Sunday, 23 September 2018

Mountains and Castells

Montserrat has many hikes and climbs.
A lone tree.
Starting our ferrata with a view of Montserrat.
Easter this year was a great time, travelling around Ireland by car. I got to see some things that I'd seen before, which is good as it brings back good memories, as well as making new ones, and I also go to see and do many new things - with the added bonus of doing all this with my girlfriend who was doing the same. All good trips must come to and end and I was ready to head home, which I think is the sign of a good trip - that feeling of accomplishment, contentment that you've seen and done what you came to do and are ready to go home with your memories and a smile on your face. Some people would say that the adventure ends when you come home, back to the daily grind, working the 9 to 5 as Dolly says, and it is in a way - if you let it. I'm luck enough to live in a great town surrounded by many, many things to do to keep me busy, fit and my camera clicking. Getting back to the warmer weather of Barcelona, after the bitter cold of Belfast, made me want to strap on my climbing harness and hit the mountains and climbing paths - so that's exactly what I did. I've mentioned the 'Via Ferrata' in previous blogs I'm sure, but I will talk about it again as there are so many trails you can do, each very different in their own way. The term 'via ferrata' comes from Italian and means 'iron way,' which is the steel cable, or life-line, you are always clipped onto while scaling the side of a cliff. It is very popular in Catalonia, there are these ferratas everywhere, dedicated websites with comments, videos and all sorts of information for climbers. There are also paths in Andorra, France and even South Africa! There is also a rating system for each one, measuring Endurance, Strength, Physiological as well as Equipment and the Terrain itself, putting everything together for a outright score from easiest to hardest -  K1 to K6.

Working since 1930!

The Monastery of Montserrat.
The end of the ferrata.
Up the rope!
Montserrat is full of these climbs, popular ones like Les Damas, but this time I was going to a canal - no life-line, just scrambling up cliffs and tights gaps between rocks, then abseiling back down. New and exciting! The first one after the Easter break I did was the Canal de Bardisses Romantiques, a nice little climb opposite Montserrat so offering a great view of the Magic Moutain. I have a friend that is a big hiker and climber and loves to do crazy weekends of ferrating and abseiling, so he and I always get together to do these things - I don't know what I'd do without Joan! We started at the Catalan Ferrocarrils station of Montserrat-Aeri, where you can also get an old cable car to the Monastery on the mountain. Getting our gear out of the car, we watched the yellow, rickety carriage go up and down from the station to the mountain, carrying loads of tourists and their cameras - in fact, the Aeri has been doing this since 1930! We headed off down the trail and on to the canal itself. The main difference between a 'canal' and a 'ferrata' is the going up part - a canal is just a narrow gap in the rock where you have to scramble up any way you can. Often the rocks and cliffs will have chains or ropes to help you, but nowhere really to clip on a safety line to your harness - so you fall, you die. Ok, maybe over-exaggerating a little, but in most cases you would seriously hurt yourself! This one started off walking through a slightly higher than belly high tunnel, right under a train line - I had to strap my bag around my front, bend over and straddle the sides of the tunnel as there was dark, running water in the middle... the tunnel got dark very quickly as I had put my phone away in pocket, scared of losing it. It must have gone for 50m or more - that may not sound too long, but imagine a very dark tunnel only about 1m in height, you crouching down, your knees unable to be straight at any point, cold water rushing under your body and no way out but to just make it to the other end! I did it of course, by just! My legs were starting to cramp and I was getting worried that I'd fall in and lose my camera, phone and dignity.

A feral cat we saw on the hike to the 'Canal del Gat (The Cat Canal).'
The canal's namesake - the 'cat' on Montserrat.
Abseiling down the canal.
The canal.
We made the climb up, pulling ourselves up the wet ropes and chains, and got a great view of Montserrat. The view at the top is part of the reward - a reward for making it halfway. The other part is my favourite though - the beer(s) at the end! After getting on our harnesses and abseiling down the other side of the canal, we headed to a little bar in the town of Ministrol de Montserrat, a popular place for lunch or drinks after visiting the Monastery itself. Next up was the Canal del Gat, which is actually on the mountain itself - so while not offering a view of 'The Big M,' we would get a great view of everything around. This canal started off in the sleepy town of Collbató, where we stopped for the traditional coffee before and would be stopped for the also very traditional beer afterwards. It may not sound very professional, but I have a very serious 'ritual' before I go on a ferrata. I call it the "Two Coffee System," and as the name suggests, I always drink 2 coffees before... but why 2 you say? The last thing you want while climbing is to be hanging off the side of a mountain and feel the urgent call of nature - the coffee is for this reason - the second one is to doubly make sure you're ready to rock before you get on that rock. The name 'Canal del Gat' was uncertain to me at first, but I quickly decided the reason why it was called this - the canal we climbed through was so thick with brambles with sharp thorns that seem to reach out to get you - we came out of the canal looking like a cat had scratched us from top to toe! In actual fact, the real reason for the name is a rock formation at the top, between the way you climb up and and the path you take to get down, which, from the right angle, looks like a cat sitting. Another good climb, another notch in the harness, and another celebratory beer (or two) at the end. I love going on Ferratas and hope there will be many more to come!

The 'Magic Mountain' of Montserrat.
Heads up! It's castell season!
Castells in La Seu d'Egara.
I love hiking in the mountains here and also going climbing - but something that I'm also very passionate about is castells. I'm sure I've posted about these before, but as I feel so passionate about them, I think I need to say more. By the time I'd come back from my Easter trip around Ireland, the castell season had already started and was in full swing. The team I usually follow are the Xics de Granollers and the Saballuts of Sabadell. Both great teams and have many great people in them, you can't always see both perform on the same day! Sometimes the Saballuts will be somewhere far down south of Catalonia, working with Villafranca for example, while the Xics will be in the next city, or all the way up north in Girona. I've seen quite a few teams perform, including one of the best in the game, the Castllers de Vilafranca, but this day I was getting the chance to see the team from Terrassa, The Minyons, perform in their home city and my neighbouring city. It was Sunday and although the day would be huge, there was basically nobody on the train to Terrassa, apart from a few people getting the early train back home after a big night in Barcelona. I walked down the streets, only a few bakeries open for the Sunday bread, and down into La Seu d'Ègara, just across the river from the centre of the city. This area is a small complex with Romanesque style churches dating back to the 5th Century AD. These buildings were originally built around a central patio, but now only 3 structures remain - the church of Santa Maria, Sant Miquel and Sant Pere. I'd never been here before so I arrived early to take a look around. I don't know if it's usually free, but it was today and so I took full advantage, taking photos of the ruins as well as the beautiful stone churches in the yard, even walking inside to take a peek. It wasn't long before people started turning up for the main show - you can spot the castellers coming in ones or twos, or sometimes in whole families, walking down to the square in their brightly coloured shirts and white pants. Find your place for the best view and wait with anticipation to see the day's tower building commence!

A walking pillar over the bridge - wow!
The view from above.
A good-luck kiss before the climb.
The many hands of the pinya.
I'd done a little reading and talking to people beforehand, as this was the first time I'd seen the Minyons and the first time I'd been to this place too, so I knew a little of what was planned for the day. The team from Terrassa would be joined by the Sabadell team as well as the Castellers de Barcelona - a big day! But, what I really wanted to see was the Minyons perform their 'walking pillar' to start the day off. Normally a tower is a stationary thing with a full base and 3, 4 or even 5 people thick as it reaches up - a pillar is a much smaller version of maybe 4 or 5 people hight but only 1 person supporting the people above. This move is usually used to open the day's festivities or to signify the end. Today Terrassa would be making a pilar and walking it more than 100 metres - including over a bridge! I heard the music and people came to where they could get a good view of this amazing sight - a pilar 4 high slowly but surely making its way across a little bridge into a complex with 1500 year old churches packed with people. Incredible! Unfortunately the structure collapsed once, I'm sure due to the uneven cobblestones or maybe a muscle cramp, but everyone was secured by a harness and rope so that nobody could truly fall off the bridge. You have to give credit where its due and this was by far the most amazing thing I've seen the castellers do! The day's events were great, even if the weather was a little overcast, windy and cold, and I even managed to get a great view from the roof of the museum - having a big camera, speaking Catalan and having a Castells shirt on can go a long way sometimes! When you go and watch these events, you can get in close to the pinya, see hands and feet scramble for purchase, hear the shouts of the Cap de Colla (the engineer of the whole thing) telling people where and when to go, but the most amazing spot to see something like this is from above. Getting a bird's eye view of something like this sends shivers down your spine! Not only do you get to see how many people are actually involved, you see the people that are never seen by the public as they're lost right in the middle of this outward and upward growing structure of humans. The tower fans out, people pop up in the middle to check angles and lines, while others walk around the outside, adding support or getting more people to lean in on the pinya (the base of the castell). If you have never seen this before, or only on TV or online, you haven't truly seen it - there is no other way than to be in the middle of it, hear the Catalan flutes play (the gralla), the banging of their drums and the mass of people that build these "castles" week in and week out with mind-boggling precision. No wonder Castells were were declared by UNESCO to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity 2010.

Hold on! It's hard work keeping the tower upright and stable.

Everyone lends a hand, no matter the team.
The fans.
The pinya of the castell.
I had one last Castell event to see before heading away from July to do a summer camp in Romania. You may say that one of these days seeing people climb on top of each other is very much the same, but you'd be mistaken. Firstly, there are different teams, different structures created and of course there are the different places you go to to see them. There are Castells all around the country, happening most weekends and at festivals, to places you've never been to or even heard of, and that makes it extra special. This weekend in June I headed to Vilassar de Mar, a town on the coast just north of Barcelona and Mataro. This Xics were at this event and it was their last before taking a Summer break, so I couldn't miss it. The town itself is actually quite nice - a little beach just over the railway lines with a small bar (of course), cute houses up and down the small streets of the centre of town and even a few cool looking restaurants and bars. I must say that I've never understood quite why there is a great big railway line running up the coast and is between the beach and the town - to me, this is ugly and defeats the point of having water and a view for a seaside town. Anyway, that's how it is here so I enjoyed the beach for a little while before seeing the towers start. Again, having a camera, knowing the team and speaking some Catalan goes a long way - I was allowed onto the balcony of the city hall to take pictures. It's a great way to see the expressions of everyone as they climb up, holding other's legs and arms in place, and of course you're nearly level to the top-most level where the little kids salute the crowd! If you're lucky, you may even appear in some pics or even on television!

Photographers on the balcony of the City Hall of Vilassar del Mar.

The unique angel from the balcony.
A tower in front of the City Hall.
So, my castell fix was now truly sated (for now) and the long-awaited "Castells of Catalonia" book that I've been working on has finally been published! A collection of photos and informative captions, in both English and Catalan, the book was a year in my mind and months of work to make happen - please check it out and even consider buying a copy for you (and for you boyfriend/girlfriend, mum/dad... everyone!) and help me continue taking photos of this great tradition and maybe even publish more! Now, it was time to pack up and head to Romania for my second summer camp there to make a little but of summer while the sun's shining. Romania is a great country and one i love going to - this would be my second visit and I plan to see more of the country than last time and see different things too. Although it's work, teaching 8 - 14 year old kids, it's basically a paid holiday - I'm put up in a hotel in the Romanian mountains and paid for it! Onto Romania!

The beach of Vilassar del Mar.

Sunset in Vilassar... and time to head to Romania.

Birthday Weekend

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