Monday, 22 April 2019

Wine Country

The village of La Vilella Alta in the wine area of Priorat.
Ready to go!
Juicy grapes - soon to be wine.
So I've only really realised that after Summer I was very busy. July I'd worked in Romania and then August was spent in Bulgaria. Romania was wonderful as always, and this time I saw more than the previous visit in 2016. Bulgaria was a completely new place to explore, and although I only visited 2 cities, Sofia and Plodiv, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and would go back. But even after coming back I had kept myself extremely busy! September marks the start of term for teachers, but between then and Christmas is full of public holidays, giving us some long weekends too! I'd used the beautiful Autumn weather to hike around Ripoll on the 'Rute del Ferro,' and the Costa Brava along the 'Cami de Ronda,' and also make a trip to Montserrat via the Aeri cable car. All of these things are things that locals do, not just tourists, but I wanted to do something very special, something that only happens every year and that is very Catalan. Every September wine makers gather in the of Poboleda, int he heart of the Priorat wine region, to share their wonderful wines with the public. Showcased wines are DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant, most of which you just can't buy anywhere else as they are usually shipped to the US or China and fetch outrageous prices. Priorat is just 1 of 120 wine regions in Spain, but it is very special because of it's DOQ rating, one of only two in the country, alongside the La Rioja region, Spain's most famous. DO for Spanish wines translates to "denominación de origen" which is hard to translate, but means an 'appellation' or specific naming or titles given for an area and it's produce - the extra 'Q' on the end is extra special and is highly regarded as the best areas on Spain for wine. The Priorat area is in the province of Tarragona, south of Barcelona, and a few friends and I headed down to celebrate the wine festival that is held there every year in  September. Myself and 3 friends got in the car and headed off early from Barcelona, excited as ever to be a part of this - and also looking forward to drinking a lot of wine!
Wine country - Priorat wine!
A lovely view from the village of El Lloar.
Wine anyone?
Political wine.
My first experience with the Poboleda wine festival was back in 2016, 2 years previous, and I loved it! It has become a bit of a tradition for me now, my friends had already been going on wine trips for some time and now I was a part of it. We drove down to a small village called El LLoar, a really small, one-horse-town kind of place, with one bar, a church, town hall and a tiny supermarket. There are a few houses, all built in stone as they do in Catalan villages. There is nothing to do in this village, but it has its charm and also has a wonderful of the area from its high vantage point. This quiet little place would be our home base for the weekend, but first, breakfast was needed. You may notice when you come to Spain that people drink alcohol at any time of the day, even at breakfast time before work. I've slowly gotten used to this, walking to work on a Saturday before 10 and I play a game of 'spot the booze,' and I rarely lose. Whether it's a beer or rum in your coffee, they have no problem with it - in a wine region, wine is served along with your pa amb tomaquet and butifarra (bread with rubbed tomatoe and sausage). For a very reasonable price, we sat down and had a large breakfast (and a beer), preparing us for a big day of wine tasting! As we arrived in Poboleda, things had changed a little in 2 years already. My friend Carles told me that when they started coming here, around 5 years ago, there was a free breakfast, served with wine, and not that many people. In 2016 there was still the breakfast 'popular,' but you had to pay for it but it was still a bargain price and good food. This year, the 'food trucks' had moved in. I'm not a big fan of this movement, one that is taking place in Spain right now - every festival, music or cultural, has these vintage trucks, like the very popular 1970s Citroen HY, selling posh versions of everyday food and high prices, just because it's 'cool'  and served out of a van older than you. People here seem to like it, and the food and coffee served is fine, just not the village breakfast I was expecting - there would also be no lunch this year, as there are too many people now, and so the trucks would be taking care of this now too. Everything changes.
Saving his strength for later. 
Wine stomping from the 2016 festival.
Wine my friends?
Wine talk.
After breakfast and dropping our bags off, we headed past the food trucks and into the centre of Pobeleda to get out tickets for the tasting. For €12 we got a wine glass (and cool neck tie to hold it!) and 10 tickets for tasting. We shared these tickets and I got the glass, as they had all bought one in previous years. All excited, we now all had glasses and were ready to get into some wine. We walked around to the various cellars, talking with the owners and growers, chatting about tastes, how the season was going, where they sold to, the new wine they were coming out with... the usual chit chat, but really we wanted to drink their wine. But, when you talk to people, and we did, but also took an interest in what they do for a living, sometimes wine flows freely. Yes, a good day's worth of drinking and not a ticket used for any wine. It helped that I was Australian and spoke Catalan - I talked about wine from my part of the World, compared grape names, told then they had to go there are try some wine. We all got on famously and we all had a fair bit to drink - exactly what you'd expect for a day at a wine festival! We had lunch at the food trucks, deciding on wood-fired pizza and a couple of beers to quench the thirst that wine just can't do. During our tastings we also bought a beers bottles for later, to take back home with us as well as something to have for dinner and lunch tomorrow. Most of these wines are unavailable in stores around the country, only the real scraps are left, as these wines are really doing well internationally and have become very famous. One gentleman was telling us that they ship all of his wine to New York, bottles selling for hundreds of dollars only at a few restaurants in Manhattan. Many also get shipped to China, another place where wine drinking is becoming popular and where more and more people are making enough money to buy such things. One cellar claimed to have sold a bottle for €600. We were drinking this wine! Well, not the one that cost a thousand dollars, but the same growers and grapes. There wasn't just wine to taste either, although there was many varieties of red, white and rose, there was also something they called 'vi ranci,' directly translated as rancid wine. Comparable to a sort of sherry, the taste isn't for everyone, but it is becoming more popular here and we were given a taste of a €40 bottle and very much enjoyed it.
Stone arches.
The cloister courtyard with the well, carved with the 'stairs of God.'
The monastery ruins.
The monastery and the Montsant mountains.
After all this eating and drinking, we thought we'd head out and get some culture as well. We took our car, but don't worry, our designated driver had been sensible and hadn't drunken as much as we had - also, this is country Catalonia during a wine festival, so even the police were tasting wines and not checking anyone today. We drove just down the road to see an abandoned monastery, the La Cartoixa d'Escaladei. This monastery is a 12th Century building, founded and run by the Carthusian order. This beautiful place, protected by the Montsant mountains, was chosen as a pastor had a dream about angels going up to heaven using a ladder lying on a pine tree - this is where the name 'Escaladei' or "escala de Deu (ladder or God)" comes from. The monks lived here, up until the 19th Century, growing crops, cultivating vines and making wine, until they were forcibly removed during the reforms and privatisation of religious land between 1835-7. The building was then left alone, the monk cells, cloister, church and hospital all left to ruin and looting from local peasants. In 1990, the Rius Family, who owned the property, gave it to Catalan government and work was started to keep the beautiful structure from crumbling anymore, and was open in 1998 to visitors. We walked around these ancient cloisters, inside the church, and even through one cell which had been restored to its original state. Each monk got his own cell, or room, which had a kitchen, small bedroom and access to a beautiful courtyard with a garden and running water. I've lived in smaller places and this looked like peaceful bliss, if you wanted to be a monk and never leave the place! The day we came here, there was no entry fee, the woman explaining that today was a special day. Even better! It was quiet and free, no better way to explore ruins, wandering around and trying to imagine how these people lived for 800 years. Not much of the original buildings are left, but what is left is beautiful! Two stone arches greet you as you walk in past the entrance building, follow them and you reach the accommodation building. In the middle are the cloisters and church, a small stone well.,carved with the shield of the monastery, with the ladder of God on it, sits in the centre and beautiful arches ring the open space. A thoroughly nice hour or two was spent here, walking in near silence, only broken occasional comments to each other, expressing our love of the place. All this, tucked away in a little recess away from the river and road, mountains sitting just behind. A very special place.
Surrounded by wine.
Grapes ready for picking.
Beautiful Catalan villages.
Stone villages.
Before leaving the next day, we headed out to have a little bit of a walk to work up an appetite for a big Catalan lunch. We parked the car at the Ermita Mare de Déu de la Consolació de Gratallops (the Hermitage of Our Lady of Consolation of Gratallops), and heading along a path towards La Vilella Alta, one of many little towns in the area, all very beautiful and very Catalan. The walk was easy and always surrounded by grape vines, some within easy reach, and the grapes were sweet and juicy. It didn't take long to get there, but the goal wasn't the town itself, more the walk and enjoyment of the area - the Montsant mountain range always in the background, a beautiful, yet very quiet, Catalan village and green leaves of the vines everywhere. The Priorat wine area is special compared to its Rioja cousin in Spain, due to the fact that none of these grapes can be harvested by machine - it's all done by hand. This is because of the hills, most far too steep for tractors, and so every part of the land is used as possible, grape vines follow the natural curbes of the land, but this restricts production, pushing up the prices of these wines. The town was quiet, apart from the usual Sunday traffic of people buying bread and a few old blocks sitting in the square chatting about whatever old guys chat about. Not much life here, however beautiful. We headed back to the car, walked around the hermitage, then headed for the restaurant. It's very common in Spain and Catalonia to order a 'menu,' or the daily special. This is a starter, main, bread, wine and coffee or dessert afterwards. We had a huge, meaty soup, accompanied with various tapes, including prawns, followed by a large portion of meat for the main. We'd brought our own wines which we'd purchased the previous day, which added a little something to the already great food. Throughout stuff and content, we chilled by the restaurant's pool before heading back to Barcelona. Although things change, not always for the best, some traditions are important to hold on to - this is a tradition of mine now, wine tasting (drinking) in a beautiful wine region of Catalonia, with good, like-minded friends.

Good friends.
The 'hunt' is over and good wine is the 'reward.'
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UncleTravellingMatt. September 2018.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Sunday Walking Routes

The Costa Brava.
Surfers waiting for 'that' wave.
Summer Dreaming.
September is time to get your things together as a teacher, prepare for your new classes, meet your new students and get all of your routines down. You build your classes, build good relationships with your students to make the coming year easy for everyone and maximise learning. Luckily the first term has a few long weekends and public holidays which help you ease back into the work life. October in many places is when the weather changes from the end of Summer to Autumn and moving onto Winter. No so here in Barcelona! I love living here for one of these reasons - the warm, sunny weather can continue right into December! With work building up and the weather still sunny and warm, there's only one thing to do - head out and walk! Somewhere I always love going is the Costa Brava, the coastline just North of Barcelona. This area is sums up Catalan village life - white plastered houses with colourful doors, small bars serving cold beer, tapas and seafood dishes, with the gentle Mediterranean lapping at sand and pebble beaches. Simply idyllic! Although there are many places to visit along this stretch of coast, I personally love the town of Cadaques, an absolutely spectacular place, all white houses perched right on the sea and protected from behind by soft, curving mountains. I've visited here so many times but I'm always to go back again. Another place I love along the Costa Brava is Calella de Palafrugell - my destination for this trip. I decided to walk some of the Cami de Ronda, a easy yet stunning coastal walk done by my many people in the Spring and Summer months, but I would be doing it in November. The weather was perfect now - still very sunny, warm but not at all too hot or too cold. It was just right!

The Cami de Ronda on the Costa Brava.
Sail on the Med.
Hidden beaches.
The Costa Brava.
How many places in the World can you walk, in mid-November or late-Autumn, on the coast in shorts and a t-shirt? Well, Spain is one of those places! The North coast of Galicia and Pais Basque may be good for surfing but the weather is slightly less forgiving. You can't have everything! But move South, to the Costa Brava, Barcelona, Tarragona and Valencia, the weather gets warmer and warmer and you'd hardly think Winter was around the corner at all! I know it everyday - I'm very lucky to live here. Not only the weather but also the things that are just here waiting to be done - mountains, sea, forests, cities. Sometimes I don't think people here realise what they actually have compared to a lot of people. Anyway - it was time to take advantage of all these things and walk! To get to this walk, its easy by car. However, I don't have one, so I decided to rent one for the day to make life a little easier. You can do it by public transport, but it's a fair way and on a Sunday there aren't many buses and they aren't cheaper. I was going with a good friend so as there were two of us renting a car for the day made sense. We got up early and picked the car up from the airport (the only rental car place open on a Sunday), we got straight on the motorway and headed North! Even having a car, there is a complication in the mission to walk the Cami de Ronda - I'd planned to start at Palamos and walk to Calella de Palafrugell - but the car would be where I'd started so the question was, how would I get back? It seems you can't avoid public transport unless you have 2 cars. The story of how I got back to the car will come later, let me start at the start, at Palamos. We parked the car in a free, council car park (only on Sundays), and headed towards to the beach to start the walk. I will say it here now how lucky people living here in this part of Catalonia - the have beaches all along the coast, The Costa Brava and the Costa Daurada South near Tarragona, mountains like Montserrat and Montseny, not to mention Pedraforca and The Pyrenees. There is also the wonderful weather - this walk was done in November, the end of Autumn, when most other European countries would be freezing over with no sun at all. This walk was also in shorts and a t-shirt, with a light jacket for the wind, that's it.

Cala de la Fosca - small and very cute.
A few houses, boats, a hammock and the sea - what else do you need?

All the houses have different colours.
Would you ever get sick of this view?
The walk was easy, the sea on our right hand side, the sun in the sky. Not long after we set off we came to a cute little beach village, Cala de la Fosca. A sandy beach stretched out along the coast, people were walking their dogs along the boardwalk and surfers were floating around, waiting for that wave. Although we hadn't been walking for that long, it was nice to sit here and crack open a beer and enjoy the weather and the peaceful view. I don't know if I would ever live here, but it was nice at the time and so we sat, drank our beer and snacked, watching the surfers, taking some photos, and trying to get an autumn tan. Overlooking the beach is the Castell De Sant Esteve, a ruined medieval castle that sits on a rocky perch jutting out to sea. It was close today, being Sunday, but there isn't much left but a tower and some stone really - the location is what makes it though, and has been built on since Roman times, and possibly even earlier than this. Continuing on, we walked right up to and through my favourite little "cala" or cove, Cala s'Alguer. This little village of a few white-washed houses, doors and window shutters painted in an assortment of bright, primary colours, is whatever I think of when I think of the Costa Brava and the Catalan coast. There are no bars or supermarkets, and this would simply ruin the feel of the place altogether. I'm sure Airbnb already have a few people that rent out their place here, and it wouldn't be cheap, but what a place to stay! I stopped for a few photos of this little gem, walked through it in less than a minute, and then it was behind us, hidden once again by the rocky coast and treeline. Continuing along the Cami, you can find many small coves, all hidden little gems in their own way, some a few houses, others just a big rock, some sand and the sea. The final destination however is Calella de Palafrugell, which again seems to appear out of nowhere from the tree and sea, the path just opens up there it is! The day was getting a little later and we were worried about not making it back to the car by public transport, so we didn't spend much time admiring this beautiful town unfortunately. We managed to get a bus by walking to the nearest decent sized town a few kilometres away and got back to the car as the sun was setting - perfect timing. If you ever come this was, you must stop in a Calella de Palafrugell, even on a Sunday - the waves lap at the beach, small sail boats have been pulled up on the sand, kids and dogs play on the beach and the town's populace laze around eating good food and fine wine in the sun. It really is the Spanish Life!

Calella de Palafrugell - a perfect example of a Catalan coastal town.
The walking path from Ripoll to Sant Joan de les Abadesses - easy and with mountain views.
The Ruta del Ferro in Autmn.
Our cat for (part of) the walk.
Another trip that I did around this time was he walk from Ripoll to Sant Joan de les Abadesses, along the Ruta del Ferro. This is a trip that is best (in my opinion) in Autumn when the weather is cooler but the there are also more colours in trees. I'm sure Spring or Summer would also be lovely, as this area would be bursting with life, I love seeing the green, yellow and read leaves all mixed in together with the coming of Winter. This trip was also done with the same friend who I'd gone to the Costa Brava with, someone who was now quickly becoming a good walking buddy. We got the early train from Barcelona to Ripoll, a journey of around 90 mins, leaving early enough to see the sunrise in the city. The train to Vic and Ripoll is different to the normal Barcelona trains - this one is more of an intercity train, built for long medium distances. On the train the seats are more comfortable and there are also bike racks and more space for skis and big bags. Every time I get the train on the weekend, I see this train go past and dream of just getting on it and heading north into the mountains! The train ride was nice, but getting out at Ripoll was a little bit of a shock as the temperature was much cooler than Barcelona. A quick walk into the centre and a coffee and breakfast was ordered for a pre-walk breakfast to warm us up and give us some energy. Ripoll is a lovely city, although small and not really high on the list for tourists. It's the capital of the Ripolles 'comarca' or county, with a population of about 11,000, but it was once very important in the country's history. The Benedictine Monastery was founded by Wilfred the Hairy in 879 the city was used as his base of operations while on his mission to repopulate the area after it'd be conquered back from the Count of Barcelona. Up to the mid-19th century it was an area with a lot of industry, due to plentiful deposits of coal and iron ore, as well as 2 rivers to transport products that were manufactured. Ripoll become famous within Europe for producing simple items such as nails, to bigger exports like polearms, crossbows and later firearms. Sadly after the Carlist Wars, Ripoll was nearly lost and so remains a small, less important city today.

A Catalan Masia.
Peeking through the tree - Sant Joan de les Abadesses.
Autumn colours.
Taking it easy on a chilly Sunday.
After a 'cafe amb llet' (flat white) and a 'bikini' (a ham and cheese toastie, not the swimwear), we headed out along the path on towards our destination, Sant Joan de les Abadesses. Once there we'd need to work out if we could get the bus back, or if we'd have to walk it back to Ripoll - the decision would be made over some food and maybe even a beverage of course. We followed the path through the countryside - with nobody else doing the walk this day, we had the whole place to ourselves, apart from a friendly moggie. This cute kitty was just sitting on the side of the path, seemingly waiting for someone to walk past and pat him. He had a quick pat and cuddle, he followed for a bit, before wandering off to do whatever cats do around here. We walked past fields full of cattle, trees that had lost most of their leaves and were hunkering down for the coming winter, but mostly green landscape surrounded us, mist hanging onto the hills and trees everywhere. Occasionally there were some farmsteads and even some long-forgotten stone farm houses, no longer inhabited, left to crumble and fall apart. Someday, I always dream to myself, I'll come back and buy a Catalan 'masia' and fix it up, have my garden and animals, hold big parties with my friends and live a nice, peaceful life in the countryside. Maybe one day. We made it easily to town, feeling good and although not sore at all, we knew that we'd done a bit of walking. We checked the bus times, and being Sunday, they were hardly frequent. The next bus was in around 3 hours, not what we were hoping for. We decided to sit down in a nice warm bar to warm up, snack and 're-hydrate' a little before the bus. We walked into one place and were asked 'if we were eating.' This is a common question in this country, especially around 2pm, which is Catalan lunch time, when most people get a 'menu.' These daily specials have 2-3 courses, including wine and a coffee, for a bargain price. We didn't feel that hungry and had decided on a drink and some tapas, but we were told that we couldn't sit at the bar, only the restaurant. So we said we'd sit in the restaurant, but were then told we needed to be eating if we sat there. We explained that we wanted a drink first, then we would decide, but the lady was pushy and ended up losing our business. We found another, far more accommodating place, for our beer.
The countryside.
Doing whatever cats do around here.
In the end, we decided to walk back to Ripoll rather than wait around for the bus that may or may not even decide to turn up - we were in rural Catalonia on a Sunday after all. The walk back seemed a lot faster for some reason. Maybe the fact that we were already warmed up from walking before, or the hot food, cold beers or maybe it's just always faster when going home, I don't know, but it passed quickly but still enjoyably. The train ride also seemed faster, but that was definitely due to the nap that I had on the way. Overall a good day's out - walking, good company, beautiful scenery and a recharge for the batteries before work on Monday.

A lovely Sunday walk... maybe I'll come back in Spring.

 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 ...