Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bon Ano

New Year's Eve lunchtime and our little village was positively humming. There were lots of visitors -- especially from France -- in the stores and cafes and just walking and enjoying the twenty-degree sunshine.

We were just about to go for our coffee when the Three Kings and some assistants came down the stairs of one of our local restaurants. They were decked out in crowns and long robes and looked like they came from darkest Africa. Families from the same party followed them down the stairs. The Kings boarded one of the local ajuntament zodiacs and with siren blazing took off for their next port of call.

After an afternoon of intense cleaning -- because your house must be spotless on Hogmany, there's my Scottish background -- we went down to our local bar or restaurant for a New Year's Eve drink followed by a coffee. It is so beautiful to watch the twilight descend on the marina and the mountains become blacker and blacker. But we must go home and cook our rabbit.

We are looking forward to the fireworks at midnight, which is so much a part of the New Year's celebration here. And to you wherever you are, Happy New Year.

We have to prepare our 12 grapes to eat on the stroke of midnight before the bells stop their tolling. One grape eaten represents one month of good luck. We learned last year that you must skin and peel the grapes to be able to eat them fast enough to beat the bells.

Tonight's dinner:
  • rosemary wrapped chevre
  • olive tapenade on rosemary crackers
  • smoked salmon
  • roast rabbit cooked with rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, black olives, whole garlic cloves in rose wine
  • roast potatoes
  • brussel sprouts
  • plum pudding with custard

Stocking up

Market day in El Port de la Selva and we have a force 7 wind. The tramuntana is here in all it's glory, which made shopping at our small outdoor market quite uncomfortable, and worst of all, the man who sells the nuts, dried fruit and cheeses isn't here. After picking up a loup de mer -- also called branzino or sea bass -- for dinner, we decided to go to Espolla to pick up some wine.

We have been trying many different wines since coming here, especially those produced locally, hoping to find a favourite. At the moment that would be Clos de les Domines Reserva 2007 Bottled at d’Espolla cooperative. It's a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and carinyena negre.

Many villages have agricoles or cooperatives, producing and selling wine and olive oil from that area. Typically visitors are able to sample available wines from large casks, which is what we did!  Finding nothing new to tempt us, we settled on the wine we knew, along with a good bottle of rose with which to spritz the rabbit we plan to cook for our New Year's Eve dinner.

A decanter of olive oil had also been put out for us to try, with little crackers - delicious! It was just the way I like it, a nice light, nutty taste, not too overpowering. We bought two litres for our everyday cooking.

Our next stop was Empuriabrava for some household shopping. The supermarkets closest to us are too small to carry everything we need; every so often we have to drive a little further. Right next to the supermarket is a large hardware store and there were a couple of things on our list we knew we could find there. Unfortunately, by the time we had finished with the groceries, it was past 1 pm and the hardware had closed for the afternoon. This is quite typical and we are often caught out this way. We could have used the time to go for a walk; there is an excellent dike path bordering one edge of the town. But today's wind ruled that out so we opted for our other option, lunch!

We previously had two favorite restaurants in Empuriabrava, but today added a third. We had spotted an obviously very popular Italian restaurant right on the beachfront and decided to give it a try. They had a menu of the day for €10.50, including wine -- Perfect. There was lots of choice but we opted for a four seasons pizza with mozarella, tomato sauce, ham and artichokes cooked to perfection in a huge pizza oven. That along with a glass of vino tinto, green salad and a really tart lemon gelato was our lunch.

We finished our shopping and headed home under lovely blue skies. It was so windy that even the handful of putas (hookers) that we usually see sitting on their chairs at the side of the road had opted to stay at home.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Return to Port Vendres

Today we made a return trip to Port Vendres, on the trail of Charles Rennie MacIntosh, who lived and painted here with his wife in the 20s. We knew that the museum wouldn't reopen until February, but markers have been installed around the town's lovely waterfront at all the artist's favorite vantage points. Each marker includes a copy of the painting created at that point. We thought that would make a great walk.

As we drove the winding coast road we noticed new color on the hillsides, bright yellow broom blooming everywhere. Port Vendres is a deep water commercial fishing port as well as having a large marina, so there was lots to see as we walked in the beautiful, warm sunshine. The effect of afternoon light playing on the hills across the bay, the houses lining the quayside, reflections of boats in the still water all made it easy to imagine what attracted the artist to this town. No doubt he also found some nice places to eat, as we were about to do!

After looking at the menus of several restaurants we decided on Restaurant Le France. It had a patio, and all the seafood available for your meal that day was on display. Unfortunately, the sole was gone by the time I ordered but the menu of the day was a good alternative. We started with some local rose wine accompanied by crispy baguette with an olive tapenade. As we were waiting for the rest of our food, one of the men fishing right across the road pulled out an octopus.  A Norwegian salad with bib lettuce, red onions, smoked salmon and scampi with a really piquant dressing was followed by a lotte fish filet, wild rice, grilled tomato with breadcrumbs and a little baked zucchini square, which I think was mixed with a little egg and dusted with nutmeg. Dessert was one of my favourites, ile flottant. For those of you who have never had this dessert it is essentially meringue -- a soft melt in your mouth kind -- floating on creme anglaise; an experience you never forget!

We continued our walk around the port but still hadn't seen any of the Rennie MacIntosh markers. There were numerous fishing boats, some quite large. Then we discovered the fish market. On display were every kind of Mediterranean fish imaginable, including two kinds of sole, as well as all kinds of shellfish including scallops, oysters and sea urchins. We bought some coquilles St. Jaques, already cooked, which will be lunch tomorrow.

Walking a little further we climbed some steps and there was our first Rennie MacIntosh picture, soon followed by two others. It was interesting to see how the views had changed, a small sandy beach having been filled in with a cement quay, other vistas obscured by port buildings. By now the sun was going down, taking all its warmth with it; it was time to leave Port Vendres. We'll be back as we have ten more Rennie MacIntosh pictures to discover and more lunches to eat.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Bovine encounters

It is  St. Stephen's Day in Catalunya, a holiday for everyone. There were a number of visitors in the village today both Spanish and French. We decided to try another of the many trails that criss-cross the hills behind us. A ten-minute drive brought us to the Santa Helena's parking lot (see earlier post), and from here we set out on an old farm track.

This stony but well defined track took us north along a ridgeline towards our neighboring town of Llanca. We stopped first at a ruined farmhouse, one of many dotting the hillsides, and admired the view. As we walked along the path we could see either cow pats or horse droppings and loads of them. This was unusual for us as we hadn't seen signs of either on previous trips up here. Very mysterious.

In the distance we could see the beautiful snow-covered peaks of the far Pyrenees, while nearby rosemary was in bloom. The only sounds were of birds and our own foot steps. As we clambered over the solid remains of yet another stone wall, we could see Llanca, which looked like a toy town to us. Turning around we could see the outlines of the huge vineyards that used to be in the area, and we wondered about the generations of farmers who created and tended these terraces. When did they leave, and why? We resolved to find someone to help us unravel the fascinating history of this area. 

We moved on, and soon heard the clang of bells. Sure enough, as we rounded the next bend we came face to face with a large steer. To us city folks his unblinking stare seemed impolite, if not downright menacing. Twenty feet behind a second steer moved into position covering the other side of the track - these were obviously pros. Having devised an exit strategy, we moved cautiously forward, playing it cool, avoiding eye contact. Finally, the brown one gave a snort and lumbered off the track. He joined 6 or 7 others, mostly a beautiful white colour, all munching away on the thorny brush. We sensed that the moment of threat had passed and took a moment to admire these sure footed beasts.

On our return trip we took a detour to see two old ruined farmhouses. One looked more modern, probably early twentieth century. It looked like the kind of place that some idiot couple on a TV show might attempt to renovate into a lovely beamed farmhouse. The other was considerably older with low arched ceilings. The stone walls on both houses were in reasonably good shape.

Finally, we made our way up the long slope back to the car. After more than two hours I thanked goodness for good walking shoes. By now the sun was losing its strength and we were glad to see our little red car. 
Our ridgeline ramble brought us to this view of the town of Llanca.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wind and waves on Christmas Eve day

We are having a tramuntana, which is giving us lovely blue skies accompanied by a force 7 wind. This is a time when we love to go and watch the waves. We stopped at the lighthouse on the ronda close to where we live and then drove a short distance to Cap Ras. Today the surf was really pounding and giving off lots of spray. All those negative ions make you feel really alive.

Mmmmmm, Barcelona

Wednesday morning saw us boarding the train for the two-hour trip to Barcelona, getting off at Placia de Gracias. We hadn't been to Barcelona for a while and  we're always up for a trip there. Mention Barcelona, even to the Spanish, and you get a mmmmm and this far off look in their eyes and I know I'm the same.

We stay in the El Born neighbourhood, which has everything: great restaurants, bars, shops and parks, and it's own unique atmosphere. Barcelona is a great city for walking and we walk and walk with some shopping breaks. It's busy but not the Christmas frenzy we're used to. Many people are at the Christmas markets buying holly, mistletoe, tree decorations and little caganer statues of many different personalities. Few people are carrying parcels. By the time the evening came we decided that we had run out of time for the things that we wanted to do. There's a way around that: we'll stay another night. Tomorrow, Miro.

We decided to visit the Miro exhibit, the Ladder of Escape, before it moved on to the National Gallery in Washington. This involved a bit of a trek on the metro and then the funicular up to Parc de Montjiuc. The park is massive and is also the home of the Barcelona Olympic facilities. Today we headed to the Joan Miro Foundation museum to see the exhibit.

Miro lived through the turbulent times of the Spanish Civil War and his works display his reaction to the events that were particularly devastating to Barcelona, where he was born. The first  have links back to the family farm before his move to Paris at the beginning of the Civil War. Later he returned to self-imposed exile in Mallorca. It was interesting to see how his art changed and became more charged during the time of Franco. His grand abstract works in the 70s and 80s were his way of showing resistance as he couldn't make his political views known. I loved the pictures and found the link with Spain's history particularly interesting as we haven't seen much mention of Franco in our travels.

After leaving the Miro exhibit, we walked down the mountain, through the gardens and eventually to the theatre district, which is in grand buildings constructed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. By the time we reached  Placa Espana we decided to visit Pobles Espanol for lunch just a short walk away.

Pobles Espanol is an architectural museum built for the 1929 exhibition to display the various types of architecture from around Spain. Here is a little village but no one lives there. We entered the main square, which fortunately for us was ringed with restaurants. We sat in the beautiful sunshine sipping wine and eating our lunch: hake - in a very light  batter - and chips; and  lovely veal sauteed in wine and served with those same great chips and brussel sprouts. After that, were ready to tackle the town.

In addition to architecture, the village includes an art gallery, where we admired more work by Miro, along with pieces by Dali, Picasso and contemporary Spanish artists. As we wandered the narrow streets we stopped and watched the glass blower for a while. I think this is an incredible art  that this man made look incredibly easy. There were more artisanal shops with some lovely things, leather belts and purses made on the premises, cheeses, honey, ceramics and glass just to name a few.

For us it was back to the hotel via Placia de Gracias for a bit of shopping before returning to the hotel. Who can resist the buzz on this street? There are always lots of people usually dressed very stylishly, no  cars, major stores and this time a couple of fellows playing their classical Spanish guitars.

We thought we might go to  a magic show in the evening set to Michael Jackson's music. The ticket lady was thoughtful enough to suggest that although it was a magic show, there was also a lot of speaking in Catalan, which would be beyond us of course. So, nothing for it but to head back to El Born and enjoy another fabulous meal at Cuines Santa Caterina. 

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hello Dali

Perhaps Figures' most famous son is the artist Salvador Dali, born here in 1904. In his later years he returned here, bought an old theatre and turned it into the Dali Theatre-Museum, now one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Dali designed the entire building to be an aesthetic experience for viewers, a way to enter his world, which we did this afternoon. It was an amazing experience. The museum is unlike any other we have been in.

Another Pessebre

Promptly at six this evening we were in line for the Pessebre in Llanca, our neighbouring town 8 kilometres away. This festival was held in the grounds of a government building, which looks like a palazzo. You  have to imagine a Cecil B.De Mille production with resounding music but with a force 7 gale blowing in the background. It started with the lights going on in a terrace and the angel announcing Jesus' birth. Then the centurions marched along the terrace in front of the house with their flaming torches to take up their places lighting the way through the Pessebre.

In we went to look at a variety of nativity scenes. A lot included young school age children, some were devils, some angels, some part of Herod's family. We saw shepherd's with a flock of sheep, the ceramic makers, the honey makers, the bakers and the traditional nativity scene.

The highlight was the caganer. What can you say? The caganer is a man crouching down with his pants around his ankles answering a call of nature.  With the wind howling and being bare arsed this good humoured guy must have been freezing. Quite often the caganer is found at the back of the nativity scene. Some say if you don't have one you will have a bad harvest, others that nature calls no matter what, and others remind us about the absurdity of life. It certainly is down to earth, no pun intended.

As we finished our walk around the Pessebre, we came to the end and had a little shot of sherry or very strong wine, some cake and hot chocolate. It was a fun visit and I was very glad of my Vancouver Olympic mitts.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The coastal road to Collioure

As we drank our cafe con leche this morning, we watched the boats in the marina being tossed about while across the harbour wind surfers  were enjoying some amazing runs, so long as they stayed upright. These winds, known as the tramuntana,  will be with us for the rest of the week. They can be tiresome, rattling the windows and wreaking havoc with laundry and patio furniture. But they also bring with them a beautiful crisp light that would delight any photographer. And that got us thinking that we hadn't been up the coast road to France in a while. So, with no particular destination in mind, we headed off.

This road twists and turns, switching back and forth to get over  each spur of the Alberes mountains. Each indentation in the coastline hides another picturesque seaside town. An abandoned booth and administrative block still mark the border between Spain and France but no one will ask to see our passports here. Now we are in the Banyuls wine region and it seems that every available hectare is given over to vines. Countless stone terraces ensure that even the steepest slopes can be planted.

We stop in Banylus-sur-Mer, to admire strikingly colorful houses, our eyes drawn in particular to one building with rust colored walls and brilliant blue shutters. We had also hoped to find a coffee but were turned away from one establishment as it was a 'restaurant' and they had just shifted into dinner mode. You would think the kind of restaurant that has metal tables and chairs, and displays laminated photos of its dishes at the door, wouldn't be too special to serve two coffees.  We could be generalizing outrageously but it did strike us as one of those subtle little differences between Spain and France. Never-the-less, we look forward to a return visit, especially when the town's many wine 'caves' might be open.

Our next and final stop was Collioure, and we could see immediately why Dali liked to paint here. Even on a chilly late afternoon in December, many visitors wandered the town's narrow streets and waterfront. Imposing fortifications, a beautiful church jutting out into the harbour, colorful houses climbing the hillside and ubiquitous plane trees all combined to create an enchanting atmosphere. As we walked along the waterfront we passed one bar offering hot wine - very tempting! We chose instead to sit outside at another bar, warming ourselves with hot chocolate and the waning sun. The streets behind us included numerous little art galleries, clothing boutiques, local wine and oil stores, and a lovely chocolate shop that had the most expensive but divine smelling chocolates.

With the light dwindling, we called it a day, and turned south towards home.  One more little surprise was in store for us. Passing through Port-Vendres we spotted the Charles Rennie Mackintosh museum. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer and artist known for his many Art Nouveau designs. We love his work. A print of one his stained glass window designs hung above our mantel piece for many years. We had forgotten that he also created many beautiful watercolors during visits to the Port-Vendres area in the 1920s. We will return to visit the museum and to drive around and see exactly where he painted his pictures.

It's been another day of  just scratching the surface. The promise of wine tasting, artistic and castle tours plus citron crepes demands a return visit.  We can't wait to go back.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


On the spur of the moment this morning we decided to visit Girona,  just an hour away. Girona is perhaps underrated as a tourist destination. While many tourists fly into Girona - it is a major hub for Ryanair - they tend to head from the airport directly to Barcelona or the coast. But that may soon change. Frommer's has declared  Girona one of the top ten cities to visit in 2012, and others in the travel industry are also promoting the city's charms.

Girona has a colourful history. The region has been populated for perhaps a million years. More recently there were Berbers, Celts, Greeks, and Romans. The Visigoths held sway for a while and then the Moors who battled back and forth with the Franks. In the nine hundreds the city was handed over to Charlemagne. Its key strategic position caused it be involved in many wars and it became known as the city of the sieges after Napoleonic forces besieged it in 1808-09. The city suffered further depredations during the Spanish Civil War but has gone from strength to strength since the first civic elections in 1979. It is now one of the cities with the highest income per capita in Spain.

As we approached the centre of the city we passed wide streets and a beautiful park, which we will save for another day. After a quick trip to the information centre we crossed the River Onyar, which divides the 'old' from the 'new' city. We crossed the river, captivated by the colourful buildings that lined it, additional color provided by laundry drying on balconies. Looking down we saw numerous fish in the wide but shallow Onyar. It was all quite beautiful.

We wandered through the narrow streets of the old quarter and the Jewish quarter peeking into courtyards and countless narrow alley ways. There is a substantial Jewish museum here that we plan to visit on our next trip. We know that there was a lot of tension between the Jewish people and the cathedral and its clerics, and that all jews were eventually expelled from Spain in 1492.

Arab baths built in the twelfth century provided evidence of Moorish influence in the city. As we wandered around this well preserved site we tried to imagine the gossiping, deal making, philosophizing, plotting, intriguing, match making and more that took place here every day for more than four hundred years.

It was time for lunch in the old quarter. Seamus started with melon and serrano ham and I had prawns. This was followed by the most tender veal and mushrooms in a wine sauce. Then it was gelato and creme catalan. All this plus a bottle of wine and a large bottle of water for €12 each! 

We are very impressed with Girona. It doesn't have the intensity of larger cities but has history, character and charm to spare; we look forward to many more visits.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Observatory mystery solved

Amazingly, our morning's cave adventure had left us looking for more outdoor fun. Half way to Cadeques the mountain road passes below a peak crowned with what we assumed was some kind of observatory. We could see various antenna and a large dome. The complex has a proper access road of course, but on this side of the mountain a track through the scrub seemed to offer a pleasant hike. We parked at Perafita, a beautiful hilltop winery with buildings dating from the 14th century.  We have been by here before hoping to do a little wine tasting and find out more about the winery bed and breakfast. Once again, we have found no one home, so proceeded with our hike.

Our plan was to follow the track straight up to the observatory at the top of the mountain. We had our first little moment of doubt when we found a very faded sign reading 'zona militar'. It seemed to us that if this really was a prohibited area the signage would be clear and unequivocal, which this wasn't; so we continued.

Having made a our way to the base of the peak, we decided we had accomplished enough and turned around. The observatory was well fenced and could more easily be reached by car. In any case, we had climbed high enough to enjoy amazing views over the mountain, the vineyards and villages. In the far distance we could see the snow covered Pyrenees.

We returned to the car and drove around the other side of the mountain to pick up the paved road to the observatory. A winding road brought us to a new sign, this one the size of a small house, which in multiple languages said: "Military Zone Entrance Forbidden." Having clarified that, we returned home, our quest to visit the observatory now over.

Local caves make for fascinating visit

In our little village of El Port de la Selva we often see signs put up by the town advertising upcoming events. We checked with Isobel in the local information office to find out more about the latest trip, a Sunday morning excursion to a series of caves that have apparently been inhabited since neolithic times -- sign us up!

We met the rest of our group and our guide at 9:30 this morning, and after waiting for a few latecomers, our little convoy of cars headed off along the Cadaques road. Within minutes we pulled off the road and parked by a dry river bed. Unfortunately the next part of our trip involved walking awkwardly for perhaps a kilometer up the shingle riverbed, which only a few weeks ago had been a raging torrent. Finally, we left the river bed, passed through a small olive grove and scrambled up a short slope through huge wild rosemary bushes and pear cactus to reach the first cave.

We learned that the eight sandstone caves showed signs of human use dating back four to six thousand years. Not much is known about the earliest inhabitants, but we saw some intriguing evidence apparently dating from the Roman era. At this time the caves had been enlarged and a cement like coating added to the walls. We could plainly see the remains of stone walls along the cliffs immediately above the caves, and evidence that walls had once protected the cave openings as well. Our guide explained that at one time the caves were possibly occupied by Christian hermits. Scratches in the walls showed a cross very clearly and what were believed to be images of a Roman ship, identified by its square sail.  Another pictogram apparently showed a Roman shipwreck at night complete with stars.

You may wonder how we gained all this information with our limited Catalan. It's quite simple. Every time we go on one of these jaunts someone very kindly volunteers to translate for us, for which we are most grateful. We noticed that one of the group was listening very intently to our translator, and sure enough, this person also spoke English and soon joined in with his own version. 

At this point we discovered that most of the group, which included a number of children, had come prepared with sandwiches which they now began unwrapping. As we had already eaten and not brought anything with us, we said our 'thank yous' and 'goodbyes' and headed back to our car, this time taking the more comfortable route along the paved road.

We wrapped up a very pleasant morning with cafe con leche and croissants at Club Nautica. We sat with the sun shining in our faces while we picked pear cactus needles out of our hands and legs, but it was all worth it!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sant Quirze de Colera monastery

We decided to go for a drive this afternoon to the ruins of the old Benedictine monastery of Sant Quirze de  Colera. This drive brought us into the Serra De L'Albera, last foothills of the Pyrenees before they plunge into the Mediterranean. We passed through the vineyards and olive groves of Vilamaniscle, and then through a more wooded landscape with low scrub, cork oak and beech trees, less of the pine trees we have seen elsewhere. The road was paved and smooth enough right up until it crossed a little stream and became a short gravel track that brought us onto the monastery grounds.

The monastery was built in the ninth century and enlarged over the years. It was renovated in the 1990s after the town of Rabos acquired it from the family who had owned it since the 1830s. We had missed that day's visiting hours but were able to wander around admiring this impressive structure from the outside. We could smell clover and soon heard the buzzing of bees who had built hives in holes high on the monastery walls. I'm sure that this is a place to find some really good clover honey.

The monastery is situated in the eastern section of Albera national park; another, larger section lies just to the west closer to La Jonquera. In addition to its many other features, this end of the park is a preserve for the Hermann's tortoise, endangered in this area. Alas we didn't see any tortoises as they are all sleeping beneath the ground at this time of the year.

Try to picture the ancient monastery, in a beautiful valley with wooded hills rising behind it. What could improve this experience except perhaps a nice restaurant, and there it was!  Occupying what must once have been one of the monastery's outbuildings, the coral (restaurant) was bustling with local families out for a leisurely Saturday lunch. Catalans are very civilized about their eating: lunch is served after 1 and can go on all afternoon. The house speciality was grilled meats: lamb, beef, chicken and many kinds of sausage. After we made our selections the server was good enough to return and explain with a mix of French and mime that Seamus' selection was a sausage made primarily from parts of the pig's face, an experience he decided to save for another day. Importantly, every meal included lovely frites and we were also delighted to order vin de casa for only 2.70E for a small pitcher. We finished off our meal with our usual cortado, before making our way home, feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pessebre celebrates Christmas story

At last we went to La Selva de Mar, the next village inland from us, to see the Pessebre. We actually went on December 3 but found nothing going on. The mystery was solved when we took a closer look at the poster and saw that the date was the 8th not the 3rd. Here is a good case for wearing glasses! In the meantime we tried to find out what a Pessebre is, but established only that it has something to do with Jesus' crib. Never-the-less, we were in La Selva de Mar promptly at 6pm, our timing confirmed to us by the not very melodious clanging of the church bell. The parking lot on the edge of town was filling up quickly, surely a good sign.

We followed the crowd through the village until we found ourselves in a queue. I'm not really one for queuing. However, we stood in line having a bit of a giggle because, 'what were we going to see?' Then the crowd moved forward and we found ourselves at a ticket table where we dutifully handed over 5€ each. The lady did explain in French that our tickets would lead to food of some kind - a good omen!

As we soon discovered, a Pessebre involves a series of tableaux, one of course depicting the Nativity, but others representing everyday scenes from biblical times.  Locals dress the part and demonstrate ancient skills of carpentry, blacksmithing, pottery, fishing, and farming, or they might just have a display of antique implements. We came upon a lady was cooking dough in an outside oven. Cooked, the dough tasted a bit like a doughnut but not sweet. To wash it down we were offered a  glass flask with a narrow spout. The trick is to tilt your head back, hold the flask up, tip it towards you and if your aim is good send a stream of the contents into your mouth. There is an art to this, which I did not master on my first attempt; my sweater now smells delightfully of sherry!

Next was a nativity scene, with some beautiful horses to represent the animals in the manger. We took a closer look at Mary and Joseph and we had to conclude that Mary, having given birth, had gone out for a bit and left the infant Jesus with grandma. 

The narrow lane ways and ancient stone buildings of La Selva de Mar provided a magical backdrop for the Pessebre. Part of the town has been built astride a narrow steep sided stream. We wended our way past a lady tending crops, while another enacted a fishing scene. At each station a small olive wood fire burned. By now we were reaching the last stations and here more food was provided.  We stopped  to get a piece of multigrain toast with garlic aioli and a piece of cooked ham. Very yummy. At the next display Seamus had a go with the wine but he too had difficulty with his aim. Further along the river Seamus stopped for some kind of cold sausage on bread while I was off getting getting a small cup of thick, hot, home made chicken broth with a pork meatball. It was delicious and well received as it was a bit  chilly by now. As we ate, we watched a lady fashion a pot with her pottery wheel.

We wandered back to the village centre where vendors were selling sausage meats, cheeses, and baked goods. As luck would have it, someone was also selling those packs that you heat in the microwave for your aches and pains. Just what we were looking for - perfect for heating the bed at night! We bought two.

So that is a Pessebre. For us it was a lovely outing in a beautiful spot, adding a little more to our appreciation of Catalan culture. We wondered what the evening meant to the dozens of locals who attended: part social event; part entertainment; part tradition; but for some definitely an opportunity to celebrate what they value in the Christmas story.

Note: someone didn't think to bring a suitable camera; but we did manage to extract some photos, which are posted in an album on the sidebar.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A walk in the hills

Today is Constitution Day in Spain, a national holiday. We decided to go on a local walk we hadn't done before so it was in to our red rocket for a 5 minute drive through the village and up to a shingly, rough track that we were not going to brave with our car.

As we followed the track up the mountain it was really interesting to see all the old stone terraces where the vines used to grow. Unfortunately, today it's pine trees, blackberries and other natural vegetation gone wild. As we walked and walked there were more terraces, some very well preserved walls and the remnants of old houses from two hundred years ago.

We came to a small fork in the road and a sign, Mas de Puignau. As we climbed towards the old stone ruin we saw a fenced off bit that we assumed marked an archeological dig. How wrong we were! Inside the fenced area of the ruin were five or six goats guarded on the outside of the fence by one shaggy beige dog and another black, short-haired medium sized dog. Both were of the heinz variety. Neither barked but we decided not to approach them. From the mas or farm, we heard what we thought were cow bells but as we looked out over the ridge the vegetation was too thick to spot anything.

At this point we decided to continue our walk to see if we could find Sant Baldiri de Taballera, an old church. Everything is very well signposted so off we went continuing along an old farm track. The sound of the bells we heard earlier seemed to be coming from just above us. We headed up the hill, and there we saw more goats of every colour and size, than you could imagine, all jostling together eating the grasses and bushes as they walked along. Some were sporting bells. One or two were quite funny as they were up on their hind legs eating the pine trees. We spotted a goatherd with them and had a little chat. Since our Spanish is still in its infancy the chat was a bit limited. However, we did find out that there were five hundred goats in that group. The shepherd is with them during the day but not at night. The goats stay outside as they are pretty tough. The goats just kept coming and coming as we were trying to converse. I thought perhaps they were used for making goat's cheese but he said that they were for their meat or the little ones were. Interesting.  Our butcher says that goat meat is much nicer than lamb. Someday we will give it a try, although I'd prefer not to eat one of these goats.

We left the goats and carried on to the ruin of the old church passing more old terraces, walls and ruins. Finally, we arrived at the church but couldn't get inside as it was fenced off. I wonder if that was to keep the goats out? Surrounding the church were old olive trees and cork oaks. The view over the mountains to the Mediterranean was lovely.

It was time to return to the car before it got dark. A quick coffee in the village ended another lovely day.

Fish for dinner

Our local fish shop opens around 7:30 in the evening, after all the boats have come in.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Of course we are not the first visitors to fall under the spell of the Costa Brava. Some 2600 years ago Greek traders established a settlement at Empuries just north of the present day port town of Escala. Over a period of 700 to 800 years the Greeks and then the Romans built Empuries into one of the most important trading centres in the Mediterranean. Major excavations beginning in the early 1900s have uncovered the amazing remains of this site.

A perfect sunny Sunday gave us all the encouragement we needed to drive down to Empuries. We took back routes past the wetlands explored earlier. The ruins have only been partially excavated but there was more than enough to make for an engrossing trip back in time. There are actually two sets of ruins; after the Romans took over they built a new town immediately adjacent to the original Greek settlement. We wandered about marveling at the remains of temples, salting factories, administrative centres, drainage systems, public baths and more. A museum houses some great exhibits and amazing artifacts.

Having left the main archeological site we made the short drive to Sant Marti hoping to find a late lunch there. We weren’t disappointed; in the centre of town we found five or so outdoor restaurants. We went for the menu de dia, as we often do. By this time the sun was sinking and the air growing chilly, so we decided to save a proper exploration of Sant Marti for another day.

Sant Pere de Rodes monastery

If you follow our road for about 10 minutes up to the top of Verdera mountain you come to the old Benedictine monastery of Saint Pere de Rodes, about 500 metres above sea level. We have passed the imposing buildings many times in our travels and decided to visit today.

The views from the monastery are really breathtaking. You can clearly see our village, El Port de la Selva, as well as Llanca to the north and much of the Cap de Creus coastline. The monastery is just below the ridgeline and not far away are the ruins of Santa Helena church. Nearby excavations are uncovering an ancient village. The fascinating thing as you take in the view is that you can clearly see the old terraces, where the olive groves and vines grew. Sadly, today they are covered with pine trees.

It is very easy to tour the monastery with everything being clearly marked. With the help of our guidebook we could see how the monastery expanded over time, particularly from the 10th to 14th centuries. During this time the monastery was an important place of pilgrimage as well as centre of political and economic power.

Wars, epidemics, religious and social upheaval, and piracy all took their toll on the monastery. The monks finally left in the late 1700s and the abandoned monastery soon fell into ruin.

Renovations began in the 1930s and a major restoration took place in the 1990s. It is now one of Spain's most visited ancient monuments. It was really interesting to see how the monastery was the centre of life on the land. As we completed our tour we found a lovely restaurant in the upper parts of the monastery overlooking the port. Unfortunately, we had eaten lunch before we left home, so we settled for a coffee. Next time, lunch!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A new coffee spot

Every morning we go down to the village for our cafe con leche -- like a cappuccino but not as milky as a cafe au lait -- and to do our various errands. We have three bars we go to for our coffee. There is the one where we sit outside and see the beach and on windy days the windsurfers bare bums as they get changed. Then there is another bar, where a lot of locals hang out. Finally, we've been going to a spot that has quite good coffee but isn't that busy during the day. There is a dour looking octogenarian, or perhaps nonagenarian, in the corner and if you are lucky she may respond to your "Hola". If you are in there on your own as I was one day last week it was a bit uncomfortable.

Today we decided to go to the Club Nautica, which has newly reopened, right in the marina. What a beautiful spot overlooking the llauds or traditional fishing boats, many of which are used for recreational purposes (actually there aren't many llauds in the photo above so we will add some later). The coffee was great, the sun was shining and you can see from the pictures that we've definitely discovered our new coffee spot. Even better they do reasonably priced meals as well.

Red hot wheels

At last we have our own car and what a beauty. Whenever I look at her, she or he makes me smile. She is a Fiat 500 TwinAir sport, colour bright red! For those of you who are interested this car has just two cylinders with a total capacity of just 875cc. In order to enhance economy without affecting performance the TwinAir is packed with technology, including a turbocharger, Fiat's clever MultiAir variable valve-gear and a balancer shaft that smoothes out the unevenness to which a two-cylinder engine would otherwise be susceptible. The result: some of the best official fuel consumption and CO2 emissions data for any car on the market. And she goes like a bomb. Other than checking the oil every few months, no major service is required until 20K or one year. This car is crying out for a name, which we will decide on soon. Stay tuned.