Banyoles


Spring has sprung in a spluttering kind of fashion this year.  Bright, sunny and warm one day.  Wet, overcast and blustery the next.  Yesterday exemplified that.  We started our day under grey damp skies with a brief visit to the ‘Temps De Flors’ festival in Girona – the annual splatter of colour that adorns patios, churches, gardens and more with an array of creative floral and related designs and props.  The festival is complemented by numerous other activities which in total provide the visitor with yet another excuse if one were ever needed to visit a city which grander than its size belies.

On to La Rectoria our industry for the day entailed Goretti applying a mild acid to the steel curtain that marks the windows and doors, the aim being to accelerate the oxidation thereby giving that ‘irn bru’ (very sweet Scottish drink)orange rusty effect which will be ‘fixed’ by finally applying a coating of oil.  Mission accomplished.  For my part, I did some weeding, spraying of weeds and path construction in the garden.   We finished off with our weekly walk around the house, making or trying to make decisions about this and that.

Our third port of call was ‘Lactium’, a cheese fair in the fine city of Vic, Osona.  Wow! We discovered some whopping examples – a one and a half year old hard and equally strong goat’s cheese from Can Pujol, Vilassar de Alt.  A soft but beautifully balanced goat’s cheese from Borrada.  But the pick of the bunch came from a farm near Banyols, Mas Alba.  The genial owner had on display four or five cheeses each inviting me to pull up a chair, uncork a bottle of wine and settle down for indulgent session of cheese munching had time not been more pressing.  One resembling a French ‘crotin’ was elegantly soft and creamy with a gentle nudge of goat. The winner was the aptly called ‘Uff’, named so after numerous friends had simply exclaimed ‘uff’ having had a nose full of the cheese.  It is exciting and a pleasure to have such excellent examples of artisan deftness on our doorstep and we hope on your plate in future.   The whole experience drove me to serve up a potent little goat’s cheese soufflé for lunch today.

As a footnote to our visit to Vic, one stall holder having learnt of my nationality quickly asked my opinion regarding the prospects for Scottish Independence following the Scottish National Party’s victory in recent Elections.  I dually gave him the proud Scot speech, adding the need to consider deeply all of the facts before ‘going it alone’, as it were.  Without blinking the same man then asked me of my opinion on the subject of nothing less than crop circles, those geometric forms that appear in the corn fields of Southern England and which are alleged by some to be the result of Extra Terrestrial visits.  I swiftly dismissed this idea as mere fantasy and we walked on.

On reflection however maybe the ideas of Scottish Independence and crop circles are related.  Both satisfy our desire for escapism and fulfil that part of our nature occupied by dreams.  Or perhaps more sinisterly, our nationalist politicians actually are little green men from space – ‘Uff’, the smell of nationalist politics.

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We can at last allow ourselves a small sigh of relief.  The foundations have all but been completed and much of the initial structural work has been completed downstairs.  So it was this week that the focus of attention moved to the upper floor.  Pragmatism and prudence also played their part as the pest control team arrived to fumigate the basement and thus halt any threat of termites.  Well, there is no point in rebuilding the place if it is going to be gnawed, ingested and turned into some kind of ‘Happy Meal’ for insects.  In due course the timbers throughout the house will be treated to rid the house of any incumbent mites.

Until this week two of the south facing rooms on the top floor had had their windows bricked up.  On removing these barriers to light the upper level has been flooded with light.  The sense of space has been magnified.  The whitish grey plaster of the walls is dotted occasionally with wooden pegs from which once hams hung in the cool air.  Straining your neck back and upwards you can see more clearly the symmetry of the wooden beams and purlins that support the terracotta tiles above.  Many of these have been partially painted white leaving the remaining red of the terracotta exposed in diamond form.

It is our intention to retain as much of the original character of this old house, however due to constraints of one kind or another it is not possible to keep everything one would like.  Thus it is in this case that wooden floor of the upper hall will be lost from view.  A ‘compression layer’ of concrete is to be applied throughout the upper level, thereby strengthening it.  The upside is that the ceiling of the hall below will be retained and with it it’s thumping great cross beams.  Finally, re-all things structural, as the arches on the north facing side have been opened and the earth that accumulated against them is removed, that façade of house appears to stand ever taller. 

Goretti and myself first visited La Garrotxa five years ago, when Silvestre was all of four months old and we were on holiday staying with Goretti’s family.  The visit to the area was half business, half pleasure.  Prior to this we had done a little spade work on the internet, trying to identify properties that might fulfill our dream of a ‘Casa Rural’ (guest house).   We drove first to the neighbouring conmarca (county) of Ripolles and then to La Garrotxa.  It was june and swelteringly hot.  About 35°c, no air conditioning in the wee Renault Twingo we had borrowed from Goretti’s Mum.

We were shown around half a dozen properties over three or four days.  A mix of old farmhouses, inelegant newer buildings and those that were little more than edifices of stone and timber delicately holding one and the other up and together.  One I remember fell into the latter category.  Just north of Olot this place had lip smacking views.  The fields around it fell away into the surrounding woodland and the horizon to the north and east was nothing less than the Pyrenees.

It was then we recognized the potential of this area as a destination for those that wanted more than a vacation on the Spanish Costas.  So I guess here we are putting our money literally where our mouths are. 

A while back, one of my Sisters kindly gave us a 1978 edition of Guia Turistica Michelin, España as part of a ‘clear out’.  A cursory flick through the pages and La Garrotxa  gets a few brief mentions.   Banyoles and Olot are about it.  And so your late 1970’s discerning travelling gourmet would I guess have given this corner of ‘España’ a body swerve.

This week same said Sister posted us a newspaper cutting from the ‘Guardian’ Travel section, headed with the punbascious title ‘Destined for crater things’ (27.03.10 for those of you interested in tracking it down).  BINGO, the author of the piece could hardly have painted a better picture of La Garrotxa and the surrounding region.  Thanks Sister and thanks Gruaniad!

Two weeks have been a long time and I have missed putting these ramblings down on paper.  My inability to do so can be explained by way of a fun packed previous weekend with Old Friends from England, Will, Sara and family. Like millions of others like them they have experienced firsthand the unsurpassable power of good old Mother Nature.

Arriving from Diss on the Thursday before last, they were staying in an apartment near Banyoles, just north west of Girona.  Nicely appointed gaff…..large living/dining area with balcony overlooking L’Emporda and small but adequate postage stamp sized kitchen, plus two ample bedrooms and a very well  finished shower room/loo.

One glaring design fault was the glass entrance door to the apartment building, largely invisible at a casual glance open or closed and an accident waiting to happen.  Point noted for our project!  The other ‘design fault’ was the proprietor.  Cold towards kids and quickly cottoning on to the fact we were friends of paying guests, made the comment that he hadn’t taken too kindly to previous customers having friends around the place – people skills not great!  Little did he know we had sleeping bags etc. for our sleep over to catch the Barça-Madrid match that night.   A warmer welcome was to be had from the neighbouring Donkey and Cockrell providing us with a somewhat discordant dawn chorus at ‘donkey O’clock’.

So with our ‘tourist hats’ on we started out late on Saturday morning to sell La Garrotxa to Will and Sara.  And the gods were with us.  In bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, the best day of the spring so far, we drove to Santa Pau via Mieres.   Santa Pau does not have to be sold to anyone.  A gem in its own right.  Set on a rocky outcrop, flirting its not inconsiderable medieval charm from a distance.  Perfectly small, you can stroll around it in half an hour…..longer would be better.  Narrow stone covered streets and archways surrounding the as yet to be restored central ‘palace’.   The perimeter walls offer picture postcard views over verdant green fields to the surrounding volcanic oak covered hills.  Here you are in the heart of the ‘Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa’ (phew, time for an acronym!).

Suitably impressed and with time pressing we drove the remaining 10 minutes to El Hostal dels Ossos, an old favourite of ours.  Great for local food and superb for those of you with young families with its large play area for kids to let off steam.  This place is Catalan through and through.  The signature statement being made by the not inconsiderably sized dolls house structure made entirely of snail shells sitting conspicuously in the middle of the restaurant.

Sitting outside we guided our friends through the comprehensive Catalan menu.  Kids can have the seemingly banal but excellent ‘macarrons’ with meat and tomato sauce.  For starters we ordered for our guests, ‘Pa amb tomaquet’ –  toasted bread on to which you rub garlic, drizzle oil and then rub on a halved tomato, ‘Escalivada with anchovies’ and ‘Mongetas de Santa Pau with cansalada’ (white beans with pork belly) completed the starters.  For the main course we chose between, rabbit with aioli, mushroom omelette, beef and mushroom casserole and cabbage stuffed with potato.   Mel and mató  – honey and cottage cheese – was the modest but tasty pudding.

Suitably fuelled up we set off up the nearby extinct volcano of Santa Margarida.  A most enjoyable way to burn off the calories of a volcanic menu, such is the cuisine of the region labeled.  With its wee chapel nestling in the crater, this makes for a superb family walk.

And so back to Banyoles for the night……Barça 2, Real Madrid 0.    Long satisfied pause………

La RECTORIA?  Yes, yes, yes.  Keep your hair on!   We went there on Sunday morning and I think having seen it at first hand, Will and Sara appreciated the enormity of the task in hand.  Yet more underpinning of foundations and concrete being poured. 

The position of the house in relation to the cycle path 10 metres from the front door and running some 135km from the town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Mediterranean coast cannot be understated.  Cyclists come and enjoy the ‘Ruta del Ferro’.  We will be open next summer.

We then went on to our neighbouring town Sant Feliu de Pallerols and Can la Matilda for an immensely impressive mixed paella for six..or more!  And then said what were intended to be our goodbyes to the H-S family.

With something of a massive twist of irony, volcanoes were to play an even larger part in the events of the week.  A somewhat considerably larger and more active one let forth its awesome power in Iceland. 

So what, we’re in Spain!

Thursday morning and a neighbour in Cardedeu informs me that Aberdeen and several other Scottish airports have been closed due to some volcano. Eeuhh!? 

Next thing I get a text from Will. 

“Back in Banyoles, flight to Stansted cancelled due to Volcano” etc. 

And so it is three days later they are still Stranded in Catalan Paradise.

We met up again this afternoon on the coast at Calella de Palafrugell.  Bright blue skies, a relatively quiet little beach set against an exquisite seafront of houses perched on rock and stone.  The H-S kids bravely went for a dip, Sly fell in.  All had great fun.

Will and Sara hope to make good their escape on Wednesday.  Mankind has again been humbled by the power of good old Mother Nature.  Don’t you love her?

As a footnote I dedicate the 1977 Punk classic ‘Stranded’ by The Saints to our dear friends and castaways.   The connection between that song and others, and one which is kind of fundamental to our being here will become apparent later in the year.