Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Christmas in Catalonia

Autumn sunset over Montserrat.
The town of Centelles and the mountains.
Centelles city centre.
Leading up to Winter and Christmas usually means cold weather and more to do at work before the holidays. While this was true for the most part, living where I do doesn't mean that the weather affects you too much - throughout Autumn is was sunny and quite warm, still hitting the high teens and even into the low 20s. Not bad really. So, to take advantage of this wonderful weather, more Ferratting was needed! So far I'd done 2 ferratas, one on Montserrat and the other on the Costa Brava, near Sant Feliu, and this one was back into the mountains - the Via Ferrada de les Baumes Corcades, near the lovely town of Centelles. We had a big group for this one, 9 people, so it was going to be a long day as the more climbers you have, the longer it takes, but also the more fun it can be too. It was the first time for a few people, but the great thing about this is that you can go at your own pace, take your time, enjoy the view and as long as you can make it through one part, you can always rest before the next section, or in most ferratas, you can leave at certain parts if you've had enough. We headed out early, arriving in the town at around 8am for breakfast and coffee, then we hit the start of the course. He got geared up while the mist was still hanging around, harnesses were strapped on, helmets, ropes and gloves put on and we were on our way.

The Via Ferrada de les Baumes Corcades.

A tough climb to the top.
The Via Ferrata.
Although technically not dangerous, this can still be quite scary. You're high up most of the time, sometimes standing on a small, steel step barely big enough for your toes, or even a big of rock - as long as you are attached to the safety cord at all time, a steel cable that runs the entire length of the course, you are just fine. This won't stop you from falling 3 or 4 metres and possibly hurting yourself (and maybe needing a change of pants), but you won't die which is the important thing. I've never fallen, but once you do a few you get more confident and this is when you can have problems - you get slightly over-confident, maybe lax in security, and you can slip up. This happened to me on my last Ferrata, and let me tell you, the feeling in your heart as you realise you nearly feel will guarantee you don't get too relaxed next time. One of the highlights of this trip in Centelles (as there were many) was the bridge walk - a good 5 minutes of wobbling and trying not to think about falling. The bridge consists of two cables to walk on, not wide enough to walk normally, you have to crab-walk the whole way, as well as two cables to hold onto and hook your harness to. The old saying of 'just don't look down' doesn't apply here - if you don't look at your feel, you will slip. Before the walk, we were all nervous, and talked about strategies to get us over the other side - we decided that a rhythm was needed, to minimise the wobbling by coordinating your legs with your arms, so we came up with a few songs to suit the situation - "Staying Alive" and "Walk The Line" were the favourites, good beat and quite fitting. Once at the top of the course, after the hardest part of the climb of straight ups and hanging over ledges, the view was amazing! There was also a very entrepreneurial gentleman selling cans of icy cold beer and sandwiches - the perfect end to a perfect day.

The 'hard yakka' climb to the top.

Waiting patiently.
My birthday also fell into this period of cold weather leading up to Christmas. Normally I don't enjoy my birthday - it's another year down and although it's just a number, it does affect us. Most times I'm in a foreign country and I don't always have my friends with me because of this, so usually I find a mountain and go up it. This birthday was a little surprise, which really cheered me up. My friends surprised my by coming round to my workplace after work on Friday and we went out for dinner and a few (too many) drinks - but wait, there's more. (Not so) bright and (quite) early on Saturday morning, the Gin and Tonics still pumping around my system, we headed out towards to mountains - I was to get both things this weekend, a party with good friends and a mountain! It was cold and misty that day, a real spooky feeling. Autumn leaves littered the damp ground and there was a sprinkling of rain, but we headed up nonetheless, the forest cold and quiet. Nearing the top, the wind came rushing and cleared the cloud cover, leaving a truly beautiful sight - the Pyrenees in with a dusting of snow on them and us in the middle of the Pre-Pyrenees looking over the valleys of Catalonia. Once at the top, it was lunch time, a quick snack before doing a bit more walking. We weren't the only people enjoying the summit, there is rarely a mountain in this country that you would be alone on during the weekend, as people love climbing here, and there are also many dogs too, and the few that joined us for lunch for polite but very persistent about 'sharing.' After some more hiking, taking in the wonderful views, trying to stay warm, we headed down for a big Catalan lunch - sometimes the best days start of cloudy and cold, but then turn out to be the best.

The view from Puigsacalma.

The 3 Wise Men, or the 3 Kings, as they are called here.
Christmas Caganers.
Christmas was approaching, the street and store decorations had been up since early November, and people were rushing madly to get their Christmas gifts in. Here in Catalonia they have a big mix of local and imported customs related to Christmas and gift giving. Walking around all the markets they have at this time you'll see the usual for this time of year in Europe, mistletoe and wreaths as well as other traditional decorations, but there are also things to build and make "Pesebres." The closest word in English that I can think of for this is "Nativity Scene," but here it is so much more. In most towns and cities in Spain, people build, paint and decorate a special scene of Jesus' life - it may be Bethlahem and the manger, or the 3 Wise Men (called the 3 Kings in Spain). Some of these Pesebres take up as little as a shoe box, while others are absolutely enormous and take up several ping-pong tables worth! With intricate detail, these constructions are wonderful to see - most are made by children, which is a great tradition to uphold, but adults also enjoy it, most people do this in their homes too, and some are so detailed, with unique facial expressions on the models and little stories within the greater story being told. Competitions are held and crowds of people visit the various displays around the country - a must if you are here at this time!

The Christmas Log comes in many sizes, all cute and smiley.

Traditional Christmas scene.
Not so traditional scene.
Now, on the other side of the scale, from beautiful tradition to slightly strange and possible obscene, is the Caganer and Caga Tio. The Caganer, or 'shitter,' is a Catalan man, dressed up in his Berretina (traditional red hat) and smoking a pipe, that is doing his business somewhere in the Nativity Scene, usually hidden behind the manger. The poor baby Jesus and his parents have no idea what is actually going on and are probably more disappointed that they didn't book their accommodation before the big night. The 'Tio,' is the 'shitting log,' and the story is - you feed this little log, who has a Berretina and a cheeky  smile on his face, and on the 24th of December you sing a song to him (about how you've fed him and now you want him to give you presents in return), hit him and eventually, through the magic of Christmas, he will poo out gifts for the kids. OK, so you might say that this is wrong, poo and kids don't need any more focus as little kids are obsessed with the body as it is, but is worse to lie about an old, fat guy with a big white beard who rides a sleigh, pulled by 12 reindeer (one of which has a glowing nose), and manages to deliver presents to all the children in the World, fitting down chimneys along the way, in just one night? I actually like the tradition, and the children here love it. You start the whole thing by actually going out and find your cute little shitting Christmas log in the forest, the family pick it out just like a Christmas tree, you paint him, look after him, cover him with a blanket and sing to him, and in return he gives gifts - I think more believable than Santa, and more fun too!

The Monastery of Montserrat.

The Monastery and The Mountain.
The queue to see the Saint.
In the days before Christmas I decided to do one last trip before my 2 week holiday over the New Year period. Although I have been to Montserrat many times, it has something special about it and I never grow tired of seeing it again. This mountain, Montserrat, is the sacred mountain of Catalonia and according to legend, the first image of the Virgin of Montserrat shepherds found her children in the year 880. After seeing a light in the mountain, the children found the image of the Virgin inside a cave - the bishop of Manresa, the nearest city to the mountain, tried to move her but the statue was too heavy. The bishop interpreted it as the desire of the Virgin to remain in the place where it had been found and ordered the construction of the hermitage of Santa Maria, origin of the present monastery. Today you don't have to climb the mountain to see the monastery or the statue of Montserrat, you can drive or catch the train right to the doorstep. 

A Monastery cat.
The door to the Monastery.
The Monastery itself is beautiful and commands a wonderful view of the mountain and the valley below. There is always a queue to see the Virgin herself - I've done it once. You can see her from inside but to go closer you follow narrow stairs right up to see her sitting on her chair, holding the baby Jesus, and the first thing you notice is that she is black. I'm not sure why really, but I've heard stories of the statue being found on the mountainside after a big forest fire, completely intact but burnt. In 2001 renovators noticed that the black hands and face of La Moreneta (her nickname, meaning the Little Dark One) had changed colour over the centuries, and attributed the change to either to prolonged exposure to candle smoke or a chemical reaction caused by a varnish used as a paint sealant. She was probably carved in the 12th Century and her last paint job was back in the 18th Century - not bad for an old girl. She is now the Patron Saint of Catalonia, with replicas around the World, including in the church of Montserrate in the hills just behind Bogota in Colombia.

Some climbers on top of Cavall Bernat.

The moon rising over Montserrat.
Does that look like a mummy?
While the monastery is visited by pilgrims and tourists alike, my favourite part is hiking the mountain itself. There are 3 main peaks, Sant Jeroni (1,236m), which I climb up to on the Ferrata, Montgrós (1,120m) and Miranda de les Agulles (903m), but the mountain is not just these peaks, more like a serrated butter knife of ups and downs, peaks and valleys - in fact the name means 'serrated mountain.' The stone is pink conglomerate, and it seems to change colour sometimes, depending on the sun, from a cold grey colour to a lovely, warm orange with the setting sun. Each little peak has a name, and most actually look like something - one, called the Cavall Bernat, looks much like a man's face. Some of these rock formations you can climb up, and a lot of people do, but I have been told that there is also one priest, who is a qualified climber and will go up there to marry you upon request. Montserrat is a wonderful mountain, there are different tracks to follow at the top, every path giving you a different perspective of the strange rock formations, every hour of the day gives you a different colour.

The moon rising behind Montserrat.
Christmas time is a great time to be with friends and family, and I think in Europe it is a little more special due to the cold - I do miss a hot Christmas though. I was lucky enough to spend time with good friends here for the 24th and the 25th of December, sharing meals, good wine and of course exchanging gifts. The 26th would normally mean a sleep in followed by heated up left-overs and watching the cricket for the next 5 days, but this year would be (even more) special - I had a Boxing Day flight to Switzerland! Nothing says Christmas and Winter like 2 weeks in the beautiful Swiss Alps, right? Next stop, mountain paradise!

The Pyrenees - but next stop, the ALPS!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Costa Brava

Catalonia's northern city of Girona.
Girona is a real gem.
The steps of the Cathedral.
Catalonia is a beautiful country in any season, but there's nothing like it in Summer. Barcelona sits on the Mediterranean, getting the warm weather and the cooling breezes that come with this great location, the Costa Brava stretching up North towards France and mountains tucking the city in from behind. South of Barcelona there is Tarragona, a beautiful city which holds Roman ruins at every turn, and to the West is Lleida, The Heart of Catalonia. If you take the road North you come to Girona, the University City of Catalonia. With a population of only 90,000 or so, Girona is a great mix of busy city with everything you need and a smaller, quieter place to relax and enjoy. A convenient car park right next to the old town (which is also free) makes it easy to visit and see the sights. As soon as you step out of the car you are hit the with beauty of this little Northern Catalan city, the first of many bridges crossing the River Onya and it's hard to not stop on that bridge to soak it all in or even take a few photos (it's a popular selfies spot too), and even cause a few traffic jams along the way - but nobody is bothered, as they're all doing the same The Basilica of Sant Feliu lies across the bridge in front of a little placa, and from here you head through the small cobbled streets, stone arches lining the road, boutique shops and ice-cream stores everywhere.

The colourful houses that line the river in Girona.
One of the many bridges.
The Placa.
I have been here a few times, but the excitement and enjoyment never gets old. I visited Girona in August with my friend Tereza from the Czech Republic, and although her own country is absolutely stunning, it's own style of architecture and of course the wonderful bridges in Prague, she was still impressed. I had another good friend visit very recently in Winter, and the sun was still shining and the city charmed us both. Although it's not my city or even country, I still feel proud when people come here and admire where I live and what is right on my doorstep. Most people don't see this where they live. People here ask me why I'm here, and to me that's a silly question - open your eyes and look what you have right in front of you! Girona is a great place to visit and revisit, just wander and get lost. It has been made more popular lately due to that famous TV show about a throne made of swords and something about Winter coming - it's not the bustling city of Dubrovnik, the fans flocking here because of the same show, it's still a wonderful place and cleaner than what you see on television too.

Gustave's red iron bridge.

Hand-made jewellery in Cadaques.
Wandering the streets of this city is a pure joy - the many bars offering great food and good beer, everyone speaking Catalan on the street, and just the general business of a city yet the comforting and familiar feel of a country town. Walking up the hill from the Basilica, there are the city walls and the huge gate that leads to the Girona Cathedral. Like something out of a computer game, you can imagine yourself running through the streets, climbing onto the rooftops and escaping from Templars and assassins. Apart from all of these wonderful buildings, stone-block paved streets and secret alleys, there is something here that you won't see anywhere else in the World - a bridge designed and built by Gustave Eiffel. If that name doesn't ring a bell, it should, as this is the guy who is responsible for that iron and concrete marvel in Paris. One of eleven bridges in the city, this has to be the favourite - Mr Eiffel built this a few years before his big project in France, and it is a very similar style, except this construct is bright red. Whether it's the original colour or not I'm not sure, but could you imagine a red Eiffel Tower?

Cadaques - a white-washed town on the Costa Brava.

Anyone home?
The beautiful Cadaques.
Not far from Girona is the Costa Brava, home to many coastal towns and villages that are just too numerous to name. A few of the hotspots here are Palamos, where you get great seafood, Roses, L'Estartit, L'escala and my favourite, Cadaques. Known for it's most famous visitor, Salvador Dali, who lived in the neighbouring village of Port Lligat, it was also visited and favoured by artists like Picasso, Joan Miro and is even mentioned in the story "Tramontana" by Gabriel García Márquez, author of "Love in the time of cholera." It is now an extremely popular summer spot for both Spanish tourists and foreigners, the population goes from just over 2,600 people to 10 times that number, the village quickly fills up with French and Americans, shops, bars and restaurants also fill up and of course up their prices too. I have visited several times, but again, it never gets old. This time was the middle of summer, a bad time to come here due to the influx of people. Driving is the way to get in, and parking is neigh on impossible - I, however, am wily when it comes to parking, and asked the police officer set guarding the entrance, very politely in my best Catalan, if we could come in as I was just about to run out of petrol. We were waved in no problems as I had a Spanish number plate and spoke the lingo - the French and Italians were not so lucky and either had to park miles and miles away, or enjoy the wonderful view of the bay from their cars. Usually windy but always beautiful, Cadaques is on my list of favourite places in Catalunya.

This view and they are both on their phones...

The finish line!
Abseiling down.
While the weather is warm, I always love a bit of hiking, and here is a great place for it. If you want to take outdoor activities to another level, you could always try a Via Ferrata. Meaning 'Iron Road' in Italian, this sport started way back in the start of the 19th Century with alpine exploration, and is now quite popular here, in Italy and even Andorra. I'd never done anything like this before, so when I friend suggestion it, I was all up for it! We hit the Catalans sacred mountain, Montserrat, for the Via Ferrata La Tresina. We harnessed up, got ropes for the abseiling down and packed food, and hiked to the starting point. The Ferrata has a 'life-line' along the whole path - you basically climb, scramble or walk along but are always tied on to a steel cable for safety. It's still scary in parts, especially when you get slightly over-confident and then clip, your heart jumps right out of your chest - you wouldn't die, but you'd still fall a few metres, collecting cuts, scrapes and maybe some bruised jewels along the way. The sense of joy when you make the top is amazing - it was a fairly tough 4 hours, but lunch came with a view, and when we popped out at the end at the lookout at Sant Geroni, it was funny how we scared people, clambering from nowhere with all our gear on, while they had caught the train to the top and walked casually in their Sunday shoes to see the view. The way down was even more fun though - abseiling 30m drops, Mission Impossible style, and smaller drops in tight spaces that had us worried we weren't going to fit! A great way to spend a Sunday!

The Ferrata on Montserrat.
Enjoy the view!
The gang.

Between my first Ferrata in September and now, late December, I have done 3 more. The first, on Montserrat, one was the most exciting and will always stick in my memory as the best, the last as the toughest and scariest in Agulles Rodones (a K5 - the toughest being a K6), but the most beautiful would have to be the Cala de Moli just near Sant Feliu de Guíxols. We probably started a little too late, arriving at around 9:30am, as it was Summer still and a Sunday to boot. We were part of a long line for the course, but the sun was, we were warm and with friends - enjoy it! It turned out to be quite slow for the most part - in some parts we just had to hook on and wait, and not everywhere is comfortable to wait, legs hanging over the water, sun beating down on your face and your harness riding up your bum. Most people doing this were tourists, not locals, and had little experience - it can be quite scary for some people, a slight fear of heights for example, or maybe people with no enough upper body strength to hold themselves up with clipping onto the next safety line. The whole things took us about 3 hours and it was worth it as the views were stunning and it was another Ferrata under my harness. Beer and lunch came next, and as much as I love climbing, Spanish food in the sun is a great way to top off any day! It had been a great summer in general, and I was very happy to be back in Catalunya with good friends. Autumn and Winter was on it's way, but that doesn't stop you hiking and climbing here.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols seen from the Ferrata.

Birthday Weekend

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