Twelfth Night

Barcelona, Catalonia, Festivals

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

Barcelona, Catalonia

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

Catalonia

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

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

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

Catalonia, Food & Cooking, Spain

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

Fire in the Pyrénées

Pyrénées, Pyrénées Orientales, Travelling in France

Smoke from a forest fire high in the mountains above l’Hospitalet

We’re back in France.  It’s hot.  Very hot.  Humid too. And yesterday we returned Emily to Barcelona, the city she now considers home.  Barcelona was very hot indeed, 38.5 degrees Centigrade actually, which is 101.3 Fahrenheit in old money.

To get to Spain we crossed the  Pyrénées where, for the past month or so, fires caused by the extreme dry conditions have been fairly out of control: mainly in Spanish Catalonia, but spreading through to the Catalan area of France too.

Now though, there are fires near L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre.  This little commune is by way of being a frontier settlement between France, Spain and Andorra.  It’s unaccustomed to being newsworthy outside the pages of tourist brochures aimed at those wanting mountain scenery and an energetic walking holiday.

We knew that so far, and thankfully, no human settlements are at risk from the fires.  We knew too that all the walkers’ footpaths have been closed and so have the refuges, which offer basic accommodation and food to roughie-toughie hikers miles from normal civilisation.  We’d heard that more than 25 tourists had been evacuated from deep in the area some days before.  We didn’t expect to see from the road evidence of these fires, which have burnt and ravaged over 400 hectares of the countryside.

A helicopter reconnoitres.

But as we approached the village, traffic slowed.  Bit by bit, we snaked up the mountain road which, as it turned out, had been reduced to a single carriageway. A lay-by outside l’Hospitalet has been commandeered and enlarged by the army and fire services to provide a heli-port.  The fires are in thickly forested areas some 2400 metres high, and inaccessible to land-based fire-fighters.  Trackers (air-borne fire-engines) have come from Carcassonne, and scoop some of the water they need to quench the flames from our nearby reservoir here at Montbel. Expertise and equipment have been borrowed from other areas of southern France, and both army and fire service are on duty 24 hours a day.

Seeing some helicopters temporarily at rest together with their crews, brought home to us the real dangers of fighting these fires: they obstinately refuse to submit to man’s control in isolated and largely unreachable forests.  It was only on our journey home that we noticed, high above us, several fires at altitude, burning the trees and vegetation.  It may be a long time before the fire-fighters can go home, certain in the knowledge that this round of drought-induced danger to man and wildlife is really over.  The rain promised this weekend should help.

Army helicopters ready for action

My photos, by the way, are pretty poor.  This is because they were taken from a moving car

Fiesta in Sabadell

Catalonia, Festivals

We’ve just come back from a weekend with Emily.  Every time we go to see her in Barcelona we’ve stayed somewhere different.  But now we’ve cracked it. Sabadell does it for us.

The accommodation was the first thing that went well: an art deco factory converted into a smart and well-priced hotel, the Arrahona,  not too far from the town centre.

Discontent, even in Sabadell

We liked Sabadell itself straight away.  It’s not Barcelona: there’s not a tourist in sight.  And that’s one of its attractions after the hurly burly and stimulation of a day spent sight-seeing.  We had feared Sabadell might be a bit down-at-heel and depressing, because it is, like many towns in our part of the Ariège, a place whose glory days as a centre of the textile industry are long over.  It seems to have successfully reinvented itself however, and despite Spain’s present undoubted economic problems, Sabadell and some of the surrounding towns like the one where Emily works, Sant Cugat del Vallès, seem to be in some protective bubble.  The bars and restaurants are full, shops are functioning and selling well-made and desirable goods, and this weekend at least, all seemed well with the world.

Drummers prepare the way for the devils

Because on Saturday and Sunday Sabadell had a festival. We’ve struggled to find out why.  It doesn’t seem to have been for Corpus Christi, which provided nearby Sitges with an excuse to carpet the streets in flower petal pictures.  It looks as if perhaps it was just an excuse for the inhabitants to dust off the drums, unpack the ‘gigantes’ – papier maché heads surmounting giant bodies, dig out the costumes, order the fireworks and have a good time.

We happened upon part of the festival by accident on Saturday night when we found hordes of people gathered in the main town square.  Quantities of drummers in red costumes – adults and children – kept up a regular and stimulating rhythm to warn of the approach of whirling dancing devils whose horns disgorged sparks, flames and loud bangs.  These demons leaped in frenzied groups round the church and through the back streets until their ammunition ran out.

Devils run amok near the church

And then, as darkness fell, the crowds who had been watching wandered off to one of the dozens of restaurants in town and sat in large friendly groups at outside tables, laughing and chatting about the evening’s events.

We didn’t find out till later that the festival was happening all the following day too.  We caught up with things again in the evening when children dressed as dragons, dogs and mythical creatures took pride of place in the central square.

Child? Or dragon?

Showers of golden sparks spun into the crowd as the children wheeled and pranced through their routines.  It turned out though that this was the Grand Finale.  Market stalls were beginning to pack up.  The ‘gigantes’ were shrouded in dust sheets and slid ingloriously into workmen’s vans, and once again the crowds finished off the evening in the bars and restaurants.

One of the ‘gigantes’ waits to be bundled off home

The main Rambla had been closed off to traffic, and it seemed as if the entire town’s population was enjoying strolling around, settling occasionally for a drink or some food with friends or family.

A perfect way to end the day: a meal with friends at an outside table in one of the town’s restaurants

We’d chosen to stay in Sabadell because it was near enough to Emily, and seemed to have a hotel that would meet our needs.  We didn’t expect that being there would be such a positive and enjoyable part of our short holiday.  We’d like to go back and explore it again

The Rambla, the main street in Sabadell, taken over by pleasure seekers, just for the weekend