Monday, 27 April 2020

Hiking the Puig

Sabadell sunsets.
View from the new flat.
The hills of Barcelona at sunset.
Poland had been a lovely, relaxing time for me. There was sunshine, new places and experiences, as well as some much needed 'down time' after another summer camp. It was nearly the end of August now and was time to return to Spain. Before I left for the summer camp in Romania, I had moved out of my old flat here and left all my things (not that I have much!) at a friends for when I got back. It was time to pick up my stuff but I also needed to find a place to live! So luckily I had a place to crash for a bit while I looked for a new pad. I'd decided a while back that it was time to get something for myself - no more flat sharing, no more dirty, loud, annoying flatmates. It was time to grow up (again) and rent a whole place to myself - my girlfriend. Yup, the big move was happening and we were both excited and worried. It took far longer than expected to be honest, and rent isn't cheap anywhere in the Barcelona area either. Finally we were very lucky and found the perfect little attic apartment with a large terrace with plenty of sunshine. Thinking back to when we found it, it was a stroke of pure luck and for that I am so grateful - now, having been in lockdown in Spain for more than 40 days, things like this need to be appreciated. I can't imagine living in a shared apartment, renting a dark little room and sharing the house with 2,3 or even 4 other people. The only thing that would make this place better would be a dog! Maybe soon, you never know! Looking forward to being free again, but happy to be where I am, knowing things could be so much worse.
Mountain time!
Ski lifts waiting for the snow.
Everyone needs a selfie from time to time.
The top of Puigmal.
In September, before going back to work, I also wanted to enjoy a little bit of mountain time. Poland was great, but it was all city breaks, no hiking or exercise apart from walking around city streets (and exercising my camera finger). It was time to enjoy some of the natural beauty that Catalonia has in excess. The first place on the list was Puigmal, sometimes called Puigmal d'Er, which is a mountain in the Pyrenees, right on the border with France and Spain. This little 2,909m beastie had been on my to-hike list for some time. I wasn't going alone - heading out with 2 friends and their kids (who happen to be my English students by the way!), we set out early on Sunday morning after I had dinner and stayed at their place in Sabadell. It was lovely to have dinner with good friends; we chatted partly in English and partly in Catalan, shared some wine, then threw on the boots in the morning and jumped in the car, ready to rock and roll! It didn't take us that long to get to the start of the hike, but then again, the mountains are so close to everything here! I always enjoy the drive in the morning, knowing that soon you'll be up a mountain. We drove north, going past Ripoll and Ribes de Freser, where they bottle the famous brand of water, and turned off just after Planoles, parking the car not far from the Mirador de Barraques. We were joined by another couple, experienced hikers, who had many trips under their belt. Although we weren't starting right at the bottom, we still had a good 9kms to the top and another 9 back, so it was going to be a long and tiring day - but a good one! The weather was perfect - sunny September weather and we had a nice vice all the way to the top. Although not tough, the hike was fairly long, but we made frequent stops along the way, snacking on fuet and cake, keeping fluids up, and just enjoying the view. Once at the top, we stopped for a proper lunch of ham baguettes, drank plenty and tried to rest a little and get comfortable on the rocky ground to soak up some warmth from the sun. There was a big crowd of people at the top, so we waited for them to get their photos in with the cross, before getting our own. It may be a bit cheesy, but I love looking back at these photos - you and your mates at the top of a mountain should always bring a smile to your face.
The crew at the top.
Looking over to France.
Wild horses.
Heading down.
The route we took up was the ridge that runs along the French-Spanish border, fairly easy and flat, with just a gradual rise for the most part. I rarely like going back the same way, even though sometimes you see things differently in reverse. We call decided to head back via a different route, which would be a steeper descent but the view would be different and hopefully we could cut some walking time off too. Although far more difficult, which going down usually is, it was also a little more dangerous as the path wasn't as clearly defined and the going was slow. After an hour or so of lose rocks, we got to the grassy part, which made it easier on the feet but a little slower heading down. This did bring advantages though - we saw some wild horses running around, enjoying their freedom. We finally made it back to the valley floor, walking past a small stream and a place called 'Font de l'Home Mort,' or the Dead Man's Spring. I didn't see a dead man, but I saw the water source and decided not to drink from it, just in case. Just a little bit more to go, heading up through the trees and back to the car, to what I call the 'hallelujah' moment. Imagine you've been hiking all day, you're tired, hungry, dreaming of a beer (or two), and you get to where you think you parked your car, the doubt creeps in, but then it's still there, waiting for you. That's the hallelujah moment! We changed shoes (trust me, getting into a pair of runners after 18kms of hiking boots is a luxury!), got in the car and headed for the nearest bar for a quick refreshment before heading home. The kids had done well, as always, but everyone was tired. My friends are hikers to the core - they met hiking and have been hiking for decades. Their kids are the next generation, and have been going with their parents since they were very little. Although they complain sometimes, get tired and hungry, they are kids and they do so well, and they always seem to have enough energy to run to the car at the end of a hike. I love they way some parents bring their kids up to suit their hobbies and timetable - a parent that pampers their baby, changing their whole life to suit the needs of child is too much. Give and take, as well as training the child to suit you a little is better in the long run. Anyway, what would I know, I'm not a parent! Just my 5 cents.
The storm was brewing... but it was beautiful.
Sant Esteve de Castellar del Vallès.

2 more corners to go!
Santa Maria del Puig de la Creu.
After a week or two at work, I already needed to escape a little. Although this time it wouldn't be anything as big a Puigmal, it was another Puig. In the town of Castellar del Valles, about 7 kms from Sabadell, there is a little peak with a church on top called Puig de la Creu, the 'hill of the cross.' It was a Sunday, and the weather didn't look too promising - it had rained all day Saturday and the clouds were gathering for round 2. I really needed a bit of outside time, to stretch my legs and also hit that all important 'reset switch' before work on Monday. We decided to do it anyway. We got on a bus from Sabadell's central bus station, which took us 25 minutes to get to the centre of Castellar. It was quiet, as it was a Sunday, but a little too quiet as their were supposed to be a Castell display here today - a 2nd reason for coming here. We walked around trying to find the Castellers, usually very distinctive in their brightly colours shirts, but found no trace of them. I checked the website and it said nothing. Maybe they were worried about the predicted storm? I wasn't, even though the clouds were dark and full of rain, and so started on the hike up. We wandered through the town, stopping off at the church first for a quick look. Although I've been up this hike twice before, I'd never actually spent any time in the town. The church is lovely, and made more beautiful by the dark storm clouds behind it. There was nobody around as we started the walk, leaving the town and hitting the dirt path. Normally there are plenty of people at the start, walking dogs and families out for Sunday, but not today. Not even any mountain bikers. We had the whole place to ourselves and loved it. Following the zip-zag path to the top, you see numbers on trees most of the way. They count down the turns you have left, which I think is cute. Once you reach turn '0,' there is a small trail that runs through the forest and to the church at the top. Once at the top, where the hermitage of Santa Maria del Puig de la Creu sits, you get a spectacular view of Sabadell, Terrassa as well as views of the Sant Llorenç massif (La Mola) and also of Montserrat. The clouds were looking fierce, so it was a only a quick break for a snack, some water and a view photos, before heading back down - this time a different, much faster but steeper, way down. Once at the bottom, we sought out the first bar to have a beer and a quick tapas before getting the bus home.
View of La Mola from the top of Puig de la Creu.
The beautiful colours that come with a storm.
A great view from the top of Puig de la Creu.
Everything now was back to normal - summer holidays were over and work had started once again. Routine would set in, working from Monday to Friday (or Saturday in my case), living for the weekend and its escape. Although I went on small trips here and there, to the mountains and little city breaks, I had now idea what was coming. Little did everyone know that in March the world would change and we wouldn't be let out of our homes. I always try and do what I can, when I can and while I am able - you never know what's around the corner, be an injury, no money, too much work, and you get tied up and time just slips by. People often say that after a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, it makes us appreciate our friends and family more, that we should enjoy the time we have more. I try and do this every day, I don't need something bad in my life to happen first. A walk on Sunday to relax and enjoy the sun and disconnect a little before Monday. A quick message or phone call home, not because you want something or that something bad has happened, but just to say hi and 'I love you' to people who should hear it. Once this confinement is over, try and enjoy life a little more, in the small things and the big things, every day - you never know what tomorrow will bring.
Puig de la Creu (view of Montserrat).
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. September 2019.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Poland's Pleasure Port

Hello Sopot - and hello Polish summer!
The longest wooden pier in Europe.
Welcome to Sopot!
It was only mid-morning when we got to the train station after a brief walk around the city. Today we were heading to the second of the three cities - Sopot. The small trains that run between these cities are funny, smaller and not as comfortable as the main line trains, they seem almost like toy trains. There aren't as many seats and the seats they have reminded me of the plastic seating you used to get in MacDonald's in the 90s. These trains don't need to be super-modern and super-comfortable, as the trips they do are short but - roughly 15 minutes from Gdansk to Sopot - but frequent, with 130 trains a day. The train stations are also small and a little funny, and virtually unstaffed. We did, however, buy the train tickets as they were cheap and we were a little worried about getting caught by the inspector. I have always had a fear of bus and train inspectors (maybe because in Sydney checks can be done by the Police!), so out of fear I always buy tickets, even if the likelihood of checking is non-extant. I believe, though, that people should pay for public transport as a way of keeping certain lines open and people employed. I also believe that while the tickets should be affordable for everyone, the service needs to be decent and subsidised by the government. We got off the train shortly after getting on, arriving at Sopot's only station, ready to see the town. Much smaller than Gdansk, Sopot has a population of around 40,000 residents, which I think would swell during the summer with tourists. This town is very much a tourist resort town, with big hotels on the beachfront with their private areas - a big contrast the the working port of Gdansk. 
The Grand Hotel - built in the mid 1920s.
Mr Bean?

Every angle of this building is weird!
Some interesting art in Sopot.
We walked down the main street of the town, Bohaterów Monte Cassino Street, which is a pedestrian thoroughfare from the main road intersection in front of the station all the way down to the beach. We did venture off the main drag in search of lunch later on, but didn't find much - it seems everything is in one place here. We stopped for a coffee at a cafe and accidentally found a tourist attraction. I hadn't been looking for it, as I decided not to read anything about this city beforehand, but as we sat down I noticed that there was something strange with the building opposite. I looked a little closer and realised that it was wavy and crooked. I looked it up on my phone and discovered that it is called Krzywy Domek and was built in 2004 - designed by Szotyńscy & Zaleski based on the fairy-tale illustrations and drawings of Jan Marcin Szancer and Per Dahlberg. You can walk around the building and see it from different angles, and the movement and angles only get weirder. I didn't go inside, as it is part of a shopping centre and nothing exciting inside - but the outside is quite cool. This isn't the main tourist attraction, thankfully! The main thing to see here is the grand pier and surrounding beaches. The Sopot Pier is the longest wooden pier in Europe, measuring 450 metres from the edge of the shore, and 650m total. It first opened in 1827, making it older than Brighton's famous pier (1899) and but not as long as the Southend Pier (2.16km long and the longest pleasure pier in the world!) which is built of steel. We of course wanted to walk to the end and look back at the town from the vantage point, but this wasn't free - being summer and 'high season,' you have to pay 8zł (€1.80) for the privilege. Although I felt that was a bit rude, 2 Euros to walk on a pier, the only thing to do here other than eat, drink and lie on a beach really. I thought about the queue for the tickets, how many people were already on the pier, and didn't even bother to do the maths as it was just a lot of money, and all because they could. We paid but forgot about it as soon as we set foot on the wooden planks.
The beaches here are lovely, with soft, golden sand.
Beach time!
Pirate ship sailing tours are very popular here it seems.
The battle for air supremacy.
The sun was shining and August in Poland was giving its all. Still nowhere near as hot as Summer in Spain or even Australia. It was a pleasant kind of heat, one that I love and could tolerate all day, every day. I saw a strange man, dressed in a brown suit with patched elbows, carrying two suitcases, and he reminded me of Mr Bean. I snapped a few pics of him, to make sure he was real, but we saw him later doing a kind of show (I'm guessing as a Mr Bean impersonator), so at least he was real and wasn't a complete weirdo! There were quite a few ships moored to the end of the pier, including a pirate ship that took people for pleasure cruises. Although not the same Black Pearl that we saw in Gdansk, it was the same kind of thing - dinner and a cruise for holidaymakers. After walking the length of the pier and enjoying the weather at the same time, we headed for the public beach to chill for a bit. I never really liked spending too much time at the beach if it was just laying down sunbathing, so after a little while, we decided to make a move for lunch. Also, clouds were starting to move in and I was a little worried about getting caught out. We had a typical zapiekanka, a Polish-style, toasted baguette of various toppings with melted cheese on top, served on a paper tray. When in Rome! These snacks date back from the 1970s, and although it is associated with the austere Communist times of the past, they are very popular now and we had to line up for it, even though there were numerous places doing these. I scoffed mine down, which was a pepperoni melt with spicy sauce, and immediately felt like another. After this little break and refreshment, we headed back up the hill to the station to make our way to the 3rd city on our list - Gdynia.
Lighthouse in Gdynia.
Relaxing in the sun in Sopot.
Ships docked in Gdynia.
Sailing in Sopot.
I don't want to be too negative about the next city, Gdynia, but there wasn't that much to see and do for a tourist. The city itself was quite average - normal buildings, streets, and all the regular shops. Nothing really stood out. There is a reason for this though, which I discovered after a little bit of research. Gdynia was only granted city rights in 1926, which allowed the city to expand rapidly demographically and architecturally. Unfortunately, this growth was interrupted by the outbreak of WWII and the newly built port and shipyard were destroyed completely. The population also suffered heavy losses, causing the remaining inhabitants to either flee or be expelled by the occupying forces. Most were sent to other occupied regions of Poland, or shipped off to concentration camps. After the war, the city slowly started to come back to life with the influx of people and industry - the ship yards were rebuilt and expanded and the city got back on its feet once more. Nowadays there still isn't much to see, but you can see development that is happening, new, tall apartment buildings being built out of glass and steel, and lots of bars and restaurants opening. The ship yard is still there and the docks are about the only thing worth seeing really. From here you can get a cruise on a pirate ship, look at some military ships and wander to the end of the concrete pier to look out to the Baltic Sea. The restaurant at the end, The Captain Cook Tavern, looks like something out of the 70s, as does the fountain and fairground, but I didn't mind that - and both places were busy with locals. We walked around and saw the ships, including a beautiful sailing ship that is now an expensive restaurant (the Bar Pomorza) and a modern, grey navy ship with one lone sailor standing to attention. We found a great little Spanish tapas bar called Tapas Barcelona in the main part of town, which had good food, Miro artwork on the walls... but most importantly, Estrella beer! We were happy with what we'd done - although the city was exciting, it was quiet, clean and had just about everything you needed for everyday life. It just wasn't a tourist town - but that's fine by me!
A modern war ship.
Ships and storms in Gdynia.
The sailing ship Pomorza (now a floating restaurant).
Bar Pomorza - a sailing restauant.
The place where we stayed in town was a little strange too. It was booked on a popular booking site, but frankly there wasn't much choice as there were very few cheap rooms near the centre before the prices went up exponentially. First, we weren't able to find it! It was in a very unassuming apartment block with no obvious way in, but we eventually made contact with the owner and got in. The room itself wasn't very nice to be honest - the 2 beds weren't made properly and there was no towels or even toilet paper in the bathroom. We made do with this (by making the beds and going to the supermarket for the bog roll), and had a nice, solitary dinner on the rooftop terrace, which was dirty back came with a nice view. In the morning we grabbed an Uber and headed back to the train station, making our way back to Gdańsk for the main train back to Poznan. We checked train times and and worked out that if we caught the afternoon train back, we'd have time to do one more trip around the Old Town to get those perfectly lit morning shots that I had missed the first day. After getting my photos in, and being very satisfied with them indeed, we also had time to make a bus trip to see Gdańsk Westerplatte - the place where World War II started. We got information from the helpful staff at the Tourist Information office and jumped on a bumpy bus to the end of the Gdańsk peninsula too see the war memorial. The Battle of Westerplatte was one of the first battles in Germany's invasion of Poland, marking the start of World War II in Europe on September 1st 1939. Army, Naval and Air forces hit this place hard and all at once, in classic Blitzkrieg style, but the Poles were able to hold out for 7 days and 13 assaults. The Germans even used dive-bombing tactics and naval shelling to take this place, but even so the Polish people did a good job to last as long as they did. There are still remnants from the war, including big concrete bunkers for artillery guns and a concrete building that was used as a guardhouse, now in ruins from the bombing. A the end of the peninsular, there is a huge memorial, which is what everyone comes to see. Not much else to see, we took some photos, sat down for a while and thought about what it would have been like back in 1939, then left to get a snack before the bus back.
Amusement park in Gdynia.
Bunkers at Westerplatte.
Westerplatte memorial site.
These last 3 days in the 3 cities were wonderful. Each city completely different from each other, each having their own charm and highlights. There wasn't anything bad I could really say about the whole trip to be honest - even the shitty hostel had its good points, and you have to laugh at the no toilet paper situation. My time in Poland was nearly up as well, so that was a sad note, but my time here had been well spent so far. I had a little more time left in Poznan to enjoy and then it would be back to Spain. Do widzenia polska i dziękuję!

War: Never Again (Nigdy więcej wojny).

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

Birthday Weekend

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