Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Hiking in France

Goodbye Bulgaria - until next time.
The curvy mountain roads in the Pyreness.
High up and beautiful.
Going home after holidays is always hard, and more so if those holidays have been long and a great experience. I'd spent July in Romania and August in both Romania and Bulgaria, having a fantastic time travelling on trains, exploring new cities and meeting new people. Romania is a wonderful country to travel around, as I'm sure I've mentioned before a million times! It is yet to be invaded by the tourist hordes that now plague many counties and cities, like Barcelona, Prague and Paris. I know I'm a tourist when I visit these places too, but when you have too many people in a city it really does spoil the atmosphere, not to mention push up prices of flights, eating, drinking and accommodation. Romania for the most part is also untouched and natural - the forests and mountains are incredibly green and rugged, the small towns and villages are how they have been for the past 50 years, horse and cart still a major form of transport for many, and the people are happy (and surprised) to see foreigners in their country - I hope this continues for some time as it's a refreshing change. I flew back to Barcelona, happy and although not really looking forward to work and routine, these things are also important in life, not just for money and structure but to also make holidays possible and worth it. If you don't have any downs or 'normal' days, how can you have great days and wonderful holidays? Not everyday can be a holiday, or that too would be a daily routine.

Heading into the Pyrenees!

Mountains and trees!
France is different.
French country homes.
To make the change a little easier, I thought I'd rent a car and head a little north to France for some hiking and camping. Not that far away from where I live are the beautiful Pyrenees, mountains that run from the coast of the Mediterranean right up to the Atlantic, separating Spain and France, as well as land-locking Andorra. From Barcelona and Sabadell, the Pyrenees are easily accessible and very close, so I packed up the car with clothes, tent, a bit of food and supplies, then hit the road for the drive to Porte-Puymorens. I chose to take the smaller road to the border crossing, rather than the big motorway, for sake of interest and cost - and I wasn't in a hurry so way pay to go a little faster right? The drive to Ripoll is fairly easy and straight forward, but from here the road turns into a real mountain road and climbs steeply and as well as curving along the sides of the mountains that get bigger and bigger. I've done this drive very early in the morning in Winter before, the sky was still dark and the road still covered in white frost, and that was a little scary. I love the views from the road but don't really like the crazy drivers that wiz around corners too fast or the cyclists that take up the whole road. At the top top of this road, just before the ski resort of La Molina, you get a nice view of both sides of the mountain. From here it's a downhill drive, bypassing Catalonia's northernmost city of Puigcerda. Just pass the city is the border, which for the most part is still just a formality, but occasionally you do get the border police stopping people. I drove across the border without incident, but I always worry as its a border crossing and you never know - also, even though I always carry my residency card, I didn't bring me passport. I love the change as soon as you cross the border here from Spain (Catalonia) into France - it's a clear-cut line marked by the border itself. One second you're in Spain, the road signs, languages, style of apartments, then the next thing everything is in French, houses are more prevalent and they are so different and so French with their colours and wooden shutters. All the stereotypes come out and I even saw a couple of french labourers or builders, dressed like they're extras straight out of a 70s comedy show, and they were drinking Kronenbourg beer at midday after finishing work early, with berets on their heads and baguettes under their arms. Ok, so, a little embellishment there at the end, but I guarantee that you'll notice the difference as soon as you cross that line. As always, I drove through the French border town of Bourg-Madame and swore to myself (for the millionth time) that I'd stop next time.

The Winter ski slopes.
The church of Porte-Puymorens.
It'll be ready for next year (apparently...)
It doesn't take long for Nature to take back what is hers.
There isn't much in Porte-Puymorens really. Its a small French mountain town, small stone houses, cats on the street, no supermarkets or even bars, but it does have some ski slopes as well as some hiking, and that's why I'd come here. The campsite was cheap and friendly, the ranger telling me everything I needed to know about where to park, facilities they had and where they were, as well as where the walk started from. It's a shame that my French is nearly non-existent, but as far as listening and understanding goes, I surprised myself by getting most of it, helped by arm gestures, nods and smiles. Before heading out on a walk, I decided to walk around the village and take some photos of the place, as I love the French village architecture and feel. I sometimes think that I could live in a place like this, or maybe even just outside a small town like this, but then I walk around and don't find even the most basic of amenities that you'd need. This place had a small store that seemed to be eternally closed, not supermarket of any sort, cafes or bars, just houses, barking dogs and over-grown gardens. I did found, however, with the help of a sign (that read "24hr Pain"), to a 24-hour bread machine in the centre of town. Yes, a machine that bakes and serves baguettes! I didn't need bread now so I told myself that I'd come back another time, just so that I could say I've had bread out of a machine. The ski-lift was a strange thing to see - it looked completely abandoned and the grass and plants had nearly taken over the whole operation. It was hard to imagine this place full of skiers in the Winter queuing for the lifts and skiing down the slops, but I guess before the season starts there would be a lot of work done to tame the jungle that had sprung up around all the equipment. The woman at the 'Mairie; (town hall), assured me that they were running last season and would be open for the next one - she seemed amazed that I thought they wouldn't be to be honest. The Pyrenees are an amazing place - snowy and unforgiving in the Winter, green and full of life in the Summer. Let's not forget the seasons in between - Spring is the time for flowers, bees and new life being born all over the mountains and Autumn is possibly my favourite time here due to the change in colours of all the trees.

French county homes.
Baby cows.

The start of the 3 lakes walk.
The main reason for coming to Porte-Puymorens was for the campsite that sits right on the 'Route des Lacs.' I'd come here before to do some hiking but had to turn back due to bad light and weather - today, the sun was shining and it looked like the day I'd finally be able to hike to see the lakes. I packed a little bit of water, a snack, a jacket and my camera and headed off to see some lakes! For this afternoon I'd planned a quick walk to see the first lake, a few kilometres away and then tomorrow I'd do the full, much longer circuit. The path was easy to follow and it started right at the entry to the campsite, so I followed that, the river always on my left side, green fields and stands of trees everywhere else. The mountains were bursting with life, being late August, all the animals had already reproduced and now everything was well and truly in Summer mode - cows were eating the long, green grass that seemed to be too green and too juicy, bees, flies and insects buzzed everywhere, looking for flowers to pollinate or fresh skin to bite, the little river flowed with clean water from the lakes, full of of frogs and tadpoles getting ready for the change into adults. Everywhere I looked there was life. Even the skies sadly - it'd been a warm sunny day when I left, and all weather reports said it wouldn't rain, but being in the mountains this is never for sure. In fact, the weather that is guaranteed in the mountains in uncertain weather. I make it as far as the first lake and I couldn't see very much without walking further, but by this stage the weather had decided to turn, and it was not uncertain about this as it was pouring down and not looking to stop anytime soon. I trudged back, glad I'd packed waterproofs, but even good gear (which mine was not really) will eventually get wet through. A wet hiker is an unhappy hiker, this I know. I got back to town, happy that I'd walked and tried the hike despite the weather, jumped in the car and headed to the bigger town of Ax-les-Thermes for dinner and supplied for tomorrow's hike. There's nothing like a few beers and a pizza for dinner to cheer up a wet, unhappy hiker and make them excited for the next hike!
Ax-les-Thermes at sunset.
A cute little French restaurant in Ax-les-Thermes.
The hot springs.
Les Cabannes.
Ax-les-Thermes is lovely little town, named for its natural thermal waters. Today you can see people sitting in the town centre, dangling their feet in the running, warm water, enjoying the feeling of a bath while doing a little bit of sunbathing at the same time. The Romans knew of the hot springs and were used to treat rheumatism and skin diseases, and this continued into Medieval times with Saint Louis declaring that leprosy could be treated by the healing waters for returning Crusaders. There wasn't much else to do in town, so I went to sleep in the tent, with a mission to restock in the morning. Heading for a supermarket early the next day, as by the time I'd got into town the previous day everything had shut, I got slightly lost (missed the turn off). This didn't matter! I was on holidays with no time limit other than the sun and weather. I ended going past Ax-les-Termes and found myself in a town called Les Cabannes, which I found very French and just enchanting. The main road was very narrow with tall, 3-storey terraced houses lining the street, all with shutters in various stages of opening. Old men sat in front of their house, joined by neighbours, to chat and gossip (possibly about the foreigner who was taking pictures of them), people walked the streets going about their daily business and even a troupe of horse riders came through the centre, heading up towards to mountain trails. Although this place wasn't on the plan, I'm glad I missed the turn-off and ended up here! life is about getting lost from time to time, getting out of your comfort zone, and finding something new and undiscovered. Don't always walk home to same way, don't always order the same at your favourite restaurant, and even change favourite restaurants occasionally! I grabbed some bread, cheese and water from the supermarket in town and jumped back in the car to start the hike.
The mountain pass.
Top of the hike.
Morning in the mountains.
What a view!
The starting point today was just a bit further North from the campsite, from the village of Merens-les-Vals, on a very clear walking path up to some lakes in the mountains. I drank some water from the fresh fountain that is right at the top of town, filled my bottle and headed off. The hike to the lake was mostly uphill and the weather was hot, so it was tough going. I was constantly looking up at clouds, expected rain and a storm - you can never really predict mountain weather - and after yesterday's downpour I didn't want to get wet again. As hard as walking uphill is sometimes, going down is always harder - you're far more tired, the slopes are slippery the opposite was it takes far more concentration that just putting your head down and keep on going, like the auto-pilot mode of uphill hikes. I stopped at a stone bridge that marked the start of the flatter, easier part, the path leading on into meadows until the lakes. A quick rest and snack and I was ready to go again, but I looked at my watch and at the clouds and started to worry about the weather. It was something that I couldn't get out of my mind, and although I'd packed my swimmers and really wanted a swim, I decided to head back down. Back at the car and heading towards to campsite, I realised that I'd made the right decision- within a few hours it had started to rain like I've not seen for ages and then followed up by hail. I was in the car on the road back and wasn't able to even see out of the windscreen, so I had to stop for a good 5 minutes before continuing.

The closest I'd get to the lakes this time.
Starting point of the hike - Merens-les-Vals.
Although this trip seemed to turn out as one of things that never quite got completed, which I don't like, I saw it more as something that will be done another time, something to be continued. I'd added to my list of places to return and revisit, which is always a good thing. Next summer? Why not! Sometimes you have to leave something for next time and there's always plenty of things to see and do here in the Pyrénées-Orientales (Eastern Pyrenees). I'd be back before long.
An abandoned ski resort.
Goodbye mountains - see you soon.
UncleTravellingMatt. August 2018.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Castells in Tarragona

It's Castell Time!
The Concurs de Castells, held every 2 years in Tarragona.
The 'pack' - forming the pinya for a Human Tower.
I've written about Castells before, the amazing Catalan tradition of building 'Human Towers.' This time though, this is wasn't just a Sunday with a few teams competing in a village. This was the big event - the bi-annual Concurs de Castells in Tarragona! This even is the biggest gathering of Castells in the country and happens over two days, and I was lucky enough to be invited by the Xics de Granollers, my team that I support. By this time, I'd been taking photos of the Castells, not just one team, but following the events around and snaping many of the teams, most recently the Minyons from Terrassa, the first team in history to make a 10-storey tower. I saw them in their home city and they were simply amazing - not only did they make the usual, impressive structures, but they also made a moving 'pillar,' 4 people height, walking across a bridge from a starting point 100m away from where the performace was taking place. I had also seen one of the 'top' teams in 2017, the Castellers de Vilafranca, strut their stuff not far from my city of Sabadell. They was these guys were organised and how they make those towers so quickly and efficiently blew me away. It was like watching an apartment tower go up in time lapse, the base moved in and formed the 'pinya,' or base of the tower, and before you knew it people were climbing over each other and building the spire reaching for the sky. I saw my first 9-storey tower that day and was very impressed! Since all of this, I have published a book on Castells, filled with photos and short explanations of how it all works (in English and Catalan) and it's now for sale, so please check it out and maybe even order a copy for yourself, a family member, or for someone you know in a Castell team! Just go to matthewphillis.com and follow the pop-up or go to the LINKS page to get yourself a copy of this lovely little book.

One of the veterans of the Xics de Granollers.
The younger members of the colla - great kids that make such high towers possible.

The Graller players entering the stadium.
We want a home! Castells are now a symbol of independence.
So yes, I was off to Tarragona to see all of the teams compete in a big stadium - I'd been smiling for weeks before actually arriving and my face was already hurting! I couldn't believe it - this had been a dream of mine ever since coming to Catalonia and seeing my first castell! We all meet up in Granollers and got the bus together - free for the team, its musicians, families and its photographers (which included me!). We also go a t-shirt so that we'd all me decked out in the team colours. Many of the people on the bus were part of the tower building team, some had their family members coming along with them but most of these were also in the team - the Castell team is one big family. 42 teams headed down to the beautiful city of Tarragona, an old Roman city full of ruins from the Empire as well as views of the Mediterrean from its high vantage point. I wasn't here to visit the city this time however, and although I've been here 2-3 times, I made a mental note to come back just to see the city again. Getting off the bus, the teams gathered to sit in a park and have something to eat and some refreshments, which of course included a few pre-game beers, before walking up together as one huge, multi-coloured caravan towards our goal - the stadium. As a member of the Granollers team, I didn't need a ticket to get it, as I wouldn't be sitting anywhere. That's right, I was to be in the middle of everything! Walking into the middle of the stadium was amazing - I can't quite find the words to describe the feelings that ran through me, I was tingling in my fingers and open-mouthed, looking around me and feeling somewhat how a first-time competitor in the Olympics feels like when they first enter for the opening ceremony. I wasn't the only one - the first-timers and the veterans also felt the excitement of it all. When the National Anthem was sung, it was hard not to get tears in your eyes. It's a very sad song, about losing a fight not never giving up. A hush fell over the whole arena as Catalans stood and sun along to the words. I wasn't sure how to feel or what to do, as it's not my anthem, not my language, but a part of me knew it was. I took in the moment with a few photos and just looked on as they did their thing. Lately the Castells have become very political with the independence movement here in Catalonia, and I was in the centre of it all.

What an incredible view!

42 teams coming together to compete is an amazing scene.
Friends, family, we're all Castellers.
It's really a big gathering of comrades.
The competition in my opinion wasn't really a competition. Although points are awarded to the teams for the difficulty and completion of the towers, and there is a 'winner' on the day and an overall winner, I prefer to think of it as a spectacular way of showing what these people can do. It's not a sport, more a cultural event in my mind - sadly because there are points, prestige and money involved, teams try too much and sometimes fall and hurt themselves in the process. The competition was setup so that the top teams, the really big ones like The Minyons and Vilafranca, would compete on Sunday, while the 'lower' teams would compete on Saturday. I went on Saturday with my team, and although this was 'the quiet day,' the crowd and atmosphere was awe-inspiring. The spectacular went for the whole afternoon and into the evening, and I was a little tired, as was my trigger finger. It was constant, while 1 team went up, building their castle, at least 3 others were doing the same thing at the same time - I wasn't sure where to look as the colours melded together to form a soup of castellers in their brightly-coloured shirts. Although there were many different teams, and they were in a way pitching their skills against other teams, the real spirit came out and they did help each other build the pinya bigger to help stabilise the tower. This is the true spirit of the Castells - the moto goes "Strength, Balance, Bravery and Common Sense," and there should be room for "Camaraderie" and "Teamwork" in there too.
Stuck in the middle.

A young castellera coming down after a successful build.
A young casteller watching another team.
Watching from the stands.
The day come and went a little too quickly for me, something to do with the emotion of it all I'm sure. Everyone took frequent breaks outside to get fresh air, a quick chat or maybe even a little 'estrella' refreshment. We'd all come on the bus and so we all headed back on the bus together, full of pride that the job was well done and that Granollers was well-represented. Some people slept a little, others chatted about the day, and many shared photos taken of friends and family members. It was a great day for all, and one I'd repeat in 2 years time if the opportunity arises again. I don't know what else to say about Castells to be honest - if you don't know what they are or you haven't seen a performance, then you absolutely must! If you have seen castells and love them as much as I do, then get yourself a ticket for the next Concurs in Tarragona!

Friends, family and team-mates.
Love in the Pinya.
Towers reaching the sky.
The salute to the crowd!
I like to say a big thank you to all my readers, Instagram and Facebook followers for your support and comments. I would also like to mention again that I have published my first book and it's for sale online only. Click on the book cover below to get your copy! A little self-advertising I know, but you won't be disappointed by the book I promise you. The new castell season is about to start for 2019 so I'll be back out there on weekends, capturing the amazing people and their stories. Make sure you're following me - I am also working on a new books, so stay tuned!
There are no losers here, only winners.
The new book - click on the picture to get a copy!
UncleTravellingMatt. October 2018.

Birthday Weekend

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