A Travellerspoint blog

July 2011

On English soil again

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The village of Goring

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Narrowboats on the river

Last week I was back on English soil again after an absence of several years. During the first few days, the great English summer seemed to be living up to its rather gloomy reputation. Temperatures were cool, verging on chilly, although the English people were stoically bearing up and some were wearing shorts, sandals and sleeveless tops. Skies were cloudy, hiding the sun if it existed, and scattered showers and heavy downpours were likely to surprise us any time.

As we were about to land in Luton Airport, a girl sitting a few rows in front of us on the plane asked a passing air stewardess about the weather. I'm sure she wished she hadn't. “Well, it’s a bit chilly.” We didn’t hear the next question but the answer left us looking at each other, wondering if we’d heard correctly. "It’s going to rain until the 16th of August!” “WHAAAA?!!!” was the poor girl’s reaction. Cristina's expression of mildly disguised panic had nothing to do with the fact that Ryanair's novice pilot had submitted us to a very rough landing. Clearly neither of them had heard of St Swithin's. According to an old wive's tale, whatever the weather is like on the day of St Swithin's, it will continue like that for the next forty days. It must have been cool and damp that day.

It goes without saying that I was mainly looking forward to seeing the family again but I have to admit I felt a twinge of excitement at seeing the cute English cottages with their pretty skirts of hollyhocks and roses climbing up the walls, the hedgerows stitching the fields together, mossy gravestones huddling around spired churches, or the River Thames gliding serenely under the bridges carrying colourful narrowboats along on its back... and, of course, the pleasant green countryside which is clearly the English people’s reward for tolerating their weather.

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Thatched cottage at Streatley

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Green gardens and countryside

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Village church at Sonning

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Boat moored along the River Thames at Caversham

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Angel on the Bridge pub at Henley

There is a bit of ambivalence as to how I feel when I go back to England after living abroad for so many years. On the one hand, I find myself re-living my earlier years there, and the many times I took Cristina and Marc there as small children to spend summers or Christmases. The familiarity of places, sights, experiences mellows us. “That’s where we …..!” “Do you remember when we…!” “Look at my old…..!” It’s comforting to come “home” and settle back into certain customs and habits, something akin to slipping on well-worn slippers after a day's hard work. Nice things such as going barefoot in the house and sinking my toes into the soft, long-pile carpet or the smell of a roast dinner cooking in the oven on Sundays. I know I can only be in England when I see those adorable little milk bottles dropped off trustingly by the milkman on the front doorstep. I miss that feeling sometimes.

Then there is the other side. Having lived for so many years in another country and culture, I find England somewhat exotic now. Most English people don’t get that warm, fuzzy feeling when they look at a red post box or telephone box. We do. It sends me running for my camera. As do the picturesque country pubs with their hanging baskets sending cascades of flowers all around the doors and windows.

Part of the experience is to tickle our taste buds again with hot cross buns, Cadbury’s Flake Bars and Dolly Mixtures, with HP sauce and Marmite. We scramble to savour warm crumpets with melting butter or cheese lodging in their spongy insides, creamy blueberry and cherry-flavoured yoghurts, chunky marmalade, cheese-and-onion crisps, tantalizing roast beef and roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings drenched in gravy or crispy battered fish and vinegary chips. There’s hardly time to reunite with all these long-lost flavours.

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Red telephone box and post box on a village green

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Milk bottles on the doorstep

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Hot cross buns, usually eaten at Easter, but available all year round now

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Hanging baskets

But the longer I live away, the more I realize that a major factor contributing to me feeling a bit of a foreigner in my own land are the idiosyncracies of certain aspects of British life. When I go to get in the car, I’m invariably opening the wrong door. As I drive along, I find myself searching for the gears with my left hand instead of my right one and opening the door instead. I have to mentally concentrate to stay on the “wrong” side of the road and go around the roundabouts the “wrong” way. It doesn’t help that the speed limits and road signs are in miles and not kilometers. I have the sensation that everyone is moving very slowly at 30 because only tractors do that sort of speed back home but have to keep reminding myself that, when converted to kilometers, it is actually 50.

Whenever I return to England, my mental capacities are stretched to the limit as they are required to do so many conversions. Miles to kilometers, feet and inches to metres and centimeters, pounds to euros, Fahrenheit to Celsius, pounds and ounces to kilos and kilogrammes, gallons to litres… the list is never-ending. Is there a reason why the British are SO different, I wonder? Do they do it to make everyone else feel like they are foreigners?

Visiting England also sends our body clocks whizzing wildly forward or backward and dazed. Our digestive systems find it almost impossible to adapt to having early midday lunches or eating supper when in Mexico we'd only have finished eating lunch a couple of hours earlier, at 3.30 pm. They've already been sent into confusion by the iron grip of jetlag and the recent change back to Spanish hours. The English light wakes us up and pulls us out of bed much too early in the morning and doesn't fade into darkness until 10 pm. And the widely-differing opening times of shops, banks and restaurants in Mexico, Spain and now England leave us in a state of disorientation. We have to dig down deep in our memories to remember in which country shops close at midday, and where they are open till late and on Sundays...

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Cottages at Sonning

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Bumble bee on flower - part of the British summer

But I love visiting England for all these reasons. I actually even begin to feel a bit English again. All these sensations are part of the essence of travelling, of living in other cultures and this is what makes life interesting and varied. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life and I have to say our life is quite spicy at the moment. Long live the Queen!

Posted by margaretm 23:02 Archived in England Comments (0)

Two villages and their special rocks

Sant Joan les Fonts & Castellfollit de la Roca

Sometimes surprises are just around the corner. As I discovered last Saturday. Just 25 minutes' drive from our house is a small town called Sant Joan les Fonts. Translated from Catalan, the name means St John of the Springs. We've driven past it many times on our way to the mountains and I've often noticed the large reddish coloured church there and also knew there was a medieval bridge crossing the River Fluvià. What I didn't realise was that, being built on ancient lava flows, the rock formations around there are highly unusual so I went along to take a look.

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Medieval bridge at Sant Joan les Fonts, made of volcanic rock. Originally from the 13th Century, it was rebuilt in the 15th Century following earthquake damage

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Centuries-old stones.. how many people have crossed over this bridge, I wonder?

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Huge red church built early 20th Century

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At Sant Joan les Fonts there's a walk called the Three Lava Flows walk which takes you to see the different rock formations resulting from the lava flows in the area

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The path takes you down through the wood to Molí Fondo

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You walk across a patch of unusual natural basalt slabs set at an acute angle

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This is what the slabs are like when you look back

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Molí Fondo waterfall near an old mill which is now in disuse

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Waterfall at the Mill weir

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The water cascades over hard basalt rock

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I saw lots of wildflowers down by the river

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Delicate blue flower in the morning sun

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The river has cut through the rocks exposing the horizontal layers

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Pedrera de Boscarró - Here you can clearly see the different layers of rock from the different lava flows

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Surrounded by basalt

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A huddle of pink flowers

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Typical farmhouse built of volcanic rock

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I watched this baby bird catch an insect

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The path high on the hillside which leads back down to the river on the way to the Cinglera de Fontfreda

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Obviously the sun doesn't shine here much and thick moss has covered the rocks along the trail

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Large stepping stones...

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Cliff of hexagonal columns at Fontfreda. The rocks take this shape when the lava cools down a certain way.

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Basalt columns breaking away

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The River Fluvià

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House in Sant Joan les Fonts with volcanic rock walls

* * * * *

Castellfollit de la Roca is also close to us and must be one of the most unusually-sited villages in the area... on top of a 1 km long ridge of basalt, with the River Fluvià curling round it at the base

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The houses on top of the basalt cliffs

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Looking up at the church from down below

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The church at the top end of the basalt cliffs

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Most of the buildings, like the church, are built with volcanic rock

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House flying the Catalan flag

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There were loads of cats in this place

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View looking towards the new bridge and tunnels to Olot

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Looking back towards Castellfollit de la Roca

Posted by margaretm 23:36 Archived in Spain Tagged rocks waterfall walks lava Comments (0)

Along the coastal path with the wind in our wheels

Port de la Selva to Llança, Costa Brava, Catalonia

I woke up at 5.30 am to the sound of rain beating against the persiana and high-voltage flashes of lightning shredding the darkness. "Oh no, that's going to ruin our plans!" I thought to myself. Turning over, I went back to sleep. At 8 am, dark storm clouds were still sagging over the mountains like heavy, lumpy eiderdowns. "We definitely won't be able to do our excursion today!" Then I looked in the other direction, towards the coast. The wind was frantically shooing the bad weather inland and the clouds were obediently scuttling away. "OK, Marc, change of plan. Let's go and cycle the coastal path between Port de la Selva and Llança!" The change of plan brought about a change in colour. We exchanged green for blue. No lush greenery in the mountains today, but the sapphire blue of the Mediterranean instead.

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Mediterranean blue

We got in the car and headed for the small whitewashed fishing village of Port de la Selva which hides out in a sheltered bay on the rugged Cap de Creus. To get there, we had to zigzag up the intervening mountain, stopping briefly to gaze down at the Bay of Roses below us. With a strong wind blowing, the view was clear. Despite the distance, you could almost see the holidaymakers huddling in their towels on the beach. It wasn't very warm at all. The bay is an almost perfect semi-circle of sandy beaches and well before modern-day sunseekers discovered it, the Greeks had obviously liked the look of it. They founded the port town of Empúries in 575 BC on a small island which today has become part of the mainland. This settlement was later occupied by the Romans. Some even say that St Paul sailed here when he came to Spain. Who knows? Maybe..

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View over the Bay of Roses

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On our way to Port de la Selva

Crossing over the other side of the mountain, we passed by the Monestir de Sant Pere de Rodes, an impressive Romanesque monastery built by Benedictine monks in the 10th and early 11th Century. How they achieved such a masterpiece in what must have been an almost inaccessible place in those days is mind-boggling. Twenty years ago, when I first came to live in this area, it stood on the mountainside totally unprotected or guarded. I was amazed to hear how a large number of people had taken carved stones, capitals and other pieces of the monastery home as "souvenirs". It is said that when a small coffre containing important relics was discovered hidden in the wall of the crypt under the altar and other treasures such as gold and silver coins were unearthed, they decided it was high time to restore the monastery and look after it properly. And it is definitely well-worth a visit. On clear days, the views are spectacular. But perhaps it is in the winter, when the wind howls through the pines, the waves crash against the cliffs below and fog creeps stealthily among the dark shapes of its towers, that this place really leaves a lasting impression.

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Romanesque monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes

On the far side of the mountain, we were now well and truly in the "blue" realm of the northern Costa Brava, literally The Rugged Coast. Today the jagged rocks were being pummelled mercilessly by the waves of the Mediterranean Sea which collided heavily against them. We parked right on the beach at Port de la Selva, and stood our ground as the breakers raced furiously in towards us, threatening to engulf us, and then withdrew at the last moment to gain force and try again. The salty sea spray drenched our car and marinated our hair and skin in an ocean-flavoured brine. But we were not going to be intimidated. The wind had enticed dozens of windsurfers out into the bay to scoot across the choppy blue expanse and some of them spent more time in the water than up on their boards. We unloaded the bikes and set off to cycle against the wind.

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Looking down on Port de la Selva

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Windsurfers near Port de la Selva

The camí de ronda, the coastal path, had recently been improved with sections incorporating wooden pathways and stone steps up the steepest parts. As if sensing that our excursion would be far more enjoyable with less wind in our wheels, the tramuntana died down leaving the coastline more sheltered than I had expected. In the end it turned out to be almost perfect weather for pedalling, not too hot, not too many people around, and only a few brave souls on the beach. We cycled along the jagged cliffs, up and down, in and out, with the deep blue sea accompanying us the whole way. Making our way along some of the wooden pathways which helped the path negotiate precarious stretches of the cliffs, I decided I might not mind too much if the wind accidentally blew me over the edge. The deep blue sea looked so inviting. Just past a square lighthouse fixed solidly to a rocky headland, we took a breather on some wooden benches specially positioned to admire the view. A father and his 9-year old son were resting there, with their backpacks and sleeping bags sharing the seat with them. They had been walking for several days, and had come from Port Bou, near the French border. When we met up with them again, the father was shouldering both packs.

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Cycling the coastal path

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Lighthouse along the way

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Taking a breather

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Pedalling

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Sheltered bay near Llança

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Mediterranean blue

We didn't see the walking family when we arrived back in Port de la Selva. Finding a table in a sheltered café on the beach, we quenched our thirst and ate a bocata de pernil salat, a Catalan cured ham baguette sandwich. Dozens of small boats were marooned on the beach near us, while the rest were bobbing up and down in the port, their flags waving excitedly at us in the wind. Behind us the whitened houses congregated around the port, along the sea front and up the hillside, nudging each other in a bid to get the best views. The large white church looked down over them, like a benevolent grandfather surrounded by all his grandchildren. It was a fitting place to end our cycle ride. Blue sky, blue sea, blue boats... Blue is definitely a magnificent colour when combined with two wheels.

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Fishing boats on the beach

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Town and port

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Sailing boats on beach

Posted by margaretm 10:24 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Pedalling through a volcanic-inspired landscape

La Garrotxa, Catalonia

A few days ago, my taxi-driver duties were miraculously confined to a 9 o'clock drop-off in the morning and an 8 o'clock pick-up in the evening. That meant I had virtually a whole day to myself so I packed my bicycle into the back of the car and set off to Catalonia's ancient volcanic region, La Garrotxa (pronounced "Garrotcha"), to do a spot of cicloturisme.

A long time ago, going backwards 700,000 years, a series of volcanoes popped up in this region one after the other, erupting once and spewing out incandescent molten rock from their glowing insides. The last active one died fairly recently. Recent in volcanic terms. I would hardly describe more than 11,000 years ago as recent. There are more than 40 volcanoes here but don't expect to see a string of Popocatéptels. The gentle rolling hills of La Garrotxa are former cones which have gradually been camouflaged under a thick mantle of oak and beech woods, and the fertile soils have given rise to the distinctive landscape of the region, along with sparkling streams, scatterings of volcanic rocks, lava flows (more than 20 of them) and picturesque villages. Ideal for a day or two of cycling. And nothing too strenuous as I wasn't sure my knees would take anything more agressive at the moment.

The sky was a deep blue as we (my bike, my car and myself) set off and drove past Castellfollit de la Roca, a small rocky cluster of houses perched on top of a spectacular basalt cliff. The buildings sprout from the top of the sheer cliff as if they were an extension of the sculpted volcanic rock columns, and peer defiantly down to the River Fluvià 40 metres below. On a windy day, any precariously fixed piece of washing or accidentally-dropped item may end up far from home. It's a long vertical drop. Despite many visits, I am still mesmerised by this place.

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Houses atop the basalt cliff

We continued on to Olot, the capital of La Garrotxa, which fittingly has a couple of volcanoes sitting inside the town's limits and is intensely proud of its Museu del Volcà. As I was driving out of the town, some stocky horses were nosing around among the wildflowers so I pulled the car off the road to take a closer look. I was in La Moixina, a shady woodland area, crisscrossed by crystal-clear bubbling streams, and home to a collection of picturesque country houses with thick walls of volcanic rock, wooden balconies and neat vegetable gardens. As I walked along the small lane, I noticed that the warm sun had coaxed an elderly man outdoors. He was propped up by the front door, watching a dog playing near the barn. Behind his house was a small church decorated with a bunch of colourful flowers in each window as if to remind people it wasn't extinct, it was still in active service. It nestled unobtrusively in a field at the end of a small path which crouched between waist-high stone walls, volcanic rock walls.

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Horses in a field near Olot

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Stream and woods at La Moixina

I was finding it difficult to reach the place where I would park my car and start cycling. There were so many interesting places along the route to waylay me and divert me from my intention to cycle there and back along the Amer-Olot section of the Ruta del Carrilet, an unused railway where the train used to chug between Olot and Girona, now converted into a scenic, traffic-free bikeway.

At Les Preses, I spied a gathering of cute-looking Catalan donkeys (the inspirers of the car bumper stickers featuring the ruc català), and once again I couldn't resist a slight detour. A middle-aged couple invited me into the field where they were grooming the patient creatures with their distinctive white muzzles and bellies, and combing out vast clumps of dark-coloured fur, transforming their rather shaggy matts into sleek well-brushed coats. With a bareback saddle pad and stirrups on their backs, they were ready to take people for walks through the Parc de Pedra Tosca to learn about the volcanic landscape and features. "How many donkeys have you got?" I asked, mentally counting about 10 of them tied up to the fence. I was surprised at their answer. "All together, about 70 or so. We also have some burritos, baby donkeys. You can go and see them on the other side of the road if you want." I could see that these cheerful couple were devoted donkey fans and doing their bit to help save these creatues from near extinction. I moved on, leaving them to prepare for their walks.

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Catalan donkeys at Les Preses

The car coasted effortlessly down the Vall d'en Bas, its engine humming happily as it re-discovered the route it had covered regularly some years ago when I had worked here for a while. The names of the villages were familiar, the tunnel, the bends, the church belltowers, even the rocks and mountain shapes. I was amazed at how luxuriant the paisatge looked. In summer La Garrotxa is infused with a thousand different shades of green.

We finally arrived at Amer. I unloaded my bike and started pedalling along the Ruta del Carrilet. The route climbs up slowly yet tirelessly until it reaches Olot, making its way through cuttings in the rock, across wooden bridges and viaducts, and passing through poetic villages. My heart, my lungs, my leg muscles, my red blood cells.. were all raring to go. Unfortunately, due to my rather delayed start, the sun was already high above me beating down mercilessly and reducing my shadow to a mere invisible ghost. What I didn't know then was that it was going to be one of the hottest days of the summer so far. I was glad there were oak and beech woods to keep me company. Pedalling joyously along, I felt elated. A snake, caught napping in the warmth of the open path, slithered from under my wheels, deciding it wanted to live another day. Butterflies flitted in and out of my spokes and escorted me along my way. After a dozen kilometres of steady uphill pedalling, it seemed the sun was sucking the energy and life-fluids from my body. I could feel the drops of sweat leaking out of my skin, racing downwards to see which one would reach my toes first. And just when I thought I was about to overheat, the tree branches would reach out and plunge me into a refrigerated leafy tunnel, sending my thermometer plummeting down again.

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Old train station at Amer, now an information centre

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Cutting through the rocks along the Ruta del Carrilet

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The bike path near Les Planes d'Hostoles

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Signpost with walking distances

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Old train tunnel along the bike path

At Sant Feliu de Pallerols, I stopped for a throat-chilling Coke, with chinking ice cubes and lemon, and stuck my entire head under a tap. The resulting image was not particularly flattering but it did wonders for my brain. I felt as if I'd been transported to the Arctic Circle. A couple of cyclists at the next table kindly offered to take a photo of me and my bike. ¡Tienes que tener por lo menos una foto! "You have to have at least one photo of yourself", they said. I couldn't refuse but I have to admit I wasn't looking my best.

Sant Feliu turned out to be a great place to do a bit of cicloturisme. Perhaps its major feature is the river which glides, gurgles, splashes, gushes or pours depending on which part of the small town it is flowing through. Stone-walled houses, some of them with their toes in the water, had geraniums in the windows, and huddled together around a number of squares and solemn churches. In the company of other cyclists, I propped my bike against a bench in the welcoming plaça major or main square with its monumental moss-covered fountain and sat down at one of the tables under the huge shady trees. Some of the eaters were obviously Tour de France fans dressed in their lycra suits. The next table was occupied by a mother and father and their two small boys noisily licking their ice-creams. I had seen the parents pedalling slowly uphill with the boys sitting behind. Their young heads flopped drowsily from side to side with the undulating movement of the bicycles. They had clearly woken up feeling hungry and were now re-energised after their meal.

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Bridge over the river at Sant Feliu de Pallerols

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Colourful houses

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Church in main square

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Main square

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Waterfall

As I wandered around Sant Feliu, pedalling over the cobbles at times or pushing my bike up the stone steps, I came across a street with an aptly descriptive name: Carrer dels Cantons Estrets or "Narrow Corner Street". The width decreased rapidly until around the corner, the space narrowed to exactly the width of my handlebars. Any smaller and I wouldn't have been able to squeeze through. I contorted my body through the gap and breathed out.

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Narrow Corners Street

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Just about squeezing through

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Following the river

Later on, I decided to explore around the small village of Els Hostalets d'en Bas, with its pleasantly perfect Romanesque church and rows of houses with wooden balconies sagging with eye-catching geraniums. The evening sun lit up the nearby mountains and I rode between fields where the maize stood to attention like tall green soldiers. Horses were cropping the grass with their teeth, a couple of tractors were pacing back and forth in the fields and a cool breeze ruffled my already windswept hair. It was just me and the road. "This is the life!", I murmured to myself. "I don't know how I'll ever return to the big city!"

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Hostalets d'en Bas

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The Romanesque church

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Enjoying the cool of the evening

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The green countryside

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Cycling along an open road

Posted by margaretm 22:59 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Cycling under an immense sky

The Alt Empordà, Catalonia

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The open skies of the Alt Empordà

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Cycling

I had forgotten what it was like to go cycling in the open countryside, under an immense sky, oxygenating my mind, body and soul. And the sensation of freedom at seeing an unpaved path disappearing into the woods, the sound of the pine trees whispering above me as they gossip in the wind and the spirited song of invisible cicadas resonating in the heat. Or the delightful rides through sleepy Catalan villages with their honey-coloured stone buildings warmed by the sun and window boxes with crowds of summer flowers craning their necks to watch me speed past.

Now that my bicycle is fixed, cleaned and oiled, I'm off on my early morning rides again, leaving the house as the sun sends the first soft beams on ahead to announce its imminent arrival. The dawn colours creep up over the mountains which loom up darkly on the horizon, stacked up one behind the other, like massive sleeping creatures. I'm revelling in the cool stillness of the morning, the birds' choir, the rabbits surprised by my wheels, sprinting off in jerky zig-zags, their white bobtails flashing behind them. Maybe they think I'm Mr McGregor. It's early but some of the older residents in the nearby villages are already out, hoeing, pruning, watering, growing their lunch and supper.

Sometimes I ride down to the sparkling river which gurgles happily, tickled by ribbon-like plants, polishing stones smooth. Up the hill and through the undergrowth, bumping down a clod-filled trail between fields turning a golden summery colour, with enormous round hay bales waiting patiently for re-location by tractors. The butterflies are beginning to unfold their wings and warm them up in the sun's rays, ready to flit off and visit their pretty playmates, the wild flowers. And then I come across July's brightest, happiest gift to us... a field drenched in yellow sunflowers, already awake, smiling at me. I want to hug them all and tell them I'm back and I'll be coming down to see them whenever possible.

Now I'm relishing these moments again, enjoying summer in the countryside, far from the big city.

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Dawn light

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Riding through the woods

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Flowers

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Morning mist over the river

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Butterfly

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Trail through the woods

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Hay bales

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Field of sunflowers

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Sunflowers

Posted by margaretm 23:12 Archived in Spain Tagged cycling Comments (0)

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