Monday, January 30, 2012
We picked up our bags and made it in time for our media distancia train to Figueres. The train was lovely and warm after a day of chillier weather than we are used to and I must admit I nodded right off for more than half the trip. As we were driving home we saw dustings of snow much lower down in the mountains than previously. It is definitely colder now. Home at last after a lovely weekend.
A tapas lunch of three types of cheese toasts, patatas bravas and spinach salad with roquefort and walnuts was delicious. Then it was on to Placa de Gracias, another huge pedestrian walkway filled with shops. For us it was all window shopping except for one indulgence - a Royal Stuart tartan mini skirt in kilt form! On top of leggings it looks great. Who would have thought a mini skirt at my age. I love it.
Tonight's concert, Shi-Yeon Sung conducting the Palau symphony. It was a different group tonight, definitely older. Our seats were perfect for watching Shi-yeon, guest conductor, the 36-year-old South Korean first female assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony. To say she was dynamic doesn't really describe her. She really got the most out of the orchestra when she was conducting Beethoven's Fifth, explosive then soft. Excellent. One funny thing was two men sitting on the same row as the clarinets. I think one was someone to do with the symphony and the other a guest. They just sat there through the whole thing. Did the guest win a prize? Why was he there?
We arrived at the Palau early to have a drink in the wonderful lobby, which is full of stained glass and colourful ceramic details. It was fun watching as people arrived for the concert. It became obvious that Nacho appeals to all ages. We arrived at our seats up in the second balcony because that's all that was left. Out came Nacho and started singing. Of course we had no idea what the lyrics were but he sounded pretty good, Tom Waits or perhaps a bit Bob Dylan. The band was great and Nacho was joined by two female back up singers and another person he did a duet with. He had a lovely, gravelly -read sexy - voice or as Seamus said, he was a 'low talker'. Near the end of the concert he sang, "This Land is Your Land", but like Leonard Cohen and obviously with different geographical references. The crowd loved him and after a wait and the crowd going quite mad clapping and shouting, he finally reappeared for an encore. The crowd went crazy again and waited and wouldn't leave even when the stage lights went out. Finally, they realized no more Nacho. The two-hour concert was really great. Our first Spanish rock concert.
It was 11:15 so we headed off to the market restaurant just a couple of blocks away, where we sat at the open kitchen and watched the chefs prepare the food. We shared baby squid sautéed with a fried egg on top. Exquisite. Then we shared roast suckling pig. Tasty, succulent, amazing. That and half a litre of the house red made for a great meal. This was followed by a walk around El Born, where the restaurants and bars were still humming. By 1:30 we decided to call it a night.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
We set off down the trail passing several storks perched in their nests clacking their beaks like castanets. Then we passed the local cows, brown with short horns. Number 8742 seemed especially interested in us. The clang of the horse bells as they were munching came from the next field. We checked two blinds but things were pretty quiet, just a few ducks.
Today there seemed to be more Camarague horses than last time.These horses date back to paleolithic times and were used to round up wild bulls. These horses live in a huge field covered in water, which is probably salt and they put their faces right in the water to get at the grasses underneath. We watched them pawing at the ground to loosen up the vegetation. As we were watching them, one came over and I fed it some grass from our side of the fence; then another came over and finally there were five horses and two colts. They were all very well behaved and not one pushed any of the others out of the way. One colt was smaller and chocolate brown and the other a bit lighter with a quite white face. They were all beautiful.
Finally, we passed through the dunes and reached the really wide, sandy beach that goes for miles. Next time we come down here we may just go for a long walk along the beach. We retraced our steps feeding the two Camarague colts as we passed them. Nearer the entrance we heard some birds laughing and discovered that it was ten or twelve cormorants perched in a tree. We discovered a short path to a blind overlooking the biggest ponds in the park. Here more cormorants perched on a log, and all kinds of duck and geese were swimming around. I thought one big bird was a swan, but no, when it lifted its head I saw it was a flamingo wading in water as high as its long legs. And even better, in the distance through the binoculars I could see more flamingoes. We headed to the blind on the other side of the pond to get a better view. As we were going along the path to the blind there was a brilliant pheasant nestled in the grass. One look at us and it ran off into the long grasses.
We joined some other people in the blind to watch the flock of flamingoes either perched on one leg watching the action in the pond or wading all over the pond and ducking their heads in the water for food. A few of the flamingoes were pink but the rest were pale grey or even white looking. We were fascinated by the number and the variety of birds in the pond, white storks on the edge, great blue heron, huge geese, cormorants and multicoloured ducks. Flamingoes at last. What a successful day.
After stocking up on fruit, veggies, parmesan and double baked bread it was time for lunch. My choice came from the tapas menu, little fishes, which are just that, tiny fried fishes and patates bravas. Seamus had the hamburgesa special, a hamburger topped with a lovely orange yolked fried egg and bacon accompanied by fries. All this was washed down with a glass of the house red.
As we approached El Port de la Selva we could see the windsurfers whizzing along and lots of waves crashing against the shore. We went over to the other side of the port, where all the fishing boats were tied up, and went for a short walk along the path trying to avoid a soaking from the spray. The waves were really pounding on the rocks and we had to be careful with the wind's high gusts. Finally, feeling refreshed it was back to the car hoping that by tomorrow the tramuntana has died down.
Monday, January 23, 2012
The next day at our usual coffee stop we ran into an English couple we had met the previous week and had a great chat. They shared some of their favourite places to visit in the Pyrenees. Having said our goodbyes we set off to make the most of another gorgeous day, with a trip to the ruined convent Santa Quirze de Colera. This is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by mountains, but right by the convent is a really great restaurant filled with local Spanish and French people. As we sipped beers outside on the patio waiting for a free table, we could smell the meats cooking on the grill inside. The sun beat down and I wished that I was wearing shorts, but that just wouldn't be done at this time of year. Finally we got seated.Lunch was a beautiful foot-long garlicky Catalan sausage and lovely, crispy, non greasy french fries, not too many just the right amount. This was accompanied by half a litre of the house red for 2.50€. You can't get a much better deal than that.
If we had planned this better we would have walked first and then eaten. Instead we forced ourselves up a steep incline on very full stomachs. As we neared the top we could hear the sounds of the ubiquitous cow bells and finally there they were. These cows were on their own farm land eating grass and low lying shrubs. As we looked in to the valley ahead we could see the farm. We were passed by some French people who had also eaten in the restaurant. They may very well have been walking back to France, which was just across the valley and over the next ridge.
By now we had walked off our sausages and it was time to return to the car. It was a much easier walk down the mountain than up and as a bonus it was still quite warm. I would like to know if vineyards once covered these hills as there is very little evidence of terraces and no farm ruins. We will have to return on a Saturday when the convent is open for tours to find the answer to this question.
Friday, January 20, 2012
We have excellent maps of the trails and drove directly to the neolithic dolmen trail, parked and there it was. We didn't even have to leave the car but of course we did. The first dolmen had been restored but the standing stones of the others were as they would have been in 4000 or 3000 BC. This area and the Languedoc in France are well known for the stones. We followed the track a bit further but it was really rough and overgrown and we decided to go on a different trail
The next path we followed took us past the only working farm that we've seen in the mountains. As on our previous walk up the mountain there was clear evidence of cows but we didn't see any. Do the same seven or eight cows we saw last time we were up here leave these cow pats everywhere? If it is them they are certainly prolific. We followed a trail to an old ruined stone farmhouse that was completely overgrown with bushes. The view was spectacular as we looked over the mist covering the valley to the snowy Pyrenees. And in the distance we heard the clanging of the cow bells.
On our return trip down the mountain we passed a sign for a dolmen, which is probably only a ten minute walk from our house but there doesn't seem to be a clear path. We will leave this exploration for another day.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Instead of driving directly to the main information centre, we decided to hike in from Empuriabrava. But first, our picnic. We found a picnic table in the sun right by the Muga river and broke out our multigrain baguette, slabs of different tasty Spanish cheeses and our mini bottles of Rioja. Delicious. Dessert was an Eclefechan tart, which is a Scottish butter tart packed with sultanas, almonds,currants and cherries. Next time we really must pack a healthier picnic at home. Mañana.
After crossing the Muga river we quickly came to the first blind, where we had a perfect view of the pond and a pair of huge, pure white, adult Bewick's swans. The wetlands are on a migratory route from Scandinavia and Iceland and all these birds were escaping cold, northern winters. There were several big, black coots who lumbered around the pond and a moorhen kept digging his head in the mud looking for food. After watching for awhile we continued further into the parc.
Although it is a nature preserve, large sections are still farmed. In the fields shoots were already sprouting. We passed a farm with a tiny lamb asleep by its mother. This was followed by a field of at least five hundred sheep packed in a field. It seemed that we walked and walked through fields but still hadn't reached the centre of the parc where most of the ponds are. This caused some silent whining, which very gradually gained in intensity.
Finally, a field full of white storks and some camarague ponies; we have arrived! The huge storks flapped their wings as they walked around the field but they didn't seem too bothered by our presence. The bird song became louder and louder as we moved towards the blind overlooking a huge pond filled with little grebes, common shelducks, mallards, teals, northern shovelers, northern lapwings, common snipe and some other unidentified species. We visited the information centre where we discovered that no one had sighted any flamingoes yet.
Finally, it was time to return to the car. We passed the farm with the lamb only this time he was awake and frolicking around the field leaping and jumping while bleating the whole time. None of the of the sheep paid any attention to him. I hope this first spring wooly lamb gets some friends soon. We stopped at the last hide where I admired two northern shovelers performing like synchronised swimmers as they dove back to back and then reappeared on the surface. Before crossing the river we were serenaded by five, large ring-necked doves perched high in a tree.
As I watched five or six large birds fly overhead I was hoping they were flamingoes but in my heart I know they weren't. Back at the car we decided to come back in the next few weeks to see if we could spot those elusive pink birds.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Back on the main auto route we headed south for Spain but turned west just north of the border and headed for Ceret, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The town is known for its cherries. In fact it holds a cherry festival and even a cherry spitting contest. It is also famous for a running of the bulls in July. The town is picturesque even in winter. Pedestrian bridges were lined with pansy boxes, and many of the houses had multicoloured shutters and colourful flowerpots on their ironwork balconies. It is easy to see why Picasso and other artists came here.We walked through the narrow streets and small but very elegant squares in the historic part of town before stopping for a cafe au lait. Across from the bar we noticed a butcher shop where we bought a couple of rienes or vol au vents and then had the butcher cut a couple of veal escalopes. Back in the car, we vowed to return at cherry time.
We followed the main road towards the snow clad Pyrenees through a number of small towns and then as we climbed it was just trees, a few houses and the road winding higher and higher. What beautiful scenery. But what to do about lunch? Most of the time in France you have to be seated in a restaurant before 2 o'clock to be served. At 1:30 we started retracing our drive, looking for but not finding any open restaurants. In the process, we discovered Les Thermes. It looks very interesting and we will come back someday to explore its sulfurous hot springs.
Lunch, though, would have to be a Spanish affair, some place where we could expect to get served until 3:30 p.m. We are definitely into the Spanish way of eating, usually having lunch around 2 or later and dinner at 8.
So back onto the auto-piste and across the border, turning off at La Jonquera in order to take a beautiful back country route home. We had in mind a wonderful restaurant in Cantalopps but found Can Pau first. The restaurant is huge and packed. An elderly couple leaving urged us to sit at their table. Lots of people were still arriving including a group of 15 or so hunters, who had probably been out after wild boar. I wonder if they got one? Usually, the hunters bring the boar to a local restaurant where the chef cooks it for them.
Lunch was a green salad for me followed by sole meuniere and for Seamus a goat's cheese salad and sautéed squid. We shared some very tasty nougat ice cream for dessert. After our coffee the server brought two shot glasses of a clear liquid. My stomach lurched thinking it was grappa but I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted the mild apple sherbet flavour. I found out it was manzana verde, a Spanish digestive made from green apples. Lovely and a fitting end to a great weekend.
We headed off in to town and walked through the narrow, pedestrian only streets, which were teeming with people.The sales were on and everyone was intent on their shopping. The stores were full and lots of people were carrying bags filled with their purchases.
We looked at a few restaurants and funnily enough decided to have lunch at a restaurant we had eaten at a few years ago while on holiday. We opted for the menu of the day, always a good deal, the magret au dates gratin. When it arrived the duck was perfectly cooked in a really light date sauce and a square of yummy gratin potatoes. This accompanied by a pichet of wine was enough. It was off for another walk followed by cappuccino and meille fieulle for Seamus' birthday dessert. It was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for the game.
After piling on many layers of clothes we set off to walk to the rugby grounds, getting there with enough time to visit the club store and kit ourselves out in team colours - Catalan red and gold. We both bought red and yellow scarves, much needed in the cold, and I bought a lovely black beret with the team's crest of the front. Now we looked like true supporters. As we awaited the 8:55 kickoff we watched local supporters greeting each other in the traditional way with a kiss on both cheeks; not something to be seen at a lot of rugby games!
The concession area did a lively trade in beer and beignets, paid for with tokens. There were no vendors in the aisles as would expect in a North American stadiums.
Back to the second half. Gwent came out with intensity and were rewarded with a quick try. Then Gwent had a man sent off and USAP capitalized with a try of their own. Two dangerous tackles led to two player ejections for the home team but it didn't stop them from scoring yet another try and going on to win convincingly 27 to 13.
Since we hadn't eaten since the afternoon we thought that we could do with something even though it was after 11. We walked in to town where those crowded streets were now dead quiet and all the restaurants were closed or closing. Finally, we found a restaurant open and after a much needed pizza we were ready to brave the cold and return to the hotel.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
A coffee and croissant on bustling Paseig de Gracia helped us recover from the train ordeal and then it was back underground to take the metro to the museum. We were shocked to discover that a single metro fare is now 2E - it had been only 1.45E. On the other hand it's a great system and that ticket would have taken us from one side of the city to the other if we had wanted.
Four or five stops later we exited at Playca Espanya. A broad boulevard pointed the way to the Museu Nacional D'Art De Cataluyna, looking down on us from the slopes of Montjuic. Workers were busy cleaning massive fountains, which are apparently quite a sight when lit up at night.
The exhibition's title refers to 4,500 negatives shot by pioneers of war photojournalism Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War. The negatives went missing in 1939 but reappeared, in a battered suitcase, more than seventy years later in Mexico.The negatives were reproduced in the form of contact sheets and displayed alongside selected larger prints, as well as the magazines in which the photos were originally published. It was fascinating to see famous images in the context of other photos taken at the same time. They showed key political figures, battle scenes, and the devastating effects on the civilian population. This is the first time these negatives have been shown in Spain, and we wondered what memories the photos evoked for some of the older visitors that day.
The Museu Nacional D'Art De Cataluyna is perhaps best known for a collection of Romanesque church murals removed from their original locations in the 20s. The murals are displayed on mockups of church interiors giving the visitor some sense of how they originally appeared, but with the added benefit of perfect lighting. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for Christians looking up at these stunning images up to a thousand years ago.
Having pretty much museumed ourselves out for the day, we returned to Las Ramblas for late lunch at Bar Lobo. It was busy as usual but we were seated quickly and then served even more quickly, almost too quickly! For Eleanor, the menu del dia: green salad with goat cheese, a big piece of grilled merluza or hake with colourful grilled peppers and onions, and a dessert of carpaccio of pineapple, which is very thinly sliced pineapple with a drop of not too sweet strawberry sauce. For Seamus: wild rice with mustard sauce and vegetables. All very tasty.
After synchronizing watches and agreeing on a rendezvous, we went our own ways. Seamus went to a bookshop in search of an English language history of Cataluyna, which he found, while I headed to the stores of Placia de Gracias, a huge pedestrian shopping area. In Spain, many stores hold big sales from January 7 to the end of February. After a quick trip into a few of my favourites and a T-shirt later we met up and headed to the station to catch our homeward train. For the return journey we took the faster and more comfortable (but more expensive) 'medio distance'. We were home in a short two hours to be welcomed by the lights of the village and a beautiful starry sky.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
We passed the excavations of the old Greek and Roman town of Empuries. You could shut your eyes and imagine the sailing ships coming in to the beach or pier with the town only a few feet away. As we continued along the walkway we passed the old stone Greek pier complete with a nude male sunbather. Perhaps it was Adonis but I don't think so.
As we approached Sant Marti the sun became hotter and we sat for a few moments with the sun in our face listening to the waves crash on the shore. In the village we spotted an outdoor restaurant where we both had dorado filet on some potatoes and green beans accompanied by a glass of sangria. After a coffee we made the return journey to the car enjoying the last of the sunshine.
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Earlier in the day we visited our fish lady in the port to see what fresh fish she had. We went with tuna steaks, which we would prepare with a new recipe we had found. First, little wedges of rosemary, thinly sliced garlic and fresh chilli were poked into nine incisions made in each steak. Then, into a pot just big enough to take the steaks went a bit of olive oil, the remaining rosemary, garlic and chilli, along with oregano, a cinnamon stick, capers, six anchovies, a little fresh tomato, a small can of really good plum tomatoes, and salt and pepper. Once this mixture was brought to a boil, the tuna was added, totally submerged in the sauce, and all left to simmer for 25 minutes. And that's it! It was delicious. The recipe is Jamie Oliver's from an Italian nonna (grandmother). These are the best recipes. We will add the leftovers to pasta to make tomorrow's dinner.
Friday, January 6, 2012
The first llaud -- as the ubiquitous local fishing boats are called -- arrives with the White King and his entourage, another llaud transports the Rose King and then finally the Black King arrives. The kings make their way to the adjutement balcony taking plenty of time to greet the many children. After a few words by the mayor, and greetings from each king, we all move off down the street to the town's main indoor gathering space, a gym over the supermarket.
The three kings and their helpers sit on the stage while families gather in front of them, quickly filling the small gym. Then the MC begins calling the names of every child in the village, beginning with the youngest, inviting them up to the stage to receive a gift from one of the kings.
It is a lovely evening (no tramuntana wind to spoil the festivities), with it seems the whole town turning out to celebrate and have fun.
In the late 19th century the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in Europe, including this part of Spain. While many wine growing regions recovered, it seems that in these hills the growers left and never returned. They left behind the stone remains of walls, terraces, waterways, storage buildings and dwellings, which provide an erie setting for our walk. We were particularly fascinated by numerous intact stone shelters called 'baraccas.'
Our track ended high on a bluff that gave uninterrupted views up and down the coast. Here we found signs of more recent human activity in the form of a little network of observation posts dating from World War II. Although Spain was neutral during that war, Franco apparently feared invasion by the Allies, and built thousands of bunkers, observation posts and shelters along the coast.
Castel Sant Ferran was built as a defense against incursions from nearby France, and was state-of-the-art for its time. Occupying 32 hectares of land, ringed by a three-kilometer wall and a five-kilometer moat, it is one of the biggest fortresses in the world, and considered to be the most important architectural monument in the Empordà region. It saw action during the Napoleonic wars and the Republican government was based here in the final days of the Spanish Civil War. Nowadays, in addition being a museum, it is used for cultural events and has provided a backdrop for films.
We were given a map and small audio unit; at fourteen or so stations around the fortress we pressed a blue button to hear more of Castell de San Ferran's colorful story. It was designed to hold a regular garrison of 6,000 troops including 500 cavalrymen whose horses were kept in an amazing underground stable. We were constantly impressed by the scale of things; even the columns of an uncompleted church had been 'super-sized' to withstand bombardment. Under the parade ground is an enormous nine million-litre water cistern, which can be toured in small boats, an experience we will save for a later visit.
The wind made it difficult to hear the recorded commentary, and at one time there seemed the real possibility that one of us might do a Mary Poppins over the battlements! Our final stop brought us to a memorial to General Alvarez de Castro. He led the heroic defense of Girona in 1809. Girona fell to Napoleon's forces after a seven-month siege, and the defeated general was held captive at Castell de San Ferran, dying there in mysterious circumstances.