Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chat with kayaker highlights visit to Cadaques

Yesterday was the last day that we had to escape the house because of the painting going on. We decided to make the short trip to Cadaques to look at some art galleries. Cadaques was the haunt of Dali and the picturesque village is a magnet for artists. It is very quiet at this time of year and as a bonus parking is free.

We had a coffee and walked along one lane looking at one gallery, where all the pictures of Cadaques were an intense blue. On the waterfront we did find a map showing all the galleries but we walked along the front and up more lanes without finding one open. It is an excuse for another trip on a weekend.

We decided to have our ham and cheese baguette overlooking the bay at Port Ligat, where Dali lived. The light here is always very special. Today there were very few people. We were just  about finished our lunch when a fellow dressed in a wetsuit walked by hauling his kayak on wheels. After exchanging holas we discovered that he was English and he jokingly said that he had been on holidays for fifteen years. On this trip he had come from Cornwall via the Chunnel to the Cap de Creus area. Home was a camper van. When the sea was quiet he kayaked and when it was windy he windsurfed. He was about to leave on a four day kayaking and camping trip up the coast towards France. Peter makes enough money fixing engines and doing other odd jobs. It sounds like someone we know. He escaped the rat race many years ago and is enjoying life to the fullest. We watched him set off and decided to finish our excursion by visiting the Cap de Creus.

It was a lovely trip through the wild rock formations to the Cap. Even our usual coffee shop was closed so we clambered over rocky outcrops to the restaurant, where we enjoyed a lovely cup of tea outside, overlooking the water. There  were several French people and a couple from the Netherlands having drinks or coffee and cake. In the distance we spotted Peter making excellent progress in the kayak. Finally we lost sight of him as he rounded the lighthouse. Back in the car we thought we might spot him again but with the rock formations and so many big rocks it wasn't to be.

Back in the port I kept looking to see if our kayaking friend had arrived but we didn't spot him. Today's twenty-three degree sunny weather with little wind is perfect for a kayaking trip. We're still watching the bay for a lone kayaker.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Too windy for walking

Monday. Our plan was to drive up the coast to Collioure in France but the gale force winds quickly made us change our minds. There were white caps and big rollers as far as the eye could see. In fact the spume coming off the waves made everything look a little misty.

We decided to visit Empuriabrava for some shopping not available in other places. The drive was quite beautiful with half a very vivid rainbow hovering right over Llanca. The bright yellow mimosas and cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Unfortunately, our favourite restaurants were closed so we settled for mussels and pizza at a restaurant overlooking the beach. It wasn't the birthday lunch we had planned but it is January and lots of places are closed on Mondays right now.

It was too windy for a walk along the beach but we decided to check up on the birds in the Aiguamolls. The parking lot had only a handful of cars. No one was braving this wind. We propelled ourselves towards the first blind. Lots of the ducks were taking shelter close to shore, while one island was totally covered with white storks. We could see some flamingoes in the distance in one of the far ponds so it was off to the second blind. There were close to forty flamingoes taking shelter in the pond. I'm not sure if taking shelter is the correct phrase as there were waves on the pond, a sight that we had never seen before. A herd of deer were standing braving the wind.

It really wasn't very pleasant walking into the wind but we did notice two storks had found refuge in the usually empty nests. I think that this is a true indication that spring is nearly here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

One last morning in Madrid before returning home

This was our last morning in Madrid and in preparation for our journey home we walked to the San Miguel Market for picnic supplies for the train. San Miguel is popular gourmet market where people go for wine and tapas. Our first purchase was some Comte cheese followed by four small crusty buns and some rosemary grissini. Little marzipan cakes were our choice for dessert along with mandarins from the huge fruit stall. There were lots of jams at another stall, gelato, wine bars, and seafood stalls where your choice could be cooked on the spot. We had a cortado at the coffee bar before leaving the market.

Our return journey to the hotel took us through Placa Mayor. It was the first time we had been there in the sunshine and it was a treat to look up at the artwork on the outside walls of the center apartments.

Once again we took the high speed AVE train back to Figueres Vilafant. Not too far from Madrid there were patches of snow in the fields. We thoroughly enjoyed our picnic choices that were much better than those offered on the train. After a short, comfortable four hours we arrived at Vilafant feeling much better than we would after a plane journey.

It was very pleasant to see the bright, blue, cloudless sky on our drive to the Port with the snow covered mountains in the distance. We return to tranquility.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Animals full of activity at Madrid zoo

This morning was time for shopping along the Fuencarral, a long pedestrian street. We retraced our steps and continued to Puerta del Sol, the giant square, where demonstrators were readying themselves for a march protesting the austerity measures. There were lots of police but the march was quite peaceful, except for all the whistles the protestors were blowing. From here we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant by our hotel. All I can say is too much meat, which I won't even begin to describe. Another meal left practically untouched by me. Madrid is a carnivore's paradise.

We strolled past the opera house to the Palacio Real, which is a huge palace of over 3,400 rooms, the largest palace in Europe and former home of Bourbon royalty. Now it is used for state occasions as the royals live in the outskirts of Madrid. There was a huge, slow moving, line at the palace that we weren't inclined to stand in. Perhaps another time. The sun was out so we headed  for the zoo.

Once off the subway, we had to walk and walk and walk to reach the zoo entrance. We were a little concerned since it was nearing four o'clock and we didn't know what time the zoo closed. Luckily, we had two hours before closing. Our first stop was the pandas. First of all we saw the twins pacing about outside. They are just over two years old and were quite lively. The way the outside enclosure is designed you feel quite close to them and they would look right at you. They were quite funny making little bleating noises. Mum was munching away on her bamboo in an inside enclosure, while dad was wandering about in his enclosure stopping to relieve himself by doing a handstand against the wall and then peeing. They were fascinating to watch.

It was quite cold by now. Perhaps this is what made the animals active or maybe it was the fact that they were looking for their keepers to serve them their dinner. We were very fortunate to encounter only a handful of other visitors the whole time we were there. The beautiful, snow white leopard was separated only by the glass on his enclosure. He came right up to us several times looking right at us. Every time he heard a zoo keeper's cart he would search for his dinner and then with lithe movements move around the cage on his huge paws.

Our next stop was the white tiger, who was also looking for dinner. He had pools in his enclosure separated by a  narrow strip of concrete, which he would walk along and then very carefully turn around finishing with a hop on one of his front legs. The Eurasian lynx, who resembled a bobcat but was much bigger sat down and watched us as he was waiting for his dinner. The lions perched high on their rocks looked majestically out over the zoo.

We enjoyed a small, very young orangutan climbing ropes, then rolling around in the hay, picking up debris and shaking it in the faces of the two older females. He was lucky they were so passive because he looked as if he was enjoying annoying them. There was a very tiny baby hanging on to one of the females. Near this enclosure high on top of the trees the lemurs chased each other. The meerkats were all lined up along a wall looking for something, probably dinner. The rhinoceros with his huge armour was only a very few feet away from us. His mouth kept coming through the wooden fence to eat some grass. He got tired waiting to get out of the cold and rammed the closed door to his inside enclosure a few times. The elephants had their backs to us swaying back and forth in front of their inside space.

The Malaysian bears were quite funny sitting down to look at us with funny looking frowns on their faces. The black bears were playing quite roughly with each other, while the big Tibetan bears with their huge mop of hair were active and playful in their enclosure.

There were several giraffes, and a zebra chased a bird away. Most of the time we walked around we could see white storks on the ground or in their nests and hear the clack-clack-clacking of their beaks. The storks mingled freely with beautiful pinky orange flamingoes in a pond by the entrance. We were amazed at the size of the Giant Otters swimming in their pond then coming over to us and standing on their hind legs looking at us, making whiny noises and showing us lots of needle sharp teeth

It was nearing six as we walked by the pandas once again. Across the path, we spotted the red panda, who had managed to catch some kind of black bird. He was tearing away at it, while its wings were still flapping. Our last stop was the sea lion pools. One seal put on a little show for us swimming around and then leaping out of the water over a rock. it was a perfect visit to the zoo.

The streets of Madrid were much more lively tonight with many people out walking and shopping. As we walked to dinner we passed another smaller demonstration against the austerity measures. These were the pensioners, who are not getting raises to keep pace with the cost of inflation. Many of these people were dressed in green capes with pointed green hats. Why? We don't know.

We reached the Latin Quarter, which is a trendy little district filled with restaurants. Not really knowing where to go we stopped at a modern bistro with background music being played by live musicians. It was ten o'clock and we were the first people seated for dinner. Gradually, the restaurant filled up. The best part of the meal was sitting on a glass floor right on top of the crumbling, ancient ruins of the old Madrid city hall. A great ending to another day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

More amazing art in Madrid

Our day started out at the Reina Sofia museum, the national museum of twentieth century art, named after the present Queen of Spain. The museum is mainly dedicated to Spanish art. Highlights of the museum include excellent collections of Spain's two greatest 20th century masters, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Certainly the most famous masterpiece in the museum is Picasso's painting Guernica. The central building of the museum was once an 18th-century hospital. Extensive modern renovations and additions to the old building were made starting in 1980. It is built around a huge inviting green space that you can walk around, although it was a little cold for that today.

We left the museum in search of a late lunch, which we had at the Museo de Jamon, one of the essential places to visit in Madrid. The restaurant is lined with hams hanging from the ceiling. Lunch is very affordable with lots of ham type sandwiches being served. We opted for ham, eggs and chips. It was good but there was certainly a lot of it. With our beers they served mortadella on little buns and some kind of salami type sausage. Mine went untouched. Oh, for some fresh fish!

As we walked up the street we noticed a tall building with all kinds of plants and bushes growing out of the wall. It was quite magnificent. Then we noticed another museum, CaixaForum, which combined an old abandoned electrical station with new construction. It is one of the most visited museums in Madrid. What drew our attention was the exhibit Contemporary Cartographies. Drawing Thought. The show explored our systems of representation, physical, mental and emotional. With globalization and the internet knowledge is represented in different ways. For instance one map showed a person's life with life's moments portrayed in pictures but in poster form. Another huge wall map showed how Spain's financial crisis evolved with actual maps, newspaper clippings and pictures of events. It made the whole thing very understandable. There were several of these fiscal maps. Another showed the world's countries as squares based on the number of square kilometres of the country. Surrounding the collage of squares were the seas. Words really don't do these wonderful maps justice. In the bookshop they had a wonderful book called Graphic Information, which depicts maps similar to those we saw.

Our final stop was the The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. With over 1,600 paintings the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was once the second largest private collection in the world after the British Royal Collection. A competition was held to house the museum in 1986 after Baron Thyssen, having tried to enlarge his Museum in Villa Favorita in Lugano, searched for a location in Europe. His wife, a former Miss Spain, influenced him to move his family's huge collection plus many pictures he acquired at the time of the depression in the United States to Spain. The unusual salmon pink tone of the walls in the museum was her choice. There were works of the early Flemish and Dutch painters like Jan Van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein and many contemporary works. It was very interesting to see the area where a huge Titian is being restored. Sadly, due to the late hour and a full day we were flagging and had to return to the hotel.

This evening we found an Italian restaurant for a caprese pizza.The food in Madrid has been largely disappointing. Evening meals are expensive, and compared to Barcelona, poor value. Perhaps its because I'm a fish eater and Madrid is not the place to eat fish. In comparing Barcelona with Madrid, I find that Barcelona is much cleaner. At night the streets are filled with people having a good time, whereas here the streets are much quieter. Perhaps it is the time of year. We have noticed a lot of really down and out street people here, which we have not seen elsewhere.

Once again we are making our plans for our last full day in Madrid but they will be dependent on the weather.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Prado artworks and naval history highlight second day in Madrid

It was a dreicht day in Madrid, wet and windy but that didn't deter us as we headed to the Prado Art Gallery. Our metro stop was the Placa d'Espana, a majestic, large square, and popular tourist destination, located in central Madrid, at the western end of the Gran Vía. It features a monument to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. We stopped to admire the imposing building, the Palace of Communication which has  become a symbolic monument of the city. Originally the headquarters of the postal service, this impressive building was home to the Postal and Telegraphic Museum until 2007 when the building became the Madrid City Hall.

We walked down one side of the street towards the Prado. Dividing the street was a huge park area, which also served as a pedestrian promenade. On a sunnier day this tree lined walk would have been quite lovely. Finally, we reached the Prado, the main Spanish national art museum. It features one of the world's finest collections of European art, from the 12th century to the early 19th century. Founded as a museum of paintings and sculpture, it also contains important collections of other types of works. El Prado is one of the most visited sites in the world, and it is considered to be among the greatest museums of art. The large numbers of works by Velázquez and Francisco de Goya,Titian, Rubens and Bosch are among the highlights of the collection.

We saw several masterpieces but one of my favourites was the completed restoration of a work that was likely painted by one of Leonardo da Vinci's apprentices alongside the Renaissance master in his workshop. It is the oldest and most important copy of the Mona Lisa. For years the copy, which shows a younger and brighter version of the face that has captivated crowds for centuries, was believed to be one of dozens of replicas made long after Leonardo's death. The painting has belonged to the Prado ever since the museum was founded in 1819 with the Spanish royalty's art collection. It had a background covered in black and a frame believed to be of oak, frequent in the work of northern European artists. Experts began a technical study of the copy when the Louvre requested it two years ago for an exhibition opening next month. They found it had been painted on walnut, just like the Mona Lisa, and infrared images showed traces of background mountains just like in the original painting. Unlike the Mona Lisa, there were no crowds around the picture but it was still fascinating all the same. The picture is believed to be that of Lisa Gherardini, the Mona Lisa. We were lucky to see it today as soon it will travel to Paris to sit next to the Mona Lisa. More studies of the picture will be made there to try to determine which of Leonardo's students was responsible for the painting.

After a mediocre lunch in the Prado, we made a short walk to the Naval Museum that tells the story of Spanish Naval history. It is located in a building housing the Spanish Naval headquarters. I found the museum fascinating. Famous Spanish naval battles were displayed in pictures and maps. Various shipbuilding methods were displayed with many huge models complete with sails and cross sections of ships from 28 guns right up to 90 guns. There were some models of newer ships including aircraft carriers. Technological developments in navigation relating to astronomy, geodesy and cartography were displayed. Spanish expeditions and discoveries from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century including weapons and equipment illustrating what life on board was like. There was one very interesting display of the wardroom on a frigate. It actually looked nice and cozy.

There were some outstanding pieces including a map showing the American continent showing geographical discoveries between 1492 and 1500. It was probably used to show the King and Queen, who had sponsored the trip. I found it really fascinating and I'm sorry I didn't buy a copy of it. My favourite exhibit was a giant globe showing the world in the sixteen hundreds. It is quite accurate in some places but North America is still left fairly blank or at least open to some speculation. This globe was quite beautiful.

We tore ourselves away from the Naval Museum and walked toward Plaza del Sol admiring the truly grand buildings on our way. One building was topped with giant horses and charioteers. It certainly is a feast for your eyes walking in Madrid. Spain had such wealth at one time.

Finally we ended up at Placa Mayor, which we hadn't been able to find last night. The Plaza Mayor is rectangular in shape, measuring 129 by 94 metres, and is surrounded by three-story residential buildings having 237 breathtaking balconies facing the Plaza. It has a total of nine entranceways. The Plaza Mayor has been the scene of multitudinous events: markets, bullfights, soccer games, public executions, and, during the Spanish Inquisition, "autos de fe" against supposed heretics and the executions of those condemned to death. The Plaza Mayor also has a ring of old and traditional shops and cafes under its porticoes. Celebrations for San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid, are also held here.

Our evening finished at Botin, a restaurant founded in 1725 and according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest restaurant in the world. Originally it was an old coaching inn where muleteers and traders stayed. The painter Goya worked here as a server. It was quite special walking up the old, worn, wooden stairs to the restaurant. The rust tiles on the walls had loads of character, especially where they were losing their glaze. The Sobrino and its speciality of cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) are mentioned in the closing pages of Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises. Its other signature dish is sopa de ajo (an egg, poached in chicken broth, and laced with sherry and garlic). We opted for the roast suckling pig, which was quite tender and delicious inside with lovely crackling on the outside.

It was a cold walk back to the hotel in zero degree weather to plan for tomorrow. In fact we saw a few flakes of snow.

Our first visit to Madrid

Today we set off on a new adventure. We took the new AVE, high speed train service, from Figueres Vilafant to Madrid. Web specials made the price very reasonable. What a joy. You arrive at the station, park right outside, pass your baggage through an X-ray machine but you don\'t have to disrobe or remove your shoes. You walk out to the train and that's it. The seats in tourist class are extremely comfortable with lots of leg room. The train stops at Girona and then the main station Barcelona Sants. What a trip. We arrived in less than an hour at speeds of 299 kilometres an hour. After a very brief stop we were off again heading south to Tarragona. From here we traveled north passing through flat countryside with lots of mesas in the distance. Then the land became hillier with lots of olive trees on the lower slopes and then finally the land was flatter but arid. We stopped at Lleida and Zaragossa then Madrid. It was a lovely trip that took four hours without all the hassles of flying. We did buy a sandwich at the cafeteria but next time we will probably take our own. There was even a movie showing, The Artist, which we had already seen.

Once in Madrid we took the Metro to our hotel. The subway service in Madrid is very good and much cheaper than Barcelona. You can travel all over the city for a euro. Very helpful Metro employees are only too willing to steer you in the direction you want to go.

Once we were settled in our hotel we took a walk around the local area, Callao, which included all the major chain stores found everywhere in Spain, lots of McDonald's and Starbucks and some theatres. We walked to the big square called the Puerta del Sol. This is the place to come to on New Year's Eve to eat your twelve grapes, before the clock finishes chiming twelve times, to give you good luck. We stopped on our way back to the hotel at Lizzaran, a tapas bar. We frequent Lizzaran in Figueres, which is a little nicer than this Lizzaran but still great tapas. Why can I never think of all these combinations on little pieces of bread when I want to make a small open faced sandwich?

After a brief rest stop at the hotel we took to the streets again. We spotted a shop selling costumes. What a find. Carnaval is next month. We looked at the costumes that were quite inexpensive. Unfortunately, we couldn't decide on anything before the shop closed. We will return. In fact later in this evening\'s walk we passed several costume shops all gearing up for the Carnaval season.

Our walk took us past the Palacia Real de Madrid, a huge palace that is owned by the state but which the Royal family uses for state occasions. We continued on, our walk taking us down several narrow streets and finally reaching the magnificent Opera House. We continued on our way through the lane ways lined with old buildings all with wrought iron balconies. We spotted the vast gourmet market, a huge covered market filled with gourmet tapas stalls including ones where you buy wine in proper glasses. The selection of food was incredible with seafood cooking, Iberian hams, cheeses and fruits. By this time we wanted to sit down but this is not a choice. It is stand up only and the place was packed.

Now in the Latin Quarter we decided to look for a place to have dinner. Each restaurant we passed was not busy at all except for people having drinks and in a few, some tapas. We looked and looked and there really wasn't one place with people having a meal. We decided to return to the area of the hotel for dinner. Several of the sidewalks had salt spread on them. The more we walked the more salt we noticed. The snow must be coming tomorrow.

We stopped for dinner in a restaurant near the hotel. There were some nice touches like a little glass of pumpkin soup and a lovely chocolate truffle to finish the meal. I didn't like my spaghetti bolognese at all. Seamus had a steak, which he seemed to like. It was time to return to the hotel to plan for tomorrow.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Excellent museum reveals history of Vic

Our first stop in Vic this morning was a huge outdoor market with stalls selling clothing and food filling the entire square. What a transformation since yesterday. We followed the narrow streets to the old Roman temple built in the second century AD. It stood undiscovered for centuries as it had been enclosed by the Castle of the Montcada family built at the end of the eleventh century. The walls of the temple formed the inner courtyard of the castle and were first discovered in 1882, when the old building that served as the residence of the veguer, who performed duties like a sheriff in England, the seat of the Royal Ecclesiastical Court, the city granary and prison was demolished. We could see some of the remains of the old castle from the Temple.

Then we quickly made our way around the corner to the Episcopal Museum. It has over twenty thousand exhibits from various parts of the diocese of Vic. The paintings and medieval sculptures are considered some of the best in Europe. The archeological exhibits in the basement were very well preserved from the Roman mosaics to the stone works from old buildings throughout the ages. Precious metalwork, glass, Hispano Arab fabrics, tapestry and wrought ironwork  were also on display. All of the exhibits were of a high quality and we left with a much better understanding of the history of the area.

It was time to leave Vic and its well preserved, beautiful old buildings. We drove through streets lined on both sides with giant plane trees. Leaving town many of the apartments were flying Catalan independence flags. This time we took a different route through the mountains towards Girona. It was much colder here and we saw a sight that we never expected to see in Spain, a truck filled with salt sanding the highway.

Our lunchtime stop was a restaurant just off the highway with lots of cars and trucks in the parking area. It was another menu of the day only in Catalan. My first course was mussels cooked in a lovely broth served with slabs of home made bread. The main course was chicken breast with a roast potato and green pepper. Seamus took a blind stab at the Catalan menu. His first course was tagliatelle in a tomato-ish sauce. But his main course turned out to be fatty pig's feet topped with pieces of sepia or squid. He ate the squid but left the rest pretty much undisturbed. We shared an almond mousse and nougat ice cream for dessert. This trip has wreaked havoc on eating smaller portions and not clearing our plates. Tomorrow we start again.

A visit to Vic

It was someone's birthday yesterday and we decided to celebrate and escape the painting going on in the house by taking a road trip. Our destination was Vic, a charming city in Catalunya situated between Girona and Barcelona. The trip across country was very pleasant traveling through green fields with either winter vegetables or grass growing. Early cherry trees were just starting to bloom and the Pyrenees in the distance had a light dusting of new snow.

We arrived in the town of Vic about one o'clock. Most of the shops were closed and there were very few people about. Obviously, the people of Vic are enthusiastic followers of lunch and siesta until four. Very quickly we discovered the town square with its beautiful arcades. The vast square is packed-down sand, and from pictures we saw in a coffee shop many events are held there including markets, performances, fiestas with giant people and even those acrobatic competitions, where people climb on each others backs to form a pyramid. We located the cathedral, which was closed until four and the Roman cathedral and Episcopalian museum both closed until Tuesday. Not to worry, it was time for lunch. For ten euros we had wine, water, a salad with smoked salmon, escalope of veal and a lovely very moist cake with what tasted like butterscotch dripping over the top. All this was finished off with an espresso.

Our hotel was in an old renovated stone farmhouse with stone walls in the room and lovely, crooked, woodworm beams gracing the ceiling. We returned to Vic to visit the Cathedral first built in the Romanesque style in the fourteenth century. It was quite different from other churches we have visited as the overwhelming theme was black and gold. The black pillars looked like they had gold leaf or at least gold paint on them. All the pictures were very dark but decorated with quite a bit of gold.

By now the town had come alive. Shutters had been raised on all the stores and people were everywhere. What a vibrant spot. We wandered around the Ramblas  and the narrower pedestrian lanes passing the beautifully lit Roman temple before deciding that it was time to return to the hotel.

Nine o'clock. Time for dinner. And what a dinner it was. It started with a tray of local cured meats, which the area is famous for with toasted bread and tomatoes. You cut the tomatoes and rub it on the bread and then eat the delicious pan tomat. This was followed by small balls of cod deep fried in batter. Next came two fried eggs with the most amazing deep yellow golden yolks. Main course was grilled sea bass. Since it was Seamus' birthday the server brought, unasked, his dessert complete with numbered candles showing his age. All this was accompanied by a hearty rendition of Happy Birthday. Now this is service since I hadn't asked for anything. They knew it was his birthday from his passport at check in. Another coffee with petit fours. What a lovely meal but much too much eating.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

An afternoon in the aiguamolls

It was time for another visit to the Aiguamolls Nature Reserve to check on our feathered friends. We were greeted by a robin redbreast in the parking lot. On the way to the first blind we could hear lots of ducks and geese. It was no surprise that the pond was teeming with mallards, black headed northern shovelers, teals,  rusty pochards and northern pintails with their yellow feathered tails. Black coots were skittering on top of the water. The funniest birds were the greyling geese that managed a spectacular synchronized swimming performance all standing on their heads under the water at one time with the rest of their bodies pirouetting gracefully on the surface. One ragged Great Blue Heron shared a log with some ducks and geese. There were eight deer on one island lying down soaking up the sun. We didn't see any spoonbills or great flamingoes in this pond but they could have been foraging in one of the many ponds in the reserve that can't be seen.

The water level, which is controlled by flood gates and irrigation ditches, was very high. In some cases it was almost up to the path we were walking along. Further into the park we watched some black cormorants perched on the top branches of a tree. We kept hearing a funny clicking sound and as we got nearer we thought it was a short in one of the electrical fences. It well could have been that because in the adjacent field was a lovely rust coloured vaca marinera or sea cow. Only this was no cow but a magnificent bull. The sea cow used to be native to the Emporda, where it was used for pulling boats from the water and for farm traction. Apparently, it didn't give much milk so it was replaced by other types of cows. Today it is extinct but is being regenerated from the Menorca cow.

Some storks were foraging in the open fields along with a big brown ruff and some spiky topped northern lapwings. Perhaps the highlight of today's walk was spotting the small, elegant red-footed falcon with its orange-buff crown.

By now it was dusk. On our way home we spotted a field filled with little and great egrets. Further along the road a fox with a huge bushy tail darted across the road in front of us.

We had worked up quite an appetite on our walk today. An espresso and two banyuls or little sugary coated donuts at a local bakery managed to revive us.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A walk along the beach to Sant Marti d'Empuries

We haven't really taken advantage of the warm weather we have had this last week. Once again it was twenty-four degrees celsius but very windy. The last time we were at St. Pere Pescador it was still beach weather. Today the big, long, wide beach was nearly deserted. We set off battling the wind with no real plan on how far we would walk. I'm glad we weren't swimming today as the white capped waves were huge. After about fifteen minutes we were into the rhythm of the walk and we ignored the strong wind blowing in our faces. We walked and walked finally spotting a campground, with flags flying, that from a distance looked liked it was open. Coffee perhaps? We crossed the beach, walked up the path only to find out that like everything else, it was closed. We saw one man then another. They were looking to go into the dunes, which they eventually did. Then another head popped up, resembling a meerkat. This is a gay cruising area.

By now we could clearly see the village of Sant Marti d'Empuries, a spot we have visited before. We continued along the beach, crossed a little bridge and stopped at the first hotel, closed. The path we followed is the same popular one that passes the Greek and Roman ruins at Empuries on the other side of Sant Marti. In fact the first Greeks settled here in the sixth century BC before they moved along the beach to Empuries. We kept walking along the path into the narrow laneways of the village passing the ruins of old medieval stone buildings and the blocked village well. Finally, we rounded a corner to discover a couple of restaurants that were open. We were glad to sit down after trudging up the beach for an hour and a half. Even better, the server obviously seeing that we were in need of sustenance brought us a dessert menu. We ordered cortados - espresso with a little milk - a huge bottle of water and two crepes. My grand marnier crepe came with heated liqueur that was flambéed over the crepe. Seamus had a mermelada crepe of very tasty apricot jam. We switched halfway through. Now revived we could appreciate the view across the square of the ancient parish church of St. Marti de'Empuries, dating back to 834.

Leaving the restaurant we crossed the square to the church, which looks out over the sea. Sitting on a plinth in front of the church, I prepared for the return trip by removing a great amount of sand that had accumulated in my shoes. Back on the beach, the sun was now much lower in the sky causing us to pick up our pace. Once again we were the only people on the beach except for a couple of people walking their dogs in the far distance. The wind was still very strong but now at least it was at our backs pushing us along. Finally, just as the huge, orange sun was starting to disappear behind the dunes we reached the car. Once again I emptied the beach from my shoes and socks. This was the perfect walk, sun, sand, sea and a lovely snack break at the halfway point.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Three Kings Day

On a warm Saturday evening everyone in the village was standing in front of the town hall, looking out to sea,  listening to Christmas songs in Catalan. It was the Night of the Three Kings and they were soon to arrive by traditional mallorcan boats. Three Kings Day or Epiphany is a big holiday in Catalunya, and the time that presents are received rather than at Christmas. Boys and girls lined the dock holding lovely, multicoloured paper lanterns, many of them homemade, to light the way for the Kings.

Finally, the Christmas lights on the first boat are spotted. Very quickly the boat docks to the sound of clapping and loud cheers. The White King has arrived with his retinue. His face, long hair, curly beard and clothing are all white. Slowly he makes his way along the dock greeting and chatting to the boys and girls and their families. Another cheer goes up and the Black King clambers out of his boat, again accompanied by his retinue. He is dressed in red robes, a red turban complete with feather and lovely, glittery eyeshadow. He too greets everyone on the dock. Finally, the Ginger King arrives with ginger curly hair, beard, eyeshadow and golden clothing. He is really the Oriental King, I just call him the Ginger King.

Eventually, the Kings and their retinues make their way to the town hall and climb up to the first floor balcony, where they are introduced by the mayor. Each king addressed the audience with various messages, "You shall be good kids." The crowd applauds. "You shall tidy your rooms," Lots of laughter. After more speeches the Kings made their way out to the street for more photo ops and chats slowly moving towards the ballroom. Each child in the village is called up to the stage to receive their present from one of the Kings. Finally, it is all over. Everyone heads home for dinner and more importantly to leave out some sweet wine and pastries for the visiting Kings, when they visit overnight to leave present for everyone in the family. Sometimes they even come with their camels.