Discovering Catalunya

23 – 28 November 2017

It was time to return to Spain. We had just over a week to get down to Denia where we were meeting Peter & Alison so we had time to look around a bit. We took the freeway down past Argeles-sur-Mer then joined the coast at the start of the Cote Vermeille. We drove through pretty Collioure then up over the border at Coll de Bestres where we celebrated our return by buying petrol at a reasonable price!

Now in independence-minded Catalunya we cut across the Cap de Creus to the town of Roses and our campsite, a strange place a bit like an upmarket carpark overlooked by apartments and split in 2 by a road but 2 minutes from the beach. It was packed with Germans, one of whom insisted on guiding us to pitch saying that he liked to ‘“help the big boys” – a reference to our ‘van, not Danny!

We walked in to get the feel of the place. The promenade on a winter evening was quiet and pretty but we imagined how it would be hot and heaving in summer given the number of closed-up apartments and seafront businesses. We watched a swirl of starlings settle in a palm tree – a regular thing judging by the lady washing droppings from her car. After a grey day the sun decided to come out to give us a bit of a show so we settled at a cafe near the marina and had a glass of local wine as we watched the sun sink across the Gulf of Roses.

Next day we caught the bus into Figueres where our first stop was a phone shop. A very helpful Bangladeshi who also spoke Spanish, Arabic and English – we are in awe of such talent – sorted us with a new SIM card and told us he had visited Liverpool in January. He thought it was too cold but at least he could get proper Indian food there – the one thing he missed in Spain. It made us think fondly of our favourite, Zeera’s.

We found the Dali Theatro-Museo without difficulty – once you had cast eyes on the red and cream building topped with huge eggs and gold statues you were in no doubt you had found a Dali creation.

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Situated in the town’s old theatre not many streets from the home he was born the place is an experience from the moment you approach. It challenges and entertains, surprises and occasionally almost shocks. What struck us most were there sheer variety of artworks – from paintings and drawings small and large in a diverse styles to sculptures, art installations and jewellery, some of the works being interactive. And his technical mastery was brilliant, obvious to even us. We had been to a Dali exhibition at the Liverpool Tate but this place blew us away.

After that we needed sustenance and found a small cafe in a nearby alley with traditional Catalunyan dishes. Danny opted for snails in a bourgignon-style sauce – he just can’t resist them. The waiter told us he hates them but his mother insists on cooking them for him.

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The Dali exhibition was definitely worth the visit but it was time to move on. We headed inland into the Pyrenees and despite grey skies the scenery kept us happy as we entered the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcanica formed by ancient volcanoes, extinct for over 11,000 years. Over 40 cones contribute to the charm of this fertile, tree-covered, sparsely populated region and Olot, the province’s capital located in a high valley, has a tree-lined charm and feel of country affluence to. It looks like it would be really nice walking country and we promised ourselves a proper visit one day.

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Roundabout celebrating the area’s volcanic origin

The town of Vic, our overnight spot, is in the heart of Catalunya and was on our radar because it is recognised as a quintessential Catalan town – and it also has an N&B service partner. We went there first and the place was huge – a massive, 2-storey glass and steel structure with new motorhomes spread over 2 floors, accessories in the basement, a huge workshop and an extensive outdoor area with further motorhomes for sale. They only had to look at one picture on the iPhone and they identified and provided the new clasp we needed straight away. Does that mean they are very good or that it breaks alot ?

The Aire we had selected was just outside the centre and was very nice, next to a sports centre with views across sports fields to the mountains. It was surprisingly busy and at €5 a day, a bargain. We walked through the University area and into the town centre where they were clearing up the huge square, the Plaza Mayor, after the busy Saturday market. Surrounded by tall, characterful old buildings, the most impactive thing about it was the huge poster hanging over the square and the many flags hanging from the buildings supporting Catalan Independence. The huge banner declared ‘Libertat Presos Politics’ – liberate political prisoners – demanding freedom for the 8 Catalan politicians and independence activists imprisoned and awaiting trial for their role in the recent independence referendum. We really were in the heart of Catalunya, and at a really important time for it.

We walked round the plaza looking for the 3 traditional charcuteries that sell Vic’s famous sausages and finally located them down a dark alley off one corner. After examining their amazing produce we selected 2 of the local specialities – fuet and the more mature llonganissama. The very helpful lad serving us in Ca La Teresona was delighted that we also wanted to buy some Iberico and gave us a tasting of 4 different types explaining the differences in how the pigs were reared and what they were fed on. The variations in taste and texture were interesting and we looked forward to eating our purchase.

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After a dander around the alleyways we settled at a table round the now immaculately clean square to people-watch. It was now late afternoon and despite the cool weather there were plenty of people out making use of the sand covered plaza. A father played football with his little girl who at around 3 was already giving the ball a good whack; a petanque game started up; people exchanged greetings with other and stood in small groups chatting. There was a nice buzz to the square.

Then a large lorry arrived with what we first thought was a container on the back, followed closely by a police car. It drove into the middle of the square and parked beneath the huge banner. The police car departed and the driver proceeded to unload the ‘container’. This was a mock-up of 2 prison cells which also appeared to contain ballot boxes, and on top were 8 black silhouettes each with the name of one of the political prisoners. People moved in around it, watching, helping, taking photos and having photos taken of themselves with it.

 

 

We looked more closely at the flags hanging from the buildings and confirmed that none of them was a Spanish flag, all were either the proposed independent Catalan flag, or asserted ‘Si’ indicating ‘Yes’ to independence. We wondered whether voicing opposition to independence was now a dangerous thing. Interesting times and we hope for a peaceful resolution.

We woke next morning to the completely unexpected sound of hot air balloons filling in the field next to the Aire and watched as first one then another took to the crisp, cold air, some of the passengers cheering and waving to those below. That’s the thing about travelling, you never know what you are going to wake up to, which we really like.

We decided to head south towards Lleida staying inland to experience more of the Catalan countryside and leaving open the way we would take from there. Good decision as the scenery in these Pyrennean foothills was lovely, with very few settlements but attractive large stone farmhouses scattered across the hillsides.

 

We picked up the course of the River Ebre, the green of the water contrasting with the yellow autumn leaves on the wooded banks and followed it downstream to the coast. The land changed  becoming drier and more agricultural with olives and ripening orange trees dominating the valley floor, interspersed with other fruit trees. Irrigation systems appeared.

Then we were out into the flat, open lands of the Ebre delta amongst the rice paddies and surrounded by birds. We wove our way down narrow lanes between the paddy fields to the Aire about a mile outside El Poblenou del Delta. Set on a dog-leg in the road next to a bar-restaurant the Aire has lovely views back to the mountains and out across the marshes and is a 2 minute walk from a lovely bird-hide overlooking a lagoon.

We wandered down to the hide and watched for an hour as hen harriers, flamingoes, glossy ibis, egrets and the thousands of other birds did their thing out on the lagoon to the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset. And as we walked back to the van there was just enough light to see a huge murmeration of starlings. What a fantastic place.

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Two happy days of birdwatching in glorious sunshine. The mountain backdrop, the shimmering water and birds everywhere made us very happy bunnies.

The second day we got the cycles out – the first time since Sicily – which allowed us to get round the 2 large lagoons in this part of the delta and visit all the excellent bird-hides. We had great views of an osprey eating a fish on top of a pole, a grey heron at the base snatching up any left-overs. Harriers swept back and forth hunting for prey, too many to count and we finally got a really good view of a Montague’s Harrier, our first. Other highlights were a fan-tailed warbler, some purple swamp-hen, and a solitary Caspian tern. We loved it so much we stayed out until sunset both days, rewarded at dusk by huge murmerations of starlings and night heron flying overhead. On our third night we had the amazing experience of cycling immediately below a murmeration, the birds no more that 20 feet above our heads.

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Danny insists on a mention at this point of the extra miles we cycled on that last evening returning to one of the hides to look for our bird book which Kate had mislaid. It wasn’t there so we ordered a new one only to find it in the rucksack the next day!

The lagoons are surrounded by paddy fields in states from flooded to dry with various styles of building scattered amongst them. An information centre housed in a large scrub-thatched hut put up by local landowners to stay in while they were hunting the wildfowl has some really interesting stuff on rice cultivation on the delta and we realised there is no way we would want to be here in the summer – there must be millions of mosquitoes and other biting things!

We cycled through the neat, white village with it’s tall, thin church tower and numerous restaurants with rooms to let which, given it didn’t even have a shop we found bemusing until we realised that this is a place for walking, cycling, fishing, birdwatching, boat-trips and beaches. A low-key return-to-nature place. Wonderfully quiet at this time of year. We agreed that we could happily have stayed in the area for a week or two. Will be back.

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El Poblenou del Delta

Catalunya has so much variety, we look forward to exploring it further after our Denia detour.

 

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