Sunday, September 30, 2012

Banyuls wine country

Another day of mixed weather. It seemed like a good day to continue exploring our new route to France. Our first stop was the very busy cooperative in Espolla. There were a lot of people buying wines, filling up plastic containers right from the huge barrels. Lots of wines, red white or rose were on sale for between one and two euros per litre. We were there to buy the unfiltered extra virgin olive oil that is one of the specialties of the cooperative. This oil has left over fruit particles that you can't see but it enhances the taste of the oil. Because these particles will eventually ferment,  the oil has a limited shelf life. Locals and people from across the border in France regularly make the journey to buy this oil.

After our purchase we retraced our route of a few days ago to the Spanish French border. Then we drove down the black tarred road negotiating the sharp switchbacks very carefully. Eventually, the road became quite rough and in need of repair. This coupled with the few mad drivers whizzing along the very narrow roads made for an interesting drive. By now there were vineyards above and below the road as far as the eye could see. Most of the grapes have now been harvested.

Finally, we reached Banyuls sur Mer and continued past it to O Sole Mio, a restaurant we were looking forward to visiting. We followed the lovely cooking smells. There was the same funny, mooching restaurant  dog as last time with his head just about resting on a table, where a group of people were eating. Sadly, it was the family of the restaurant owner. The restaurant is now closed and will reopen in April.

We returned to a winery in Banyuls for a Serrano ham salad and some tapas....a brochette of crevettes, calamari and a selection of wild mushrooms sautéed in oil, garlic and white wine with some parsley. It is impossible to resist the dessert, isles flottant, the light meringue floating in creme anglaise. All this was accompanied with the winery's rose wine. As we were leaving we saw the huge barrels of grapes giving off that rich, fermenting smell.

It was time to walk off our lunch. Since we were right at the port we walked past the fishing boats and the University of Paris Curie Aquarium out over the huge, red and yellow coloured rocks to the edge of the blustery sea. We then browsed our way around the little art galleries and shops right by the marina before returning to the car for the scenic drive down the coast back to the Port.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Into the Albera hills

It was an overcast day certainly not beach weather. We decided to go for a drive to Rabos and Espolla, two villages in wine country. By the time we reached the outskirts of Rabos there were some dark clouds in the sky. That didn't deter us from foraging at the side of the road  for wild  fennel seeds to stuff in sausages and some beautiful blueberries found down an impossible, dry riverbed.

Continuing to Espolla, we wound our way through the one-lane narrow streets of the old village stopping at a bar that was quite large and seemed to double as a men's club, even though there were ladies present. Some men were playing cards while others ate plates piled high with snails.

From Espolla there is a road leading across the Albera Mountains to the French border and Banyuls sur Mer. We crossed several dry riverbeds that would be impassable in wet weather. The road crossed through vineyards, where some grapes were still being harvested. Vines, as well as some trees, were beginning to change into their autumn golds. The roadside continued to be lined with wild fennel as we passed more olive groves and areas of stone pines and rocky outcrops. This area is home to the Albera tortoise but we have yet to spot one.

We knew that we were approaching France when we passed the stone ruins of an old mas or farmhouse, which we had spotted from a distance on an earlier trek in the area. Suddenly, the tarmac on the road changed. No flags, no signs, France. The view was magnificent over the mountains with bare faced rocks and pines interspersed with terraced vineyards. In the far distance we could see the town of Banyuls and the Sea. We had a short walk at the viewpoint to look at the memorials commemorating the refugees who passed this way escaping from Spain during the Civil War. There was a stark black and white picture showing refugees with all their belongings at the border crossing. Another time we will complete the journey to Banyuls.

On our way home we stopped at the cooperative in the village of Vilaguiga to find out about the vendemmia they were holding where you join in the harvesting of the grapes and then take part in old fashioned crushing of the grapes with your feet, something I would love to do. Unfortunately, they are all booked up for this Sunday, the last day. Next year. I have a vision of the grape stomping  episode of I Love Lucy, where she stomps grapes in the huge vat. What fun.

As we drove closer and closer to home the temperature plummeted and it started raining, an unusual occurrence. Later, at dinner time the most beautiful rainbow arced over the mountain opposite. A lovely ending to a chilly day.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Concert de Tardor - Fall Concert

Once again parking in the village is at a premium. As well  as holiday makers people from the surrounding towns are visiting the Port on the weekend. The shops and restaurants are busy. Although I am still perfectly comfortable wearing my shorts, local people are wearing more clothes. We actually saw someone wearing a puffy jacket this morning at coffee. It has been a little joke with us because once the locals don these jackets, usually brown, they don't remove them even in the warmest days of winter and spring. We would still see the odd one at the end of April and early May.

The beach is empty. The locals don't feel a need to lie on the beach when it is twenty-five degrees. Each afternoon we have a lovely swim with the sea to ourselves. Once in the water it is quite pleasant as long as it isn't too windy. We cut our swim short today so that we would have time to attend 'Concert de Tardor' - Autumn concert in the ballroom. A habanera group and a choral group would be performing.

We arrived a few minutes late to find the ballroom packed. The people of the village are great supporters of cultural events. Somehow in my mind I was expecting contemporary Cuban music. Habanera does in fact refer to a musical form that came out of Cuba in the 19th century and has been popular in many parts of Spain and elsewhere ever since. The group consisted of about seven men, with musical backing provided by accordion, guitar, and something called a laud, which gave a mandolin-like sound. The singers of Coral Polifonica soon joined them on stage, adding their more sophisticated treatment to the traditional tunes. The singing was excellent, but after an hour we decided it was  time to return home and cook dinner.

Wrong day for a boat race

The slightly overcast morning started with a cortado and cafe con leche coffee at the Nautica. As we were gazing outside several sailboats went past with their sails up. This was an unusual sight for us since sailboats usually motor into the bay. There were more and more sailboats of various lengths maneuvering to line up for the start, which seemed to take forever. Finally the horn and they were off.....but not really. In an area noted for its high winds the boats were very nearly becalmed. This was the wrong day for a race.

Friday, September 21, 2012

We show off 'our' monastery

A day of very little wind and bright sunshine, perfect for a drive up to the old Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Rodas 520 metres above sea level. The views of the mountains, the Port below us and the lighthouse are stunning. It is one of those days with the incredible lighting that is often found here.

We have toured the monastery before. It is always interesting to visit this place of pilgrimage in the tenth century; having a guest in the house was all the excuse we needed to take another look. By the twelfth century the monastery was a centre of political, spiritual and economic power. By the fifteenth century the religious life was more lax and there were growing numbers of attacks by pirates. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century the financial situation improved  thanks to the expansion of wine growing in Catalunya. The area was surrounded by dry stone walled terraced vineyards, which survive today but the vines are long gone, overgrown by blackberries. The monks abandoned Sant Pere in 1825.

The restoration is very good and certainly gives the visitor glimpses into life in the monastery, the church; the cellar with larders as well as accommodations for servants and monks; the crypts and the square used for burials of important persons.

The monastery has a lovely restaurant with a stunning cliff top view over the mountains and sea. We had lovely melon with Serrano ham and a beautiful piece of hake fillet. All this with a very nice local rose wine and finished off with a lovely espresso.

Our day wasn't quite over. It was down to the beach at the Port for a lovely swim in calm water. Swimming in the sandy shallows right now is toasty warm. In fact the water was warmer than the air by the time we got out. But best of all is the lovely hot shower when you get home.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Amazing mosaics at Empuries

Our travelling today took us to the old Greek and Roman ruins at Empuries, sometimes referred to as the Catalan Pompeii.  Seamus' dad is visiting and we hoped he would enjoy this amazing site as much as we do. It was at the port of Empuries that the Phoenician Greeks disembarked in the 6th century BC and where, in 218 BC, the Roman army commanded by Gaius Scipio landed during the second Punic War, marking the beginning of the Roman empire in the Iberian peninsula. The Greek and Roman cities here have been found unaltered with no modern buildings built on top of them. In fact these are the only Greek ruins in the Iberian peninsula. We have been here before but it is a really interesting place to visit again and again as the excavations are ongoing.  All of the Greek ruins have been excavated and only twenty per cent of the Roman ruins, since their discovery in 1908.

During the winter the mosaics are covered in order to preserve them. Today was our first viewing of them. In Greek houses the rooms reserved for men were called andron. They were the setting for the wine drinking ritual. In one Greek house, at the doorway to the andron is a Greek inscription, done with small white tiles. It reads, "happy to be reclining." The rest of the floor was covered in various shades of rust coloured tiles.

Inside the museum are many fine mosaics that adorned Roman houses. Outside the changing room of the public baths has a circular mosaic showing a triton and a dolphin. Some of the Roman houses are quite large and the vast floors are covered in very well preserved blue and white mosaics.

Perhaps the best find for us was a large bush in the Italian gardens. We have an identical one in our yard but we never knew what it was. Fortunately, the bush was labelled "pomegranate." There was only one well hidden green fruit on it. Tomorrow I am going to search our bush for any hidden fruit.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

More street fun and a great rugby game

Saturday morning began with a walk from the hotel past the imposing Arc de Triomphe and through the tree-lined streets of a neighbourhood that was filled with Chinese shops selling clothing and then textiles. I went in one store and it was like a huge warehouse of clothes inside. These stores turned into similar stores this time selling Italian clothes. I wonder if it's the sewn-in labels that are Italian? Finally, we were in the Passeig de Gracia well north of Placa Cataluyna. This is an area of high-end fashion shops. One store we went in had a doorman. Inside were the most beautiful handbags of every colour and colour combination. The smell was wonderful. But wait, there were no prices on any of them. As well there were exquisite lengths of vibrant silks on sale. On looking around we were the only non Chinese people in the shop, and they were buying. Sadly, we weren't but it was a lovely visit. The doorman was quite gracious when we walked out bag less.

After a quick return to the hotel to check out, we wandered around one of the main pedestrian streets in El Born passing the church,surrounded by wedding guests,dressed in their finery. Further on down the street we stopped for a marching drum band. There is always a festival and gaiety of some sort in Barcelona. After a quick lunch of huge shrimp and patates bravas and a seafood paella for Seamus it was off to the Metro.

We were en route to the Olympic Stadium to see a rugby match, Perpignan versus Toulouse. The second stage of the journey is on a two car funicular, which travels up Montjiuc. There were lots of very happy people waiting for the cars, most dressed in the red and yellow Catalan colours of USAP, the Perpignan team. Supporters were wearing hats, shirts, Catalan flags and even dresses. Some were sporting the black and red of Toulouse. The cars kept filling up with more and more people. Finally, the funicular started up the mountain with us all crushed in like French sardines.

Once out of the funicular it is a pleasant fifteen minute walk to the Olympic Stadium along a tree-lined street. Of course our seats were on the far side of the stadium so we continued along in the very hot sun. Outside the stadium there was yet another drum band adding to the general loud atmosphere. Already, we could hear it had some competition from the requisite drums at all French rugby games.  

At last we were seated in the stadium, which was a sea of red and yellow. There were far more Perpignan supporters than those from Toulouse. I sat next to a very excited lady, who sang all the songs and constantly waved her Catalan flag. There was lots for the Perpignan fans to be excited about. Last year was not a good year for them as the replacement for their former coach Jacques Brunel, didn't work out and he was fired after just eleven games. Now with a former player Marc Delpoux coaching and some clever player acquisitions, Perpignan is a much stronger team, at least on paper. This was proved to be true in a very exciting first half with Perpignan ahead 20-6. The second half was  even more exciting with Toulouse narrowing the gap but not enough. Perpignan has beaten the 2012 winners of the top 14 French rugby league, Toulouse by a score of 34-20. The stadium erupted as the winners did a slow victory lap around the stadium to thank their fans.

We joined the legions of supporters outside the stadium. The road was lined with buses as far as the eye could see. This time we walked down part of the mountain and boarded an escalator, which took us out behind the huge Art Museum of Cataluyna. After a quick stop for a gelato, we walked down the many stairs to the fountain area, where there was a huge Mexican festival going on. Finally, we ended up at Placa Espanya. There is a huge, beautiful brick building there that we had often speculated about. Now we know that it was Las Arenas, a former bull fighting ring. This time we decided to visit. Inside was a huge shopping area on three terraces. There was also a terrace devoted to twelve movie theatres. On top of the building we looked out from the viewing platform over the stunning view of Placa Espanya and the art gallery. As we walked around the circle we watched some people splashing about in an infinity pool on top of one of the buildings. It looked so lovely, even more so since it was so hot and muggy. We were very jealous.

It was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and a short trip to the Passeig de Gracia train station. We had arrived a little too early. Now we had to wait in the stultifying heat of the platform, where not one cafe or place to buy water was open. As the trains rolled through we were joined by more and more passengers all waiting for our train that managed to be a few minutes late. Finally, we were seated on the very busy but at least air conditioned train. I was impressed, when we were speeding along at 159 kilometres an hour.

After a couple of hours we were in the car and on our way home. Out of the car in the driveway, there were loads of stars in the sky. It was lovely and cool with no wind. We were happy to be home.

Back to Barcelona

Friday morning and another tramuntana wind is blowing but we are off to Barcelona passing the lovely white rollers in the port with hardly a glance. After a slow journey finally passing an old truck laden with grapes we are at the train station.

Two hours later we emerge at Passeig de Gracia to brilliant sunshine and no wind. After checking into our hotel, and fortified with the first coffee of the day, we are off to browse the shops on the Passeig. First we walk through the main square in El Born listening to the jazz band at the far end of the square. Passing through squares with young drum players, more jazz and a violinist we reach our destination. Sometimes Barcelona is a must for us to buy things unattainable elsewhere. After new jeans for Seamus, hemmed in forty minutes, it is lunchtime.

We cross the teaming crowds of tourists on Las Ramblas and head to Bar Lobo, a good spot for lunch. The former chef at the El Born Santa Caterina market is now there and the food is really good. Seamus started with a dish of lightly scrambled eggs with little pieces of cod and I had a caesar salad with an olive oil, balsamic and yogurt dressing that was excellent, not tart, not bitter. This was followed by grilled tuna and eggplant compote. Mouth watering good. All this was topped off with very moist plum cake. A lovely lunch.

A short walk and we were in La Boqueria market, the main market of Barcelona. It is always such a joy to visit here. Today we were in search of chili peppers that we can't find locally. There they were hanging up already dried. But we thought 23€ for the bunch was a bit much so instead opted for two packages for 2€ that we will dry ourselves. We also bought the biggest, sweet fresh dates imaginable. So tasty. Our shopping completed we walked around the market admiring the huge shrimp, fresh fish, all kinds of cuts of veal and wonderful fruit and vegetables. The latest thing in the market is the array of fresh fruit and vegetable juices of every kind and colour. We were very good in passing up on all the chocolates and candy on display.

Finally, it was back to the Passeig for a bit more shopping stopping and street entertainment. By the time we looked at the little shops in El Born we were glad to be back at the hotel if just to cool down.

Once again we had dinner at Santa Caterina Cuina, an amazing restaurant in the Santa Caterina market. It was grilled calamari for Seamus topped with thin slices of just grilled asparagus. I had my favourite grilled tiny, baby squids topped with an egg. Oh so good.

After another walk we ended up in the tree-lined square in El Born, where a band was about to play. We found a stone bench where we sat until the beginning of the concert, just people watching, young and old from all over. The usual men were selling cans of beer to anyone interested. I can never figure this out as you can just buy the beer in a bar or at the  kiosk by the stage. A tiny girl was covered in gelato, which she was totally enjoying. Even though it was nearly midnight, it was very hot. Finally, after much talking in Catalan, the band started but sadly, it wasn't really our type of music so our busy day in Barcelona ended there.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

La Diada - Catalunya's national day

The  white mist or perhaps cloud from the sea wended its way through the bay across the beach and up the valley in front of us. We have had several misty mornings lately but usually they are all encompassing. This one was quite lovely. Perhaps it was in honour of today, La Diada Nacionale de Catalunya, which commemorates the defeat of the Catalan troops during the Spanish War of Succession. The Catalan troops that supported the Hapsburgs were defeated at the Siege of Barcelona by the Bourbon king, Philip V of Spain on September 11, 1714 after fourteen months of siege. The holiday was reinstated in 1980 after Franco's rule.

This day is very close to the heart of Catalunyans, who celebrate by hanging senyera, Catalan flags from their windows and balconies all over the Port. The four bars of red on a golden background hark back to the days of the Kingdom of Aragon. In addition to this official flag of Catalunya, we often see a variant that has an added white star over a blue triangle. This flag is a clear statement of support for Catalan independence today.

Many Catalans are strongly in favour of an independent state as the crisis continues, because Catalunya gives a disproportionate level of taxes  to Madrid in relation to the funding than it receives in return. Yesterday more than a million and a half people in Barcelona marched to commemorate La Diada and to protest the taxes. More importantly there were more Catalan independence flags flying than ever before. Twenty people from our village paid only 15€ for the return trip to Barcelona to take part in the rally.

On a lighter note the ajuntament -- town hall -- provided a sardana band for sardana, circle dances, which are closely associated with Catalan nationalism. The first dance was held in the square at noon. In the village it is always the same elderly couple who start the dance and then people join in throughout the whole dance, which goes on for some time. We noticed the couple sitting under the tree in the square ready to dance, well before time. It was lovely to see the lady, who leads the dance, kick of her shoes and dance barefoot. Shopkeepers came out of their stores and joined in the dances and then returned to their businesses.

Later it was very pleasant sitting outside having dinner, listening to the strains of the wind and brass instruments playing the sardana music and seeing several circles of dancers enjoying their summer evening.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

We check on the wine harvest

We have been curious about when the vendemia or grape picking takes place so today we decided to go for a drive. As we passed the vines we could see that some had been picked but most of the vines were obscenely heavy with huge bunches of red grapes. We spotted some people picking the grapes near Mas Llunes cellars, where we had visited previously. Stopping at Mas Llunes we asked the lady, our tour guide from the previous visit, about the harvest. We were in luck. The tractor had just arrived with a huge trailer of grapes and we were welcome to watch the grapes go through a machine that stripped off the leaves and stems, and then into the crusher. Removing the stems makes the wine stronger and darker in colour. This was different from the way we used to make wine with our Italian friends, where everything went into the barrel.

The crushed grapes go into huge steel vats for twenty days to ferment, making that wonderful smell. At that time the rappa or skins are removed and combined with the stalks to be distilled into grappa. Our guide, sensing our enthusiasm asked if we would like to taste some of the fermenting wine. This was always fun when we made our own wine, tasting it through all the stages from grape juice to full bodied wine. We took the glasses out to the muscatel, which was put in the vat on August 29. The tap on the vat was turned and out poured lovely creamy coloured muscat twelve days into the fermentation process. It tasted quite nice at about three per cent alcohol. Soon it will begin to taste a little bubbly.

As we said our good byes we were asked if we wanted to taste more wines but we declined. I'd like to come back in a few weeks to taste the granache that was being harvested today. Mas Llunes also makes it's own olive oil. The olives are still on the trees right now. Hopefully, we can visit a frantoia to see the olive oil being made.

Monday, September 10, 2012

'Biker' invasion

What has happened? Sunday and the sandlot parking area was totally full. We thought all the visitors had gone.  A look through the binoculars and we spotted groups of people around what to our eyes looked like dirt bikes. Actually they were 'trial' bikes, lightweight, seatless bikes which the riders seek to maneuver over series of natural or man made obstacles. El Port was hosting a competition.

After coffee at the Nautica we walked over to the rocky beach beach at that end of town, where all kinds of biker people were gathered, young and old. Many, dressed up in brightly coloured gear were walking along the giant rocks on the beach picking out their route through the rocks. We watched a few people ride or perhaps cajole their bikes through and over the rocks after assessing the terrain. The whole thing seems to be done in stages starting up in the mountain. Further along the huge beach rocks there was another stage going on. Some of the competitors looked as young as ten or eleven.

It wasn't really our thing and we did find the bikers noisily careening through the village standing up on their bikes a little annoying. We were happy to see the parking lot empty out by the end of the day.

High winds bring out the kite boarders

At last a day worthy of a visit to the beach at Sant Pere Pescador. We were surprised that there were still quite a few people on the sandy stretch of beach but as usual there is lots of space to spread out. Apparently one hundred and thirty English caravaners came in a convoy to the nearby caravan park. There were still many nudes on the beach but now with mainly older people the aesthetics were quite different!

We settled in and ate our ham and cheese baguette. Our plan was to let this settle for a while before we had a swim in the relatively calm water. Suddenly, the breeze sprang up, strong enough to make us face our chairs away from it. In the blink of an eye the seven-kilometre stretch of beach, from L'Escala to Empuriabrava and beyond, was filled with every colour of kite. The kite boarders were out in full force. It was quite beautiful watching the kites dancing in the wind but not so enjoyable when the kites angled directly overhead, dripping on us as they did so. Finally, we had to abandon the beach because of the wind.

Back in the car we drove down sandy lanes exploring more lovely beaches towards L'Escala. Although the area is rural, every so often we would pass some quite large campsites. We drove on some main roads lined by vines loaded down with grapes ready to be harvested. Huge wooden boxes were stacked at the end of rows of apple trees, ready for picking. The dried out sunflowers looked almost sinister in their blackened state perched on leafless stalks. Hay has been harvested and the corn will be next.

By now the wind had died down a bit so it was back to the beach for a good long walk. Although it was still early by Spanish standards we decided to stop at the Marlin Beach bar for their amazing gambas and a pizza. It wasn't the day we planned but it was a nice ending before returning home to watch the penultimate day of the Vuelta, Spain's version of the Tour de France.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

September days

It has been a week of weather. Finally, we had a day of rain, which has been followed by days of exceptionally high winds, up to 7 on the Beaufort scale. Although it is still hot this makes walking and swimming difficult. Two more boats have lost their anchor and run aground on the beach. Yesterday we watched as an overturned motorboat was righted. It was quite a production. First of all a large zodiac tried to pull it off the beach. That didn't work. Then they attached ropes and tried to tow it but unfortunately the ropes snapped quite viciously. It's a good thing no one got hit by them. In the meantime various seats and other bits and pieces from the boat were floating in the surf. The zodiac's anchor came loose and it took at least ten tries to re anchor it. Finally, the owner manoeuvred it further off shore  and the anchor stayed.

By this time there was a bit of an audience. One person had a strap, which the owner of the boat attached to the ropes, while getting really knocked about in the surf with the water cascading over his head. The Jeep towed but again the ropes snapped. Finally, someone came with more straps and they managed to tow the boat right over the sand to rocky parking lot. I think the owner is going to have a bit of a bill for the damage to the boat, especially the beaten up motor.

With the waves deceptively high most places, we finally found a place to swim on the other side of the lighthouse from our snorkelling spot. It was quite sheltered. We donned our snorkelling gear and slide off the rocks and into the water, which turned out to be quite deep at that spot. But so lovely and cool. There were huge canyons between the rocks and the bottom was more sandy than our usual spot but lovely all the same with big schools of fish going by.

There is a move in Spain to make things quieter as at times things can be quite noisy. As Seamus was having a little siesta on his beach lounger some boys came along yelling and started looking under the lounger. I caught sight of something small, almost tarantula like, crawling along quite quickly under the chair. Seamus stood up because by now one boy was practically under the lounger. Finally, a tiny crab emerged. With huge amounts of very loud talking and yelling the day was saved and the crab was captured. 

The village parking lots are quite empty now. There are still some tourists here but life is starting to take on its regular rhythms except for one or two mosquitos in the bedroom at night time. Mosquitos aren't really a problem but there is one, who excels at making that horrible mosquito buzz right by your ear in order to make sure that you are awake. This is followed by several bomber like passes to really grab your attention. After much slapping and a dose of tea tree oil on your face, the culprit finally leaves or so I think. Once again I have a bite on my arm this morning. Tonight I will see if a slice of lemon with some cloves in it or some neem oil will deter the invader.

The winds are dying down and with lots more hot weather in sight we are looking forward to more beach days.