Monday, December 31, 2012

Bingo, Catalan style!

Tonight we were invited to see Bingo Catalan style in the village ballroom. We arrived once the game had started but it was very simple to follow. Each participant had brought a small gift that was used for a prize. The cards were a series of numbers with no letters on them at all. A drum was rolled, the number called out and also shown on a big screen. We hadn't brought a gift so we couldn't play but next time we will. It was fairly easy to understand the numbers being called out in Catalan. To win a small prize you had to complete a row or for a large prize three rows in one section of the card. Some of the large prizes were very impressive, including a flat screen television. There were even a couple of people taking orders for soft drinks and nibblies. A fun night out.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A quiet day at the Aiguamolls

It was a beautiful twenty degrees celsius today and time to visit the Aiguamolls nature reserve. On the drive down we passed one field filled with egrets and white storks. A tree was full of hawks. Our hopes were high for a spectacular day at the Aiguamolls.

Looking out over the ponds from the first blind there were still lots of mallards, including a couple perched on a rock sharing it with a large turtle. Several small black coots splashed and scooted across the water. There were several northern shovelers with their bright green, brown and white markings, along with some brown headed Eurasian wigeons and huge numbers of Emporda geese, many resting on the little islands. The cormorants were perched on their usual log with wings hanging out to dry. All the flamingoes and spoonbills have disappeared. Have they continued on the migratory route to Africa? The rest of the pond was filled with Great Blue heron and white storks. It was interesting that there was not the variety of birds that there was a year ago. Has the warmer weather made a difference?

We did pass a family of deer grazing in one of the fields. Since it was such a nice day we continued past fields of cows and Camarague ponies down to the beach. We watched a brown short-toed eagle, with its almost owl-shaped head, perched in a tree, but every time we went to take a picture it flew off after its prey.

Perhaps the best part of the day was being the only people walking along the sand at the eighty-metre wide beach. I made the comment that the water was never this flat when we came here to swim and just as the words were out of my mouth, little white capped rollers started to break on the shore.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pessebre brings Nativity story to life

Tonight we took a trip to the neighbouring village of Llanca to visit their Pessebre, which is a series of nativity scenes. It is held in the grounds of a magnificent old house. Fortunately, the high winds earlier today had died down so it made the walk much more enjoyable. Everything is lit by outdoor lighting with Roman soldiers holding flames to light the way. The Irish music and Christmas songs coming from loudspeakers was quite jaunty. It was as if a bit of Riverdance had come to Catalunya.

We passed several nativity scenes, a stable with live horses and a lovely little dark brown pony. Satan and his devils were warmed by their fire. Angels of the Lord in white garb stood on high and King Herod sat on his throne looking sternly over his retinue. Several of the displays showed what life was like in ancient times and some not so ancient times. Women were washing clothes, scrubbing them on a washboard and hanging them over bushes to dry. Schoolchildren were learning their Roman numerals. There were displays of vegetables, seeds and nuts. Cracking almonds by putting them on a log and hitting them with a wooden hammer must have been tedious work. Another lady inserted corn into a black contraption with a winder separating the corn from the husks. There was even an ancient tavern with wine served in wooden cups. Selections of breads of every shape and size were on display.

My favourite scenes included the animals. Several chickens were in little coops and some were scratching away at the grass in an enclosed space. One lady was holding a tiny kid that had a very loud bleat. In another area there were several small, white, very young lambs. Fisher folk  gathered around their traditional boat with real fish in a basket. In all of the displays people were dressed in the garb of the time of the nativity.

We passed the three wise men and several shepherds. As we were nearing the end of the pessebre we wondered where the caganer was. For those of you who don't know, the caganer is usually part of the nativity scene. He is a character squatting with his pants down in the act of defecating in the nativity scene. They are unique to areas of Catalunyan culture. In fact you can buy little caganer figurines of the rich and famous. We hadn't seen one in any of the nativity scenes but just at the end in his own separate alcove was a more modest caganer.

At the end of the pessebre it was time to have a little hot chocolate and a slice of cake. It was a warm, pleasant night for the display, which concludes tonight. It takes a tremendous amount of work to present the pessebre but what a pleasant way to get the whole town out  in the winter time.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Peralada Christmas fair

Motivated by a clear blue sky, no wind, and a balmy nineteen degrees, it was time to visit the garden centre. While we were admiring the plants we noticed really lovely wood carvings for the garden. Many were kon-tiki variations but the one that caught our eye was a beautiful hedgehog. The lady in the store explained that the man who did the carvings was showing more work at the fira, or fair, in Peralada, a nearby town.

It was just a short drive to the magnificent, old town known for its castle and monastery. We followed the trail of stalls, once again selling meats, cheeses, flowers, soaps, nougat and jewelry. Eventually, we came to a square lined with a number of stalls and an outdoor cafe. A stage had been set up and a man was entertaining the crowd playing  his guitar and singing. After listening for awhile we continued through the narrow lanes, hoping to find some water buffalo cheese, one of our favourites. We found the carvings at the very last stall. After admiring these carvings, especially one tall modernistic kon-tiki in what looked like burled oak, we retraced our steps to the beginning of the fair.

It was well past lunchtime when we looked up at a van selling xurros in paper cones. To those of you who don't know, xurros are elongated homemade donuts. It took less than five seconds to decide that this would be an excellent food choice. The batter spewed out of a machine and then the donuts were placed in a fryer. They were served to us piping hot in a paper cone with sugar sprinkled over them.  Really it is the same concept as the old sixpenny bag of chips.  I was a bit appalled that someone had ordered us a bag each. We found a park bench in the sunshine and started our feast. Delicious and addictive even if they did leave a little bit of grease in your mouth. I couldn't finish all of mine there but I did manage to down the last few at home while preparing lunch. We were doing so well on our holiday eating up until this point.....except for the nougat yesterday!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

There might be giants

This afternoon we visited the gigantes de cazubos, roughly meaning giants or big heads or  as they are known in Catalunya, gegants, at the Museum of the Emporda in Figueres. The huge heads are made of papier mache and plaster and then painted. They include warts and all. In fact one head resembled someone we know. Some of the heads on display dated back to the mid 1800s. A lady from Girona was demonstrating how she made the giant heads and some smaller ones. Most of the colourful heads were historical characters or heads resembling ordinary people while others were cartoon characters.

The giants are usually hollow figures several meters tall, with the papier mache head and arms, the rest of the body being covered in cloth and other clothing. Their frame is usually made of wood or aluminum. Someone walks inside the frame and controls the movements of the gegant in a parade. Quite often there will be gegant couples and towns will send their gegants to walk in other town's parades. The gegants may represent the townspeople, kings and queens and local nobility.

After our museum visit we returned to the streets of Figueres to join the masses of people shopping or just enjoying passegata on this warm evening. The Christmas market selling poinsettias, smalls wheels of cheese, meats, nougat, marzipan, lots of lovely looking sweets and little miniatures. Bars and restaurants were filled with people eating tapas, us included. Fortified with a little plate of shrimps cooked in garlic, oil and spicy chili peppers for me and a small plate of squid for Seamus, it was time to return home.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sick dolphin comes ashore

We noticed a small gathering of people on the beach at lunchtime today. Using the binoculars for a closer look we could see someone in the water wearing a wetsuit with what turned out to be a dolphin. Quickly, we jumped in the car and went down to the beach. Could we be of any assistance? A striped dolphin was floundering very close to shore. Occasionally he would turn over on his side, seemingly looking at us,  and stay in that position for a while before rolling over to open his blowhole for a breath.

I asked one of the fisheries people, who was closely watching the dolphin, what had happened. It hadn't been caught in a fishing net as I thought, but was really sick. The vets were on their way, but not to take the dolphin to an aquarium as that would be too stressful.

Suddenly, the dolphin managed to turn itself around and swam about thirty metres down the beach staying on top of the water. We thought it was looking stronger but sadly it came back into the beach and then stayed in one spot.

By the time we left the vets still hadn't arrived. We kept checking the beach but not a lot was happening. A jeep with a trailer was down in the parking lot for a time. Unfortunately, we missed what happened but the next time we looked the dolphin, jeep and fisheries people had disappeared. There have been two episodes in the last twenty years of a disease attacking the striped dolphins along the Spanish coast. Hopefully, this isn't evidence of a third.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Perfect weather for hill walking

We had beautiful sunshine today with very little wind, a perfect day for a walk. Just outside the village is a very rough road, not suitable for cars, that leads to several trails through the mountains. As you climb higher you pass the remnants of old farmhouses dating back to the 1700s and 1800s. The hills are covered with the old stone terraces that now support stone pines and not the vines that they once did. In the 1870s a vine louse wiped out the entire viticulture in this area.

Finally, we reached the goat farm but we couldn't see any goats. Today we opted to visit the old church of Saint Baldiri. To do this we followed a narrow track lined with prickly pear cactus with their purple fruits, rosemary, stone pines and some thorn bushes. As we got closer to the church we were passed by several huge 4X4s, some with hunting dogs. I caught a glimpse of a wild boar in the back of the penultimate truck. It may seem cruel hunting the boar but they have up to three litters a year with up to nine piglets. They can be very destructive to gardens and crops.

Saint Baldiri is a ruin of an old church, watchtower and some other buildings. It is in a beautiful, almost parkland setting, where you can look out over the Mediterranean. It would have been a lovely spot for lunch if one of the hunters hadn't left his dog trailer with a couple of hunting dogs in it. One of these was making the most piercing plaintiff cries that you could hear for a long distance away. We climbed a narrow, rough path that eventually leads to Taballera Bay. It was a little further than we thought so we decided to stop for our ham and cheese baguette with tomato rubbed into the bread. It was delicious but unfortunate that we didn't take any wine with us. By now the sun had moved lower in the sky and we decided to visit Taballera Bay on another day.

On our return trip we went right up to the goat farm, which is an old stone ruin. There were no dogs outside today so we walked around the farm only to discover several mothers with their kids. My favourite was a white kid with two black eyes and striped black socks. The ruin is actually an old abandoned village where the goats run free.

Looking out over the valley we passed some pine trees shaking at the top.There were some men up the trees gathering the large pine cones. I'm not sure how they move their huge, loaded bags back to their car. We have seen this before in the trees behind our house. The first  time it was a little disconcerting to have someone shouting, "Hola," from the very top of a tree he was shaking within a few metres of your house.

Back at the car we were already planning which new path to follow on our next trip up Goat Farm Mountain.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fresh fish and a mysterious yacht in Port Vendres

After a day of strange howling winds that whipped the choppy water away from the beach, moved the barbecue and gas bomba and brought dirt into the house under the sealed windows and shutters, we were glad to see the sun and hear the silence.

We decided to head up the coast to France, passing the naked vines and bright yellow broom on the hillsides. With the two o'clock restaurant deadline looming we stopped in Port Vendres. As we walked along the quay Forgas we could see a mast towering over all the other boats, the Mirabella III. Once seated in the restaurant our server told us that the yacht had been seized because the owners owed 4 million euros on the boat, but the rumours about the boat were rife. After lovely grilled sardines we had a look at the super-yacht, over 40 metres long. It was originally built in Thailand and was so big that elephants were needed to help move the yacht from the boat shed to the water. It was refitted during 2010 and has five luxurious suites on board. It can be yours for over 5 million euros and the price has already dropped by 2 million euros. It can be rented for $90,000 a week. One rumour is that the boat sailed into port and filled up with 30,000 euros worth of fuel that the owners couldn't pay for, causing the douanes -- customs police -- to seize the boat. Apparently the onboard computer has been mysteriously stolen. The boat is registered in Jaluit, a tax free atoll in the Marshall Islands. The mysterious yacht is visible all over the village. It will be interesting to follow the next chapter in its history.

We continued our walk along the quay towards the fish market, passing a number of ocean-going fishing boats as well as some smaller vessels. One part of the market has piles of every kind of fresh shellfish imaginable. The take away section at the back always has something enticing, including the coquilles St. Jacques in a puff pastry vol au vent we bought. The separate fresh fish shop with its huge selection is a treat to visit but deciding what to buy is a challenge. a beautiful piece of sole won the day. Good eating for the next two days.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Casa Anita, a little gem in Cadaques

It was warm but very windy, which always limits what you can do in a day. Today we decided to take the trip over the mountain to Cadaques and visit Casa Anita, a restaurant that had been recommended to us by an Irishman working in a cutlery shop in Barcelona. We had located the restaurant on an earlier trip, up a narrow back street just behind the beachfront, but it had been closed for November holidays.

Casa Anita has been serving customers for over forty years. The son of the original owners, along with his wife and sister now run the restaurant. If I understood correctly as I listened in to the owner speaking with some French customers, the mum and dad thought that restaurants were getting too commercial, and so opened their own restaurant, serving a limited menu of fresh and homemade food. The tables sit 10 or more people and years ago the place could be filled with hippies.

The restaurant resembles an Italian cantina. It is in the bottom part of a house with arches leading into the two rooms. The ceiling and walls look like the original stones but now plastered over. Once seated at one of the long tables the owner sat down to tell us what the fresh food of the day was from a limited selection, but we knew that would be the case before coming. In fact I thought that they would just bring you food and you wouldn't get a choice.

First, lovely tasting olives. These were followed by bread and oil, the oil harvested only a week ago. I have never tasted oil like it. Delicious. I don't normally eat much bread but I must admit I couldn't stop. Our starter was hot grilled eggplant, red pepper and onions with white beans. This was mixed at the table with more oil added. Again delicious. We had opted for grilled sea-bass for the main course, accompanied by home made frites. Sometimes you can just look at frites and know they are going to be tasty. The main course...perfection. Then the wife came to tell us about the desserts. We tried to be strong but finally shared homemade mascarpone ice cream topped with figs in syrup with a splash of cointreau. What a heavenly dessert! This was topped off with a cafe solo. We had another chat with the owner, who then brought us a digestivo of grappa but mixed with a little cream. It was like Bailey's but grappa. I highly recommend this as a way to drink grappa.

Now we braved the wind for a walk along the front. The waves were literally swirling in every direction and splashing up over the promenade in places. We watched a couple of sailboats, moored in the middle of the bay, being really tossed and turned. There were very few people around, very different from our usual trips here. Nevertheless, it was a special day. Casa Anita we will be back.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Vin Novell on a sunny Sunday afternoon

The local novell wines arrived in the village today, with four vineyards setting up tasting stands. This is the Spanish version of nouveau beaujolais, and the tasting is one of many wine related events organized by the village bodega. First stop was to rent a proper wine glass for 5€ then buy four tickets for 5€ for the tasting. For our first glass we tried a light wine from Espolla, which went down very easily. Then we tried wine from Capmany, one of our favourite wine places. The full body was more to our taste. Now it was time to trade in a ticket for a little tray of pan tomat, which is tomato rubbed into bread, and three different types of local cheese. Once fortified with the food we tried one of the wines from Gariguella but it was acidic and to us had an odd taste. It was dumped in the sand across the street. We decided to go back and have more of the Capmany wine. Lovely.

All of this takes place in a square right down by the water. The sun was out and the wind had died down. It is always fun meeting up with people at the wine tasting events, especially towards the end when some become quite merry. The secret, of course, is to tell the person pouring when to stop so that you don't spend the rest of the day recovering. These new wines are 14% alcohol. We recouped the money for our rented glasses and bought a bottle of each of our favourites.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Checking on the birds

This morning we had a big market in the village, which attracted lots of people as yesterday was Constitution Day and tomorrow is Immaculate Conception, both national holidays in Spain, and a good excuse for a long weekend. Since the sun was shining and there was no wind we decided to visit the Aiguamolls nature reserve taking the route up over the mountain behind us.

It was a slow climb as we had to follow several of the cows that live in the mountains. Today they decided to move location following the road and leaving it strewn with cow pats. At first we thought these cows were wild but now we don't think so; however no one ever accompanies them.

Once over the mountain we stopped in one of the Emporda agrobotigas, where we bought some figs in syrup and some fig jam. Notice the fig theme this week.

The parking lot at the Aiguamolls was quite busy since many people have taken a long weekend. Walking along the path to the first pond we spotted a lone water rail strutting in the dense grasses. It is a brownish bird about the size of a chicken. The first series of ponds were teeming with so many birds that there was standing room only on some of the little islands. There were still lots and lots of mallards but this time they had to share the pond with some northern shovelers, tufted ducks and lots of greylag geese. There were shiny black shags and greater cormorants lined up on a log. Two flamingoes had their pink and black under feathers fluffed up. Depending on their sex, they were either making a mating display or challenging each other. A large white spoonbill moonwalked backwards stirring up the bottom of the pond to find food, watched by two lone white storks and some great blue herons.

We continued down the main path passing a tree felled by recent high winds. This particular tree housed two huge stork's nests. Those storks won't be pleased when they return. The next pond had more mallards and a tree filled from top to bottom with cormorants. We spotted several raptors in the area, long legged and common buzzards, a sparrow hawk and a merlin. We climbed up a ladder to the second floor of the next blind. Against the darkening sky we watched a tree full of fat common wood pigeons. Suddenly, beneath them, four deer appeared and browsed their way along the field. But best of all far off in the field was a deer lying down, who eventually flopped over for a nap in the sunshine. He was joined by another deer a few metres away.

The finale of the afternoon was the stunning sunset of mottled black and shades of red  mixed with the twilight blue of the sky. Beautiful.

Christmas mailing and fenugreek good excuse to go to Perpignan

After several days of waiting for various people to: refill our oil tank; deliver firewood; repair our ASDL, fix the furnace; and weld a new hinge onto the door to the oil tank, as well as thwarting an attack by tiny sugar ants on our Walker's mincemeat tarts, it was time for a trip to Perpignan. We really wanted to mail some things from a French post office since we know some things mailed at the post office in the next village never arrived.

The drive to Perpignan was a little slow because of the huge number of trucks, especially those from the Czech Republic and Poland. I wonder if they were filled with oranges? (I know, many other things as well!) Of course by the time we arrived the Bureau de Poste was closed for lunch. We headed off to Arago, our favourite restaurant for the menu of the day, medallions of pork with caramelized onions, sliced carrots, horse radish and zucchini with some lovely frites. All delicious. A cafe corto - short espresso - completed a beautiful meal. We wandered around the narrow streets before heading back to the post office, along the way passing a Christmas market, where we didn't manage to resist the fig loaf.

The post office was open and we completed our mailing using postage machines, which are similar to bank machines only they weigh your package and finally spit out the postage you need. They save big long lineups at this time of year. Finally, we were back on the road. We were hoping to pass a hypermarket on the way out of town as we needed some fenugreek and other herbs that we can't find in Spain. The traffic was even worse on the way out of town so we didn't find our hypermart. Finally home, we enjoyed a nice cup of tea and our fig loaf.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A looping drive through the Col de Banyuls

At last the wind has died down. There is one lone windsurfer floundering in the bay, which means that we can actually go somewhere without fear of being blown away. We decided to quickly have our morning coffee at the Nautica and head for Collioure,  an hour away up the coastal road, in France. At the restaurant we were just about to sit down when we were pleased to see two familiar faces: an English couple whom we had met last winter but not seen since. By the time we left the Nautica the wind had come up a little and there were a few clouds in the sky.

All this caused a slight change of plan. We followed the winding coastal road through the lovely but now stark looking vineyards of Roussillon to Banyuls sur Mer. We more or less dove in the door at Sebastien's restaurant, where there was a nervous moment as the server slowly lifted his sleeve to carefully check his watch. We just made it before the dreaded two o'clock curfew.

Lunch was a lovely piece of grilled loup de mer or seabass. We don't normally eat dessert but Seamus opted for the warm fig tart and I had a grand marnier ice cream soufflé. Both were delicious.

By now the wind had risen so instead of a walk along the promenade, we decided to follow the longer back route through Banyuls to Spain. The road meandered through golden vineyards passing several wine tasting cellars. Then we followed a stream lined with tall grasses on one side of the road and more vineyards on the other. Once we started the steep climb towards the Col de Banyuls, the mountain was lined with vine terraces some weirdly lying on the diagonal. As the switchbacks on the road became sharper, the vineyards were replaced with olive trees, still unharvested, and then the ubiquitous stone pines and rosemary.

We stopped at the top of the mountain that separates Spain from France marked with  memorials to the hundred thousand people who escaped from Spain between 1939 and 1941. From here we had a magnificent view over the vineyards to Banyuls and in the other direction over the Spanish Pyrenees.

Back in Spain we followed the much straighter road passing carefully through a flooded stream. Finally, we were back on the main road to the Port. We stopped briefly at Rabos, one of Seamus' favourite photo sites. Even though it was almost dusk when we got home,  there were still several windsurfers taking advantage of the high winds.