Friday, June 28, 2013

La Vall de Santa Creu's hidden charms

Since there is a band playing in the tiny, neighbouring village of La Vall de Santa Creu on Saturday night we decided to visit it today to see if the parking situation was as limited as we remembered. The village is part way up a nearby mountain and as we climbed we passed two huge vehicles cutting down the vegetation at the side of the road to make more room for parking on Saturday.

It's local traffic only in the village, so we parked in a small lot on the edge of town and walked the rest of the way. Santa Creu used to be an independent village until 1787, when it became a part of El Port de la Selva. It has forty houses, mostly restored. The first place we passed was a restaurant with a lovely terrace overlooking the valley and some lovely cooking smells emanating from it. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite lunchtime yet.

We continued walking along small, steep narrow streets towards the Font or fountain, where Saturday's music will be performed. The Font was in a dirt covered square with massive plain trees. One must have been several centuries old. There we found the old fountain and the large communal washing trough. The stream used to operate several olive mills.

As we returned to the car we looked out over the valley and spotted a clearly defined trail, leading all the way up to the Sant Pere de Rodes monastery. This would be much easier than climbing the switchbacks on the road. There was also a trail down to the Port.

We discovered the very old, tiny church that we think dated to the fifteenth century. It had some ancient, rickety steps leading up to the roof. Back down on the ground I moved the giant, rusty snib on the door to look inside the church. It was quite small with a beamed ceiling, an old stone altar and font. I don't think it had been used for a very long time.

Still plagued with very high winds, we went for a walk along the Ronda on the far side of the fishing dock. There were big rollers coming in off the sea. Each stony beach had a few people on it but no one was swimming. In fact the buoys marking the swimming area haven't been put in the water yet. I think this is about a month later than last year.

Bright yellow flowers were blooming on the prickly pear cacti that line part of the Ronda. It was really interesting to watch the bees nestle themselves right in the flower to get the nectar.

It was back to the Nautica for a coffee, only to have Carlos, one of the servers, take one look at my hair and say, "Tramuntana." This wind certainly makes for bad hair days.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sant Joan holiday celebrates beginning of summer

Sunday was the Feast of Sant Joan, which celebrates the start of summer and the summer solstice. It is one of the most important feast days for Catalans. The sun is seen as a symbol of fertility and wealth and so it must be given strength provided by bonfires and fireworks lit throughout the village for Sant Joan.

There are said to be three symbols of Sant Joan - fire, water and herbs. Fire symbolises purity, and for this reason fires are lit. Water symbolises healing. Therefore, on this night, in some areas people bathe in the sea. Herbs symbolise remedy and some claim that for the night of Sant Joan their healing qualities are enhanced one hundred times over. These are often picked on the night of Sant Joan.

Unfortunately, the day was overcast and very windy, not the best weather for the celebration of the "Nit de Foc" or "Night of Fire." No one braved the beach during the day so the village was full of people walking the promenade and streets. The shops and restaurants were full. Once again the stage had to be set up right in one of the squares rather than in the open on the promenade.

We celebrated by having the barbecue at the Nautica restaurant. We started off with lovely, crisp sardines,  followed by a huge plate of too much meat.There were two kinds of sausages, a pork chop, chicken and something that was new to us. It was a type of pork blood sausage with lots of herbs in it. I've never eaten a blood sausage in my life but this was delicious. All this was accompanied by lots of cava. I'm afraid that I didn't do justice to the rest of the meat. The evening closed with the owners performing a funny dance number.

On the beach there were lots of fireworks going off, some quite colourful and spectacular. Families we're letting off their smaller fireworks on the beach. The weather really put a damper on things, with no bonfire possible because of the high winds. Certainly no one was purifying themselves in the very rough sea.

We decided that we would watch the celebrations from our terrace. The fireworks went on for hours. Just when you would think the spectacular fireworks were over they would start up again. It was easy to hear the band so every so often we would stand outside and listen to it but we weren't motivated to go back to the village as the wind seemed to have picked up even more. Even with the wind there were lots of people enjoying the Nit de Foc.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin

Since we were flying today, we decided to go for a good walk in the sunshine. We passed the Jewish Memorial and through the Brandenburg Gate to Pariser Platz, where we decided that we had to visit the Adlon Hotel that features so much in David Downing's John Russell novels and Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunter novels. After all, Bernie worked at the Adlon as head of security at one time so we feel as if we know the hotel and it's owner.

The original Adlon was one of the most famous hotels in Europe. The Adlon opened on October 23, 1907 with the Kaiser, his wife, and many other notables in attendance. It quickly became the social center of Berlin. It was largely destroyed in 1945 during the closing days of World War II, though a small wing continued operating until 1984.

After World War I and the abdication of the Kaiser, Lorenz Adlon remained a staunch monarchist and thus never imagined normal traffic would pass through the Brandenburg Gate's central archway, which had been reserved for the Kaiser alone. He therefore never looked before crossing in front of it. Tragically, this resulted in Adlon being hit by a car in 1918 at that spot. Three years later, on April 7, 1921, he was again hit by a car at exactly the same spot, this time fatally. Lorenz's son Louis Adlon took over management of the hotel.

The Adlon was one of the most famous hotels in Europe and hosted many celebrity guests including Tsar Nicholas II. Following the war, the East German government reopened the building's surviving rear service wing under the Hotel Adlon name, before eventually turning it into a home for east german apprentices. The ruined main building was demolished in 1952, along with all of the other buildings on Pariser Platz. The square was left as an abandoned, grassed-over buffer between West and East, with the Brandenburg Gate sitting alone by the Berlin Wall. Finally in 1984 the building was demolished. The new Adlon, loosely based on the original opened in 1997.

Not only is the Adlon famous in novels, it also has featured in movies such as Liam Neeson's, "Unseen." It was the model for "Grand Hotel," where Greta Garbo famously announced, "I vant to be alone." It was from a window of at this hotel that Michael Jackson famously dangled his son Blanket.

We passed the huge pots of stunning white hydrangeas and entered the hotel. The marble lobby had a huge lounge in the centre with plenty of couches and tables for sitting areas. Most of these were full of people having drinks or very nice looking lunches. We carried on down the marble hallway passing large side rooms, somewhat resembling palm courts, that were filled with tropical plants. We decided to forego lunch as it was still quite early. Sadly, we didn't see Bernie or even Greta Garbo's ghost but next time the Adlon features in anything we read or watch we will visualize it perfectly.

We continued our walk up Unter der Linden. It is a beautiful street lined with Linden trees. There is a giant promenade in the middle. If it wasn't for all the construction it would have been quite imposing. We stopped in the Miele restaurant, tucked away at the back of the appliance store, for lunch. It was my first German meal, hot veal meatballs, a delicious cucumber and potato salad and a green salad. This was followed by a drink of rhubarb ice cream, honey and shaved ice. Very tart and delicious.

Our walk continued along Freidrichstrasse and eventually we were back at the hotel. Walking in Berlin can be tricky if you don't pay attention to the bike lanes marked on the very wide sidewalks. Many locals take advantage of these, speeding along on utilitarian looking, black, upright bikes. A healthy way to travel, but dangerous for inattentive pedestrians!

It was time to say Auf Wiedersehen to Berlin. With lots more to explore, I hope that we return.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday flea market and a visit to secret police headquarters

On Sunday we joined Berliners and tourists as we headed towards Mauerpark, famous for its huge flea market. It was jam-packed with people buying second-hand clothes, new clothes, parts for motor bikes, old furniture and record players that pumped out loud music, antiques, plants and even an old fashioned metal washing board. You could find anything you could imagine here in Mauerpark. Seamus even found his long sought after 'perfect' hat, while I bought a beautiful olive-wood ladle. 

Finally, we left the crush and sat in the adjacent park listening to five young men playing klezmer music. There were lots of people just enjoying the sunshine here. Nearby was a man singing the blues. We decided to leave the park and not wait for the karaoke, which is a big draw.

Back on the Ubahn we headed to the Stasi museum. Unlike other places we had visited, it wasn't well marked. We were in an area of nothing but block apartments with very little green space. Some was old Soviet style block housing but the new apartments looked pretty similar.

After asking for directions we finally arrived at Normenstrasse. That name we knew from Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunter novels. Normenstrasse would always put a shiver down Bernie's spine. We had reached the home of the Stasi. Since we hadn't had lunch we went to the cafe for a coffee and cake. It was the cheapest we'd had in Berlin and served by the only person we encountered who didn't speak English. Russian was her second language.

The building appeared like any other older office complex you might have been in, although this certainly had a sense of evil about it. It was from this compound that the Stasi conducted its nearly 40-year-long fight against the so called enemies of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. We were in House 1, constructed in 1960 and built as the seat of the offices of the Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke. To show you how vast it was there were over 22 hectares in the compound. At the end there were 91,000 full time employees and 189,000 unofficial informants.

The exhibition shows how the party leadership justified its dictatorship with Marxist-Leninist ideology. It used these political ideas to promote complete control of the population. The exhibition showed the methods with which the Stasi persecuted and suppressed dissenters. Finding themselves in a system built around rewards, threats and persecution, many residents of the DDR chose to conform, at least outwardly. Some did not conform and the party leadership was very sensitive to this segment of the population. They used the secret police, the Stasi to deal with them.

On the ground floor was a prisoner wagon complete with individual cages. Often these were disguised as laundry vans. There were displays of tiny cameras, cameras in ties, briefcases, purses and even petrol cans used for spying. Tiny miniature microphones were used as bugs for listening. Throughout the building were photos of individuals who ended up in the Stasi prison, many for what we would see as no offense at all. We saw Mielke's office area as well as other offices throughout the building.

On January 15, 1990, citizens forced their way into the building. This was the beginning of a unique historical process. The Ministry for State Security's accumulation of 111 kilometres of paper files, 1.7 million photos and 28,000 recordings were laid bare. Although records were lost in the initial invasion of the building, now a Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records preserves the safekeeping of the documents as well as making them accessible. 

An event in my life makes much more sense now that I have seen this building. A friend, who had defected from East Germany and lived in the West for six years emigrated to Canada. After she had been in Toronto for only two days her old East German coach had said to her father in Berlin, " I see that....has moved to Toronto." The Stasi had a long arm. I remember clearly a phone call for my friend on a Sunday morning. When I told her there was a German man on the phone she literally turned a ghostly white. She had me ask what the person wanted but it was only someone offering her a job. After the call she went to the bathroom and was physically sick. That is the effect the Stasi could have even from a long distance. I might add that my friend was no shrinking violet.

After our fairly grim afternoon we had to end the day on a lighter note. This involved eating a lovely steak pie and chips in an Aussie pub restaurant back at the Sony Centre in Potsdamer Platz followed by a movie, Olympus Has Fallen, in English, in a wonderful modern cinema. What a treat. And a normal ending to a strange day.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Potsdam's royal palaces and singing vampires

This morning we once again boarded the maroon and yellow U-bahn train, this time to take us to Potsdam. I thought that some of the carriages of the train were quite old but that isn't the case. Warm weather, no air-conditioning and plastic covered seats made for a sticky journey.

Since we didn't have much time, we thought we would look for a bus tour once we got to Potsdam. We were in luck as a lady from one of the tour companies practically met us off the train and accompanied us to an old fashioned double decker bus.

Our first stop was the New Palace, the final palace built by Frederich the Great. It was certainly built to impress, with a central dome and lavish exterior with a parade of sandstone figures. Frederich used it for his guests. Across the street was a smaller palace built in the same style that was used as the butlers' quarters and housed the kitchens. A tunnel had been built between it and the New Palace. The people who delivered the food had to always whistle in the tunnel. Why? So they couldn't eat the food. You can't whistle and eat at the same time.

Our next stop was the Sanssouci park and palace, a reflection of what happens when a king has good taste and access to fine architects. Frederich the Great built this summer retreat for himself. It has only 12 rooms and no women were allowed. In fact Frederich visited his wife in Berlin only a couple of times a year. Needless to say this marriage did not produce any heirs.

At the back were terraces with vines and fig trees growing intermittently behind glass doors that could be opened in the better weather. From here we looked down over the magnificent gardens and fountain.

At one side of the palace is a plain grave marked with a stone. This is where Frederich lies. On top of the flat gravestone were a number of potatoes. Frederich is also known as the potato king. Since there were insufficient cereals for his subjects, Frederich brought potatoes to Prussia. At first his subjects didn't like potatoes, but Frederich cleverly had some fields of potatoes planted with some guards around them during the day but not at night. Human nature being what it is the people wanted what they couldn't have and thus the potato became a staple of the Prussian diet. Beside Frederich's gravestone there were a number of similar graves marked the same way. These were the graves of Frederich's favourite whippets.

We drove through the beautiful countryside passing guest houses that were like mini palaces, a Chinese Dragon House and an historic Dutch windmill. Back in the town we passed the area where the 2000 Russian KGB members used to live in lovely big houses. The whole area was cleared of its residents so the KGB could live there. Even Alexander Putin lived here at one time.

During WWII Potsdam was a barracks town with over 90,000 troops housed here. In the Cold War era 30,000 Russian troops were stationed here. Today these barracks have been converted to university housing or apartments.

Our final stop was the Cecilienhof Palace built by the last Hohenzollern king. It is quite odd that the palace was built during WWII in an English Tudor style for Crown Prince William and his wife Cecilie. Although it looks quite small it has 176 rooms. For the time it was very modern with indoor plumbing and central heating.

The palace is probably best known as the site of the Potsdam Conference where Churchill and later Attlee, Truman and Stalin met in 1945 to discuss among other things how to partition Germany. We could see the three representative flags in the room where the leaders met. Today the Palace is a museum and hotel set in lovely grounds.

Back on the bus we passed what had once been the KGB prison, bars still covering its windows. Our next stop was the historic Dutch quarter built in the 1700s. Many of the passengers left the bus here to explore this attractive area with its many little shops and restaurants. For us it was back to the station for our return trip to Berlin.

We just had time to change our clothes before heading off to the elegant Westen theatre to see Roman Polanski's musical Dance of the Vampires. We thought that we could easily handle a musical in German, which we did. Boy falls in love with girl, vampire loves girl, gay vampire loves boy, with people being turned into vampires add a generous helping of some spectacular music and dance numbers, which made for a fun evening.

The day was done. It was time for a quick snack at Billy Wilder's and a welcome bed.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Outdoor exhibits recall Berlin's lost diverisity

Throughout our travels around Berlin and especially on Museum Island we encountered outdoor pillars that were part of Diversity Destroyed. Berlin 1933 – 1938, an open air exhibition that brings together more than forty projects of museums and memorials, private associations and initiatives that deal with the history of Berlin under National Socialism. On Museum island I wandered among a series of pillars adorned with large portraits and biographies commemorating the lives of over 200 individuals who stamped their mark on the diverse society of early 1930s Berlin. In the aftermath of the Nazi regime's rise to power in 1933 and the 1938 November pogroms, an appalling number of men and women who had contributed to the diversity of Berlin's cultural landscape were persecuted and driven into exile, while others were deported or murdered. Teachers, philosophers, actors, authors, photographers, journalists and people from all levels of society were among those commemorated. Some returned to Germany while others remained in their adopted countries. Others were not so lucky. Although I didn't recognise a lot of the pictures and biographies, here are some that I knew: Bertholt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Anne Frank, Richard Heymann, Otto Kemperer, Peter Lorre and Billy Wilder.

Much to see on Berlin's museum island

Our second day in Berlin took us back to Museum Island, a Unesco-recognised cluster of five repositories brimming with art. Today we would take a break from the Nazi and Cold War eras.

The Pergamon Museum is Berlin's top tourist attraction, open since 1930. Most of the artifacts were excavated and spirited to Berlin by German archeologists at the turn of the twentieth century. In the first hall we entered was the Pergamon Altar, which is quite breathtaking. It is a massive 2nd century BC marble shrine from what is now Bergama in Turkey and centres on a steep and wide staircase. Reconstructed along the walls is an impressive frieze, 113 metres long, showing the gods locked in an epic battle with the giants. It was amazing how all of this was moved and reassembled in the Pergamon.

The other impressive sight in the museum was the Babylonian Ishtar gate, Processional Way and throne hall of its builder, King Nebuchadnezzar II. The walls are covered in radiant blue and ochre glazed bricks with friezes of strutting lions, bulls and dragons.

We had our lunch outdoors on the banks of the river Spree. Seamus boldly tried the Berlin favourite, currywurst. I can only describe it as hot dog-like but made with curry, definitely not my cup of tea but it is tremendously popular here.

It was right back to The Neues Museum to see Nefertiti. When I had crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, we had picked up an American lady, an archeologist, who had special permission to work there and to visit Nefertiti. Since that day I had always wanted to have an audience with Berlin's most beautiful woman- she of the long graceful neck and timeless good looks. I wasn't disappointed by the bust, part of yet another German archeological team's excavation of Armana built by Nefertiti's husband King Akhenaten.

We completed our visit to the museum by visiting the Trojan collection unearthed in what is today's Turkey. Many other objects on display, jewelry, ornate weapons and gold mugs are replicas since the originals were looted by the Russians after WWII and remain in Moscow to this day.

On my previous trip to Berlin I had seen the spot where Hitler's bunker once stood. You couldn't stop near the unmarked grassy knoll in a no man's land. Today we walked to the spot through an area of endless apartments and apartments under construction. Today the site lies under a paved parking lot for one of the apartment buildings. A fitting end. 

Back in the sunshine we boarded the U bahn and headed to the zoo. I had visited Germany's oldest animal park on my previous trip and was quite excited to make this visit. The park is quite compact but the animal enclosures are large and interesting for their occupants. We kept trying to find the giant panda. Since the zoo goes in loops we kept coming around on ourselves. There were lots of lovely displays including a parade of elephants aged from one to fifty.

I enjoyed watching the two families of orangutans hanging out, literally, outside. The fur on the back of the males was the longest I'd ever seen. Another of my favourites was the black panther with his beautiful, ebony, shiny coat. One really nice thing about the zoo is that you could watch the animals outside but if they decided to go into the animal houses you could see them there. We still didn't find the panda even after we followed all the signs. At the end of our visit we discovered that the panda had died last year at the age of twenty-two.

Outside the zoo we walked over to the Ku' damm. I had fond memories of this street but oh my how it had changed. This street was the glittering heart of West Berlin during the Cold War. Now there were no little pastry shops where you could get coffee or even any little shops. I had bought a lovely pair of mauve suede shoes that were sitting in a basket outside a small shoe store calling to me. Today on this part of Berlin's busiest shopping street we found the same stores as you would find in any European city. In the 1920's the Kurfurstendamm was the scene cafes and cabarets. It's in another transition now.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A day full of iconic Berlin sites

Our first day in Berlin continued with a visit to the Mauer Museum right beside Checkpoint Charlie. The museum opened in the early 1960s and acted as an island to freedom right next to the border. From here, through a small window, escape helpers could observe all movements at the border crossing. Escapees were always welcome and escape plans could be worked out.

I had some friends who escaped from the East, one by swimming a river, so this has always interested me. In the museum we saw hot air balloons, escape cars with special compartments built into them, chairlifts, home-made motor-powered kites equipped with a Trabant engine and even a small submarine that an escapee used to drag himself along in the Baltic Sea to escape the DDR. There was no end to people's ingenuity. The most successful escape enabled 57 people to reach Berlin in two evenings in October 1964. One of these escapees became the first German in space.

The exhibition showed the history of Checkpoint Charlie from the time in 1961 when American and Russian tanks faced each other here. Not all escape attempts were successful, as in August 1962, when Peter Fletcher bled to death before the eyes of the world.

There were many photos of the 1953 revolt almost everywhere in the DDR and the subsequent put down with the aid of Soviet Tanks. Further stages of the exhibition showed the building of the Wall, it's fall and subsequent German reunification.

By now we found ourselves on Museum Island. We decided to visit the Berliner Dom, the former Royal Court church built in the 1700s, which today acts as a house of worship, museum and concert hall. The 7269-pipe Sauer organ is world famous. Our visit took us down to the crypt, where many German royals rest in elaborate sarcophagi.

By now we were dragging a little but decided to climb up the very narrow, winding staircase that took us up to the dome. Needless to say, there were only two other couples up here. No one wanted to do the brutal climb. However, it was worth it once we were there to walk all the way around the dome for a magnificent aerial view of Berlin.

Our continued walking took us to the Reichstag, the home of the Federal government. Four corner towers are the only remains of the original building. Today the historical shell remains as part of the post-reunification makeover, while adding the sparkling glass dome, Berlin's newest symbol.

Next we stopped to admire the Brandenburg Gate. The last time I was in Berlin I saw it from a distance in a car. It was the dividing line between East and West. There was no going close to the Gate or walking through it as you can today. It was in the middle of a no man's land. Today the Gate epitomises German reunification. It is where Barack Obama spoke from only yesterday.

The Brandenburg gate was completed in 1791 as the royal city gate. It stands sentinel over Pariser Platz, a square framed by embassies and bank buildings and the magnificent Adlon Hotel.

On our return to our hotel we stopped at the Holocaust Memorial, which took 17 years to plan and construct. The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe was finally dedicated in May 2005. In a space equal to ten football fields 2711 sarcophagi-like stelae rise up to various heights from undulating ground. You can make your own journey through it.

Sustained by a quick lunch many espressos and some cake throughout the day, we were happy to have a lovely Italian meal in Potzdamer Platz with lovely arugula salad, bruschetta and sea bream. All this was helped along with an Argentinian Malbec of all things. After a short walk around the neighbourhood discovering theatres and concert halls it was definitely time to call it all day.

Ich bin ein Berliner

Last week we took a little trip to Berlin. Of course we took Easyjet from Barcelona and it was some trip. After a major delay thanks to the French air traffic controllers being on strike we finally were on our way sitting in one of the most uncomfortable seats that I have yet to encounter on a plane. We were happy to arrive at our hotel in Berlin near Potsdamer Platz even though it was two in the morning.

How different Potsdamer Platz was from the last time I was here more than forty years ago. My recollection is of climbing up to a platform that overlooked the Berlin Wall and looking down on the no man's land with barbed wire and dogs patrolling. The whole area, which was the hub of Berlin until bombed by the Allies, was a mass of rubble and shells of buildings with Russian soldiers stationed in some of them pointing their guns in our direction. It was a pretty grim picture.

Everything today is shiny and new. Since the Wall came down in 1989 the rubble is gone and most of the buildings are modern and new. We passed the beautiful Sony Centre with its many restaurants, cinemas and movie museum. The square itself has lots of space and in the centre sits the U bahn station.

We passed the old Reich Air Ministry building, which was massive. It was one of the older buildings built in the 1930s. Outside was a photographic display commemorating the June 1953 strike and uprising by the people against the Russians and the DDR government. Many people lost their lives, were injured or sent to penal colonies before it was over.

Our next stop was the Topography of Terrors display on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters and SS Central Command, the principal instruments of Nazi oppression. Both of these were bombed and the remaining ruins have been demolished. The cellar of the Gestapo headquarters, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed, were found and excavated. The site was then turned into a memorial and museum, in the open air but protected from the elements by a canopy, detailing Hitler's rise to power.

Inside the new building the displays show graphic images of the Nazis' years in power and crimes they perpetrated against Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. There were the original Gestapo cards with photos of captured gypsies and their particulars. A library holds police and SS files. It was a pretty grim place.

Outside once again we continued our walk ending up at Checkpoint Charlie. I had crossed from the American sector into the Russian sector in a taxi on my previous visit. It was the only way you could go. Of course Checkpoint Charlie was familiar through Len Deighton and John Le Carre books and movies. It was the first time I had ever seen a mirror rolled under a car. Both the Americans and the VOPOS were armed with machine guns. Perhaps these scenes are more commonplace now but back then it was exciting and very scary. You had to surrender your passport to the VOPOS for about 45 minutes. It was returned and you had to buy 5 or 10 DDR marks. I toured East Berlin and always remember the grim contrast with the West. There were no flower boxes and everything was drab. Where new buildings had been constructed it was in true Soviet bloc style.

On the return journey you had to again surrender your passport and return any unspent marks or show what you had spent them on. While sitting there two VOPOS dragged in a roughed up man, his feet trailing behind him into a back room. This was no movie. I was relieved to get my passport back and return to the Western Zone.

Today there are no East German watchtowers at Checkpoint Charlie just the old American border crossing in the middle of the street with a couple of actors portraying American army personnel. You can even have your picture taken with them. The old sign of "You are now leaving the American sector," stands to one side. This is a huge tourist attraction and the area is all new buildings with McDonald's, Burger King and Starbucks. What would Michael Caine's Harry Palmer make of this today?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Art by the water and a lip syncing extravaganza

Sunday was a busy day in El Port de la Selva. It was the first day of the Tramuntanart Display. Saturday was supposed to be the first day but unfortunately it rained. All along the promenade from one end of the village to the other were local works of art inspired by the Tramuntana, the wind that blows down from the Pyrenees.

There were more works on display this year than there had been last year. From lovely photography including one where the port and mountains were yellow from the sun to a sculpture of a lovely copper sailing ship. One of my favourites was the jellyfish made out of differently coloured pieces of glass. Their tentacles felt sticky but they had the same colours as the main body. I don't really know if these were made out of glass or not. There were some lovely wooden sculptures and some whimsical installations made out of plastic bottles. A weather vane in the shape of an arm pointed out the wind direction. There were carvings of people in what looked liked soapstone but was probably a local stone.

The art display drew  lots of people, all enjoying the sunshine as well as the art. At one end of the promenade by the marina there is a little bar, where jazz musicians were performing. It was a lovely Sunday walk from one end of town to the other.

For us the day wasn't over. In the evening we attended Playback 10 in the ballroom. Now to those of you who have never attended a Playback performance it may sound a little odd but it was a great night out. Playback is quite common in Spain where groups or individuals perform to current music in any language while they mime the words from the original recordings. It is a wonderful way to draw the village together. The costumes are quite elaborate as is the choreography. Last night we saw Abba, Adele and Bon Jovi to name a few. Liza Minelli did a wonderful, sexy number from Cabaret. One older man from the village dressed in a rather baggy suit sang an opera number, where everyone applauded and shouted bravo as he 'hit' the high notes. The mayor took part in a sultry duet, and twenty ladies in elaborate ruffled red outfits gave a wonderful rendition of the cancan. LMFAO appeared and performed a very athletic, "I'm sexy and I know it." It was a sight to behold with the four hairy men in their shorts but it got better -- or worse -- when they removed their shorts to continue dancing or I should say bumping and grinding in their canary yellow underwear with a happy face in the strategic spot. My face was sore from laughing.

Anyone of any age, shape or size can perform in Playback. Rehearsals have been going on for months to prepare for the show. It is so popular that the show is performed to a sold-out ballroom for three nights. What fun to see the person that served you bread this afternoon performing as a vamp this evening.

Skydivers and fig loaf in Empuriabrava

Our travels took us to Empuriabrava this afternoon. Since our favourite place for coffee, Blue Sky, was closed we ended up in what appeared to be a Moroccan or Tunisian harem with plush pink velvet cushions and couches. We opted to sit outside.

Nearby we had noticed a sign for a swimming pool. Since we are always in search of the perfect pool we decided to try to find it. First of all we discovered Windoor, where you can go flying in a wind tunnel, something that we're very interested in doing. Close by is the aerodrome, where small private planes fly into Empuriabrava but even more interesting it is where the skydivers fly from.

By now the rainy day had changed to bright blue sunshine. We watched a couple of tiny private planes take off. They looked like you could flip them over with one hand. The lady making announcements said there was only 5 minutes before the plane carrying the skydivers was about to take off. We sat on the bleachers and watched some Norwegian men dressed in white jump suits move towards the take-off point. Then more people joined them dressed in their jumpsuits, harnesses and helmets, some with elaborate cameras mounted on them.

The twin-prop plane arrived and the skydivers boarded. Quickly the plane took off following a box-shaped route, climbing higher and higher with each leg. Suddenly a clutch of skydivers that we could hardly see left the plane and were floating towards the airfield. One skydiver kept turning over upside down. Then the divers were above us and whooshed down to the field seemingly putting on the brakes landing right in front of us.

We could just barely see the speck in the sky that was the plane. We hadn't noticed the skydivers until the chutes were open and they were on their way down. And down they shot. The Norwegians came down at a tremendous speed and effortlessly landed in front of us. They were followed by most of the others. Two or three skydivers were enjoying floating higher up in no hurry to come down. Finally they were much lower down and we could see the skydiver with a passenger, who had gone for a ride. These passengers had no special clothes on or even helmets but what a ride. I'm sure they were thrilled. I think that would be the only way that I would skydive. As we left the Norwegians were running to catch the plane to go back up again.

We didn't find the nonexistent swimming pool but as a bonus we visited the new French bakery for some wonderful fig bread. So delicious. What a lovely afternoon.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Floral decorations and ancient church in La Selva de Mar

Once again it was the Sonarkids celebration in El Port de la Selva. This celebration is geared towards kids with huge bouncy castles and bands playing all day. Unfortunately, this year the winds were so high that instead of setting up on the promenade the castles and stage were right in the village causing the road to be blocked. This meant that to arrive at our morning coffee spot, the Nautica, we had to drive high up over the town. The view was quite spectacular and we travelled on some interesting streets that were new to us.

Around noon we decided to escape the sounds of the very loud bands and visit the next village, Selva de Mar, a lovely old village, where the fishermen used to live. Today everyone was encouraged to decorate their houses with flowers. I think the wind deterred some people. Nevertheless, there were some really creative displays on doorways and in pots outside the houses in the lanes. One lady had converted her entire garage into a beautiful flower display with some exotic species.

The lanes are very narrow making driving in the town almost impossible. We walked along the river, now down to a trickle. There are several little arched bridges over the river. What a lovely, quiet spot. At one end of tie river walk was a display of bright gerbers on the bank and some in huge glass jars right in the stream.

At the end of the houses we found a rough hill road that climbed past lots of olive groves and field with hollyhocks, poppies and lovely purple lavender. We decided to keep going and were rewarded when we spotted an old stone ruin. At first we weren't sure if it was a castle but it turned out to be an ancient church overlooking the town. Right in front of the ruin was the village's cemetery with lots of fresh flowers on the graves.

It was time to head back down to the village this time taking the short cut down a path cut out of the slate. It was rough going. Finally, back in the village we decided to have a well deserved beer at Bar Felip. It's a lovely spot sitting outside in the square under the plane trees, visiting with friends. It seems that all the village congregates here on a Sunday or at least they pass by. We will have to visit here more often.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Albera tortoise sanctuary

Finally, a break in the very mixed weather. We decided to go to the cooperative in Villajuiga for some shopping by traveling up over the mountain route. There were still some poppies lining the route with lots of little yellow mountain flowers. The brilliant yellow broom was still in bloom. It is unusual to see any wildlife other than birds but today right along the roadway we spotted a bright green ocellated lizard at the side of the road. We stopped to watch it for awhile before it scampered off up the rock face. This one hadn't quite reached its mature length of 30 to 60 centimetres.

With our shopping completed we took the road through the town to the Albera tortoise reproduction sanctuary. The Alberas are the most easterly stretch of the Pyrenees, and home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise of the Iberian peninsulas. Here there are installations for the breeding of the tortoises in order to boost the natural population. The different aspects of their biology are studied in order to heighten the need for their protection and conservation and to save the tortoise from extinction.

As we walked around the various pens the tortoises were easy to spot, some were sleeping, others were moving around at a good pace. There were plaques to tell us about the reproduction. No wonder they have problems since their mating begins with the male coming up behind the female and biting her legs. Some foreplay. The tortoises do mate twice a year. In fact the females lay their eggs in a couple of nests. We were lucky enough to see some of the eggs that hadn't been covered for some reason. There were cages with some very small babies to some larger babies. When the babies have grown enough they are released into the wild. Based on the number of young we saw, the reproduction centre is very successful. The tortoises' main enemy is the magpie that will eat fifty percent of the young.

There were other tortoises from all over the Mediterranean. In fact some of them were quite large. It was quite funny watching the tortoises walk into the feeding bowl to feed on the vegetable pellets. We watched them eating grass and weeds and lettuce that was bitten by the keeper and thrown into their enclosures. In fact she broke up a fight by just picking up one of the tortoises and moving it.

As well as the tortoises there were local turtles that were part of a reproduction program since it is thought that there are only about 500 of them left in the wild. Their numbers are reduced because people captured them to keep as pets and they then bred with the common red-eared turtle that people kept as pets. There were lots of these huge red-eared turtles that had grown from the little turtles that pet shops used to sell. No wonder people released them as some of them were huge. There was even a snapping turtle in one pond. These I remember since one used to make the difficult trip from the river every June 18 to lay its eggs in our back garden. You didn't want to get near her as she was extremely vicious.

We decided to return by the mountain route where we spotted something that looked like a ferret but turned out to be a polecat climbing the rocks at the side of the road. Because the weather wasn't overly hot we were lucky to see the lizard and polecat as well as the very active tortoises.