Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New discoveries along the cote vermeille

Since it is much quieter we decided to take a trip up the coast road to France today. We passed through Portbou with it's stark burned hillsides from the fires in July. Two people jumped off the cliffs to their deaths to escape the flames. Now the ancient terraces, which supported long gone vines, are all that remain. In other places there are loose rocks that look like they could slide during the winter rains.

Used to late lunches in Spain, once again we wondered if we would make it to a restaurant before two as the French can be quite punctilious about their serving times. Fortunately, I remembered a beach restaurant between Banyuls sur Mer and Port Vendres. Seamus cleverly squeezed into the last parking spot at the end of a sandy track. Entering the bar of the restaurant, the bartender, with requisite cigarette dangling from his mouth, said nothing about the time. It was our lucky day; we were seated for lunch. What a find! The restaurant, Solo Mio was right on the beach. We ordered the palest pink rose, my favourite and some pain tomate to start. This is thin toast with garlic and pulped tomato with parsley. While we were waiting a lovely old, long haired German Shepherd introduced himself to us, le chien de maison. He visited several tables to see what he could mooch and shot off after the server when she cleared away some plates he fancied. My main course was beautifully grilled tuna on a mixture of julienned carrots, zucchini and onion with a crunchy parmesan crisp. Seamus had swordfish with the same vegetables. Both were delicious. I left a tiny piece of tuna with skin, which the server promised to give to the dog. Dessert was one scoop of homemade caramel gelato with flor de sel. It was perfection with little pieces of stick-to-your teeth bits of caramel. Seamus had the apricot gelato. Also yummy. The requisite ristretto or small espresso capped an excellent meal.

We took a walk along the beach. Hmm, everyone  fully clothed here, not what we are used to! At the end of the beach we climbed the cliff path and followed it for a short distance. One side was bordered by vineyards or prickly pear cacti and blackberry bushes, and the other by lovely coves with crystal clear water. Perfect snorkelling spots. Skirt and sandals aren't really made for hiking but we will come back to follow this path that winds around the coast to Port Vendres. On the return trip we noticed the huge concrete wall at the back of the beach, which the Germans had built in 1944 to prevent the Allies landing tanks on the beach. There are a few of these high walls dotting the coast.

We remembered that the Charles Rennie Macintosh museum was open on Tuesday afternoons, a good reason for continuing up the coast. Just as we reached Port Vendres we took a branch in the road that looked across the bay to the port, the deepest western Mediterranean port in France. We had a little walk looking across at the jetty where some sunbathers were enjoying the day. Passing some old cannons we looked up at battlements built by Vauban at the command of Louis XIV in the sixteen hundreds. We even spotted two vantage points where Rennie Macintosh had painted. Pictures of his paintings have been mounted at various points around the harbour so you can compare the present day landscape with his paintings.

Finally, passing old barracks, we reached the Rennie Macintosh museum in the Jardins du Dome, the original home of the military commander. Although the exhibition is small it was very well presented. Rennie MacIntosh was a Scottish architect who came to Port Vendres in the nineteen twenties with his wife. While he lived here he painted several watercolours of the town. It was very interesting to see old photos of the town or other artist's pictures beside MacIntosh's watercolours. There are some of his tall, distinctive black chairs. Unfortunately, Rennie Macintosh only lived here for two years before returning to England, where he died of cancer. His wife Margaret returned to Port Vendres to scatter his ashes. Today Rennie Macintosh can be seen on £100 notes produced by the Scottish Clydsdale Bank. What an interesting and enjoyable day on the Cote Vermeille. I'm really looking forward to more explorations on this coast.

Calm returns to the village

Monday and tranquility is returning to the village. Many homes and apartments are closed up, camping grounds and caravan parks are much less busy, and as a bonus there are loads of parking spots in the village. Last week we thought it was becoming less busy but we weren't quite sure. By next week it will be quiet once again.

Taking advantage of temperatures in the high twenties we decided to go to Empuriabrava to stock up on our supplies. The mountains now look quite brown except for the stone pines but down in the flat lands the vines are heavy with grapes that will be picked soon. Driving along one road with vineyards on either side we spotted a dead wild boar. Perhaps it had come down to gorge on the grapes, and then been hit while crossing the road, or perhaps shot. Rigor had set in and the boar was as stiff as a board with legs straight up in the air. There were a lot of flies so we didn't take any pictures. All I could think about is what lovely sauce for pasta you could make with the boar. Of course this was not to be but pleasant thoughts anyway.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Surviving the heat

The heat wave continued again this week. Fortunately, we spent most days at our newly found rocky haven just by our lighthouse. From here we can see the archeological boat Thetis at work off shore excavating an old Roman boat. What a marvellous spot with virtually no people around. It is perfect for snorkelling and that's how we spent much of our time.

The water in this little cove is deep and cool. With our masks on we can clearly see the great slabs of Albera Mountain rocks below the surface. Parts of this rock is covered with sponge and underwater ferns punctuated every so often by huge, large black sea urchins. There are smaller sparkling shellfish twinkling among the padina pavonica algae, which look like little white orchids. Best of all are the schools of fish, some the size of a fingernail, right up to large fish, sea bream and sea bass, that would be lovely on the dinner table. My favourite thing to do is lie motionless while thousands of little fish surround you. It is quite magical.

We have a narrow channel we negotiate when getting out of the water dodging the baby sea urchins. Yesterday I spotted a small cave with a rather grim looking hairy,  black scorpion fish holding itself straight up and down and right behind it tucked away I could see an octopus in hiding. A couple of people have actually caught one.

Finally last night it felt cooler thanks to the Tramuntana winds. All the boats in the bay had gone off to safer moorings. This morning the winds were measuring force six on the Beaufort scale, and we discovered a large sailboat had been blown ashore and was now lying  stranded on the beach below us. Apparently, some kids had managed to beach the boat. Since it's quite a distance to deeper water, it will be interesting to see how the boat is refloated. That's for another day.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A new swimming spot, and a boat race

Another week and we are in the grip of a heat wave. Since our beach was very busy, with many boats anchored in the bay beyond the swimming area, we once again headed to the beach at St. Pere Pescador. On Wednesday the temperature there was just under forty degrees celsius with a strong sirocco wind from Africa. The wind and heat made a combination that burned and stung the skin. Needless to say it was a day spent in the water body surfing the huge waves. It was fun to watch the inflatables from L'Escala being swept head over heels with the wind all the way to Roses, a distance of several kilometres.  Finally, leaving the beach after seven, it was off to the beach restaurant Marlin for some huge gambas and some quenching beer.

St. Pere is quite a distance away so on Saturday we decided to try the rock formations near our local lighthouse as an alternative. This little haven is only a few minutes from the port and luckily not many people go there, even to the shingly beach. We set up camp in a little cove right by the water, which is quite deep, so it's jump in and start swimming....oh yes there were a few sea urchins but the water is so clear you can easily see them. Tomorrow we will take our snorkels as there is lots to explore. The few people that are there have their own little spots on the shale. Lovely. It is pleasant to stay on the beach until seven or eight before returning home. A walk around the village in the evening is always fun with everyone out walking or in the open air restaurants and bars eating and drinking.

This morning's entertainment was the rowing races in traditional Catalan boats in front of the wharf. These boats, which are quite heavy and hard to move around the marker buoys had six rowers and a cox. There were only three boats but lots of entries from various places in Catalunya. The disc jockey from the Macintosh disco was the MC. I don't know what he was saying but he kept up a good patter and played some good music, which kept us all entertained as some of the boats took ages to manoeuvre into the start position.

There doesn't seem to be any relief from the heatwave in sight, which makes it perfect weather for sun drying plum tomatoes. Most places do not have air conditioning but the evening breeze helps cool things down a little. Having said that our kitchen is over thirty degrees right now.....not cooking weather. It will definitely be back to the lighthouse tomorrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beach foam followed by disco foam

Temperatures in Spain have been very high this week as a heat wave has hit the whole country. It is hard to believe that the Port has been busier than ever. Parking is at a premium; even the big sandy lot at the end of town is filled with double rows of cars. Dozens of visiting boats rest at anchor just beyond the buoys that mark the swimming area. The main beach is packed; even the nearby shingle beaches are full.  The restaurants and shops are all crowded, which is good for the local businesses.

Most days we have headed off to the seven-kilometre-long sandy beach, at St. Pere Pescador, where there is loads of room on the beach. There is a thin strip of people snaked along the beach and that's it. The sea can be quite rough but that doesn't deter us from swimming in the beautiful, warm water. The warm water has attracted some less welcome visitors: large white, blue-bordered, mushroom-shaped jellyfish. They are fairly easy to spot through goggles but I was a bit alarmed as I dodged my way through four of them in one swim.

Now if the tardis was to drop you on the beach you might think that you were in Germany, based on the voices you would hear around you; although there are lots of Spanish, French, Dutch and Belgians as well. There are no buildings along the beach except for a few very busy campsites and very occasionally, a beach restaurant. We usually end up next to the nude beach but now it seems there are more of the well groomed nudes, if you get my meaning, rather than those wearing bathing suits. We're not bothered by it. In fact it can be quite entertaining.

Our day usually ends with arriving home in time for the magnificent BBC Olympic coverage.  Last night at midnight we strolled down to the village past several people finishing their dinners out on their terraces. It was karaoke night on the promenade with a promised foam party. We were curious about the foam party since they are frequently advertised at the discos. Unfortunately, the karaoke wasn't the practiced karaoke you might hear in a bar, it was mainly off key kids. Finally, the foam machine was cranked up, the foam spewed forth and lots of little kids jumped in. It was fun watching as the foam grew higher and higher. It was time to leave as the disco started.

Our night wasn't finished. Once home we lay out on the garden furniture to watch the meteor showers, and we were rewarded as we saw a number of the meteors streaking across the sky. Beautiful... and we will be able to watch them again for the next two nights.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Exploring the coast by boat

Sunday morning and we are going on our neighbour's boat from El Port de la Selva up to the Cap de Creus. For us this is really exciting because although we have done loads of walks along this rugged coast we haven't seen it from the sea. The cabin cruiser is one of the larger boats moored at the Nautica. Very quickly we were out rolling along in the open sea passing the weathered 450 million-year-old rocks, some of which resemble Dali's sculptures while others look like lunar landscapes. Finally, we motored into a small emerald green cove with stunning views around us. It didn't take us long to jump into the crystal clear water. It was quite beautiful to look down on the rock formations adorned with little sponges and loads of white orchid like flowers. There were fish galore, from tiny, tiny little black fish to larger sea bass and lots of sea urchins. Our neighbor even caught a crab. The afternoon was spent soaking up the sun on the bow of the boat and then cooling off in the beautiful flat water.

Finally, it was time to return home, which seemed to take no time in the choppy sea. After a quick shower it was over to the neighbours for the best paella I've ever tasted. What a perfect ending to the day.

But the day isn't over yet! Sunday night and it's down to the stage on the promenade to watch Playback, a replay of the song and dance night produced by the villagers back in June. But what a night! the wind had picked up and is coming right off the sea. Unfortunately, there are huge gusts of wind bringing with it lots of sand, which was whirling around the performers. They performed gallantly with the mayor singing his romantic ballad to a partner truly through gritted teeth. Flowing gowns became flying gowns and sombreros had to be abandoned. Everyone loved the performance and stayed to the end. But perhaps the best news of all is that we've been invited to perform in next year's Playback. That we'll have to think about.

Flaming devils and late night partying

It's Saturday midnight and we can hear drums beating and see fireworks at the beach. It is the festival of the Carrefacs or devils. Once down in the port we head right towards the beach. Men were dressed as devils brandishing huge umbrellas of fireworks. Each time an umbrella was lit and started shooting out flames spectators young and old, would run and crouch under the sparking umbrella. There were also devils holding hoses of fireworks used to hose down the beach. The sparks would shoot out and become a little too near for comfort. I ended up standing by the children's playground hoping it wouldn't go up in flames. At one point there were fire eaters, devils 'hosing' the ground and ten umbrellas shooting sparks. It was most impressive. Finally, when the devils were done, a more familiar fireworks display lit up the sky from the end of the pier. Beautiful.

For us the night was just beginning. We headed back inland to the second night of the festival in Selva de Mar. The first band Mercado Negro played what sounded to us like a blend of flamenco, latin and rock. Then out came Dirty Jobs, a local rock band, singing in English and covering a selection of rock and roll hits that included everything from Jerry Lee Lewis to AC/DC. They had a great sound and just kept going and going. Now this night is different for us. Here we are in the town square of a little village having a beer at two in the morning. No one was drunk. People seemed to have one or two beers or some cava and that's it. There were no snacks for sale. When it came to the dancing that was very different too. There were young and old people enjoying the band. Most of the visitors were people from Barcelona who live here in the summer. Very few people actually danced with each other. Basically, you just stand up and dance. Your partner may be beside you doing something totally different or you may be with a group of friends. But everyone is up and moving. Lots of fun. Three o'clock and it's time for us to leave even though the band is still rocking.

Almost tempted to enter open water swim race

Saturday morning we were off to an early start after only five hours sleep. There was an 750-metre open water swim in the bay at El Port de la Selva, which I was thinking about competing in. Unfortunately, I had misread the website and should have entered yesterday. The always gracious Spanish organizers were going to make an allowance whereby if there was a 'no show' I could swim under that person's name using their timing bracelet. After considering the situation I decided that I would rather compete as myself and when all is said and done I do prefer following lane lines rather than the open water.

It was fascinating watching the start with the orange capped triathletes leading the pack. Very quickly the pack strung out with the coast guard boat and inflatables cruising alongside. I'm not sure whether the best strategy is following the pack straight out or going in off to the side in more open water but then swimming a bit further. I now have a year to figure that out. At the back of the pack some people swam breaststroke. Rather than the usual five year age groups for Masters, the groupings were in ten year increments, not helpful for me. Now to rest up for tonight!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Beach, and then Nit de Rumba

During the day yesterday we visited the seven-kilometre-long lovely, sandy St. Pere Pescador Beach. The beach actually continues for longer than seven kilometres to the towns of Empuriabrava at one end and L'Escala at the other. On the way to the beach you wend your way through cornfields and orchards,  empty crates  stacked high ready for the harvest. So far we have been lucky to find a very quiet place on the beach, probably because this beach is adjacent to the nude beach. At the far end of the beach near Empuriabrava you can see the multicolored canopies of the kite surfers. Nearer us are the windsurfers. Fortunately, there is a clear channel so that windsurfers can get off the beach without going through the well marked swimming area.

There are usually lots of wind and waves at San Pere but that doesn't deter us from swimming. One moment you're up and the next down but it is lots of fun in the warm water. Walking back down the beach we caught a very funny sight. There was a huge Pyrenean Mountain dog lying close to the water and napping the way dogs do with one eye open. What a perfect existence he had. He had dug a pit for himself and his owners had propped a beach umbrella over him. He wasn't even with his owners. I did make a bit of a faux pas just as I spotted him, when I said,  "Isn't he gorgeous."This was also the same time that a totally nude guy strutted by. Fortunately, I don't think that he spoke English.

The only down side to the beach is the nudists.....all shapes and sizes. Think about it! And the wind. If the wind whips up in the wrong direction then you have to move but fortunately there is a bar/restaurant right at the edge of the beach, which serves beer and lovely cocktails.

We made it home just in time to watch the Olympic swimming finals on the BBC. I must say the coverage has been fabulous with a number of former Olympians, such as Ian Thorpe, as commentators...much better than the same old, same old, style of reporting we are used to. The commentators are genuinely enthusiastic, knowledgable and insightful.  And they don't pretend to know everything. Bravo BBC for your Olympic coverage.

Fed and watered by eleven o'clock it was time to go to the next village inland, Selva de Mar to see Catalan rumba groups play. A stage was set up in the town square for the rumba night. You couldn't move there were so many people there. Catalan rumba has a Romani influence and evolved in Barcelona in the 1950s. It is a cross of flamenco, rumba, Cuban music and rock and roll. The first group, La Troba Kung Fu, had an amazing sound. Everyone, young and old, was moving to the beat of the music. No one really dances as couples to the music, instead  everyone just moves to the beat just like a giant zumba class. Beer, water and cava were on sale. We managed to wend our way through the  good humoured packed crowd fairly easily to the edges where it wasn't quite so smoky. That was the only down side. It is interesting to note that there is nothing to buy to eat. By two o'clock we were ready for a snack. We've noticed this before at events. We listened to the second band for a while before going home only to hear the sounds of another open air band in the Port. Time to rest up, tomorrow night devils are chased away with fireworks in the Port, while Selva de Mar has a couple of rock bands starting at 11:30. All this entertainment is free. The Spanish really know how to party.