Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Village Life

The Cathedral tower in Ripoll.

Crossing Pont Nou in Camprodon.
Camprodon.
Not travelling by plane this Easter gave me the chance to see more around where I'm living. Some places I'd been to before, and others were new, even though they were just around the corner from me for years - Caldes for example. Sometimes it's the places closest to you that you miss, opting for the further away, harder to get to, more exotic places first. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm a firm believer in seeing your own backyard a little first before you start checking out the neighbour's. I've done a bit of travelling myself, both in my own country and abroad, but never truly explored Australia like I should - something that I aim to fix one day. I've always made fun of English people who've never visited their capital city, saying that they hate it even before they've seen it, or people from the South of England never going to Scotland or even Wales, only a few hours drive away on their little island. While I'm here though, I feel I need to get out and explore my second home some more. I'd enjoyed my day trips to San Miquel del Fai and Vic - the former was a first time visit and latter was more of a revisit, as I'd been to Vic before but never truly explored it in depth. Next on my list was also a revisit, but one that I would never say no to visiting - it will always be very special in my heart and my camera will always be ready to capture a new angle of a favourite place.

Pont Nou (New Bridge) in Camprodon - a truly spectacular bridge.

View from the New Bridge.
'Pont Nou.'
The stone archway into the city.
The town of Camprodon, way up north near Ripoll and the Pyrenees, will always be a magical place for me. I've been here in Winter, when it is absolutely freezing, and also Spring and Autumn when the countryside is full of colour, but I love it every time. Located 120kms from Barcelona and 75 from Girona, it isn't really close to the big cities and takes a while to get there - but it's worth it. The town started with just a monastery, the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon, a 10th century church, but was granted market rights in 1118. In 1252, Camprodon was granted the title of royal city and left the jurisdiction of the abbot of Sant Pere and became it's own boss. While still small to this day, with only 2,500 people living there, the town is very popular with tourists and gets very busy. The thing that stands out in this town, and is the biggest tourist attraction, is the bridge. Built in the 13th Century, most likely around the time the town was granted the title of a 'Royal City,' it's an impressive, stone arch bridge that spans the river that runs past the town, the River Ter. The bridge is a typical style from this time in Catalonia, you can see many around, including one not far from here in San Joan de les Abadeses, and they are typically called "ponts del diables," or Devil's Bridges. They aren't flat - both ends reach up at quite a sharp angle for a bridge and meet at the peak of the bridge, right in the middle. The bridge here in Camprodon is called 'Pont Nou,' or 'New Bridge,' even thought it's nearly 700 years old - it's had a difficult history too. Even though it's called the 'Roman Bridge,' construction started in 1315 - it was restored in 1362 only to be damaged in 1428 by an earthquake, and nearly completely destroyed in Catalonian Civil War. The bridge you see today is a reconstruction of the original, but still impressive.

The colourful houses on the canal - Girona in miniature.

The Església de Santa Maria de Camprodon.

Santa Maria de Camprodon.
Camprodon's streets.
Apart from the bridge, the town is lovely, small cobbled streets, cute little shops, cafes and bars and a canal running through the centre too. Walking along this canal, you get to see some very colourful houses hanging over the water, much like Girona but on a smaller scale. It was getting around lunch time, and although I'd packed my lunch, I was feeling like a beer by the river with a view of the bridge. Sadly, today was Sunday, and so the supermarkets were all closed - I had to resort to an expensive take-away from a bar to take back. While searching for the elusive beer, I got a chance to enjoy the town again. The Església de Santa Maria de Camprodon is a beautiful stone church, built in around 1013 and further enlarged in 1096, is is now part of the Inventory of Architectural Heritage of Catalonia. I walked in and was greeting by silence - the way a church should be. The inside was not heavily decorated, instead it was stark stone with arches on the ceiling which were plastered white. Simple, yet polished, wooden benches sat in the church, facing the altar which had a large, gold 'crown' hanging over it - the only gold in the place. Although small in size, it was lovely. I found a bar which would let me get a takeaway and headed back to the river, along the way passing by some grand old houses on the edge of town. I sat down under the road bridge, on the river, had my lunch and chilled out with the view of one of my favourite bridges. It's hard to choose my favourite, you have the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Millau Viaduct in France (the tallest bridge in The World - wow!), Tower Bridge in London, The Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome, Charles's Bridge in Prague and so many more, but I really enjoy this simple stone archway. After lunch it was time to head home, but head home happy - I just love this place, it's worth the drive every time!

A beautiful bridge - I love Camprodon.

The fields around Cardedeu - just beautiful!

Sant Esteve d'Alcoll.
Cardedeu's church.
This year marks a very special anniversary for me too - apart from being back for 1 year now, it's actually 10 years since I first came to Catalonia! I've moved in and out, between Australia, here and a few other places over the years, but I've lived here for 5 years and I've loved it. I truly feel at home here, with the people, weather, food and the very relaxed outlook on life. When I first moved here, I didn't go straight to Barcelona, didn't live in a city - I moved to Cardedeu. It was circumstances, I didn't choose Cardedeu (at first), but that's often the best way. Now I have come to love this village, for it's people and traditions, it's architectural and natural beauty - I will always feel at home here. I had some time off over Easter so decided to visit and do some walking around the fields like I used to when I lived here. Every time the train pulls up at the station my heart skips a beat and a tear comes to my eye - "I'm home," my heart tells me, my eyes backing up that feeling. The village has just over 18,000 people, so maybe I shouldn't call it a village, maybe more like a small town, but it will always be a village to me - I know the people, the buildings, the streets, and they know me. The name 'Cardedeu' was first mentioned in the 10th Century, and became popular during the 20th for residents of Barcelona escaping the city for the weekend. In fact, a lot of Barcelonians still have houses here and come for the weekend, although in my opinion these are not the true gen del poplar (people of the village), just visitors with money and big cars. A good thing about this though are their houses - beautiful, Modernist mansions that can be found all around Cardedeu, adding that something extra to it's already cute charm.

Cardedeu!

The Torre del Moro.
The thistle is the symbol of Cardedeu.
Today I wasn't walking around the centre looking at the buildings, I was more here to walk in the countryside that surrounds the village. Cardedeu is wedged between the mountains that sit just off the coast, the Montnegre Corredor mountains, and Montseny. The Montseny National Park is over 31,000 heactares and is Catalonia's oldest as well most important, as it has 3 biomes (or bioclimactic lansdcapes) the Mediterranean, the Euro-Siberian and Boreoalpino. It's here that you can pick Castanyas (chestnuts) in Autumn for the Castanyada festival (Halloween) and also find Cork Oaks, the tree that wine bottle corks are made from. But today I was walking up to the Torre del Moro to get a view of the area. I've climbed it before, it's fun and is usually quite busy with walkers and mountain bikers too. The tower base dates from the 2nd Century BC and has been modified over the centuries - the top was built in the 20th Century and the tower completely restored for visitors in the last 10 years. Today, being a working day, it happened to be closed, so I couldn't ascend and get my view - but I wasn't too disheartened and walked back down - a different way to the path I followed up, by accident, but it's always more interesting that way! I was happy with the view of Cardedeu and Montseny from Sant Esteve d'Alcoll, a little church on the hill above the village - a clear sunny day, how could you not? I walked around the fields that surround Cardedeu, taking in the sights and smells of the countryside - I find this place, with the fields, farms and hills, extremely relaxing and refreshing - like a 'reset' button, where my mind is at peace and my soul at rest.


The green fields of Cardedeu.

Cardedeu and it's green fields - with Montseny always in view.
Cardedeu - green and lush.
Cardedeu
When I lived here I would often just go for a walk - 5 minutes and I'd be away from the houses and streets and into the fields and forests, maybe on a Sunday afternoon, to refresh, relax and prepare mentally for work on Monday. I miss the view of Montseny from my living room, I miss the people sitting in the square talking and drinking, so many things - but missing them is a good thing as that means they are special to you. Today was a casual walk up to and around the old church of Sant Hilari, a place where the village gather in February to have a huge communal barbecue, in Winter mind you, but it's always sunny and a great day. There are a few farm houses in the area, some people are actually farmers, others just have a house in the country, maybe with a few horses, but always dogs. The seasons here are very distinct - I love seeing the crops grow, the wheat growing ever taller and taller, the trees and grass becoming almost so green you wouldn't believe it, and then harvest time, autumn, colours change, temperature cools and then it all starts again - and always a good season for a walk. I saw a few people I knew, also having a Sunday stroll in the hills, and it's always nice to see them and have a quick chat - it's like I'd never left the village really. As much as I was enjoying my walk, I could see the clouds moving in over the ever present Montseny mountain, thunder rumbling, so it was time to head back to the village for a beer. My weather sense and timing was spot on - the storm rumbled in just as I was sitting down to a beer. With a quick downpour to cool off the barmy April afternoon, the rain moved on and the village came back to life. Sundays are 'dead days' anywhere in this country, especially in a village where everything is usually closed, but here at around 5pm bars open and people come out into the centre, children are left to run free with other kids while their parents eat, drink and smoke (which I call 'Spanish babysitting'), and a village turns from a ghost town to a hive of activity. I love the village life.

Crops growing under the sun.

Cardedeu from Sant Esteve d'Alcoll.

Sunday streets in Sant Antoni.
A village church.
Sant Antoni is a village not far from Cardedeu, and a pretty little place too. I have a friend living there at the moment, so I decided to visit. We had lunch at a bar in town, one that is always busy - it has pernil (Iberic ham) hanging up from the ceiling, a hub-bub of conversation and laughter, the service is quick and friendly and it's far too easy to just stay and have more tapas and Estrella (Barcelona's beer). Chocos are always great to have, fried cuttlefish in batter, bravas are always a favourite and you have to have 'pa amb tomaquet,' which is a Catalan tradition. Bread with garlic and tomato rubbed on it, then drizzled with oil and sprinkled with salt, it's devine if done right. It used to be a peasant's dish, used to soften old bread, but now it's very trendy, and often served in a paper bag and a bowl of your own tomato, so you can do your own. I don't like the fancy part of it, it's a simple dish that should remain that way, but I like being able to slop on as much tomato as you want (and I usually add Tobasco if they have it!). Walking around St Antoni is much like Cardedeu - fields and farms, open spaces and fresh air. On Sunday they have a local market, and that can get quite busy, as it's one of the biggest in the area - they sell clothes, electronics, shoes, delicious food, including pollo a'last (rotisserie chicken), as well as fresh fruit and veg from the local farmers. We left town and heading out into the green fields - many people go for small walks here, some families ride their bikes together, but it's always peaceful and good for you. Living in a city has it's benefits - infrastructure, amenities, bars and pubs, the cinema and theatre, but I think the benefits of the village life far out way what some people called 'negatives.' I don't need a shopping centre next to my house, parking problems, noise and parties, bars open till 3am and tourists blocking the streets - those I can go and get that anytime I want in Barcelona. I want where I live to be the opposite. Horses for courses, but I know where I enjoy living.


The green fields and mountains of Sant Antoni de Villamajor.

Montseny seen from Sant Antoni.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Exploring Catalonia

Nothing says "Hello Catalonia!" like Montserrat.

The Monastery of Saint Miquel.
A large waterfall, just near the monastery.
So Winter has come and gone for another year. Christmas in Switzerland was an amazing time, but I was also happy to return to Catalonia. The snow in the mountains had melted, and Spring was starting to make promises that you just know will be kept. There was a hope in the air - I'd survived the 2nd Term at school and it was Easter holidays! Hallelujah! December to April is always the hardest part for teachers - no public holidays to give you a long weekend (or 'puente' here, meaning 'bridge'), the kids know it's long and the weather is getting better too, so they just want to be outside. It's hard, really hard, but the weather also helps - your afternoon classes don't need the lights on, from the window of your evening classes you can see the sun setting and are no longer going home in the dark. The weather can also be a real downer - walking to work in the sun, feeling the warmth on your skin and your smile gets bigger, until you see people sitting in the square enjoying beer and tapas, and you have just started your day teaching kids. Sometimes I think people in this country do nothing but eat, drink, smoke and be merry - nobody seems to be working! So, anyway, it's Easter holiday time and time to decide where to go for holidays!

Sant Miquel del Fai - tucked into the cliffside.

The beautiful countryside of Catalonia.

The cross of San Miquel.
An ancient bell.
I'd been looking months before for flights, tossing up the idea of Rome, Prague or even somewhere in Morocco for a week, but flights at this time are quite expensive. Even though I have friends in cities all around Europe, the flights were too much, so I decided to stay local and see more of Catalonia. This year marks 10 years since I first moved here - time flies. Although I've left and come back, in total it's nearly 5 years here, and there is still so much I haven't seen, or want to see again. So I made a list, worked out how to get there, and off I went! The first place I visited was the Monastery of Sant Miquel del Fai. Situated near Manressa, a city not far from Sabadell and Terrassa, and the wonderful 'Magic Mountain' of Montserrat, it was a pleasant drive to get there, windy roads, views of the red countryside that is the Valles Oxidental. The monastery is a 11th Century Benedictine built in the Romanic style, and was declared a 'Spanish Property of Interest' in 1988. You can see it hanging right on the edge of the cliff as you follow the road, which also offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Leaving your car, you cross a small stone bridge and then follow the granite canals which bring water into the monastery along the walls. The chapel is quite impressive - it's built in the rock itself, it's a little dark but refreshingly cool. This is the oldest part of the site, 11th century, and is the Chapel of Sant Miquel. Here there is very little decoration, but the architecture is beautiful with it's stone arches over the alter. You can also find a very valuable artefact, the 'Cross of the Fai,' a large silver cross with the Saint himself on it. Walking past the 15th Century priory house, you go under a small waterfall and past the pond that it fills, and going under another, much larger waterfall, you eventually come to the small Marti Chapel, also from the 11th Century.


Inside the monastery.

The 11th century chapel of Marti.

The walls that remain around Caldes.
The Lion Fountain - constant 74c water.
Although all this isn't terribly exciting, it was a lovely half-day trip and nice and relaxing too - sun, fresh air, beautiful scenery and no children - so much better than working! On the way home, I decided to stop in a place called Caldes de Montbui. It's nothing special - a typical Spanish mid-sized town, apartment buildings, cafes and bars - but one thing sets it apart and makes it special. The fact that the Romans were here is what changes this place from an unimportant name on the map to a place worth visiting. I parked just outside the city by the river and walked along the path between the river and the remains of the Medieval walls towards the centre. The town is famous now for it's thermal baths, built by the Romans, which also used to be part of an ancient hospital. Although they were closed when I visited, for repairs it seemed, I could still see a part of the bathhouse and even though there were no tiles or mosaics left, it was easy to imagine people coming here to soak in the waters under the large vaulted ceiling. Across from the baths there is the "Lion" fountain - a 15th Century construction (later remodelled in 1822) which pours out thermal water at a steady 74c. In the 1920s it was found that the water had medicinal properties, due to the high concentration of chlorine, sodium, lithium, bromine and iodine. I stuck my hand in the water (unfortunately before reading the sign where it stated how hot the water is) and got a bit of a shock at the temperature - apart from the heat you can clearly smell the minerals, something like a rotten egg, but supposedly able to cure several diseases, including some skin, bone and respiratory ails. Apart from these two attractions, the town doesn't have very much else to offer, even though it is a nice little place.


No mosaics, but still very well preserved for being more than 1800 years old.

2nd Century Roman baths in Caldes.

They are very independent here.
Vic and it's Catalan traditions.
The next day took me up North to the city of Vic - the capital of the Osona Comarca. The city is a very important city, being smack back between Girona and Barcelona - 60kms and 69kms away respectively. It was called 'Ausa' by the Romans, 'Ausona' by the Visigoths and sewage caps around the city read 'Vich,' but the 'h' has been dropped and is pronounced 'Bic.' The city has grown a lot since it's founding - it had 9,500 in the early 20th Century but now boasts 40,000. It also hosted the Roller-Hockey competition in the '92 Barcelona Olympics. It may have changed and grown, but it's Roman roots are still here. In the centre of the old town, a 2nd Century Roman temple still stands - it was only found in 1882 by construction workers who were tearing down the old 11th Century castle of els Montcada. Although the portico has been rebuilt (from the ruins that were found), the rest is original - something I find absolutely amazing. Spain is a wonderful place for finding Roman remains in well- preserved conditions, more so than Italy I've found. Why you ask, when Italy is the home of the Romans. This could be the reason actually - the fact that the whole country lies on top of another civilisation from 2 millennia ago, ruins sticking up from the ground, marble and stone taken for buildings 500 years ago, I think Italy is just so full of ruins that their importance is made slightly less. Spain on the other hand doesn't have as much and so treasure them as part of it's colourful history and culture - not just for tourist dollars. If you want to see Roman buildings and ruins in Spain, Tarragona is a great place to visit - and only just over an hour south of Barcelona too.


Vic and one of it's many chimneys - not used now but they stand as a symbol of the city's past.


Inside Vic Cathedral.

Vic is known for it's "fuet."
One of many interesting doorways in Vic.
Vic has had a difficult past, being conquered and re-conquered a few times. In 826 the city fell into the hands of the Moors but was finally recaptured by the Count of Barcelona, Wilfred the Hairy. Wilfred, Guifré el Pilós in Catalan, was a very busy man, possibly too busy to shave (hence the name?), as he was the Count of Urgell (from 870), Cerdanya (from 870), Barcelona (from 878), Girona (from 878, as Wilfred II), Besalú (from 878) and Ausona (from 886). Before his death in 897, he was responsible for the re-population of the 'no-man's land' around Vic with the refugees from the mountains, people who had fled the Visigoths. He also founded the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll, a beautiful Benedictine church, built in the Romanesque style, in the city of Ripoll (where he now rests). Apart from the Cathedral in Vic, a church that is a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassic styles, the main square is a must to see. Normally filled with the famous Vic markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the huge Plaça Major has been in used for this purpose since the late 9th Century and really is something to see - a large, open space ringed by gorgeous houses, cafes and restaurants. This square shows the quintessential Catalan life - a beer and some 'pa amb tomaquet' in the sun, talking with friends, kids running around and playing, just relaxing and chilling - no worries in the World. Come Saturday though, it's hectic! The square is filled with the markets, people selling things from hippie tie-dye clothes, shoes and underwear to pots and pans, food and fresh vegetables - and whatever else you can think of - it's a great experience.


The 2nd Century Roman Temple in Vic.


Vic Cathedral.

A map of old Vic.
The old building in Vic are everywhere.
All of these places are very close to each other and Barcelona - Catalonia is a very handy little country for travelling. It's a shame that a lot of the roads have tolls on them, but there are some that don't, and those are far more interesting to drive on, albeit a little slower. There are cities, beaches, mountains, small towns and hidden valleys everywhere. May actually marks my 10th anniversary since I arrived here for the first time way back in 2007. I've only lived here for 5 years of those 10 (compared to 1.5 in Australia), but I've tried to see and do as much as I can - cities, nature as well as food and drink. I've been privileged to have lived in Cardedeu, a wonderful village that will always remain close to my heart. This year I've been living in Sabadell, Catalonia's 3rd most populous city and only 25 mins away from Barcelona, close to dear friends and from here we've hiked many a mountain and climbed several too. I've done my fair share of travelling here too, and using Barcelona as a base of operations, getting the chance to see Spain, Italy, France, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, The Czech Republic and quite a few more places, all within a quick flight or a handful of hours driving. There is so much to see in Europe that I've missed so far, apart from the small places, there are big places to see such as Croatia and Greece, which will remain on my wish list. For now, however, I'm here and trying to soak up as much of this wonderful country as I can - for who knows what the future holds and where I'll be next! The future is always bright when there are wondrous opportunities just around the corner - whether you can see them or not! Don't look back - just keep swimming!

The beautiful buildings and cute cafe's of Plaça Major.

Plaça Major on a non-market day.

The Nuria Valley

Hot Air Balloons over Vic. The hike to Nuria. The mountains are calling! Christmas in Sydney was lovely, a chance to go home af...