Sunday, 24 May 2020

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca.
Just beautiful!
Hiking with a touch of snow.
Winter was setting in by November, and although we were still getting sunny days, there was a fair bit of rain around. There was also snow in the mountains already and I was excited! I always love a bit of snow, such a rare thing when I lived in Australia, and not that common here either really. I live in a city of around 200,000 people just outside of Barcelona, so when it does snow, it usually doesn't come near me. It did a few years ago, even if it was only for about 2 hours and the snow was light and quite slushy. I love going hiking in the snow, hearing and feeling the crunch of the white powder under your boots. When I get a chance to do it, I take it, and actively look for it. There is a problem though - I don't have a car, and all the good places that I want to go need a car. As my birthday was coming up, I started looking for car rental deals and was lucky enough to find one. I booked it and then started thinking about where to go. Although the weather was a bit cold, I wanted to go to the mountains - this is where I feel that happiest. There is nothing like being outdoors, going from the bottom of a mountain to the top, all under your own steam. I love the views at the top, but this isn't the same if you drive there or get a chairlift. Although there are plenty of mountains to hike around here, I love Pedraforca. There is something magical about this big forked rock that I just can't describe. I made a phone call and organised with a friend to rent out his small holiday flat for the weekend, in a village called Bagà. When he found out it was for my birthday, he offered it as a birthday present which I could hardly refuse (thanks Bernat and Maite - love you both!). So it was set - transport, accommodation and somewhere to hike! Let's do it!
Montserrat - visible from Sabadell.
Montserrat sunset from Sabadell.
Sant Esteve de Bagà.
Bagà's main square.
The drive is up the C-16 towards Manresa, with Montserrat in view most of the way. Every time I see this mountain, I am impressed by its sheer size and weird shape. I've hiked it, climbed it and also caught the cable car and also by funicular. Designated a National Park in 1987, the name Montserrat means "Saw Mountain," and looking at those serrated, teeth-like peaks you can see why. Each 'peak' has a name, the main peaks are Sant Jeroni, Montgrós and Miranda de les Agulles. Montserrat is famous as the site of the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary. At any time of year, there are plenty of people here for sightseeing, religious reasons, hiking and maybe even a little bit of the local delicacy, 'Mel i Mato,' or honey and goat's cheese cream. But our destination wasn't this mountain today, so we continued up past Manresa and Berga, the home of the 'patum.' Duing the festival of Corpus Christi, which is held in June every year, the townspeople dress up and dance, playing music and have lots of fire displays and fireworks. I've never been to this event, but it is on the list. Maybe next year. Still going, we drove past Cercs and the Panta de la Baells (Baells Reservoir). The town is not worth mentioning really (sorry, I've never been there but probably never will either), but what you see is the huge power station sitting just off the road and looking out over the water. This power station always reminds me of The Simpsons and Springfield's famous 3-eyed fish, but this isn't a nuclear power station, instead burning lignite (poor quality coal) which is mined locally. There are water sports that you can do on this reservoir and well as a mine tour nearby. But, we were so close to our destination that nothing would stop us - on to Bagà!
Bagà apartments.
Nice views from these balconies.
The narrow stone streets of Bagà.
A real mountain town.
We arrived in town around 4pm and the sun was already starting to set. Managing to park the car right outside the apartment was lucky - the old part of town has very small, narrow streets, most of which can barely fit a normal sized car. Then there are the corners which can take off your wing mirror without a second thought. As this was a rental car, extra car was paid and I parked it safely, with only a little bit of wiggling back and forth. I'd worry about reversing out later - can't have all the fun at once. We dumped our stuff and headed out for a walk around before it got too cold and dark. Without going too far away, it was just a walk near the river and around the outskirts of town. If we'd had more time, we could have walked to the Bagà lookout, a short walk from the centre but offering a great view of the area. From the town you can see mountains already - you're right in the pre-Pyrenees here, in the Cadí-Moixeró National Park. It's a beautiful place - not exciting, but it has a few nice little bars, a great bakery a small supermarket and plenty of hiking stores. What makes it special is its location - you're so close to the mountains you can nearly touch them! This is the gateway for a lot of hiking in the area. We headed back to the house, put some logs on the fire and relaxed with some wine and homemade tapas, watching a bit of tv before going to bed. Tomorrow was hiking day!
The view from Gósol.
The Rock... and a little too much snow to be hiking to the top.
Saldes - the start and finish of our hike.
Spring is here!
Heading out of Bagà and going a little more north, we took the turn off for Pedraforca. I love this road in the morning - the sun coming up and shining its pink light on the rock. It is always beautiful and today was no exception. What worried me a little was the snow - there was a decent amount of dusting on the mountain. I kept driving, following the road past Saldes and onto Gósol, where we'd have a coffee and breakfast before starting our walk. From here with Pedraforca much closer, the snow looked thicker. Although it was a sunny day, and I was sure that it wouldn't snow anymore and that what was there already would probably melt somewhat, I felt there was still too much to risk hiking up to the top. This was disappointing. Although I'd been to the top a few times, nobody wants to be told no, especially on their birthday. I checked with a friend who knows the area well and is an experienced hiker. No was the answer, too much snow, don't do it. So, we got back in the car while I thought about an alternate route. Although not hiking right to the top, another path was to start from Saldes, walk up and past the Castell de Saldes, to the Mirador Gresolet and then finally up to the Refugi Lluís Estasen. I parked the car, grabbed the gear and started - I wasn't sure how long it would take, but I wasn't in a hurry either. I remember the first time I did this hike, was back in 2007 or 2008, my first year in Catalonia, and the first time I saw Pedraforca. There is something special about this place that will always be in my heart. I enjoyed this walk immensely. We stopped at the castle ruins for a quick snack and drink, enjoying the view. It wasn't quite silent though, there were a few big groups of people up here for selfies and photos, but you get that everywhere. I knew that as soon as we got back on the trail and headed up that we'd leave them behind - most people don't hike to the top, preferring to drive as much as they can, then get out at the top and take a few pics for Facebook.
Santa Maria del Castell - a popular spot for photos on the trail.
It looks like a smoking volcano.
Easy path to follow and not too difficult.
A little bit of snow.
There is a special word for those people in Catalan, people that have brand new shoes and professional hiking gear, just to drive to the top for a photo: "pixapins." Basically these people are weekend excursionistas, weekend warriors, who live in the city but on the weekends drive to the mountains in their sparkling clean SUV, get some photos of the 'countryside,' and as the name suggests, pee on a pine tree, and say they hiked a mountain. It is a little nasty I admit, but sometimes I can't help but look at these people and get annoyed - they are noisy and many. But, live and let live, so as long as they don't litter, start fires or do anything too stupid, let them have their fun, their time in the 'great outdoors' with selfies sticks. Just as I predicted, as soon as we got back on the train and starting skirting the big mountain, there was nobody to be seen. It was just us and the birds. Perfect. It was warm and sunny, and without too much effort we reached the lookout. There were plenty of people here - we heard them well before we saw them. I took some lovely photos from the viewing platform, which juts out from the rocky cliff. After the photos and a bit of time to enjoy the wonderful panoramic view, we got back on the trail and walked the short distance to the refuge. At this height, there was a bit of snow on the ground and when the peak came into view, there was still a fair bit there too. It was a good idea not going to the top today. I was hoping for a sit down on a bench in the sun, sip a beer or cold drink from the bar, but sadly the refuge was closed for fumigation (of all things). We stopped for a bit, munched quickly on chocolate and nuts, had a sip of water, then headed back down.
Hidden cottages.
The Mirador.
The refuge was closed, but the view wasn't.
A great hike up.
The hike down is never as exciting as the way up, but more often than not, more dangerous. The time went by quickly and we made it back to Saldes to catch a little bit of sun and have a beer on the terrace of the one bar in town. I remember this bar and enjoying a beer here back in 2017 when I hiked/climbed the Pollegó Inferior (the smaller peak), which was a tough 11 hour day. I felt my knees were broken and if I sat down that I wouldn't get back up. One way down Pedraforca is directly down the front, with loads of scree, big and small loose rocks, for 2.5 hours. This time was much easier, but the beers (plus olives and chips!) were just as welcoming. It had been a good birthday weekend. If only there could be more weekends like this - get away from it all, put your legs to good use and feel happy and healthy. If I can do something every month, even a short hike, I feel much better and more myself, more level. These last 2 1/2 months of confinement have been extremely hard. Physically I am still well, and although I haven't been able to even walk much, daily exercise has kept me reasonably fit and ready for the real thing when the time comes. Mentally however, has been tougher. The feeling that you're trapped between your 4 walls, only going outside to the supermarket or dump rubbish, all the while wearing a mask and gloves and being worried about the virus. I know that it is nearly over and life is slowly getting back to normal, but it hasn't been easy. I've missed the outdoors as well as my friends. Soon I will be able to see both again!
Always amazing, always want to go back.
Panorama of Pedraforca in the morning.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. November 2019.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Pintxos in Pamplona

The sunsets from this balcony are spectacular - I never get tired of watching them!
The cobbles streets of the centre.
The citadel of Pamplona.
When an opportunity comes up to do a bit of travelling, and see a friend, you should rarely say no. It was October and I was looking forward to the Christmas break and some cooler weather. I was also settling into the new apartment, building IKEA furniture, making sure everything in the right place, unpacking, packing and re-organising. Sounds exciting I know! So when a good friend of mine said he'd be in Pamplona for a weekend, and that it'd be great if I could join him for a catch up, how could I refuse? I finished work on Saturday morning and went straight into Barcelona to get a long distance train to Pamplona, the capital of the Autonomous Community of Navarre in the Basque Country. I got to Barcelona Sants around 2:30 and had a few hours to kill before my train, so headed to a little bar across the road that I always go for a drink before a long bus journey. The bar itself is nothing special, a typical little Spanish place with a stainless steel bar with glass displays with tapas, but I like these places as it reminds me of when I first arrived in the country. Back then, you could smoke inside and even the bartender tended to smoke while working. Although smoking was banned back in 2009, the bars haven't really changed that much and can be just as dirty as before - people still tend to drop their used serviettes and sugar packets on the ground to be swept up later. I had an Estrella and left, heading for my platform. I'd never caught a train for this kind of distance in Spain before, usually taking a bus (the cheaper option) or a car (the more comfortable option), so this was a new experience for me. The train was very decent, with large windows to see the landscape wizz by, air-conditioning and plenty of leg and baggage room. Before I knew it, I was pulling up in Pamplona (or Iruña in the Basque language.)
The city hall.
Walking through the citadel.
Pamplona and its gorgeous architecture.
This city is a mix of old and new.
While on the train, I got a message that there were big delays at the airport in the UK that they were flying from. They were supposed to have arrived way before me, landing in Biarrtiz in France and driving across the border to Spain. So my ride wasn't at the train station when I got off, but luckily, the host of our AirBnB place was super friendly and offered to pick me up. I couldn't refuse such a great offer, considering the flat was on the other side of town. Santiago was friendly, a local, and he also spoke some English! He told me about his time in Australia and how much he loved it. It was a nice little trip to the flat, where he showed me where everything was and how to work everything. I mean everything too. It was clearly his flat (or his mother's!) and wanted it looked after and kept exactly how he would. That sorted and out of the way, I ducked off to the supermarket before they closed, to grab some food and beer for when the boys arrived. My friend Harry and his brother Fred were supposed to have taken off at 10am, but there was delay after delay with EasyJet, before the plane finally landed in Bristol at around 5pm. Then the flight for 2.5 hours and the drive here - they made it around 11pm. I'm very happy (for me and them) that I made sure we had food and drink, as at that time there weren't many bars open in the area and all the supermarkets had closed. We feasted on good olives, ham, cheese some other tapas as well as red wine. The Spanish life! Fred was a bit tired from the journey and the driving (French drivers are all maniacs and you have to be very careful with them!), so Harry and I headed out into the town for a pint or two and a good catch up. We worked together back in Cardedeu for 2 years and have stayed in touch since. I'd visited him in Liverpool in 2012 when I was driving around the UK, and later we went to Nepal in 2013 together for some volunteer teaching and hiking. Just after this, in 2014, he and his girlfriend Ania made it to Australia and they hung out at mine for 2 weeks. It was great catching up again, shame that Ania wasn't here as well. We headed home just after midnight, as tomorrow we were wandering around the city. A bit of rest was needed.
The coloured facades of Pamplona.
Pamplona Cathedral.
Sunday walk.
Walking through the citadel.
Pamplona has a more moderate temperature than Barcelona, as it sits at an elevation of 400m above sea level and also has the Pyrenees at its doorstep. When I think of Basque weather, I think of big rolling clouds, afternoon showers followed by rainbows, and just cooler temperatures. All good things if you compare how hot and sticky Barcelona can get sometimes. We got up in the morning, had a big breakfast, cooking whatever we found, not caring if there was anything left for later - we were heading out later. Tapas are famous in Spain, but I think they take it to a whole new level in this part of the country, so we had no problems with having nothing in fridge. We left around midday, showered, fed and ready to go for a walk. Where we were staying was close to the old Pamplona Citadel (Ciudadela de Pamplona), a 16th Century stone beast that has been upgraded and added to since its construction to make it even more impressive. Your typical 'star-fortress' kind of layout, with deep and heavy walls jutting out at angles to protect against cannon fire, it was decommissioned in 1964 and now the military buildings are used for cultural events. Surrounded by green lawns and trees, the inside is now a public park (known in Spanish as La Planta de la Ciudadela) with trees for shade and benches for resting. It was fairly busy, even being a Sunday, full of people walking their dogs or even just using it a scenic route into the city centre like us. Like many Spanish cities, the new apartment buildings on the outskirts aren't pretty, but the historic centre is gorgeous. I'm no architectural expert, but the buildings here are very Parisian in style, with their panelled roofs and windows. I also love the cobbled streets, which are mostly closed off to cars, old stone buildings contrasting with the newly painted ones, and of course the roof tiles. This city has a different feel to other Spanish cities - more relaxed if that's possible. It reminds me a lot of Logroño, capital of the La Rioja wine region, and also a city on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. A wonderful city with good food and good wine, the people are friendly, relaxed and know how to enjoy life.
Looks a little like a lover's quarrel.
Dolls from the 'Procession of Giants And Bigheads.'
The gates around the city for directing the bulls during the run.
That'll leave more than a bruise I reckon.
Pamplona is famous for its annual running of the bulls (Spanish: encierro) in July, as part of the Sant Fermin festivities, when thousands of people from all over the world converge on the city. Originally dating from the 14th century when bull herds got bored during the move from the countryside, where the bulls were bred, to the city so they could be slaughtered in the bull rings. It started off as a show of bravado but turned into a show of skill, as they used fear and excitement to hurry the bulls. Today, the 6 bulls that fight in the afternoon's event run through the streets, young men from around the world showing how brave they are (or how stupid), trying to appear fearless yet stay out of the way of those horns and hooves. Since it began in 1910, there have been 14 deaths due to goring and 1 due to suffocation in a pile up. All men, unsurprisingly. The list does feature 2 international stars - one from Mexico and one from the US - the rest of the lads were locals. There has been a big movement lately against the cruelty of these proud animals (not people dying... it's their choice), and since 2002 there has been a 'Running of the Nudes,' in which people run partly or completely starkers down the streets to show the 'naked truth' that bull fighting is cruel. In 2002, the first year for this alternative run, only 25 naked streakers did it, but within 4 years there were 1,000 people doing the dash without dacks. We walked the streets where the run takes place and there are big wooden fences and gates around, used for corralling the beasts toward their death in the ring. I have seen this race on the news, here and in Australia, and I always cheer for the bulls - I know what they're destined for, but hope they put up a fight by trampling and goring a few idiots along the way. I don't wish any dead, but let's face it - they know the risk and do it anyway, so no sympathy there. One section of the encierro also had a plaque to remember those killed in the running of the bulls, but nothing about the bulls. I have never seen a bullfight live, and although they say you should experience something before being against it, I have seen enough on TV to know what I never want to witness and support this cruelty. Other events held is the 'running of the sheep' in New Zealand where it's a celebration of the sheering and wool industry (no killing involved), and another one that I like is the mock bull run in New Orleans where the roller derby team, the Big Easy Rollergirls, dress up as bulls and skate after people through the streets. Fun doesn't have to mean fear of death or cruelty to animals. I'll say it here - the more I think about bull 'fighting' and running with the bulls, the more disgusted I am.
Just one of many pintxo bars in the city.
Let's tapa! A tapear!
Alleys and towers.
The little streets of Pamplona.
But the city is so much more than this festival. Fine eating and drinking is also something that this place is famous for, and should be more of a focus than killing bulls if you ask me. We ate plenty of tasty pintxos, the Spanish 'canope' of various toppings on fresh crusty bread, as well as the house 'specialities' that the bars cooked up, from paella to sausages and seafood. Some are hot, some are cold, others a little plates all on their own, but it was all fantastic. Everything was great and it was hard not to go for seconds - but the unwritten rule for these places is you have one thing to eat, a drink, and move on to the next bar. We left one place and chose another bar simply by the angle we left the door - this worked well and we zig-zagged our way from bar to bar, enjoying everything that there was to have. I took a photo of the first place we went to and the food we had; oily and zesty olives with sardines and green chillies, washed down with a Vermouth - a fantastic combination! I quickly forgot about the photos and concentrated on the snacks, and now it's shame as the food is always beautiful to look at and come in so many different combinations that it's impossible to remember what they were apart from delicious! I wonder how hard it would be to grow fat in this city... or maybe the question should be how hard would it be to stay slim in this city! Surely the walking between snacks would be a decent form of exercise? Anyway, everyone seems happy here, eating and drinking, enjoying good company and making a quiet Sunday a real social event.
Great city for eating and drinking... and just hanging out with friends.
Sit anywhere you want!
Spanish and Basque.
Taking a moment in the cathedral.
We didn't just eat and drink though! We did some sightseeing along the way, finding our way around the city by just wandering and seeing what we found. I loved the streets, small and winding, and although not much sun reached the facades of the buildings, many of them were brightly painted and so you didn't feel like you were in some back alley. All of the street signs are written in 2 languages, Basque and Spanish, which I found interesting. Linguistically, Basque is unrelated to the other languages of Europe and is a language isolate in relation to any other known living language. Although there are similar words in Portugese, Itlaian, Galician and even Romanian, it is all on it's own - the adjectives and nouns are also structured the same as English (adj + noun) rather than the opposite way round like in Latin languages. We eventually found our way to the cathedral, a big Neo-Classical building with a Gothic interior. The inside of the church wasn't anything spectacular, nor was the outside, but I absolutely loved the cloister. I think it had just been refurbished as it was such a powerful shade of pale yellow, stunning in the sunlight. This part is probably the oldest part of the church, dating back from the 13th Century and follows the French Gothic style. There are many famous people buried here from centuries ago, but none that I'd heard of, mainly bishops and leaders. The Medieval kings of Navarre were crowned here as well, some were also buried, and the Navarrese Cortes (Parliament) was also held there during the early modern ages.
Pilgrims, tourists, locals and beggars.
The stunning cloister in the cathedral.
Sit, eat and chill with friends.
Unfortunately, before I knew it, it was time to stumble home after a full day of wandering around and enjoying the city (and quite a few drinks). There was a lot that I'd missed in the city, as there always is when you only have a day to see a place. I didn't get a chance to the walk around the city walls or see the Placa del Torros (just to see, not watch a fight). You have to look on the bright side and see it was something to save for next time. I got up early, got ready and got a lift down to the station for my 9:30am train. I got back to Barcelona without any problems, watching the cities flash by through the window. It had been a great time - seeing a city that I like and also seeing some good friends. Now, living through these quite difficult and very different times of the Covid Pandemic, it makes me glad that I did this and always try and make time for the people I care about - something that shouldn't change, but only get more important when we can go out again. Cheers Harry and Fred - until next time... the only question is where; my place, yours or somewhere in the middle?
Thank you Pamplona but now it's time to run.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. October 2019.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...