It was a splendid warm week with a few visits to the pool purely to stimulate the thought processes of course. I sat diligently in writer’s corner in the shade and have achieved what I hoped for – enough written down that it has its own momentum now and writing a chapter now and then among other commitments will be OK. If any of it is any good that is,
Sunday was a dull cloudy, Essex beat Hampshire by an innings and lots and Watford lost 5-0. The only upside was it was my daughter’s birthday. So Monday was time to set off after my stay at Cortijo Alto. It is so peaceful except when the farmers start spraying the olive groves at 6 am. Still it got me on the road in short order. My excitement today was twofold. I would virtually complete a circular tour of Spain being in Valencia only 100 km from Tortosa. Secondly thanks to the kind proprietors I was going to meet ‘The Hornet’ an olive tree my daughter and the family gave me for Christmas. I had a certificate and have already sampled some of its excellent first cold press extra virgin Arbequina oil. Now I was going to hug my tree!
I left the house and set off eastwards along the A92 autovia, pausing for breakfast near Granada with a fine view of the Sierra Nevada, still living up to their name. I came off at a junction signed Huercal-Overa, the town nearest to my tree but SatNav was not happy as we did some N roads with a few trucks making progress a little slower. I soon arrived and found the original San Francisco deep in the heart of Almeria. We had agreed I’d find my way to Olivas Querencia by amazing good luck or not at all so Angela kindly came to find me – the red Audi and a tall bald bloke are a bit of a give-away.
Angela and her husband Willem (yes, he’s Dutch) have owned Querencia since 2010. They bought a lovely house, a big farm and 22,000 olive trees.
They’ve made a brilliant fist of sorting the place out and have achieved coveted status as first cold press virgin olive oil with International Olive Council approval which means a lot of tasting by people in Jaen, the capital of olive oil – one might say the Vatican of olive oil such is the mystery that surrounds it. Oh and it’s pretty tasty too like less fatty butter with added sunshine. And of course you’ll live longer.
We shared stories and I was treated to a fabulous unexpected impromptu lunch before going to visit the trees. Where I’ve been staying the olive trees are probably 100+ years old. At Querencia they are 10. I’m used to multi-trunk gnarled old things, these are beautiful single trunk olives neatly trimmed and already showing good olive production after blooming. But no hugging in case unwanted pruning took place!
Good early olives
Angela and Willem find The Hornet
Come on you Hornet!
It’s going to be a good year. FACT. Isn’t it great when something so serendipitous works out so well. Hey, I even played with their dogs! We will keep in touch and one of Fuzz’s yellow wristbands will be The Hornet’s identifier in the future.
But I had to be in Valencia and olive trees needed pruning and tidying up – sadly yellow leaves are a bad sign and have to be pulled off. So I got back onto the A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo which should take me straight to Valencia in about four hours. I guess it must have been my cheapskate settings at the start that say “Avoid Tolls” but we veered off round Alicante north towards Albacete and Madrid and then picked up the A31 into Valencia from the west. My circle was rapidly becoming a capital G. It was fascinating as I drove through Spain’s granite and marble supply zone – every other building alongside the road proclaimed quality stone. It was a bit filled with mountain passes too – not as big as the 1379 metres in Granada but at Lorca you top a rise a see the polythene plains of Murcia – I hope things have picked up after the disastrous rains earlier in the year. And later you come over another pass as the road turns into the A35 and there is the green plain of Valencia with fruit of every kind, then orange trees and then rice.
It takes me two attempts to find the hotel as SatNav lady has no truck with No Entry signs exhorting me repeatedly to turn left where it’s prohibited. I got here, showered and changed and went walk about in the old part of this fabulous city, remembering that when we were last here the Town Hall Square was an ice rink.
I went to the amazing Mercado de Colon, redolent of Victoria in Cordoba and San Miguel in Madrid and checked out a few bars where we’d been before including some great ham at one near the Hospes de Mar hotel we’d stayed at in 2015, took a light dinner in a nearby tapas bar and retired to post this. Last day tomorrow and fully back into the swing with a meeting about the Watford Community Trust Anniversary book on Wednesday.
Three days of writing as planned – it’s harder than I expected and quite tiring. Also characters went off-plan and started introducing new plot lines and new characters which weren’t in my outline at all. Whether any of it works remains to be seen. I had arranged to meet Natalie and Graham, who have a house in Antequera, in Cordoba on Friday. They would take the train and I’d meet them at the station.
Thursday brought an absolute downpour and the forecast for Friday was dodgy so I sent a message asking if they want to postpone but we decided to risk it anyway. So I set off in blinding rain with the wipers the only things going fast along the windy road through Villanueva de Algaidas to reach the A45 autovia to Cordoba. All was well and I made it to the very modern station with a huge plaza in front of it in good time. But it seems there’s no short-stay, pick up and drop off parking. However two cars were waiting in a slip road in front of the station which had bollards to stop you entering from the obvious direction. No one seemed to be about so I failed to see a No Entry sign, went in did a three-point turn and was ready to receive Natalie and Graham when their train arrived just five minutes late.
All aboard we headed off for the recently opened Gourmet Food Mercado de la Victoria which I’d not visited before. There was one further tour past the station before we found the correct route to the market, parked easily and bought a ticket for €1.70 for the maximum stay of two hours. We walked across to the market but it was only just getting under way so we walked down a little further to a café that offered breakfasts. We asked the waitress if we could have a cloth to wipe our pavement table and chairs before sitting down. She came herself and gave us a dry base but warned us it wouldn’t be for long – rain was coming. And it did before she was even able to bring us our first coffee. So we scuttled inside while the rain lashed down on Cordoba. Natalie had thoughtfully provided two umbrellas so we only got mildly damp as we moved from café to the market. It’s a fun destination in a wrought iron pavilion with lots of small outlets for a wide variety of food and drink inside. It’s modelled on the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid which Dee and I had discovered by happy accident several years ago. It was by now past midday so time for a beer to dry off, explore the market and then move the car. When I got my next ticket it’s expiry time was 18:02 which came as a surprise until I remembered that they don’t charge during siesta from two o’clock till five-thirty. Plenty of time to explore the old town and the famous mezquita
May is the time for the Festival of the Patios in Cordoba and the first corner we turned led us into one. Spectacular arrays of geraniums in pots rising to the sky through a three-storey courtyard with excellent ground level planting too. The lady standing looking proudly on told me that she looks after the whole thing on her own. We didn’t do the right thing and pick up a plan, visit all 60 of them and vote for the one we liked best. This one if you scroll down the list in the Juderia section was Judios, 6.
Flowerpots to the sky
Natalie and Graham in the patio
After admiring the patio Natalie and Graham led me to one of Cordoba’s most famous bodegas Guzman a proper Spanish place that doesn’t have a website for me to send you to. Three vast barrels dispense Montilla-Moriles – we are in Cordoba not Jerez after all – but the fine dry cold wine accompanied by some excellent goat’s cheese in olive oil made for a pleasant moment or three watching established locals and whizz-in-and-out-tourists explore this iconic bar. A very atmospheric, authentic corner of Cordoba.
We then moved on past the queues waiting to enter the main attraction which we had all visited before but were impressed by the cleaning that has been going on revealing colourful Arabic designs on the exterior walls of the building which was started in the 700s and as with so many buildings has changed religions and had bits added over the years.
To the south, the banks of the Quadalquivir have been opened up and developed and we took the opportunity of a sunny spell to walk across the Roman bridge, even earlier than the mosque dating from the first century BC and rather spoilt by some later concrete balustrades. Time for a visit to a favourite which Natalie had recommended to Dee and me on our visit in 2010 El Churrasco. We just had a drink on this occasion but it is famed – rightly I remember – for the size and quality of the meat it grills. (photos thanks to Natalie, I’m rubbish with phone photos and didn’t have a camera with me).
The place was occupied by a constant stream of diners, often queuing for some time to get a table. We supped up and walked on through the old quarter in which Graham and I looked round at one point to find no sign of Natalie. She had vanished into a favourite jewellery shop, purchased a bracelet and left the umbrellas behind. We decided to wait for her to catch up with us in a bar situated on a corner she would have to pass so we would spot her. They had a delicious looking tapa of chicken liver with a mushroom sauce, which sounded appetising and just had to be tried. And then another had to be ordered once Natalie rejoined us. Then it was time to head back to Mercado Victoria for lunch – a parillada (mixed grill) of steak, sausages, morcilla and chorizo with chips and those delicious pimientos de padron small green peppers blistered in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Back to the car for an easy exit from Cordoba and back to La Parilla.
The hamlet where I’m staying has two bars and of course we had to pay them both a visit. I deposited my guests in the first and took the car back to the villa, just in case. We met up here with Paul and Tamsin who look after the house for its owners and live here all the time. They had to leave, so we walked up to the other bar where a little hunger was returning and tapas were available. Excellent morcilla de Burgos, which is black pudding with added rice, topped by a quail’s egg at Graham’s special request – he is extremely fond, some might say excessively fond, of fried eggs in all sizes. I’m going to fry him an ostrich egg one of these days! Also there were some very good homemade ham croquetas – a staple of Spanish tapas which can often disappoint. These were crunchy outside and creamy and tasty within. The bar is run by a charming young couple who have a six month old baby whom we could see and hear on the baby monitor sitting on the bar. Lucia is lovely. He’s from Catalunya, came for a holiday, met, married and stayed.
It was just as well we’d been eating steadily all day because despite inviting them to stay the night I hadn’t really thought about food to offer them. As it happened all we needed was a bottle or two of a stupidly good for its €2.75 price Ribera de Duero and then to bed around 2 am in proper Spanish style. And I didn’t have to listen to or watch our plucky defeat at Everton or Hampshire contrive to lose to Glamorgan after scoring 330+.
On Saturday I did provide homemade tostadas con tomate y ajo and coffee out on the terrace where we are promised another changeable day before it brightens up on Sunday and soars to 30 degrees all week next week. We then set off to return Natalie and Graham to Antequera where I can’t leave without a visit to their local – and oft-visited by us too – La Socorilla.
On several previous visits we had been promised a trip to the rabbit restaurant – Venta El Conejo on the outskirts of Antequera. It’s a bit erratic serving only rabbit and opening when they are available. So we’d never made it together. We walked through the former textile factory district of Antequera of which I was completely ignorant but there’s a river valley with lots of buildings of increasing dereliction which were once a thriving industrial hub with 13 factories making woollen goods and blankets along the course of the Villa river, now dammed and diverted so it’s a trickle until it dries up completely in July. It seems they developed from the mid-1800s and died out early in the twentieth century. We reached the rabbit restaurant and ordered a plate and a half of rabbit and a platter of chips with a side salad of tomato, onions and garlic. All were huge, all were delicious. Following yesterday’s offal tapas I enjoyed rabbit liver and kidneys but drew the line at its tongue which may have been a mistake given how tasty all the rest was. Oh and of course there was a perfectly fried trio of eggs to round it all off. Then back through the town and a small shower for a final coffee at La Socorilla before driving back to La Parilla. On Sunday true to promise the skies are blue the temperature is rising and the week ahead looks good. Washing’s on the line – dry within an hour – I’ve swept storm debris off the patio and am listening to a distant hoopoe call – I saw one yesterday with a great flash of pink, black and white – the wonderful odour of ripening figs and these trees with their pretty pinky mauve flowers and yellow seed pods. I’ve never seen them in bloom before. I think they are a kind of acacia but will ask Paul when I see him.
Time to get back to the real work now listening to Semele which I only know from extracts in preparation for the whole thing in two week’s time at Garsington Opera. It’s great Handel, good tunes, lots of drama and as usual the Gods meddling with mortals. Precursors of politicians, I’d say. Looking forward to it very much.
On the way south through Zamora province there are fields of beans – chick peas and habones which are somewhere between broad and butter beans, big and tasty. We’ve run out of vines as the land gives way to cattle and pig rearing under the cork oaks whose acorns make the ham from around here so tasty. As it happens I’m on Route 66, Autovia A66 and it doesn’t feel much like our trip in Arizona and Nevada except for the amount of road kill. It’s a fairly empty motorway – why can’t the animals dodge better? Sight of the day – sorry still no stopping – comes just south of Salamanca where the road crests a slight incline and there are the Sierra de Gredos still covered in snow. The road passed Béjar and there were signs to La Covatilla ski resort. Then after another gentle climb – no hairpins or gear changes – there’s a sign for a pass at 1192 metres above sea level. These really are high plains in the west of Spain – the film title I borrowed wasn’t actually one of those spaghettis shot in Tabernas in Almeria province. As the road continued my attention was drawn to a stunning piece of music that was totally unfamiliar. I’d enjoyed the company of Catalunya Musica until halfway across Aragon and had then managed to retune to RTVE’s classical station. That’s the national broadcaster – BBC equivalent. I caught a bit of the announcement that it had Anne Sofie van Otter and the Swedish Symphony orchestra. I later traced it to be Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Song: a Cantata in two parts. I’m listening to it now on the RTVE podcast and it’s even better without car noise.
The A66 progresses into Extramadura which is the most famous region for Bellota ham but I was very surprised by the number of newly planted fields of vines and of vines planted as infill between rows of olive trees. I stopped for a coffee and mentioned my surprise to be told that the whole area had been revitalised in 1999 when Extramadura finally got its own denominacion DO Ribera del Guadiana so quality and prices had risen and farmers were encouraged to plant more vines. It was a hesitant conversation given my shaky command of the language but informative. Most of the new vines are in Badajoz province at the east end of which, now on the N432, I enter Cordoba where the only planting to be seen throughout the whole province is olives with the exception of a few grapes around Montilla south of the capital and in – it seems – a dozen other villages where the wines are classified as Montilla-Moriles and have a striking resemblance to sherries and a similar variety from fino to the sweet Pedro Ximenez. I have occasionally taken a sip of fino from a bottle labelled CB Alvear only later to appreciate that it’s a Montilla not a sherry.
So I arrive in Rute just after three which seems like a good time for lunch before shopping. I recall that nice restaurant and bar we used to go to – Venegas, just up the road from Mercadona where my shopping is planned. So I go in, order a beer and ask what they have as tapas or small raciones and lo and behold they have carillitas de cerdo. These are pigs’ cheeks and became one of Dee’s favourite dishes. Coming from beside that large amount of bone the meat is really tasty and tender. These were served in a sauce with almonds. And how appropriate that he should be watching over me from the counter.
A week’s shopping completed I then drove on through Iznajar and turned right along to La Parilla, right on the border of Cordoba and Malaga provinces. The last part of the journey was a bit hazy and I thought I might be tired or my cataracts were getting worse only to realise that insect spatter had nearly obscured the windscreen. I’ll give it a wash tomorrow.
The house is still as lovely and welcoming as I remember.
There’s a bit of noise from the olive oil cooperative in the village but otherwise just the birds and the rustle of a light breeze in the trees.
Always loved the lone pine above the olives
I’m unpacked, a week’s washing is on, finished and out to dry and writer’s corner has been established and occupied in preparation for the real task to begin tomorrow.
Oh and the pool area still looks attractive but the sun’s gone off it now and I’ve been busy. And horror – I have to cook for myself tonight!
I didn’t even take the car out of the parador garage today. After yesterday’s drive and with another 680 km tomorrow it seemed a good idea to use my feet for other than pressing the accelerator. Last night’s dinner at Rincon de Antonio was delicious and when I suggested that I might try a DOC Zamora he replied “Zamora es Toro” and directed me to one of his favourites on the list – Victorino. It proved an excellent accompaniment to the six course degustacion menu.
I should have been shooting audio at 11:00 when most of the town’s churches clanged their bells to gather the faithful – and they clang these are not tuneful chimes but raucous “get to church now” blasts. Lots of the people clearly preferred the call of Mammon as there was a flea market in full swing right in front of the parador. By the way the parador courtyard was back to normal today. There were a very few interesting pieces but most would have exceeded the baggage allowance so I just looked and left.
Just below the parador is Zamora Museum which I was encouraged to enter by a couple of church-bound locals – probably trustees. It was an very interesting small museum with lots of archaeological finds from its long history, an early mosaic floor and some fine jewellery, lots of medieval masonry from destroyed churches and palaces and some paintings and sculpture, among which were two pieces by Mariano Benlliure whom we’d discovered in Valencia on our 2015 visit. He worked and studied in Zamora in the 1870s as a teenager.
I then decided it was time to pay the Duero a visit and fortunately you can walk across the stone bridge, along the gardens and children’s playgrounds on the left bank with great views of the weir (!) and then back over the new road bridge and back to town along the right bank through a splendid avenue. It was a lovely reflective stroll for about two and a half kilometres reminding me a little of Boston’s esplanade on a Sunday with cyclist, joggers and rollerbladers but all on grass and sand.
The weir up close
Parador from the other side
Guess what? Arty grafitti
Lots of families having fun and a few who’d been sent out to the baker’s. Others needed help but were out taking the warm air.
My walk ended by the famous Aceña de Olivares the first sign of industry in Zamora in 986 – or at least that’s the first written reference so they may have been even earlier.
They are flour mills driven by the power of the Duero and were in use until the early part of the twentieth century. They have now been restored and are powered up at 19:00 every evening except Monday so you can go in and see the machinery worked by the water. Maybe later on I’ll whizz down again – although that will entail a steep up to get back. I did make that up to visit Zamora’s castle – of course it has – the grounds of which have sculptures by local artist Baltasar Lobo who died in 1993. A lot of them are very pleasing and on this visit at least, I wasn’t made to do silly things beside sculptures by my companion.
I continued my stroll through the medieval old town passing a super triple stork site through to the newer area where I got confirmation that yesterday’s weather prediction was very close if not there – it was 26° as I passed by so it might have got hotter. It’s fairly typical of Spanish towns with elegant avenues, parks and not-too-ugly apartment blocks and some interesting designs for children’s play objects.
By then it was time for tapas and I elected for my first slices of ham from the paleta always a delight and gave myself a real surprise by ordering sopa de ajo which I’ve always thought of as the lesser known cousin of gazpacho. Not in Castile is it a chilled white confection. It’s more like French onion soup with garlic, pimento for spiciness and toasted cheesy bread circles floated on the top. It was very tasty and when I explained my surprise the waiter advised me that what I had expected is called sopa de ajo blanco and that this local version is the real thing – nothing like regional rivalry.
Then back to the parador to check up on the cricket – easy win for England, much needed one for Hampshire and to get packed up ready for my drive south tomorrow. A deserved beer on the terrace before dinner in the parador tonight and an early start in the morning – although breakfast is included and very good as always with fruit, yoghurt and cereals, eggs, bacon and sausage, cold meats and cheese for all the Dutch and German visitors and then a selection of breads and pastries. I won’t need to stop for lunch – just frequent coffees.
I’ve spared you the full romanesque and modernismo photo essay but here are a few favourite details to conclude. I love the bronze sculpture of the guy just walking down the street with all the others returning from church and the joy in decoration of the modernist architects.
Saturday was the big drive day traversing Spain to the north of Madrid. I didn’t get to prepare brilliantly for it. I’d had a very good dinner on Friday in the parador, carrot (lovely word in Spanish zahanoria) and orange soup followed by oxtail in crispy filo parcels with grilled aubergine, courgettes and peppers. Having only eaten a breakfast croissant and some crisps with a beer all day I was peckish and this went down very nicely with a glass or two of Ramon Bilbao rioja. I went and illustrated the blog, posted it and began to feel a bit nauseous. Not common for me at all. It settled and I went to bed but couldn’t sleep for ages and just as I was drifting off a mosquito whined by. Lights on, magazine at the ready but I couldn’t spot it. Brain clicks on in my doziness – I packed jungle formula for down south but why not here too? So I spray myself liberally and pull a sheet over my head. Eventually I hear no more mozzie and drift off for what can only have been an hour before the people two rooms along from me decide it’s time to check out – who checks out at 4 am unless you’re in an airport hotel? They have noisy children, lots of luggage and take ages. Fitful dozing follows until deep sleep at I guess around 7 – not what’s needed with a long day’s drive ahead. So I spring awake at 8:15 in a panic and am out and on the road by 8:40 only a bit later than intended. Just for the record Tortosa to Zamora by the non-toll route is 660 kilometres and I had wondered once or twice about the wisdom of doing it on my own.
E to D? Spain has two major rivers (well they might count the Quadalquivir in Andalusia too), the Ebro which flows east to the Mediterranean just downstream from Tortosa in the famous delta. The Duero flows west and becomes the Douro in Portugal before hitting the Atlantic – Zamora is the last major city on the Duero in Spain. I have once again selected the no toll road route – it’s also the shortest by 50 km. And it proved to be an oenological odyssey. It also gave me a theory about the colours of the Spanish flag – as they used to say on Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne: “The answer lies in the soil”. Few of you will recall these but they were very funny radio shows. The soil is either pale golden yellow or deep red throughout my journey today. The wine route bit? I started in the denomination Terra Alta which includes yesterday’s winery where, as in Penedes the day before, the vines are showing lots of green leaf. As I cross from Catalunya into Aragon we enter Cariñena and on into Calatayud. Here there are a few shoots but the fields are mostly low black vines. Much of the rest of Aragon seems devoted to grain production with fields displaying 30 cm shoots in the most wonderful variety of greens. Whether they are different seeds or just different stages I didn’t stop to ask – in fact I didn’t stop apart for breakfast so no pictures for this section – I’ll have to paint them with words. These greens range from bright lime green like euphorbia flowers, through emerald and forest through to a dark steely bluish green. I really did want to stop because these greens against the newly ploughed bright red fields looked amazing and went on and on. Sadly, although there wasn’t much traffic on the N234, the sides have very steep run offs to discourage the practice of stopping. Then we popped into Castile y Leon and Ribera de Duero right next door to the Rioja where there was no hint of a shoot. We’d just gone through a pass at 1060 km above sea level so even spring is quite chilly up here. One day I will go to Peñafiel the heart of Ribera de Deuro which has a massive castle and loads of great looking bodegas dotted beside the excellent CL116 – a truly great drive – must have been made by the Romans. There are a few stretches of road which are designated A11 – Autovia del Duero but lots of it has been started and looks like the money ran out. There are a lot of unfinished projects of all kinds that reflect the poor state of Spain’s economy but the ones the do finish are very impressive. Once into Valladolid province it’s all Rueda where the verdejo grapes produce their own fine wines and are shipped next door to make white riojas. Then once we cross into Zamora province it’s Toro made from its eponymous grape the vines of which are showing small shoots. Zamora of course also has its own DOC but I’m not sure I’ve tried it – maybe it would be rude not to.
I make it to the parador in time to set up the computer and listen to Watford at Leicester on Hornets Player but I have a premonition and the plethora of cafés in the sunny Plaza Mayor with the promise of a beer win out. I did keep an eye on the progress and was pleased to hear that the crowd were chanting Quique Sanchez Flores – oh that they would bring him back. Anyone but Mazzari next season please – no I don’t mean that. There’s a long list of managers we don’t want. 3-0 again conceding in extra time. Not good enough.
By the way this parador is not a castle but the palace of the Dukes of Alba and Aliste – quite impressive though.
There’s a massive wedding on today so the normally elegant courtyard has an inflatable gonk bouncy castle. Well it keeps the kids out of the bar! Fortunately our favourite resident is still in place and I might take him for a ride around the ramparts tomorrow.
Zamora is a beautiful Romanesque town with the largest concentration of churches in that style in Europe. 24 of them all built in the 12th and 13th centuries – so that’s tomorrow’s photo blog. It’s due to be 27° so it might be shorts and sandals and a gentle walk about. Or inside several of them for a cool moment.
Right next to the parador is the Teatro Ramos Carrion which was a ruined hulk last time we were here. It’s been restored, had a modern extension added and created a new square with views over the Duero. It reopened to the public last year. There’s also another theme of these blogs that followed me to Zamora – the modernisme (oops that’s Catalan – modernismo) trail.
And given I ventured into hydrology on the Ebro in the last blog it’s worth noting that the Duero in Zamora also has a diagonal diverting weir to regulate the flow which you can spot along with the ruins of the first bridge dating from Roman times.
And now we’re out west another fascination for me is storks’ nests. They seem to like church towers in this shape (1) and it’s not often you get above one (2) at feeding time. This one (3) was just around the corner but they had to make do with the lower slopes of this glossy spire (4).
Zamora has one restaurant with a Michelin star and Dee and I dined here the last time we were here together celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. Guess where I’m off to tonight!
I always thought the Accu part of Accuweather was short for accurate or accuracy – not any more. It was one of those grey mornings that don’t encourage you to leap from your bed into enthusiastic activity. When I did venture onto the balcony it was windy and there was a hint of drizzle on the breeze. So bye-bye lazy day by the pool. One of the great things about paradors is they all have loads of corners where you can sit and knit, read, sew or paint according to your inclinations. However once I had made the effort I decided to drive up the Ebro valley for a bit towards a place we had visited before – the so-called Cathedral of Wine – a modernist masterpiece in Pinell de Brai. There might be a theme emerging here! First however I detoured into Xerta which lies right on the banks of the Ebro and its clever canal. I parked and sat down in the main square for a coffee and the sun came out. Coffee done my jacket went back into the car as it was already 20° at 11:30 and I’m only 10 Km up river from Tortosa which still looks cloudy. It’s a typical old medieval village with one exception to the norm. Being on the river bank it’s flat whereas all the other villages I went to today are built on the top of extremely steep hills – ooh my calves!
The river bank walk reminded me very much of a similar stroll also beside the Ebro but way west in Haro in the Rioja. Elegant wooden fences, plenty of places to sit and picnic and the interesting contrast of the slow-moving Ebro and the rushing canal.
As I walked back through the village there was evidence that the citrus season is all but over although I did see another septuagenarian scrumping a few remaining oranges – to be fair he may have been legit. I didn’t like to ask. On my perambulations through the narrow streets I concluded that a third of the population was over 70, a third pregnant and the other third at work or in school. Back in the main square I discovered the reasons for the canal.
This marker up the side of the church shows the level of the floods – it’s ten metres at the top – that used to devastate the whole area because of the unpredictability of the flow in different seasons. So in 1857 they built a diagonal dam across the river – some evidence points to a much earlier Moorish effort to control the river – which siphoned large amounts into the canal which is used to supply towns and villages and irrigate the fertile lands of the area. A hydroelectric plant followed in 2002 so the waters of the Ebro are put to good effect.
That’s my history quota for the day so I set off for culture. The town of Horta de San Joan has a Picasso Cubism Centre so I think I’ll pay a visit. On the way I get diverted by an amazing mountain rock formation. This one is in the Natural Park of Els Ports and it made me think how, wherever you go in this amazing country, you’re a never far away from mountains with amazing outcrops. This one is known as the Dog’s Head and, of course, The Castle. I think the dog’s a spaniel given its long ears – maybe a setter. But as I looked at them I remembered the mountains at Montserrat far north from here and those of El Torcal hundreds of miles south near Antequera all with amazing shapes. Fabulous!
The dog’s head and the castle
The dog’s head
Dee on the way to Montserrat
Dee in El Torcal
On the way I have an opportunity to snap one of the roundabouts I obsessed about the other day and a sign that I thought would amuse any of the IT buffs out there with its nifty digitalism.
Of course after parking up and mounting the steps and steeps to Horta de San Joan I discover that the Picasso place only opens on Saturdays and Sundays – rubbish planning again. It also seems only to have reproductions and photographs of the mates he spent time with in Horta – might have been quite interesting but not essential, I think. After all that effort there was an attractive square with a bar with a beer with my name on. It was lunch time for the workers who are destroying the town centre before rebuilding it and they are all playing cards – quite competitively I would say.
On I go with a brief stop in Gandesa to El Pinell de Brai and the Cathedral of Wine. Designed by César Martinell, a follower of Gaudi, it opened in 1917 and has elements in common with yesterday’s winery at San Sadurni. There’s a lovely ceramic tile frieze showing the wine making process. Sadly since we were there before it has now opened a Michelin starred restaurant but it’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays – poor planning again. Totally inadequate prior research I’d say. For me the amazing brickwork of the vaults inside and the windows that look like wine bottles to me are pure mastery of form and function. And the way the modernists use light is brilliant. Glad a made a return visit.
I also walked up to the top of the village up streets so steep they reminded me of a trip to Zahara de la Sierra in Cadiz province where we and the locals traversed diagonally from side to side in order to make it up vertiginous slopes. It also gave me an insight into how quickly and recently Spain has modernised. This municipal water supply was only turned off in 1998 when piped water was made available to the whole village.
Back to Tortosa and back into the gloom – warm gloom it has to be said and a wander through its excellent central park and splendid market hall – a pre-modernist architect making great play with light again (some dispute about who actually designed it) – and past a poster that told me the medieval festival – Renaissance I stand corrected – happens every year in July – probably won’t make it back this year though.
Breakfast and packing accomplished, the SatNav lady asked me politely if I wanted to avoid toll roads. I’m in no rush, many motorways are boring so I elected to avoid them. There were a few tricky sections on the NII south from Girona as they convert it into an autovia – the A2. I’m not sure how that will go down as it’s pretty well parallel to the AP7 in which the P stands for Peatge or pay. It’s a commercially operated 900 kilometre toll road that goes the length of the Spanish Mediterranean coast from the French border to Vera in Andalusia. Now there are already free to use sections around the major cities as part of the deal between government and contractors but it’s an interesting point here.
It then heads off to the coast and I have wonderful sea views and holiday apartment blocks all the way down to Mataro where we cut inland to bypass Barcelona to the west, passing the Circuit de Catalunya where the Spanish Grand Prix will be held a week on Sunday. I’m very glad at this point that she seems to know where she’s going because there are some sections that would have had me asking my navigator to reach for the atlas. However we pop out the other side of Barcelona with signs to Tarragona which is good since I know that’s on the way. Much of my route is on the N340 which must be incredibly long as I’m at kilometres in the 1100s. I later confirm that it’s the old Roman Via Augusta and starts in Cadiz and goes to Barcelona. Its Roman nature explained an odd bifurcation of a twin track section round a stone archway the Arc de Bera – I couldn’t stop but, thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I can show you what I saw. It was a sunny day, progress was good until a saw a signpost for San Sadurni d’Anoia. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the town but I’ve read it on lots of bottles of cava. San Sadurni is the capital of cava so a diversion seems essential.
Juve y Camps San Sadurni
It is situated among field after field of very neat low level vines – I later learn that the spring pruning restricts each wine to two branches to increase quality at the expense of volume. As I enter the town the first winery I happen across is Juve y Camps the cava we enjoyed at Martin Berasategui’s last August. Sadly they only do tours by prior arrangement both here and at their winery at Espiells out in the fields. Maybe one year there might be a cava winery tour like the excellent Bilbao and Rioja one a few years back. However the best known and marketed of the cavas, Freixenet, did have a tour about to start so what was I to do? There’s a fine building dating from 1914 and then a huge new factory stretching off into the distance. One good thing is that it’s right next to the railway station so if you are in Barcelona and fancy a cava tour you can do it easily by train.
There was a good introductory video, much of the content of which our guide repeated. With vines destroyed by phylloxera, a couple of families, Ferrer and Sala decided to plant new vines and make a different kind of wine. The Ferrer’s farm was called La Freixenera so a brand was born. They used the methode champenoise but couldn’t call it champagne because of DOC rules. So because the wine was stored in ancient deep caves in the hillsides they called it cava. Freixenet was founded in 1914 and the king and queen came to mark their centenary three years ago. The tour takes in the original barrel hall and caves with racks of bottles for hand turning in the traditional style. However most of their production is now totally mechanised in the new factory building.
In my group I was good at naming the three grapes used in most cavas – perellada, x-arello and macabeo – too much time reading labels! But I failed miserably when it came to guessing their output in bottles per year. I thought millions because they are big. I guessed 10. The answer is a staggering 80 million bottles a year most of which go to Germany and the UK. After plunging to the depths of the cellars we were then conducted on a little train – spared a lot of up on this occasion – back to the tasting room. The Brut Nature was to my taste – very dry but with lots of fruit – but only one as I had to drive. I was tempted to continue my journey in this but security wouldn’t let me near it.
So onwards to Tortosa and my next castle – a proper fortress this one. It’s 200 feet above the town – fine in the car with some good brake and clutch control but later on foot – that’s a lot of steps and all up. Some of my readers don’t do up and I think I might abandon it soon. Boy did the ticker pump! Yes, I know it’s good for me! When Dee and I first (and last) came here, we checked in, had a swim and a shower, frocked up and walked down into town. It was and still is easy going down. We were amazed because everyone was dressed in medieval gear as part of a July fiesta. There were displays of contemporary crafts and I remember us spending a lot of time with a guy making chain mail – one craft I’m glad didn’t come home.
It’s quieter today but I have an explore, come across this beautiful modernisme example with fabulous plaster work and then trek back up and scribble this from my balcony with views of the mountains to one side and a courtyard with bouganvillaea and the Ebro to the other.
One thing has become clear – I love to travel and explore new places. It’s sad when I can’t share them immediately, but thanks for helping. Good weather promised again for tomorrow so it might just be a day by the pool and nothing to blog about. We’ll see.
We’ll come to that later. Let’s start with the watery workout. Comparison I promised – pond and ocean. Thalassotherapy v hydrotherapy. I have to say that warm sea water with fabulous views over La Concha beach in San Sebastian wins hands down. The Balneari spa was good – a pool with jacuzzis and three different jet massage nozzles, a sauna in which I barely broke sweat and the ghastly Scottish shower – so cold! With wet swimmies I set off after a good breakfast headed for some old haunts. Would they still appeal?
The drive was dull for ten minutes to Cassa de la Selva and then I was in the Gavarras mountains on GI 664. Talk about bends! Up and down switchbacks! Every now and then a voice said, “Slow down Mike!”. Quite right too, not that much came the other way. It’s a road with almost no signs of habitation either – just one sign the whole 20km for Santa Pellaia which might have been a hamlet once but seems just to consist of a small church today.
Eventually it flattens out and I arrive at San Sadurni de L’Heura a totally unspoilt old village in which I saw no one on my perambulation – they were all out working in the fields or the chicken coops or indoors cooking and mending although I heard no sounds either.
Next stop Monells a slightly over-restored tourist spot but one where we had spent two excellent weeks in a villa with a pool on the outskirts. The sun dial was on BST and the square was alive with swifts, swallows and martins pausing on their way north. Our stay in Monells was the last time either of us got on a bicycle other than in the gym! As I drove up the road we had cycled I saw this and had to stop – my mum loved poppies, memories of the Tower of London display which we’d shared and a medieval Spanish village all together. Hope you’ll indulge me.
Memories of Dee’s mum hit me then and I made for Sa Tuna where we took Eileen for a break after she’d lost Dee’s dad John. I began then to understand grief. Eileen was good company, very demanding of post boxes to send postcards, but had moments when she didn’t want to talk. This is the house we stayed in for a week.
Once upon a time in a different life I used to own a house in Begur. So I did a drive by to see what my Dutch successors had done with it. It looked terrible – mould climbing up the walls after a wet winter. They obviously hadn’t continued my deal with the local Pintor Rodriguez – he could keep his van in the garage when I wasn’t there and he’d paint the house every spring. Result: fine white house whenever we arrived. Time for lunch in the village which I’m pleased to say still looks beautiful topped by its castle.
However the march of progr – strike that profit has meant that where Dee enjoyed skipping with the local girls and ladies in a communal space, two cafés have invaded with semi-permanent edifices rather than the temporary ice cream stall. Change is inevitable, not all of it good.
Next stop Toroella de Mongri which is work as it features in the novel I’m continuing next week. It’s famed for its mountains which form the shape of a sleeping woman – they even used on the town signs.
As I drove across the plain it struck me that all the water I’d seen from the air as we flew down the coast on the approach to Girona was the newly planted rice fields. Rice is an important crop here and I’m used to seeing the fields bright green not watery brown waiting for the shoots to appear. I drive into town, park, insert money in the machine which rejects it three times. The instructions are clear and I’m pressing the right buttons. Klutz, duh! You don’t have to pay till 17:00 and it’s ten past four. What an honest machine. I share my stupidity with a lady sweeping the steps of a fabric store who smiled sympathetically. I walked through the lovely old town centre to discover from the Town Hall that the people I need to talk to won’t be in till tomorrow so I’ll have to go back or just wing it – it’s fiction after all. Toroella is a special place as Dee and I walked to the castle – the nipple on the sleeping lady’s bosom. We phoned and waved to her sister lounging in the campsite far below. Quite a day!
My next stop was intended to be my hotel but on the way came a diversion caused by I know not what. In a 30 car stream everybody did U-turns and sped off on a dirt road so I followed. It gave me just the viewpoint I needed for the novel so if it ever gets published there will be prizes for the spot.
Last night I stayed in what looked like a castle – tonight I am staying in a castle. There was a good deal – early bird – on their website so I went for it. It included dinner for one night and an exciting room in the tower. That’s my room with my swimming trunks drying in the window. What do towers have? Lifts? No. Steps? Yes lots of steps – good for the fitness regime I tell myself as I pant to not quite the top. The view is magnificent. Worth it? If I survive two days without heart failure – yes. In fact we came to look at it many years ago when it was still under reconstruction by a Dutch couple who have done a great job in converting it to a boutique hotel.
The dinner was certainly worth it – an interesting take on tuna sashimi served on a thin crispy pizza dough base following a delicious sea bass ceviche amuse bouche. Also interesting to me, who became a bit of an olive oil snob a while back, was a local oil made from a variety I’d never encountered. It was very smooth, almost creamy but with a peppery aftertaste. Now I know my Picual, Arbequina and Hojiblanca but I’d not come across Argudell which Wikipedia – God bless Jimmy Wales and do donate if you can – is native to Catalunya. So a new notch on the olive branch. I also ask for some local wine and Desea is suggested. A strange – to me – mix of Syrah, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. Very soft, very smooth, very drinkable. So that’s tonight. Thanks to all who are following and saying kind things. I will be back.
The first four months of this year have been rather busy so after fulfilling Dee’s last wishes on her birthday by letting her fly free from the Ivinghoe Beacon, I thought it was time for me to fly away too for a while and catch up with me and my thoughts. Friends and family have been wonderfully supportive and made sure I didn’t sit doing a bottle of scotch every night or something equally daft and making sure that I had plenty of stimulating company, excursions and diversions. So I decided to take off for three weeks in May and where better to go than Spain which has meant so much to us both over the last twenty plus years. So here we go on a visit on my own to some of the places we had enjoyed together and see how it all stacks up.
Well the planning is all rubbish for a start:
DataCars persuade me to leave home at 10:30 for a 14:45 flight despite my assertion that 11:30 would be good, So an early last water of the plants that kind people will keep alive while I’m away and off we go. Not even the slightest pause at the Blackwall Tunnel so we get to Stansted at 11:20 and I’m checked in and through security in double quick time with two hours before they even announce the gate! One of the perks Dee had on her bank account was an airport lounge pass which we had made good use of in the past. I decided to continue the pass from a Groupon half price deal. Was I glad of it today! In a quiet room with a view of aircraft if that’s your thing I had coffee and croissants, read the paper and started to write this. Then it was time for lunch and a glass of wine and then off to the gate feeling calm and relaxed not having had to spend my time being screamed at to buy duty free goods – to get to the lounge and the gates Stansted has copied IKEA so you have to walk past all those designer outlets, and Boots and Smiths, before you can reach your destination.
The best car hire deal was direct with Budget who claimed their office was on Girona airport. It’s not. And they close at 18:00. My flight arrived at 17:45, slightly early, but after baggage reclaim, determining the location of Budget and walking the half a k to get there, the office was closed. However the lady in charge had not quite escaped so a young lady with a bicycle in a big black case and I were allowed to collect our pre-booked cars BUT we had to pay €60 extra for “out of hours’ collection” which the boss lady was most apologetic about and gave us detailed receipts and instructions on how to reclaim it. It’s clearly a scam she doesn’t approve of. She also “upgraded” me to a smart red Audi which is quite nippy and fun to drive.
My first hotel Balneari Vichy Catalan was carefully selected just 20 minutes from Girona Airport and at the source of what had always been our favourite mineral water Vichy Catalan. You can really taste those minerals doing you good – just don’t put it in whisky.
I don’t know how good your Catalan is but this banner mocking my arrival says Festival the last Saturday in April. When do I arrive? The first of May. It also features the person who gives the place its name. Mala vella is an evil old woman who reportedly haunted the castle in medieval times. I checked in to the hotel and set off to find a bar with a UK TV feed so I could watch Watford v Liverpool. Everywhere was closed in fiesta recuperation mode so I came back to the hotel to find that there was a Spanish channel showing it so I could watch us just miss out on at least a point thanks to a wonder goal from Emre Can, a great save from a Capoue shot and the crossbar from Prödl. The Spanish commentators found Vicarage Road very difficult to pronounce. This led to me being by a long way the last person in the restaurant – a time honoured Lesley-Raggett tradition so I excused myself by indicating my watch still being on London time. As with the majority of Spanish staff they were gracious, attentive and had a laugh about it. They didn’t mention Brexit. I did leave a tip. An interesting fact – well I thought so – is that the Balneari Hotel and the Vichy Catalan company were established in 1881 the same year as a certain football club!
So day 1 is nearing its end and my poor planning has been rescued by the fact that the hotel is a spectacular example of modernisme architecture, the town has a lot of fine houses in similar vein and I’m doing a hydrotherapy circuit tomorrow morning just like we did together with such delight in San Sebastian last August. A comparative report will follow.