Friday, 23 March 2018

Day Trips

Christmas sunset in Sabadell.
The yellow ribbon - freedom for the politicians.
Sabadell sunrise in December.
Christmas and New Years is over and still there is no Government in Catalonia after the referendum. The country seems to be running itself anyway, much like Spain did for 9 months last year without a majority party. I won't get into politics here - everyone knows what's been happening anyway. So it's back to work and back to a normal routine, especially after Africa. This means working Monday to Friday and trying to relax and recharge your batteries on the weekend. For me, sometimes this is ok, a quiet weekend at home watching movies and not doing much, half hibernating in Winter... but most weekends I have to get out and do something. With so many things to see and do in my area, sometimes it's hard to choose - not having a car somewhat narrows down your choices and makes it harder (or easier, depending on your outlook in life!). Catalonia, and Spain in general, has a very decent transport infrastructure - there are trains and buses that run everywhere, long and short distances. Before Christmas I got the train to Vic, Barcelona is around 30 minutes away and you can get the bus or two train lines, Renfe (which is a National company) and the Ferrocarrils (only operates in Catalonia). Sometimes however, it's far better to have a car and sometimes I'm very lucky to have friends that lend me their car. So, when I get a car for the day, it's time to hit the tarmac and find a place that isn't so easy to get to by public transport - this time it was a re-visit to the city of Cardona. Withing about an hour's drive, this city makes a great day trip destination.

The "Maria Teresa" lift with the castle in view.

The entrance to the mine.
The strange salt shapes on the outside.
Exiting after the tour.
Cardona has a long history. The first thing you notice is the huge fortress sitting on the hill above the city - it's hard not to see it. This is the main tourist attraction and something worth seeing. I did a tour of the castle last year and enjoyed it, but missed the very important salt mine. The town owes it's existence to the castle, but the castle is only there to protect the mine. Cardona castle was built in the 9th century by Wilfred I of Barcelona, also called 'Wilfred the Hairy,' and the castle came under the ownership of the Dukes of Cardona who became extremely wealthy because of one thing - the natural abundance of salt. Mines since Roman times, salt was an incredible source of wealth as it was the most common way of preserving good before the use of cans and refrigeration. In fact, salt was so important that wars were fought over this mineral - a famous conflict was between the two big Italian city states, Genoa and Venice. Cities on major trade routes became extremely wealthy due to taxes levied on the movement of salt and Liverpool in the UK flourished because of the salt trade from nearby Cheshire. Salt was also one of the things that kicked off the Indian Indepedance Movement when, in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led over 100,000 people on the "Dandi March" or "Salt Satyagraha", in which protesters made their own salt from the sea thus defying British rule and avoiding paying the salt tax. With the invention of other means of preserving food, the demand for salt declined severely. In 1929 it was discovered that you can get sodium from salt - the key ingredient for many modern day products, including explosives, manufacturing and fertilisers. Nowadays, only about 6% of the salt manufactured in the world is used in food. 12% is used in water conditioning processes, 8% goes for de-icing highways and 6% is used in agriculture. The remaining 68% is used for manufacturing and other industrial processes. The mine was bought by the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto and mine extensively until 1990 when the costs of running such a huge operation became too high and the mine was closed down.

The steel cables used to to winch the lift.
Inside the mine.
The town of Cardona.
A tapestry in the castle.
It is the largest salt mine in Europe, with over 300kms of tunnels and a maximum depth of 1,100m. When you park at the entrance of the museum, you can immediately see the large, white mountain of salt behind the building. The face of the mountain has been chipped and mined away for so long that it's no longer a mountain anymore, more like a cake that has been cut away, showing the cream inside. Before modern technology, the salt was just taken from the surface, but the better quality salt and sodium was found to be deep in the rock. There are two main extraction points, huge lifts called "Maria Teresa " and "Alberto." Alberto no longer exists, but big Maria still stands, tall and green, a stark contrast to the medieval castle behind her. Down deep in the mountain, at the height of the mining operation, a city existed for the workers - large mining trucks drove along paved roads with traffic lights, mechanic workshops and fuel stations were also found underground - it's hard to image such a huge project and such large open spaces 300 metres down. The fact that this is possible is that salt isn't explosive like coal is and also doesn't need reinforcement. Coal mining is a very dangerous business, even with modern technology, as the gases and coal dust are highly combustible. Salt mining on the other hand is safe and you can have large tunnels, drive vehicles and even have a electronic equipment and open flames. The temperature is also very different - coal mines are dangerously hot the deeper you go, some reaching the mid 30s and some even to 40c. This salt mine, on the other hand, was a constant (and very pleasant) 17c. It was quite a cool tour, the guide was knowledgeable and friendly, photos were allowed (unlike most other mines), the temperature was fine, and best of all, it was my first salt mine ever - and yes, I did lick the walls!

The rocky shapes in the 'Parc Natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt.'
Montserrat from the walk up La Mola.
 The 'Monestir de Sant Llorenç del Munt.'
Walking up Montcau.
Something you have to do if you are in Sabadell or Terrassa is climb La Mola, situated in the National Park of Sant Llorenç del Munt. It's a small mountain just north of these two cities, visible from street level from both cities as well. Everyone who's from Sabadell or who lives here has climbed it at least once - if you haven't, you just can't call yourself a resident and the police may be called on you! I lived in this country for many years before I climbed it, but I had Montseny on my doorstep before and, although La Mola is cool (actually, "mola" in Spanish slang means 'cool'), Montseny is much greener, there are more walks and the landscape far more varied. I first climbed La Mola back in 2016 but I have been up 4 more times since then! Most people do it as something to with the family (and dog) on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and let's face it, it's a nice walk with a view at the top, so why not? I don't have a dog or family, but I've always done it with friends and I've always had a beer at the top! The hike takes about 2 hours more or less, a little longer if you take in the extra small peak of Montcau (1,056m). The trail isn't the hardest, it's up and down and a little rough and rocky in some parts, but it's easy enough for kids to do and even for people not in the greatest shape. There's actually more than one way to get to the top, I've done the shorter, yet more scenic, way but I prefer the longer way as it's more of a workout and more satisfying when you get to the top, although I never like the walk back the same way. I decided to walk up the peak of Montcau for the view, which was spectacular, and so was the wind! From there (if you don't get blow off) you can see the Mediterranean sea, which on this day was shining golden from the morning sun, and even a slight peak at Barcelona and the 'Central Térmica de Sant Adrià de Besòs' - the famous 3-stack, abandoned thermal power station in the north of the city.

You can just see the power station in Badalona (a northern suburb of Barcelona) and the golden Med.

La Mola and the Monastery of Sant Llorenç del Munt.
Everyone and their dog,
A place to rest and enjoy the view.
Further along the walk you can take a short detour to see some medieval caves. Called 'Els Òbits,' these natural caves have been lived in on-and-off since the Medieval times, but most recently used to hold livestock when the weather was rough. They have since been abandoned, but some people do still make camps here with fires and quite possibly sleep here too. I wouldn't want to do that but it is a nice place for a quick sit down and sit of water - and to enjoy the view and think that you're more than half way! It'd been quite cold and snowy recently, and although the sun was shining and it was quite warm, there was frozen water all over the rock which had started to melt by the time we were coming back down, forming a semi-moving waterfall of sorts. The last part of the walk is the worst, I hate this part of La Mola - it's open and windy (always), steep and boring, but it's short and very soon you're over the lip and at the top. The view that greets you is wonderful - an old, Romanic church has it's claim to the hill but in front of it is a paved 'courtyard' of sorts where everyone and their dogs (literally, dogs everywhere!) sit, talk after the walk and revel in the sun, mountains and view that is on offer. From this point you can see Sabadell and Terrassa very clearly, but a stone's throw away down the hill. At this point, it's time to tuck into your sandwich and snacks, as well as cracking open a beer (or three) and enjoying the sun. It's usually busy up here, more so on a sunny Sunday - I like (or dislike) to compare it to the Ramblas in Barcelona as it's so busy. I don't like the Ramblas. There is also a very rice restaurant there, with the dining room's windows looking right over the edge towards Terrassa and the hills of Barcelona. I've never eaten here, but I've always wanted a traditional Catalan butifarra and chips while enjoying the view. The price has always put me off - it's high not just because of it's view but because they still bring everything up by donkey! One day, one day.

Motserrat from La Mola.

The two peaks of Matagalls and Turo de l'home in the Montseny National Park.

Winter is still here - just!
I walked La Mola twice in a month, and as much as I like it, it was time for something else. Around this time there was snow in the mountains, quite a lot actually, and I used it to go walking - I love the snow. My next excursion was planned, this time for the Montseny National Park. It's in another 'Comarca,' or region, of Catalonia, not far away but just enough to make a different in the scenery. The Vallés Oriental (The West Valley) is red and very rocky, this is where I live now, where you can find La Mola and Montserrat - it's very different to the Vallés Oriental which is green and more deciduous, with chestnuts and mushrooms in the Autumn along with the red and yellow leaves, but also snow in Winter and beautiful, lush green foliage in the Spring and Summer. So, more hiking to do in February and Marching - trying to make the most of the snow before it all melts!

Montcau on the left and the bigger Pyrenees behind.

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...