his small Catalan boat or sardinal reading and soaking up the sun had gone for a swim. Out he came and stripped off. Male nudity has become a theme for us that I will tell you about at a later date.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sunday in Cadaques

After two days of torrential rain beating down, Sunday arrived with beautiful sunshine in a cloudless sky. Seamus set breakfast outside. It is beautiful looking over the port, "tres tranquil" as the locals would say. We decided to go for a drive to Cadaques, a twenty kilometer drive away. The drive is over a very windy road through the mountains. As we get closer to Cadaques we pass terraces of olive trees and quite a bit of traffic - everyone has the same idea.

Once in Cadaques we browse our way through the outdoor antique market. Lots of French people are here for the day. We have our Illy coffee overlooking the water as we enjoy the view and just people watching. This is no ordinary coffee bar as according to old pictures hanging inside Jacques Cousteau and Salvador Dali were frequent customers. Dali lived in Cadaques for fourteen years and you can visit his house, which we will save for another day.

We wandered around the harbour and listened to a pretty cool rock 'n roll band playing from the balcony of a hotel. Since it was such a lovely day we decided to get some sandwiches and have a picnic at the nearby Cap de Creus. Once we bought our food we thought that we needed some sangria to complete our lunch. Then it was in to a little variety shop for some glasses.

The Cap de Creus is the most easterly point of the Iberian peninsula and the scenery is staggeringly beautiful. You can see along the coast for miles. There are many huge outcrops that have formed in the wind blasted slate, which makes hiking quite easy but according to my husband we weren't hiking we were just clambering about. We picked a spot overlooking a bay with lovely Mediterranean blue water, and had our picnic of ham and cheese on crusty rolls. It was delicious and the sangria topped it off beautifully.

After a short stop to listen to a guitarist playing outside the restaurant at the top, we did some more clambering and exploring, still in the warm sunshine, before deciding to head home. There are loads of trails at the Cap de Creus and we look to a return visit. Next time we look forward to going down to one of the bays and having our lunch on a beach.