Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ste. Maxime

Greetings from Ste. Maxime on the French Riviera. Once again we passed through beautiful countryside...the vineyards of Rousillon and the Languedoc, the lovely yellow broom lighting up the fields, the poppies still in bloom and lovely small white flowers on wild bushes carpeting the hillsides. Everything had grown considerably since our previous trip along this road. The highlight of the day was leaving a toll area and immediately passing a rest area with four giant Newfoundland dogs sitting up with tongues hanging out in the heat waiting for their owner. Sadly, we couldn't go and see them. We were too late. continuing our trip, we reached the stark hills and ridges around Aix en Province that Cezanne loved to paint.

After planning our stops on the autoroute we made our last stop before Ste. Maxime for a tarte framboise with the most delicious shortcrust pastry and a coffee. After a brief tour of Ste. Maxime we opted for a hotel near the water but within walking distance of the town. Tonight we walked past the marina and in to the small, narrow pedestrian streets filled with restaurants and bistros and some interesting shops. We stopped at a photography stall to admire the stunning pictures of Ste. Maxime and St. Tropez mounted on canvas. The owner hailed from New Zealand and divides his year between New Zealand and Ste.Maxime. He was quite happy to chat to people in English. We finally broke away and went in search of dinner.

Coming from a fishing port we were quite startled by the price of fish in the restaurants. We finally opted for some moules frites and a bottle of lovely, chilled pale pink rose. After dinner we decided to go for a walk along the promenade, past the marina and some beautiful sandy beaches. We couldn't pass a gelateria without trying kinder chocolate gelato and a scoop of nougat. Delicious. We continued walking along the promenade, in the moonlight, with the lights of St. Tropez across the water.

Tomorrow we will continue to explore Ste. Maxime. Even better, I believe they have a market on Friday.

Monday, May 28, 2012

More family fun by the beach

Move over Marley family for the Penguins from Catalunya. Today the Sonar Festival for children continued in the village with the Penguins kicking off just before noon. This group plays reggae music with Catalan folktale lyrics accompanied by makeshift costumes with a variety of hats.....jester's hats, scarves, chef's hats and paper tricorns. These were used for a song about Napoleon, after some jests about Sarkozy, sung to the music of Glory, Glory Alleluia. The adults in the audience were very appreciative of all the music with everyone dancing to the reggae or ska beat. Even the people walking along the promenade added a few reggae moves to their steps.

The village was very busy. Parking is free and every spot was filled. Lots of locals from nearby towns and villages had come for the Sonar festival, which you could easily see and hear from the beach. Bus tours with elderly Spanish people enjoyed the reggae and even  some of them were dancing to the music. Cyclists and motorcyclists buzzed through the town and many more local Catalunyians and French with homes here were shopping and enjoying the sun. An artist was on one of the docks near the beach leisurely painting the llauds in oils. 

At the close of the final reggae set we decided it was time to exit the village just in time to miss the very loud street dancing band.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A week of noisy fun for kids

Sonar has arrived in El Port de la Selva. It has been a week of activities for children aged 0-14. Last night there was a dance at the gym with a band that could best be described from a distance as "leaden garage band". Dances start around 11 and go on until 4 am.

Sonar involves a variety of artistic activities for the kids, but it is mainly very loud bands and kids acting as DJ's. All of this can be heard for many kilometres. Although it isn't our cup of tea, it has been a huge draw to the village, with all the parking lots full to capacity, and all the restaurants promoting their children's menus. This morning we watched a band sing and entertain very young children, who sat quite enthralled. Today's events are coming to a close. Tomorrow's entertainment includes Catalan folk songs sung to  reggae and ska music -- it will be different!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beach day

Life has slowed down with the temperature over thirty degrees celsius today. The village is still relatively quiet with a few more people staying here now. More shops are open for the newcomers, cyclists, hikers and the odd bus tour that stops in the village for a few hours. It was down to the beach at five for a swim in the calm water, which was a perfect temperature for swimming.

While we were down there we watched a children's birthday party Catalan style. In fact it was the birthday of one of our neighbour's children. First it was everyone in the bouncy castle while parents watched from the bar right on the beach. Then all the kids peeled off and had a great time playing in the water and getting covered in sand. No one worried about swim suits. All the parents supervised the kids in the water with more parents coming to watch as they had a little time off work. Then everyone was called back to the beach bar for cake and a few rounds of Happy Birthday sung in Catalan.

Dried off, we watched more French sailboats come in and anchor in the bay. Every so often someone would jump in the water from the boats to cool off. With the church bells chiming seven o'clock we went across the street to the bar for a refreshing espresso congelo, espresso on ice. The birthday party was still going strong as we headed home.

Lots going on in the Aiguamolls

After a two week absence today we returned to the Aiguamolls nature reserve. Even our drive through the countryside seemed much different with the grasses much taller, crops much higher and everything looking incredibly lush after all the rain.

At the first blind it was  quiet except for a turtle swimming, it's head bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. Then we spotted an old log with what can only be called an orgy of turtles piled on top of each other with a few taking real advantage of the situation. A moorhen was followed by five of her chicks, all with funny red heads just like regular hens, bobbing around her. There were a few shelducks and many mallards, some enjoying the comfort of the very long grass.

Then it was off to see the storks. Last time we saw only one chick. Today that was the first chick we spotted, and how it had grown. It's head looked very similar to its mother's. As we walked farther down the path we watched the storks nesting on the cow barn. There were probably six giant nests. Here we spotted one nest with four young chicks, which is very unusual. One of these chicks looked quite pink just getting its feathers, while the others had their first feathers. In the other nests there were some larger fluffy, downy chicks always alert looking for food. Each nest had at least two baby storks. The older babies would stand and try to flap their newly forming wings. Some of the older birds had the black markings of their parents on their wings. Further along the trail we passed many more stork nests all with chicks.

The cows had moved into the next field with their friends the white cattle egrets. Close by we spotted some great white and little egrets and their cousins the great blue heron. The vegetation was much more lush than on our previous visits. Some of the grasses were at least seven or more metres tall. Along with the brambles, bushes and flowers there were even fig trees with figs lining the  path. The denseness of the vegetation made it very difficult to see any of the song birds; although we spotted a few nightingales making music with their trills, whistling and gurgling sounds.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of today was watching the white Camarague ponies. The two colts from a few months ago have now been joined by eight more colts. The newest were very brown, while the older ones become more beige as they shed their thick baby coats. Finally, they look quite grey before turning white. The smallest stayed very close to their mothers. With the twenty-eight degree heat several of the ponies went into the deep pond in the field, where they ate the surrounding tall grasses. The water came right up to the top of their legs. One of the mothers clambered into the water with her new colt following right behind showing no fear. The water came right to the top of the colt' s legs but it seemed very sure footed. When mother decided to leave he stuck very close coming out of the pond with exceptional ease.

We plan to return to the Aiguamolls before too long to check on the progress of the storks. Some should be flying soon. And we think that there may still be more colts to join the herd of Camarague ponies.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Now we know what the Sardana looks like

Today at noon we arrived at the ballroom in the village for another event in the St. Baldiri festival. It was sardanes dancing, a Catalan folk dance that is a symbol of Catalonian pride. We had no idea what to expect but there up on the stage was the orchestra, called a cobla, which is specific to the sardana. It was comprised of two trumpets, two trombone-type instruments played like trumpets, a double bass, a flabiol i tambori, which is a piccolo-type instrument played with one hand while the other beats a small drum. It was rounded out with tible and tenora, Catalan members of the oboe family.

The music started and after a while a couple got up and started dancing the sardana. As the music continued more people joined the first circle or created new circles. With hands linked, dancers repeated a simple routine, a few short steps and a larger sidestep. Each dance lasted about fifteen minutes, always performed beautifully in perfect unison. The band and dancers would take a break and then the same ritual was repeated. By the end of the dance there were three large circles of dancers. My goal is to join in next time as I think that I have the steps figured out.

We had read that the dance would be followed by a 'vermut passeig' which we translated hopefully as 'vermouth walk'. After our experience with the chocolate walk,  we approached this with caution. Potato chips, olives and quantities of cava -- Spanish sparkling wine, which comes mainly from Catalunya -- were laid out on tables for everyone to enjoy. No vermouth, but a lovely ending to the sardana dance.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Giants on parade

The weather has been rainy, windy and thundery for the past few weeks with some sunny days. However, at noon today the sun shone brightly just in time for the Parade of the Giants. There was a huge mermaid and various  blowsy women and  working men that were at least twelve feet tall in the parade accompanied by bands with traditional wind instruments and drums. They sounded like middle eastern bands. The giants and bands came from local nearby towns such as Roses, Villafant and Figueres to name a few. Once the parade arrived at a square halfway through the village, giant costumes were lined up on the sidewalk, while the paraders had some refreshments before they started off again. The townspeople and tourists lining the route applauded the parade. The rain kindly waited for the parade to be finished before lashing down once more.

Tonight we drove through yet another thunderstorm with torrential rain to the ballroom in the village. As part of the St. Baldiri celebrations an orchestra was playing tonight. The mature audience enjoyed the dance music with Catalan songs that evoked strong emotions in some of the audience. All the ladies waved white handkerchiefs to one song that was obviously about saying goodbye. The male and female singers had classic music training and displayed it in a patriotic song that had more of an opera ring to it. The song was about Girona and the audience loved it.

The orchestra was staying in the ballroom to provide music for a dance. We opted to return home after negotiating the river along the front to return to our car. The torrential  rain is even heavier. It's a good night to stay home.

Festa de Sant Baldiri

Since the weather is still arguing against a day at the beach, we opt for Plan B, a trip to Figueres. Our friends are suitably impressed with the scale and variety of the market. We enjoy coffee on the rambla, before heading off into the many pedestrianized shopping streets. One of our guests is on a quest for shoes, and she finds them, just as we promised she would! Now it is time to show off our favourite restaurant in Figueres, Lizzaran. It is hard to beat the food here, or the ambiance, especially on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday our village is celebrating the Festival of St. Baldiri. Saturday's events included bicycle decorating for the children and a chocolate walk. Conjure up in your mind what this might look like. I had visions of walking around the promenade at the Port while people handed out chocolates.

Promptly at six o'clock we arrived in the Port. Where were the chocolates? There were young children with decorated bikes drinking little cups of chocolate. They must have walked their bikes in a parade and this was their reward.

Not to despair. We walked along to the chocolate shop and my friend kindly bought us some delicious handmade chocolates. We then toured the handmade crafts made by the villagers including beautiful lobster pots, model llauds or fishing boats, local photography and art and exquisite embroidery emblematic of the port with ships and birds.

A delicious Italian artichoke risotto made by our company was a fine ending to the day.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Festa de Sant Baldiri

This afternoon we visited Marti Fabras winery, which had been recommended to us. We entered a tasting area lined with huge old barrels more than a hundred years old. The three reds were all good so we left with a bottle of each. Because of the weather and soil in the Emporda the wines have a high percentage of alcohol.

The St. Baldri Festival kicked off in the village tonight with 'Mostra de Cuina', a food fair.  Residents of the village had filled the 'sala de ball' (our town hall) with  appetizers, main courses or desserts that they had created. We paid 2€ each for the meal and two drinks. By 8:30 we were all lined up around the tables waiting for volunteers to begin serve the food. There were salads, quiches, mussels with salsa, bacala (codfish) balls, raw bacala, paella, seafood dishes, asparagus gelato, Italian hamburger, bacon-wrapped chicken livers, veal meatballs, snails, shrimps and even sushi. The desserts were truly out of this world. There were all kinds of cakes. My favourite was spicy hazelnut with a warm hazelnut sauce. There were wonderful meringues, tiny raspberry tarts, pineapple upside down cakes, home-made chocolates and those wonderful homemade sugary donuts just to name a few.

There were over three hundred people in attendance at the ballroom for this special event all made possible by volunteers. Tomorrow I am really looking forward to 'xocolatada al passeig' (chocolate walk). I'm not exactly sure how it works but it sounds wonderful!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

We show off for visitors

The tramontana is blowing again today bringing beautiful blue skies but the wind has a bit of a bite to it. We started off showing our friends around El Port de la Selva in the daylight, exploring the deli, the butcher and the fish shop. Finally, we ended up at the nautica, where our friends received a very warm greeting from the staff.

We drove through the yellow gorse-clad mountain to our first stop, Celler Martin Faixo at Perafita in the Cap de Creus. Mas Perafita is a fourteenth-century stone house, restored in 2004, as part of the program to recover the vineyards of the Alt Emporda. We were greeted by one large short-haired dog, who was quickly moved out of reach of our pats by a lovely,very demanding golden retriever.

We were given a tour through the ancient slate stone building; large windows at one end provided beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards. The lovely wine smell coming from the French oak casks was very stimulating to the palate. Then the wine tasting. First we tried the rose made from merlot and granache then two reds and finally the white wine. We liked them all. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how much we liked the white wine. Our friends stocked up on several  bottles in anticipation of some lively evenings ahead.

By now we were getting quite hungry. Could we find the new restaurant newly opened by three  chefs from El Bulli, Compartir? We headed downhill into Cadeques, and without too much difficulty we found. The entrance was through a beautiful courtyard with orange trees in the old wooden wine buckets that people used for carrying grapes.The rustic restaurant is in a renovated old house with lots of stone and tiles. Compartir means to share food and that is exactly what happens in the relaxed atmosphere. Dishes are ordered to be placed in the centre of the share.

We started off with small bellinis with peach foam on top served with a huge, thin, crispy cracker. This was followed by a lovely, smooth French red wine accompanied by the traditional bread with tomato rubbed into it. Then the endive with melt-in-your-mouth gorgonzola and walnuts was placed in the centre of the table followed by cod fritters with honey foam. Large shrimp as well as crunchy asparagus in tempura batter were so light and the  fried rabbit legs were really flavourful. I really liked the the Iberian rice with trumpet chanterrelles and local botiffarra sausage. Finally, we had grilled sea bass cut into five pieces. Every flavour in the  meal was exceptional.

I was the only one to order dessert which was a warm hazelnut coulis with the lightest strawberry gelato. Mmmmm. So tasty that everyone had to have a mouthful. This was a very special meal to remember in a lovely restaurant, which has only been open for three weeks.

Finally, we drove up the rocky, windswept road to the Cap de Creus. We had a lovely walk around the very end of the cape admiring the strange rock formations and the lovely, blue clear sea. We left the Cap very envious of the couple swimming in the inlet far below us.

Monday, May 14, 2012

First swim

After watching the beach for several days, finally people were in swimming. Actually swimming. It was late afternoon and time to take the plunge. Once down at the beach, we parked our gear and walked right into the water. Not too bad. We kept right on walking and then took the big dive. Lovely, the taste of salt water on your lips.

We had a good swim back and forth across the bay. A German gentleman came to talk to Seamus but in German. It was either something about the Euro or the European Soccer Championships. He seemed to ask if Seamus was someone. We think it was the previous coach of France's soccer team, Domenesch,  because there is a resemblance and people tend to peer a bit at Seamus. The German's final remark was, "doppelgänger." On the other hand he could have been saying that it was a bit early for other nationalities to go swimming. We'll never know.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

An exploration close to home

After days of preparation for our first visitors' arrival we decided to give the cleaning and shopping a break. A few days ago everything was covered in fine yellow pollen, requiring a major dusting. The sparkling clean didn't last too long as more winds managed to whip up the dust once again. Yesterday provided a pleasant respite. At a warm 28 degrees it was wonderful sitting on the beach; although no one is really swimming yet. Last night from the terrace we could see some old ladies from the village having a little paddle, while a few young kids managed to splash about in the water.

Today was supposed to be warm but it was cloudy and windy. We decided to explore the woods right behind our house. It seems odd that we hadn't been in there before but from the road the vegetation appears really dense. We found a little pathway and entered a lovely area with old terraces from the ancient vineyards. Unfortunately, not one vine remains standing but the area is covered in stone pines, bright yellow and very thorny gorse, lovely French lavender and an assortment of other bushes. Many of these you might find in your garden. It looks like there was a house there with beautiful gardens at one time.

As we roamed deeper into the woods, we decided to try to find an old ruined mill that we can see from our house. We had to climb a fence and unfortunately, the path became more dense. There was no way out. Even the dry, sandy river bed was fenced off. Finally, we came to a break in the next fence. This walk was getting harder as it was through tightly packed, overgrown olive trees. Having had enough and seeing that the mill was out of reach, we decided to turn back. The road was in front of us but we had to bushwhack through gorse and grasses that were much taller than us.

We will explore the rest of the area another day. One find was a whole grove of orange and yellow nasturtiums. I'm sure a couple wont be missed.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Our first glimpse of baby storks

Things were quiet at the Aiguamolls nature reserve today. When we looked out from the first blind there were fewer birds. Either the flamingoes were out for the afternoon or I suspect they have gone to their summer home. There were some nesting mallard ducks, herons, giant and small white egrets. One large rock was covered with turtles and every so often one would make a spectacular dive into the pond.

Once again all the huge stork nests were occupied. We were very lucky to spot a mother regurgitating her food and feeding her chick, which had already developed its down feathers. There was lots of activity with mothers and fathers exchanging positions on the nests as they took off to feed themselves. Storks eat sixty per cent of their body weight each day. Better them than me.

There were lots of birdsongs today. Most notable were the melodious savi's warbler and the cuckoo. As we walked down the path past the fields of brilliant, yellow irises it sounded like several cuckoo clocks were going off all at one time. There were some munching noises from across the stream but with all the tall vegetation it was hard to see what was making the noise. Finally we spotted a cow perched precariously on the stream bank dining on the tall grasses growing there. A case of the grass is always greener?

At the next blind our patience paid off and we spotted two moorhens and four tiny chicks. Every time the mother dove out of sight under the water the babies couldn't figure out where she went so they quickly hightailed it back into the high grasses. In another pond we watched a moorhen aggressively chase some mallards away from her nest. It actually looked like the mallards were enjoying teasing her.

We stopped and watched a thirteen centimetre-long electric green lizard sun itself on the path. It didn't seem to be too bothered by us watching it. Finally, it ambled off into the bushes.

We are looking forward to returning  to the Aiguamolls soon to watch the progress of the baby storks.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spring colours add to walking pleasure

With the weather warmer and less windy, we are returning to our walking routine. La Ronda, the path that goes for many kilometres right out to the Cap de Creus is minutes away and part of it makes for a lovely walk.

Today we walked from El Port de la Selva to the first lighthouse. The rock pools caused a diversion at the beginning of our walk. We left the path and walked down to the water on the slate rocks. Really, we wanted to see if the water was warm enough for swimming. Sea urchins and red sea anemones were quite abundant in the pools. I wonder if you could collect the urchins to make a pasta sauce? The one sight that was quite disgusting were the black sea slugs about fifteen centimetres long; although they appear quite harmless. A few startled tiny fish quickly swam away. Snorkelling in this area will be excellent.

The walk provided us with a wonderful array of colours with vibrant orange, yellow, white and hot pink hottentots in full bloom everywhere. A lovely scent was coming from the sweet olive bushes. Bright yellow and purple bushes were everywhere. We also spotted some elegant pinky-mauvish poppies with a purple centre. My favourites.

From the lighthouse we watched a fishing boat surrounded by a flock of squabbling gulls fighting over fish scraps. Today's sea is relatively calm. I think the strong winds are truly on the decline now. Even the sailboats in front of the village are just bobbing contentedly at their moorings.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

We discover new wines at village wine fair

El Port de la Selva is truly a lovely village with a wonderful sense of community. Salvador, the owner of the local wine shop organised a wine tasting day. Seventeen local vintners set up tents with their wines. For eight euros you rented a wine glass and received four tickets for tasting or eating.

Since many of the wines in our region have a 15% alcohol content we decided to take a cautious approach to the afternoon. First of all we checked which wineries were represented and eliminated the wineries we had already visited. We then chose two local wineries from the immediate area. One wine we liked the other was quite acidic. Then we sampled a lovely red and rose wines from Perafita near Cadaques. It was now time for a much needed food break. For another ticket we got a plate with local pate, crackers with tapenades, honey and anchovies as well as some very tasty cheeses.

Our next door neighbours took us to their favourite winery, Cellar Marti Fabra, where we sampled some very smooth wine. Obviously much more experienced than us, our neighbours had brought along some bread and thin, aged sausage, which they shared.

After sampling various local olive oils and returning our rented glasses, it was time for an espresso before heading home to drink a copious amount of water. What a lovely time visiting with people we know in the village and sampling some lovely wines.

A small flood before exploring the barris of Barcelona

Today started out like no other. Unbeknownst to us the ultra modern shower in our newly remodelled hotel room had a clogged drain. Two minutes or even less caused a major flood in the bathroom and a sodden carpet in the bedroom. Once all this was dried up it was off for another day walking in Barcelona.

Walking through Born, an old historic neighbourhood with mostly pedestrian streets lined with little shops, museums and Gothic churches is always fun. We paused to listen as we passed a classical guitarist in one of the squares. When we glanced up the tiny alleys we could see a myriad of colours, all the balconies bedecked with Saturday's laundry.

Once we arrived at Passeig de Gracias, we could hardly move. Barcelona was mobbed with tourists. After lunch just off Las Ramblas, we followed some small passageways passing through some lovely, huge squares lined with restaurants and filled with outdoor diners enjoying the sunshine. Eventually we ended up at the Port Vells marina. We browsed our way through the market, with its scarves, leather goods, honey, cheese and knick knacks. Finally, we stopped on the wide promenade to watch a street magician, but soon found ourselves  enjoying the antics of a tiny grey puppy; he was a bit small to be out on a leash but didn't let that stop him having a good time.

There were lots of great memories from this trip but sadly, it was time to leave. Already, we are looking forward to exploring new neighbourhoods next time.

Off to Barcelona to see James Taylor

Another trip to Barcelona with the train speeding past dense fields of poppies and yellow flowers. Even though it was only noon we checked into our hotel and took the metro to the El Bulli exhibit at Palau Robert, a small museum in a lovely, old stone house that was owned in the past by a wealthy Barcelona family.

If you are not familiar with El Bulli, it was a three star Michelin restaurant  in Roses started in the early sixties by a German homeopathic doctor and his wife, which they named after their French bulldogs. Roses at that time was undeveloped.  Various professional chefs were brought in and finally in 2002,  Ferran Adria became the chef.  Today chefs at five of the top six restaurants in the world have been trained by Ferran. It was a  fascinating exhibit with movies of the actual food preparation and many colourful photographs and descriptions of individual dishes. There was even a set table with pictures of a main course and arms with knives and forks eating the meal. Fascinating. One of the things I particularly liked was the display of various colours and shapes of plasticene, which would be laid out to see if the food was pleasing on the plate. I believe it was used in weighing out portions as well.

Unfortunately, El Bulli closed last year. In the exhibit you could see how important creativity is to Ferran. He strongly believes in the evolution of cooking with an emphasis on vegetables, seafood and dairy. Ice cream dust is just one example of this. I'd love to try it. Ferran has started a tapas bar in Barcelona but you have to book two months in advance.

Just in case you are sceptical of all this Ferran has lectured at Harvard. Now he is working  on the Bulli Foundation to promote his philosophy and encourage innovation in cooking.

Our lunch was perhaps not up to Ferran standards but my risotto with lemon, thyme and three shrimps was very tasty. We then walked down Placa de Gracias to Las Ramblas, window shopping. Barcelona is the perfect city for walking as it has a wonderful vibrancy to it. And with so many shoe shops how can you go wrong?

It was back to the hotel before setting off once again to the beautiful Palau de la Musica theatre for the James Taylor concert. We arrived early to have a drink in the beautiful lobby, which is decorated with stained glass. It is a special place to people watch. And there were people of all ages and nationalities tonight. On our way in, we spotted James May, who was dressed as if he'd just come off the set of Top Gear, in a delft-like blue and white shirt. The Palau was a-buzz with anticipation. Then...James Taylor.

What an amazing voice! He sounds even better than he did in the seventies. The concert lasted for an incredible two and a half hours. Fire and Rain, Sweet Baby James, You've Got a Friend, Carolina on My Mind and Handy Man were just a few of the songs evoking old memories in everyone. At the end of the concert everyone was standing applauding.  We were rewarded with not one, not two but three encore songs. My favourite of the night was How Sweet It Is, with the entire audience singing and swaying to the music. James Taylor, what a great night!