A Travellerspoint blog


"Why bother to travel? We live in the best place!"

Spring clouds and flowers in the Alt Empordà

I read recently in the newspaper that 48% of Spanish people have never travelled outside of Spain (well, I guess Spain is a big country...). On top of that, 15% have never ventured further than the borders of their autonomous community, i.e. a region like Catalonia (I know a few of those people ) and 10% have never left the province where they were born (now that's really getting a bit claustrophobic for me). In general, Spanish people are fiercely proud of their regions and stick closely to them. I remember seeing a report on TV about a Spanish couple who have spent their holidays in the same campsite on the Valencian coast for the past 52 years. For them, that was their dream. To return there every August and meet up with their friends and spend their days playing cards, walking along the beach, chatting with their friends. This ties in with my own observations. Living just 30 kms from the French border, I used to ask my English students, adults, teenagers and children alike, if they had been to France and many of them looked at me in bewilderment as if to say, "No, why would we want to do that?" Curious.

There are a variety of reasons given for this lack of mobility. Some have no real interest in discovering other places. Others, like farmers with small holdings or owners of family businesses, can't leave their livelihoods. Some families don't have the financial means and for others, not knowing other languages puts them off. They prefer to feel comfortable in their own "home". But perhaps the reason which amuses me most is when they say they don't need to travel anywhere else because they live in one of the best places in the world... I've heard that many times. ¿Porqué gastar un montón de dinero para ir a otro país cuando tenemos todo aqui? "Why spend a lot of money to go to another country when we have everything here?"

They have a point. Spain is one of the world's major tourist destinations, packed with leisure and cultural possibilities, and enjoys a wonderfully benevolent climate. And I know exactly what they mean. Within the radius of an hour's journey from our home, we can spend the day in the mountains, by lakes, in forests or along the coast, visiting cities, towns and villages which brim with markets, museums, and historical and cultural sites. We can cycle the Vias Verdes, drop out of the sky in parachutes or go hot air ballooning, kite-surfing, diving, swimming, sailing, climbing, hiking, bird-watching and all sorts of other outdoor activities. France (and Europe) is just around the corner and Barcelona is down the road. And then there are all the festivals and fiestas, gastronomical delights and other cultures and traditions to discover. Who needs to go anywhere else?

I do.... I love the Alt Empordà area, especially to come back to, to have as my base, but my experience is that travel stretches and pushes back the borders of your mind, sharpens your five senses in a way they could never be sharpened at home, and makes you appreciate what you do have. However, reflecting on that, whenever I return to our home in Navata, I become rather Spanish and can't help remarking that we really do live in one of the most beautiful areas in the world!

I'll be looking forward to appreciating it even more when we return from another year in Mexico.....

Pink blossom on the trees in spring

The beach at Sant Martí d'Empúries

Bathers at dusk - L'Escala

Bright yellow fields near Parets d'Empordà

Choppy water - Banyoles Lake

Autumn colours in the beech woods - La Fageda d'en Jordà

Monastery at Nuria, Pyrenees

Bastiments peak, Vallter 2000

Romanesque church at Sant Joan les Fonts

Walking the cliffs at Montgó

Besalu's Medieval bridge lit at night

Sunflower field near Navata

The beach at Llança

Riders in a poppy field near Parets de l'Empordà

Plaça Major at Vic

Reservoir near Vic

Snow in Olot

Hay bale in field near Navata

The beach at Roses in the evening light

A pair of storks at L'Aiguamolls de l'Empordà

A swallowtail butterfly

Summer foam fiesta at Navata

Giants at the Fiestas de Figueres

Dancing giants - Figueres

Castellers - human castles

Delicious paella

See what I mean?

Posted by margaretm 18:42 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The afternoon I had the mountains to myself

A flying visit to Vallter 2000

A beautiful quiet day in the Pyrenees

A beautiful quiet day in the Pyrenees

July weather in Spain is supposed to be hot and sultry. You know it's July when you can feel your skin blistering in the midday sun, when your appetite goes on vacation and anything chilled is worth drinking. It's the time of year when the house remains in a kind of diurnal twilight with the persianas or blinds kept down to stop the sun's fiery fingers from prying inside. When shade-blessed pavements and leafy sanctuaries are the most sought-after spaces and horarios take on an unusual elasticity. In July, hoards of streets and squares remain barren and deserted in the high temperatures as lunchtime stretches from 2 to 5 pm and evening meals migrate to well after 10 pm when cool terrazas fill up as residents and visitors re-appear in their droves. This is the month when the playa and the piscina become sites of mass pilgrimage and salad ingredients are ingested as a delicious cold soup called gazpacho. It's also the time of year when we escape from the heat on the Empordà Plain and go to the mountains for the day.

But none of this happened this July in Girona. The summer was unusually cool, cloudy and damp. The beach was wrapped in towel-clad bathers. Our air-conditioning system almost drifted into early retirement and supper outside in the garden was a decidedly cool occasion. Marc, who usually takes on a semi-amphibious state in summer, hardly made use of the village pool or visited the beach. Cristina's plans to swim in the river with her horse and friends dried up. And I almost didn't get to see the mountains before returning to Mexico for another year.

Our summer holiday in Spain was spinning to a close when, rather unexpectedly, I managed to scrape together a few hours one afternoon to make a fleeting visit to the Pyrenees. I pointed the car towards the mountains and off we set to higher altitudes. The road passed through La Vall de Bianya and then began to climb, a thin ribbon threading its way through the exceptionally green, hill-strewn countryside. Chugging merrily upwards, my car ducked through the last dark tunnel, almost 2 kms long, and then we popped out on the other side of the mountain to patches of blue sky. One thing struck me. We had seen only a few other vehicles en route and that wasn't at all normal for this time of year. Had the cool, damp weather kept holidaymakers away from the mountains?

Houses in La Vall de Bianya

Houses in La Vall de Bianya

Countryside near La Vall de Bianya

Countryside near La Vall de Bianya

I breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at Camprodon. It wasn't exactly swarming with people but it did have a perky feel to it. I love Camprodon. With its distinctive 12th-century bridge spanning the energetic River Ter, its stone houses with balconies and welcoming cafeterias, it suits every season. In the winter, people wander around in thick jackets and hats, their breath solidifying white in the crisp mountain air and the smokey smell of crackling pinewood fires curls upwards. Skiers heading for the snowy slopes above and other visitors stop off here to warm up in the steamed-up cafés and sample the local delicacies. In the summer, walkers and tourists cross the bridge, peer into the shops and sun themselves in the plazas ablaze with smiling flowers. And all year round, small shops have thick fringes of fuet, llangonissa and other kinds of sausages hanging over piles of mountain cheeses and other local produce. Typical cerditos de mazapán, pig-shaped marzipan sweets, turn their snouts up in the windows, snuffling among boxes of Birba biscuits. Leather and sheepskin garments and furry slippers line shop doors and walking boots and sticks shuffle impatiently, waiting for outdoor lovers to purchase them. The smell of coffee wafts down the cobbled streets and the sound of the rushing river accompanies you wherever you go. The locals, meanwhile, get on with their daily life, privileged to live here.

12th Century bridge at Camprodon

12th Century bridge at Camprodon

Bright summer flowers in Camprodon

Bright summer flowers in Camprodon

Sausages hanging up in shop window

Sausages hanging up in shop window

Romanesque church at Llanars

Romanesque church at Llanars

We continued on, up through Llanars with its 12th-Century Romanesque church, and on to Setcases. The name Setcases in Catalan means "Seven Houses" but there are more like 70 stone houses and holiday apartments now with a harmonious topping of red tiled roofs, grouped around a small church on the left bank of the river. Normally full of holidaymakers in search of fresh mountain air and outdoor activities, it was exceptionally quiet and empty that afternoon. A bit further on, I made a brief stop to clamber over the smooth boulders along the banks of the young River Ter and photograph the wild flowers. Normally this spot is taken by picnickers but there was no sign of anyone. Next the crinkly road zigzagged steeply up the mountainside to Vallter 2000, the ski resort. My car revved its engine, dropped down gears and wheezed uphill, slowing to catch its breath at the hairpin corners. It was a lonely climb, with no-one else for company, except a family of mountain goats who froze in surprise when we suddenly appeared. At the top, I parked in the total silence. Somewhere in the enormous space between the only two other parked cars. For the very first time, I had Vallter 2000 all to myself, with its immense sky towering over me and its mountains encircling me. France lay just the other side of the rounded peaks, within walking distance. The chair lifts hung paralysed in the air, the cafeteria and shop were closed, and no-one was to be seen anywhere.

Setcases, a picturesque village nestling in the Pyrenees

Setcases, a picturesque village nestling in the Pyrenees

Stone houses with red roofs

Stone houses with red roofs

Mountain stream

Mountain stream

The mountain road up to Vallter 2000

The mountain road up to Vallter 2000

Mountain goats surprised to see us

Mountain goats surprised to see us

Vallter 2000 ski resort, at 2000 m

Vallter 2000 ski resort, at 2000 m

Chair lifts suspended in the sky

Chair lifts suspended in the sky

The weather was perfect so I decided to hike up the mountainside, past some cows with melodious bells tucked under their double chins, through a flock of grazing sheep and lambs with twitching tails, and up to where a mountain horse was busy cropping the grass. I was close to where the River Ter sprung to life before it playfully gurgled and tumbled down the abrupt mountainside. It would then splash down through Setcases and gush under the bridge at Camprodon before gliding through Girona. A sound took me by surprise. Two cyclists came into sight and sped downhill before I could even focus on them.

Cow with tinkling bell

Cow with tinkling bell

Sheep grazing in the mountains

Sheep grazing in the mountains

A curious sheep stops to watch me

A curious sheep stops to watch me

Horse high in the mountains

Horse high in the mountains

Just then another sound ripped through the silence. My mobile phone rang. "Mum, we're just leaving Barcelona on the train. Can you pick me up at Figueres Station in an hour and a half?" "Of course!" I replied, wondering how on earth I'd get there in time. I raced down the mountainside, jumped into the car and we chased the road downhill all the way, through the tunnels, and to Figueres. I made it just in time.

My car all alone at the top

My car all alone at the top

Reflection in window

Reflection in window

Posted by margaretm 05:08 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Snapshots of Barcelona

Details from Casa Amatller and Casa Batlló

Barcelona has a shared biking system called Bicing.

A modern building along Passeig de Gràcia with metallic curves

During the summer, the city empties and its wide avenues are ideal for motorbikes.

An unusual building with Moorish-style windows

Warning on the road that 1 out of 3 people killed in accidents are pedestrians

An old pharmacy building along the Rambla

A human statue in the Rambla

A quiet place to have a meal and chat

A fountain with a tiled mural showing the old walls of Barcelona

Colourful buildings lining the Rambla

People eating in La Boqueria market

A wide selection of olives at a stand in La Boqueria

Tourists admiring a cake through the shop window

A caricature artist at work

Small boy chasing pigeons in the Plaça Reial

A pavement restaurant in the Rambla

A tourist bus doing the rounds

A wide avenue, lined with palm trees

A katamaran comes in to the port

The Rambla de Mar, the wooden bridge crossing over to the Maremagnum Centre

Walking across the Rambla de Mar

One of the many seagulls in the port

Looking across to the Maremagnum Centre from the Moll de Fusta

Old wooden schooner moored up

Barri Gòtic

Stone walls in the Old Town of Barcelona

Door grafitti in the Barri Gòtic

Colourful shop sign

Neo-gothic bridge spanning the gap

Group of girls looking at their snapshots of Barcelona

Hand-painted fans in a shop

Tourists having a rest by the Cathedral

Posted by margaretm 06:17 Archived in Spain Comments (0)


On foot around the city

My feet had no idea how many kilometers they were going to walk that day in Barcelona which was just as well, since they might have started protesting much earlier. We drove to the centre and emerged from the underground car park in the elegant Passeig de Gràcia near two of Gaudi's masterpieces. First stop was La Pedrera, Gaudí's building which wraps itself around the street corner with curvaceous, ondulating shapes, as cushiony and malleable as if the stone was really putty moulded into billowing curves. Sharp angles and straight lines are conspicuously absent here. All I could see were wave after wave of balconies with tangles of wrought-iron seaweed for railings, chimneys twisting like soft ice-cream, pliable doors, coiling staircases,...even the queue was curling round the building. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to wait in line for a look inside, a visit guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

Tourists on the roof of La Pedrera

The curvaceous forms of La Pedrera

Graceful lamp posts in Passeig de Gràcia

Artistic patterns on the pavements in Passeig de Gràcia

Next I strolled past the red brick building of the Fundació Tàpies with its nest-like topping of wire which makes me think of a nutty professor with frizzy hair... another unusual-looking place, promoting modern and contemporary art. A little further down the wide boulevard, where even the paving stones and lamp-posts are works of art, I came across Casa Batlló, with scores of sightseers craning their necks and pointing their cameras upwards. I wondered where Gaudi got his inspiration this time... scaly dragons' backs, skulls, bones, ocean waves? The imagination runs wild with the colourful blues and greens of the roof tiles, the trencadis mosaic on the façade, the skull-shaped balconies like birds' nests suspended on sheer cliffs, windows as if made from the bones of the dragon's victims. He was an amazing architect, who broke with every tradition in the book as far as normal building shapes were concerned. I could see the awe-struck tourists inside, looking out of the large ossified windows, their audio-guide wires glued to their ears. I wished I had time to explore inside and go up on the roof but the queue was too long for me today. My feet were keen to get going.

Building of the Fundació Tàpies, a modern art centre

The Casa Batlló is located in Passeig de Grácia

Skull-like balconies and bone-inspired windows

View of the roof of the Casa Batlló

Then on to the Plaça Catalunya, where small kids waded knee-deep through the thousands of pigeons there, racing around and making them take flight and land again. From here, I looked down the Rambla which bubbled and boiled effervescently with people. Tourists mistakenly believing they were in the Spain of toros and bullfighting, flamenco and castañuelas, and Indian souvenir shop owners happy to sell them this idea. Some were even wearing Mexican hats. I wanted to tell them that this was Catalonia, where bullfighting was banned, where they have their own language, Catalan, and their own flag, and where the local dance, the sardana, had nothing to do with energetic guitar playing and flouncy pokadotted red and white dresses. But I knew it would be to no avail. This is what they had come to see.

Children and pigeons in Plaça Catalunya

Looking down the tree-lined Rambla

Street off La Rambla

Branching off to the right, I wandered around the narrow streets to the MACBA museum, white and lonely. Heading back to the Rambla, I pushed my way into the crowded market, commonly known as La Boqueria, which must be one of the most mouthwatering places in the world. Fruit, vegetables, sweets, nuts, fish, condiments, jamones and other cured sausages were painstakingly arranged in kaleidoscopic piles of gourmet nutrition. It was going to be difficult to escape from there without packing my bag full of vitamins. I succumbed to a plastic cup full of multi-coloured fruit pieces which looked like a vivid cubist still-life painting, and polished it off in seconds. My feet needed some sustenance to keep going.

Colourful fruit stall in La Boqueria market

Selling jamon

Stall in the market

On the other side of the Rambla was the Plaça Reial, a beautiful colonial-style square sprouting palm trees, surrounded on all four sides by arcades packed with restaurant tables and sunshades. I was pleased to see it had been spruced up since I last went there. Holidaymakers from the four corners of the earth were sitting in the sunshine, tucking into appetizing tapas and huge dishes of saffrony paella streaked with red peppers, and sipping refreshing sangria. The harmonic strains of a guitar and accordion drifted across the square while in front of me, a slightly built man, in pinstripe trousers, a shiny green shirt and reddish waistcoat entertained some of the eaters with the clackety-clack of castañuelas and stamping feet which drew enthusiastic clapping from them. We could have been in Sevilla, not Barcelona, but the tourists were thoroughly enjoying the Spanish culture. A plaque on the wall stated that the Plaça Reial was twinned with Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City. Interesting.

Palm trees and arcades in the Plaça Reial

Entertainer in Plaça Reial

Wrought-iron gates of Palau Güell, by Gaudí

I switched back to the other side of the Rambla and came across another of Gaudí's works of art, the Palau Güell with its fine arched wrought-iron doors which look like they took years to painstakingly knit, and its individually decorated chimneys. At the bottom end of the Rambla, where it meets the Port of Barcelona, my feet began to do some serious protesting but I urged them on. Christopher Columbus, Cristóbal Colón, soared above us on top of his tall monument, pointing enigmatically. Some say he's pointing at America, others at Mallorca. And depending on your source, he may be Italian, Spanish, Catalan or even Portuguese. One thing's for sure... he discovered America in 1492 and he returned after his first trip to the Americas to the Port of Barcelona. Here the city opened up to the sky and the sea. My feet breathed sighs of relief when I sat down for a rest on some stone steps leading down to the water. An enormous hydrofoil jet, with razor-sharp bows to slice through the water, was moored in one corner. A tall-masted katamaran made its way to where we were sitting, followed by a cloud of seagulls, and waves of people were surging across the wooden extension of the Rambla which spanned the water to the Maremagnum Centre. Two cable cars crossed paths, greeting each other on their way to and from Montjuic Mountain. Meanwhile, the sun beat down mercilessly.

Port of Barcelona

Christopher Columbus pointing

Maremagnum Centre, a shopping and leisure complex

Sailing boats in the Port

After a brief visit to the Maremagnum Centre, my weary feet shuffled back across the wooden Rambla de Mar and along the Moll de la Fusta, past a thicket of sailing boats with tinkling masts, moored in the Port Vell. Wooden schooners, sailing boats, yachts and other vessels rubbed shoulders and conversed with one another. From here I turned up towards the Barri Gòtic , the old town of Barcelona, and found myself in a rabbit-warren of narrow cobbled streets lined by tall old buildings whose balconies almost touched each other on either side and blocked out the sun, plunging me into a murky penumbra. This area is home to the Cathedral, remains of the Roman walls, a neo-Gothic bridge inspired by Venice's Bridge of Sighs, towers, squares and plenty of doors decorated with grafitti.

Buildings in the Barri Gótic

Narrow streets in the old town of Barcelona

Old walls of Barcelona

Barcelona Cathedral

Door covered with grafitti

I could no longer feel my feet. Five hours of non-stop walking and a zillion footsteps had anaesthetised them into a state of detached numbness. The blood had collected in pools around my ankles which were beginning to feel like lead weights and my back was moaning. It was time to head back to the car after a long day's exploring. I made my way up the Passeig de Gràcia again, in search of the car park. Barcelona had surprised me. The excellent weather, the lack of traffic, the amazing buildings, the sea air, and a thousand small barcelona touches had made this a day well worth the discomfort of two sore feet. And with so much still to see of Barcelona, I've decided to return next year. When my feet have recovered.

Posted by margaretm 06:47 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

A magical town

Cadaqués, Mediterranean essence

View of Cadaqués from the other side of the bay

If Cadaqués were in Mexico, it would be designated a Pueblo Mágico, a Magical Town. A Pueblo Mágico is one which offers visitors a "magical" experience because of its natural beauty, cultural heritage or historical importance. Cadaqués isn't in Mexico but, all the same, it has a magical Mediterranean feel to it. Its dazzling white houses and church sit bunched up on the rugged rocks in a small sheltered bay, dipping their toes in the Mediterranean Sea, along the Northern Costa Brava coast. It's not the sort of place you stumble on. It's almost literally at the end of the road, a place you choose to go to, since there's nothing on the way once you pass Roses and there's only a sparse collection of houses a few kilometers beyond it called Port Lligat. The road then peters out at the end of the wild windswept Cap de Creus headland at Spain's most easterly point, lit by a lonely lighthouse.

But Cadaqués is well worth the effort taken to get there. Its narrow, rocky streets pinched between whitewashed walls twist and turn playfully. The church of Santa Maria, hovering over the village, has been portrayed in uncountable paintings yet remains modest and unpretentious. The blue of the sea echoes the immensity of the hemisphere above. And its exquisite light and cultural ambiente have seduced a long list of famous painters, writers and intellectuals. Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Federico García Lorca, Josep Pla... all have succumbed to its magic. It's not hard to see why.

The church of Santa Maria towers over the village

The streets are built on the rocks

Looking up at the church

Rocky steps up the street

View across the bay

Arches cover the road as it hugs the coast

Small shops inside the village

Looking down from the church over the bay

A quiet backstreet

The tree-lined Rambla is down by the sea

White-washed casino building

House with red shutters

Boats on the stony beach

A couple sitting on the seafront contemplating the view

Inviting café

Casa Serinyana, or the Blue House, built in 1910

Detail of one of the windows

Blue and white, the colours of Cadaqués

You can have something to eat or drink in El Bar Marítim, right on the main beach

Cadaqués has inspired painters throughout the ages and has many art galleries

Evening light at Cadaqués

An unusual bookshop

The small hamlet of Port Lligat and its bay, a few kilometers from Cadaqués

The windswept Cap de Creus headland

The lighthouse at Cap de Creus

Posted by margaretm 04:51 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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