Snapshot Saturday: an unusual and holy kitchen appliance

As far as blogging goes, I’m still in Barcelona: though in reality I’m snuggled in a cosy jumper looking upwards as a grey sky turns greyer.

In Barcelona, we visited the Monasterio de Pedralbes.  It’s not actually a monastery, because no monk has ever lived there.  It’s a priory, built in 1326 by King James of Aragon for his wife Elisenda de Montcada, who wished to found a community of Poor Clares there.  Poor Clares?  These are nuns who devote themselves to a life of simplicity and prayer, and in Elisenda’s time were almost always drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy.  She herself never became a nun, but she was very real presence in the life of this community.

And what a fine place it is.  A graceful three-storied cloister surrounds a peaceful garden.  Here is a fountain, topped off with a rather cheeky looking angel.  This is where the nuns would wash their hands before dining in silence in the refectory, while devotional works were read to them from a pulpit.

But it’s the kitchen I’d like to show you.   In its day, this was a state-of-the-art workroom. Who wouldn’t like to cook at this unusual kitchen range, supervised by Saint Anthony?  Look at these fine sinks, dating from about 1520.  There are bread ovens, tiled worktops, and it was here that the simple diet of the nuns was prepared: fresh and salted fish, pulses, rice, vegetables and fruit.  Meat was reserved for festivities.

Saint Anthony’s range cooker.

 

A double drainer kitchen sink, without constant running hot water.

This is another of Barcelona’s hardly-discovered treasures.  Just a couple of school parties there, and once they’d gone, we had the place almost to ourselves.  Put this on your must-visit list too.

This post is my response to this week’s WordPress photo challenge: ‘unusual’.

 

From Pennines to Pyrenees

We’ve crossed the Pyrenees again.  To visit our daughter in Barcelona.

A view of Barcelona from Port Vell.
A view of Barcelona from Port Vell.

And then we shall cross them back again.  To visit our friends in Laroque d’Olmes.

A view of the Pyrenees from between Laroque and Foix
A view of the Pyrenees from between Laroque and Foix

We’ll be in touch when we get back to England again.

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is a bit of a grumpy day for me.  Nothing festive happens.  It’s just the day for dismantling the Christmas tree, packing baubles and Christmas wreaths away for another year, and reading through Christmas cards from old friends for the last time before they’re taken off to some recycling point.  The house looks sparse and bare, and maybe in need of a spring-clean.

I think of Emily over in Barcelona. She’s not at work today because Twelfth Night is Epiphany.  It’s the day on which Spanish children at last get their Christmas gifts, because the Day of the Three Kings is when legend has it that the Magi presented their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.  As Emily points out, the main downside to this late arrival of gifts is that this is the very last day of the holidays: school tomorrow, and no time to get to play with those new toys.  Still, today is another chance to party and enjoy a family feast.

Our caganer is clockwork.  He does back-flips.
Our caganer is clockwork. He does back-flips.

It was Emily who may have been responsible for our finding ‘el caganer’ in our Christmas stocking this year.  If your Catalan isn’t up to translating this, let me explain.  It means, um, ‘the crapper’. El caganer is a little fellow in Catalan costume, squatting with his trousers down, and defecating.  Why?  Well, he’s a traditional part of Catalan nativity scenes. Maybe he’s a fertility symbol.  Most people these days prefer the idea that it shows that great or small, we all have the same very basic needs.

Caganers on a market stall.  Anybody you recognise here?
Caganers on a market stall. Anybody you recognise here? (Wikimedia Commons)

So these days at any street market, you can buy caganer figures who represent the Pope, the Queen, Barack Obama, a whole range of footballers – any personality you can think of.  And they’re just the same as us.  Even if it’s Twelfth Night, I don’t think I’ll pack away our little ‘el caganer’ just yet.

Galette des rois, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Galette des rois, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A dusty miller.
A dusty miller. (Wikimedia Commons)

And when we lived in France, Epiphany was the start of the Galette des Rois season.  As guests anywhere, you’ll be sure to be offered a slice of this almondy pastry confection.  Part of you wants the good luck of being the person to find the ‘fève’ within your slice.  This used to be a lucky bean, making you king for the day.  Nowadays it’s a small china figurine, and maybe quite collectable.  I’ve just been looking unsuccessfully for our little fireman ‘fève’: goodness knows where I’ve hidden him .  The downside of finding the lucky bean though,  is that it’s your turn to make the galette next time round.

Parts of Europe seem to be having fun.  Ho hum.  Here, it’s all too easy to be aware that there’s January to get through before we can think of the days lengthening and the arrival of Spring.

The Bunkers of Barcelona

No sooner back from England, than we were making tracks for Barcelona.

Why?  To help daughter Emily and her flat-mate move.

A trailer load Barcelona-bound
A trailer load Barcelona-bound
Saturday saw us leave Laroque with a large and unwieldy trailer load of cast-offs for Emily and her flat-mate’s new home. Two beds and mattresses, a table, a blanket box, a linen basket, a bike, ephemera from the kitchen, all kinds of detritus.  We’d spent an afternoon on Friday packing the load, carefully, and with lots of thought and planning.  Ten minutes after we set off on Saturday, it became unstable.  We stopped and rejigged, went on a few miles… and more of the same.  It started to rain, with quite high winds.  We stopped a third time, bought more rope (OK, washing line.  It’s all we could find), really had a good go at things, and finally, we had a steady load that got us all the way to Barcelona, in said wind and rain, as far as the frontier.  Hooray!  In Spain, the sun shone.
In Barcelona, we unloaded, unpacked, fetched and carried, and did our best to get the new flat …er …  ship-shape.  Sunday morning, while the girls played house, Malcolm and I were off duty.  What to discover today?  Well, look one way from the street outside her flat, and you’ll see far below you, the sea.

Yes, that's the sea down there.
Yes, that’s the sea down there.

Look the other way, and you’ll see far above you…. bunkers.

Bunkers above
Bunkers above

Those bunkers are among Barcelona’s lesser known secrets, and they looked intriguing.  It’s a toughish climb up there, but stop for breath, and your reward is increasingly dramatic views of the city spread far below you.

View part way up.
View part way up.
At the top, there are battered concrete remains: the bunkers that were built by Spanish Republican forces in 1937 in their efforts to defend the city.  Little could be done against the air power of the Nationalists.  The Republicans were under-resourced, and their best hope was to use this high vantage point as both a look-out,and a place from which to launch protective curtains of artillery fire.
Once peace was restored, the bunkers came into use once more: a chronic housing shortage in the city meant that right up until the 1990’s, the site developed into a shanty town, housing up to 600 residents, though the council resisted providing services such as water and refuse disposal until well into the 1980’s.  Remnants of this improvised town can still be seen in vestiges of tiled floors.
Now, you’re most likely to make the trek up here to get the very best views of the city: better than from Tibidabo.  It’s not the view those Republican forces saw.  From up here at La Rovira, you look down on a modern city: recent tower blocks dwarf the older buildings, though your attention will always be caught by the spires of la Sagrada Familia, still under construction.  A highly-recommended excursion.  Get yourselves there before everyone discovers it.

Climb down again: this is what you see.
Climb down again: this is what you see.

Postcards from Girona 2

I knew I’d be writing at least one more post about Girona.  In my mind I’d plotted a quick run through the city’s exciting history, or an art history essay about one or more of the churches perhaps.  In the end though, you can get these things from any guide book, or by questioning the search engine of your choice.  What I’d like you to do is to plan a visit if you don’t know the city already, or to suggest other places to explore here if you do.

We’ve enjoyed pounding the streets.  Look up, or down as you’re walking, and you’ll find some gem worth your attention.  We’ve enjoyed finding little bars and making them our own for an early breakfast or a mid-morning coffee stop.  It’s astonishing how many Catalans seem to need a caffeine-rush before, during or after the daily grind.    Nor is it simply tourists who hunt for restaurants with outside tables and just enough shade to keep cool and comfortable: for the Spanish, irritatingly, being outside means chain-smoking too.

Churches mean the chance to explore centuries of fascinating history.  We passed almost an entire afternoon in Sant Feliu and then the Cathedral: and more or less accidentally discovered the outside of another- Sant Domènec, and the interior of one more – Santa Susanna.

We enjoyed our visit to the Arab Baths, the 12th century descendants of the Roman bath house, and antecedent of baths such as our own familiar Turkish baths in Harrogate.

Oooh, but it was tiring.  How good it was to end each day relaxing over a meal, people watching in the evening warmth, before strolling back through Devesa park  to our hotel, perchance to sleep.

Postcards from Girona

We had a mid-week break in Girona last week.  Because I needed the dentist.

Despite the general all-round good quality of the French health system (though it’s not what it was), dentistry does not on the whole measure up.  Ask anybody round here to recommend a dentist, and they’ll either say ‘not mine, definitely not mine’, or suggest someone miles and miles away with a weeks long waiting list.

So when my daughter over in Barcelona recommended her dentist in nearby Girona, it seemed too good a chance to miss.  A quick holiday in a town on the ‘to-visit’ list, a chance to see Emily, and a pain-free set of teeth.

The dentist there sorted things out, but said he’d need to see me again.  So we realised we didn’t need to dash round on some frenzied must-see-everything-double-quick self-imposed tour.  We took our time.  We wandered up and down the narrow stairways that make up the ancient Jewish quarter, walked the old city walls, and spent time in the cool shaded Jardins d’Alemanys.  There was time for an early morning coffee, a relaxed meal, a cool beer in shady squares among the narrow back streets.

In its day Girona has been invaded by Romans, Muslims, Franks, enduring over 30 sieges in 800 years.  As Robin Gauldie, travel writer says: ‘It’s like Barcelona in miniature, with all the history, heritage and great food but without the insane traffic’.  We don’t need the excuse of a toothache to go back.  There are churches to visit, museums to explore, gardens to relax in, meals to enjoy.  There are riverside walks, and the countryside beyond.  So much to do and see, but all within walking distance of the ancient city centre.  Roll on my next dental appointment.

To view any of the pictures in a larger format, simply click on the image.

Catalonia visits southern France, bearing calçots

My daughter Emily’s just visited from her home in Barcelona, bringing her Catalan boyfriend, and an enormous bundle of calçots sent by his mother.

Calçots! Think we have enough?
Calçots! Think we have enough?

Eating calçots is a century-old tradition in Catalonia at this time of year.  Garden onions are planted deep in the soil, and earthed up throughout their growing period, so they have long thick white stems, just like a leek’s.  Harvested between Christmas and Easter, they’re a much appreciated local delicacy.

Really, they should be grilled fiercely over an open fire or barbecue.  We lack a barbecue, and in any case, southern France has its own traditions: Holy week is cold, wet and miserable.  Without fail.

Preparing the calçots
Preparing the calçots

So we settled for baking them in a fiercely hot oven.  And then we got down to the cheerfully messy business of eating them.  You strip the hot slippery skin off each calçot, and then dunk it in a punchy romanesco sauce before tipping your head back to ingest the lot.  You need napkins, yards of kitchen roll – bibs would be good –  and good bread to mop up the juices and sauce.

Serving the calçots.  Another break with tradition.  They should be on a terracotta roof tile.
Serving the calçots. Another break with tradition. They should be on a terracotta roof tile.

We had fun, but probably not as much as if we’d visited one of the outdoor festivals dedicated to the eating of these alliums.  Watch the video from Valls.

Eating the calçots.  No red wine for us.  The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal
Eating the calçots. No red wine for us. The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal