catalunya


The schools in Catalunya broke up for the summer holidays five weeks ago and since then many of the kids have been occupied in Cases de Colonies (summer camps) of one form or another.  Our five year old son spent three weeks attending what could loosely be called a tennis camp…..swimming, tennis, gymkhana, water fight, tennis, clay workshop…..I am not a fan of the long Spanish school summer holidays (the primary reason given being the summer heat), but the one clear benefit is the opportunity for children to try a sport or some other such past time and should they get hooked pursue and hone those skills in future years.   It might be something of an oversimplification but there must be some correlation between the current crop of Spanish world champions – football, basketball – and individual winners – Contador, Nadal….Alonso aside and for another day.

And now the feel good tsunami that comes with the warmth of summer engulfed the weekly visita d’obres at La Rectoria today.  A cheery throng of owners, builder, aparellador and architect opened diaries and noted holiday dates and duly swapped vacation plans.  The  subcontractors sandblasting the wooden beams brought something of the seaside feel with the odd shower of black silicon dust finding its way toward us. 

Work continues on the roof and the second of three sections is now being reassembled.  The reinforcing cinturon, a belt of concrete and steel rods is firmly in-situ and the newly sandblasted beams and joists are being put back in place.  Some have been replaced as required from a stock Pere has, but all are of a considerable age in this section of the roof.  One had a distinctly different grain and hue, darker with black circular lines in places.  This I was told was fusta de riera, wood from a tree by the stream below the house.  Naively I then asked if timber for the original beams had been sourced locally.  If you could see the location of the house you’d realize what a dumb question that was, built as it was in an isolated valley long long ago.  

So these beams have been given a new lease of life and if they had a tale to tell I guess it would involve many man hours of sawing, chopping and cleaving.   Being hauled to the site by donkey, ox or horse and then cut to size and hoisted skyward and fixed in place until disturbed by Pere, Viçencs and Josep.

We were in turn joined by the Alcalde (Mayor) of Sant Feliu de Pallerols who seemed impressed by the work being undertaken.  He proceeded to recall childhood memories of time spent at the house with the then incumbent priest and housekeeper Paquita.

And so the visit drew to a close.  Holidays are at hand and we are about one month behind (our) schedule.  If this was an end of term school report I think the pupil would be getting ‘A’ grades, congratulatory back slaps and a chorus of well dones.  And so it should be for our team  and especially my wife Goretti who has kept one and all in check and monitored progress with I guess a sense of excitement and has learnt a good deal along the way.

This time next year and the finish line will be in sight…and the start of the next stage will be upon us.

The sun is high in the sky during these weeks and if you are fortunate enough a walk may occasionally be accompanied by a light warm breeze.  Not surprisingly, mornings are the freshest part of the day and if I feel up to it I go for a short run around Cardedeu. As rapidly as the sun ascends, temperatures rise accordingly and by midday are reaching the mid 30’s.  Barcelona is a very hot and sticky place to be at this time of day and remains thus until early morning the following day.  I’m stating the obvious because one quickly hears puffs and pants and complaints about the heat…..can’t say I’m a natural sun bunny, red hair, freckles and the facial complexion of a ripe tomato.  But hey, it seems only a month ago folk here were moaning on about how long, cold and wet our winter had been.  It only goes to remind me of bus rides through Leith with auld wifies ga’in on aboot ‘the heat’ after one week of a Scottish summer.  Us humans, we are hard to please and rarely are happy when it comes to all things climatological.  Long live the seasons.

And so to the house, taking advantage of the fine weather the first phase of making good the roof is well underway.  On our visit last week the oak beams (bigas) and purlins (cairats) over the dining room were largely in place and the rajols (first layer of terracotta tiles) were being fitted.  Above this will be laid the insulation and ultimately the roof tiles.  All this is hot and thirsty work conducted in the full glare of the hot summer sun.  The Paletas are not complaining, sporting what many would consider an enviable suntan.

Monday this week, Goretti and I conducted a foot slogging exercise around Barcelona to see firsthand examples of what the floor in our part of the house will look like when finished….wall to wall concrete.  Being a relatively inquisitive soul I largely enjoyed our tour of two private loft apartments, an office/warehouse and shop.  The resultant outcome – a nod in the direction of a light grey concrete will most likely be the preferred finish to our floor.  Our walls are a dark natural stone which will be touched little by direct sunlight, so it will be necessary not to further darken an already dusk like space.  On the contrary, light must be channeled in wherever possible.

We have also been making progress with regards to the kitchen, final finishes to the guest bathrooms and wardrobes.  August is almost upon us and the summer recess.  We are also starting to give more thought to the final product and how to get you ‘the guest’ to come and stay with us.

Meanwhile, Spain are World Cup Champions and deservedly so and the Spanish Constitutional Court put paid to any sense of genuine national euphoria with a well aimed kick in the Catalan ribs and an anti-Catalan ruling.  A long and on-going story is set to enter another chapter.  Enjoy the summer.

Before this week’s blurb, two brief apologises.  First, for not posting a blog last weekend; over hectic schedule with the family which was great.  Second, keep the blog focused.  Well, the occasional emotionally skewed rant a la football etc. should be excused.

Summer is here and it’s official.  In Catalunya it is trumpeted in by La Revetlla and Sant Joan on the 24 June.   La Revetlla takes place on the night of the 23rd.  Coca de Llardons is eaten, a flat catalan bread topped with lardons and pinenuts accompanied by a glass of cava.  Fireworks and bangers are set off and the evening has a real party atmosphere, more akin to New Year’s Eve.   All this used to be accompanied by bonfire – bonfires made of old furniture.  Sant Joan was what we British euphemistically call a spring clean.  A thorough top to bottom cleaning and clear out of the home.  It was time for renewal.  Old chairs, tables were tossed on the fire to be replaced by the new.   Now this symbolism has been lost, largely due to the wider risk of forest fires and the alternative provisions made for the disposal of household items.  Never mind, the sentiment is still there.

Sant Joan and the Catalan public holiday was on Thursday; the Spanish don’t move their public holidays to the nearest weekend, as a consequence people often take the Friday off work as well, which makes for a long weekend.  Me, I had no choice, no classes on the Friday.

So with car packed we left Cardedeu on Thursday afternoon and pitched our tent next to La Rectoria.  A makeshift kitchen was put together under the arches of the house and with a near to full moon that bathed the Vall d’Hostels in a silvery light we settled down for the night.  I was first awoken by the dawn chorus, a cacophony of bird song.  Then it was a couple of early bird ladies out for a morning walk.   And it was only just after 07.00 when I got up.  Cup of Earl Grey and armed with strimmer I set to work on the ‘feixa’, the raised ground to the west of the house.   My senses quickly focused on the smell rising from the carpet of cut vegetation, chamomile.  It was a lovely awakening to a beautifully sun soaked morning. 

The carril bici was soon conveying a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed La Rectoria and if I had a euro for every one that passed during the day I guess I would have earned 100.  And so the feixa has been cleared of chamomile and more noxious weeds.    We will have to gen up on our botany.  The small patio adjacent to the church is sporting a colourful array of plants and flowering shrubs and trees and the family returned with wild flowers and grasses gathered on a summer walk to the Ermita de Santa Cecilia.  The start of another colourful season in La Garrotxa.

School day memories have come back over the last few days.  Tucked away in the corner of what is our store room in Cardedeu is an old wooden desk of the type we had at Lathallan all of 40 years ago.  At the front is the wooden furrow where pens and pencils rested and sitting in the right hand corner the one inch round hole where the china white ink well once rested.  Set three inches or so from the front are the hinges of the lid, which when lifted from the back of the desk opens to provide ample space for school books, paper etc.  We have now placed this desk in Silvestre’s bedroom, as functional as when it was first made 50 years or more ago.

Lifelong friendships were forged sitting at desks such as this and inspirational men taught us maths, history, science and more.  I can’t and won’t lay any claim to being a model student, but I was fortunate to share with my friends the pearls and inspiration that were presented us by the Headmaster, Mr Burton and his wife, Winnie.

Why this outpouring of nostalgia and what is the connection with La Rectoria?   Pere’s men have this week opened up the five bricked up arches in what will be the dining room for the house.  Since our first visit as prospective buyers three years ago the distribution of the house has all but been self evident.  The ‘basement’ was to be our home.  Many of the existing rooms with minor modifications are to be en-suite bedrooms and the old ‘economic kitchen’ with its open fire, the ‘snug’ whisky totting, post dinner salon.   Of all these rooms however, it has been the ‘dining room’ that has retained the greatest secret.  The five arched windows have been blocked up either with stone or perforated red bricks which allowed light to filter in but made any sense of what was beyond impossible.  This room latterly had been used as a classroom.  Painted a light duck egg blue, walls and slanted wooden beams.  The only suggestion of its final purpose is a blackboard painted on one wall.  Largely broken, but still bearing a few illegible scribbles.  Here a priest would have taught boys and girls from the local parish.  Reading, writing, maths and no doubt the word of God.  All in a little valley largely isolated from Spain, if not the outside world. 

The opening of the arches to the dining room totally transforms the experience on entering the house.  What was warm but dark it now radiant and bright as light now floods in.  I can’t say what the trigger was that brought about this cascade of sentimental memories.  Old wooden desks and ink wells have been a catalyst.  But light, vision and education do go hand in glove.

And what a difference a week makes.  Grey and rain ladden clouds have been replaced by blue skies, hazy horizons and light clouds of cotton wool.  Mud is now baked earth and in the relatively brief time I have lived in Catalunya I doubt I have seen the vegetation so green and lush.  My agricultural eyes pick up erroneous beauty.  Fields of wheat obscured by a blanket of red poppies.  Unproductive but pleasant to the eye.

Today we tested out our latest garden gadget to great effect.  A strimmer, brushcutter (in American parlance) or desbrozador, I am wary of such tools, for the simple reason that they are bloody dangerous.  But needs must, given that the garden is taking on the appearance of an unmanageable jungle.  Petrol mixed, visor fitted and harness attached and two or three hours later much of the ‘lawn’ has been laid flat.  Result!

Moves are now underway re-finalizing quotations for the kitchen – oven, canopy and extraction, dishwasher.  Bon profit!

Our visit to Sant Miquel this week was by way of a detour to the City of Girona.  A forty five minute drive up the AP7 motorway from Cardedeu to Girona, and then about another forty five minutes cross country to our house via Anglès, Amer and Les Planes d’Hostoles. The Catalans must be beginning to believe that the weather patterns common to Britain – rain, cloud and cool temperatures – are taking up permanent residence here.  The top of Montseny to the north of Cardedeu was carpeted in snow on Tuesday and much of Catalunya has been saturated this week.

So as we drove up the motorway the skies looked pretty ominous.  Low dark clouds hanging over the verdant green of the Pla de L’Estany.  Fields of newly sown corn, orchards of apples and pears and stands of poplar trees surrounding the grand masias all set against the hills and mountains to the west and north and the frontier with France. As we approached Girona the skies cleared and the stone flagged streets glistened with the recently departed rain.

Girona has a gem of a historic centre and one we have to get to know better.  The skyline of the old quarter “El Call” is dominated by the Cathedral from which runs a labyrinth of streets and alley ways down to the El Ter (The river Ter).  This part of the city yesterday played host to the annual ‘Temps de Flors’, flowers as art and artistic installation.  Public and private buildings and spaces are taken over for nine days by explosive floral creations. Patios are opened to sculptures of floral imagination which in turn bring smiles of delight.  Carpets of flowers cascading down the flights of stairs from the churches of Sant Marti and Sant Feliu. One needs no excuse to visit Girona, but ‘Temps de Flors’ would make it that much more memorable.

So we continued to La Rectoria.  The ground next to the house continues to look like a ploughed park, partly covered with earth and rubble.  Suddenly, however, with ample moisture and now with a modest increase in temperature, grasses and wild flowers have leapt upwards and the browns and greys of the surrounding wooded hillsides are now freshly green.

Now we have a damp proof membrane being installed in the basement.  On the uppermost floor preparations are nearly complete for the ‘compression layer` – concrete poured among and over mats of steel to strength the floor and house in general.  Word has it that the roof will be removed in June, to be replaced by something altogether more watertight and robust.

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!

Patron Saints.  So What!  In Scotland Saint Andrew’s Day passes most people by and at best it is celebrated as a ‘dinner, dance’ or has been hijacked by Scots politicians to enable them to go on junkets to the US in an attempt to sell tartan and scotch.   Hardly the stuff of mass participation and inclusion. 

Every year England on the other hand celebrates Saint George’s Day like a visit to your New York shrink.  “Why is it not a national holiday? “Why aren’t there more flags flying?”  “Are we ashamed to be English?” “What does it mean to be English in Europe?”and more…..I can only guess at the collective angst and psychosis.  Our Irish cousins meanwhile have transformed the holiday of their patron, Saint Patrick, into one of their finest exports and in doing so succeed in getting a significant percentage of the world’s population bladdered every March 17th.

Little did I know when I started going out with my now Catalan wife ten years ago that Catalunya and England share the same Saint; along with Greece, Georgia and Russia among others.   Since when did the Vatican start to franchise Saints?   But here the Catalan’s have been very shrewd.  A small state flanked by bigger neighbours.  Having lost its independence in a very violent civil war and having had its language and thus much of its identity stifled for the subsequent  40 years, has since democracy found a clever and pleasureable way in which to rejoice Sant Jordi and bolster both its culture and identity. 

Sant Jordi is celebrated as the day of the Rose and the Book.  Generally, but not exclusively, a man gives his partner a rose and a woman gives the man a book.  An equal exchange?  That is open to debate, although one that is of little or no relevance here.  The success of the collective celebration of the day, however, cannot be argued. 

As I got off the train from Cardedeu at Passeig de Gracia yesterday morning and stepped out onto the same said street I could hardly move.  Up and down the street as far as you could see the pavement was lined with stands selling books or roses.  Tables decked in the red and yellow stripped flag of Catalunya.  The enthusiasm of the people was palpable.  Books being bought for young and old.  Roses too.  It was a picture to see octogenarian gentlemen buying red roses for their loved ones.  Gypsies trying to flog roses, blaring out “Una rosa por tres euros!”

I suggest the great success is the simple fact that the Catalans have married the celebration of Sant Jordi with the joy of the written word and most importantly Catalan.  What better way to foster your aural tradition and language.  Days before the 23rd April publishers are marketing their wears on radio and TV and on the day you can seek out your Catalan writer of choice to buy your own personally signed copy. 

As for me.  Well, I have yet to get passed the stage of reading TEO…a collection of stories for early readers.    In these days of cynicism it gives one heart to witness the energy of a nation spent in a simple act of national pride which is both benign but yet binds its people together with a type of epoxy super glue.

La Rectoria.  Much as ever, more foundations, with the added excitment today of having witnessed the first internal down pipes installed for the euphemistically named ‘grey waters’.  Also, piping from our bathroom for the shower, loo and sink.  And the arches on the north facing side of the house are being opened up.  

Finally.  Today the Carril Bici (cycle path that runs in front of La Rectoria) was very busy, conveying a steady stream of cyclists up and down the route.  Bellies full in many cases with breakfasts of butifarras, pastries and coffee.

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